Progress

Back in March, I fell and injured my knee. There was no bruising or swelling, but I couldn’t straighten or bend my leg all the way, and everyday movements caused me significant pain. At first I feared that I would need surgery, and I spent a lot of time and tears worrying about that possibility. But after several hospital visits — and even an MRI — my doctor could find nothing to operate on.

To my surprise, I was disappointed by that news. As much as I had dreaded surgery, I appreciated the concrete-ness of it. It was a solution. Once it happened, I could heal. Instead, my injury remained a mystery, and the only “remedy” my doctor could prescribe was time.

My doctor did suggest that I try some physical therapy to strengthen the muscles in my leg and ease the burden on my knee. Half a dozen basic exercises to be done for 30 minutes twice a day. How could this possibly help? I wondered. But after just two weeks, my range of motion improved, and the frequency of my pain decreased. On the outside everything looked the same, but on the inside things were happening.

It occurs to me now that much of life passes in this way: below the surface, making progress that can hardly be noticed, much less quantified. How close are you to getting that promotion? How much longer until you’re over that breakup? When will your panic and your joy over having a newborn settle into a comfortable rhythm?

Of course it would be great if there were clear, concrete actions that we could take to speed up these processes, but in most cases all we can do is press on and hope for the best. We may feel like nothing is changing, because we have no proof, no measurements. But even the tiniest of improvements add up, like grains of sand, building upon each other gradually, until one day you’re on a beach.

Even though I can’t see it on an X-ray or calculate it in numbers, I know I’m headed toward that beach. Someday I’ll be running across the sand full-speed, with no pain in my knee. I just have to trust that I’m making progress each day. I just have to give it time.

On resolutions and the new year

Kristan

Sometimes turning the calendar to a new page isn’t enough. For a fresh mindset, I need a bigger, bolder signal of change. So I pick a different desktop picture for my computer; I rearrange the furniture in my living room; I cut my hair.

Still, the world is not new, and I don’t have a clean slate.

Every January, I have to come to terms with this all over again. I have to remind myself that the new year isn’t about a new me. It’s about a better me. Resolutions are meant to build upon the foundation we already have — to improve it, not erase it.

I think the best resolutions are small and simple. Something like “Become a millionaire” sounds great in theory, but it’s too big, too vague. Resolutions should be achievable — with clear, actionable steps that are completely within your control.

I prefer to make just a couple resolutions each year, in order to set myself up for success. After all, if these things were so easy to do, wouldn’t I have done them already?

This year, one of my resolutions is to make better use of my to-do list. I read somewhere that the best to-do lists have no more than 5-6 items per day. More than that and people start to feel overwhelmed. If/when they can’t cross everything off, they feel like they have failed. Plus the unfinished items carry over into the next day, along with their negative outlook.

So I plan to assign only a handful of tasks to each day, and to tackle them one at a time in an efficient and timely manner. It may sound small, but I think the ripple effects will be far-reaching.

Angie

Since moving to New York, I started recording my new year’s resolution as a pithy statement on my cell phone. The first year I moved here it was “Don’t forget about you,” to remind myself that I should stand up for my own decisions. Last year it was “Help others.” For 2012, I chose “Dream big. Act bigger.”

There are many things I would like to learn this year, from expanding my skills at work, to learning how to surf and ski. I also would like to continue traveling to other countries, seeing new sights and experiencing different cultures. Do I need a resolution to accomplish these goals? Of course not. But it helps.

Unlike Kristan, I find the point of a resolution is not to set measurable goals, but instead to shape your values and beliefs into something important. Resolutions create a focal point, and they represent your commitment to accomplish something you never thought you would. Seeing my new mantra on my cell phone every day helps frame my thinking and influence my actions in the right direction.

For example, there is a particular goal that I’ve had in mind since last year. “Dream big and act bigger” is a promise to myself that I will work hard to achieve it, continuously pushing myself out of my comfort zone without comprising who I am. That may mean I accomplish the goal, or it could mean along the way I change my course. But as long as I try, then I know I’ll be happy.

It also means I will look beyond myself and understand my impact on my peers. My decisions may be for myself, but we only reach them with the help of others.

This past year I have been very grateful for the faith that my family, friends and colleagues have in me, along with the opportunities I’ve been given. But I know there is more that I can learn as well as contribute. So I can’t settle for the status quo. I have to dream big and act bigger.

Making music

Hordes of tourists and natives alike crowd Times Square at any given part of the day—in my case, 7 p.m. on a Monday after work. My friends were standing around a sunshine yellow piano located right at the epicenter of Times Square, and a professional pianist was delighting the crowd with his masterpiece. As I listened, my heart sank to my stomach and my hands were shaking.

“You’re next, Angie,” one of my friends said with a nudge.

Suddenly this didn’t seem like such a good idea.

I was one of those children that you had to force to sit at the piano to practice. Sometimes it involved screaming. Eventually I realized the minimal amount I had to practice each week to get by in my piano lessons. Then when I started college, there were no more lessons or practice sessions, and suddenly, I realized how much I loved (and missed) playing the piano.

In college, my friend Jenn and I would storm the private music rooms on campus to play all our old classical pieces and attempt some current hits. Later, my boyfriend at the time lent me his weighted keyboard so I could play in my bedroom. This became especially beneficial whenever I felt stressed and needed to let my emotions flow from my head and my heart and out through my fingers.

Moving to New York, I had to forego making music. Due to lack of transportation, space, and time, I returned the weighted keyboard and stopped playing. After a few months, I started getting antsy and looking up piano room rentals at local theatres. So when New York hosted a two-week art installation project of free pianos open to the public around the city, I knew I had to play.

There was only one problem: stage fright. As much as I love playing, I am terrible with large crowds, something that is unavoidable in New York. When it comes to piano, I view playing as a personal fulfillment and only choose to share it with a few close friends. The thought of performing in front of a large crowd of strangers creates a terrible anxiety and nervousness. Luckily, Jenn happened to be visiting and I told her of my goal to participate before the installation ended in July, and she happily agreed to support me.

On our first attempt, we walked in the dead of night to one of the free pianos at Central Park. My logic was this: It’s late, so not as many people will be out, and it’s dark, so they can’t really see me. But somehow my logic did not factor in that the piano would be locked during the night.

The next day I made my second attempt, more determined than ever. I discovered that there was a closer piano in Times Square, so I decided if I was going to do play somewhere, why not one of the most heavily trafficked locations in the world?

Jenn and a few friends stood eagerly near me as the pianist finished his piece. As my other friend nudged me, I looked at Jenn. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through with this, but she smiled to give me confidence and encouragement. Even the professional said, “This piano is for you to play.”

And he was right.

Despite my nervousness, and even my mistakes, I sat on the bench and played. I played because I could make music. I played because it made me happy. I played until the piece was finished, the crowd applauded, and I turned and smiled.

Recalibrating

When you’re a kid, you dream of growing up. Turning 16 means you have control of your life, as long as you get access to four-wheels and a motor. Turning 18 means you no longer have to listen to anyone but yourself, although if you’re smart you’ll still listen to your parents sometimes. Turning 21 means, for most people, a real party. Personally I don’t drink, but it’s definitely rite of passage for others.

But somehow, when you graduate from college and start working, birthdays lose some of their meaning. Really, what happens at, say, 23?

As soon as we leave the school bubble, we really do have to grow up. So here I am, employed in my first job and facing the first dreaded milestone in my life: 25th birthday and the quarter-life crisis.

My generation grew up believing in ideals: Chase your dreams, follow your passions. These beliefs permeated our actions as we strove to be not only the genius, but also the dedicated athlete, volunteer, musician, etc. A well-rounded generation of dreamers and achievers.

Throughout my education I was well-versed in balancing homework, extracurricular activities, and a social life. I could work on a paper, study for a test, and still go out with friends. When it came time to leave college, I cheated the system and went to grad school. Two more years of the school bubble. Two more years to avoid reality.

Of course I did eventually make a decision. I’ve lived in New York for almost 6 months now, and my whole lifestyle has changed from the laidback Austinite to the fast-paced New Yorker. I’m working at a large public relations firm, and I like my job and my team. I like the city for all its sights and adventures, and I’ve made new friends.

Yet I still feel lost.

The quarter-life crisis exists because of this big transition in life. Every idealistic notion I had for the past 24 years was demolished with a diploma and a decision about my career. Many of us face the problem of balancing reality with passion. When we leave school, we have to start thinking about the future, which means we can’t spend all our money traveling the world, or else how will we ever afford our 2.2 kids and that house with the white picket fence?

Somehow the achiever is still achieving, but the dreamer is dwindling.

There is only one thing we can do: recalibrate. I am balancing new factors while slowly building new routines with my passions. Yes, a lot of it revolves around work, but it’s also some of what I enjoy, like exploring the culinary delights of the city, and becoming a mentor to teens.

What I’ve learned is that it’s okay not to know what you want or exactly where you’re going. Just try to have a vague idea of where you want to be, and slowly make your way to that general vicinity while trying everything along the way. You’ll figure out what you do and don’t like, and you’ll start dreaming again.

What I think I want changes constantly, but every day that passes I am learning more about where I want to be. 25 is here, and it’s not so bad. I’m looking forward to everything I will learn and experience as the years pass.

I’ll just have to keep that in mind when I approach the infamous 40.

Two ways to celebrate April 22

Children at work
By Kristan Hoffman

Shortly before I was born, my parents became small business owners. For some kids that wouldn’t change life too much, but I have always been involved in my parents’ work. Every day after elementary school, I went to the office and sat next to my mom while she finished her day’s assignments. As I grew older, I started to help by answering phones, collating copies, typing up articles, whatever. Over time, my parents’ employees became like extended family to me. We even celebrated birthdays and holidays together.

So when schools started to promote Take Your Child to Work Day, I just rolled my eyes. I already went to my parents’ work every day. What was so special about that?

Now that I’m an adult in the workforce, I can see what a positive impact going to my parents’ office had on me. I got a lot of experience that people don’t get until their late teens or twenties. I saw firsthand what it takes to manage people and operate a business. I even helped manage people and operate the business sometimes.

Exposure to a work environment definitely gave me an advantage as an employee. Of course not everyone is going to get the same degree of exposure, but I do think every little bit counts. Through Take Your Child to Work Day, children can witness the value of individual competence and work ethic, as well as team effort and collaborative spirit. Kids can learn that every job is important, regardless of title, because each job affects the others in the company. And most of all, they can see what their parents do, how to balance work and home life, and the value of education. They can begin to form their own professional dreams and goals.

These are important lessons for a person’s career – and for a person’s life in general.

So come April 22, 2010, I hope all parents who are able will take their sons and daughters to work. Trust me, they’ll thank you for it someday.

(Thanks, Mom and Dad!)

***

Nothing wrong with loving dirt
By Angie Liang

It started with dirt and some daffodil bulbs. My dad took my sister and I out to plant daffodils in the backyard, and ever since then I’ve been fascinated by the earth. My dad continued to foster this interest by taking the family to national parks—I’ve visited over 35 states because of this. When I see the red-orange glow of the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon or the bubbling mudpots in Yellowstone, a sense of awe engulfs me.

I continued to develop this interest throughout high school and college. In addition to double-majoring in geography – for fun – I also became active in the Campus Environmental Center (CEC). Through the CEC, I planted trees, worked on sustainability policies that the University of Texas eventually adopted, and volunteered at our campus-wide garage sale that practices the idea of re-use, which has saved tons of items from going into the landfills.

Now that I’ve begun my career in advertising, people often wonder why I bothered with the geography degree. But I use it everyday! While I am not active in influencing environmental policy, I do what I can to live an environmental lifestyle. I continue to recycle, I use my own eating utensils at work, I eat less meat, and I find ways to reduce my waste. They are small adjustments, but every step matters. I do all this because I learned to appreciate our earth.

Which is why, come April 22, Earth Day’s 40th Anniversary, I hope you will join me in celebrating. Whether you plant a tree, advocate for industry regulation, or just make a small adjustment to your life – like buying one less bottle of water – you can impact change. Let’s make that change together!

The uphill drive

For some reason, I often used to dream about driving. Specifically, about driving a stick shift. And even though nowadays you can order an automatic transmission on just about any car, those constant dreams were like subliminal messages. They convinced me that it was important to know how to drive a manual.

When I was sixteen, my dad promised that he would teach me both stick and automatic. When I was seventeen, I still didn’t know either one. Tired of being the only high school senior who always needed a chauffeur, I finally enrolled myself in a driver’s ed class. Two weeks later, I at least knew how to drive an automatic.

I didn’t learn how to drive stick until my boyfriend’s mom taught me on an old Jeep Wrangler last year. I quickly grasped the concepts—use the clutch to shift gears, don’t stall out, avoid steep hills—but the actual doing was much more difficult. I managed to drive several miles and get up to about 50 mph, but I also stalled out and slid downhill a bit, scaring the car behind me.

But regardless of those difficulties, I fulfilled my dream. I now possess the skill to drive a stick shift. All that’s left is practice.

Writing, my other big dream, is the same way. Since age 9, I’ve known that I want to be a novelist. So I worked hard in school, got a degree in creative writing, and switched from a full-time to a part-time job in order to write more. At 23, I have the skills I need to be a writer. All that’s left is the practice.

And just like driving stick, I find myself having to constantly shift gears, not stall out, and brave the hills. Which of course is easier said than done. Every day is filled with chores and distractions—the dog, the dishes, the internet. Even when I can find time to focus, there’s that dreaded “writer’s block.” And when I do finally work my way out of a block, writing is still an uphill battle. Sure, on a good day I can knock out 1,500 words, but that still leaves roughly 78,500 more to make a novel.

Of course, most goals in life are like that. You might want to be a teacher or a lawyer, a musician or a parent, a doctor or an actor. No matter what your dream is, you will encounter distractions that force you to shift gears, moments where you stall out, and hills that seem impossible to climb. The key is to keep driving yourself forward, no matter how rough the road gets. Because anyone can learn the skills, but it’s the people with dedication and perseverance who achieve their dreams.

Driving on

Dear Davy Baby,

For the first time since we parted ways earlier this year, I realized I’ve been doing pretty good without you. True, our years of history meaningful memories I will never replace. True, your sleek physique is still unmatchable. And true, I still haven’t quite figured out how to parallel park Diego, your replacement, as perfectly as I could with you. But you know what? That’s okay.

Do you remember when we officially got together? I drove you to my friend’s house after Dad handed you down to me, and my friend’s mom commented, “You must have done something good.” Yes, I didn’t deserve you, but you never complained—not even after in my first accident. (I’m still sorry about that, but it’s all ancient history now right?)

Actually you were around for a lot of firsts. You were my first car. You were there during my first kiss and my first love—and you stayed for my first heartbreak. You cheered me on at my first lacrosse game, even though I wasn’t very good. You were sitting quietly with me when I got my first ticket. You also were the one to take me to first experiences at many amazing restaurants, shops and scenic views.

When I had to give you up, I was devastated. Where would all my firsts go? Who would I depend on now to take me places? Would I ever feel as comfortable again? I’m sure you were worried about me too, since we knew each other for 12 years and were together for 8. So I want to assure you that Diego is great. It wasn’t love at first sight, but he’s patient and has many wonderful qualities. Plus he’s got ultra low emissions.

I actually took him Downtown for his first time this semester. Usually I’m too timid to show him around, but it was time. And after 30 minutes of navigating him around inebriated pedestrians, constantly braking at the world’s shortest light, and making who knows how many sharp turns, nothing happened. That’s right, nothing bad happened. In fact, I found a spot where I didn’t even have to parallel park him.

Even in leaving, you taught me something about life. It’s all about driving on and progressing. It’s not just firsts that matter, but also seconds, and thirds, and fourths, as long as you’re growing with every experience. Change is not only inevitable but also beneficial.

It’s also about never forgetting who helped get you where you are and gave you strength to keep going. Even if that “who” is just a car.

Davy Baby, we had an amazing relationship, but I think I’m ready to progress.

Love always from your ex-driver,
Angie

Being bad at things can be good

A few years ago when I was in college, I asked a friend to join me on an intramural softball team. She looked at me as if I were crazy. “Thanks, but I’m terrible at softball,” she said with a laugh.

“That’s okay, I am too!” I replied. “But every team has to have four girls on the field to qualify, so you’re helping out no matter how good or bad you are.”

My friend shook her head. “Sorry, I only do things I’m good at.”

Then it was my turn to look at her as if she were crazy.

Yes, it’s normal to want to be good at things, but do we have to be good at everything we do? And how can we get good at something if we don’t practice when we’re still terrible? Do we have to get an A in a subject for it to be fun or have value?

When I was a girl, I remember believing I was a natural-born artist. Both my parents were architects, so how could the ability to draw, paint, and design not flow through my veins? My parents must have thought the same thing, because they bought me sketchpads and fancy pencils, canvases and paint.

Much to our collective surprise, I could barely color within the lines.

Determined to live up to the talent in my blood, I took art classes almost every summer. Over time I did improve, but I was never the best student in the class. There was always someone with better technique, greater imagination, or both. But even though I wasn’t going to be the next Monet, I didn’t quit.

Because sometimes things we’re bad at can still be good for us. For example, art, music, and dance are all powerful creative outlets, allowing you to express what you’re thinking and feeling even when you don’t know exactly what that is. Sports are group athletics, so you get the physical benefits of exercise plus the social benefits of hanging out with your teammates. Cooking and gardening are both challenging — at least to me! — but they can really nurture your spirit and help you tune in to nature.

In this day and age, with a million things vying for our attention every minute of every day, simply taking time out for yourself is therapeutic, no matter what you’re doing. So even when my boyfriend tells me my drawing looks like a sausage (it was our dog!) I feel calmer and happier just for having given myself those fifteen minutes to sketch. I don’t have to be the next Monet to love art, or the next Michael Phelps to enjoy a dip in the pool, or the next Iron Chef America to appreciate my kitchen.

We spend so much of our lives being graded — in school, at work, even among our friends and family. We try so hard to please everyone else that we forget to make ourselves happy.

So forget your critics, and forget your fans. Do something for yourself. Even if you’re bad at it.

Make your voice heard

Regardless of who you voted for, this election should have made one thing clear: it is extremely important to voice your opinion.

What’s important to you? Taxes, the environment, health care? Who do you think is going to make the best decisions about those policies? Voting is not about popularity, but about selecting a representative to lead our community in the right direction. Your vote lets the world know where you stand on the issues.

But there are additional options. Yes, voting is extremely powerful and important, but it is not the only way to make your voice heard. Local politicians—such as city council members, state senators, and congresspersons—they all read the newspapers that serve their districts in order to keep a finger on the pulse of the communities they represent. They are reading the same news stories as you, the same cartoons, the same movie reviews. These very words! How do I know? Because I have had the honor of meeting many of them through my dad’s work with this newspaper.

So if you want to let your local representatives know what you think—about a new tax increase, or a potential improvement for the school district, or potholes in the roads—write a letter to the editor. Your words could be published here for everyone to read and consider. Who knows, you might spur new legislation! At the very least, you will probably find people who agree with you and want to band together for a change. Your reasoning could help educate someone about the issue, or convince someone on the fence. You might find yourself engaging in friendly debate the next time you’re in line at the grocery store.

Maybe it’s just because I’m a “chatterbox,” as my dad affectionately nicknamed me at age three, but I know I am always looking for more ways to make my voice heard. I was proud to cast my first vote four years ago, and whether or not elections go my way, I will always participate in the democratic system. But I have come to recognize that I can make a greater impact on a smaller scale. We all can. So think about what matters to you today, and tell someone. Your best friend, your teacher, your coworkers, your cat. Write down your reasons, write down what someone on the opposite side might say, and then figure out how you would reply. Sleep on it. And if you still think it sounds pretty good in the morning, send it our way.

We look forward to hearing more of your voices in the future.

Multi-tasking-itis

Dear Angie,

As usual, I’m having trouble focusing. It’s the last day of the week that I can devote completely to my writing, and yet the gravity of that does little to motivate me. I should be taking full advantage of this day to myself, but instead I am resisting the temptations of the internet, television, and a nap. This is no easy feat — all are well within my reach. But I figure that writing to you, while not technically something that will advance my career as an author, is more productive than any of the alternatives. At least it’s writing, right?

Do you ever have trouble getting yourself to sit down and concentrate on a single task? I recently read an Atlantic Monthly article that discussed whether or not “Google is making us stupid.” It argues that modern media (the internet in particular) has reduced everything to snippets, meaning that we grow accustomed to reading, hearing, and watching information in short bursts and thus have lost our ability to stay engaged with longer works. I can’t say for sure if that’s true, but I do know that I am working in one, two, three… eight different windows on my computer screen right now. How’s that for short attention span?

(The article goes on to talk about a great many things related to how reading different types of materials — long, short, ideograms like Chinese characters, etc. — affects the circuitry of our brains, and how perhaps what we input to our minds affects what we output. It’s all very fascinating. You can, ironically, Google it to read the whole thing.)

I remember when we took World History together in our junior year of high school, and our teacher told us that unlike most teachers, she would never yell at us for doing “off-task” things in class. She said that if we were smart enough to be in her honors class, then she trusted us to multi-task. We’d only get in trouble if we didn’t do our homework or weren’t able to answer a question that she asked us.

At the time, I thought that was extremely cool and forward-thinking of her. She understood the way we worked! But now I can’t help wondering if our ability to multi-task is really a blessing in disguise. For me, doing more than one thing at a time usually means I’m just not doing any of those things very well. I think I’d rather be a master of one trade than a jack of them all.

But can I re-train myself to focus on a single task and finish it before I go on to the next?

Well, I wrote this letter to you in one sitting. I don’t think it means that I’m cured, but I think it’s a sign that the diagnosis is correct and the medicine may be starting to work.

Now that that’s off my chest, I should probably return to my writing…

Much love,
Kristan