In economics, in sciences, in social sciences, in politics, we care about what works. But how effective are certain treatments?
Placebos can be quite powerful. Sometimes they are just as effective as the actual treatment. We don’t want that to happen.
In statistics, we try to discern between cause-and-effect treatments with a counterfactual. A counterfactual is what would have happened without the treatment. In science experiments, we create a counterfactual with a control group and placebos. But even then, many times it is difficult to compile a control in certain inhumane or unethical experiments.
And in life, in our own decisions, how are we meant to create counterfactuals?
Is your life better or worse having decided to attend university?
Well. The only “right” answer a statistician could offer you is “we don’t know”
Because in your case of life decisions, we really don’t know how your life would be different had you not attended university.
Maybe had you not decided to attend university on decision day, you somehow decided to buy a lottery ticket and miraculously won $100 million dollars. But maybe because you won $100 million dollars and you didn’t have a university education and graduated with a finance degree like you had planned to, so you didn’t have a good understanding of financial management and somehow ended up broke within a few years, as many lottery winners do. Or maybe because you attended university, you met your soulmate in your intro to statistics class. You get the point.
In statistics, we want to be objective and use as few assumptions as we can. Even when we have really good data, we are still only fairly confident that certain cause-and-effect scenarios are true. (We call this confidence intervals).
So let’s go back to the question of a university as a treatment. How effective is a university?
Well, it’s quite hard to determine because we don’t really have good data. We have data that proves that the most selective universities (Ivy league schools) have alumni with a much higher mean salary. But let me just tell you that that statistic is absolutely useless. How do we know that the selective university, as a treatment, caused the higher salary? It’s very likely that the type of student who not only be admitted to a selective university but also can survive 4-years that top academic institution is the type of person to be more “successful” later in life. (There are many different metrics of measuring success, all which are incredibly arbitrary, but for the sake of this example, we’ll simply use salary.) So we can’t know unless we have some sort of control group, or counterfactual. But that’s quite hard because that would mean we would need to assign random students to random institutions and then track their progress longitudinally. This is an example unethical method of creating a control group I mentioned earlier. I doubt that selective universities would accept random student admissions and I’m not quite sure that students would want to be randomly sent to an institution either.
Thankfully there was a natural way of creating a control group discovered by Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale to determine the effectiveness of selective universities: students who were accepted to top institutions, but chose to attend a less selective university. This data was good because 1) the participants (students) were more or less random, 2) the students were “good” enough to be admitted to top colleges, so at the point of separation, they were “equal” to the students who DID attend the top colleges they were admitted to, and 3) there was enough data of students to actually perform analysis over long periods. Here is the report: https://www.nber.org/papers/w7322
And what did this report tell us?
Well, in terms of whether or not a top university “treatment” affected mean salary, it didn’t (Except for low-income students, who did have a noticeable increase in earnings over time).
This is reassuring to people high-school students who are in the midst of their stressful college applications.
Although earnings isn’t the best metric, and even this analysis isn’t apples-to-apples, it is a interesting statistical report.
The university does not make the student. Hard-working students will thrive regardless of attending Harvard or their local community college.
In essence, if you breakdown what meditation is, it is simply doing nothing. Yet, I continue to meditate. I’ve been meditating at least 10 minutes for the past two months, some days going up to 30 minutes. And I’m just doing nothing.
And what about the other mundane perfunctory tasks we must complete?
Like doing laundry. Or walking. Commuting. Washing the dishes.
There is a certain art to being able to find beauty in the mundane. I personally enjoy walking. It’s therapeutic for me, especially if the scenery is nice. And even if not, it’s often very relaxing for me to just walk, either with or without a purpose, with or without destination.
Some people have made a habit to enjoy washing the dishes. Or doing laundry–mundane tasks that need to be done but in actuality don’t really fulfill a deeper purpose in life. It’s just something that needs to be done.
But if it needs to be done, can we somehow find a way to make these tasks more enjoyable? Can we find beauty in them?
If we want to scrutinize these “chores”, these tasks that in themselves don’t really fulfill a purpose so much as the result (ie. we wash dishes to have clean plates, do laundry to have clean clothes), then we have to also scrutinize meditation.
Meditation is literally doing nothing. You aren’t fulfilling any purpose or completing any tasks, per se, during or after meditation. But why has meditation been so good to me? Why do people who meditate and practice mindfulness often lead happier lives?
It’s because people who meditate consistently and thoroughly are also the type of people to find the beauty in the mundane. They are mindful of their existence.
I am here.
I am walking.
I am folding my laundry.
I can breathe.
This is my life and I exist. I am enough.
That’s what meditation has taught me.
And if you struggle with this idea of “doing” things that are entirely mundane to you and feel as if there is no purpose or lack direction, then I present to you a great analogy that my friend brought up in our Human Person class.
Imagine if you were stuck in the Sahara Desert. You can’t see anything in the distance, 360 degrees. What do you do? You have the option to just sit there, OR you can decide to just walk. Walk without direction or purpose, but in hopes of finding refuge, in hopes of finding hope. You’d probably decide to walk.
Sometimes life won’t always give you direction. Sometimes the mundane sucks, but sometimes we can make the mundane beautiful. We can give it purpose. Sometimes, we just need to walk, even if we don’t know where we are going.
I believe that premeditated vulnerability is paradoxically the most powerful state you can put yourself in.
We all have insecurities. Baggage that holds us down. Some heavier than others. Some are different colors, different shapes. Some look big but inside there’s nothing but empty space. Some are compact. But each to our own.
Last year I found out how difficult it can be to travel alone with three large suitcases. I needed some help. I was vulnerable, but I was too embarrassed to ask for help when I clearly needed it.
Vulnerability is scary. Can you deliberately place yourself in a vulnerable situation?
We do it every day in subtle ways. When we walk past a friend, we look up, expecting them to make eye contact back, hoping that they acknowledge you. You place yourself in a vulnerable situation because they now have the power to simply ignore you, or look down at their phone. You might end up smiling at empty space.
Or maybe a random Asian kid approaches you on campus and asks if you want to see a magic trick. You have the power to decline. You have the power to say “no”. I’m vulnerable, because I have no control of your response. And wow, does it feel extremely awkward to get rejected.
Or you’re free falling from the sky. Skydiving. You have nothing to hold on to but yourself and the air. You are not grounded. Yet, at the point of highest fear and vulnerability, instead, you feel bliss.
Vulnerability is scary. But when you cross that threshold of vulnerability and fear, you can see on the other side which is pleasure. There is no pleasure without risk. There is no bliss without vulnerability. There is no acceptance without insecurities.
Acceptance of self is not a lack of insecurity; rather, acceptance is the acknowledgement of your vulnerability. Acceptance is seeing the baggage and picking it up.
It has been one year of blogging. I have written a daily blog post 365 times.
Whether you started reading my posts from day one, or this is your first time reading my writing, I thank you for being a part of my journey. It’s been a wild year.
I’ve always considered myself an open book, and if after reading this post you don’t agree, let me know. At the top of my blog, I have the subtitle “Unfiltered Thoughts”, and that’s because I like to speak my mind without filtering out the good (or the bad). I like to share my thoughts in the most genuine way possible.
And so I’d like to pour my heart out and talk about my life so far. So let’s start back from last year, but not exactly 365 days. I want to go back to the summer of 2017, the summer right before I went to Villanova to start the University life.
Summer 2017: Despair
This was perhaps the most difficult months of my life. I had just graduated from high school with slightly broken relationships. Not to mention I had this overwhelming fear of not knowing what the hell I’d be doing after high school, especially since I’d be traveling all the way to the East coast, and to America.
And then my body decided to just break down. I was essentially bedridden for that entire summer. I visited three different specialist doctors all who gave me not much hope. It was the usual case. I have this autoimmune disease that likes to act up at sporadic moments in my life and this was the worst it had ever been. Depression hit me and most of my days were a blur. I had never felt more lonely than that summer. Did I mention that I had to cancel my Japan & China trip, which was meant to be my high school graduation gift? It was also supposed to be a little getaway for me and my sister. Instead, she went without me and I had to stay because I just needed to survive. And that’s what I did that summer, day to day, surviving.
It was at this point that I seriously contemplated taking a leave of absence and never going to Philadelphia/Villanova to start University. I felt like maybe I needed to seriously pause at life and figure out all I had going on. But the final weeks before summer ended, I got just good enough to get out of my bed. And even though I still felt terrible, I wanted to get on that plane. I wanted to start this new part of my life. Maybe leaving home was better for my depression and better for my health overall. Healing needs to be done not where you were hurt.
Fall 2017: Villanova
The toughest months of my life was followed then by the happiest last few months of 2017.
Everything was going well for me at Villanova.
My grades were good. My health got better. I met my best friend at university. I had great professors. I started playing basketball again once my health got better, and I started performing magic again and it was leading to many great interactions and opportunities.
I brought all my experiences in my first semester of university back home. I shared it with my close friends from home. I shared it with my high school where I did two Ted-style talks (while using magic as my metaphor).
The first 3 quarters of 2017 was the longest 9 months of my life, which was followed by a great time at Villanova that I believe shaped who I am today.
Spring 2018: Singapore (and all of Southeast Asia)
As if flying 5000 KM from Vancouver to Villanova wasn’t far enough, I decided to spend an entire semester abroad in Singapore for my second semester (13,000 KM away).
Singapore was full of big highs and low lows. I never felt more homesick in my life. But at the same time, I was experiencing life as an adult.
A whole list of first experiences occurred in Singapore. Everything was new to me. Cars were on the other side of the road, I spoke English and Chinese in day-to-day interactions, and I also had my first full-time job working at a blockchain company “R3”. On the weekends I found time to travel… A lot. Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia…I went to clubs and danced a lot. I went to my first rooftop bar on top of the most beautiful building in the world (Marina Bay Sands, which is essentially a giant ship on top of three skyscrapers. Pictured below). I did boxing and Muay Thai. And I grew up.
Summer 2018: Shanghai
There is nothing like reconnecting with old friends after branching out and living an independent life. I brought stories back home to my family and friends, and my friends and family reminded me how important this feeling of community and home was to me. But after a month back home, I again hopped on the plane and spent 7 weeks in Shanghai where I studied Chinese economy and worked at a marketing research firm. At the end of the trip, I went across all of China.
I went to Beijing to see my biological father.
He took me to Gui Zhou, his hometown village where he grew up, and I met my grandparents on my father’s side for the first time. And yes, I have extremely awkward photos to prove it.
We went to Chong Qing, home of the best spicy hot pot in China.
We then went to Zheng Zhou where I reconnected with my cousins after ~5 years.
And I also lost my passport. So for one day, I was immensely stressed. If I hadn’t found it, I wouldn’t be able to travel and would have to be detained in China (as my Visa expires), and missed my $2000 flight back home. I’d also end up missing my LA trip that my sister and I planned months in advance (more $$$) and I’d probably miss the first few days of classes back at Villanova.
I seriously cannot convey how bad that day should have been for me. But. I put it aside.
I seriously learned that day how to push past things that I have no control in. I hadn’t seen my cousins in so long, I didn’t want that burden dragging me down. So I had a good day. I shopped with them and had a great dinner. And at dinner, the airline finally called us back and told us they found my passport on their plane.
At that moment I believed in God.
I finished my amazing summer with even more travel.
My sister and I went to LA as a remake of our initial travel plans that went bust last summer. We saw Crazy Rich Asians in the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd, we went to Universal and saw Harry Potter World and all the amazing Hollywood studios and sets of some of the most classic movies, and we ate. A lot.
Fall 2018: Confusion
Back to Villanova.
I’ll be honest, this semester didn’t start off as well as I’d hoped. Well, maybe because I was comparing it to my Singapore semester and how much fun that was.
It felt a bit odd to be back on campus after so much traveling.
But October has been a rocky month for me. If you’ve read some of my recent writing for this month, you might have caught a hint of… emotional wreckage? And that’s because I’ve recently been questioning life in general.
Right now I’m a little confused about everything. What career do I want? What type of life do I want to live? Where do I want to be? Who do I want to spend my time with? What the hell are all these emotions? What is love?
I’m happy. I am.
But I also feel sad a lot. And I feel lonely. And I feel lost.
There is this giant void that I don’t understand. And, during mid-terms break, I tried to fill that void by going on a date.
And honestly, the date went really well, because, well I accidentally met the perfect girl. It was my first ever romantic-style date. But either the timing wasn’t right, or the place was wrong, or the spark didn’t spark, but nothing came to fruition. Anyways, this person was perfect, but not perfect for me, and I was definitely not perfect for her. All I can say is: thank you for stopping by, and I hope you’ll leave the door open. (Yes, this is where you cringe, sorry not sorry for being a romantic)
And here I am, back to my introverted thoughts. And here I am, writing about my past experiences again.
But life is good because I’m here breathing and living and surviving. Day-to-day.
I honestly can say that right now, I am at one of my cyclical crossroads. And that scares me a little, both in a good and bad way. Does it get better? Or will it get worse? I mean, if I’ve learned anything this past year, it’s that my life truly moves in cycles. I have high highs and low lows. And those lows are seriously damaging. But those highs keep me optimistic.
So thank you for being a part of my journey.
I’d like to finish this post off with a gratitude list:
Thank you to first and foremost my family. They have always supported me and mean so much to me that I cannot convey in words.
Thank you to my best friends here at Villanova and back home. You know who you are.
Thank you to my freshman business professor, Dr. James Borden for inspiring me to start this daily blog.
Thank you to my humanities professor who has taught me and continues to teach me to look at life in a contemplative manner.
Thank you to Vinh Giang, Gary Vaynerchuk, Seth Godin, Adam Grant, for teaching me how to be the best version of myself.
Thank you to anyone who has ever asked me “How are you doing?” especially when I needed it the most.
Thank you for passing through my life. Whether you’ve decided to stay, or whether we’ve just had a few interactions.
Thank you to anyone who reads this blog. Whether we talk daily, or we haven’t met in years. You are a part of my journey, and I hope you’ll send me a message so we can reconnect.
Thank you to the world. I am here. I exist. And I am human being.