I’m a terrible writer (as you’ll find out), and it’s no accident. For most of my life, I tried my best to avoid extensive writing. In my freshman and sophomore years of high school, I chose my courses such that the only ones with extensive writing were my English language and English literature courses which were mandatory. In my junior and senior years, I only studied mathematics, further mathematics, physics, and computer science.
Probably the most intense writing I did in high school was writing essays for my college applications about why I’m the perfect fit for each and every university in the United States. But even in those essays, I found myself limited by the pressure and superficiality of explaining my life story in under 300 words. Furthermore, this stressful and laborious experience deepened my loathing of writing.
Two things: reading and reflection.
Throughout my life, my father never told me to study or do my homework. But there was one thing he repeated over and over: read! He claimed that the lessons learned from books are more valuable and long-lasting than anything I’ll learn in school. As an angsty, rebellious teenager, I never listened to his advice up until college.
Last year, I entered my freshman year as a computer science student at the University of Michigan. The change in environment and lifestyle freed me from my old habits and opened up my mind to actively try new things. This included reading. My lack of reading experience intimidated me from starting a thick book, so I began by reading short articles online which led me to a website called Medium.
If so many successful people from all over the world with completely different experiences hail the practice of reading, there must be something there.
This was one of the turning points of my life. The endless stream of varied yet interesting content on Medium got me hooked. I started in my comfort zone by reading programming-related content like how blockchain will change the world, but slowly found myself gravitating towards an ocean of self-improvement articles; I loved gaining new insights into how my attitude and habits can affect my outlook and productivity. One such habit was the habit of reading books, and my father’s words began ringing in my ears. If so many successful people from all over the world with completely different experiences hail the practice of reading, there must be something there.
The Magic of Books
Conveniently, I stumbled upon a Medium story about books that changed their life. Scrolling through the descriptions, I picked one that looked interesting, and placed my Amazon order. In a few days, I had my copy of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion (Jonathan Haidt) in my hand and began reading. Despite my slow pace, the experience was enlightening. I felt that I had entered a whole new world of knowledge and ideas, unavailable in blog posts, YouTube videos, or school. Since then, I made a conscious effort to incorporate reading into my lifestyle and explored a wide range of books. Some favorites that come to mind are Start Up Nation (Dan Senor), Siddhartha (Herman Hesse), How To Win Friends And Influence People (Dale Carnegie), and 1984 (George Orwell).
I also decided to take a classic civilization course in my second semester, which introduced me to the works of Homer, Plato, Ovid, and more. Alongside our readings, we had 3 hours of discussion every week and plenty of essays for us to explore our own thoughts and ideas about the works. This experience embedded in me an appreciation for the power and beauty of great writing. By choosing just the right words, an author can change the way you think, act, and feel. Writing is like magic, except real.
Naturally, I wanted this ability to translate a fleeting idea or feeling into written word, something real that I could share with others. The first step was evaluating my current self to discover what was holding me back. My initial reason was that I simply didn’t have the time. I was already balancing my courses with my social life with reading and fitness and so on. But this was proven to be merely an excuse as I had plenty of time over the summer, yet I wrote zero lines of text (except code). Clearly, some deeper reflection was due.
The Korean Army
Two months ago, I began my mandatory Korean military service. In the time since then, I’ve had plenty of experiences that challenged the way I saw the world and plenty of time to reflect. One thing that I realized was that I don’t like being bad at something. Put simply, I have a fear of failure. As a result, I was intimidated by the thought of writing because of my lack of experience and confidence. What if my writing is bad? How would the people reading it judge me? I knew that this was a terrible attitude for learning and improving, yet I didn’t know how to change it.
I learned that the best way to overcome a fear of failure is to fail, a lot.
The answer came from one of the least expected sources: the Korean military. During the last two months, I learned that the best way to overcome a fear of failure is to fail, a lot. I discovered this by failing, a lot, in the military. After all, I entered a completely new society and had to relearn everything from basic skills like the way I walk and talk to less basic skills like shooting a gun and combat training. Failure was inevitable because everything was so new. But it was only because of countless failures that I could adapt and improve.
With this new-found appreciation for failure, I write this Medium story. I don’t expect this particular article to significantly influence anyone or be nominated for a Pulitzer prize, and I’m okay with that. This is simply my first step on a lifelong journey. It is my hope that the act of writing this article will begin a long process of alleviating my fear of failure and slowly becoming a better writer.
One of the books I’ve read during my service so far is The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck (Mark Manson), a great read for pretty much anyone. A key takeaway from this book was to identify what was important to me and relentlessly eliminate anything that would “distract” me from pursuing it. In the last two weeks I’ve started three different online courses (this, this, and this), and while they were interesting, none of them felt essential to me. After some reflection, I’ve decided that data science can come later.
What matters to me now is reading and writing. Reading, because it makes me feel connected to the world, past and present, in a magical way, and writing, because I wish to share with the world the magic that I’ve experienced.
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