Articles

On exploring human nature

Nature is like this: everything changes it shape according to your nature. It is what lurks beneath our actions and our intentions.

It is also a perfect self-preserving system. If I have a choice, I wouldn’t choose to be anything other than myself.

It is one of those things that assigns values and meanings. It is the lens that you use to look at the world. A lens that fits you so perfectly that it may as well be a biological part of you.

You can’t reason with nature trying to change it, because nature doesn’t wish to change, and logic is meaningful insofar that it’s congruent with your nature. If a chain of reasoning arrives at a conclusion that my nature doesn’t accept, it can be understood but impossible to be incorporated.

I believe that human behaviors are subjected to change. Even our ways of thinking are subjected to change as new information and knowledge reveal themselves. Even the things we value change over the years, although much more slowly and not as easily.

But nature is not those things. Nature is not a collection of behaviors or ways of thinking. It’s the underlying function from which these things are generated. Nature is also not what we value, although that is its manifestation. It’s the underlying function that constrains and directs our values.

I do not think that nature can be changed. It can only be discovered. If we flip it around, we can say that “nature” is what we call the parts of us that remain invariant throughout life. Indeed, nature comes from natura – a Latin word that means course of things, constitution, natural character, quality, the universe.

Over the years, I’ve come to discover my nature. That itself is a result of many things. Family crisis. Existential crisis. Countless self-induced existential crises. Experimenting with people’s lives. Nights that essentially spent cornering myself intellectually and emotionally.

If nature is the underlying function for many things, how do we understand it? I think the answer lies in experience. To explore and understand nature, we have to expose ourselves to experience with the upmost quality.

This is the same way that we understand a black box system: exposing the object under study to as many qualitatively different inputs as possible and observe how it behaves. With nature, we have the fortune of it being an integral part of our existence and therefore, strictly speaking, is not a black box. We can understand our nature by a combination of inquisition and reflection.

The defining characteristic of experience is the level at which we’re willing to explore them. For me, experience is more characterized by depth, and less characterized by breadth. Not that one matters and the others don’t, but they have different weights.

Not all experience have depths, some will only be shallow. But I think there are three levels of depth that reflect how far we’re willing to explore a particular experience.

We can stay in the shallow sea where we look at experience with little or no investigation. This is where I tend to avoid staying in the most. I don’t like to follow things that cannot be investigated or doing so would be systematically discouraged. One practical example would be Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. But perhaps more subtly, this would be people who chase the highs, adopt the trends or follow customs and traditions without any question. It’s a shallow sea because there are points that can be ostensibly deep but they turn out to be shallow all the same.

Once we dive a little deeper, we find ourselves in the black mud. Here, things seem very dark and morbid. That’s because they are. But that’s also because these impressions are a defense mechanism that prevents us from digging further. Taboo topics, things that we have implicitly or explicitly sealed away, any trauma or unresolved tensions belong here. The things in the black mud are still peripheral to our nature. Trauma does not define us, but the roles that we play in trauma do.

Once we dive past the black mud, we arrive at place that’s essentially our own custom-made bloody hell. Everything hurts. The process of separating the particular details of our specific catastrophe from the intolerable general condition of being is very hurtful. But only by separating ourselves from those trauma that we discover ourselves. We either re-emerge from this place as someone who understand our nature a little bit better, or we drown.

This is why I don’t shy away from dark, morbid, taboo or personal topics. Although I’ve come to understand my nature, these topics are still the best tools out there to understand other people’s nature. For me, meaningful relationships can only be built and maintained if each party is willing to expose their own nature.

How Product Development Frameworks Work Together To Enable Actions

A product strategy can be seen as a function that takes in business outcomes, possible product changes, activities people do and produce an effective action.

JTBD helps discover activities people do that need improvement.

Company Vision Helps identify business outcomes.

The North Star Framework helps produce metrics that align with business outcomes and activities customers do that need improvement.

Continuous Discovery helps discover opportunities and solutions.

Opportunity-Solution tree helps make product changes that align with opportunities which best solve company and customer problems simultaneously

I have written about product strategy and tried to apply product development frameworks to my day job as a product manager: JTBD, Opportunity-Solution Tree, The North Star Framework, Four Level of Strategy Deployment, Continuous Discovery, to name a few.

They said that the road to expert product development is paved with novices trying to apply frameworks. Well, actually no one said that but me, but you get the point. I’m no expert, and I think there’s nothing wrong with learning and applying what other people tried. And I think these efforts have been fruitful.

So the other day I was reflecting about things that’s been going with me recently in work and life. As part of that reflection, I contemplated on the relationships between the product frameworks that I’ve learned. After a few hours of flexing out my thinking, I finally arrived at something that makes sense.

In reality, product management is a mess, so this isn’t the “right” way to look at things. Plus, there are too many product frameworks out there, so I’m aware that this is a very minimal investigation that only concerns the ones that I’m actually familiar with.

A somewhat holistic attempt to view product development frameworks

The following is a simplified diagram that shows how I think about the relationships between certain product frameworks. The rest of this blog post attempts to explain and expand on this diagram. There are plenty of good resources on the details of each of these frameworks, so I will primarily focus on the relationships instead of how to apply the frameworks specifically.

The inputs and outputs of product strategy

Stephen Bungay defines strategy in his book The art of action as:

Strategy is a deployable decision-making framework, enabling action to achieve desired outcomes, constrained by current capabilities, coherently aligned to the existing context.

Stephen Bungay – The art of action

It would be easier if we visualize it.

Some of these terms are somewhat unfamiliar, and I think we can translate them to product terms as follows:

  • Desired outcomes are business outcomes. Products are vehicles that enable value exchange between customers and businesses. We can’t define what customers value, but we have the luxury to determine what our business values.
  • Capabilities are product changes that we can make, this is the solution space constrained by the team’s resource and competency.
  • Context is the activities that people do. In Christopher Alexander: A Primer. Ryan Singer mentioned the idea of Context-Form Fit being the essential thing in design. Forms are the parts of the world that we have decided to create or change. The context is the activities that people are trying to do, the things going on. We can go along with or against the grain of this context. The fitness between context and form judges the success of a design. Even though this idea surfaces in buildings’ design and architecture, I find it helpful in both software and product development.

After translating then into familiar terms, we get something like this:

A product strategy can be seen as a function that takes in business outcomes, possible product changes, activities people do and produce effective actions.


This serves as an initial framing that we can hang the product frameworks around. I’ve found that the product frameworks I know either help identify the critical inputs to product strategy, and/or combine them in ways that ultimately let us know what to do next.

Company Vision helps identify business outcomes

First, we need to derive business outcomes from the company vision.


A company vision explains where the company is going based on its purpose. But which route a company chooses depends on its maturity and development stage. That’s where business outcomes come in. They communicate the company’s current focus that helps realize the vision, which usually takes years.

Strategic intents may focus on four business goals: increase revenue, protect revenue, reduce costs and avoid costs.

From Escaping the build trap – Melissa Perri

For example, Netflix had a clear strategic intent: “Lead the streaming market.” All of its decisions – enabling internet-connected devices to focus on creating more content- helped achieve this goal. It pushed them in the right direction. Once Netflix realized the strategic intent, it changed its course to maintain its position by creating original content.
Next, we combine business outcomes with the outputs from applying the JTBD framework using the North Star Framework.

JTBD helps discover activities people do that need improvement

Then, we need to explore the context in which our customers operate.

Ryan Singer mentioned the tendency to focus on designing forms. Most design requirements are expressed in terms of form. The form is what we want to create or change: like adding a button to the UI to change a setting. The button is meaningful insofar as it enables people to do certain activities better. In other words, what essential is the Context-Form Fit.

The same tendency can also be seen in product development. Sometimes we build and deliver features without adequately thinking about their context. The Job-to-be-done framework counters this tendency by shifting the focus of product development to center around people’s activities, or the jobs they’re trying to get done.

When applying JTBD, we produce an artifact called Job Map. It describes all the jobs people do, and the underserved needs that make them difficult to perform.

I’ll keep them separate to highlight the input to product strategy, but we can combine them together and say that the output of the JTBD is the activities people do that need improvement.

The point of applying the JTBD framework is not so much about the Job Map and the Underserved Needs, it is about helping you and your team gain empathy from your user problems.

I have never walked away from a user interview where I did not learn anything new about the ways that my product is used. That’s the point of user research.And that’s what required to produce the Job Map and the Underserved Needs.

Next, we combine business outcomes with activities people do that need improvement using the North Star Framework.

The North Star Framework helps produce metrics that align with business outcomes and activities customers do that need improvement

It is vital to have a metric because it enables optimization, but it is even more critical that the chosen metric incorporates both business and customer values.

Otherwise, as Ryan Singer said, we risk falling into the trap of focusing on building forms (solutions) that fail to achieve Form-Context Fit. If it’s not meaningful to the customers, then no value exchange is possible, which also renders the product – a vehicle for value exchange, meaningless.

But, and this tend to be counterintuitive for those who have a high empathy, it is equally important that our business survives, strives and grows to continue to deliver values to customers.

The point of defining The North Star Metric is not so much about the metric itself than it is about helping you and your team consider business results and customer values with equal competence.

The North Star metric is a leading indicator that defines the relationship between customer problems being solved and sustainable, long-term business results.

The inputs of the North Star Framework are customer problems and business outcomes. The outputs of the North Star Framework are North Star Metric itself and a set of Input Metrics that influence the North Star Metric.

Activities people do that need improvement are customer problems. By solving customer problems, we create value for them. In exchange, customers pay us with their time, attention, and money, which help our business to grow.

The heart of the North Star Framework is the North Star Metric, a single critical rate, count, or ratio that represents your product strategy.

Amplitude – North Star Playbook

At this point, the map is almost complete.

Continuous Discovery helps discover opportunities and solutions

As mentioned, the outputs of the North Star Framework are the North Star Metric itself and a set of Input Metrics that influence the North Star Metric. To improve these metrics, we conduct Continuous Discovery to identify opportunities and solutions.

JTBD can be applied again in this phase if we only focus on identifying the big jobs and big underserved needs in the previous stage. In this phase, we can dive into a particular job and identify the specific underserved needs.

The point of Continuous Discovery is about staying in touch with your users. But applying Continuous Discovery in isolation isn’t enough, we must do that while keeping an eye on the metrics that really maximize both business and customer values. That is why the North Star Framework, or the set of principles behind it, is needed.

Applying the Continuous Discovery process, we identify the opportunities as high-level bets (3-6 months) broken down into low-level bets (1-3 months). These opportunities are also called Product Initiatives in Four Level of Strategy Deployment, which product teams can address.

Escaping the build trap – Melissa Perri

Opportunity-Solution tree helps make product changes that align with opportunities which best solve company and customer problems simultaneously

Once we have opportunities aligned with business outcomes and customer problems from Continuous Discovery, generating and mapping solutions to opportunities remains. In Continuous Discovery Habits, Teresa Torres talked about Opportunity-Solution Tree, which does precisely this.

An Opportunity-Solution tree assumes the desired outcome, and this can be improving a North Star Input Metric.

From sizing the Opportunities based on their impact on customers, improving our positions on the market, and aligning with our company values, we can pick an opportunity and then generate solutions to address it.


Opportunity sizing is an intuitive game, but the Opportunity-Solution tree gives us some visual indications. The depth and breadth of the opportunity space reflect the team’s current understanding of their target customer. If our opportunity space is too shallow, it can guide us to do more customer interviews. An opportunity space that’s too wide reminds us to narrow our focus. If we’re not considering enough solutions for our target opportunity, we can hold an ideation session. If we don’t have enough assumption tests in flight, we can ramp up our testing.


There are a lot of actions we can take from looking at the Opportunity-Solution tree. That brings us to the completion of our map.

Product development frameworks should come in pack

Echoing the sentiment on Form-Context Fit yet again, product development frameworks need to fit in the context of what we’re doing.

You can’t run Continuous Discovery without knowing what metrics you should optimize for.

You can’t define North Star Metrics without knowing the activities that your customers really engage in and what your business is about.

You can’t map out an Opportunity-Solution tree without knowing the opportunities that align with business value and customer value.

Applying the JTBD framework alone risks solving customer problems without also solving business problems.

The end

What do you think? Feel free to leave your thoughts and comments. I’d love to hear your opinions on this blog post or any of the ideas mentioned here.

The Build Trap, Great Product Managers, Strategic Gaps and Product Kata

Last month, I finished reading Escaping the build trap as part of an attempt to discover the pillars of product management. Although I did not discover anything of sort, I think it was a great read since the book provides useful frameworks and mental models that I can apply in my daily work. In this blog post, I want to elaborate on some ideas in the book that I found to be interesting.

Table of content

Introduction

Last month, I finished reading Escaping the build trap as part of an attempt to discover the pillars of product management. Although I did not discover anything of sort, I think it was a great read since the book provides useful frameworks and mental models that I can apply in my daily work. In this blog post, I want to elaborate on some ideas in the book that I found to be interesting.

A theme running throughout the book is about a particular fictitious company called Marquetly and how it escaped the build trap. Before that, we need to set some context by seeing how Marquetly fell into the build trap in the first place.

How Marquetly fell into the build trap

Melissa tells a story about a fictitious company called Marquetly – an education company that provides online training for marketers. Experts in digital marketing, Marquetly professionals create classes through their online platforms that any individual can take for a monthly subscription.

Marquetly was growing rapidly with yearly revenue growth at 30%. They hired a lot of people and assigned them to all sorts of projects. Then they learned that they needed product managers to work with developers after adopting Scrum. They moved marketing people to product management because they knew the audience for the school best.

The product and the sales team were pointing fingers at one another. All of them cited a lack of product management skills as the problem. Melissa got to work with the product managers, assessed their skills, provided them with new frameworks to try. Even though they saw glimpses of early success in how they thought and approached the problem, these moments were short-lived because the company structure incentivized around shipping features rather than values. They were handicapped by poor planning and poor strategy.

Revenue was declining, so the leadership pushed for even more features to be shipped, with the premise that without demonstrating the ability to ship, they would not be able to raise another round of funding.

The product managers reverted to their old ways. They stopped doing user research because it took time away from writing user stories. They began to focus on getting as many features as possible out the door. When the next release came, they had about 10 new features to deliver to their customers.

The calls began pouring in. The site was breaking because the features were not well tested. The teachers were frustrated that the new features got in the way of them trying to create courses and respond to student comments. Many teachers decided to take their courses down, which stressed the account managers to bring them back.

In the end, no one was using the new features that were rushed through the door. The revenue growth was declining, and company was feeling the heat. The company had too many strategic initiatives spread over very few people. The incentive structure is tied to shipping software, not solving problems. People think they have to ship or they won’t get paid. This is what Melissa called the build trap.

The build trap is when organizations become stuck on measuring their success by outputs rather than outcomes. It’s when they focus more on shipping and developing features rather than the actual values those things produce.

Becoming a product-led organization is the way to escape the build trap which, according to Melissa, involves four key components:

  • Creating a product manager role with the right responsibilities and structure.
  • Enabling those product managers with a strategy that promotes good decision making.
  • Understanding the process of determining what product to build, through experimentation and optimization.
  • Supporting everyone with the right organizational policies, culture and rewards to allow product management to thrive.

Great product managers tend to be pulled back to the problem space until it’s properly explored and validated

The book presented two bad archetypes of product managers : The Mini-CEO and The Waiter. Both are bad because they are too concerned with what to build, one way or another.

People often say that product managers are like CEOs their products. However, CEOs have a lot of authority over many things: they can fire people, they can change up teams, they can change directions. This myth birthed a very arrogant product manager archetype who doesn’t listen to anyone, and only tells people what to build. He usually does not do enough user research, and therefore relies on more opinions than evidence. To sum it up, The Mini-CEO is too concerned with building what they want to build.

In contrast, The Waiter is someone who swings to the other extreme. They go to their stakeholders, customers and turn their requests into a list of items to be done. There’s no goal, no vision, no decision-making involved. More often than not, the most important person gets their features prioritized. They implement the specific solutions that customers demand, instead of solving their actual problems. Waiters tend to focus on the when, rather than the why. As a result, they easily fall in the trap of managing projects rather than products. The Waiter is too concerned with building what others want to build.

So what’s a great product manager looks like? Let’s follow Melissa’s story of a great product manager in action. Melissa brought in Meghan, a product manager whom she knew, to talk to the team at Maquetly. Meghan worked on a software for consumer mortgages at a large retail bank. She told the team about how she thinks of her role and what does she do on a daily basis.

“I always start with our mortgage division’s vision in mind,” explained Meghan. “That’s our business. The vision is to make it easier and more convenient for mortgage applicants to apply (or for mortgage holders to access), their information from anywhere.”

Here we can see that she starts with what, specifically what does her business promise through offering this software or product. Answering this question leads her to focus on why that promise was made, or more particularly, why the mortgage application process was not easy and convenient.

After spending a lot of time talking and listening to them, she uncovered a lot of user problems that needed to be solved. For example, users have to go to the local bank branch multiple times a month to meet with a loan officer. They have to do a lot of paperwork in the office, which means when they forget necessary documents they have to come back the next day. And even then, they have to wait to see if they’re qualified for the amount they needed.

But how did she decide which problem to solve? Again, she goes back to asking what is the biggest problem that needs to be solved. At the time, 60% of first-time applicants who started the mortgage process did not finish with the bank and instead switched to other competitors. Improving that number was what aligned with the vision of her department.

To do that, the first thing Meghan wanted to understand was why these first-time applications were dropping out. Many people said they were frustrated with the process and willing to make it better. She conducted user research sessions with the team periodically and soon they found a pattern. Because document verification could not be done online, users had to go to the office. Many of them dropped out because they could not find an open appointment to verify their documents. Meghan sent out a survey and found that the problem was prevalent – only 25% who had this problem actually completed their applications with her bank.

She called the team together to generate ideas for what to build. They came up with many solutions and decided to run some experiments to see which one was the best. One experiment is essentially a Wizard of Oz Prototype. They had the applications email in the documents and the bank designated a person to review and approve them. Over time, these applicants completed their applications 90% more often than those who had to come to the office. They then scaled that solution and eventually reaching on the goal of zero verifications.

All the events are kept true to the book, but the framing and emphasis above are mine. In this framing, great product Managers do oscillate between the problem space (the why) and the solution space (the what), but they tend to be pulled back into the problem space until it’s been explored and validated. Only until then the focus is shifted towards ideating, validating and scaling the solution. It’s not a revolutionary idea, but seeing how it’s played out in a narrative is certainly helpful.

A good strategy should help organizations avoid the strategic gaps

Stephen Bungay defines strategy in his book The Art of Action as:

Strategy is a deployable decision-making framework, enabling action to achieve desired outcomes, constrained by current capabilities, coherently aligned to the existing context.

The most important part about the above definition is that it positions strategy as a decision-making framework that enables decisions, instead of a plan to be executed. In other words, a strategy specifies certain essential structures that govern how people should make decisions, but not the decisions themselves. In contrast, a plan is a set of decisions that will be carried out to achieve certain goals or objectives.

Why is this distinction important? Or conversely, what are the consequences of treating strategy as a plan. While studying strategy, Stephen Bungay discovered that when companies approach strategy as a plan, they often fail to achieve what they expected. This failure comes from the actions taken to fill in these gaps:

  • The Knowledge Gap.
  • The Alignment gap.
  • The Effects Gap.

The knowledge gap is the difference between what management would like to know and what the company actually knows. Management desires certain business outcomes but they lack the information necessary to create a plan that would achieve these business outcomes. This creates an impulse for management to demand more details to feel more certain. However, such certainty is often not possible until after experiments with high degree of uncertainty have been carried out. When the team is unable to provide such details, the knowledge gap manifests.

So what happens when management ignores the knowledge gap and proceeds to make plans? The alignment gap appears.

The alignment gap is the difference between what people do and what management wants them to do. Management may come up with their own plans because they believe that executing certain decisions will achieve the desired outcomes. The problem with this is that, as mentioned, they often lack the user understanding and insights required for such plans to be realistic and coherent. If the team has sufficient authority, then they would push back and execute other more informed and thought-out plans. Management is puzzled as to why things do not go as according to their plan, which is when the alignment gap manifests.

What happens, then, if the team doesn’t push back and instead carries out the plans that management provide? The effect gap appears.

The effects gap is the difference between what we expect our plans to achieve and what really happens. When plans based on flawed knowledge (inevitably) fail, management doesn’t understand why they fail and thus commands the team to provide more details & information. As you can see, we have arrived at the knowledge gap once again.

These strategic gaps tend perpetuate themselves and ultimately create friction that slows down progress and eventually grinds the company to a halt. Therefore, the advantage of defining strategy as a decision-making framework is in avoiding these gaps and enable organizations to be more effective.

Use Product Kata to get closer to our goals

Product Kata is my favorite framework from the book, and that’s mostly because Melissa did a great job walking the reader through the how the team at Marquetly actually applied Product Kata in their product development process.

To create strategy, you must understand where you want to go, then identify the obstacles standing in your way and finally experiment to tackle them until you reach the vision. This continuous improvement framework is called the Improvement Kata. The Product Kata is an adapted version that aligns with product terminologies.

There are four stages to the product kata:

  1. Understanding the direction.
  2. Problem exploration.
  3. Solution exploration.
  4. Solution optimization.

The first step of the Product Kata is to understand the direction, which is about the company vision and the business goals that the company needs to reach in order to progress towards that vision. They are important but are not too relevant to the ideas I want to elaborate. The next two steps: problem exploration and solution exploration, are particularly interesting.

Melissa showed how the team at Marquetly to explore their problems. They had set the goal to increase the rate of published course to 50% and the number of second courses created by teachers to 30%. After evaluating where they are with respect to these goals (25% and 10%), they determined the biggest obstacle to reaching this goal is the lack of understanding about the problems that teachers face when creating courses.

The next step they took was doing user research. After interviewing 20 teachers, they have discovered numerous problems that users were trying to solve:

  • They want to easily transfer their courses from another school.
  • They want to import all their content for creating a new course.
  • They want an audio-option only to save time creating videos and appeal to podcast lovers.
  • They want recommendations on pricing when creating a course.
  • They want to know what their potential students want to learn so that they can create relevant content.

They map the problems to the current user journey, and decided that the biggest problem was to get the teachers’ content into the system. They wrote down their hypothesis:

We believe that, by helping teachers get their lesson content into the system painlessly and quickly, we can increase the rate of published courses to 50% and increase the number of second courses created to 30%.

After discovering their most significant problem – getting existing content to the system, they refer back to the Product Kata to see what’s next.

After learning about that teachers have trouble getting the content into the system, their current state with respect to their goals had not changed. But their biggest obstacle did. They needed to know whether they are picky about the format, or they would follow a template.

After reaching out to 20 teachers and offered to get their content into the system, they discovered that the content came in all shapes and forms, Dropbox, Google Docs, Youtube link. The most surprising thing was that the videos came in unedited, only with instructions on how they are to be edited.

It turned out that the teacher were good at developing curriculums, but not necessarily good at making videos. They began to suspect that getting the content into the system might not be the problem, but creating online content was. They went out to talk with the teachers and confirmed that the they were indeed frustrated that they had to learn how to edit and create engaging videos.

After discovering that teachers have troubles editing and creating content which prevent them from publishing more courses, the Marquetly team tried to pitch their video-editing services to the teachers. They set the success metric to be at least 10 of the courses they worked on to be published within a month.

After two weeks, the team further discovered that most teachers had no idea what good videos look like for an online class. They ended advising the teachers to make their videos entertaining. Based on this information, they determined the solution components that mattered to the teachers:

  • Recipe or how-to guide for successful video creation.
  • The ability to piece together talking-head video, slides, images, audio and Youtube videos.
  • The ability to show text on top of the video.
  • Introduction slide to the video.

While the team was thinking through how these factors might turn into a scalable offering, they started to see courses go live. Within one week after the videos were edited and uploaded to the site, half the teachers had published their courses. By the end of three weeks, 12 teachers had published, so they succeeded in reaching their metrics for this experiment. The rest of the story is about how they scaled and eventually reached and surpassed their business goals.

The Product Kata for Marquetly looked like this:

I think Product Kata aligns well with the notion that in lean startup, anything that doesn’t produce knowledge is not essential. It does so by:

  1. Explicitly recognizing that the outcome of an experiment is knowledge.
  2. Tying the knowledge obtained from the previous experiment to the action in the next one.

Conclusion

Overall, while the book was not revolutionary, it has a lot of great ideas and frameworks that are neatly organized and presented. I enjoyed Melissa’s style of writing in this book a lot. Although Marquetly is not an actual company, the way she moves back and forth between presenting an idea and how it manifests at Marquetly was helpful to capture my attention and provide a narrative structure that connects the ideas together.

Departures (2008) – How Death makes you Reconsider Life, and How Mentally Simulating the Deaths of your Frameworks can improve Cognitive Agility

The movie’s theme is obviously about death, but it’s not told from the perspective of someone who lost a beloved one, although that is part of the storyline. Rather, it is told from the perspective of morticians who have to provide funeral services to the deceased, such as purifying, changing the clothing, applying make-up, and delivering the body to its final destination.

Disclaimer: This blog post, unfortunately, contains spoilers about the movie Departures (2008).

Table of contents

  1. Takeaways
  2. Introduction
  3. An encounter with death sharpens and ubiquitizes its presence
  4. Even death can be made beautiful with calmness, dexterity, and tenderness
  5. We already have a relationship with death that is yet to be instantiated
  6. Death makes you reconsider life
  7. Engaging in mental simulation of the death of frameworks

Takeaways

First, you need to check out Departures, it’s such a great movie. As I watched it, I found myself contemplating the scenes and the dialogues in a rather vigorous fashion. After watching it, I also thought a lot about what I should change in my perceptions of the world in light of such contemplations. These are some mental models that were either obtained or reconstructed from this exercise:

  1. You can make death beautiful with calmness, dexterity, and tenderness.
  2. Death makes you reconsider life.
  3. Mentally simulating the deaths of your mental models to improve Cognitive Agility.

Introduction

Yesterday, I watched Departures. It’s a 2008 Japanese drama film directed by Yōjirō Takita and starring Masahiro Motoki and Ryōko Hirosue. According to Wiki:

The idea for Departures arose after Motoki, affected by having seen a funeral ceremony along the Ganges when traveling in India, read widely on the subject of death and came across Coffinman. He felt that the story would adapt well to film, and Departures was finished a decade later. Because of Japanese prejudices against those who handle the dead, distributors were reluctant to release it—until a surprise grand prize win at the Montreal World Film Festival in August 2008. The following month the film opened in Japan, where it went on to win the Academy Prize for Picture of the Year and become the year’s highest-grossing domestic film. This success was topped in 2009, when it became the first Japanese production to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.[a]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Departures_(2008_film)

The movie’s theme is obviously about death, but it’s not told from the perspective of someone who lost a beloved one, although that is part of the storyline. Rather, it is told from the perspective of morticians who have to provide funeral services to the deceased, such as purifying, changing the clothing, applying make-up, and delivering the body to its final destination.

The main character is a cellist who had to go back to his hometown along with his wife because the orchestra he played at was disbanded and he couldn’t handle a place in the city with the loan he took out to purchase the cello. In his hometown, he found a job that was advertised as providing departures, which he initially thought was from a travel company. It later turned out that it was a company providing funeral services, or in other words that better reflect the title of the movie, provides departures for the deceased. Nonetheless, he accepted the job because the salary was much higher than he thought.

An encounter with death sharpens and ubiquitizes its presence

The main character encounters his first deceased body for the very first time. It is of an old woman who died 2 weeks before but is only now discovered. The body is in bad shape, half of the flesh is rotten and surrounded by a swarm of flies. When the main character gets closer to help his superior move the body, he ends up vomiting.

Physiologically, seeing a corpse makes us aware of the possibility of becoming one, and thus triggers the fight-or-flight response that empties your stomach to deter your predators (like you’re not already a bad meal without the vomit). The odor secreted by the corpse also makes your lizard brain think you’ve ingested something poisonous or contaminated which also contributes to the gag reflex.

We then see that he goes home to his wife with a disturbed countenance. As he sits down to eat the dinner that his wife prepared, he looks at the chicken whose eyes are open and staring at him. Except I think it’s not precisely the chicken that’s doing the staring, but it’s death itself. Having been in close contact with the reality of death, specifically, someone who was touched by it, was enough to leave a mark on his psyche, making him perceive death more vividly than ever before.

This perception is further ingrained on a whiteboard that is his mind as he explained in a previous scene that his grandmother died when he was very young and his mother passed away when he was studying abroad, so he had never seen a body before.

His brain, upon being reminded of the dead body, triggers the same physiological response from earlier, which is just another way of saying that he pukes again. His wife, being the supportive wife that she is, pats his back to ease up the nausea. He puts her palm to his face, desperately wanting to be drowned in the warmth of another human to make his perception of death fade away, even momentarily. He then makes love to his wife, performing the act that only the living can enjoy, to remind himself that he is, in fact, alive.

Even death can be made beautiful with calmness, dexterity, and tenderness

The protagonist then becomes involved with another deceased. This time, it was someone’s wife. He and his superior arrived 5 minutes late and was greeted with rudeness from the husband. His superior goes through the encoffining process, purifying the body by wiping it. After changing the clothing, he proceeds to apply make-up to the deceased’s face, based on the dead’s portrait. As the main character observes how his boss goes through the embalming process, he also monologues: “To bring the dead back one more time and to grant them permanent beauty requires calm and dexterity. But above all, it requires tenderness in one’s hands.”. This is the theme of this scene.

After everything is done, they leave the deceased’s house, but the husband catches up to apologize for his rudeness earlier, and also to give them a gift for their service. His remark about his wife: “That was the most beautiful she ever looked” re-iterates the theme above, but an acknowledgment from the deceased’s family reminds us that the act of beautifying the remain is not merely to satisfy the encoffiner’s selfish venture to encounter, embrace and accept death, but it also provides the very last beautiful and soothing memory to the family, which arguably is the more important function.

Observing someone creating such beautiful memory out of death, and noting the characteristics of the process being employed, inspires us to adopt the same attitudes towards death, or any particular unfortunate event: with calmness, dexterity, and tenderness.

We already have a relationship with death that is yet to be instantiated

The main character goes home to his wife sitting on her bended knees looking at the television. Her facial expression tells him, and the audience, that she’s mad. The wife then shows him a video featuring him as the model for the encoffining process, which was the very first job that he had to do. They naturally go on to have a dispute, with the wife expressing her disapproval for her husband’s new job. She thinks it is embarrassing, but embarrassment is felt only from that video, which doesn’t reflect the nature of his job. What she disapproves of, is the implication of the day-to-day aspect of being a mortician.

There’s a piece of dialogue between them that I am particularly interested in:

“I just want you to have a normal job!”

“What is normal? Everyone dies, I will die, you will die. Death itself is normal!”

“I don’t care about your philosophy, just leave that job.”

She has always been supportive of him, even when he lost his job as a cellist in a big city and they had to move back to his hometown. So why wouldn’t she support him this time? The answer, I think yet again, lies in death.

Death is something people actively avoid thinking about, let alone having a relationship with. The fact that her husband is a mortician means that he very often has to deal with death. Set aside how that may take a toll on his psychology, such frequent confrontation also means that she who stands beside him also will have a relationship with death, either through conversations or behaviors of her husband. After all, you can’t sustain a marriage without getting involved with each other’s day-to-day jobs.

There’s a difference between contemplating death and coming into close contact with death, as the last line in the above dialogue implies. Every now and then, each and everyone one of us has thought about death, but to engage in a continual exploration that takes place in both reality and mind over an extended period of time would be an entirely different story. She can’t stand being in close proximity with such a morbid concept on a daily basis, so she gives him an ultimatum. Either he quits his job, or she will leave.

Our main character refuses to give up his job because his engagement with death has opened him to a new perspective in which life is seen in sharp contrast with death, and that only makes him appreciate and savor life even more. To him, his beloved’s response was expected, but not justified. Implicit in the dialogue is the idea that labeling death as abnormal is not justified, because it happens at every minute of the day, every day. We ourselves will die someday. So it means we already have a relationship with death that is yet to be instantiated. Death is always in our schema (for database and software engineers out there).

Once we’ve accepted and normalized it, we can start looking at life with a more holistic lense, incorporating even the morbid part that’s eventually going to catch us all, like an annoying 10-year-old kid determined to impose permanent imprisonment to all creatures just to satisfy his vanity (perhaps that’s why the main character in Pokemon was named Ash Ketchum).

Death makes you reconsider life

Here’s a personal story: as you may know, I and my dad had tested positive for Covid and recovered recently. Due to his existing health conditions that require medical attention, he was admitted to an actual hospital, while I went to a quarantine facility. After being released home, he described to me what happened at the hospital. Those who were exhibiting symptoms would spend their days lying on the floor of the hallway breathing through an oxygen tank because the hospital is overloaded. They would lie besides other dead bodies that are only discovered by their neighbors after a period of time without movement. Coffins were opened and in a ready state so that the staff can easily carry the bodies into.

He spent his first day on the very same floor and was only transferred to a private room for patients who do not exhibit any symptoms. He mostly spent his time alone in that room, often in starvation. My family shipped meals into the hospital, but he often did not receive them until after half a day had passed. There were days, he said, that the hunger made him tremble and his eyesight affected.

He went home a different man. His appetite went up greatly. Before he ate very conservatively, but after the experience, he started eating more and seemed to enjoy the food more. He would sit me down for lunch or breakfast to talk about our experiences during the time when we were separated. I think because he saw death in its full presence and ubiquity, life is highlighted in ways that changed him, for the better. He exercises more, he eats more, he reads more, he engages more. He lives more.

I suspect this is simply a consequence of asking the question “Am I living?” subconsciously in every action one takes after having encountered death. When you have seen death with your own eyes, or more precisely, when you have seen that indiscriminating destruction which consumes absolutely everyone it touches, how do you make sure that you’re not already consumed? Surely, you can easily verify your own conditions by assessing your breathing, your physiology, and the fact that you’re standing on your own feet. But what precedes all of that is a simple question: “Am I living?”.

Engaging in mental simulation of the death of frameworks

I don’t know if I’m weird (most likely yes), but I tend to engage in this habit of daydreaming. Over the years, I’ve found myself daydreaming about my own death over and over again, often in different forms, but always with lucidity. This is the part where your tilt! reflex would likely kick in and make you wonder if this person is gonna hurt himself, or worse, hurt others to realize his fantasies. If you google “Fantasy vs Imagination“, you would see a lot of attempts to clarify, but the overarching theme is that fantasies are far removed from our understanding of how the world works, and I can assure you that no details about my own death and funerals are, by that definition, fantastical.

They are not philosophical conversations about the conceptualization of death either, but purely vivid mental images of how my death would occur, and how others would respond. I had died more than a dozen times in my mind, each episode consists of an entirely different storyline and reactions, but never once I imagined rejecting or fearing death (maybe that’s why I had been able to daydream about it in the first place).

However, I think that’s just a particular instance of the category of experience that I tend to daydream about. Mentally simulating what would happen when I die is a way to destroy the frame of reference “I am young and healthy and therefore I have a long life ahead.”. Once you’ve played out the physical and emotional consequences of your own death, you can no longer deny the possibility that death may occur unexpectedly, even to the fittest of us.

This destroys the old framework and replaces it with something along the line of “I may be young but my death may be at any moment.”. And it doesn’t exist merely as an abstract sentence that you manipulate, but the new framework actually incorporates all of the emotional and physical consequences that you’ve played out by simulating your own death, which actually alters your behaviors like it did my dad’s.

Our brain and body are poor at distinguishing between imaginations and reality, as demonstrated by a 35% increase in muscles’ strength from imaginary exercise. In a similar way, daydreaming about death is also a mental exercise to expand your capability of handling death. It’s not that I’m drawn to the darker aspects of life, as explained in part eight of my quarantine diary: what I am drawn to is transformations, and it’s often in the metaphorical death and destruction of oneself that transformations are born.

To me, death is not just about the physical death, but it should be more productively conceived as a form of destruction of existing mental models and frameworks that are insufficient so that more coherent mental models and frameworks can be formed. That’s why mentally engaging in simulating the “death” of not only your physical body but also what you hold to be true, serves as an important function to our cognitive development.

As I write this section, I realize that I am arriving at essentially the same connection that Cedric Chin wrote about in his recent blog post on The Importance of Cognitive Agility. Before Lia DiBello helped a team to understand lean manufacturing by running a simulation, she watched them burn, meaning failing to meet the goal of reducing inventory and maximizing profits using the manufacturing method they’ve always been using:

The idea here isn’t just that ‘learning by doing’ is superior to ‘learning by powerpoint’ (and in fact, the primary focus of the paper was on the pedagogical implications of using ‘constructive’ instruction vs ‘procedural’ instruction); the idea that is relevant to us is that — in order for learning to happen — participants had to have their old mental models destroyed through visceral failure, in order to make way for new models

Therefore, you can think of mentally simulating the deaths of your frameworks is a way to improve Cognitive Agility. This is a rather personal way to look at Cognitive Agility, but I think that’s the most notable change in my perceptions. After conceptualizing the relationship between my habit of daydreaming and Cognitive Agility, I will perhaps engage in the said habit in a more mindful way, with a more elaborate model of seeing how it can help my cognitive development.

Quarantine Diary, August, 2021

Introduction

In the late morning of July 30th, 2021, I received news from the local authority that I and my father tested positive for Covid. On the same evening, I checked into a facility somewhere near Thu Thiem tunnel (in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam) to start the quarantine process, while my father checked into a real hospital the following morning due to existing health conditions that require medical attention.

During my days in this facility, I spent a lot of time thinking about work, but also about a lot of other random things. On the fifth day, I decided to write down these thoughts, seeing as they had become too burdensome to keep in mind. That is the origin of this series.

This is a collection of thoughts that span seven day, mixed between a diary and a journal, in that they’re a record of my spontaneous thoughts, as well as descriptions of the events happening throughout the day. Such thoughts are perhaps best characterized by broadness, ranging from crises at work to hope, despair and transformation. It gets philosophical and silly at times, but I reckon that’s normal.


My goal in publishing this series is to satisfy a pertinent and fundamental desire – to be seen for who and what I am, at least at this particular point in space and time where I’m currently occupying. I hope my friends and those who are interested will be able to see parts of me that perhaps they wouldn’t get to see otherwise. But beware, even though there is consistency and continuity, there are no moral stories, lessons, or anecdotes intended to be drawn from these words. There are only intimate pieces of me that wish to be seen.

Finally, in the published version, I removed some thoughts which appeared in the original writing. As someone who doesn’t mind treading the dark water, my concern is not about the nature of these thoughts, but to avoid wasting time and energy justifying them to respective organizations and individuals who may not only form bad impressions of me but actually can hinder my life. Despite my efforts to keep the words and their meanings as authentic as possible during the editing process, I hope you understand that such public writing must be balanced against my own public image, even though I have tipped the scale towards authenticity as much as I deem possible.

The series

Quarantine Diary – Eleventh day, August 10th, 2021: My subconscious is telling me something, finally going home, anticipations vs plans

Today is the 11th day I spend in this quarantine facility. I couldn’t sleep properly last night because I keep having this weird, singular thought, which is not exactly hope, that tomorrow may really be the day. It is not hope because it doesn’t capture and direct my mind towards these images of what I think will happen, at least yet. Instead, the sleeplessness comes from a single thought: that tomorrow may be the day.

My subconscious is telling me something

Of course, I have tried my best to not submit to its claws, because I know the moment I let these images that so naturally follow such a thought into my mind, it would be too late. My mind would be already subjugated. However, I think my subconscious was clearly trying to tell me something. It’s saying so by projecting that single thought to the conscious mind. Sometimes, forcing yourself to look away from what you should consider is something so fatally wrong that your subconscious torments you all night.

Finally going home!

Of course, I can only say that because I received the news from a medical staff this morning, at approximately 9 AM, that I will be leaving here today. It was as if the torment played on me last night served as a premonition to this moment. Who knows, my subconscious could have taken into account all the evidence (subconsciously) and produced a single conclusion that today is really the day. It also could have taken into account my miserable experience yesterday and decided not to overdo it with the messaging. All of that could have led to that singular thought that kept me up yesterday. And of course, as I’m no psychologist, these are only interesting explanations that I tell myself. This could all just be confirmation bias.

But what is true is that my heart is filled with joy. It beats faster and more excitingly as the reality of finally coming home hits me. During my morning shower, I can’t help but feel happy and optimistic. I once again started to visualize the moments before, during, and after my departure here and my arrival home. Except that this time they are not based on false hope.

Anticipations vs plans

My anticipations have become plans, and these plans carry an implicit meaning – the fact that one can formulate such plans with high certainty implies that one is in control of his or her environment. Planning implies an attempt to control. To plan is to implicitly realize that one can affect and change the situation. Those who possess the opposite mindset naturally rely on the universe, claiming that some hidden forces will make everything alright despite their inactions.

Even though they both are usually oriented towards a vision or a goal, the difference between anticipating and planning is in the recognition that one can move the situation forward.

Those who are merely anticipating are stuck at a point in time and space, desperately trying to visualize a better point at which they could have occupied. But they also instinctively know that such visualizations are incongruent with reality as they know it, so their hope is taken away. When hope is taken away, in this case by the mere awareness about their powerlessness with regards to the situation, and the situation is so undesirable that merely being in it produces distress, then one experiences despair. I have written about this previously.

Those in planning are in a position that naturally moves forward, albeit in a seemingly random fashion, and with their plans they’re trying to control such movement so that the flow of life will lead them to where they want to be.

Previously

Next up

Unfortunately, since I’m home, my need for release out these thoughts is also decreased dramatically. As you may guess, this is the end of my Quarantine Diary – though I’m not exactly sure if it can be called a diary. If you have made it here, I’d like to express my thanks for your time and attention. Hopefully, you have learned something about me that you otherwise wouldn’t have, in which case the outcome of this series will be achieved.

Farewell, and until the next time, stay safe!

Quarantine Diary – Tenth day, August 9th, 2021: Free from anticipations, the absence of hope is not despair, we need to control any situation to a certain extent, getting retested unexpectedly, despair is when hope is forcefully taken away in a manner that induces despair, today is not the day

Free from anticipations

Today is my 10th day at this quarantine facility. Unlike yesterday, I am not plagued by the feeling of anticipation anymore. Because I was hoping for a happy ending, which would be me leaving here yesterday, marking the end of an otherwise distasteful week, now that that hope is gone, I feel a sense of relief. It’s as if I’m released from its grip around my neck which was so strong that kept me paralyzed and unable to focus on anything. My mind was filled with images about coming home, about what I was going to do, how I was going to start a new week, and about how a single phone call would have made all of that come true. Of course, such hope was squashed by reality, as hope usually does, either by my limited understanding of the procedure that this facility employs, or a time delay in getting the results that I had not considered.

However, now that I’m forced to discard my false hope, its weight is also lifted off my shoulder. It’s perhaps akin to the feeling someone with terminal cancer has once he’s accepted his mortality. It’s reassuring to know there’s no turning back to a time when a way out was still possible. Similarly, I thought that my situation was going to end perfectly, and now that I know that such a perfect ending is no longer possible. Unlike having terminal cancer, though, my situation is still going to end sooner or later. The common thing between me and a terminal cancer patient is that we are both forced to dispose of false hope.

The absence of hope is not despair

I used to think, just several days ago, that the absence of hope is despair, but I have since reconsidered. The absence of hope is not necessarily equivalent to despair, but instead, it can be a momentary state in which one feels at peace. That is, of course, until the next moment where hope once again appears and permeates every aspect of your existence, unless you have terminal cancer and an overwhelming amount of evidence dictates otherwise. If there’s something you can do about the situation, then I think hope is healthy. But otherwise, hope will grab you by the mind and direct your attention towards the things you want the most, despite you physically being unable to affect the situation. Such captivity leaves the mind with no resources to attend to other matters.

In this albeit impermanent moment, I feel a normal amount of anticipation and a normal amount of awareness that such anticipation may not be met. I feel no need to rationalize or provide justifications as to how my anticipation is grounded in evidence and known information, or how it is reasonable to anticipate.

Of course, I’m not going to deny my reasoning to my anticipation yesterday. It was due to imperfect information and perhaps unexpected events that my anticipation was off the mark, but it doesn’t mean that it was not well-founded. Like I said, a 50/50 odd of leaving home was pretty solid, compared to that of the previous days.

We need to control any situation to a certain extent

Nonetheless, once we hope for something, especially when we’re constrained in terms of information and resources to affect the situation, it’s going to get ahold of our mind. Our physical powerlessness with regard to the situation compels our minds to exert mental control over the situation. We can’t stand being completely vulnerable. This isn’t about being a tough shell or a snowflake either, it’s merely human nature that we seek to control any situation to a certain extent, even if such control occurs only within the mind. Someone commenting on concentration camps once said something similar: a man can be deprived of everything, except for his right to respond to the situation with his own will.

The mind only knows one way to exert control over things, it rationalizes and visualizes. Indeed, because I was unable to affect my situation in any meaningful way, in that I have no control over the test results or the procedure that would lead to my release, my mind was rationalizing and visualizing about what should happen if things were ideal. In doing so, it consumes resources that would otherwise be spent on other more fruitful activities.

Getting retested again unexpectedly

Today I was unexpectedly called out to get a sample again in the morning. I don’t know what it means, but my sister said that it’s possible that my test result was not conclusive and therefore requires another test to make sure. It is her opinion that this test is of a different nature and the result will be available immediately, which means that I’d probably hear about the result of both these tests today.

Despair is when hope is forcefully removed in a way that induces distress

I wonder about despair. What is it? It’s not simply the absence of hope, but the state of things in which hope is forcefully removed and great distress is present. The absence of hope doesn’t immediately imply despair. The absence of hope could be that impermanent state of peace I mentioned earlier, or it could be something else. Maybe you’re in a situation that is not exactly desirable, and you have certain hopes of how things should go. However, due to imperfect information, miscalculations, or unfortunate events, what you hoped for simply didn’t happen, but it also didn’t result in significant distress. That would still qualify as a situation absent of hope, but there’s no despair involved, only slight disappointments.

So despair seems to be that which follows when hope is forcefully taken away in a manner that induces great distress. It’s somewhat circular and I’m still not quite satisfied with this definition, but let’s leave that for later. On a different yet related topic, even as someone who has seen despair, I can’t help but think that sometimes hope is much more dangerous, especially the hope that slowly but surely takes hold of your mind and deprives you of mental resources for anything else. That’s the experience I had yesterday.

Today is not the day

It seems that today is not the day again. Nevertheless, I obtained some valuable information from the guy who lives in the living room. It seems that, if people are allowed to go home on a certain day, they will be informed in the morning to prepare their stuffs. In the evening they will be permitted to leave. This information should mean that the most important time of the day is actually in the morning, whereas I previously assumed that it was in the afternoon because that’s when the old lady who left here received the call to inform her about her departure. However, in retrospect, anticipating the phone call was neglecting the base rate. It might have been that the old lady had a particular connection to someone in the medical staff who would inform her via phone personally. Or it could be that the procedure changed when she left and now announcements are made in the morning only. The information I obtained today was from the old couple who was also allowed to leave today, so it takes more precedence over old information.

Previously

Next up

Quarantine Diary – Ninth day, August 8th, 2021: A sexual fantasy, unhelpful people, the cost of visualizing happy endings, a strangling dangling hope

Today is my 9th day in quarantine. I can’t help but look forward to leaving here. If everything goes right, I can leave here today. After all, I was retested 2 days ago, so the results should be back by now, ideally. Today is Sunday, so leaving here today would allow me to start the next week afresh, which is a huge psychological advantage. I think that going home on Monday would somehow taint the week, even though the effect is probably negligible.

A sexual fantasy

I started having a sexual fantasy. A threesome, to be exact. Well, I guess that’s normal. I’m still a single man in his 20s after all.

Unhelpful people

I asked a medical staff who was checking the SpO2 for the room when I can get the results back. She replied: “When it’s available we’ll inform you”. That statement doesn’t provide me with any kind of useful information. She didn’t even tell me how long on average after which people get to hear about the results. She told me what I already know, that someone will inform me when I have my results back. Maybe I’m overreacting, but it’s a very uninformative thing to say because such information is too obvious. Of course, I will be informed when the results are available. What I wanted to know is if I can get the results back TODAY!

The cost of visualizing happy endings

Even though I tried to not fall prey to imagining and visualizing the moments before, during, and after when I get to go home, I failed at that task today. The concept of hope has obtained a gripping form and it’s aiming for my neck.

I’ve been unconsciously looking at the phone because I know that there will be a call that makes that puts an end to my days in this facility. I know that it usually takes 2 or 3 days for the results to get back, so it may not be today. Yet, there’s a 50/50 chance of coming home today. Still, I can’t help but be held captive by the belief that today may really be it!

The odds were almost to the point of nonexistent previously, so it makes statistical sense to have more faith in today. But, If I recall correctly, the old lady who stayed in my apartment said that she was here for 10 days before she left. If my memory is correct and that was true, the evidence would point to me leaving here tomorrow, not today, which would be disappointing.

I don’t exactly remember the specific time when that old lady was called to inform me that she was going home, but I remember that she was told that she would leave around 4:30 PM to 6 PM. As the day is drawing near that block of time and I haven’t received a call yet, hope is certainly beginning to strengthen its grip upon me, making me feel more suffocated and desperate.

A strangling, dangling hope

Hope has been strangling me until I can no longer concentrate on anything else but the fact that I’m holding on to it. I have to place the phone within my field of vision so that I will not miss the call if it ever comes, which is a rational thing to do considering that my phone seems to malfunction and there’s no ringtone on an upcoming call. But the same phone, staying in peripheral, also keeps drawing my attention as I’m trying to read a book. I can’t help but anticipate and visualize that call that will put an end to all of this. I can’t put the phone out of my sight either because I can’t still rule out the possibility that a call may come and I may miss it. When you feel powerless and have to rely on something trivial as a phone call, you feel desperate. That’s what I was trying to avoid from the beginning, but unfortunately, it seems like I lost that battle today.

As it is 6:30 PM, and seeing no sign of people leaving the building block that I live in, I can at least be certain that today is not the day where people can go home, assuming that the facility release people in flocks instead of separately. That means that it’s most likely tomorrow. Tomorrow is Monday, and I have a meeting with the marketing team on Monday which I have skipped for 2 weeks. I feel uncomfortable skipping another one. Regardless, reality dictates that I won’t be going home today.

Previously

Next up

Quarantine Diary – Eight day, August 7th, 2021: Being drawn to the darker aspects of life, despair happens once or twice, the immortal Pheonix

Today is my 8th day in this quarantine facility. I woke up to the sound of someone knocking on my door. I’ve been living in a small room, separated from the common area of the apartment that I share with 6 other people. The apartment has 3 rooms, one in the living room or the common area, one with its own toilet and the other is where I live in. The knock on the door was to signal that breakfast is here. In this facility, breakfast is served usually around 7:30 AM. Today feels like a slow day, probably because it’s Saturday.

Am I drawn to the darker aspects of life?

I wonder why I’m so gravitated towards the darker, subterranean aspects of life. Is that sentiment even correct? No doubt, there was a time, particularly when I first read HakoMari – my favorite novel, that I thought I was in constant despair because the novel depicts despair in such vivid images that I identified with. However, as time goes by, I slowly came to realize that these moments of despair are, in truth, only part of everyday life. If my life was made into a movie that only displays the events that I went through from another person’s perspective, it’d be a third-rate movie at best. That is to say, my life is not dramatic at all.

However, subjectively, some trivial events, such as my first heartbreak, or my first academic failure, left permanent marks on my psyche, changing my behaviors and forming parts of my personality. But fewer and fewer events have these characteristics with time. Fewer and fewer events come to define me. Gradually, even during the most difficult and troubling times in my life, I can’t help but think “this too shall pass”. It’s a testament to its triviality.

“This too shall pass”, they say, and I believe this to be true. I saw with my own eyes that even the most painful and intense feelings fade away. Some of them leave behind a hole in my soul that perhaps will forever be there. Yet, as Tupac says, life goes on. Despite all the tragedy that I suffered which I didn’t think I would have recovered from, life goes on mercilessly. It doesn’t wait for anyone. Desperately trying to get on with life, these tragedies and sufferings of mine slowly but surely get washed away by the sand of time.

But in that outlook, there’s also some sort of hope. There is no despair that cannot be trivialized by the flow of life. No doubt, there are people who cannot recover from tragedy, plunging into their own self-destruction and perhaps the destruction of people around them. But for me who has returned from staring into the abyss, I can safely say that nothing will ever truly break me, not anymore, at least. A sentimental me would say that it’s because I’m already broken, but a more holistic me would deny such a sentimental judgment. But, it is true that since I’ve already experienced despair (in my own estimation of course) and walked away from it transformed, I can testify to how the flow of life makes all that comes after trivial. Despair is that mechanism of the flow of life that renders all that comes after it trivial.

One intuitively understands that some events affect people in a deep and profound manner, such that permanent behavioral or personality changes will take place. These changes are in no way trivial, yet they are few in number. As dramatic events define and reshape you, a sort of rigidity starts to appear, meaning that you start to get less and less affected by later dramatic events. One’s nature is perhaps shaped by that which dramatically happens due to the particular environment, personality, and upbringing that one has. In my opinion, the most profound and impactful events often induce despair.

Despair happens once or twice

Despair seems to be a state that you can only be in once or twice in your life, and definitely not a frequent occurrence. There are roughly three ways I can see someone getting out of it. Either you get out of it by denying and rationalizing the despair away, telling yourself not to think of it, or that it only affects other people. Or you fall prey to its malevolence and eventually take your own life, in the process possibly destroy other people’s lives. Or, you incorporate it. You stare straight into the abyss, you don’t divert your eyes away from the sufferings, and you accept it all as part of yourself.

Amidst the spiraling down which perhaps ends in insanity, you still have to accept everything presented to you. It’s not even correct to say that you have to maintain your sanity, because I don’t think that’s possible when it comes to despair. It’s more correct to say that, despite losing your sanity, you must not avert your gaze. You have to look at all that is presented, the ugly things about yourself, about other people, and about the world. You have to take them all in, chew on it, think about it, and never once lie to yourself that these things are not real. Only after accepting and incorporating the despair that necessarily accompanies the abyss, you can walk away from it a better-integrated person.

The immortal Pheonix

I’ve always associated with the image of the Pheonix. The immortal bird that flies through the sky with fire coming out of its wings and entire body. Eventually, there comes a point where the fire is too intense that the Pheonix burns itself to ashes. But, from the ashes, the Pheonix re-emerges again, into a transformed being, now capable of withstanding the fire it once couldn’t handle. The Phoenix never truly dies, its death only means transformation.

I’ve always found such a creature appropriate. I identify with it because all my life I’ve always been drawn to transformations, in me and in others. Whether it’s work, productivity systems, or relationships, I’ve always been striving towards a more transformed state of being. I’ve always been willing to [[Manage risks intelligently#^3db41f|discard the insufficient parts of me, letting them burn off like deadwoods]], so that progress can take place. Especially in relationships, this means letting go of someone I loved but don’t think we have a future together. Even though these tough times, I have not once regretted my decision. Yes, I would say that’s another of my strong suits, I don’t regret decisions. I think all the mistakes and all the sufferings I cause for me and for other people are all inevitable, seeing that learning from them makes me a better person. If I were to regret and deny them, I would be, in effect, denying the person that I am today, and that is one thing I will never do.

So am I drawn to the darker aspects of life?

So is it correct to say that I’m gravitated towards the darker, more subterranean aspects of life? I’d say that I’d love to see the darker sides of human beings, the moments of despair, the ugly parts that they want to hide from the world. Why? Because I am drawn to transformations, and it is in the metaphorical death and destruction of oneself that transformation is most possible. The best kind of transformation is so great that they require people to give up what they are, for what they will become. So it’s not entirely correct to say that I’m gravitated towards the darker aspects of life. It’s only a means to an end, it would be better phrased that I am drawn to transformations that often are only possible in the presence of the dark sides of human beings.

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Quarantine Diary – Seventh day, August 6th, 2021: Getting retested, thinking about risks, a crisis at work contained, a nice doctor, a good friend, rightfully hopeful

This is the 7th day I spend at the quarantine facility. I asked the medical staff who came to visit the room and measured the oxygen saturation level and it seems that people usually get tested in the morning. The first step to going home is getting retested, so I was looking forward to that today. I don’t know how it works, but I suspect those who will get tested will be informed and gathered in a focused space downstairs? Of course, it’s only a guess, and they may as well go room by room, which means it simply is not my turn yet. I am kinda frustrated at this point because the medical staff mentioned that it usually takes 8 days before I can get re-tested. This means that I may have to be here for at least another 3 days, taking into account the 2 days it takes for the result to get back.

Getting retested

At 10 AM, the medical staff finally come and get me retested. So it means that they go door to door to collect samples instead of gathering everyone up downstairs. It’s lucky that I considered such a possibility and didn’t get overly frustrated. This is considered a win of the week since it means that I am getting closer to going home. Of course, there’s always the possibility that my covid situation is still contagious, but it’s very unlikely. The reason is that I know I’m fully recovered, empirically speaking. For comparison, every breath I took last week was difficult and I could not really yawn at all because it hurt so badly. Now, I can breathe deeply and can yawn without any trouble. I don’t exhibit any symptoms of Covid anymore, so unless the lab makes a mistake, or that there’s a procedure that involves multiple tests, I’m almost guaranteed to go home in the next few days. From listening to an old lady who went home on my second day, I know that they will call your phone to inform that you’re ready to go home, so I know what to expect.

Thinking about risks

To be completely honest, my biggest worry right now is the lab messing up the results. I do not want to be here for another week just because of someone else’s mistakes. I do however realize that’s a rather pessimistic way to look at things. [[People tend to overestimate risks and underestimate opportunities]], but this is a situation where there’s hardly any opportunity to be gained, so it makes sense to think about the risks first. If someone says that I should take this opportunity to re-evaluate my life or read new books, I’d smack that person in the head so badly that they will go right back into their moms’ wombs. But anyway, I’ll try to not be obsessed about that possibility, but I’m sure that thinking about it ahead of time would definitely reduce my frustrations if it were to actually happen. Not that I wish it that it would.

A crisis at work contained

Another good news is that one of the crises yesterday has been contained. After checking the extension this morning, I realize that the latest version is still in draft, which means it’s not published yet. I went ahead and published it, and several minutes later the long-time user emailed me to say that she could successfully load the test suites and the situation is resolved. One crisis contained, yay!

A nice doctor

For several days a woman has been calling me to check up on my health. She’s part of the program called “Companion Doctors” which is supposed to provide emotional and medical support to Covid patients. It seems that she’s tasked with aiding me in my recovery. She has a soothing voice and a nice demeanor that you’d expect from a doctor. The conversations with her were very pleasant.

A good friend

Today I also talked with a friend who checked in on me. I very much enjoyed our conversation, partly because I got to rant about many things, partly because human connections are nice. It feels good to know that someone thinks about you and therefore checks in on you. Even though our conversation was normal, I appreciate it a lot. I’ll check in on her more frequently when I leave here.

Rightfully hopeful

I wonder what hope is. If you think about it, the statement “I hope …” expresses a desirable future. One way to think about hope is just laziness and entitlement. We often say we “hope that everything is going to be okay”, to ourselves or to others, without actually doing anything. Even though I don’t do anything, I feel entitled to a future in which things go according to my will. That’s laziness and entitlement. Or perhaps these people think that all the other good deeds they have done up to that point in their lives should accumulate to make their desired future a reality, despite the fact that in this particular situation they have done nothing. Or perhaps, they think they can’t affect the situation in any meaningful way? That would be my guess. I think I’m the same too, in that I do hope for a happy ending (from time to time before I try to squash it) without being able to directly affect my covid situation. I certainly got better, but the procedure that this facility and the government enforces is outside of my control. Am I lazy and entitled to have such hope? I guess, in a sense, yeah.

Of course, not everyone is like this, which leads to another way to think about hope. It’s an expression of humility. If we have tried everything in our power to resolve a situation, we can only hope for the best. The humility here is in admitting that there are things that we cannot control, no matter how hard we try.

Those who did nothing and those who did everything can both have hope, but only one group can be rightfully hopeful. So what is hope? hope is an expression of the idea that your desired future may not be within your control. Without hope, people are in despair or deluded. But hope alone is not sufficient either since it can also be used as an excuse by lazy and entitled people (like me?).

Those who do not have hope are either in despair or deluded. They are in despair because, without hope, they do not believe that the desired future is possible, and hence anything they do or don’t is rendered irrelevant. The only other way they don’t have or need hope is because they believe that their actions will undoubtedly bring about the desired future. In reality, no such guarantee is possible. This is pretending to be god, and so the person who pretends to be a god is deluded. On the other hand, those who do have hope can either be lazy entitled assholes that do nothing to contribute to the situation, or they can be humble people who have tried everything in their power yet admit that the key that brings about their desired future may not be in their hands. Only such people can be rightfully hopeful.

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