In elementary school, I remember I absolutely loved to color. I was the artist of the class, dare I say, the entire school. Back in the days of Crayola boxes with colors like “burnt sienna” and “skin color” (how fucked up is that?), I was in love with the beauty of my work. I know, narcissistic, right? Everyday, I would sit at my desk, open the coloring book, and study the picture. I would then pick the appropriate colors and outline the borders of the image. Then, I shaded it in, making sure to never color outside the lines. The final result was perfection: very distinct borders, amazing tone. I learned at a very young age to only color inside the lines, that it was beautiful to do so.
My father also had a profound impact on my coloring skills. He would always firmly stress school. “Education is the key to success,” he would say. “Keep your head down, ears and eyes open, and always listen and do what you’re told.” I received an early lesson on being a good student, obedient son, the perfect soldier, a rule follower.
I am the first born American child of a Korean immigrant. My father worked 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, fighting economic hardships to feed me without any maternal support, pay the rent somewhat on time, and keep me out of trouble. This lesson made perfect sense. I was a latchkey kid. It was the easiest way to keep me safe when no one was around. It worked. I grew up in an era where I knew enough to take the subway by myself at age 6. I grew up in a time and situation where as an 8 year old, I would be out until 2am on the front stoop of my block, hanging with my friends. In the summer, even on days we could barely breathe because of the humidity, as sweat beads formed in stillness, the wind doing nothing to cool our bodies, we would be out by sunrise. Our days consisted of riding our bikes, breakdancing in the streets, playing handball at the courts, spontaneously jumping in and out of the forcefully spouting waters of an open fire hydrant, and surreptitiously sneaking into closed pools at sunset. I looked Filipino. It was a unique childhood.
During the school year, I showed up every single day and performed well. Frequently, I tested at the highest of my class. And who was the spelling champ of the entire school? I won it on “committee.” However, my dream of being the National Spelling Bee champ was dashed by the word “whimsical.” How ironic. I was even given the opportunity to take the SAT while in 8th grade and actually scored better than average. I was a model student, albeit a talkative one.
My father’s job was to keep the roof over our heads and food in my belly. Sometimes, that was difficult. My job was to be a great student. Oftentimes, we would have to skip out on our living situation and find a new one because rent was overdue. I remember my father telling me to pack my clothes in the suitcase. “We have to leave in 20 minutes.” I asked him, “but where are we going?” He would tersely reply, “just pack.” I knew better than to ask for further details. He wasn’t a very verbally expressive man, but my dad always seemed to have a plan. With the large suitcase too big for my small, thin frame and a few garbage bags, we would make the walk and train ride to the next rented room. This happened every 6 months to a year for many, many years. I knew it wasn’t normal for a father and son to be living in a rented room with other strangers, sharing kitchen and bathroom privileges. I knew that it wasn’t normal for me to wear the same clothes everyday. The other kids reminded me of this quite often. I retaliated by being a bully, a gang leader, trying to hide the immense shame and pain their taunts caused. But deep inside, I was simply a scared child. I knew that it wasn’t normal to be dropped off at a friend’s place and not see my dad for months at a time because he was working so hard to raise money. It was painful. I missed him deeply and often cried myself to sleep. But my father’s pain was far worse. One night, we were huddled on the floor in our rented bedroom in the dark, trying to sleep- I heard my daddy whisper to himself. Then I heard stifled sniffles, his sniffles turned into sobs, sobs into intense wailing. The pain he must have felt, the inadequacy, the despair. I felt tremendous sadness for him. My father was far from perfect. He turned to the bottle almost everyday I can remember. We fought about that often. But for me to blame him would be heartless. Back then, sometimes I hated him. As an adult, I understand him. He is my flawed hero.
I reveal all these things not to curry favor with you, the reader. I write this because we all have our stories, our despair. But I choose to remember more the amazing times with my friends: riding my bike during the summer and after school, hanging out on the front stoop until 2 am, playing until we couldn’t run anymore, riding between subway cars while trying to maintain balance without holding on.
Following rules and social norms were valuable lessons as a child. However, continuing to do so as an adult, without questioning anything, is a slow killer, a leisurely hemorrhaging soul destroyer. I had this problem for many years. One day, I woke up. I’ve lived an excellent life so far. I’ve backpacked all over the world. I have met amazing people. I’ve experienced unique adventures and formed lasting bonds with many of the world’s citizens. I will continue to do so because this is it: this is my one chance to truly live, to make my mark, to not give two fucks about what anyone else expects from me. I live almost completely unfettered, by my own standards. I choose to create a life of abundance. How many times throughout the day do you do and say things you really don’t want to or don’t mean? It doesn’t have to be this way. Here is the key to happiness- “Do what you want, say what you want.” But only if it comes from a place of truth, it’s not reaction seeking, and the situation truly warrants. Don’t hold back. Here are a few suggestions to make your life better than it was yesterday…
- Say what you feel. Who knows if your opinions are correct? But who cares? How do you have dialogue if you constantly agree with everything and everyone? How do you grow? How may times throughout the day do you say to yourself, “damn, I should have said something?” On the flip side, you’re not always right. If you think so, you’re an idiot. Just my opinion 😉
- Get out of your comfort zone. It’s all about growth. You can’t grow if you do the same boring shit all the time. Afraid of public speaking? Take a class. Hate heights? Go to the top of a building and look down. Socially awkward? Join a Meetup group. Afraid of approaching women? Hire a dating coach.
- Do something you love at least once a week. You don’t have to love your job in order to be happy. But you should at least like it and get paid. It doesn’t have to be your passion, but that is ideal. In the meantime, find out things you absolutely love to do, then do it.
- Model behaviors that you admire. If you had only millionaire friends, would you be financially unstable? How about if all your friends were great in social situations? Would you be a wallflower? What if all your friends were confident around women? Would you shake like a leaf around the ladies? What if all your friends were into health and fitness? Your environment is critical to success because you will eventually model behaviors. If you’re around negativity all the time, chances are, you will be negative too. Hell, you might be the source of bad emotion right now. Don’t be that person. Make a change.
- Stop living your life based on what “others” want for you. Your family may love you, but they don’t have the final say in YOUR life. Find out what your standards are and live by them. Society, cultural norms, your friends…in the end, their opinions do not matter when it comes to your ultimate life.
- MEDITATE. The scientific studies about the benefits of meditation are numerous. I won’t go over them here. You’re smart. Look it up. Then execute.
- Be selfish. How could you possibly be happy unless you’re doing what you want? Simply give yourself permission to do things that you want to do, things that bring a smile to your face. You may know people that constantly give and give only to feel guilty when they have time to themselves. Don’t drain your compassion/empathy tank. Otherwise, you’ll become resentful and a pain to be around. No bueno. If your life is abundant, the source of giving will be pleasurable, not sacrifice.
- Stop complaining. You are not the victim of the universe’s soap opera. Shut up already. Sometimes, I catch myself complaining either out loud or in my mind. Then I tell myself, “Hey, this is a first world problem. Remember, starving kids everywhere else.” Will whatever your complaining about really matter next week? Probably not.
- Stop worrying. It’s funny how much time we spend thinking about events that have already happened, or that haven’t even happened yet. Do we have a time machine? Are we fortune tellers? Constantly expecting bad things to happen will lead to, guess what? Those bad outcomes to come into fruition.
- Love yourself. So simple. I still have rare instances of negative self talk, but I can quickly check myself into a more positive state. Your general demeanor is the product of the state you are in most often. If you are in a bad mood most of the time, guess what? THAT is your default setting. If you can habitually play positive mind movies and amp yourself up into a positive state most of the time, what’s going to be default setting? One of positivity.
I want this for you. I look around most days and see people doing the same boring things, eating the same boring meals, talking about the same boring bullshit, living mediocre lives. Deep inside, they’re dying. They’re asleep at the old, tired wheel. They’re going down the same old tired road without realizing the destination sucks. Solution? Put on the brakes. Step out and look off to the left or the right. There are other paths to follow. Better yet, you can blaze your own trail. It doesn’t have to be so complicated.
To live a life less than extraordinary would be a disservice to the sacrifices my father made…it would be all for naught. I would be miserable. He didn’t work so hard for me to live in mediocrity. So I honor him by living with intention and purpose. Imagine the positive impact you can have when you live an amazing life: it’s a chain reaction. Be that starter link. So go ahead, color outside the lines. There is beauty in that too…