A mid-semester update

Capacity: How far can you push yourself?

I can’t believe that the semester is already half over. I just looked at the calendar: if you count spring break, dead week, and finals week, this semester is 17 weeks, and week 8 just wrapped up. That’s crazy!

The panic there is because I don’t know if I’ve done as much as I wanted to in this first half. And this reminds me of a conversation I had earlier today with a friend, which went something like this:

Friend: “I don’t feel like I’m busy enough this semester.”
Me: “Oh yeah? How many units are you taking?”
Friend: “8 and a half.”
Me: “Hmm yeah, that doesn’t seem like a lot.”
Friend: “But this is totally a Berkeley problem. That’s what the Berkeley mindset does to you.”

I’ve always been mildly obsessed with the idea of capacity, which I define as the number of commitments you can take on without reaching a breaking point. You always want to fully utilize your capacity, a.k.a. “do more.” And you can sort of “expand” your capacity by becoming more efficient at your existing commitments, allowing you to push yourself and take on even more. Or alternatively, for those who are deadline driven, having to juggle many commitments forces you to become more efficient or else things will start to slip through the cracks. It used to be (e.g. when I was a freshman here) that classes used up nearly all of my capacity—I didn’t do a lot in the way of extracurriculars and I wasn’t getting the greatest grades. Nowadays, classes are just a small chunk in my capacity budget, leaving me with more capacity to teach and do fun things like photography, cycling, and dance.

I’m pretty happy that I’ve expanded my capacity, but that just means I can go further, which leaves me in a perennial state of mild dissatisfaction.

New Year’s Resolutions: Am I on track? Let’s find out!

Enough with the high and mighty abstract musing on capacity. It’s time for a progress review on my New Year’s resolutions!

1: “Sup dude”

Goal 1: Spend quality time with my close friends. Unfortunately I don’t think I’m doing a good job at this one. Of course I see my close friends quite often, but lately I feel like the level of conversation I have with them is similar to when you bump into an acquaintance on the street:

“Oh how was your day?”
“Good, you?”

Yikes. Or, shall I say, ~ y i k e s ~

2: Conversations!

Goal 2: Reach out to people outside my orbit. I think I’m doing alright on this one. This semester so far, I’ve had at least 27 conversations of at least 1 hour long each with either (1) formerly close friends who have entered the workforce and therefore become relatively inaccessible, (2) acquaintances I don’t see so often, or (3) people I haven’t talked to at all previously (!). By the end of the semester I should have more to say on this, but here are a couple preliminary observations.

A conversation can be viewed as a game in which one tries to optimize two conflicting objectives. The first is extracting as much information as possible from the other person, because ostensibly you’re engaging in the conversation because you want to learn a new perspective. The other objective is the opposite—time spent talking about yourself. I think a distribution that makes both sides feel like the conversation was valuable is when the two “modes” of conversation are balanced. But whether that happens or not depends a lot on the other person.

On one side of the spectrum, the 0ther person is what I call the firehose interviewer. Often an extrovert, they are experienced at steering the conversation and will pepper you with question after question. I find that it’s easy to launch into just answering their questions (in fact, it’s somewhat cathartic to not have to do any work and just operate on autopilot), leading to asymmetry in that I’m not doing an adequate job at information extraction. For these people, I need to remember to actively scan for opportunities to turn questions back to the other side.

On the other side of the spectrum, you have the brick wall. This setting is almost adversarial—I’m racking my brain trying to do topic generation to fill awkward gaps, and they’re engaging to the extent of narrowly interacting with the topic at hand, but not so much as to make the conversation flow. Of course, I definitely need to improve at topic generation (the process of finding areas of common ground or topics related to the current one to transition the conversation towards), but again, the other side needs to engage as well. Almost none of the conversations I’ve had are this bad, but certainly many conversations exhibit elements of this extreme case. Basically, it boils down to me having to do a lot of work (or more work than I’d like) to keep the flow going.

I don’t think what just said is particularly insightful or new to anyone, but I think it’s useful to put down in writing and I don’t think people really reflect openly on this that much. At some point I’ll also talk about conversation depth and what I call the “reengagement problem” (basically, I’m having all of these wholesome one-off conversations, but what’s the best strategy to keep all of these relationships alive?). But that’s for another day.

3: Frequency needs to go up

Goal 3: Write and reflect more. So far this semester, I’ve written 4 posts, including this one. Over 8 weeks, that’s a biweekly schedule. I want to get that up to posting once a week.

4: Why do my legs suck so much

Goal 4: Run a half-marathon. This semester started off with a bang—I was following a 10-week training plan to the letter, with shorter runs during the week and a long run every Saturday. Unfortunately, I got shin splints in early February. After a short rest period (1 week), I resumed running, only to encounter ankle and knee pain. For now, I’m returning to cycling and I’ll wait a bit longer before resuming my training.

5: LOL failing this one

Goal 5: Consistently wake up early every day. Because I am a huge fan of the quantified self movement and I keep track of all sorts of statistics including where I run and cycle, how much I move each day, my heart rate, my productivity when I’m online, the places I visit, the music I listen to, how much sleep I get, and lots more and aggregate all of that data in this one central dashboard, it’s easy to see when I wake up on average. Over the last 30 days, my average wake up time was 9:33 AM, which is missing my 8 AM target by 1 hour and 33 minutes…sad!

This post is getting a bit long, so I’ll end it here. Until next time!