30 Days of trying something new

I like challenges. This means that in most cases I will take on a challenge without giving it much thought — a fact that most of my friends know and occasionally exploit, which has led to more than one drunken night in a pub after foolishly being dragged into a drinking game. On the bright (and sober) side, my susceptibility to challenges also implies that I like setting goals for myself and often try to leave my comfort zone to experience something new. Feeling a sense of accomplishment after having learned something I did not know before makes me profoundly happy. In fact, there is psychological evidence about this: developing a key strength or skill is an empirically proven means of increasing your happiness more or less instantaneously.[¹] In short, learning is an important part of my life, and I can recommend everyone to make it a part of yours too.

However, in today’s fast-moving world, with the collective knowledge of humankind at our fingertips every second of every day, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. The following graphic visualises my feelings about this very nicely:

Know the feeling?

Spot on, isn’t it? The multitude of possibilities available to us is both incredibly exciting and alarming at the same time. I often struggle with the sheer infinite amount of information available. It’s like the 24 hours of the day are not enough to soak up all of the interesting facts and details and turn them into knowledge. The number of truly fascinating things I could concern myself with each day sometimes makes my head hurt. I feel I need to do something or else I constantly feel bad about missing out. Why does it have to be this way? Learning should be fun, and not a source of stress. This year, I decided to do something about this situation.

As a first step, I wanted to make the act of learning a more conscious process. If I realised that I had just learned something, I would be more aware of how privileged I am to be able to extend my knowledge and skills on a regular basis — at least that was my theory. As a firm believer in habits over goals,[²] I decided to follow Mark Cutts’ inspiring and witty TED talk in which he challenges us (and we know how I react to challenges) to establish a habit by trying something for 30 days. On each day of the month of March, I consciously selected one new thing I learned and wrote it down. Below is the summary of those learnings.

I should explain that for me, the definition of “learning” doesn’t only include internalising information from a textbook or an academic paper. I decided that I would count all things that I felt enriched my life in some way and that I would remember from that day on. For me, it was less about actually internalising new facts and more about the simple act of consciously appreciating new input. The past month was an interesting experience for me, and helped me realise how much each day adds to my inventory of knowledge and experiences. See for yourself.

01/03/2016: I kicked off this month at a three-day workshop of my Graduate School. On our first night, they organised a science slam, for which they selected me and another participant as a moderator. While I am no stranger to public speaking, this was a new experience for me — I learned how to lead through an evening and how to make impromptu jokes in-between each contribution. It was nerdy, but exciting.

Explaining science through comedy

02/03/2016: I continued the workshop with an introduction into how to communicate effectively. In particular, we talked about the principle of active listening, which was completely new to me. This technique requires you to repeat what another person just said in a conversation, using your own words to summarise their standpoint. If your counterpart agrees to what you said, you can be sure that you understood them correctly, and that your own feelings or other errors in perception are not clouding your judgement. It also makes the other person feel that you respect their opinion enough to instantly reflect on it. I am going to use this technique in my conversations from now on.

03/03/2016: Today’s course was all about understanding our own personality in order to be able to lead others better. We employed different techniques of personality analysis and assessed both ourselves and our fellow group members. I learned that my rational and playful sides are equally strong, which is an excellent combination that keeps my feet on the ground while having fun and being creative. In terms of improvement, my group challenged me to dare to demand more from the people around me, which is indeed something I often struggle with, but will work on in the future.

04/03/2016: I started reading “How to think more about sex” by Alain de Botton, which is part of The School of Life. This beautiful book contains reflections on sexuality and its position in our society, and provides explanations as to why certain aspects of sex have a particular meaning for us. I especially loved the following passage because it points out how humans see sex as much more than just a bodily stimulus:

The more closely we analyse what we consider ‘sexy’, the more clearly we will understand that eroticism is the feeling of excitement we experience at finding another human being who shares our values and our sense of the meaning of existence.

05/03/2016: Today we held a kickoff workshop with the new TEDxTUM organising team. The team members got to know each other, shared their expectations for the coming year, and established team rules as the basis for working together. I prepared several games to break the ice and led through the day with my fellow main organisers. These situations tend to make me slightly nervous because I have to iterate between talking a lot to share important information and enabling others to give their input as often as possible, and I find it tricky to nail that balance. I will summarise what we did in greater detail in a dedicated post so that others can re-use some of the techniques.

06/03/2016: I like to watch a TED talk in the morning while getting ready, because that keeps me from falling back to sleep and stimulates my mind with new experiences. Today I watched Al Gore’s “The case for optimism on climate change”, in which he provides a comprehensive summary of data on this phenomenon and then interpreted it from a surprisingly upbeat standpoint. In fact, he claims that if we keep up the effort, “we’re gonna win this thing”. He also mentions Germany as a pioneer and good example in the battle against climate change, which makes me proud to live in this country.

07/03/2016: Today I learned what adsorption is (see this video for details), and realised once again that I have no idea about chemistry. It’s very interesting and seems logical when you think about it.

08/03/2016: In the spirit of learning more about engineering domains, I tried to wrap my head around calculating the size of the tallest rollercoaster possible on Earth. The drive of humans to explain the principles of the world around them is truly mind-blowing.

09/03/2016: I made my very first doctoral cap today! In Germany, it is customary to make a doctoral cap with objects referring to the person graduating — meaning mostly inside jokes. This hat was for my former thesis supervisor, now a colleague and friend of mine, so it was an honour to be able to contribute. With a lot of glue, sewing skills, and engineering talent, we managed to apply all those objects while keeping the hat balanced so that it stays on top of a person’s head.

Isn’t it a masterpiece?

10/03/2016: Tim Urban shared his story about preparing and giving a TED talk. His article gives an introduction into the different methods of preparation for a public speech, which I will share with both my students who I am preparing for presentations and future TEDxTUM speaker candidates.

11/03/2016: A friend recommended me to watch Love Letters to Richard Dawkins, a video in which Mr. Dawkins reads hate mail he has received from creationists over the years. While I don’t always agree with his provocative, slightly arrogant style of arguing (regardless from whether he is right or wrong), the comments he receives from his counterparts range from the bizarre to the plain stupid. It is certainly entertaining to hear him say “bi-aaaatch” with his strong British accent.

12/03/2016: While I have been following the exciting news of the discovery of gravitational waves, I realised I had not fully understood the concept, so I set out to learn more. The best summary I found is this one by Steven Colbert. Physics can be mind-blowing.

13/03/2016: I flew to Brussels to volunteer at TEDxBrussels. I learned that the city has a famous statue named the Manneken Pis, or ‘the boy who pees’. Yes, it is a statue of a peeing baby. I even bought a fridge magnet of a baby urinating on a mountain of waffles. Belgium is a strange place.

14/03/2016: At a TEDx workshop, I traded experiences with other organisers from all around Europe. We talked about the problems we face and the particularities of orgaising such events. This community of motivated people is very inspiring to me, as I outlined in this other post.

15/03/2016: Lina, my host for my stay in Brussels and a fellow TEDx organiser, revealed to me that my name means ‘rare pearl’ in Arabic. I already knew that it means ‘present’ in Greek, so things could definitely be worse.

16/03/2016: I started preparing for my WWDC Scholarship application. Since I’m quite experienced with developing iOS apps in Objective-C, but had done only little with Swift, Apple’s newest language, I familiarised myself with the concepts of Optionals and Closures.

17/03/2016: I read another great article by Wait but Why on why we care about other people’s opinion. In fact, we have evolutionary reasons to crave social acceptance! While this drive is important for survival, it is also important to find one’s own voice. I will try to keep in mind that sometimes it can’t hurt to give less of a crap about what other people might think.

18/03/2016: Today I mastered AutoLayout in XCode! I actually learned about it during a talk by two students of mine (don’t tell anyone).

19/03/2016: For the first time in months, I had a free day hanging out with old friends. During a random conversation, we found this. The internet is a strange and disturbing place. (Note: if you end up playing with that page for around an hour, like I did, just remember to come back and read the rest of this post.)

20/03/2016: Today’s learning was not the result of an article of a video, but of a real-world problem that occurred in one of the teams I am leading. I learned that you cannot expect people to know what they’re supposed to do, or to critically reflect on what is being asked from them and communicate that they need more information. Thus, a good team leader should be able to deal with this human weakness. I personally tend to get annoyed, which understandably does not help.

21/03/2016: Matt Ridley’s TED talk on “When ideas have sex” outlines beautifully how the most incredible advances in history were made by people from different disciplines working together. I strongly believe that this is true, and I have often experienced the kick you get when combining knowledge in a team to solve a common problem.

22/03/2016: Today I heard about the horrible terrorist attacks in Brussels. Having recently been to the city, where I also met a lot of amazing people, the news shocked me even more. I am, amongst other emotions, extremely sad, worried, and outraged. I guess today’s learning is that whatever we do, certain people will want to harm us, and will most probably manage to do so.

23/03/2016: Having paid a first visit to the Lean In Circle in Munich, I learned an interesting technique to identify sexist comments from one of the fellow attendees. She said that because people tend to be more sensitised against racism than against sexism, one should try to replace the word ‘woman’ with ‘black person’ in a sentence — if it sounds racist, then the original comment was sexist. While this is certainly not a 100% politically correct approach, it does make a point.

24/03/2016: I visited my grandmother in Hungary and had the misfortune of watching the national news in the evening. I learned just how depressing it is to see how public opinion can be manipulated through government-controlled channels.

25/03/2016: My grandma taught me how to make a Hungarian dessert named képviselõfánk, which apparently means something along the lines of ‘Congressman’s bun’. It’s delicious, I recommend you to try it.

26/03/2016: I found some fascinating views on why we have such a hard time finding a long-term partner. Apparently, it’s due to a fatal mix of biological and societal reasons. The article contains exaggerated, albeit funny antipatterns of expectations in relationships.

27/03/2016: A tour guide told me that some olive trees only give fruit between the age of 30 and 100 years. This means that olive farming is a long-term investment.

28/03/2016: I learned about Vexillology in this TED talk, and realised that while many flags are badly designed, the flag and coat of arms of Munich are quite nice-looking. I had never consciously noticed them before.

29/03/2016: Being a firm believer in habits, I am always happy to read a new view on this topic. This article provides some concrete tips on what to do when it seems too hard to follow up with habits, the first step of which is to find out the actual reason why sticking with something is too hard. I’ll try to incorporate this to save willpower while continuously improving myself.

30/03/2016: The beautiful quote ‘I would rather die of passion than of boredom’ made my day. It resonates with me on a personal level because I occasionally end up defeated after having tried something new, or hurt after not having chosen the safe path. It’s good to remember that at the bottom line, it’s still a risk worth taking.

31/03/2016: I finally started properly working on my app entry for the WWDC Scholarship. Over the next few weeks, I will put my life into an iOS app and hope that the Apple engineers like it enough to grant me a ticket to attend this amazing conference for the first time ever.

Congratulations, you got all the way through! For me, this month of conscious ‘learning’ has definitely been an interesting endeavour. Do you feel like trying as well? If you do, I would love to hear about your experiences.


[¹]: If you want to learn more about what makes you happy, Shawn Anchor’s book “The Happiness Advantage” is a must-read. It is based on extensive research in positive psychology, mixed with funny personal anecdotes and useful advice on how to lead a happier life.

[²]: Some of my favourite defenders on habits over goals: Scott Adams, Mark Manson, James Clear, and many more.