Blog - Resolved: Rhythms

Resolved: Rhythms

"For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal." - 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 (NIV)

The start of a New Year is a good time to reflect and to look forwards - even if resolutions themselves are probably not particularly effective, the process of making one can still be incredibly satisfying and genuine. I think that often, especially among tech culture, one common focus is to create habits that build into something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Books like "Atomic Habits" and "The Five Hour Workday" are popular partially for its premise - if a habit only costs you 5 minutes a day, surely you have that much to spare - as well as for its promise - lasting happiness, a "better you", healthy, effortless habits in your future. Along the same line are mood tracking apps (I use Daylio personally!) as well as habit building apps; ones that gamify certain behaviors that you want to repeat, or create notifications that help remind you to do something.

In general, however, this method of thinking is focused on the end result, the you of the future. It asks you to paint a picture in the things that you want to change about yourself, or perhaps just about the things that you want to be.

But this year, I want to focus less on the outcome, and more on the process itself. I want to make rhythm my goal - to have things that are steady, consistent, purposeful, and meaningful. I seek to find something that feels comfortable enough to allow breathing space, but not so empty that I am languishing.

I think this often sounds too easy, maybe even trivial, because it almost seems like a given that such is a good way of living life. Of course you want to have consistency in the way that you work and play, what even is the alternative? I think the seductive quality of this - that such things would naturally be good or easy - overlooks the day-to-day realities. Even in the best cases, where no external pressure exists, there are still rare opportunities that periodically pop up [1] When that happens, do you drop your current focus to seize the moment, or are you able to handle the sensation of FOMO internally, continuing on your previous trajectory?

I'm not trying to argue that this is a binary, or even that one side of the spectrum is necessarily better than the other. Again, going to management philosophy, it seems like the best organizations are able to take hybrid approaches - keeping their core mission in clear view at all times, while still being sufficiently agile to adapt to market forces and customer tastes. However, my claim is that I have gotten far too good at improvising my life, and have not tested my ability to really stick with just one rhythm for a long time.

Sure, there's a wide range of circumstances that I can point to that have led me to where I am now. My frequent moves across the country, the constant discovery of higher and higher challenges to test myself against, and the incredible privilege of being in environments where good opportunities are frequent and supportive. These factors have shaped who I am, and I am extremely grateful for them. Yet, some part of me is suspicious that I have leaned too much into this particular mentality, that while it may be true that my personality is well suited for this track, it also might be that I'm intentionally avoiding the daily rhythms that keep so many people anchored well.

This last year encapsulates this idea extremely well, and I can't quite think of a period of my life that has been so disruptive and chaotic as 2023. From undergoing immense professional changes - moving a world-class experimental research lab from one institution to another across the country - to the many, many personal trials and tribulations that I went through, it has been difficult, to put it mildly. Not that it was completely out of left field - even from December of 2022, I was bracing myself for the challenges that laid before me, and was already humming This Year by The Mountain Goats. But even as I knew the big picture of the changes that would happen, I was not quite prepared for the multitude of hurdles, nor my reaction to them. And furthermore, there have been incredible opportunities throughout, and I feel like I've risen to the challenge in the most part - having pushed myself even harder, whether out of fear of loss if the opportunity would be missed, or out of desire to build and grow something that would outlast my own time, for generations to come. [2]

Even while I feel like I've gone through a metamorphosis of a kind [3], I look back at the last twelve months with much regret, of feeling like some small infinity was lost through the choices that I've made. To borrow from a recent conversation with a friend, I felt "all consumed"; I was actively deciding to lay down certain (important!) aspects of myself so that I could accomplish my goals. There was a lot of narrative shaping in that period as well, where I would (knowingly) try to convince myself of the utility in concentrating so hard on a particular task. It led to a whole lot of cognitive dissonance - especially when I had to switch directions, since that also involved counterprogramming the previous narrative with a NEW narrative, (and, at least twice, that new narrative was the same narrative/direction that I was going BEFORE making the switch [sorry for the nested nested brackets but UGH can you FEEL my frustration here]), - and a whole lot of pain.

So. What next? Can I discover what 2024 will have in store? I think I can (perhaps that's obvious from embarking on the task to make this a blog in the first place), but first, let me take a detour and talk about my cat for a quick minute.

I've known Zelda since moving in to Chicago, in July of 2020, but she's really been mine (transferred via a former roommate) since June of 2021. Over these last three and a half years, I've grown so incredibly attached to her and her quirks - she's incredibly friendly to strangers, she loves munching on plants, and she is very, very consistent. If I give her wet food in the mornings, she will pick up on it and know that I need to be up by 730am Every. Single. Morning, because what else could my purpose on this world be? Without a doubt, Zelda has been good for my emotional state.

I can sometimes excuse small abuses for myself, because what is a bit of sleep deprivation, or meal skipping, if it means that I can get some Real Work done? But I find it far, far more difficult to leave her on the hook, and knowing that she is all alone at home, waiting for me to come back to feed her at 9pm, prevents me from falling into my normal mental traps of wanting to work later and later into the night. And getting out of bed in the morning - I can't just keep her in suspense, waiting for me to feed her and to play with her, can I? Look at how eager she is - cuddling into me, kneading my back with her soft paws, and mewing even while sniffing around the room - how can I deny this? [4] Sure, there's some anthropomorphizing going on, but damn it, I just want her to be happy, alright?

So it might not be too much of a surprise that it's rhythms [6] like this that I want to keep in the upcoming year. I want to seek patterns that have consistency in them, that keep me rooted and anchored in values that are near and dear to me. I don't want my head to be distracted or my heart to be racing each time something new and shiny - or something dark and scary - comes near me. I want to be patient and collected, riding out the ups and downs with a steadfastness that comes from experience and confidence.

Even with this process in mind, I certainly don't want to go too far in the other direction (even if I don't think it's too likely, given my baseline personality). Knowing myself, I tend to be attracted to strict, legalistic rules; I enjoy following something that is clearly laid out without overly ambiguous interpretation. However, doing that here would certainly be a disservice. One way of shaping that is to view this theme as having a more organic character, one that lives and breathes, ebbs and flows. The picture I have in my mind is like the gradual turning of the seasons, or the slow cyclical nature of when the sun rises and sets. It's about paying attention to those long-timescale effects and orienting myself to keep pace.

This focus on seasons is something that I have explored before, especially notably in 2020 (although who could have predicted the disaster that completely eliminated my plans for August). However, for this year, I want to focus more on slow things, removing the instant dopamine hits and replacing it with a steady pattern instead. Again, knowing myself, I think that the only way that I would have a chance at really following through with this is through some form of community, where I can reach some accountability in all of these things. It might seem a bit like a crutch, to be partially 'relying' on others in order to find these patterns, but I would argue that such crutches are necessary and helpful when you need them. It's probably a worse idea to be hobbling along without support, leading to more injuries and faceplants down the road.

Alright, I think that's enough wool-gathering for one single post [9]. Here are some specific things I've been brainstorming about, because even a practice of rhythms needs some concreteness to actually be actionable:

  1. Science communication: This is something that has been shelved for the past few years, in favor of like, actually doing science. It's something that I want to return to, especially in short form (which, as you can tell, I'm not particularly good at). I've been getting more excited about Bluesky lately, even though there is not much of a community there. Perhaps a steady rhythm of one new informative post (something from reading papers, or some cool idea that I have learned about and want to share with others) every 2-3 days might be a good, achievable plan there.
  2. Health and exercise: One of the things that I gave up the most over the past year has been my own health, physical and mental. I tend to hibernate as a kind of defense mechanism, and food seems to be a particular comfort. I want to see if I can flip the script on that, to find the joy in bike rides and long walks, and to find solace in meditation and yoga. Of the four goals here, this is probably the hardest one for me to achieve, since it's the one that my default settings is furthest away from. Probably, it would require some external commitment - through friends, apps, or other methods.
  3. Longform reading: This one should be relatively easy, since reading is already one of my favorite things to do. But I have realized that I tend to binge read quite a lot, and can easily got lost into a single plot line - it wasn't just joy that led me to finish the Scholarmancer series within ~20 hours, it was also some insatiable desire to get to the end of the story. So, the goal here is to better enjoy long-form print, like reading Shakespeare or classics, as well as thoughtful magazine articles, like those from The Atlantic more often. I'm not sure if I want to do a "Shakespeare in a Year" (a la Bible in a Year plan), but more just have it in the front of my mind for bedtime reading.
  4. Community: Again, a significant regret from this past year, especially after moving to California. From the hustle and bustle of trying to get the lab running again, as well as the absolute terror of a quarter (Hey kids, don't take classes, teach classes, build a lab, and design a experiment at the same time!) that I've just had, meeting with new folks has been challenging. This was especially true for events that met in the evening, where I felt like even if I had planned on attending something, my energy would be so drained by then that I would not be a functional human if I showed up. So this year, I want to prioritize community, in both the sense of friendships as well as larger groups - getting to know the folks in my cohort more, going to the bookclub, playing chess at lunch, and becoming more embedded in fellowship at my church and campus ministries.
  5. Self-Care: A bit of an odd ball, and one that doesn't quite fit into the overall narrative of rhythms. However, one thing that I have been increasingly noticing is that I often push myself past my limits - see here and here and even here. One way that I've been slowly digging my way out of this hole is to just exercise kindness towards myself, especially when I don't quite meet the goals that I expect. Recognizing that I am also a Human with human needs, like food, sleep, and human interactions, has gone a long way in not treating myself as a "brain on a stick". In addition, I've become more aware that I can also just run out of stamina, and that's also okay from time to time. Not blaming myself for this, but instead accepting it, has really improved my quality of life, and it's something I want to continue making a habit in the future.

One concluding thought: I want to slow and smell the roses, while still exploring forwards. The anthem of the year might be this song by Pu Shu, titled "The Ordinary Road". It brings to mind Robert Frost's famous poem, but rather taking the path less traveled by, it's intentionally choosing to take the path more traveled by. It's to be satisfied in the ordinary things of life, to be "all in" and not "all consumed". If you happen to read this, please do feel free to reach out and ask me how this path is going, or even better, if you would like to walk together.

NB: I'm kinda proud of the title, because it has a triple pun in it. The first reading is just resolved in terms of new year's resolutions, standard fare. The second is a throwback to the bad policy debating that I did in high school, where all of the topics began with "Resolved: The United States federal government should...". And the third is a music pun - usually, there are chords with tension, leading to chords with resolution (dominant to tonic being a common form of this, the V -> I progression). I'm not quite sure if the exact same concept exists within rhythms, but I can at least imagine a portion being chaotic and syncopated, until something gets resolved and you return to a steady beat once more.


[1] Yes, I recognize that there is some amount of irony in the phrase "periodically occurring rare opportunity", but I would posit that this does make sense - while each particular opportunity might only happen once per several years, it still means that the frequency of any such opportunity happening would happen somewhat regularly, perhaps once per month or so. It's difficult to accept this, since the intuition is that any particular opportunity would be lost forever! This is almost another way of saying "when one door closes, another one opens" - as our brains seem to be more wired for loss aversion rather than taking in the larger picture.

[2] An aside - I've noticed with growing alarm that my writing has been using more and more em-dashes - see this comic from SMBC. While the baseline was already pretty darn high, it feels like I'm getting to some kind of critical tipping point, at which point I won't be able to finish a single cohesive thought before being sidetracked six ways to Sunday. Three pairs of em-dashes in a single paragraph (and one set of them in this footnote) kinda proves my own point.

[3] I'm still working on a post that's focused on the ways in which I felt like I've changed over the last year. Please do check back for many mixed metaphors involving cooking and change! I'll update this footnote once this next post is posted, although it should also probably just be the next one.

[4] It's not all sunshine and butterflies - truly, Zelda's perseverance is admirable, and she does have a bit of a habit of chewing up any loose papers that are in my room when she doesn't get fed quite as quickly as she wants. [5] There have also been a few times when I foolishly fed her at 5am (after a long night/early morning of working on some task), and she POUNCED on it for the next few weeks, begging me every morning at that ungodly hour. I personally take it to her credit that she knows how to push my buttons so well, and am proud to be raising a smart cat like that :)

[5] I have created a decoy stack of papers, conveniently placed at the bottom shelf, for her to munch on. The sound of her ripping paper with her teeth is still enough to freak me out, so it's still an effective signal. But I don't think any of my current professors accept the excuse that "my cat ate my homework", even as I have turned in numerous scanned PSets with small bite marks taken out of the corners.

[6] In music, there is a difference between the meter and the rhythm of a piece, and for the longest time, I could not understand certain aspects of it. Sure, parts of it were intuitive - dotted quarter notes and half notes would tell you the relative spacing of different notes, and tempo markings would tell you how quickly the overall piece was going at. [7] I think that what I'm looking for might be more accurately described as meter - the constant drumbeat that guides the entire tune, without rushing or lagging. At the same time, I also want to be more aware of regular rhythms also - of repeating patterns that establish themselves and build into something bigger than any single leitmotif is able to do so by itself. [8]

[7] However, what use was the time signature? Isn't 4 bars of 3/4 the same as 3 bars of 4/4? Why was it necessary to have some bars in 2/2, and then to switch right back to the previous pace? What was the point of having a difference between 6/8 and 3/4 - do these Baroque composes not know how to reduce fractions? But over time, I grew in appreciation for these small quirks. It didn't make sense to me then, because I had simply not heard enough music to appreciate the effect of breaking up the monotony, or to use something for special emphasis at some point in the piece. I was searching for ironclad laws to govern everything, when these adjustments came out of artistic flourishes.

[8] One of the nice things about blogging is that I very rarely have to "kill my darlings", because I'm writing for an audience of myself (primarily). If I really feel like it detracts from the flow of something, I can just stuff it into a footnote, or even a nested footnote. (Also, can we talk about how nice it is to link to things? I mean, it makes me sound old and out of date, but geez it's just so magical that you can have links to videos and music and art that you love, all embedded together in a single document!) Is this good writing practice? Probably not. Is it fun? Hell yeah.

[9] Somehow, my main benchmark for "Is this too long?" for an essay is still rooted from high school - the Extended Essay in the International Baccalaureate programme is intended to be between 3500 and 4000 words long. When I start to inch into that range, I get nervous that I'm smelling too much of my own BS.

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