Kim in 2020

Narrating My Personal Development

🐣 As a young person, one is faced with many advices under the notion of personal development.

Adopt 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, use the Ultralearning technique, follow this 4-step HBR guide on self-improvement, listen to smart podcasts in any free minute. I got Thinking Fast and Slow as a gift, Search Inside Yourself as recommendation, Zero to One was hot in class, a colleague was convinced of How To Win Friends and Influence People and so the list continues. Succumbing to this pressure of business must-reads, I ended up with many unfinished books or not reading at all, all the while haunted as too stupid.

Eight years into personal development, I turn away from contorting into a shape that emulates the generation ahead of me and wish to shape the future of those after me. Hoping to widen the pathway of what belongs, what measures up, what to live up to, I put down my own narrative here.

After all, I think the essence of personal development is that it is just very personal.

🤳 "I know you will be ambitious."

“Match that ambition with humility – a humility of purpose. That doesn’t mean being […] less in what you do. It’s the opposite, it’s about serving something greater. The author Madeleine L’Engle wrote, ‘Humility is throwing oneself away in complete concentration on something or someone else.'”

Following Tim Cook’s 2019 Stanford commencement address, I think sharing one’s own, ugly, imperfect story as a public good, is one in the most humiliating ways there is.

1. I wish personal development were only about oneself.

As freshman, personal development to me was written in the curriculum as per moving out, going to college parties, traveling on exchange. First time I actively did something about personal development was taking the 16personalities test. My sister recommended it to me from consultancy and I can only recommend it, too.

There are names to personal phenomena we feel so we can better put ourselves into words. E.g. I picked up on Jung’s delineation between extroverts and introverts, reading Quiet and The Highly Sensitive Person. While I don’t remember the exact content, I think the book titles speak for themselves and we will find different titles speaking to us.

Few years more into uni, I realized that, whoever my person is, it stands in relation to a wider setting. When personality stuff belongs to psychology, I heard someone say sociology is the psychology for the mass. Let’s take a passport – as personally-identifying things such as name, place of birth or sex are, they are also social markers. What do I mean by that?

  • Maybe your name doesn’t sound so much like John or Jane Doe, more like Thuy Kim Ta and your biometric picture shows slanted eyes with dark hair. Did you know that students with “migration background” tend to struggle with their studies? 43% drop out during their Bachelor’s, quotes the Mercator Foundation.
  • Maybe you’re born into a “place of birth” where the first time you actually request a passport at all is when you plan to study abroad. And maybe your parents are far from studying, not to mention studying abroad. The Hans Böckler Foundation found that only 24 out of 100 children with parents who did not study would enter uni (vs. 71%).
  • Maybe an “F” is stated where your gender field is. This marks a difference when there are only 30% women at my Master’s university called Karlsruhe Institute of Technology according to official numbers. For computer science, it’s 14 vs. 86%.

2. I wish there were less cuts.

Now these numbers are not just statistics, they are real life. We grow up in an environment desensitized to our background but when we move under social mobility, we are faced with a new foreground. This again will leave a mark on us as a person.

I first came across the term impostor syndrome in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Later, I found Melinda Gates quote: “There’s a saying about succeeding in the face of systemic oppression – ‘you have to be twice as good to get half as far.’ Impostor syndrome says the opposite, that somehow you are half as good and got twice as far undeservedly.”

But what if both hold true? Like you have to be twice as good to come half as far AND you feel you got twice as far undeservedly?

You see, impostor syndrome is not a personal weakness. It’s not that one day, one wakes up and decides to feel like an impostor. It’s little cuts throughout years. It’s being kicked out first day of kindergarten due to lack in German, catching up on German so much as to finish high school two years earlier than peers among the top 10 and then getting to hear from teachers “Wow, but you speak German quite well” referring to my yellow skin and slanted eyes. It’s then, finishing a Bachelor’s double degree among the top 10% incl. 12 extracurricular credit points, volunteering, an internship at Amazon plus with a Marketing background (from a university of applied sciences), scoring an A+ in a Master’s class called “Algorithms for Internet Applications” at a top tech university and being asked by that professor: “How come you made admission here at all?” Stroke by stroke, I started internalizing these external doubts and subtle messages that tell me I do not belong, all my accomplishments crashing down.

Michelle Obama, you see that first Black First Lady in the White House, said in her podcast:

“Those little cuts, that we experience, women experience them at higher rates than men, Black folks in higher rates than others, of these little bitty cuts and slights, that, we experience throughout our lives. And the interesting thing is, we never forget them. And that’s why I try to remind adults, it’s like we have to be very careful, about how we talk to young people, not just teachers, but parents. Mothers and fathers, you know, because, if you, tell your child shut up and be quiet, they may never talk again. And all of us, are running around with those ghosts in our heads.”

When I look at my past years, then yes, I was super high functioning on a certain level. But also, I was eaten up from within. There were days, and I mean for at least the last three years, when going out of bed and into the kitchen was a lot. I was at 39.xx kg at some point, weight loss and happily now re-gain leaving marks on my body to be remembered.

3. I wish there were a way out.

Part A

Did you know it is possible to make oneself comfortable in misery? Ever since my Spotify account back in 2012, I was listening to sad songs all day long, all week long and also consumed a lot of gloomy stuff on tumblr. It’s all fun but then it’s also not, to escape into the nights, later stabilized by relationships. When I turned older, I fell in love with paintings like the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. I cried reading books on Van Gogh and his letters, even went to an artsy cinema on my own once to watch a rare movie on him. With lovely friends, I had deep late-night discussions on how to deal with the world, drawing on This Is Water or The Allegory of the Cave. I last remember lifting myself up with writings by John Strelecky and Dale Carnegie. Like I made a 12-page book summary on How To Stop Worrying And Start Living, decorating my room with notes. Trying to make sense of my life, I modeled The Why Café and its sequels into a confusion matrix.

Part B

Is it modern culture, is it tiger parents culture? For most of my time though, it was career development that kept me busy and so naturally, I would find most personal consolation in business. With Silicon Valley and Seattle at the center of my universe, I looked up to commencement speeches by Jeff Bezos on gifts vs. choices, Steve Jobs on not being drown out by the noise of others or Tim Cook on humility. I too, wanted to make the world a better place through technology “evangelism”, owning domain names such as visionaryaltruism.com or humanisticentrepreneurship.com. I identified myself so much through #datascience, #ai (look at my LinkedIn pic…) and threw myself into lean product management ideas, but didn’t notice all I was, was yet another feature factory, jumping on the latest Microsoft Office skillset in one’s CV.

Part C

You see, I really think the key to personal development is that it is just very personal. A less-known but still tech icon for me was Alex Chung (Asian-American founder of Giphy, building a humane search engine). In a keynote, he quoted Wittgenstein: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” This same quote was used by Vietnamese-American author Ocean Vuong. He adds: “We often tell our students, ‘The future’s in your hands.’ But I think the future is actually in your mouth. You have to articulate the world you want to live in first.” Grappling with his uncle’s suicide, he further discloses:

“I think one of the things that lead us to that is that you start to feel that you are always out of the picture, this loneliness that language does not allow us to access. The way we say hello to each other – ‘Hi, how are you?’ ‘Oh, good, good, good.’ So the ‘how are you’ is now defunct. It doesn’t access. It fills. It’s fluff. And so what happens to our language, this great, advanced technology that we’ve had, when it starts to fail at its function and it starts to obscure, rather than open. And I think the crisis my uncle went through, and a lot of my friends, was a crisis of communication – that they couldn’t say, ‘I’m hurt.’”

Diving into works by Western-Asian authors on biographic traumata gave me a new language. It is a personal language.

It is the very same language used on this Website I created a year ago.

You see, looking beyond the bubble of my student life, there is a whole other depth. When I handed in my Master’s thesis and my non-understanding father yells at me. But then, someone yells at my dad because his German is broken. Writing my Master’s thesis in a ML team with 12/14 male and 0 female in management, but how little do these white-collar guys know about s_xism? About women taking refuge by boat, hitting pirates at rock bottom. About women in arranged marriages, hoping to send money back home when they enter office buildings for cleaning. Myriad forms of physical and mental violence. Later in 2020, my heart was shattered by the socioeconomic inequality revolving around the COVID 19 pandemic. On the one side LinkedIn posting #remotework jokes and on the other, my auntie closing her cosmetics business, my dad on short-time work, my uncle riding bus. And then came the cruel killing of George Floyd, all the screams “I can’t breathe” and so much suffocating.

It’s a raw world. And it’s so easy to get lost in cynicism, like I’ve been there, posting memes and comical stuff on LinkedIn. And it’s so easy to not have a voice at all, to just blend in, to blend it all out. Eventually finding that voice of personal language that conveys all the depth and riches, opens up about the dark but is still so full of love, was a visceral milestone in my path of personal development. For every piece of personal language, I’ve turned so much more free and happier.

(Apropos, if you cannot relate to Western-Asian stories, you may want to check out the 50.6-million-view/ fourth most watched TED talk of all time on “The power of vulnerability” by social work professor Brené Brown and her Netflix special “The Call to Courage“. As well as Michelle Obama’s memoir and Netflix film “Becoming”.)

Nonetheless, it seemed the world on the whole, couldn’t share that same happiness with me. It seemed personal language wasn’t meant for this world so bounded, paving way to new bitty cuts and slights, yet again.

4. On Hope

I’ve always thought I had come to KIT to make the perfect future product manager in between marketing and data science. But eventually I’ve come to think, it was God who led me there. Now naming God in this narrative may come surprising to you all of a sudden, maybe shocking if you know me in person, maybe this encounter is putting off as esoteric. While it is GOD’S GIFT OF GRACE to come in my life, I believe He knew that I would come to Him through only a somewhat “intellectual” journey.

Cambridge-educated barrister-turned-priest Nicky Gumbel from the Alpha course said:

“And when I looked at the evidence, when I read the New Testament I came to the conclusion it is true. I didn’t want to become a Christian […]. I thought I’ll put off for becoming a Christian to my deathbed and then I realized that would not be intellectually honest.”

While Buddhism is stated as my family’s official religion, I guess Vietnamese primarily have an ancestor altar, you know like in Mulan. Other than lighting incense twice a year and sometimes praying this verse my distant aunt taught me once, I haven’t really been a religious person.

Towards the end of my Master’s, I’ve met some people that I really really appreciated. And it turned out that all of them, without knowing each other, happened to be Christian. None of them told me directly, I just inferred it from what they dropped sometimes, not that we were close anyway. I thought okay, if there is this super smart physics student who had super intellectual thoughts was Christian, if these computer science nerds (<3) who were super kind are Christian, maybe I should just read into it. Surely, there are many Christians who are not so really kind, and many people who are super kind but not Christian, but it was enough to get me started with reading a children’s Bible – just as if it were an informational book.

When I was about to order the actual Bible (HFA), I considered buying that cheaper, uglier version. I thought it’s just one in the things one should probably tick off a to do list in their life, I mean maybe understanding what celebrating Christmas is actually about, but then I’d discarded it. To my own surprise, the New Testament spoke so much to me!

Nicky Gumbel from Alpha further describes:

“So very reluctantly, I kind of said okay yes. And at that moment, I can still remember that moment so clearly, it dropped from here, from my head being convinced it was true, to here in my heart, having an experience of a relationship with Jesus – and finding what I guess looking back, unconsciously I’d been searching for all my life. Something that provided ultimate meaning and purpose to my life. It was the very last place on earth that I expected to find it but at that moment I found that what Jesus said was true. Jesus said I have come that you might have life and life in all its fullness. It really is true that God has revealed himself in Jesus.”

And it is true to me. In reading the Bible, listening to very good sermons and worships in His name, seeing the Holy Spirit shine through significant others, experiencing a relationship with Him, giving my life in His hands, I found life and life in all its fullness. Never have I ever been feeling such a wonderful inner peace and happiness in my head and heart before. When I was broken, I feel whole now. When there were seemingly endless problems in my world, I am resolved (e.g. James 3). And so, I leave my narrative ultimately saying: The most powerful is God.

🐥 This has been the narrative of my personal development.

Now the course of my past eight years is somewhat different, it took a leap in Faith where feet may fail. In the end, personal development is just very personal. But my one wish remains: to widen the pathway of what belongs, what measures up, what to live up to. Tell me, what are your milestones of personal development, what is it filled with, what are you led by?

Credits for my portrait go to my supercool former flat mate Evan in 2018! He thankfully drew my WhatsApp pic as a birthday surprise ❤️