A Case For and Against Systems

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

from Atomic Habits and an adaptation of the Greek poet Archilochus.

This is a powerful statement. Neither the clarity of my dream, nor the sincerity of my declaration will take me to where I want to go. Ambition is simply the fuel and systems are the vehicle. Considering the failure rate of New Year’s resolutions, it’s not hard to find people with premium grade goals, but all too often their car is unreliable and the journey is abandoned within two months. Forward progress, especially on those meaningful projects, will only come with sustainable routine and a reasonable strategy for overcoming roadblocks. Atomic Habits is worth a read if you are having trouble reaching goals or can’t quite turn a healthy action into a healthy habit.

An idiosyncrasy I possess is taking a favored approach to the extreme, and this is a prime example. I built systems for my systems. The only half-joking dream was to create a grand adaptable algorithm for living well that would account for health, socializing, work, and whatever else. Yet with these over-engineered strategies, I would go to bed every night feeling guilt that I hadn’t accomplished enough, a consequence of my systems being unrealistic. I would hesitate when presented a unique activity or opportunity, and no matter how enriching it was I would mourn and harbor resentment over that day’s unmet quotas, a consequence of my systems being inflexible. I clung to unhealthy routines for years, but blamed myself for not being good enough to meet my own standards. Only recently I realized it was my standards that were off.

All that to say, there is a balance, a middle path that is not well marked. Discipline vs. flexibility. Knowing when the system is working, knowing when to put the system on pause for a more important opportunity, and knowing when it’s time to revisit what you ultimately want to determine whether the goals and their systems are serving you.

Systems, routines, strategies, goals, and objectives, they are all tools, albeit powerful ones, and not ends in themselves. Your work, your relationships, your downtime, your systems or lack thereof, these are all strategies you have taken on, consciously or subconsciously, whether effective or counter-productive, in an attempt to live well. Are they in fact helping you live more fully, not at some arbitrary point down the road, but right now?

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Growth Is Not Linear

Personal growth can be an exciting, energizing process: seeing results from new healthier habits, realizing an embarrassing part of you may actually have its strengths, shifting priorities and realizing the old tedium that took up so much time and energy actually takes care of itself.

Growth also presents challenges. It requires a certain amount of courage and initiative to step into the unknown. Relationships can be disrupted when long-standing expectations need to be reworked and buy-in is not mutual. There may also be cognitive dissonance when part of you feels motivated to change while other parts of you may be terrified or sabotage your own efforts.

All too often these hurdles are insurmountable. It may take repeated running starts to clumsily clear just one of them. And yet, perhaps it is all the failed attempts that provide you with some necessary insight, or present you an alternative path forward, or prepare you for some totally different obstacle further down the road.

This is not a motivational speech to keep pushing no matter what the cost. Rather, this is a whisper of reassurance that you are exactly where you need to be on your journey. Make peace with your limitations. Know that they are malleable. Gently explore the space on the outside edge of comfort. Despite what we are lead to believe, growth is not linear.

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Hiding and Unhiding

When expectations are unrealistic, things can go in a couple different directions: either the expectations are dismissed, sometimes along with the authority that put them in place, or there is persistent pressure and feelings of inadequacy. Most likely there is some combination of the two.

Expectations can be rules, objectives, a parent’s hopes, relational routines, the ever-changing whims of a boss, the culture’s image of a worthwhile life, even self-imposed standards.

Sometimes, unrealistic expectations seem inescapable. This can be due to threat of harsh punishment, an unrelenting sense of duty, or any personally overwhelming perception of what might happen if standards are not met. Being stuck in such an environment causes people to hide. Out of fear and shame they cover up shortcomings, slip ups, true feelings, personal boundaries, things they need help with, and list list goes on. This could play out as cajoling or being indirect about what you want, taking out pent up aggression on others, throwing someone under the bus to distract authority from your own misstep, or keeping quiet and out of sight when certain topics arise.

Hiding is a wildly effective strategy for someone stuck in a harshly strict environment. And because it is so potent, during what often turns out being a formative time in one’s life, hiding becomes ingrained, instinctual even. The strategy can bleed into other areas of one’s life, and be clung to indefinitely, long after stepping out from under the unrealistic expectations.

I still hide. We all do. The last two decades have been actively spent trying to unhide. It has been anything but a linear process that I’m sure will continue for the rest of my life. How can I be more real, and encourage others to do the same, in a world that may never be able to handle it? As a start, I am addressing the places in my life where I notice unrealistic expectations in order to prevent further hiding. And to coax myself toward unhiding, I have become more genuinely curious about my own and other people’s lived experiences, seeking out authentic, agenda-free dialogue. If you have other recommendations for unhiding in healthy ways, I’d love to hear them.

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Problems

After Imperial Japan retreated from Guam at the end of WWII, a soldier left behind hid in the forest for 28 years thinking himself all the while in hostile territory and awaiting rescue.

What if all our problems are simply misconceptions? What if they are products of imagination rather than some knot in the universe’s fabric that you alone are expected to loosen for the world to continue? Indeed, countless insecurities send our minds and bodies reeling, confusing blips in experience for existential threat. And when faced with actual existential threat, are we really reacting to that or to fear of the unknown? Do any creatures but humans flinch at the edge of death? Perhaps problems are ghost, your body haunting itself. And if this is an inevitable part of being human, instead of flailing in anger or fear at bumps in the night, try befriending your specters.

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The 2021 Nick Vu Awards (Q1 Nominations)

Picks were first read/viewed in Q1 of 2021, not necessarily published then. Nominations will be collected every quarter, with winners announced shortly after year’s end. Check out The 2020 Nick Vu Awards winners.

BOOKS

Historical Fiction: And the Mountains Echoed
Spirituality: The Recognition Sutras
Technology/Tech Justice: Weapons of Math Instruction
Culture/History: Ghosts of Seattle Past
Thriller: The Goldfinch
Psychology: Greater Than the Sum of Our Parts
Science/Philosophy: The Master and His Emissary
Mystery: The Guest List
Science Fiction/Space Opera: Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse, #1)
Young Adult: Concrete Rose (The Hate U Give, #0)

GRAPHIC NOVELS

Memoir: Stitches
Horror/Fantasy: The Doll’s House (The Sandman, #2)
Fantasy: Nimona
Queer: The Prince and the Dressmaker
Science Fiction: Paper Girls
Thriller: Death Note: Boredom (Death Note, #1)
Romance: Beastars, Vol. 1 (Beastars, #1)

FILM

Costume Drama: Poldark (Season 1)
Horror: Stranger Things (Season 3)
Sketch Comedy: Chappelle’s Show (Season 1)
Comedy Special: Dave Chappelle – The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor
Fantasy: Game of Thrones (Season 1)

MUSIC

Gospel track: Tobe Nwigwe – Wake Up Everybody
R&B track: FKA Twigs feat. Headie One, Fred again.. – Don’t Judge Me
Rap track: Tobe Nwigwe ft. Black Thought, Royce da 5’9″ – Father Figure
Rap album: XXXTentacion – Bad Vibes Forever

BIG IDEA

Use linear, goal oriented thinking and actions only as tools in the service of enhancing the grand, spontaneous, experiential state of being. -paraphrasing The Master and His Emissary by Iain Mcgilchrist

BIG LESSON

Have realistic expectations, of yourself and others.

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Prong 3: Spirit🔱

The last arm of the 3-Prong Approach to wellbeing is to stabilize spiritual health. Addressing spirit assumes body and mind are already in a steady state.

It is particularly important to start this topic by defining terms. Spirit will be treated as the metaphorical spark within us that longs for and revels in connection to something greater. What this greater thing is exactly is up to you, be it deity, universe, personal or human potential, love, community, one’s calling, etc. The process is the same regardless. While one could certainly survive with bodily health and mental health, to thrive spiritual health is necessary. (I acknowledge this may not hold true for the young or those with developmental issues, but exploring that topic is beyond the scope of this writing.)

Compared to body and mind, it is less obvious how to break down and organize an approach to addressing spirit. I invite your suggestions for alternatives. Searching for commonalities across various spiritual traditions, I noticed a pattern of where one might find insight, union, freedom, and wonder. Looking inward, looking outward, and looking beyond each offer unique and valuable considerations for spirituality. “Integrating” is a pulling back from the directed attention of “looking” in an attempt to experience anew the whole.

Spirit

  1. Looking inward
    • What is most important to me? Answer honestly, not the way you think you’re supposed to. Make an ordered list.
    • What can only I do? For more, read Man’s Search for Meaning.
    • What does my highest self look like? Not so much the external circumstances, but the internal attitudes. Is this vision both aspirational and realistic? Am I on a path leading to this highest potential? What would my highest self do in this situation, and can I embody that future me right now?
    • In the grand scheme of things, knowing that I am only on this earth for a short amount of time, what does success look like? At the end of each day? At the end of my life?
    • Inward-focused meditation. I use the Waking Up app, but do whatever helps you practice consistently.
  2. Looking outward
    • What is my just cause: the concrete, selfless, ongoing initiative to make the world a better place?
    • How do I promote the dignity and autonomy of the people I interact with?
    • What makes something right or wrong? Do I live up to this standard?
    • “I don’t care what you believe. Show me how you treat people.”
    • Seek the guidance of and participation in a tradition and community.
    • Find the beauty in each moment. Visit sanctuaries of beauty: nature, concerts, gatherings of loved ones, etc.
  3. Looking beyond
    • What practices help me feel in tune with the sacred, divine, universal, etc? How can I bring more wonder into my life?
    • Nondualism: Every long standing tradition has a nondual sect. I consider it the highest level of consciousness humans have attained. It takes time to wrap the mind around, so best used as a supplement to a core practice.
    • High dose psychedelics. Use extreme caution. Have a trained guide.
  4. Integrating: Contemplating spiritual, mental, and bodily health involves focusing in on details. This focus is a useful tool, but don’t mistake it for life itself. Allow the learning and striving to be in the service of living more fully by savoring the messy, ambiguous, and spontaneous.
    • Block out time to be free from agenda, over thinking, expectations, and obligations. Play, be spontaneous and intuitive.
    • Experience yourself and the world prior to formulating thoughts about it. This can be done in meditation or on a walk.
    • Throughout the day, bring attention to the fullness of this moment. Use all your senses and savor the wonder of being right here, right now. Try to make it the default state, treating thought as a specialized tool, only to be brought out briefly and intentionally.
    • Experience what it’s like to know in this particular moment that you are complete, lacking nothing, and that there is nothing to long for. Feel the sensation of completely letting go of all effort.

It was said before and I’ll say it again, a lot of ground is covered across the 3 prongs. Yes, humans are complicated with numerous competing needs. For many of us, these competing needs get disorienting and overwhelming. For others, we wholeheartedly believe we’re doing everything right, yet still find ourselves in difficult situations. The 3-Prong Approach is simply a menu for living better, with signposts directing you toward the one item that is worth focusing on for a while. Hopefully we can step out of the chaos and banality of life, take on some directed reflection and intentionality, and step back into the flow better equipped to savor life’s mystery.

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Prong 2: Mind 🔱

The 3-Prong Approach is my current strategy for building wellbeing in a balanced manner.

Once stability is found in the body, the first of the three prongs, it is time to bring the same stability to the mind. However, I must give the caveat that sometimes long-term physical issues are rooted in metal hangups. If a bad habit in the body domain is not budging, jump ahead to mind work to examine the resistance. This may require professional assistance in the case of addiction.

The mind domain is commonly referred to as mental health, and its management is less straightforward than that of physical health. Mental development requires brutal assessment of who you are, which takes courage, honesty, resilience, and a genuine desire to forge a better path. For many, this is too much to ask. That is, until either circumstances get so severe that mental health can no longer be ignored, or sufficient baby steps in personal growth have been made that the hurdle is not so high. That said, moving forward can be immensely rewarding as those daily snags seem to melt away and the world can been seen with more clarity.

Below is my personal curriculum for developing mental health. Each item is a prerequisite for the next, but bounce around as curiosity leads you. If you hit a wall (not experiencing growth), fall back to building the skills of previous items.

It bears repeating, across body, mind, and spirit, the 3-Prong Approach covers a lot of material. Don’t let it be overwhelming. This is a broad map intended to help you find the one, most impactful item to focus on to improve your wellbeing. Think of yourself as a teacher who takes a regular inventory to find which lesson the class most needs to learn this week. You are the teacher and the pupal. You are going to be with yourself for a long time, so approach each weekly lesson/intervention with supportive care and humor.

Mind

  1. Curiosity: Engaged exploration
    • Learning: Find topics to geek out over. This should be a treat, not a chore.
    • Problem solving: Imagine creative, even absurd ways to solve everyday problems.
      • Consider one quick fix.
      • Consider one long term solution.
      • Consider one thing you could change about your thinking so that the problem is no longer a problem.
    • Systems thinking: Improving understanding of a thing’s significance in different contexts. Ex: its social, cultural, political, economic, etc. aspects.
  2. Reflection: Curiosity directed inward
    • Direct journaling: My method for doing quick daily check-ins on the few items that are currently most pivotal to my mental health.
    • Therapy: This is akin to personal coaching for Reflection. It is incredibly beneficial to receive outside feedback, and for it to come from someone who won’t just tell you what you want to hear.
  3. Emotional Intelligence: Reflection practiced in real time. Gracefully recognizing and managing my motivations and those of others, ideally in the moment.
    • Nonviolent Communication: This is a method for navigating conflict.
    • Honest, heart-to-heart conversations: Maximise curiosity, calmness, and care. Minimize accusation, defensiveness, and judgement.
    • Therapy: Provides a controlled, low-stakes environment to train in Emotional Intelligence.
  4. Stories: A deeper dive into emotional intelligence that examines underlying motivations, the often buried, destructive stories that we believe and react to.
    • Identifying stories
      • Byron Katie’s work: An elegant protocol for discovering your stories.
      • Internal Family Systems: Another approach to identifying stories. This is a style of therapy, but can also be self guided.
      • Therapy: Most therapeutic approaches involve working with stories.
    • Reframing experience: Thinking about things differently shifts the story and thus your reaction.
      • Stoicism: A practical philosophy that views obstacles as valuable opportunities to make things better. Most books contain reframing exercises.
      • Meditation: Mindfulness training that helps one notice thoughts and reactions as distorted products of one’s own making, and to let go of them swiftly.
      • Low-medium dose psychedelics: Shown to improve neuroplasticity, allowing the brain to break away from old habits and thought patterns and to be more receptive to new, particularly empathetic ways of seeing the world. [Do your research and know the risks.]
      • Therapy: More of the aforementioned story work.
  5. Healing: Contextualizing stories to address emotional wounds and insecurities
    • Internal Family Systems: A potent model for healing insecurities and rewriting stories.
    • Low-medium dose psychedelics: Most effective with professional guidance. [Again, do your research and know the risks.]
    • Therapy: This is the long-term goal of therapy.

Yes, get yourself to therapy. Myself and countless friends consider it the best money we have ever spent.

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A 3-prong Approach 🔱

These days, I am using a three-prong approach to wellbeing. “Wellbeing” is a catchall term that includes counteracting anxiety and depression, possessing a sense of contentedness, feeling on top of my game, having my head on straight, and being calm and collected. These are all things I struggle with on a daily basis and must tend to vigilantly.

The three-prongs are nothing new: body, mind, and spirit. Some think of this as three completely distinct parts of the self. Traditional monotheistic religions call the spirit the true core self, wrapped in mind or will, wrapped in this filthy and distracting husk of a body. I like to flip that around, presuming first and foremost we are physical creatures, the complexities of which produce a self-aware mind, the complexities of which produce a spirit that longs to transcend, connecting with our highest selves and the mysteries of the universe. It is less important how you stack the elements, and more important that your arrangement leads to a practical, beneficial, balanced practice that improves wellbeing.

Body, mind, and spirit each address a different set of human needs and must be nurtured using different strategies. Despite the clear distinctions, these parts are tightly interconnected. Thriving in one, opens doors for the others. Likewise, neglecting one can stunt the others. Arianna Huffington shares how tending to basic bodily needs leads to better focus, creativity, and overall performance. Deepak Chopra speaks about the many studies linking mindset to the body’s immunity and recovery. Viktor E. Frankl discusses how body and mind can become resilient with a strong spirit.

While an overwhelming number of interventions could be prescribed to address the three-part system, I always advise keeping things simple and sustainable. Each week I take a few moments to reflect on my body/mind/spirit and challenge myself over the next week to adopt one daily behavior that would improve my system, and remove (detox) one behavior that is holding me back. I set the bar low, prefering to establishing the habit and a sense of success, rather than burning out early due to overeagerness. Things can always be ramped up next week. We’re playing the long game; enjoy the ride!

My current approach to body was discussed in Prong 1: Body. Mind and spirit will be covered in forthcoming posts.

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Prong 1: Body 🔱

When things are not going well on a personal level, we contemporary humans have at our fingertips remarkable and sophisticated interventions. Some are formally administered such as medication, therapy, seminars, and sermons. Others are haphazard coping strategies such as media, intoxicants, seeking affirmation, or coddling a pet. Their side effects notwithstanding, all these strategies have provided immeasurable respite, healing, and growth for people facing chronic discomfort of all types.

[We interrupt these ramblings with a reminder that Nick Vu is not a doctor, and what he says is not medical advice. While these strategies might serve as supplements to professional treatment, they are not replacements for such.]

I would like to propose a framework for considering and prioritizing your personal coping strategies. It is rather straightforward: Focus on your most vital needs first.

What are the resources most critical to animal survival? Stated another way, being deprived of which resources will end your life first? I would rank them as oxygen, warmth, sleep, water, food…. I postulate that improvements in each of these areas, in this order, would offer the biggest bang for the buck when it comes to wellness, immunity, and healing.

  1. Breathe. It is the advice we always hear when panicked, upset, or stressed. Yet even when calm, are you taking short, shallow breaths? Do you catch yourself holding your breath? Other suggestions: reduce or eliminate smoking, use air filters when dealing with smog or smoke, cardio exercise helps oxygen more effectively enter the bloodstream.
  2. Warmth. “Put on a coat or you’ll catch cold!” Maintain a comfortable temperature with proper clothing and/or the thermostat. If you are housed, this item is likely not a big issue for you.
  3. Sleep. Consider not only quantity of sleep but also quality of sleep. If routinely fatigued, this is the most likely culprit. Avoid caffeine 6-8 hrs before bed. Avoid alcohol and screens 2-3 hours before bed. Try a white noise machine if you are a light sleeper like me.
  4. Hydrate. Keep water nearby. Try electrolytes especially if you have been sweating.
  5. Eat well. Maximize the amount of vegetables you eat. Reduce or eliminate processed sugars and processed flour.

The list does not need to stop there. Likely candidates for what comes next are affection, a sense of safety, or a sense of belonging. Dealing with injury also neatly fits into the model. Blood is obviously high on the list, but for most of us it is in a generally healthy state and can be ignored. That is until significant blood loss occurs, or some other conditions such as infection or disease. Perhaps rankings on the list fluctuate depending on an item’s current threat to survival. What do you think?

Next time you are facing difficulty, run through a checklist such as this one. Go even further and build it out with your own techniques, or people to turn to, to help get each category under control. Remember, the problem you are facing is exacerbated by underlying, more basic needs. (You have a harder time dealing with conflict when you are hungry and tired.) Also consider adopting small lifestyle changes to improve the most deficient category.

When in doubt, go back to the basics.

[Note that this that this is a think piece, devoid of reference to qualified medical or scientific sources. I am simply sharing interesting patterns that I notice, which could be connecting dots that have no connection. Go get real medical advice if you need it. If you have any thoughts or critique on the above topic, do share.]

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The 2020 Nick Vu Awards

(Picks were read/viewed in 2020, not necessarily published then.)

Overall best fiction: The Overstory
Overall best nonfiction: Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model (psychology)

Sci-fi: Death’s End (Remembrance of Earth’s Past, #2)
Young Adult: The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust, #2)
Fiction: There There
Fantasy: The Neverending Story
Romance: Crazy Rich Asians trilogy
Business: The Infinite Game
Politics: The Shock Doctrine
Social Justice: The New Jim Crow; Just Mercy
Philosophy: Doing Good Better
Spirituality: The Most Important Thing
Nature/Environment: Braiding Sweetgrass
Comedy: The Princess Bride
Climate Change: The Future We Choose
Mystery: The Secret History
Education: Weapons of Mass Instruction
Science: The Big Picture
Economics: Fooled by Randomness
Memoir: Untamed
Self Help: Attached
Sports: Finding Ultra
Technology: Human Compatible

Stage Production: The Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Special
Anime: Beastar
Costume Drama: The Great
Comedy: The Office (US)
Documentary: The Social Dilemma
Cartoon: BoJack Horseman
Stand-up: Ronny Chieng: Asian Comedian Destroys America!
Musical: Black Is King (Beyonce)
News/Journalism: Converge’s Morning Update Show (Seattle-based independent Black media)
Sports: Hot Wheels racing league (3Dbotmaker on YouTube)

Video Game: Gris
App: Duolingo (language learning)
Restaurant: Amy’s Merkato Ethiopian & Eritrean (Seattle)

Big Idea: There are no solutions, only better problems. -paraphrasing The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch (1993)

Big Lessons
• Find grounding practices and vigilantly maintain them.
• The best option is usually the one that builds the most trust.
• Discomfort arises from personal insecurity, not external circumstances. Prioritize the inner work, while humbly acting in the world.

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