To change gears or vehicles?

How do you know when you need to simply try harder using the current system or to step back and start from scratch?

Imagine that things stop going your way. For some reason, you keep getting denied from the paths you want to travel. In a physical sense, like walking down a path, this makes intuitive sense to us. However, what happens when it takes place in an abstract sense? How come your projects at work aren’t reaching their milestones? Why have your relationships not been meeting your needs for several weeks? Why has your health not jumped to the next level when you put in so much work? We can sense this disconnection, the rejection, but it’s not as clear when and how we should solve these problems. Is it a small hurdle or is there a fundamental crack in the foundation that requires a breakdown and rebuild? How can you tell the difference?

I say this from my own experience just prior to Carrie going to grad school. In my mind, things were working out just fine overall. We both had good jobs with good pay, we had a full social calendar, we participated in charity and spirituality, we had interests and hobbies. However, when we were truly tested by Life, lots of things fell apart, and seven years out, I feel like a very different person. Why was I so blind to all of the failures and weaknesses that are so obvious to me now? How was I supposed to know that the little tweaks and modifications to my lifestyle weren’t going to pan out and that I needed to make a deep, fundamental change?

I have a friend that grew up in China, and they shared their experience in grade school, highlighting how different it was from the one I grew up with. In Alberta, there has been talk recently about updating the curriculum which has been around for several decades.

Why would they change math?

For my friend, their school kept overhauling the entire curriculum every one or two years. They felt that it was very destabilizing because every year you’d put so much work into adjusting to this new educational framework, only to have it replaced by another, even one you had already been placed in and had to abandon several years ago. That is, there are a lot of wasted resources, distracting from the end goal of preparing young people to survive and thrive in their future worlds. At what point do you have to say that this system isn’t perfect, but it’s better to maintain the status quo and fine-tune it along way?

I’ve been pondering this question for the better part of a year, and the best response I’ve been able to come up with so far is “does it work?” Pragmatism is a very limiting philosophy, so I deign to recommend it broadly or integrate it deeply into my life, but that’s my best guess so far. There is a very specific focus on the after-effects of making certain decisions, which is almost intentionally myopic. Another way of saying it is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That also largely depends on what you mean by something being “broke” and whether you consider the frequency and magnitude of an imperfection to be a non-ideality or reality.

At some points, I have to flip a coin. In Vietnamese, we say “thử cho biết,” which roughly translates to “try it to find out.” You can’t predict all the long-term effects.

Early on, I learned to watch the examples of others in order to avoid having to re-invent the wheel, or in a word, empathy. I placed myself in the shoes of the people around me so that I could skip ahead past the basic lessons.

I’ve found that my life has so many challenges that I can’t simply take my time, making decisions that have “only” one or two benefits. I’ve had to play chess, ensuring that decisions interact well with others, combining anywhere from five to ten benefits with respective to the short- and long-term impacts. The big, recent example is how we moved to a bigger condo. Moves can be pretty straightforward. Folks can be seeking safety from harm, looking to save on cost. Maybe they just want to experience living in a new city or there’s a temporary work contract in a different country. Certainly, one’s home touches on multiple facets of their life, and working from home is now a common occurrence because of the pandemic. For us, relocating wasn’t merely about having more space. We had to strategize saving up for a house for several years down the line, think about how exercise and activity would look like, be realistic about socializing and entertaining. Cost is obviously a factor in getting more room, so we had to discuss logistics for the move, furnishing the place and purging old belongings, and planning our family’s mobility around the city. Bleh. Certainly, moving is a big decision for most people. However, it felt especially tricky for us because we also had to factor in what was on supply in the market, having very little time to plan and execute the move, and having limited energy and resources. Decisions have to succeed on multiple fronts in order for me to keep going.

A lot of this naval-gazing has been motivated by my newfound ability to rest and recover from The Struggle. Knowing what I know now, how could I have made better decisions over the past seven years? Would I have invested so much into certain relationships or jobs if I had known how and when they would end? Where could I have optimized my resource allocation? When was I supposed to figure out that the ship was sinking and make a better exit plan? It’s easy looking back having the benefit of time, emotional separation, seeing how scenarios and people would turn out, so it can quickly become a fruitless exercise if you’re foolish enough to ignore the new lens you’re using.

In short, I’m still pondering this question, whether I need to change gears or to change vehicles altogether. Do I keep driving this road in my car or do I take the trail on my ebike? I wish I had a good answer, or even a better answer than “does it work?” How can I take what I know from my past and use it to make better decisions in the future? I don’t know. Thử cho biết.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le