How to get yourself out of a rut

Getting yourself out of a rut is like playing a video game. The first few levels are easy, the next few levels get harder. So you’ve got to level up if you want to move onto the next level.

How to level up

Level 1 — Learn a new skill.

When I wanted to get myself out of customer service and into a digital career, I learnt all the basics on how to code. I went to the library, I searched up online. I filtered out the good information from the bad. I was soaking in so much knowledge.

Productivity-wise, it wasn’t too hard. I was 24 at the time, so I had the energy to study in the evenings. I would come home from my easy customer service job, and study 3 to 4 hours before I went to sleep. I did this for a few months, then I started building a portfolio.

At this stage, I was on level 1 of the game. Things were easy. My life was easy. I lived home with my parents. Ofcourse, at the time I didn’t think it was easy. But looking back, the only skill I needed was to pick up a book and learn about the basics of coding.

Level 2 — Put the skill into practice

I applied for a few different jobs with my portfolio. Eventually, I landed a role in a design studio, creating digital modules for clients.

Looking back, transitioning from customer service to a new career wasn’t too hard. It only took two months of job seeking. But now I realise that it was because I was applying for entry level jobs in the digital field.

I was still operating at level 2 of the game. The only tool I needed really was my portfolio.

Level 3 — Find out what you need to improve on

After 3 years working there, I wanted to move on. More specifically, I wanted to move up. Somewhere where I would get better pay. But I didn’t know how to. Nor did I trust myself to take that leap.

At this time, I started paying attention to the things that I was good at, and also noticed the areas where I consistently needed help with. For instance, my boss would tell me that I was really good at instructional design, breaking down complex learning into simple steps. But my design skills were not up to scratch.

To advance to level 4, I needed 2 skills. Specialised knowledge and confidence.

Level 4 — Learn again but be specific.

This is where I’m currently at. Level 4. I need to hone in on my skills. More specifically, I need to identify the skills I need improving on, and work on them to become more efficient at them.

However, the game just got harder. I’m no longer 24. I’m now 27. Yeah, it’s not so old. But I have a mortgage, I get tired really quickly, getting to work and back takes 2 hours a day. There’s absolutely no way I can study the same way I used to at 24.

That’s why at this stage, when you’re pretty burnt out and exhausting all your energy, the only way out is to educate yourself. Really identify those skills that you need to get right. Don’t spend unnecessary time working on skills that aren’t going to get you out of a rut.

For example, I mentioned how I need to improve my design skills. Now that’s too broad and there’s so much I would need to learn to become an expert. But due to years of experience, I know exactly what areas of design I need to study:

  • I need to understand which pairs of font look good together.
  • I need to understand how to use the grid system to lay out eye catching pages.

I’m not going to learn things like how to create beautiful, handwritten typography. Or how to draw. None of these skills will help me advance in my learning design career.

And I also need to learn the theories behind how adults learn. This isn’t design related, but it’s specialist knowledge that I need to learn to advance in my field.

So, levelling up becomes a continuous cycle of learning and improving. Start by putting your current skills to practise, so that you can identify what skills you lack. To move onto the next level, you have to keep filling up your inventory with more specialised skills.

If you want to finish the game and be at the very top, keep learning.

Under the auspicious, round moon

The moon is at its roundest tonight. A full circle, a symbol of wholeness, completion, and the coming together of family.

It is the Moon Festival, and as always, whenever there’s a festival, I go over to my grandparents’ for dinner. They’ll be making dumplings, noodles, pork ribs, and chicken drumsticks – the usual feast. My tummy rumbles just thinking about it.

I try to get off work as soon as possible, but I am held back by a coworker who wants a sympathetic ear. I hear my parents chiding me, “I told you to get off work early today.”

Chinese festivals are always like this. No matter how much work you have, if it’s time to celebrate, you’ve got to put everything down and rush back home. No overtime.

When I finally arrive at my grandparents’, the food is cold, and, to my dismay, there are no noodles. But despite that, the energy is still at its infancy. My cousin’s 1 year old daughter claps as I sit down at the table, starting a competition amongst the adults to see who can clap the loudest.

I happily munch away at my food, keeping one ear open to the conversations around me. There is talk of my sister’s new job, her salary, and her declining weight. She begs to differ. There is nothing wrong with her weight.

I stuff a mouthful of dumplings in my mouth. The skin is so soft and the mixture melts in my tongue.

Dumplings can be eaten with tomato sauce, or vinegar. I’m usually not a big fan of vinegar, but tonight, I ask for it specifically. In fact, I have been waiting all week to eat vinegar. Why? Because of the old wive’s tale that eating vinegar delays your period. I know it’s a bit hocus pocus, but it seems to work everytime for me. I whisper to my sister that the reason I want to delay my period is so that it won’t come during our trip to Japan. My sister winks in reply. She already knows.

I look around the table. Not everyone has stayed till the end. My other cousin slipped out of the night to attend church. He always attends church, despite looking the complete opposite of a church goer. He used to get into fights at school, and my dad would drag my sister and I to talk to his teacher, because our English was better than his. Those were the days. We used to hate him. Now we are planning a trip together to South East Asia.

On the other end of the table, my grandpa is putting food on my grandma’s plate. Ever since her stroke 3 years ago, she’s been unable to do simple things by herself. Her face has swollen from not bring able to move around too much, but despite that, she’s still loud and vocal. Grandpa chuckles everytime he gets told off.

There’s mum, dad, my sister, my cousin, my neice, my Aunties and Uncles, my grandpa and my grandma. Twelve of us on Friday 13th, minus my church goer cousin.

Looking around the table tonight, I realise each of us has our own little stories, our history and future. No matter what happens, or where we drift off to, we will always come together, on a night like tonight. This is the beauty of the Moon festival.

The magic is all in the preparation

Since three weeks ago, I have been working a second job to fund for my trip to Japan.

My goal is to reach $1000. That’s how much spending money I’m giving myself for the whole trip.

It’s not that I don’t have $1000 saved up, it’s just that part of the fun of this trip has been the preparation: meeting up with friends over the weekend, planning our itinerary, taking photos for our International Driving Licences and now, working casual jobs to fund for our trip.

In the past 4 months, I have been catching up with my friends about once a week! That’s a lot for me.

I have learnt a lot about my friends in these past four months. I’ve learnt that they’re thoughtful and interesting, that they make me laugh, especially with their stories. I’ve learnt that we are different, yet the same, and I know that I am going to have a blast in Japan, because of the people I will be going with.

The magic is all in the build up to the trip. These moments with friends are special. That’s why people say the magic is all in the journey. Now I can’t look away for fear it will end in a blink.

Heartbreak means I can no longer be lazy

When I woke up this morning, I cried. Then I wiped my tears, got up from the couch and started doing the five fundamental stances of Shaolin: The horse stance, the bow stance, the cat stance, the drop stance and the cross stance.

I am doing this to heal myself from heartbreak.

I’ve been lazy, letting my mind replay all the toxic emotions of heartbreak. Even before heartbreak, my mind was lazy. I left all the promises I made to myself for tomorrow.

But after heartbreak, I can no longer be lazy. After heartbreak, it is now necessary for me to keep the promises I made to myself. This is the only out I have.

Yes, the novel I’m writing sounds bad. But I’m finishing it.

Yes, people laugh at me when I practise Shaolin. But I’m sticking to it.

These two acts of commitment are a form of self love.

If I criticised someone for not being able to commit, then I have to commit to myself to show love.

Heartbreak means I cannot be lazy. Everything that I have been putting off is now necessary.

Undefined sadness

There are different kinds of sadness. Sadness from losing a spouse, breaking up with a boyfriend, or saying goodbye to a friend. There are people who know from experience what you should do, articles telling you the stages that you will go though. But what happens when your sadness doesn’t belong to any group? What happens if it’s undefined? How are you supposed to feel? And are you even allowed to be sad?

“Was there even anything between us?” I had asked him.

I was not sure how to define this relationship. We were never together, but we had spent a good amount of time together. We hiked one time around Piha, I often went over to his place and we went grocery shopping.

He told me that he wanted to be with me. For 6 months, he continuously told me that I was “the one.” But we were never “together.” He was never my boyfriend. Just someone I opened my heart to.

So how are you supposed to feel when somebody you’d spent so much time with suddenly leaves? Somebody who was not your boyfriend? It felt like I wasn’t supposed to be sad because our relationship was not defined. Maybe he wanted it that way so that it would be easy for him to leave, so that he wouldn’t be doing anything bad.

Somewhere along the 6 month mark, he changed his mind, but never told me.

I called him up one night and asked him in a faint whisper, “Do you still like me?”

He wasn’t sure. He said something like, “I don’t want to be with you, but I still like you.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that you had stopped liking me?”

“I didn’t think it was that serious.”

And so I told him that we could remain friends if he could keep it neutral between us. I thought, better to be direct and set boundaries now, than not and regret it later.

But he never kept to that agreement.

And so after the 1 year mark I told him I didn’t want to be friends with him, and stopped all contact. Two weeks later, he texted me saying “I miss you.”

He did this a couple of times and at this point, I turned into a crazy, uncontrollable person, the details of which are too embarassing to share. I became the crazy person, the one people always say you should stay away from. And that made me feel so isolated in the process of my anger and sadness.

The hardest part has been replaying my part in this. Was I being too pushy? Or emotional? There are moments throughout the day where I have hated my actions, and as an extension, hated myself.

I don’t want to define the road forward. All I know is that I need to continue writing to make sense of the things that don’t make sense.

In the beginning, it was too hard for me to write about what happened, I was too caught up in the emotions so I was afraid I wouldn’t be honest with myself. I have been writing in bits and pieces, letting the truth come out slowly. I feel like I did everything right in the beginning, but even then everything turned wrong, and I am the one left reeling with this.

Emotions are something I need to balance. From time to time I feel guilty for letting my emotions ruin this thing between us. But then I think, what is a relationship without emotions?

What I am guilty of

What I didn’t say was that I was the one who decided to let him go. Then I went back and retracted it because I felt bad. I should have kept to my decision rather than feel sorry for him. Because in the end, he stopped caring and I was the one left with a broken heart.

For the past few weeks, I have been letting my heartbreak sink in, feeling its ebb and flow. But there is something that I keep going back to, something that I constantly feel guilty about. That something is self-sabotage.

From the beginning, he would tell me that “I was the one”. My internal response told me that this wasn’t true. He couldn’t possibly like me without knowing me fully, my flaws and all. But still, I was flattered. So I chose to believe even though I knew the truth.

The truth is, I am shy when I first meet people, then when I get to know them, I am direct and honest. The truth is, I knew that what he liked about me was just the surface-shy girl.

Then after getting to know me, he told me that I was not the kind of person who would go out and travel, that I was sensitive and fragile, even though deep down inside I knew that I was strong in my own way.

So I started acting out. I got angry. I got defensive. I sabotaged all my chances of ever being with him. And what I believed in the beginning became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The truth is, it wasn’t him who broke my heart. It was me. And I blamed him because it was easier to blame someone else, when really, honestly, I was angry at myself.

I am the one who hurt myself. And I feel guilty about it. That’s a thought that takes a very long time to get over.

So I’ve been thinking of doing something to help myself heal. I’ve been thinking of beginning Shaolin training. I’ve always admired the discipline and craft of Chinese martial arts and I feel not only would it be good for my body, but also for my mind.

How am I doing? There are days when I feel angry, and then days when I feel sad. But the pain is not as strong or as intensifying. There are moments when I feel a strong urge to start a new life, and moments where I feel an overwhelming need to stand up for me and defend myself again.

But I know that after all that has happened, this is the moment I will stop practising self-sabotage.

There is no war in love

I’ve been thinking of home lately. Not my parent’s home here in New Zealand, but the old one, my first home back in China, and even the one before then; the home my grandparents first lived in.

Taking me back to their home gives me a sense of pride in the midst of all my failures.

Lately, my senses have been dulled and worn down by the pain of heartbreak, by the shame of self-pity, and the doom of seeing no way out.

But when I think back to where we came from, I am reminded of the strength that existed before my time and which will always be a part of me.

My grandfather saw his neighbour gunned down next to him.

Waking up in a world full of uncertain tomorrows made life more sweet and precious. There on the sidewalk, with the blood of his neighbour’s son, uncertainty crafted his strength.

As the oldest, he raised his sisters from the poor to the strong. He was a strict man, a gentle man, and a practical man. He wouldn’t have spent his waking hours wallowing in self-pity. One hour of pity meant one less day of food.

He knew the difference between love and war.

War was hunger, getting shot at and families parting.

Love was in my grandmother. Taking care of her, looking after her, giving her a better life.

He did not see war in love, even after my grandmother had a stroke that forced him to give up his love of travel.

He cried when he had to give it up. But he cried harder when he almost lost my grandmother.

He was strong in this kind of way. Strong enough to know what was truly important.

Yes, he is still alive. Still, after all these years, there is a twinkle in the corner of his eyes, a gift from the universe for his unwavering optimism. That is the only thing I have inherited, his twinkle.

A few months ago, my mum told me that the twinkle in my eye had gone. How sad that made me feel, to have lost the one thing that connects me to my grandfather’s strength.

But what existed before will always be there. Although faded, weary and momentarily hidden from sight, a little spark, a little patience, will ignite it once again.