Summer in Shanghai – Part 2: Some Reflections

I will never take windows for granted ever again. No, not the operating system. I currently live in company-provided housing. My room is furnished like a typical hotel room with two twin-size beds and a bathroom, but it lacks one essential factor: the panes of transparent glass embedded in walls that provide natural light and panoramic views of the outside world.

Some pictures of my (messy) room:

I've been alternating between the beds, so they're both unmade.

The showerhead broke on the first day, so I had to spray myself with just the metal hose for a few weeks.

I asked the front desk to fix my showerhead several times, and the response was always, "Of course, first thing tomorrow!"  I ended up jamming a water bottle cap in there to fix it in place.

I asked the front desk several times to fix my showerhead, and the response was always, "Yes, of course. First thing in the morning!" I ended up jamming a water bottle cap in there to fix the hose in place. But still no showerhead.

If I didn’t have free internet access in my room, I probably wouldn’t spend any time in it. Not that I would permanently sacrifice waking up to sunlight for convenient access to Google News and email, but the internet provides a sufficient temporary placation of my needs.

In fact, internet access probably dulls my desires a bit too much. Every summer, I set goals of productivity: skim through some textbooks, read up on finance, learn more Chinese, etc. Before coming to China, I had this grand vision of working during the day, exercising or going out to eat with friends afterward and toiling away at books at night. The first two parts are fairly easy to accomplish, but the last requires much more willpower than I have been generating.

I usually return at about 8:00 pm, but after checking my email, going through my daily set of websites, handwashing my clothes (no washing machine) and showering, I am left with an hour before going to bed, but I’m pretty tired by that point and don’t care to do anything productive. That hour becomes consumed by surfing the web. I realize that no one ever became successful by being lazy, but for some reason, I have trouble motivating myself to take that extra step and go beyond what makes me comfortable. Yes, I realize that humans didn’t evolve to be productive during every waking hour (HarvardFML posts about spending the summer watching TV make me feel slightly better about myself), but it annoys me to no end that I cannot throw aside my tendencies to waste time, no matter the amount.

As a child and even up until high school, I believed that getting good at things would be fairly easy, and I wasn’t aware of how much effort was required to actually become proficient. I assumed that simply following the school math curriculum, participating in chess tournaments or playing pool would passively give me mastery of those skills, and I wouldn’t have to set aside extra time to acquire expertise. I was waiting for others to provide me with opportunities to learn, but what I really needed to do was actively pursue those opportunities.

A classic example was my attempt to teach myself programming in 9th grade; I only learned up to loops and conditionals (the most basic elements of programming), and then I stopped because I believed that it wasn’t necessary to push myself. My thought was that I would eventually take a structured class about the topic, so why bother? Chess was a similar situation; I incorrectly assumed that playing lots of games would impart new strategic and tactical knowledge upon myself. I realized too late (junior year of high school) that studying was a requisite part of improving my game, but I didn’t have enough time to devote at that point (or maybe I did but just squandered it).

As a result of my past naivete, I am frustratingly mediocre in all of the activities that I enjoy doing.

Recently, I’ve been finding myself stuck between two trains of thought. The first one is along the lines of “You’re already 19. What have you been doing? Magnus Carlsen is your age, and he’s the number one rated chess player in the world. When Ken Griffin was your age, he had written computer programs to price convertible bonds, and he had started two funds from his dorm room. All successful people have already proven themselves by this time in their lives.”

Fortunately, I can usually shake myself free from this kind of negative thinking (no one should compare himself to prodigies). My second mode of reasoning is slightly better: “You’re only 19. You’re still young, and you have the rest of your life to do things. However, you’re pretty average, and it’s too late to change that.” When I went off to college, I knew that I would be somewhere in the middle, but I never expected it to bother me to such an extent.

Ok, I really wasn’t expecting to write a serious post when I started off with my room, and I’m not even sure if my rambling was entirely coherent, but here I am. The (cliched) question is, where do I go from here?

I can’t blame internet access for my own lack of willpower. When I decided to quit playing video games freshman spring due to wasting too much time, Duncan told me that it most likely wouldn’t work because I’ll just find some other method of screwing around. This turned out to be very true. How do I get myself to just suck it up and work harder?