The 2015 Challenge – Entry 9: Challenges Still Ahead

Last week I met Brian for a dinner. He was my partner in a class last semester. I went fishing with him several times (actually I watched him fishing and did little else). He told me that he’s ready to quit PhD for a full-time job. I was stunned for a moment. I knew he had been struggling for a while, but still it made me realize PhD is not for everyone. PhD is not college, not even close. It is tough to do your own works and overcome your own problems most of the time. Clearly Brian was not prepared for the change, even though he got a degree from the number 1 electrical engineering program in the country.

Fortunately, I will remain to continue, at least for another year thanks to the funding I recently received from my advisor. But that does not mean much in my 2015 Challenge. I created the Challenge not with the funding, but my self-improvement as the ultimate goal. Everything was going okay until I caught a cold during my visit to Dallas, and I was in a bad physical condition for the last two weeks. My research did not go as fast as I hoped, not only because of the cold, but also because the problem was getting harder.

Today I’d like to discuss about two aspects in my life that I’m working on. I believe if I make significant improvement in these two areas, I will finish the 2015 Challenge on a high note.

The first issue is sleeping. I have not had enough hours of sleep each day. After a few years I realize that I actually need a full 8 hours of sleep a night. However, my bad time management during the evening, my habits, and some personal issue collectively prevented me from getting to bed on time. I am still too attached to the computer, and the time I spend surfing web has occupied nearly the whole evening. I have done the first step as I have opted out of Facebook. I also force myself to read and practice playing an instrument, 30 minutes of each activity per night. Of course, getting rid of a nearly 10-year-old habit will be challenging. At least I have experienced the amount of energy I should have after an eight-hour sleep last week. That will be the motivation for me in the upcoming month.

The second issue is related to the first: I need to have the energy to battle the problems in both research and books. It demoralizes me each time I read a problem and have no idea how to solve it, although I think I understand the book chapter well enough. I often worry that I will never have enough time to conquer the problems and to gain the insight of the topic in question. And that means I will fail to catch up all the smart students in my research group. Nevertheless, I know I have to keep working and make progress, step by step. I know too well that if I avoid suffering now, undoubtedly I will regret later. I determine not to repeat my mistakes in the past. Everyday I will remind myself that I need to suffer now and reap the rewards later.

(Image source)

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Money Can Buy Happiness

Last week I came to Dallas to visit my alma mater, my girlfriend, and a host of friends. It’s always good to back at Dallas, where I consider as my second hometown after Hanoi. During my time there I was reminded of many memories at UT Dallas. One of them is the remark that I was notorious for spending too much money, and somehow I refused to apply for any on-campus job during college. Even worse, my family might actually be one of the poorest among my countrymen at UT Dallas. How ironic it is!

In a sense, my friends are right. I did buy a lot of stuffs: headphones, speakers, tennis rackets, table tennis paddles, soccer cleats, a car, and numerous posters. Funny enough, most of those stuffs do not aid in my survival at all. Surely I don’t need different headphones to pass exams. Many posters also have nothing to do with my job prospect. Why I seemingly wasted money on them?

Let me give you an example: car.

Car Brings Me Happiness

The common sentiment among my friends at UT Dallas is you do not need a car unless you have a job. It sounds reasonable at first. A car costs quite a lot of money. You need to set aside at least around $1500 a year for insurance, gas, and maintenance, let alone the original cost of the car. It is understandable that many of my friends cannot afford a car. It only perplexes me when several guys and girls, who come from rich families, do not bother buying a car at all (or until their senior year). This line of thought leads them to think that for a guy like me, who has no immediate need for a car, owning one is wasteful.

So what is my reason of buying a car? Simple, I need to occasionally escape the campus and entertain myself. From what I experienced, nothing is better than a trip to Tapioca House on the weekend for some boba tea or to White Rock Lake for sight-seeing. A car is handy when I need to find some good food outside the campus, when I want to visit an art gallery in downtown Dallas, or when you drive a car just for the sake of it. After two years of having a car, I enjoyed great moments, beautiful scenes and a sense of freedom. My car really brought me happiness, a lot of it.

It is a different story when you only buy a car when you are a senior. Several of my friends, after years without a car, are still content to spend every night at the computers. They do not like driving that much. Maybe they are so busy with senior-level classes and job searching and do not have spare time for exploring the city. Maybe their habits have already formed a tendency of staying home every day. I don’t know, and I don’t care. All I know is I’m happy with my decision to buy a car early.

Use Money Wisely

I believe that spending money wisely is not easy. Many people, however, focus solely on making money. But that does not mean you should avoid spending money at all cost. If your family struggles to support you at college, then I can understand. On the other hand, if you are well-supported, you should use money to your advantage. Use money to enrich your life. Use money to buy yourself happiness.

Some of my friends may wonder why I always find it easy to laugh, have fun and enjoy life. This blog entry might be one answer to that question.

2015 Challenge – Entry 8: Midway point

Next week will be the last one before the spring break at Cornell. I think this is a good time to reflect on what has happened during this self-project.

Good news

Last week I was offered a new computer by my advisor. The computer still belongs to the research group but I can personally use it for the next five years. I’d love a new computer, but I was even happier because my advisor seemed to officially accept me into his group. I will not need to worry about my funding during next summer. I also achieved one of the main goals of the 2015 Challenge. My effort has paid me off nicely, and thanks to the 2015 Challenge, it only took me nearly two months to persuade my advisor that I could do some research.

Other great things

The 2015 Challenge has not only allowed me to accomplish more work, but also provided me great joy in learning. Last week, while continued with my review of basic electronic circuits, I decided to re-do the projects in my Analog Integrated Circuit Design course from last semester. I did a bad job in the course, and surely I did not learn much. At the time I was even scared of doing these projects because they were difficult and time-consuming. Now it is a different story.

I made progress in the first project very quickly. I found it to be incredibly straightforward. Of course this was the second time I did it so it might be expected. However, in only four hours, I was able to surpass my work from last semester. The new amplifier design consisted of less transistors, yet had better gain and used less power. More importantly, I was having fun all along, the feeling I rarely had last semester. I can confirm now that I love electronics, and I love to be an electrical engineer.

I think I have made a huge leap during the 2015 Challenge. The effect might not be obvious at first, but I’m glad I did initiate this self-project. Unlike me from last semester, now I’m a man with a purpose. A man with a dream.

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The 2015 Challenge – Entry 7: The Luxury of Doing Nothing

As I said earlier in a blog entry, my schedule allows me to do nothing in the evening. I never plan to work after roughly 6pm everyday. This idea may seem absurd since graduate students, especially ones in a research program, are supposed to work until 11pm on a weekday. I heard about these schedules a lot here at Cornell. So why do I insist on doing nothing in the evening?

It’s about Deliberate Practice
For me, to concentrate on study for 6 hours per day is already an enormous challenge. If I work on logistic tasks like emails, meetings, phone calls, etc. then a 12-hour work day would be possible. But for doing creative works that require me to stretch my mind, to think hard and struggle for hours on end, I believe having a fixed schedule (9 to 5) is a good idea. With this schedule I can have time to recharge my energy and continue working hard the following day.

Again, I want to reiterate the point of deliberate practice. I’d rather push myself to exhaustion at 5pm than try to go home at midnight. I think many students just get the wrong idea. They commit to a huge number of working hours, believing more hours mean more effective. In other words, they do everything to ensure that they can leave work at 11pm. This lies the main issue: most students can stay late because they work with limited focus. I have seen many surfing webs, checking Facebook, chatting with colleagues for hours during the day. No wonder why many graduate students complain about having no work-life balance.

(I understand each research field is different. For a biology student that needs to work at the lab most of the time, it can be tough to have a fixed schedule.)

Learn to Relax
It is important to remember that even machines need periodic rest to function well. We also should relax to relieve stress, enjoy time with friends and above all, to be excited when coming to work the next morning. Unfortunately, in the current world of internet and social networks, people have both a hard time focusing and a hard time relaxing. We are overly attached to a screen these days, be it a TV, a laptop, or a smartphone. We forget about having the luxury of doing nothing. Sometimes, I just want to close my eyes, turn on some soothing music, and enjoy the moment.

During the 2015 Challenge, I found that the more time I spend without my computer, the better I feel. Next week I will share with you about my plan of learning to relax. You read it right. Let’s learn to relax.

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The 2015 Challenge – Entry 6: The Slower, The Better

Joy of Learning

Last week I encountered a problem about bi-polar transistors (BJTs) while reading a book,  Art of Electronics. For people not familiar with electronics, circuits made by transistors are the building blocks for the majority of electronic systems. I was frustrated because the problem was supposed to be simple. Usually when I could not think through a problem, I just move on, believing that somehow I will be able to solve it later.

I am always wrong. I would never solve the problem, and it means I never truly understand the concepts, BJT in this case. If you don’t fully understand an issue, you tend to forget it. That’s the hard truth about study. You need to put in the effort; you need to endure the difficulty; you must deal with frustration until you understand whatever you’re trying to read or to solve. It is too easy to make my mistake — afraid of spending more effort. To be fair, time was an issue as well. During college, I was forced to take 16-18 credits every semester. My bad time management did not allow me to read more slowly and solve more problems.

Back to the BJT problem, I knew I could move on as usual, pretending I could solve it. But I remembered about my past, and I realized that no one was punching a clock. I also did not do this to earn a grade. I did not need to submit anything to anyone. I had time. Then I decided to read the page again, word by word. I determined to understand each word and each statement made by the authors. It sounded painful, but actually it was not that bad. After roughly 40 minutes, I found myself understanding the issue almost completely. I finally conquered it, and that might the first time I did it without external pressures, grade for example.

I was overjoyed. For the remains of the week, I approached any reading the same way. I was amazed at my quick understanding. This development seemed ironic at first; I spent more time reading, yet it was a faster way to master the concepts. The truth is, if I spend less time, I would never get it. More importantly, without a solid understanding of the fundamentals, it is impossible to enjoy learning the more advanced topics. You will get lost in no time and blame your intelligence instead. I did.

Two Takeaways 

1. To enjoy learning a difficult subject, such as analog integrated circuits design, I have to understand the materials, in depth.

2. To accomplish the above requirement, I need a hell lot of time. Time is precious. I cannot afford to waste time. I’m thankful that the 2015 Challenge have helped me get back on track.

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The 2015 Challenge – Entry 5: A note about Notebooks

It is the end of February already, but the winter here seems to just get started. At least I have received some sunny days lately. The challenge is going quite well. Still several issues remain but I’m making respectable progress with the current pace.

28 hours This Week
Yesterday I ended the day with another 5 hours of study, bringing the total tally to 24 for the week. As I wrote in my last entries, my goal was initially working for 20 quality hours a week. It means I have surpassed my weekly goal in only five days. I plan to work 3-4 hours on Sunday as well, and I hope to achieve 28-hour mark for the first time. That is my ideal number of hours. I doubt I can put in more hours without compromising the quality.

It has already been a struggle to keep this pace. I find myself unable to focus numerous times during the day. So my objective now is to increase the quality in each hour, not the quantity. I know this is the first time I have done a major challenge in my life, and it is okay for my mind to wander time and again. Hopefully I will be patient and consistent.

Nice Notebooks Make a Difference
Cal Newport, one of my favorite authors, once wrote in his blog that using nice notebooks improved his productivity in research. You may think it is ridiculous. I did. It seems absurd to believe that using nice notebooks is the key to productivity. Nevertheless, I gave this idea a try at the beginning of this project – the 2015 Challenge. The result? It really made a (subtle) difference.

I began by buying two Black n’ Red notebooks, $7 each (compared to $.15 Walmart notebooks,) one as my research journal, and the other as my self-study journal. I found that each time I open the notebook, I have a desire to write down important things. The notebooks look neat, and I want to caress them, as I do with my favorite books. All of these are just psychological effects, I acknowledge, but it raises my mood each time I look at it, and that is enough for me to continue buying great notebooks.

This is nothing different from guitarists wanting nice guitars, pianists enjoying nice pianos, tennis players loving nice rackets. The tools do not make the players play better music or better tennis, but nice equipments may help people gain some extra motivation to keep practicing. If it is true, then they are worth all the money.

The 2015 Challenge – Entry 4: Progress so far

Last entries
1. Introduction
2. No Music on-the-go
3. Plan for Research Attack

My Goal of 20-hour Week

Last week I barely achieved my goal of accomplishing 20 hours of research. This week I’m on the right track to beat the 20-hour mark again. I’m pleased with my current progress because it is not easy at all. 20 hours really do not sound like much. It is only about 4 hours per day, 5 days a week. However, doing 4 quality hours of work is exhausting, especially with my current capability. Note that I do not count the total time I spend at the library or at the lab each day. Usually I arrive the library at 9.30 am and leave around 5.30 pm. It means I spend 8 hours a day in school, but quality works only account for a half of those hours.

I don’t want to increase that hour tally anyway. I opt for quality rather than quantity. I want to do 20 hours of great quality and save my time for other activities: group meetings, research talks and writing practice. I also need to improve my endurance for long, intense study sessions (as well as for better soccer playing.)

I need to remind myself this is a 5-year marathon. I would be burnt out if I make sprints early on. I want to consistently make small progresses towards my goal.

Areas for Improvement

  • Need to wake up earlier. Although it is difficult in this kind of winter. The morning is the coldest during the day.
  • Set the goal for the day and try to accomplish it as soon as possible. I should leave for home or hit the gym early. It is never helpful to force myself to stay in the library until 6pm.
  • Continue to get rid of technology. I will stop bring my tablet to school on a regular basis. My required books have arrived.
  • After one hour or two, I should change my place of study. Environment seems to affect my intensity. Also I don’t want to stay with a computer for a long time, because I tend to surf the web when I’m tired.