My Current Notebooking Techniques

Since the STEMpunk project involves digesting a ton of information, I thought I’d share some changes I’ve made to my system of recording and reflecting on what I learn, which have helped me be more productive.

1) I have segregated my notebooks, one for journaling and high-level insights, one for indexing notes on books I’m reading and foreign language vocabulary, and one where I write out whatever daily mantras I’m doing (more on mantras in a future post).

You may have read that keeping everything in one place better fosters cross-domain insights. I did this for a long time and I don’t think it’s true. If anything I suffer from too many cross-domain insights, and this partitioning goes a long way toward keeping everything organized.

It also makes certain routines easier to stick to. At night I’ll usually put my journal notebook and my mantra notebook on the top of my notebook stack. Then, when I get up at 4:00 a.m. and groggily begin waking up, they’re the first things I reach for. When I’m done, the mantra notebook goes on the bottom, the journal notebook goes to the side to capture random thoughts, and the indexing notebook comes to the top, along with whatever book I’m reading.

2) My notes for books are kept in one place in the indexing notebook. As I read, whenever I find something I want to remember or dispute I include a little number directly on the pages of the book. Then, in my notebook I write down the page number and the index number along with my thoughts.

When I start a new book I take a full notebook page of notes, and use that to estimate how many pages I’ll need. So if the first 50 pages of a 250 page book takes one notebook page, I’ll assume the whole book will take about 5 notebook pages, and to be on the conservative side I will add a 6th. If it ends up taking more pages, I’ll skip forward to a blank spot in the notebook and add however many pages I think will be required.

This makes finding stuff a cinch.

And I only index by page. So, I don’t have 200 tags for “Deep Work”, I have three tags for page 101, one tag for page 102, etc. If I do it the other way, once I read ten pages without recording my indexes I’ll have to turn back to the last index to figure out where my count is.

3) I have a to-do notebook that’s small and contains the broad outlines of my tasks for the day. In addition I use a small 3 x 5 index card for anything that qualifies as shallow work. During deep work sessions the shallow card is nearby so I can jot down tasks like “make a blog post about this sweet notebooking system”.

This drastically reduces the Zeigarnik effect.

One advantage to dividing things up this way is that it makes it easier to plan the week out in your to-do notebook. When I kept shallow work and deep work in the same little notebook, I could never predict how much of a page a given day would take. Now a whole day’s shallow work fits on a 3 x 5 card and a whole days deep work fits on half of a notebook page.

Why does this matter? Because when I read about some new technique I want to try, like “Roosevelt Sprints” (described in “Deep Work“), instead of dropping everything and doing it right then, I just flip a few pages forward in my to-do notebook and write in “Do Roosevelt Sprints when cleaning the kitchen”.

If I find I can’t make the time when the day arrives, I just push it to the next day. The important thing is that I’m experimenting with interesting new techniques at a higher rate and with more consistency than I was doing in the past.

4) Once every week or every other week I do a notebook review, in which I consolidate whatever insights I’ve had throughout the week and plan the big-picture stuff I want to do in the coming week.

This has actually proven to be very fruitful, as it’s all too easy to have an insight or an idea and then to never follow up on it. Having a systematic way of reviewing your notes and thoughts means you get more return on the investment of writing everything down.

Now, I am giving thought to switching over to Evernote. But until I do I’ll be using some variant of the above, and with any luck some of you will find these techniques useful.

A Menagerie of Hateful Beasts

After sharing an article recently on Facebook which recounted one person’s experience with mental illness, the response I received was enthusiastic enough that I felt compelled to write an essay that I’ve been meaning to get around to for some time.

Like many others, I have struggled with bouts of depression and mild anxiety throughout my life, going all the way back to childhood. For the most part this hasn’t been any worse than merely “having the blues” or “being in a funk”.

But once, in the summer of (I think) 2010, I was hit with something more powerful and vastly more sinister.

To this day it is the closest I have ever come to losing the struggle and simply giving up.

Anyone who has gone through a similar experience and confided in another has probably received well-intentioned but completely useless advice. The parent, teacher, sibling, or significant other says “your life is fine, you want for nothing, and your future is bright; what on Earth could you have to be sad about?”

It becomes starkly obvious in those moments that these people simply don’t know what they’re talking about. The depression that seized me in those gentle summer months was so far beyond “being sad” that I simply don’t have the words to describe it.

I will try, nonetheless.

Sometimes cracks appear when the tectonic plates of a mind shift in the wrong way and a menagerie of hateful beasts emerges to wrend the world asunder. Few will ever know what it’s like to have their brains descend into a state of ceaseless, shattering terror; few will ever feel like children lost on a battlefield, trying to navigate by the lurid glow of a bonfire of misery burning as far as the eye can see.

A grinning skull hung over every moment of every day, and followed me into my dreams at night. I distinctly recall sitting on a couch one day, watching the sun filtering through the leaves of a tree, and deciding that my one and only task would be to not kill myself.

This was, to put it mildly, unpleasant.

I am living proof that survival is possible, and one of my motivations in writing this essay is the fact that reading about the experiences of other people is one of the things that saw me through. Knowing that I was not insane and was not a bad person was just barely enough to hold me together.

Though I can’t call this experience a blessing, it did teach me a few things.

For one, I’m capable of an empathy towards the psychotic, schizophrenic, and deranged that I doubt many other people can feel because I’ve seen a glimmer of what their minds must be like. I am also better prepared to counsel the bereaved and depressed because I know how hollow the words “cheer up” can be.

Further, as I didn’t have access to a therapist or analogous support structures, I was forced to invent a number of techniques for controlling my mood and my attention. It was during this time that I first kept what is sometimes called a “gratitude journal”.

Simply trying to notice that your life isn’t so bad doesn’t help much, but making a repeated effort at feeling grateful for specific people or experiences, if sustained long enough, can begin to lift one from the darkness.

The most intractable problem during this episode was these short little nightmare scenarios that kept repeating themselves in my head. After a while I realized that just trying to shut them down with brute force didn’t work very well, so instead I began to redirect them in funny or harmless directions.

To provide an example: let’s say my day is punctuated by brief panic attacks which are accompanied by a detailed, graphic scenario in which my entire family dies in a horrific car crash.

When this first happened it was just unusual and a little unsettling. Now weeks have gone by, I’m losing sleep, and I’m beginning to question my sanity because I feel like I can’t control my own thoughts.

Then I do something like this: I see my family in the car, they lose control, the crash happens, and it’s awful. But slowly my viewpoint begins to pan back, and I notice cameras and mics set up along the periphery. After a moment or two my family begin to open their eyes, and some stage techs approach the car to fiddle with various props.

The car crash was a scene in a movie; not only has no one died, but they’re all eating snacks between takes, with the bloody makeup still on.

This might sound kind of silly, but that’s the point. The key to halting these looping nightmares is not to try and tackle them head on, but instead to continuously re-contextualize them until they are robbed of their power. Grinning skulls are fearsome in the dark, but they’re much less scary if they’re wearing bright pink makeup.

So that covers gratitude and redirecting attention. After I started seeing good results I also resumed meditating, usually in the mornings or whenever my emotional state was getting really bad. I caution against starting out with this, unless you’re an experienced meditator, because in rare cases meditation can actually worsen your symptoms.

In conjunction meditation, gratitude, and attentional control were enough to eventually allow my to repair myself. I have little doubt that if you have access to drugs and qualified psychiatric help you’ll do even better.

***

Beyond what I’ve just discussed, on a bigger scale, this experience also taught me a lot about the value of a life, and the importance of happiness.

My interest in religion has a lot of anthropological and psychological overtones, but part of it also stems from a once-desperate need to change the texture of my subjective experience. Religions, and in particular their respective mystical strains, have gone a long way in developing techniques for cultivating positive emotional states.

It’s possible to have a purely theoretical interest in these things, of course, but having felt the psychological pendulum swing toward hell, one tends to be motivated to understand how other humans deliberately bring it back the other way.

Like your body, your mind is an ongoing project, and if you’re unhappy with part of it you don’t have to accept it as a given. Changing your mind is, in almost every way, harder than changing your body. But it’s worth making the attempt, through meditation, through journaling, through spending time with those less fortunate than you are, or whatever.

I had to almost die in order to understand that. I don’t recommend you wait that long.

 

 

Profundis: “Deep Work”

I just finished “Deep Work“, Cal Newport’s ode to sustained, high-octane focus. The short version of my review is that you should give him your money and do what he tells you to do.

The longer version begins by noting that there are at least two kinds of scholars:

Some scholars traffic in insights which change your mental landscape with all the ferocity and permanence of an asteroid impact. Perhaps Mencius Moldbug has convinced you that democracy isn’t that great, Roissy has you looking out for the subtle game-theoretic dynamics beneath human sexual interaction, or Thomas Metzinger has demonstrated that the subjective experience you call “I” doesn’t really exist.

Newport is not this kind of scholar. He belongs to a different, in some ways even rarer class of thinkers that tells you things you already kind of, sort of, halfway knew, but in a way that makes it all completely obvious and with clear, concise instructions in place for how to better act on this knowledge.

A brief summary of “Deep Work” might go like this: “Some work, like responding to emails and attending planning meetings, is shallow and easily automated. Other work, like proving new results in a field of math, is deep, and very difficult to automate. You should do more deep work because it’s more valuable, but it’s kind of hard, so here are some rules to help you quell distraction and build concentration, all of which you could probably implement before you finish this chapter”.

This is not a towering intellectual edifice that inspires fear and awe, it’s a carefully built retaining wall that keeps the rain from eroding a hillside; not a white-hot beacon of truth, but a flash light showing you a staircase that you overlooked in your haste.

The chances are good that you’re not getting as much out of your brain as you could be.

This book can help fix that.

My Epistemic Status as of the end of 2015

The following is a list of things I learned or became more convinced of in 2015:

* The Christian god is real, and so are all the others, just not outside anyone’s head. Almost everyone I’ve ever come across, theist or atheist, misinterprets the implications of this.

Religions furnish both a ritual apparatus and introspective scaffolding, and you need this because cultivating a human soulscape is difficult because human introspection is very shallow.

Some operations are best performed via the mythopoetic command line interface, and religions have a monopoly on this.

* Mantras, meditation, and visualizations work because they create depressions in your cognitive manifold towards which the liquids of attention, energy, and motivation flow. The fact that these things are enthusiastically embraced by mushy flower-power hippies doesn’t mean they don’t work.

* I have a suspicion that attention is more poorly understood and more important than most of us realize. I think it might be the mechanism undergirding Sapir-Whorf effects, and I have noticed that ubermenschen like Richard Feynman, Elon Musk, and Josh Waitzkin are capable of a level of focus I can’t seem to reach.

We need a Dictionary of Internal Events in order to better categorize our failings of attention and target our interventions. We need a more concerted effort to understand the algorithms and circuitry undergirding attention so that we can develop ways of training it.

* Huge amounts of race-level differences in performance are attributable to race-level differences in genes. Conversely, almost none of the gender wage gap is attributable to structural discrimination.

* The division of labor should be applied to power. It kind of already is but nobody is honest about it. I’d rather live in a sovereign startup with a national CEO than a tepid democracy where every problem is addressed via an interminable carnival of special committees and hearings.

* Having learned more about the rise and fall of communism, I like the ideology even less.

* Proposed definition of ‘civilization’ : “a concatenation of black boxes”. Proposed definition of “culture”: “a constellation of Schelling points hanging in the space between two or more minds”.

* There is a such thing as social technology, and tradition is an example of it. The ‘black boxes’ I mentioned in the previous point can include technologies of this sort. The argument known as “Chesterton’s Fence” has teeth, at least if you don’t like Manticores.

* It is inappropriate to categorize systems on the basis of their being “fragile” or “robust”. Rather, think of them as exhibiting what I call ‘vector-dependent fragility’.

A rocket is designed to withstand many g’s of force and enormous temperatures upon reentry into the atmosphere, but if an o-ring is out of place the whole thing might explode.

If words in a language are mispronounced in one way it’s a regional dialect, if they’re mispronounced another way they are incomprehensible.

* The causal structure of a system can be more or less opaque. In cases where causality is well-understood you can be more daring. In cases where it’s not, you should be more cautious.

Or, when facing Knighting Uncertainty the proper response is Talebian Conservatism.

Or, maybe we shouldn’t be broadcasting messages into space for aliens to pick up because we have no clue what’s out there.

* Rather than thinking about emotions in gestalt, model them as hyperdimensional shapes with bulges, edges, corners, and wrinkles along different axes.

A dear friend of mine and I once spent the better part of an hour taking ‘ambition’ and breaking it down in terms of its ‘direction’, ‘magnitude’, and ‘volatility’. By conversation’s end we had both done this analysis on ourselves and thought about ways we could try and bring our efforts at being productive more in line with the natural shape of our ambition.

The connection to the idea for a Dictionary of Internal Events is probably obvious.

Intrapersonal Comparisons: You Might Be Doing It Wrong.

I recently noticed a failure mode in myself which other people might plausibly suffer from so I thought I’d share it.

Basically, I realized that sometimes when I discovered a more effective way of doing something — say, going from conventional flashcards to Anki — I found myself getting discouraged.

Upon reflection it occurred to me that this was because each time I found such a technique, I automatically compared my current self to a version of me that had had access to the technique the whole time. Realizing that I wasn’t as far along as I could’ve been resulted in a net loss of motivation.

Now, I deliberately compare two future versions of myself, one armed with the technique I just discovered and one without. Seeing how much farther along I will be results in a net gain of motivation.

A variant of this exercise is taking any handicap you might have and wildly exaggerating it. I suffer from mild Carpal Tunnel (or something masquerading as CT) which makes progress in programming slow. When I feel down about this fact I imagine how hard programming would be without hands.

Sometimes I go as far as to plan out what I might do if I woke up tomorrow with a burning desire to program and nothing past my wrists. Well, I’d probably figure out a way to code by voice and then practice mnemonics because I wouldn’t be able to write anything down. Since these solutions exist I can implement one or both of them if and when my carpal tunnel gets bad enough.

With this realization comes a boost in motivation knowing I can go a different direction if required.

Review: “Three Parts Dead”

Just finished “Three Parts Dead“, a fantasy novel by Max Gladstone. In it, witches and wizards are known as ‘craftspeople’ and resemble lawyers more than anything from the Hobbit. Gods are known to contract out their divine might to trading caravans or create the magical equivalent of shell corporations so they can ferry magic to other gods without their congregations knowing.

Kos Everburning, the patron deity of Alt Coulumb, is dead. Tara Abernathy, disgraced craftswoman-in-training, is selected by a representative of a top Craft firm to aid in the investigation. All is not as it seems, however, as the clues surrounding God’s death begin to point more and more to deicide…

The metaphors here are rather obvious — in our own world high finance functions as a type of powerful and dangerous magic that few, if any, really understand. Gladstone confirms that this was deliberate in an interview I read but can’t track down right now.

I’ve never encountered a fantasy book like this one before. It was well crafted and original, and I definitely plan on looking into the rest of the series.

Peripatesis: Suffering And The Self, Hannibal v. Longus In Northern Italy.

‘Peripatesis’ is a made-up word related to the word ‘peripatetic’, which is an adjective that means ‘roaming’ or ‘meandering’. I’ve always liked to think of knowledge as a huge structure through which a person could walk, sprint, dive, climb, or fly in as straightforward or peripatetic a fashion as they like.

Here’s are my recent wanderings and wonderings:

Harris, S. Waking Up, p. 1-118:

Sam Harris opens his book on secular spirituality by discussing his early experiments in contemplative practice, and sets the context for the discussion by clearing away some troublesome underbrush.

It’s become fashionable to view all religions as variations on an underlying theme, and the intellectual edifices of the worlds religions do look the same, in the sense that forests look the same when viewed at high altitudes from the passenger seat of a supersonic jet. If one parachutes out of the jet, however, the requirements for survival vary greatly depending on whether the forest they land in is of the deciduous, evergreen, or tropical rainforest variety.

But there is a sense in which the experiences people have in the context of religious practice really are universal. Better still, when lifted from the philosophical ruins in which they’re normally found, these experiences can be viewed as the empirical, verifiable outcome of certain ways of paying attention.

Mindfulness is probably the most widely known attention-based practice here in the West. It doesn’t require the adoption of any religious beliefs, it only requires that you learn to experience each moment simply and directly, without being lost in a never-ending cascade of discursive thought. This is a deceptively simple set of instructions. Harris claims, however, that if one learns to do so, one can find a kind of happiness that is available regardless of what direction one’s life is going. This is the point of spirituality.

But spiritual practices also furnish an indispensable set of tools for studying consciousness. No one can rule out the possibility that we’ll some day develop information-theoretic or neuroscientific concepts that allow us to speak of mind and matter as one thing, but that day is not today. We are stuck simply poking brains and asking subjects what is happening between their ears, and those with the ability to make fine-grained introspective distinctions will be able to provide better first-person data.

In chapter 2 Harris discusses a fascinating implication of the split-brain phenomenon that hadn’t occurred to me before: it’s possible that a functionally normal human brain harbors multiple centers of consciousness. It’s already known that when a person is put to sleep to have their corpus callosum cut, (at least) two people wake up. Further, there is reason to believe that an intact corpus callosum is insufficient to integrate all the information occurring in both hemispheres.  This raises the possibility that each of us is walking around with a first-person point of view, and one or more silent intelligences inhabiting the circuitry of our brain.

Harris gets down to what is really his primary philosophical objective in chapter 3: painting a bull’s eye on the sense of self.

As a matter of subjective experience most people feel like they are a ghostly presence hovering behind their eyes, in possession of a body but not identical to it, watching a stream of consciousness but distinct from it. Harris believes this to not only be incorrect, but to be one of the largest tributaries of human suffering.

If I understand Harris’s arguments, he is claiming that the illusion of the self persists because most of us spend so much of our lives buffeted by hurricanes of discursive thinking, inner monologues, memories, speculation, and emotion that we never stop to inspect it. Once one develops the contemplative tools necessary to actually begin looking for the self, it disappears in much the same way many optical illusions do when examined closely.

With this disappearance comes recognition of the impermanence of the states of mind through which we cartwheel from one moment to the next, and it then becomes possible to glimpse an ego-less consciousness prior to and between the arrival of thoughts. Navigating to this space is profoundly restful because one can cease, however briefly, to be a slave to the chatter of their minds.

Goldstein, A., The Fall of Carthage, p. 173-181.

Caught unawares by the appearance of Hannibal in northern Italy after he executed his famous crossing of the Alps in 218 BC, the Roman senate ordered the return of one of the consuls, Sempronius Longus, who joined forces with Scipio just a few miles from Hannibal’s camp. Hannibal, suspicious that the Gallic tribes in the area might be courting the Romans, sent parties to loot and plunder the Galls, who then did request Roman help. Roman velites engaged Hannibal’s raiding parties, and the ensuing skirmish would have erupted into a full-scale conflict but for Hannibal’s brilliant leadership and unwillingness to fight unprepared.

Both Longus and Hannibal had good reasons for wanting to force an engagement, but it was Hannibal who emerged victorious when the leaders finally squared off at the battle of Trebia, this despite the fact that a large chunk of Roman legionnaires managed to punch through the Carthagenian lines late into the day.

 

Gnostic Creep

A while back I asked famed autodidact Eric Raymond about how he learns things, and he told me that he tends to study multiple subjects at a time with little to no structure involved. I tried this, and noticed that what usually happens is that each field I study suggests additional fields to study, and when I begin to look into those fields still further fields pique my interest, until I’m reading 10 books and 35 papers all at once and making only the most incremental of progress. Eventually the whole thing collapses on itself and I feel depressed for a couple of days.

I call this gnostic creep, a deliberate nod to the concept of “scope creep“.

You might be tempted to advocate for studying only one subject or one book at a time; this is pretty good advice, but easier said than done. For one thing, the front and back cover of a book are often fairly arbitrary beginning and ending points. You may get halfway through a book about the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, only to realize that you can’t make sense of these events until you stop and learn a little about the intellectual history of Fascism in pre-war Europe. But even when this isn’t the case, poor wording or explanations which assume too much background knowledge may force you to look elsewhere.

Example: I’m studying set theory right now in a bid to assemble the tools necessary to understand the research on Friendliness in Superintelligent AIs. One of the recommended books is “Naive Set Theory” by Paul Halmos. It’s very concise, but often utilizes archaic notation and proofs that are so informal that it’s difficult for a novice mathematician to find intellectual purchase on them. To compensate, I piece the ideas together by referencing other books, but I eventually find myself with too much on my plate and no clear strategy for proceeding.

So far, the only thing that has worked is taking a day or two off when the pressure of gnostic creep reaches a certain threshold. I also have a friend who is tutoring me in mathematics, so I’m going to try breaking my learning up into smaller chunks by meeting with him for 20-30 minutes several times a week rather than for 90 minutes once a week.

I’m inclined think that intelligence isn’t a significant factor here; a person who is smarter than me but who lacks a mechanism for temporarily erecting a boundary around a given gnostic enterprise would simply have gnostic creep set in a lot more quickly than in does for me. Presumably the gnostic creep for a genius like John Conway would result in their head exploding.

I seems most likely that those among my heroes who are world-class auhodidacts are doing something which makes them more effective, and which they probably aren’t even aware of.

In Memorium

I’ve had the poor fortune of being surrounded by a fair bit of death recently.

The first was that of my great-grandmother, a truly and thoroughly decent human being who had suffered the ravages of Alzheimers for nearly the past decade. As seems to often be true in these cases, she was a completely different person by the time the end came. I was very sad to hear of her passing, but we had all known the day was coming, and given the advanced state of her condition, I took some small relief knowing that her pain was over.

Another was that of Alexander Boutilier, or ‘Lex’ as he was usually known. Lex’s death came like a bolt out of the blue, and affected me deeply for reasons I couldn’t say. He was just so….alive, right up until I found out that he wasn’t. We weren’t particularly close, but he was a ferociously intelligent, exceptionally generous man who somehow seemed to have read every book ever written. Being a nerd was something he was proud of, and he had a penchant for spirited and far-ranging discussions.

Needless to say, we immediately liked each other.

In the wake of these tragedies, I did something I’ve been meaning to do for some time: I donated a non-trivial amount of money to a number of charities whose purpose is to put a stop to this ridiculous, needless suffering. The charities, in order of increasing abstractness, were the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Foundation, the Brain Preservation Foundation, the SENS Research Foundation, and the Machine Intelligence Research Institute.

Now, I’m not disclosing all of this for sympathy or to brag, and I know plenty of people would dispute my choice of donations. But what I want to encourage everyone to do is to bloody well take action when you see a part of the world you don’t like. I’m not in a position to stop Alzheimers or to expand the healthy human lifespan; but there are smart people out there who might be able to, and I’ll happily pay them to do it.

Additionally, I am publicly coming out as an anti-deathist. The fact that sentient beings are extinguished, forever and against their will, is a hideous blight on the world. Some day, I think, advanced civilizations will look back with inexpressible sadness that it took us so long to turn the gears and levers of our minds towards the problem of Death. So many little lights, gone, for no other reason then that we didn’t work quickly enough.

How inexcusably wasteful.

There are a few standard responses to this line of thinking:

1) Death is a natural part of life, and has been from the beginning.

Yes, well, being hunted by large carnivores and having your children die during birth were pretty commonplace for most of history, but at least in this part of the world that rarely happens anymore. A few generations ago everyone lived in fear of getting polio, and to be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure what polio is.

There’s no use pretending that there isn’t a lengthy precedent for doing away with sickness and discomfort, and I see no reason why it should be any different for Death.

2) Death gives meaning to life.

No, life gives meaning to life. Passion, novelty, sadness, the gritty texture of day-to-day living, the inevitable ebb and flow of a thousands shards of experience, these are the things of which meaning is made.

3) You’d get bored with immortality.

Maybe, but ending my life is a decision I should be able to make while I’m watching the sun burn down, or watching the Andromeda Galaxy collide with our own, when I’m as old as a planet, preferably with my family and a billion friends with me.

4) Death is far too inexplicable to ever be solved.

Everything was a mystery right up until the point that someone figured it out. Stars, the beating of the human heart, the origins of the continents… long is the list of things people once thought would never be understood which are now routinely taught to high school students.

Death is an engineering problem, and it should be approached as such.

5) Overpopulation!

Every material advance ever made, starting with fire and going right up to smart phones, has contributed to rising population levels. Unless you’re prepared to roll up your sleeves and start dismantling civilization, then I don’t see how your argument holds water.

I’ll miss my great-grandmother’s indefatigable spirits and simple, earthy charm; I’ll miss Lex’s sharp wit and boundless enthusiasm. The pain is made all the more acute by the knowledge that it didn’t have to end this way.

To paraphrase the oft-quoted and immortal Dylan Thomas poem, I do not intend to go gently into that good night.

May there some day be things besides words that live forever.

 

 

 

What I Learned From Two Years in South Korea.

It’s cold outside, around three in the morning, and I’m staring up at the apartment building I’ve been living in.  Friends have passed in and out of my life there, relationships have begun and ended there.  

My gaze drifts higher and I notice that an unusual number of stars are visible.  This seems fitting, as I’ve often lamented how few stars one can normally see, but such is not the case on my last night in Korea.  My plane leaves in just a few hours, and I know that sleep will not come for many more.  But I don’t mind so much just now, as I’m lost in a particularly intense train of thought.   Beneath the jeweled sky, in the pre-dawn chill, I reflect quietly, and with a hint of sadness, on all that has changed for me these last two years.  

If I could sum this long post up in a few words, I’d say that living and working in South Korea has been every bit as rewarding and life changing as I thought it would be.  If you relish challenges and are looking for a change of scenery, then I would heartily recommend giving the Land of the Morning Calm a try.

But I won’t bullshit you.  There have been real problems, loneliness, and cultural mishaps of the tragic and hilarious variety. When you live in a place where most people don’t speak your language and you are very obviously a foreigner, a thousand little sources of friction are created that will wear on you.

On a good day everything is an adventure, even mundane tasks are tinged with a sense of novelty, and people’s enthusiastic questions will make you feel like a celebrity.

But some days are bad.  Some days you don’t want an adventure, you don’t want to struggle to complete even simple tasks like mailing a letter, you don’t want to feel like a zoo animal with kids pointing at you and whispering.  All I can say is that learning to deal gracefully with the bad days is part of the value.  That, and, in my experience, the positives greatly outweigh the negatives.

My hope is that if I detail my experiences then I can both encourage people to go for it while also preparing them for the inevitable difficulties that will arise.

Ending Up Far Away From Home

I came to Korea in February of 2012, partly as an act of desperation.  There were no jobs to be had in America at the time, you see, and I was tired of working multiple jobs while still having my savings dwindle.  A friend of mine from college lived on the beautiful Korean island of Jeju-do, and she had almost nothing but good things to say about it. So, lacking a better plan, I began the process of filling out applications and getting my paperwork in order.

Since numerous factors shape my conclusions, I’ll tell you that I’m a 25-year-old white heterosexual male, fairly introverted, college-educated, with an adventurous streak. Though I’ve traveled widely in Korea I’ve lived and worked in a small town at an after-school private academy teaching kids aged 7 to 15.

Gyeryong, South Korea.  My home for nearly two years.

Gyeryong, South Korea. Home for nearly two years.

I’ve made my best effort throughout the past two years to be as objective and observant as I possibly could be, but still, this is all just one guy’s opinion.  People of different ages, races, and sexual orientations, as well as people who live in big cities or work at public schools, often have somewhat different stories to tell.  Nevertheless I think what I’ve written here will prove useful to most everyone.  At any rate, if you decide to take the plunge you’ll get to learn about all of this stuff yourself 🙂

Korea

The Korean peninsula is basically a group of mountains and foothills, hanging off the eastern part of Russia and jutting out into the Pacific Ocean.  It occupies approximately 100,000 square kilometers, or roughly the same amount of land as two Nova Scotias, Scotland and Wales together, three Lesothos, or Kentucky.  Most of the foreigners I’ve met have been from Canada, the U.K., South Africa, or America, so I chose my geographic comparisons appropriately.

There are four clearly defined seasons. The vibrant, humid summers, colorful autumns, and springs filled with wildflowers and rain offer outdoorsy types plenty of chances to lay on the beach or hike.  Winter, however, is not a gown that Korea wears well.  Some places have a sparse, desolate beauty which can make the colder months almost electrifying. In Korea it’s just frigid and grey, with winds screaming across the landscape cramming fistfuls of cold air down people’s shirts. Be sure to bring some heavy winter clothing.

Population-wise there are about 50 million people, fully half of which live in the sprawling capital, Seoul.  The cities are big, skyscraper-studded affairs offering just about any pleasure or convenience you could ask for.  In the towns and the countryside the old and new are rather dramatically juxtaposed; temples and mountain-top pagodas are sometimes visible from supermarkets, the chanting of monks can be heard a minute’s walk from a cafe. This can be very captivating, and is a primary source of what I call “holy shit I’m in Korea” moments.

Food

The cuisine is one of my favorite things about Korea.  It’s typically rice- and vegetable-based, with small amounts of protein and few fruits.  That may not sound like much raw material, but a staggering variety is produced by combining and seasoning the food in different ways.  To give an example, consider Kimchi, the ubiquitous cabbage dish that is one of the only Korean foods a lot of non-Koreans know about.  It is served at pretty much every meal, but it can come as whole leaves or diced-up cubes, nearly raw or extremely fermented, salty, sour, spicy, or completely plain.

For the most part eating in Korea won’t blow your mind, but a few things may take some getting used to. Of course the most obvious is eating with chopsticks, but you’ll get the hang of it before too long, and there are usually forks and spoons available. Also, Koreans like their food hot, in both ways: many of their dishes are spicy and soups are served still boiling.

If you enjoy sea food you’re in luck, as fish, squid, and octopus show up quite a bit at Korean tables, and in some places you can eat octopus while it’s still alive. This is apparently pretty dangerous because the octopus can stick to the inside of your throat and choke you to death.  I haven’t done it.

The only Korean food I think I have genuinely not liked has been silk-worm larva, or ‘bondeggi’. It’s not usually served at restaurants but they sell it as a snack on the streets in most places, and it’s extremely tart.

I especially like the way Korean restaurants work.  Before the main course you always get a smattering of different side dishes, usually something along the lines of kimchi, fish cakes, or bean sprouts. This is fun because you can sample a wide variety of foods at every meal and every restaurant makes their side dishes slightly differently.  In restaurants where the specialty is meat there is usually a grill built into the table where you cook whatever you ordered.  This makes going to a restaurant sort of a communal, participatory experience.

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A pretty typical spread at a Korean restaurant

As far as costs go, eating in Korea is generally pretty cheap, and it can be extremely cheap if you want it to be.   Since I exercise a lot I also tend to eat a lot, and I consume a good bit of meat, so for me eating here has been more expensive than it is for most other foreigners I know.   Still, I’m usually able to save money by waiting until there is a sale on something like chicken breasts, buying a whole bunch of it, then cooking and freezing it, unthawing as needed. Non-meat items like fruits and vegetables are comparable in price to what they are in America

Eating at restaurants costs about the same as cooking and eating at home.  I verified this by carefully tracking what I spent at the store and what I ate at each meal, calculating the cost of the average meal eaten at home, and comparing that to what I usually spend at restaurants.  My figures aren’t in front of me just now, but eating at home cost me somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 when I got many of the items on discount.  The cheapest meals at a restaurant are about $6, usually more like $8 or $10.  But consider that’s only when I wait to find deals on the most expensive items, and it doesn’t include the time spent cooking and cleaning.

I eat out five or six times, go shopping once or twice a week, and spend around $500 a month on food.

Koreans

My impressions of Korean people have been overwhelmingly positive.  Koreans are for the most part extremely generous and accommodating, more than willing to aid the lost and weary foreigner looking for a place to bed down for the night.

I will never forget trying to buy fabric softener within the first few weeks of arriving, and asking one of the store employees if a particular item was what I was looking for.  Our attempts at communication failed, so she asked someone else, who asked someone else, which began a chain reaction that ended with six or seven Korean people standing around my friend and I and talking to each other.  Finally one of them pointed to the thing I was holding and said ‘soft’.  Problem solved.

This generosity can have a down side.  I will also never forget the many times I’ve been in the gym, headphones in, music going full blast, literally in the middle of doing bench press, only to have someone wander up and insist I eat a sweet potato.  Turning down food that has been offered to you is considered rude in Korea, so when this happens I find myself either having to force something down in the middle of exercise, rudely refuse it, or effusively promise to eat it later.

For myself and my circle of friends about the worst that’s ever happened is cab drivers charging us more than they would a Korean, but one does occasionally hear of abuses much more serious than this.   Apparently other teachers have worked at schools which have stolen money from them or fired them over completely trivial issues, have had coworkers that treated them with indifference or even disrespect, or have had to live in really sub-par housing.

The truth is, there is a chance you will end up in this situation.  It’s a bit disconcerting, but that’s the reality.  As far as I can tell it’s exceedingly rare; I’ve never known anyone to whom this has happened, and I’ve never known anyone whose known someone to whom this has happened.  If you go through a recruitment agency like Reach To Teach (whom I cannot recommend enough) or contact the other people working at your school ahead of time you stand a good chance of being happy with where you end up.

Foreigners in Korea

By and large I’ve gotten along with the non-Koreans I’ve met.  You might be thinking that the foreigners here are exceptionally adventurous or outgoing or enthusiastic about novel experiences. After all, wouldn’t it take just such a person to uproot their whole life and move to a new continent?

Surprisingly, no.   The foreigners I’ve met have mostly been pretty average on all of these traits, with some extreme personalities in both directions.  Note that this isn’t me making a value judgment; there’s nothing wrong with being an introvert who likes routine.  I’m just saying that my expectations were incorrect.

There are plenty of foreigners here who like to party, though, and in the bigger cities there are establishments which have sprung up to cater just to us.  This is great, and Science knows I’ve had my fair share of shenanigans while I’ve been here.  But it seems to me like a lot of foreigners get stuck in this trap where they make a bunch of foreign friends, give up their initial attempts to learn Korean and integrate into Korea, and begin a cycle of boozing and partying all the time which leaves them complacent, takes a chunk out of their savings, and prevents them from experiencing Korea in a more authentic way.  No one is going to stop you if you piss away your paychecks drinking four nights a week, but ask yourself if that’s really the best way you could be spending your time.

Ultimately, like most other opportunities, this one is going to be what you make it.  It could be one of the more intense and fertile periods of learning you’ve had up to this point, like it was for me, or it could be a drunken haze you barely remember and from which you learn very little.

Learning Korean 

There is one place where I am absolutely going to make a value judgment, though, and that’s the pitifully small number of foreigners who make an effort to learn Korean.  Make no mistake, it is a pretty tough language, but that’s no excuse for not learning how to carry out basic tasks in the language that everyone else speaks.   Most Koreans are going to accommodate you, and a lot of them are happy to practice their English, but most of them can’t speak English well and shouldn’t be expected to.  If you live in Korea then you should learn Korean, and though you can probably get by without it, you should feel a pang of guilt every time you point and grunt your way through an interaction like a Neanderthal.

I’ve met people who claim that they have ‘survival Korean’ and don’t care to study beyond that.  Fair enough, maybe you aren’t interested in reading Korean literature or holding forth on philosophical topics in Korean, but I think a lot of people are kidding themselves as to what constitutes the minimum Korean they need.

My Korean is at about survival level.  I can hold basic conversations, give and receive directions, figure out what most signs and print means without pictures, and get the gist of what’s being said around me.  A bit less than half of my communication with friends has been in Korean, mostly texting, and I have managed English-free interactions for a few hours at a time with only minimal referencing of the dictionary.

Here is a video I made speaking Korean right before I came back to the States:

I’m not tooting my own horn here.  My Korean isn’t as good as I’d wanted it to be before I left, and I’m still embarrassed every time I can’t get a point across or understand someone who is trying to talk to me.   Getting this modest level took a lot of effort and study, but it has been absolutely, without a doubt, worth it.  In addition to all the little things that have become easier, my experience here has been significantly deepened as a result.

Let me give you an example: the secretary that works at our school is in her early thirties and has two kids I’ve taught. We’ve become good friends, and we always use Korean because she doesn’t know more than a few words in English. Though she maintains professionalism at work I’ve had the opportunity to hang out with her many times during off hours, and have discovered she has a really quirky and dirty sense of humor.  She’s taught me Korean slang and Korean swear words and I’ve returned the favor in English, and she gets a kick out of hearing about my adventures and exploits. I hope to keep in touch with her, but even if I don’t I’ll remember her for the rest of my life.

If you’ve been in Korea for years and still can’t speak Korean, that’s a problem and you should fix it.  Assuming you want to learn, let me give you some advice: there are free classes offered in various places, and these might be a good place to start, but  I recommend transitioning to private tutoring as fast as possible.  Seriously, it costs all of $10 a lesson and you can do them over skype.  Beyond that, use Korean every chance you get.  I talk to people at bus stops, in the gym, between classes at school, through texting, on the internet, etc.

There is no substite for speaking to new people as often as possible.  If you interact with the same group of native speakers, they are going to get used to your quirks and mistakes.  They’ll learn how to tell what you’re trying to say and they’ll figure out how to hear through your accent.  The only way to be sure you’re improving is by testing yourself with new people who have no idea who you are and have never spoken to you before.

Dating

Romantic interactions have been a pretty big part of my stay in Korea; they have helped me get to know the language and culture better, and have contributed massively to my positive feelings on Korea overall.  As such it’s only appropriate that I say a few (tactful) words about dating here.  As I mentioned before I am straight, so I can’t tell you anything about dating Korean men or what it’s like to be gay in Korea, though these subjects have been broached elsewhere.

As others have noted, there are some unique rewards and challenges associated with dating women outside your language or culture.  Miscommunications are commonplace, even when the other person speaks your language pretty well, and you will almost certainly end up either being a little offended or offending them at least once because of something culturally insensitive one of you did.

That said, one of the lessons I’ve learned living in Korea is that an amazing amount of non-linguistic or barely-linguistic communication can happen when two or more people are motivated to get a point across.  This goes for people who just want to be friends as well as for people who want to rip each other’s clothes off.  If you’re into her and she’s into you, then I doubt either of you will have too much trouble figuring that out.

Which brings me to another point, one I think it is important to stress: in my experience, Korean women are just sexually normal people with sexually normal appetites.  You may have had your expectations molded by…erm…certain videos that can be found on various corners of the internet.  If so, then you may imagine Korean women will be either completely submissive in the face of sexual advances or, in the memorable words of a friend, “sex-crazed dragon-ladies”.  They are neither, and if I could pass on a pro tip here, I’d say it’s usually not a good idea to take your cues from porn.

The bottom line is that there are few surprises waiting for you behind closed doors.  Like anywhere else every person is different, and I have been involved with girls who range from very conservative and deferential all the way to career-driven-alpha-female types.  I recommend dating Koreans not because it’s some extremely exotic new experience, but because Korean women are attractive and affectionate and fun to interact with.  You know, pretty much the same reasons you date anyone.

Sometimes, though, they will pretend to smash your head while you're trying to achieve transcendence through your guitar.

Sometimes, though, they will pretend to smash your head while you’re trying to achieve musical transcendence.

If you do choose to date outside the group of foreigners, though, you’ll see a side of Korean culture that’s hard to get any other way.  Plus, as a bonus, you’ll most likely become very motivated to practice Korean.

Teaching

As a teacher your job is to build structures of information in the brain of another person.  When it comes to language education you will need a special set of communication skills, the ability to direct attention, and ocean’s worth of patience.

Let’s start with re-learning how to use English.  This is far, far more than simply speaking more slowly, and involves changes in vocabulary choice and sentence structure as well.  Repeated interactions with students at different levels will start to give you an intuitive sense of the kinds of words and phrases someone is likely to be able to understand, and time spent in Korean culture will teach you which words have been imported from English.

Many Koreans, even ones who for all intents and purposes speak no English, know common words like ‘cheap’, ‘famous’,  or ‘early’, as well as unusual ones like ‘casanova’ (referring to guys who have a lot of girlfriends).  I couldn’t tell you why these particular words have been absorbed, but that’s been my experience.

You’ll also figure out how to phrase complex ideas in terms of simpler ones by choosing which subtleties and nuances can be smoothed away without losing too much of the meaning.  One of my favorite examples of this was when a pretty competent student asked me what ‘engineering’ meant.  Before I tell you my reply let’s look at one way I could have responded:

“The process of using scientific knowledge to create new technologies.”

This is a nice dictionary definition, but no one outside of the best one or two students would have understood it.  Why? Well despite the fact that ‘process’  and ‘create’ are common English words most students aren’t going to know them because the ideas behind them are actually fairly complex.  Further, most of my students would know what ‘science’ is but would have difficulty with the adjective ‘scientific’.  My actual response was this:

“Using science to make things.”

Now, engineering is a sprawling human enterprise which involves both using and creating new scientific knowledge and new technology.  Does my definition appropriately capture all that?  No it doesn’t, but you will have to learn to live with this kind of partial communication as it’s often the best you can do.  Importantly, though, my definition does capture a significant portion of the first definition’s meaning, and it does it with words almost all of my students will know.

Second, you’ll have to learn how to keep the attention of a large number of kids.  Attention is a pretty fickle thing, even in adults, and the best ways I’ve found to keep it are by being funny and using a lot of pictures and props.  Humans are by nature visual animals, so most any concept that can be communicated with the aid of pictures should be, and big, exaggerated, silly actions are easier to focus on than detailed verbal explanations.  None of this is a guarantee, unfortunately; there will be days when every effort fails, and you’ll go home emotionally exhausted.

Using pictures to try and keep my students focused on the ridiculous story we were making together.

Using pictures to try and keep my students focused on the ridiculous story we were making together.

Finally, you’ll need a healthy dose of patience.  If you’ve ever tried to communicate with a foreigner who doesn’t speak your language very well you know it can be an exhausting experience.  If you’ve ever spent much time interacting with kids, even teenage ones, you know it can be an exhausting experience.  Well, as a teacher your whole job all day is going to be interacting with kids who don’t speak your language well.

Does that sound exhausting?  It is.

Here, Sophie and Emily are giving me exactly the amount of respect they think me age and position entitle me to.

Here, Sophie and Emily are giving me exactly the amount of respect they think my age and position entitle me to.

Now, I really like kids, and I think I like them even more after having taught them for a while. But let me tell you: sometimes they’re going to frustrate you, disappoint you, and do things that are downright bizarre.  Other times they will be funny, affectionate, and surprise you with their insight and competence. You’d better just steel yourself for the roller coaster ahead of time. If you teach English for any length of time in Korea, you absolutely will learn to be more patient.

All Good Things…

Now I’m back in the States, and the experience has of course been bitter sweet.  I miss speaking Korean, and I’ve found out that my driving skills have atrophied considerably.  But I’m a lot more outgoing than I once was, I have many more interesting stories to tell, and I’m more confident.

Looking back, there were so many days in Korea when I was tired and stressed and wanted to quit.  If you choose to take the leap, you’ll have them too.  But I can’t remember any stretch of time during which I made more positive changes and learned more about myself and about life.

It was worth it.  It really, really was.