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The Art of Living

October 16, 2016

Yesterday, October 15, was my eighteenth birthday. And in the US, that's when you start to hold a lot of rights as an adult. Whatever the meaning of that arbitrary number eighteen, I thought this was as good a day as any to look back, to look forward, and use some winding metaphors to set out a direction and a purpose for myself in my so-called adult life. (Also, this happens to be a nice way to reuse my college applications essay, so, here we go.)

I am enthralled by the art of living.

Living -- not merely surviving, not merely "getting" a way of life and a settled career path, not merely reaching the fabled success of deep pockets and white picket fences. Living, to me, is the art of self-discovery.

It started seven years ago. With my right hand clenched around the staircase railing and my left holding my balance against the wall, I crept downstairs, barely hiding the sound of my footsteps under the traffic noise outside. Careful to avoid every third step from the top -- those were annoyingly loud at two in the morning -- I journeyed to the first floor, where our family computer whirred away past midnight on its own while the rest of the family slept in silence. Being careful not to drag my feet, I lunged my way to the computer desk, flipped the screen on, and started pecking away on the keyboard with my nimble grade-school fingers.

Earlier that day, I'd asked a question about "trigonometric functions," which my father had casually brushed aside, saying, "You'll learn it when you get to it." Unsatisfied, I snuck downstairs in the dead of the night to search Google, to find out what these newfangled words meant. And somehow, as I discovered more and read faster, I found even more I didn't know, and even better things to read. Day after day, I came across new ideas that captivated me, and day after day, I came downstairs after midnight to consume more of them. Why I kept it hidden from my parents, I still don't really know. But as weeks and months passed, those ideas grew up from sine and cosine into broader fields.

I stretched my imagination with non-Euclidean manifolds of space and time, I became a believer in quantum theories of gravity, I made of myself a devoted fan of Descartes' rationalism. I analyzed the morphology of the Na'vi language, I cracked the code into cryptography, and I studied how a few thousand lines of code from a basement office could touch the lives of billions of people an ocean away. Ludwig van Beethoven once said, "Do not only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets; art deserves that, for it and knowledge can raise man to the Divine." During those wee hours of the night, I did not simply immerse myself in knowledge. I became entranced by it. And even today, I have yet to find my way out of that labyrinth woven in words and threaded in thoughts. So rather than seek an escape, I dig deeper, sprint faster into the maze, and I look only forward, guided by the footsteps of those that came before me, waiting for the moment when I will leave my own for others to follow.

I learn not to impress, or to earn respect, or to gain profit. I learn because I must, because I cannot bear to live in a world that I do not understand, because I cannot live in a world in which my work, my craft, and my ideas do not matter. I learn because the only world in which I can love to live is a world in which my thoughts and actions can create change with impact -- the one in which the same hunger for impact and knowledge persists and thrives in every human alive, as it did for me at two in the morning that night. That is my world, a world with creativity, with sparks of vitality, with a passion for ideation and action. This world attempts to dig deeper into the secrets of the art of living every moment as if it were the most important moment of our lives. That is a world that has found divinity within humanity, a world bustling with activity -- a world that has grown beyond practice, and discovered the malleable, potent, spellbinding reality.

Many thanks to Jenny Shao and Claire Hazbun for the feedback.