“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies: Goddamn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
~ Kurt Vonnegut
Life is difficult and it can feel as if we have been thrown in the deep end sometimes. No one tells you word for word the correct way to interact with another human being, or how to balance your work and personal life, or what the meaning of life is. Because of this, social interactions are rife with awkwardness, misunderstandings and getting hurt.
But perhaps if we all followed Vonnegut’s rule, life would be just a little bit easier to navigate through.
When we are little, we are showered with compliments. We marvel over and celebrate a child’s first steps, or when they score a goal, or when they gift us a squiggly drawing. At school, we receive stickers saying “Great job!” when we do our homework. At home, we receive words of encouragement, support and love from our family.
Why do we compliment children over even the smallest achievements? Compliments are one of the simplest, cheapest ways to positively reinforce good behaviour. When we hear a compliment, we feel that we have done something well. We feel a sense of pride and accomplishment, building up our self-confidence. Best of all, we feel good when we are complimented, because we feel accepted and noticed by someone else.
But as we grow older, we receive less and less compliments. Instead, we are constantly under the microscope, being critiqued on every aspect of what makes us us. Our work, partners, friends and family continue to push us to be even more “perfect”. Performance reviews tell us we are not efficient enough, our magazines and advertisements tell us we are not beautiful enough, our loved ones tell us we are not successful enough… No wonder we all have such fragile egos.
A good example of how little we are complimented is how we generally react when someone gives us a genuine compliment. Some people feel wary that the other person is using it as a opener because they want something from us. Many people react by rejecting the compliment, either in an attempt to be modest, or because they genuinely don’t believe that they are worthy of the compliment. Instead of thanking the other person and moving on with your day with a skip in our step, we put up our guard and beat ourselves down even more.
In a brutal world such as this, a compliment can go a long way to make someone’s day. A compliment can range in depth, from our friends pointing out a personality trait of ours that they respect and appreciate, to a stranger noticing and commenting on your choice of outfit. A kind word can be a candle in the way down darkness of stress, hardships and criticism that we face on a daily basis, making us feel valued.
Perhaps life would be just a little bit easier if we each complimented someone once a day. If you consider how many compliments you give to a pet dog in one petting session, a compliment a day to one person seems like nothing. By giving more compliments, the more you will notice that others will compliment you back, as they feel it is safe to do so. This is particularly true in toxic, masculine cultures where complimenting is seen as a sign of being soft, weak or deceptive.
So, where do we start? Just think of what kind of compliment would make your day better if you heard it.
Start simple with a small thing that you notice the other person has made an effort on, whether it is their hair, clothing or an accessory. We feel more appreciated when someone notices something we have done and can change, rather than something we are born with, like our physical appearance.
Then, you will start noticing and appreciating more positive things the person does, such as how they work, their small but significant achievements, products of their creativity and their demeanours.
Lastly, if it is someone we are close to and know well, it might be worth pointing out every now and then something we like about that person on a fundamental level. This includes their values, dreams, passions, convictions and character. Perhaps we respect their strong resolve and positive approach to life. Perhaps we appreciate the kindness they show to others. Perhaps we just love them for being themselves.
Think of the last time you were moved by someone’s compliment to you. Pay that kindness forward by making someone else’s day with a compliment of your own. You will feel happier just seeing another person smile when they hear your kind words.
Brontosaurus (“thunder lizard” in Latin) is one of the most well-known dinosaurs. It is the poster child of the sauropods, a group of massive four-legged dinosaurs with very long necks and tails, known as some of the largest animals to ever walk on land.
After going extinct around 66 million years ago, the Brontosaurus was rediscovered in fossil form in 1879 by palaeontologist O.C. Marsh, who is infamous for his rivalry with another palaeontologist called Edward Drinker Cope as part of the “Bone Wars”. The Bone Wars was the fierce competition between the two palaeontologists, involving aggressive digging to discover as many dinosaurs as possible, while both tried to slander and impede each other through dishonest, unprofessional means. This dispute resulted in rushed announcements of new discoveries sometimes, leading to fascinating stories such as Cope accidentally putting the skull of the Elasmosaurus on its tail instead of the neck.
So what does the historical context of the Bone Wars have to do with the Brontosaurus? In 1903, another palaeontologist argued that the Brontosaurus was actually a specimen of the already discovered Apatosaurus. Two years later, the American Museum of Natural History unveiled the first mounted sauropod skeleton and named it a Brontosaurus. However, they had accidentally used the skull of a different dinosaur called Camarasurus, mounted on the skeleton of an Apatosaurus. With no further evidence supporting Brontosaurus as a separate genus, the scientific community agreed that the Brontosaurus was really just an Apatosaurus.
Despite this news, Brontosaurus remained hugely popular amongst the general population thanks to its early publicity. At the same time, Brontosaurus not being a real genus of dinosaur became a popular factoid (false information accepted as fact due to popularity). In a field such as palaeontology where evidence can be scant or incomplete, such misclassification is common. For example, the Triceratops is in fact simply the juvenile form of another dinosaur named the Torosaur.
But then in 2015, a group of scientists used computer modelling to analyse sauropod fossil data including the original fossil discovered by Marsh. What they discovered was that there were enough differences between the Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus, such as differences in pelvic bone structure, to classify Brontosaurus as its own genus. After more than a century, the Brontosaurus has had its name cleared and restored to its former glory.
The story of the Brontosaurus is a great example of one of the principles in science: nothing is 100% true. Science never proclaims something as the one truth. We can hypothesise, support it with evidence and construct a theory that makes sense of the cosmos, but we can never be sure that we definitely have the answer. In the face of new evidence and re-examination of the analysis, what was once regarded as “truth” can easily be proven to be wrong.
This is an unpopular aspect of science, because people tend to want security and certainty to soothe their anxieties about not knowing. But instead, we get to stay curious and continuously question the nature of the universe and how everything works, making fascinating discoveries and learning something new every day.
For how boring would life be if we had nothing more to learn?
Books are one of the greatest inventions in human history and is considered a “complete” invention, in that it cannot really be improved on any further. Books provide us with knowledge, stories, advice and wonder. The Laurentian Library in Florence, designed by Michelangelo, symbolises this by having a dark entrance lead in to a bright, Pantheon-like library to suggest that books are the key to enlightenment.
Why do we read? Non-fiction books are normally clear in their purpose: they provide objective (for the most part) knowledge in various fields, ranging from history to science. But what about fiction? How can reading fiction enrich our lives, when it is the product of imagination?
When we are in school, we are taught how to critically read fiction. We scrutinise a piece of literature so that we can decipher the motives of the characters, understand symbolism and uncover the hidden social criticism that the author may have intended to portray. We learn to analyse a book, rather than to enjoy it.
But this is not the intention of the author. Unlike non-fiction books that attempt to provide answers, most fiction books don’t try to hide some truth or a deep, meaningful answer. Instead, they are meant to be a journey.
A journey is different from a quest in that there is no specific goal or a mission. All you have to do is wander around, take in the sights, feel emotions that arise in response and expand your inner horizons through reflection. You may even learn something new, whether it is a historical fact, an observation about people, or more about yourself. The point is, there is no “right way” to read fiction; you can enjoy it however you want, without any expectation or judgement.
A writer does not hope for their book to teach one answer to every reader. Everyone has different world views, past experiences and values, so they react to a given situation in variable ways. You could recommend a book that you love to a friend, but they may experience the book in a completely different way. They may not even enjoy it. But that is okay, because the purpose of fiction is not so that it can be enjoyed in one, formulaic way. It is meant to teach us how different we all are.
A good work of fiction tells the story of how an individual or a group of people navigate through a specific scenario or life in general. We get to peer into their thoughts and emotions, while wondering how we would act if we were in their shoes. It teaches us empathy by showing us that people think and act differently to us. We can learn from the characters’ developments how we can tackle our own life problems or worries. It provides a safe environment for us to explore our inner psyche, our insecurities and traumas.
Lastly, remember that just because you travelled to a place once, it does not mean that you know the place. You might have only looked at the key sights and missed how the locals live, or maybe you were not even aware that a certain area existed. Much like this, what you take away from reading a book can be quite variable. The more you immerse yourself, connect with the characters and reflect on the book, the more it will add to your life. You might also find that the second time you read the book, your experience is very different because you have matured or have new problems to deal with.
Now, think of a book that you loved reading. What made the experience so enjoyable? What thoughts or feelings did the book inspire? How did it add to your life?
One of the greatest types of non-physical pain is the feeling of being disconnected. This may be due to being physically separated from someone, such as when a friend moves overseas or when a loved one passes away, or emotionally distanced, such as when when someone stops talking to you for some reason or a partner acts uninterested in you.
As social animals, we have a strong desire to feel connected to others. In fact, it is one of the greatest sources of happiness for us. Connection gives us a safe space for us to express ourselves and feel accepted for who we are. It gives us room for emotional growth as we not only share our inner thoughts and feelings with another person, but also teaches us empathyas the other person tells us more about themselves. Lastly, it gives us a sense of belonging and feeling wanted and needed. Therefore, becoming disconnected from someone can feel as hurtful as if a part of you has been cut away.
The pain of disconnection can be so powerful that it is a common cause of affairs (particularly emotional affairs) in relationships. As a relationship matures and we grow older, people may prioritise other aspects of their life more, become stressed by work or grapple with their insecurities and anxieties. This may result in people becoming more withdrawn as they sink into themselves, becoming more distanced from their loved ones. If the reason for this is not communicated, the partner may easily think that the cause of disconnection is because they are no longer wanted or loved, and they may look for intimacy and closeness elsewhere.
So how do we remedy the pain of disconnection? The obvious answer is connection.
Firstly, we can restore the connection with the person we have been disconnected from. This may include more frequent calls and video chats with a friend who lives overseas, or communicating honestly with a partner to tell them that we are hurting and to explore why the disconnection happened in the first place. Without communication, we resort to assumptions based on our fears and insecurities, which can cause even more damage.
Secondly, we can seek different kinds of connections (but not having an affair). For example, developing deeper connections with other people such as friends, old and new, or finding people to enjoy a hobby or passion with together. The reason for feeling disconnected may be a temporary stress for the other person not involving you, so giving them space while distracting yourself is not a bad idea.
Lastly, if there is true disconnection because of a falling out where even communication cannot repair it, then we must accept the disconnection as a loss, grieve it, process it and move on. People come and go in life and unfortunately, we must accept that even relationships are impermanent.
The reason why disconnection causes so much suffering is because connection lets us be so much more than just ourselves, creating the magical equation of 1 + 1 = 3.
In other words, the feeling of disconnection teaches us to value and be grateful for the connections that we have in life and to encourage us to make more effort to maintain and foster those connections.
A word you never want to hear during a flight is “brace, brace”. It is used as an instruction from the flight crew to the passengers that there is an impending crash landing and everyone should assume the brace position. It is covered in the safety instructions at the start of every flight.
The brace position varies for each country and airline, but the general principle is to bend forward, putting your head either on your lap or against the headrest of the seat in front of you, having your feet flat on the ground and covering your head with both of your hands.
The purpose of the brace position is to maximise your chance of survival in the event of a crash landing. A typical passenger jet travels at around 900km/h. When a plane crashes, extreme amounts of force are exerted on the plane chassis and its contents. The following is a non-exhaustive list of potential sources of injury for a passenger:
Inertia and two-point seat belt (only across the waist) results in “jack-knifing”, where the body folds over at high speeds. This can cause catastrophic injury to abdominal organs and the spine.
Head and neck injury against the seat in front, resulting in anywhere between a concussion to bleeding in or around the brain. Even if the head injury is survivable, being knocked out or confused after a concussion reduces your chances of escaping the crashed plane before collapse, fires or explosions.
Whiplash injury of the neck.
Limb injury from flailing.
Injury from falling debris.
The brace position has been optimised over the last 20-30 years to reduce the risk of all of the above types of injuries, with multiple studies confirming that it is effective in reducing crash mortality.
Another positive news is that the risk of dying from a plane crash is extremely low. Your risk of dying on a flight is 1 in 60 million – far, far lower than the risk of dying from a car accident, being hit by a bus, a brain aneurysm or even being hit by lightning. Thanks to rigorous research, improved design and numerous safety features such as brace position, you have a 95% survival chance in an airplane crash, and even in serious crashes, the survival chance is 76%.
Of course, the minute percentage of plane crashes that result in fatalities tend to be non-survivable in the first place, but we cannot postpone death forever.
One of the hardest life skills to master in adult life is time management. We are constantly bombarded with tasks that demand to be completed urgently, atop our already massive piles of responsibilities. We are expected to juggle our career, relationships, health and happiness, without ever dropping the ball.
Technology has not helped this situation. Although we have tools that allow us to work more efficiently, such as word processors and the internet, they create even more work and there is a greater sense of urgency due to messages and emails being received instantly.
Sometimes, adult life just feels as if we are forever stumbling forward – barely clearing our urgent tasks in time for the next lot of tasks, while never being able to stop and consider what is truly important to us. So how can we balance that which is urgent with what is important?
Dwight D. Eisenhower once said:
“I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent”.
This inspired the time management tool called the Eisenhower Matrix, also known as an Eisenhower Box or the Eisenhower Method.
To use the Eisenhower method, we take all of our problems that we can conceivably fix (as there is no point worrying about issues beyond our control) and put them into one of the following four boxes:
If something is important and urgent, such as a fire in your kitchen or a loved one needs immediate help, then you should do it straight away.
If something is not important but urgent, such as a work email that is not an emergency, or household chores or paying the bill, then you should delegate it. This does not necessarily mean to another person – you could delegate by making the process easier for future you by soaking the dishes, or automating your bill payments.
If something is not important and not urgent, you should not even pay attention to it and just drop it. A good example would be checking social media for the tenth time or marathoning a TV show.
If something is important but not urgent, such as catching up with your friends or following your hobbies and passions, then you need to set aside uninterruptible time for it. For example, you could set aside a “life admin” time once a week where you reach out to your friends to organise a catch up, or set a “deadline” for yourself, such as giving yourself a month to improve and achieve a certain goal in your hobby.
The Eisenhower Matrix visually highlights the issues in your life that you need to deal with right now, while also reminding you that you need to take action and make time for the important things in life. It allows you to be more efficient with your available time by prioritising tasks and showing you that the unimportant things can wait, or be eliminated.
It also shows us that even though urgency is a useful tool to drive us to complete tasks in time, it can easily control our lives and overwhelm us. Instead, we should be responsive by identifying the important tasks and process them in a calm and rational manner.
Lastly, remember that life is not about being the most efficient, productive being – that would make you a machine. The Eisenhower Matrix accounts for the things that are not considered “productive”, but still add to our life, such as the things we enjoy doing and the people we enjoy connecting with.
You deserve to be happy and the only person who can make that happen is you. So if something or someone makes you happy and gives your life meaning, while not hurting yourself or others, then by all means you should make time for it.
In the end, the pursuit of happiness is without a doubt a productive activity.
There are life skills that are crucial to being a functional adult, such as doing taxes and time management. Then there are life skills that are not necessary, but can bring you great joy. Being able to flip a pancake without making a mess falls in the latter category. You could use an instrument such as a spatula or a plate to help, but it takes away much of the satisfaction. Here are some tips on how to flip a pancake successfully.
Firstly, the bottom side of the pancake needs to be cooked enough that it will maintain its shape during the flip. You can judge this by looking for bubbles rising to the top surface and checking that the top is not runny.
Secondly, the pancake must not stick to the pan. Use plenty of oil to start with on a non-stick pan, then slide the pancake around in a circular motion to confirm that it will easily slide off the pan.
Thirdly, the flip must be a smooth, rounded motion so that the pancake flips just the right amount. Tilt the pan forward so the pancake sits near the rim, then flick your wrists upwards so that the pancake slides up the rim, making an arc in the air, flipping 180 degrees. With careful hand-eye coordination, catch the pancake in the middle of the pan just when the uncooked side is facing the ground.
But above all that, the most important factor is confidence.
If you are not confident enough and don’t flick the pan enough, the pancake will not make a full 180 degree turn. It will quickly fall back into the pan on an angle, crumpling or folding it. If it wasn’t flipped high enough, you won’t have enough time to catch it properly and it may land on the edge, making a big mess.
If you are overzealous and flick it too hard, the pancake will go flying off or it will turn too much, causing the same problem as above.
Much like so many other things in life, finding the balance and having just the right amount of confidence can bring you great joy in the form of a delicious pancake.
When we look back on history, there are countless stories where we wonder: “what were people thinking?”. Time after time, people have banded together to inflict unspeakable horrors on other groups of people. Consider the burning of “witches” in Salem, the mass guillotine executions following the French revolution, the transatlantic slave trade, the Rwandan genocide, the infamous Unit 731 of Imperial Japan that performed inhumane experiments on countless innocent people…
Even now, there is no shortage of examples of how a governing entity chosen by its people punishes a subset of its own population. We see homosexual people imprisoned and tortured in Russia. We see refugee children being torn apart from their parents at border control in the USA. We see brutal state policing of ethnic minorities such as Tibetans and Uyghurs in China.
It is very easy for us to examine these stories with a judgemental microscope. How can these governments be so evil? How can the people be so foolish to elect this government? Why are people not rising up against these powers to restore justice? The problem is that it is far easier to judge people for their actions rather than their intentions, or the context and setting that triggered them. Let us take an infamous historical atrocity as an example: the Holocaust.
Although Nazi Germany was initially formed from a coup d’état, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party maintained overwhelming support from the German people throughout its brutal regime. We may wonder how such a large group of well-educated, culturally sophisticated and civilised people could be swayed to support the inhumane actions committed by the Nazi government, but if you look at the historical context, we can find some explanations.
After World War 1, Germany was in economic ruin due to the “total war” nature of WW1 using up resources, followed by the staggering reparations demanded by the Treaty of Versailles, with the final kick of the Great Depression. Inflation and unemployment ran rampant, leaving the populace hopeless and in despair.
But when Hitler rose to power, promising food, land and order, along with hopes of making Germany “great” again, those who had been sick and tired of their depressing situation rallied under the Nazi cause. The Nazi party capitalised on this desperation and vulnerability, using Jewish people and other minority groups as a scapegoat, blaming them as the cause of Germany’s downfall after the Weimar Republic. This allowed them to commit atrocities such as the internment and execution of millions of people, along with unprovoked war against the rest of Europe, by promising the people that it would provide more jobs, more goods and a better world for the Germans.
We can see from this case that a large part of how such a terrible situation arose was due to the desperation that people felt due to the context of global economic depression and the outcome of the Great War. If we simply judged the people for being “sheeple”, blindly following Hitler’s charismatic leadership and propaganda, then we would learn nothing out of this case study.
However, if we examine the underlying reasons for how this situation arose, we can see that the same horrors could happen again in our lifetime under similar contexts. This approach allows us to see current affairs from more objective stances and hopefully explore solutions, rather than just putting the blame on the people affected by their political, economic and historical environment. Furthermore, this frame of thinking helps us be less swayed by forces that are out of our control, as it lets us use our rational and logical thinking to make decisions, rather than our emotional reactions and survival instincts.
At some point in our lives, most of us have experienced a crush: an intense, emotional, almost obsessive attraction towards someone that we barely know. A crush, also known as infatuation, puppy love or limerence, has many distinct characteristics.
Firstly, we become overwhelmed with emotions of romance and adoration, to the point that it can affect our thinking and behaviour. We have daydreams and can’t stop thinking about them (“intrusive thoughts”). We imagine whole lives together with them, and may even be under the illusion that they are “the one”.
Secondly, despite knowing little about them, we idolise them as near-perfect beings. Sometimes, we even fool ourselves thinking that they will solve all of our problems, such as giving us a purpose in life or filling the hole in our hearts.
Lastly, it is unrequited. We keep our crushes secret and adore our crushes from afar. We fear that if we approach them and get to know them better, we will find that they are imperfect, or that they will reject us because they find us repulsive. To avoid pain, we don’t even try, resulting in even longer suffering.
Already we can see how a crush is not the most emotionally healthy phenomenon. Crushes are based on our lack of knowledge of the other person and our brain filling in the gaps with wild fantasies and idolisation. Our ignorance allows us to construct the image that they are perfect in every way. In other words, we are not attracted to the person because of their charming features, but because we lack knowledge of their flaws.
We are not in love with the person, but an idea of that person.
That said, crushes are natural, common and not necessarily all bad. The fact that it is so addictive is a sign of how much pleasure it can bring to someone, while being a testament to how much emotions and fantastical daydreams our brain can conjure. The key is to not let a crush fester and doing something about it. If your feelings are reciprocated, then it can blossom into a beautiful relationship. If they are not, then it is better to deal with it early so you can move on, rather than pining after something that never would have happened.
So how do we “treat” a crush? The answer lies in the fundamental flaw of a crush that it is based on a lack of knowledge about the other person. That is, the cure for a crush is to get to know them better. A relationship cannot grow without conversations. By spending time with our crush, talking with them and exploring all the little things that makes them a unique person, they transition from a mere “idea”, to a fleshed-out person.
An important thing to bear in mind is that your crush is just another human being. Like us, they are also flawed, imperfect, insecure and maybe even broken in some places. Perhaps it will be the strange way that they laugh. Or an annoying habit like chewing with their mouth open. Perhaps their flaws may make you lose interest. Perhaps you will find them even more attractive in light of their imperfections, because now they are more approachable, unique and personable, rather than a perfect god or goddess. To quote Robin Williams from Good Will Hunting:
“You’re not perfect, sport, and let me save you the suspense: this girl you’ve met, she’s not perfect either. But the question is whether or not you’re perfect for each other.”
Much like many other problems in life, a crush can only be solved by taking action and doing something about it. There is no shame in enjoying the flood of emotions for a little while, but if left unresolved, it will become toxic and damaging. You deserve a chance at being loved, and your crush deserves a chance of being judged for who they really are, not by the idealised picture you painted. This will also create a stronger foundation for a relationship, because there will be less unrealistic expectations of each other, resulting in happy surprises and discoveries, rather than disappointments.