My Personal Bible: 2017 additions including The War of Art and The 4 Agreements

Personal Bible is a collection of your favorite wisdom, notes, and passages that you can – like the Bible – read and re-read and absorb and memorize and integrate wholly into your life. Over the years my own collection has grown to include poems, book notes, article excerpts, and even a Bible passage. I formalized the document last year and try to update it monthly and read from it nightly. It’s one of my daily habits but not one that I actively track.

Below are additions I’ve made in 2017. You can download my latest version here. Feel free to read or edit or fork your own!


War of Art by Steven Pressfield [Kindle]

  • Resistance will unfailingly point to true North — meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing. We can use this. We can use it as a compass. We can navigate by Resistance, letting it guide us to that calling or action that we must follow before all others. Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.
  • The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.
  • The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it. Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance.
  • The conventional interpretation is that the amateur pursues his calling out of love, while the pro does it for money. Not the way I see it. In my view, the amateur does not love the game enough. If he did, he would not pursue it as a sideline, distinct from his “real” vocation.
  • The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come.
  • The ancient Spartans schooled themselves to regard the enemy, any enemy, as nameless and faceless. In other words, they believed that if they did their work, no force on earth could stand against them.
  • When Arnold Schwarzenegger hits the gym, he’s on his own turf. But what made it his own are the hours and years of sweat he put in to claim it. A territory doesn’t give, it gives back.

The 4 Agreements by Miguel Ruiz [Kindle]

  1. Be impeccable with your word
  2. Don’t take anything personally
  3. Don’t make assumptions
  4. Always do your best

Tim Ferriss [source]

  • What’s the least crowded channel?
  • What if I could only subtract to solve problems?
  • Am I hunting antelope or field mice?
  • What would this look like if it were easy?
  • One former Navy SEAL friend recently texted me a principle used in their training: “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.”

Journey from a lazy sort of atheism to “religious and figuring it out”

At nine years old, I had no idea what the word atheism meant. And if you asked me to define religion, I would probably have told you it was something families did together on Sundays.

At twelve I learned for the first time that humans had evolved from monkeys. The idea seemed weird because people didn’t look or act the least bit like monkeys, but the facts were right there in our thick hardcover textbooks and my teachers seemed certain of it and my parents didn’t seem concerned.

At seventeen I was a resolute atheist, convinced that even if there were a God, such a belief was intellectually unprovable. As a high school junior I was grasping calculus and chemistry and Romeo & Juliet and felt like I had real knowledge. Atheists wherever I encountered them – among the student body, among our teachers, talking on TV – always sounded like the smart ones, a step quicker than the rest, and I wanted to be like them. Religion by contrast seemed the province of the lazy and dogmatic and less educated.

At twenty I had become equally lazy in my atheism. There was no safe place to argue against evolutionary theory at an elite liberal arts college. Besides, all my friends were fellow atheists and agnostics. Plus who had the time for it? Even though, to be frank, the religious students on campus seemed to be better people. Better role models. Kinder, more patient, more convicted.

At twenty five I had just moved from Manhattan to San Francisco and there was a slow but steady tectonic shift in how I perceived society and what I wanted from it. After a two year taste of the corporate working world, I had come to the conclusion that it truly sucked. Four more decades of this? No way. No way. And as those foundations of self-identity began to crack and crumble and pop, so too did a lot of the habits and drive that had been built on top. Perhaps I was still atheist, but I saw for the first time that I had really been religious all along, chasing modern Gods: of status, of wealth, of consumption.

At thirty I was in bad shape. Two corporate years in New York were followed by five entrepreneurial ones in Silicon Valley. The tech startup experience, after the novelty wore off, didn’t feel all that different. In some respects I felt like I had reached the end of a familiar rope. I was pretty open to any solution, really, and asking all those annoying questions that have no answers: What’s my purpose? Why are we here? How do I best spend the rest of my life?

Today, two months shy of thirty three, I am neither atheist nor agnostic. I am religious, and growing more so. There is simply so much good there, and wisdom. Regardless of whether it is factually accurate, or scientifically proven, it is an important sort of truth. Like love and market capitalism, if enough people believe it, then it can be true to us.

When God is dead, human beings – much to their detriment – are at risk of taking psychological centre stage – Alain de Botton

Which religion do I believe? All of the lasting faiths, for starters: Christianity. Buddhism. Islam. Hinduism. Judaism. I don’t buy everything they sell, but it’s nice to shop around in the marketplace. There is tremendous wisdom in religious faith, wisdom that has helped save me from some dark places, wisdom that should be celebrated and shared, that gives you a new-yet-old way of seeing the world and your place in it.

Religion is not a discrete choice between yes and no, between belief and denial. Rather it’s useful to think of religion as a process, a journey akin to self discovery. A journey not unlike psychoanalysis or life coaching or self-development or life hacking. But a journey that has been around for thousands of years, trodden by billions of people going as far back as Buddha and Hillel. And the journey is given living testament today by billions of people around the world, in every country, island, and hamlet. When it comes to civilizational influence, no modern institution – not elective democracy, not market capitalism, not silicon technology – can hold a candle to Krishna and Yahweh and the Holy Spirit.

Protestantism has been most accessible to me given my American suburban middle class upbringing, with its open door churches and uplifting group songs and parable heavy sermons and interracial communities. Buddhism with its eastern roots also appeals to a Chinese hyphen American like me. And the usefulness of Buddha’s teaching in today’s world, with his emphasis on slack over speed, on detachment instead of engagement, on empty fullness not hoarding.

But it’s really just a start. I’d like at some point to observe Ramadan, attend a Passover Seder, witness a Quaker silent meeting for worship. And so on, across the world’s great religious traditions and around the world.

I went to church for the first time in high school. Or was it middle school? Memory makes silly putty of time as you age. In my memory, anyway, some close friends and I were Sunday guests of our science teacher and her immediate family. Sitting in the smooth mahogany pews, dwarfed by the hall’s high ceilings, feeling as if I had walked into the hollowed remains of a medieval castle. Turning right and left to see rows and rows of beaming and laughing white faces. All dressed fresh as a first day on the new job. The late morning sunlight streaming through stained glass windows. The whole program comforting in its ritual and structure and a sense of this is how it should be. Everyone no matter how good their voice or how high their confidence, singing together in simple chords to holy words. I remember nothing of the pastor or what he said. But sitting there next to childhood friends, next to our teacher whom we adored and her loving family, a family for whom this weekly practice was second nature, I glimpsed a future life that I too could have, one in which these Sunday mornings and this bonded community was a sort of religious rock that secured you against the world’s fickle winds.

Granted I am exaggerating and simplifying to make a point, but that two hour experience sparked a sense of wonder for a world I was wholly unfamiliar with, and the little spark, like a planted idea in the movie Inception, grew and grew in the coming years.

One came out of the church with a kind of comfortable and satisfied feeling that something had been done that needed to be done – Thomas Merton

When I tell my parents about this newfound interest in religion, my Mom seems genuinely interested, as she does with seemingly any new development that I share. My Dad’s reaction is a mix of amusement and fear. “Just don’t join a cult,” he says with a forced chuckle.

I’ve never asked them about their religious beliefs. It’s barely a rung below talking about their sex lives. But from what I can gather, they were agnostic products of Mao era China, outputs of a one-party government that forbade organized religions as a threat to its ruling power.

Raised in a third tier city with no substantial endowments, Mom and Dad had fought their way to America and started anew, building over the course of two decades a comfortable and upwardly mobile suburban Texas life. A life lifted out of your standard 90s network sitcom: two new-ish cars in a covered garage, a pool table in the upstairs entertainment room, and a then-top shelf 90mhz Dell computer.

If religion had been part of the family practice before they emigrated from China, if my Grandparents had routinely gone to temple or read aloud from the Bible at night, then such a habit may have survived and even helped my parents as they launched their new American lives. But immigrating to a new country, particularly one as colorful and crazy as the States, is like holding two full-time jobs: one in which you work to pay the bills, and one which you struggle to survive the strangeness of each day. There was no time to pick up religion, as either a hobby or an immediate source of relief.

Later on, they had plenty of opportunities to find religion but it never happened. Maybe the spiritual seed had never been planted or, in my Dad’s case, there was little soil in which it could grow. Or maybe, as their salaries grew and job titles expanded and life’s little luxuries began sprouting up here and there – like a $150 pool cue stick for Dad or a fancy SUV for Mom – life became good and you fell into a comfortable routine and becoming Buddhist or Catholic would be a complete disruption to that soothing rhythm. In other words there was no crisis. Maybe finding faith requires either bottoming out or reaching an empty pinnacle. Either way you’re faced with annihilation and maybe only then, like Tolstoy or a 12-steps fanatic, do you seek God.

I’m just talking out of my ass. But for me the seed had been planted in high school, and then water and sunlight and fertilizer were poured intermittently over the years. Freshman year of college, I lived down the hall from a devout Christian Hawaiian, a good and cool guy who hosted discussions about faith in his dorm room, and who made himself available anytime to talk about God. Except in his eyes there was only the one God, the New Testament kind, and in our discussions I struggled to accept his unmovable certainty that He was the one God who mattered, knowing full well that even in our very dorm there were tens of people who would passionately argue otherwise. Can’t we all be right? Can’t there be multiple truths?

If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is the mind’s worst disease. – Sengcan

But I was glad to have the discussion, the opportunity, the filling up, even if my mind felt an uncomfortable dissonance. It’s like eating at a Las Vegas buffet. You won’t enjoy every dish, but if you’re hungry then you’re gonna find something that pleases you.

Another aspect of college religious life that I remember was the organically segregated and deep faith of American born Koreans. They blended religiosity and culture so thoroughly that it was hard to distinguish the two. I found this a tad ironic since the international Korean students were entirely indifferent and uninvolved, content with their cigarette breaks and kvetching about exams. Yet the ABK religious community was as courteous as it was homogenous. Individually, apart from their small groups and fellowships, they were like any other lost brimming undergrad. Their group tightness did make me uncomfortable, but it also showed me you could have both a secular identity, and one of deep communal faith.

After college came the intro to the adult world, an uphill walkway of deadlines and responsibilities and “positive feedback”, but also of earning a salary and planning your own trips and real growth. But what I remember most from that decade is a growing doubt, a gnawing uncertainty that the highway I was driving down, in fact had been strenuously trying to speed across, was indeed the right one. I’ve written about this concept before, the so-called overachiever highway, so I’ll gloss over this part except to say that it worked pretty well for me until it didn’t.

The key to being happy isn’t a search for meaning. It’s just to keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you’ll be dead. – Mr. Peanutbutter

But organized religion says there is another way. One that I slowly discovered with every church visit and spiritual book and meditative session. I came to see that mosques and temples and synagogues provide a foundation upon which a solid life – and a family and a community – can be built. A life that emphasizes caring instead of striving, compassion instead of knowledge, about feeling small before all of the universe’s wonders instead of feeling small because you don’t quite measure up to some unrealistic comparison to your fellow man.

In return, though, religion asks for a lot. It demands your best. Potentially your whole life. But that isn’t the entry price, and I’m certainly far from striking that deal. As a first step, faith requires a lowering of your guard, an opening of your heart, a willingness to believe.

If religion is an opiate of the masses, then modern materialism is an opiate of the individual soul. Succeeding in today’s world – through making a higher salary, having your own company, earning peoples’ approval, acquiring shinier baubles – can numb you, can put your values and virtues and deeper hopes to sleep. But at some point all of us are forced to take the red pill like Neo in the Matrix, to accept reality the way it really is. Maybe it’s a personal tragedy that opens our eyes. A depressive episode. Drugs or a failed marriage or having children. Or simply an inspiring movie. Whatever it is, like Neo, we swallow the truth pill and the veil is pulled back and reality is revealed. We see for ourselves, we see for the first time, where our choices have led us. And I’ve seen – for myself – that I chose the wrong idols. Confidently worshipping at the altar of material prosperity and technological progress, thinking that the Gods of faith were outdated, irrational, irrelevant.

They aren’t. We need them more than ever.

I still resist many aspects of faith, to be sure. Some of this resistance will never go away. I can’t reconcile the Resurrection with my knowledge of human biology, Judgment Day with my knowledge of history and physics, Nirvana as an attainable attribute in any lifetime. I can’t bring myself to join a Christian small group, worried that one of two things would happen: a doubt-riddled me would become argumentative and combative and make himself unwelcome, or perhaps worse, the crowd-pleasing me would outwardly smile and play along for the sake of friendship and acceptance. In addition, despite interest in faiths other than Christianity and Buddhism, I have taken no solid steps to explore them beyond reading accessible texts on my Kindle and talking to affiliated friends.

But religion has showed me so much already. You cannot read from a book – whether the Bhagavad Gita or the Qu’ran or the Gospels – that has prospered thousands of years without being transported to a different elevation. Shown a view of the world that is rooted in deep solid time. Like a soulful grandpa times a hundred. All great art does this and religion has mastered it. Before such enormity you are small and insignificant, a speck before Allah and Vishnu, but in appreciating the divine, you become part of the infinite.

We have never had more control over our physical world, never known more about behavioral psychology and artificial intelligence and self-assembling nanomaterials. Yet the more we know, the more we should feel overpowered and overshadowed by what we will never control. We’re adrift on a powerful tidal wave that is techno-civilization, and organized religion can help us build an ark of stability, shelter, and guidance. For some this is frightening. But in the right light, it should be tremendously comforting.

That’s it for now. Thanks for reading. My thoughts are disorganized on this subject and there is just so much to learn. In future essays I’ll write about what beliefs and practices organized religions have in common, why I think we need to study and live faith more than ever, and how we could bring the best of humanity’s talents to improve on religious life as we’ve improved on every other man-made thing.

$30B Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing shares gems in this Bloomberg interview

was a refugee from China to HK during the Japan invasion

“cashflow is the most important thing”

“whatever industry I get into I buy books about that industry”

believes in a Western management model mixed with a Confucian life philosophy

wears a simple Citizen solar-powered watch and runs his watch 30 minutes fast because he can be anywhere in HK in 30 minutes (!)

named one of his two holding companies Cheung Kong after the Yantze river because many other rivers flow into it, metaphor for how he should be (welcoming and truly modest, not just superficially so)

“I’ve always believed that it is very important for people to have faith”

his life philosophy in two sentences:
1. Always be industrious
2. The virtuous welcome onerous duties

framed a share of AIG stock, explains that AIG was worth almost $200B and seemingly overnight dropped to $17B, losing 91% of its value. serves as a reminder to his two sons: manage the company carefully, “don’t invest like gambling”

Daily Habits Checklist (February 13 – 26): REAMDE and the irony of freedom

Skipped a week (February 6-12) because I was sick for most of it.

I continue to underperform, again due to business travel. But this past month had a useful outcome, which was to help me realize, again, perhaps for the last time, that I’m just not ready for, nor interested in, a full-time job or business project.

I’m going to focus instead on writing – random essays, short stories, maybe a sci-fi novel. And with the increased flexibility and reduced travel of a writer’s life, the habit scores *should* rebound.

Current book: REAMDE by Neal Stephenson. The title is not a typo. A techno-thriller about a brilliant businessman, an addictive MMORPG, a group of young Chinese hackers, and a spunky girl geek turned heroine.

Current quote:

True freedom is impossible without a mind made free by discipline – Mortimer J. Adler

Observations on bachelorhood and dating apps and whatnots

I find it hard if not impossible to stay in a relationship. Yet I’m tired of being alone. For going on 7 years now, I’ve been in this gray limbo. Bookended between a desire to be intimate and committed and consistent, and a need to be free and independent and selfish and for myself.

My last serious girlfriend moved out of our shared apartment when I was 25. Since then, I’ve jumped so deep into the bachelorhood rabbit hole that I’m starting to doubt there’s an exit, at either end. Looking strictly at the numbers, my dating life has lasted for about 15 years, from freshman year of college to today. In that decade and a half, committed relationships account for 4 of those years, or about 25% of the time. Only one quarter, which also means that for 75% of my adult life, I’ve been single. If I live to 80 and maintain the same ratio, then I’ll be in a relationship for 12 of those years, and alone for 36. Three and a half decades of more of the same…I can’t take it.

Occam’s razor would say, I’m single because I don’t want a relationship more than I want to be single. I’m too comfortable with bachelorhood, doing as I please, with no lifestyle collateral and no emotional stakes. There’s some truth here. Every past relationship has ended upon my initiative. Maybe the desire really isn’t there, at least not to overcome the inertia of solitude. Perhaps, despite statements and wishes to the contrary, my actions paint a simple picture: of a person who can’t let go of the freedoms and carnality and masochism of bachelorhood.

The move to Asia was intended to help me shake things up. If you keep playing a game and never win, then change your strategy. As a college educated Asian American guy with some disposable income, I couldn’t ask for a more favorable environment to find a girl. Now that I’ve been here for a year – time spent mostly between Taipei and Shanghai – my outlook is about the same. Feels a bit like an ouroboros, running furiously in circles only to realize I’m chasing myself. Despite meeting some great people, I’m still single, and in that year the longest relationship barely survived 4 weeks.

What follows is a long winded essay (forgive me!), in some ways just a collection of related observations, about love and failed dates and baggage and Tinder. Why I’m 32 and single. Why I can – but somehow won’t let myself – settle down.

Since college I’ve had three serious girlfriends

The first relationship lasted perhaps 20 months. It started in high school and the powerful drive of first love was enough to carry it for almost another year of long distance. The second one lasted a year. The third not even 11 months which I’ve rounded up. So you can see the trend.

The first one was real, it was torturous and overwhelming and ecstatic. She was my first love and the only great one. No one can take that away from me – I use “me” instead of “us” because I haven’t spoken to her in a decade. Sometimes I daydream of what would happen if our paths crossed again. Most likely nothing: too much time has gone by, too much hardening of the heart from bad experiences, too many calories of the heart. Life pushes you farther and farther away from a road you had once walked intimately together.

Aside from those three, I’ve had a number of brief recent relationships. Not quite flings since I saw real futures with both girls, but the relationships were disappointing both in how long they lasted (neither more than six months) and how they ended (with a whimper, not a bang).

Ok, that’s not entirely accurate. One of them ended quite literally with a bang. One of those post-breakup “we feel an awkward sadness here, so let’s make love right now, pretend everything is ok for a few minutes, and let our physical desires squeeze some pleasure from the emptiness that will immediately follow” kind of things. We did it on the couch, during the day, while mostly clothed, and with the blinds raised. This was the first time they’d all been combined in this way.

But I digress. The ending whimper I’m referring to is of the emotional kind. In both cases, there was no good reason to break up, no smoking gun of an argument or hookup or betrayal. I simply wanted my freedom, a resumption of the bachelor life. Freedom from relationship duties, freedom to reactivate Tinder, freedom to masturbate without guilt, freedom to pursue other girls.

There is no discernible pattern when I look back on these relationships, what with the many years that have passed, the state of my deteriorating memory, and the natural complications and forgotten nuances of every human-to-human connection. It reminds me of a paragraph from writer Karl Ove Knaussgard’s memoir, an observation of his own childhood now changed by his experience as a father:

Seeing her grow up also changes my view of my own upbringing, not so much because of the quality but the quantity, the sheer amount of time you spend with your children, which is immense. So many hours, so many days, such an infinite number of situations that crop up and are lived through. From my own childhood I remember only a handful of incidents, all of which I regarded as momentous, but which I now understand were a few events among many, which completely expunges their meaning, for how can I know that those particular episodes that lodged themselves in my mind were decisive, and not all the others of which I remember nothing?

All relationships work like this. Who can say whether the episodic moments we remember and write about and tell stories of really were significant, and not just imagined fiction that our brains plays on us in the absence of better things to do?

But breakups – breakups are different. They are easier to analyze. Like endings to movies, they are simple, bold, singular. And there is a clear pattern in my breakups that can be traced back, in dotted line fashion, to my second girlfriend. This relationship began early in my junior year of college. We had been together for a school year and were fresh off a summer apart, I in New York on a finance internship and she in Chicago working and volunteering. In a small fit of fear and fantasy, I decided to break up with her to start senior year. Fear because my animal instinct sensed that her feelings didn’t measure up to mine, and mine were only burrowing deeper. And fantasy because a unique opportunity had revealed itself to hookup with this other girl, someone who was new and different and right in front of me.

Breakup accomplished, newly single me went ahead with the hookup. Only it didn’t happen. In the gray and wet and hungover regret of the next day, I had tried to get back with her. She said no, because she possessed even then an intuitive wisdom that far surpassed my own. I still loved her, and I was genuinely crushed and didn’t appreciate in the least bit the situational irony. No matter how I tried, she wouldn’t take me back and it was my first excruciating sting of unrequited love.

To escape, I spent almost half of senior year either high or drunk or hungover. It was this particular breakup, cascaded as it was by a poor sequence of decisions, ending in hopeless heartache – and deservedly so – that caused me to internalize that love can cause a kind of unending pain. There is a real hell on Earth, and funny enough, it exists on the same plane as heaven. I resolved never to let it happen again. Limit the downside at all costs. Enjoy what upside you still can. But don’t let anyone shatter you again.

Three years passed and I found myself in a third relationship. The lesson had gone nowhere, was present and sharp and ready for action. As soon as the relationship grew unsteady and uncertain, my defenses activated and I began to emotionally isolate myself. Placed my feelings into a makeshift box, then casually pressed on the box until it was flat and collapsed. The strategy was simple: Break up in my head, then break up in real life. The strategy worked so well – so terribly efficient – that it became my most reliable relationship tool.

Ratchets and baggage

Age has made me pickier, especially about looks. Five years ago, I could walk into a bar or club and find at least a handful of interesting girls to pursue. Now I find some flaw to fixate on and deem it not worth my time. She’s too loud, it would take a lot of energy to talk to her. She’s showing too much skin, just wants attention. She’s too quiet, I’d have to put in all the conversational work. She’s dressed so conservatively, must not be very fun. The conclusions contradict themselves. But it’s easier to think them than take a real risk.

Chris Rock used to joke that while women can’t go back in their lifestyle, men can’t go back in what their women do in bed. What he means is that women won’t let go of private jets and Louis Vuitton to return to a life of economy flights and Kate Spade. Men, meanwhile, can’t return from a high energy freak in the sack – if that’s what they like – to a steady diet of missionary and cowboy.

Relationships in the Chris Rock sense, then, are like a ratchet. You can only ratchet one way. Like people in their jobs, and kids at school, you only want to be promoted and move upwards and onwards. Unlike most guys, my ratchet is not sex. I’m happy with vanilla sex if I’m in love. Even prefer that, probably. But in reality, our ratchets are many and changing.

Take for example one of my recent girlfriends as a case of ratcheting up the good. She was an amazing cook and a natural caretaker around the home. In fact she was so easy and efficient about it that I almost didn’t notice. Like good health, it was a quality I appreciated best when it was taken away. I remember a particular morning when I left for work. Returning at noon, I came home to an apartment that had been cleaned and vacuumed, dishes washed and stacked, and a lunch plate of couscous and chicken with a thoughtful note left on the counter. Oh, and she was vegetarian. Didn’t eat meat, yet she cooked probably the best chicken dish I’d ever eaten. Made me cry the first time I tried it. A culinary sucker punch that one was.

Ratchets are just a transfigured version of that old baggage concept. Once you’ve experienced X, you either want more of X or you want Y. Over time you develop preferences that are specific and stubborn. Such preferences, like whether a girl is punctual for your dates, can grow out of all proportion to their intrinsic value. Some people have preferences so strong they even have a phrase for them: deal breakers. You might break up with a girl because she triggered one of your deal breakers. The possibility of true and lasting love, dashed because someone is twenty minutes late. But for you (for me), it’s never about the twenty minutes. It’s about her respect for your time, her selfishness, her inability to follow schedules and plan ahead. Punctuality is just an example, but the general attitude is a poisonous one and I have dosed myself with it for years.

Men as a kind of hollow index fund

In some ways, men appreciate like an index fund in the dating world. As we age, our perceived value increases in a slow and steady fashion. This phenomenon was particularly clear in my late 20s, when I started to attract the kinds of girls – particularly in looks – that were out of reach not five years before. That kind of growth and progress is misleading and addictive. At some point the ride will stop. It always stops. At 32, I no longer see before me a gradual hill to climb, but rather a bumpy and expansive plateau. Because I’m in Asia now, I’ve sustained a kind of valuation increase that all well-educated foreigners receive out here. But aside from the geographic boost, my market value is starting to dip. In fact that may explain at least partially my anxiety at settling down. If every year things were going objectively and undoubtedly better, why would I settle? Like the beginning of another Chris Rock joke, a man is only as faithful as his options, no more, no less…

Younger girls

Another piece of the dating game that puzzles me: why do I prefer younger girls as I get older? As a college sophomore, I was more attracted to the seniors than the incoming freshmen. The seniors were hot, to be sure, but there was also a depth to what they said and did. You admired them. Of course at 32 the idea that 21 year old girls are admirably sophisticated is pretty funny.

But eventually the preference flipped. It maybe happened in my late 20s. I began to find girls in their late 20s and early 30s unappealing. Maybe I see in them a lot of the qualities I don’t like in myself: the growing cynicism, the emotional defenses, the ebbing energy and enthusiasm of simply being alive and gifted. Like Anais Nin says, we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.

So today I like younger girls. Mid to late 20s, but even this year I’ve dated girls who barely graduated. There is some guilt, but it doesn’t last. Spending time with them eases my own worries, makes them feel lighter and fuzzier. It’s a portal back to a cleaner, simpler time. Maybe it’s just nostalgia. Maybe in seeking younger partners we are just seeking our younger selves.

The mobile generation

We are the most mobile generation that’s graced this planet, and we will surely be surpassed by our children. Mobile in the iPhone and the mobility sense.

The world is shrinking. Planes and trains become faster and more frequent. Cars can drive themselves. And the digital world – oh the digital world. Get whatever you want at the tap of a button. Even a few taps is sometimes too much. And yet we demand more, faster, now, yesterday. Everything accelerates. We live in more cities, stay in more hotels and apartments, have and change more jobs, make and lose more friends. It’s never been easier to get someone on a 10 minute Skype call, and it’s never been harder to meet them for a slow coffee. Even weekend brunch can feel rushed. People arriving late, out of breath, without much of an apology. People needing to leave early for some other overscheduled commitment. On a Sunday.

The more job changes we make, the more countries we tour, the more cities we live in, the harder it becomes to maintain relationships. Good luck keeping the same circle of friends for a year, much less a generation. People come and go and we’re getting used to it. Some people grow to prefer its casual nature, its lack of risk. I might be one of them.

And in dating, this mobility and optionality can be great fun – it gave me the opportunity to learn that Hong Kong girls, for example, take more initiative in seeking dates than LA girls (who wait and hem and reschedule). But this is not commitment. It is its opposite. As the Chinese say, 日久见人心 (it takes time to know a person’s heart). How can we put in the slow hours, the honest talks, the moments of nothingness that real relationships require, when you spend half your month traveling Europe for work, and in the 2 weeks you’re back, you’re both exhausted and behind on said work, and she has friends visiting for the weekend? So we learn to make more and more sacrifices of our time and our schedules, thinking all the while that’s the important stuff, forgetting that it’s really not.

Online dating and hot girls

This is my last and biggest bugaboo. I don’t even know what the word bugaboo means but it sounds about right. I’m addicted to dating apps and it’s a problem. Tinder, how do I quit you. Except it’s not just Tinder. There’s Coffee Meets Bagel and Bumble and here in Asia Tantan and Momo. In the past there was Skout and even the vintage Match and OkCupid. Can’t delete them, can’t stop checking them, yet unable to find a girlfriend through them.

Perhaps I use the word addiction too lightly here. It’s like the addiction others have to Facebook, Instagram, Minecraft. Tech addiction, to tech drugs. A self aware addiction, with an inability to stop ourselves.

There’s a sad irony here: I spent several years detoxing from Facebook, annoyed and frustrated and jealous of the popularity echo chamber it had become. On Facebook I couldn’t escape the tyranny of other peoples’ opinions, but I didn’t have the courage to express my own when they differed. Today I’m proud of the fact that I barely check Facebook and don’t have a Snapchat account and never log into Instagram. Yet I’ve gone and replaced one digital addiction with a wholly different one. The old Facebook has been replaced by the new Tinder, and you could argue this one is worse.

Pretty much anytime I’m alone and I’m in a semi-private place, I’ll rotate through the dating apps to swipe and type, swipe and type. Lying in bed at night, with Netflix streaming in the background, I’ll go through this routine for thirty minutes, maybe an hour. Swiping and typing. I’ll even catch myself opening Tantan right after I’ve closed it. An automatic response, almost a soothing one, like scratching your neck when you’re nervous. The app equivalent of continually refreshing a website, knowing there are no updates, and you still do it and you kinda enjoy it.

Dating apps, like younger girls and mobile lifestyles, have their positive and negative qualities. They absolutely make the dating market more efficient. Like Facebook does for friendships and reddit does for gossip, Skout and Coffee and Match make human connections that would otherwise not happen. That is valuable.

But life is a double edged sword. If you only see one edge – often the good one – then you’re missing the side that can cut you. For starters, dating apps teach you to care most about surface attributes. For guys, how tall are you, what school did you go to, what’s your job. For girls, what’s your body like, how pretty are you, how old. It’s the anchoring principle in psychology. If you’re continually shown a parade of hot young girls, posing seductively while wearing designer bikinis on tropical beaches, you start to believe that you have access to these girls. Maybe you even grow to expect it. There is a little of that beautiful sentence from Kerouac’s On The Road, “a pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.”

I’m exaggerating, to be sure. It’s not that bad. We know inside that this is just a game, that looks aren’t what really matter, that those girls spend hours snapping and editing and tagging the perfect photo. Half of those hot girls don’t even reply to my messages. They’re trolling for likes and attention. I know one girl in China who has 20,000 likes on Tantan but doesn’t have a single ongoing chat. The half that do reply, you’re lucky if you can get more than single word replies.

Why do they bother? Then again, why do I?

There are certainly interesting girls on the dating apps – many of them. I’ve met some of them. But the slow damage has been done. “Interesting girls” no longer really register on my radar. Some part of my online-dating-trained brain thinks #1 there are a lot of them out there and #2 I just want to date the really hot ones.

Side note: I swipe right to 99% of the girls because that’s the most efficient strategy. Filter and unmatch later if you need. And yet 95% of my matches – in different cities, over many years, using multiple profile pics and varying personal descriptions – are either Asian girls or black girls. I have better luck with white and Hispanic girls in person, but online dating? No such luck. The results are what they are.

I’ve almost continuously used these apps for 5 years, with the exception of those brief relationships. And each time a relationship ended, I felt a distinct surge of excitement as I reinstalled the apps. The endorphins charging up like they do in anticipation of a good workout or a finished project. Wondering what good things happened in that world while I was away. Today the turning point of a fledgling relationship is no longer an awkward conversation about whether you’re “official”. It’s when the other person deletes Tinder.

Dating apps are good for playing a quantity game but not for quality. Not for quality. At least for me, if the goal is a real relationship, then dating apps haven’t and won’t get me there. I’ve had at least 100 dates through these apps and while I’ve stayed friends with a handful of girls, no relationships have come from them. Every relationship that’s lasted more than a month has been from weddings or through friends.

Quantity just doesn’t motivate me anymore. I never really cared about my “number”. Among guys I have at best an average sexual appetite. Even when the sex is available and convenient I often won’t take it. Sure sex is enjoyable, but depending on who I have sex with, the afterwards can be nice and cuddly or a small platter of guilt and loathing. Reminds me of that DFW phrase from Infinite Jest, That having sex with someone you do not care for feels lonelier than not having sex in the first place, afterward.

So why continue using these apps? The same reason people stay in dead end jobs, the same way unhappy couples don’t separate. Right now, I just don’t see something better. Besides, I’m used to it.

A conclusion I guess

No real conclusions here, just some observations. I had written about these topics before, but I didn’t read that old essay before writing this one. Maybe I should.

Most of these are familiar lessons and observations. We talk and think and read and consume them all the time. We know that relationships are about making a commitment and commitment is a choice and we need to choose to make it work. We know that relationships are fun and exhausting, sad and exhilarating, and the harder you work at them, just like your career or a home garden, the more you get back. That love is messy and gritty and requires courage and above all patience.

Knowing is necessary, but only doing is sufficient. Now where does that leave us? :)