Lifestyle

2017 Year in Review by Cassandra Lam

I attribute my inspiration for this post to the annual tradition of being digitally bombarded with all sorts of lists about the moments, people, and media that defined that particular year. As someone who personally struggles with remembering what she did last weekend, nonetheless 6 months ago, I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to document some of my discoveries, works-in-progress, and reflections as I begin to set my intentions for 2018. I'm already looking forward to reading this one year later as I'm hopefully drafting my 2018 Year in Review. There's a really weird adrenaline rush that comes with observing a temporally bounded chapter of your own life from a distance with an outsider's perspective. 

I've never believed in New Year's resolutions because why not live your best life daily? But I do believe deeply in designing the life that you want, including the unsexy work of laying a solid and strong foundation for your dreams to unfold. You can't reap what you sow if you're planting your seeds haphazardly in shallow and unfertilized soil! And with joyful exception to the experience of being hangry and wondering when your Seamless order will arrive just as the doorbell rings, nothing great ever happened by making a wish while sitting on your ass.

Theme of the Year

One theme has emerged over and over in my life this year - the importance of disconnecting to reconnect. I first mentioned this on Instagram when I returned from the Amazon Rainforest because it was topical after a couple days without cell service and WiFi. I knew in advance that would be the case during our stay and in fact welcomed the brief reprieve from hyper-accessibility. What I didn't expect was that it would be harder than easy breezy. The funny thing is that it wasn't the actual inability to contact or be contacted that bothered me; it was the in-your-face realization of all the ways I rely on my smartphone as a crutch. Rendered useless except for photos or journaling, my sneaky phone still found its way into my hands at unexpected moments. Sometimes, it would take more than a few seconds before I even noticed. I recognized then that my smartphone is a habit and a reliable source of distraction that my autopilot brain has been trained to crave. I've read and scoffed at many articles claiming the dangers of being slave to your devices, but I never believed it could be me! It's humbling to be proven wrong.

To extend this concept beyond devices, I've been personally exploring the art of purposely breaking life as we know it apart, especially when we recognize that it no longer serves us in its current state. Change can be uncomfortable, but shattering routine, normalcy, and comfort frees you up to rearrange the pieces into something new of your own making. Whenever I feel internal turmoil and friction bubbling up, I know I'm about to face a great shift. I consider the discomfort a reminder of our innate unknowable power and potential to create, build, and empower our future right here, right now, within ourselves.  It's a profound exercise in willpower and fortitude, but incredibly inspiring if you can overcome. 

Evolution comes in many forms and many times over the course of a lifetime. Sometimes it's forced by fate, but many times, it's the consequence of decisions we make. There’s infinite power and potential when you recognize that you need not wait for it - whatever it may be - to simply happen to you. At any given moment, we can choose to let what is old, stagnant, or toxic die to make space for the future. Rebirth is within our two hands and always just around the corner. 

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Highlights

  • Traveled throughout Brazil (my first jaunt in South America) with my best friend Reena Choudhry, where we developed a penchant for caipirinhas, witnessed the most intense thunderstorm in the Amazon Rainforest, and met Chef Alex Atala after a spectacular meal at D.O.M
  • Completed an 18-month fellowship with Revive the Dream Institute, an education nonprofit that develops emerging community leaders into education advocates
  • Authored a case study on the politics of public school funding in Vermont that was published by Edbuild in Making Change: Favorable Conditions for Education Finance Reform
  • Competed in Opera Open Semifinals (my company's internal innovation competition) where our team presented an app-based solution to provide electric vehicle drivers with optimized charging station recommendations
  • Took a leap of faith to pursue my first big passion project with Akin: digital storytelling platform that collects and elevates anonymous short stories 
  • Piloted and launched Communally by Akin: an intentional dinner series to bring Akin's mission to life by building community centered on practices of vulnerability, empathy, and storytelling
  • Recorded a fun interview with my friend Matt Scott for Let's Care where we discussed unexpected career trajectory changes, finding purpose, and the ups & downs of growing your passion project
  • Befriended the lovely Karen Mok, a fellow creator + storyteller + community builder, who is now also my partner behind a soon-to-be-announced initiative for AAPI women focused on tackling the question, "What does it look like for Asian American women to flourish and thrive?"
  • Maintained a dedicated yoga practice as I entered my 4th year as a lifelong student, found my wellness/spiritual family through Woom Center, and contemplated the right time to undergo yoga teacher training 

Lessons

1. Treat gratitude like Sriracha and put that shit on everything!


Think of your favorite sauce or seasoning. How does it change the taste of your food? What's enhanced or elevated in your experience of eating? Everything is somehow better, even if the kitchen made a mistake and your mashed potatoes were a little cold, right?

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I began treating gratitude as a serious and intentional practice this year. It stemmed from a feeling of finally hitting my stride in New York, which emboldened me to put myself out there in a ways I had never done before. Three years ago, I could not have done any of the things I did this year. I simply wasn't capable given my physical, mental, and emotional state of affairs. So what changed?

I realized that the people I surround myself with are my source of power.

They are endlessly inspiring, funny, talented, creative, supportive, and best of all, seriously fun to be around. By being themselves and sharing their lives with me, I am empowered to be myself too. When I started to notice how good this all felt, it became easy to recognize how my community impacts me and how many teachers I have all around at any given moment. Taking the perspective that I am and will always be a student, willing to learn from anyone and anything in front of me on my journey of self-discovery, I can't help but overflow with thanks. It's become my personal duty to inject love into each hug, handshake, or smile I share with the people who make me feel abundant.

In most things, there is virtue in moderation but when it comes to gratitude, I'm shamelessly overzealous. Seasoning my life daily with it has been life-changing and I believe it shows in my demeanor. If you need a visual, imagine those frustratingly crappy pepper shakers that release just 5 specks per shake. They're annoying and useless because nobody wants just 5 specks - you always want more! Rip off the top of the shaker AKA the barrier keeping all those wonderful specks of gratitude pepper out and shake happily away! 

2. Time and attention can be created, but never taken back. Use with care and good intentions!

 

Whatever your creative outlet or side hustle, I learned this year that if you're working on something outside of your full-time job, your concept of time, free or busy, will radically change. It simply must be spent a lot differently than before. Sure, this sounds glaringly obvious, but in reality, it's pretty freakin' hard to adjust to. I waved the transition away easily at first because I likened it to cramming for finals week in college while friends who finished exams earlier got to enjoy the break.

However, unlike college which provided a structure to follow, your 5-9 time slot is what you make of it. No one's holding you accountable except yourself, and self-discipline is hard because you can push the guilt away for later. In practice, it requires daily sacrifices - saying no to others in order to say yes to yourself, using weekends as work time, scheduling phone calls and hang outs in advance, and being a bit more unreachable than you might like to carve out space to create.

Naturally, I frequently found myself feeling drained, lonely, or exhausted. But I also discovered a new appreciation for the concept of time and attention that made me more mindful, thoughtful, and present. Now, whenever I make plans with people, it feels extra special because it's a decision I am consciously making in alignment with my goals.

3. Self-care is not a joke; it's a survival tactic.


I'm a chronic over-committer who constantly struggles to strike a balance between what I need to do for myself and what I want to do for other people. I've always known that being around people makes me happy, but I'm still trying to figure out what that ideal composition of personal vs. social should be. There were a few times this year when I had to last minute or near last minute pull out of a commitment that I realized was a disservice to my well-being or an overextension of my energy. I really dislike doing that to other people out of respect for their time so I'd like to continue fine-tuning this balance.

I'd also like to factor in time to process and formulate opinions on various aspects of my life as part of my self-care routine. I tend to careen headfirst in the fast lane as that's my default pace for all things in life. It can be an exciting way to live but, as it turns out, really shitty for reflection and learning.
 

4. Sleep is not for the weak; it's for the wise.


It's official and I can no longer deny what my body needs - I realized this year that I need 8-9 hours of sleep per night to operate at my optimal level. Given the nature of my full-time job, my unwillingness to give up my evening yoga practice, and the projects I'm involved in, it's proven awfully tricky to get into bed at a decent and consistent hour.

I started using the Sleep Cycle app to monitor my sleeping patterns and train myself to wake up on the right side of the bed (i.e. not in REM state). It's improved my mental focus and chances of being clear-headed enough for creative work in the hours before my full-time job. However, as a naturally nocturnal person, I struggle with putting things down in the evenings and pay for my stubbornness in the mornings when I'm chugging caffeine like nobody's business. My sleep schedule should reflect my priorities or else I'm choosing to operate at less than my full potential, which sounds outright silly when I say it aloud.

5. The most important job you'll ever have is to become yourself.


Everything that's happened this year forced me to look inward for strength and ultimately, peace. I am as Type A as they come and am used to operating with a belief that I can plan for everything that life hurls at me. So it took a tough year like 2017 to really clarify a truth that I've been in denial of since birth - we can't control anything in the world except for ourselves. This includes how we choose to perceive things that happen to us, how we react vs. act, and what we hold onto vs. let go of. Contrary to belief, surrendering to this ultimate truth is not a sign of weakness or giving up. It's an embrace of what actually is as opposed to what we think or feel. It's laser focus on what actually matters without being misguided by feelings or expectations. It's self-preservation when we choose only to allocate time, energy, and attention to what we can actionably do to move forward.

I've been trying to learn how to get out of my own way by clearing the blockages or superficial distractions that used to dominate my life. Instead of letting my expectations rule my life, I'm coming to terms with the fact that none of us really know what's best for us in the moment since we can't look into the future. By making space mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, what I truly need can make its way to me.

Anthem

2017 has undoubtedly been a year of fights on many fronts. This song is consistently at the top of my playlist because it illustrates the catharsis that awaits when you break through a struggle. It's great to listen to whenever you need a little reminder of your own strength or if you want to flip the bird at something (or someone) standing in your way.

The Muscle Memory of Loss: How Yoga Saved Me from Myself by Cassandra Lam

This October will mark 3 years since yoga saved my life.

I’m reminded of it each year when the final days of September melt away to welcome earlier sunsets and cooler evenings. One sniff of autumn’s first crisp air and I'm teleported right back to where it all started. To where I started. This visceral reflex, once capable of robbing me of breath and voice, lands differently now, but still hits me hard. I twitch from time to time from the muscle memory of loss. The difference is now, I don’t break.

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In October 2014, I was reeling from an unexpected break-up that put an end to a serious relationship with someone I thought, just maybe, someday, I might marry. I was deeply in love and it was devastating. It was really hard for me to cope – we had been swept up and intoxicated by each other from the start, delving into the most interesting conversations for hours on end, studying with undying interest each other’s souls. Then, we were nothing.

The pain of separation in the aftermath was crippling. It often brought me to my knees on the bathroom floor where I would sob alone until I exhausted myself enough to sleep. Other times, I'd curl up tight into a ball under my comforter, clutching my stomach, sometimes screaming into my pillow in anguish, wishing that I didn't have to face the world. I hate pretending that everything is okay when it's not, but never as much as I've always hated people asking me, "Are you okay?" for weeks on end.

We broke up on September 27, 2014. I remember the date vividly because we met up after I took one of my best friends out for a belated birthday dinner in LA. Perhaps it was naivete, but I was so brutally unprepared for what was to come. The remainder of the conversation by now is one big blur, but I'm certain I was reduced to a blubbering puddle of tears. To make matters worse, the terms of our particular break-up were extremely complicated, layered, and fuzzy. It was the kind of break-up where you couldn't point a finger at anyone or say with confidence what the right decision or best path forward looked like. There was no winner, just two losers, neither of whom had answers to the big questions looming over our heads.

Have you seen the movie 500 Days of Summer? The male protagonist, Tom, goes into a dark spiral after his girlfriend Summer breaks up with him. While I’ve never been the kind of person to wear struggle publicly, I felt like Tom on the inside – beaten up, emotionally volatile, and stuck on replaying the what-ifs. I didn’t know what to do with myself to silence the din of shitty thoughts in my head. 

To make matters worse, I had been in a rut all summer in a couple different ways:

  1. I was starting to dread coming into the office because of the politics and personalities
  2. I increasingly realized I didn't love my job and my career wasn’t where I wanted it to be
  3. I felt directionless and questioned my decision to not apply to law school
  4. I had been itching to find my community but couldn't seem to break out of my own circles or comfort zone
  5. I kept comparing myself to friends who had found their passion, their THING to excel at and succeed in, and criticizing myself for not having accomplished the same

The break-up was the final straw that broke the camel's back. I felt like I was free-falling towards rock bottom. Any day now, I expected to hit the pavement and smash into smithereens. To my surprise, I landed on something much softer. My yoga mat and this ancient practice saved me.

In desperation, I threw myself into the deep end of my yoga practice. It was the only thing in my schedule that shut my mind up and put a pause on the real world. At the time, I was practicing at Hot 8 Yoga in Santa Monica, a studio down the street from my office. I went to class religiously ~6-7 days a week, sometimes taking 2 classes a day on weekends, pushing my body to its limits in order to feel something, anything, other than pain. The heated studio cut right through the mental fog I struggled with in reality. I became addicted to the way my heart beat strong in my chest during these 60-90 minutes of class; it reminded me that I was still alive. My practice became the one thing I looked forward to every day, a brief reprieve before I relapsed into dark places again. It was a sacred ritual for myself by myself.

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After each class, I’d walk out of the studio and take a deep breath of fresh air, feeling so purified from head to toe, but dreading the slow, awful return of reality. In the beginning, it would hit me hard just 20 minutes after class ended during the car home. But slowly, that became 25 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours. I grew stronger and saw my body change in fascinating ways. My scrawny arms could finally do a proper push-up. I could inhale and exhale deeper than before. After years of terrible posture and at times, excruciating pain, my back finally found relief. Eventually, I stopped seeing a chiropractor altogether because yoga took care of my issues. But the most stark change of all was in my mind. My thoughts, usually so loud, critical, and relentless, had started to quiet down to a manageable pace. Instead of my sadness dominating my consciousness every waking moment, throwing me into a reactive state where I had no power over my emotions, I began to feel more in control. I could breathe and reckon with my new reality.

The reminder of once being broken came really close to making me bitter and hardened. Going to bed with only your demons to keep you company takes a toll. So does waking up enshrouded in darkness and fatigue. Some days I wanted to give up. But eventually, I grew tired of being this sad, shriveled, and cowardly version of myself. I realized to move past this, I had to fight for my own transformation. It was, and continues to be, a sobering and humbling process. The road, peppered with ugly moments, doesn’t lead to glory or redemption for a long time. But if you keep at it and do the work, even sadness has the potential to metamorphose into something beautiful.

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The Japanese created an art form dedicated to celebrating the beauty in broken things. Kintsugi is a method of restoring that which is broken with a special lacquer mixed with gold, silver, or platinum. Rather than hide the cracks, kintsugi philosophy is dedicated to celebrating the history and reality of an object by making something beautiful out of its own imperfection.

And that, to me, is the practice of yoga.

Dancing in your darkness to truly know yourself. Running towards your demons to feel the things that typically scare us in order to taste freedom. Coming to terms with the natural duality in life that's required to appreciate happiness. Recognizing my brokenness with sincere humility and love instead of shame. Finding the courage to forge something more powerful, beautiful, and sacred in the face of the ugliness that makes being human inexplicably wonderful. Acknowledging that I will forever be a student of my own struggles with so much more to learn. Understanding that ultimately I can only control myself, but that if I know how to do so healthily, my Self is all that I’ll ever need.

P.S. Kintsugi is also the name of the last album from Death Cab for Cutie. A couple months after the break-up, I packed up my things and flew cross-country to move to New York. When this album was released in Spring 2015, I saw the album cover art and felt drawn to the philosophy behind kintsugi. Carrying that knowledge - that new beauty is made from imperfection - into my healing process, I felt, for the first time, that my own transformation was coming. That it was already underway. I didn't need to wait for any signs to start becoming myself again. And No Room in Frame was my favorite song off of this album for these opening lines:

I don’t know where to begin
There’s too many things that I can’t remember
I disappeared like a trend
In the hum of the five in the early morning
— "No Room in Frame" by Death Cab for Cutie

Podcasting into Productivity by Cassandra Lam

Podcasting has recently taken over my life, and I absolutely love it. 

Since I moved to New York City in 2015, one of the absolute sweetest changes in my everyday life was the elimination of the need to drive to work (or anywhere, for that matter). Unfortunately, that's definitely not to say that I'm spending less time in transit. Whether on foot, on the subway, or in a cab, New Yorkers always seem to be on the go. Unlike in Los Angeles, however, where I was often found stuck behind the wheel, rendered useless, miles deep in a morbid sea of brake lights, this time in transit can actually be utilized for something! I've been obsessed with life-hacking my own daily routines lately to increase personal productivity and efficiency so I set out to find something useful that I could do with this time. 

Something I constantly struggle with during the week is finding the time and energy to stay current on both things going on in the world and things that personally interest me. While I thoroughly enjoy going on a good Internet news article binge as much as the next person, sometimes you simply can't afford such luxuries. And frankly, I find it overwhelming to sift through the fluff on the Internet to find quality pieces that are worth reading. So until there is a TL;DR button for everything that exists online, it remains a chore to get accurate and well-written information. Even with news aggregators such as Feedly, there is still an abundance of material to sift through daily, if not hourly. It's a lot for a set of tired eyes and a sleep-deprived brain to attempt to consume. 

This is where the wonderful world of podcasting comes in. Like many New Yorkers, I've adopted the habit of carrying headphones around everywhere, which makes it easy to tune into the things that matter to me on the go. It’s been a few months now, and I can honestly say I’m much more informed than before. Podcasting has given me a lot of joy in knowing that I am better utilizing all my time spent in transit. It has also empowered me to be more productive with my time overall, to stay current on the topics that matter most, and to feed my curiosities. If you have an interest, niche or not, there's likely a podcast for it, which makes it a fun exercise in discovering unique content! The added sense of accomplishment you get from multitasking like a champion is just the cherry on top. 

I found that diving headfirst into podcasting can be overwhelming at first. Hopefully the list below proves helpful as a starting point. Enjoy!

My Top 5 Podcasts of 2016:

  1. Slate's Double X Gabfest
    Feminism, like many other topics, is incredibly complex, diverse, and intersectional. As someone who's trying to do the work daily to uncover what exactly her feminist beliefs or stances are, I find it really helpful to listen to what others are thinking or saying in this same space. In a sense, it helps to put my thoughts into context and it informs my own decision-making.

    Double X Gabfest is hosted by 3 women - June Thomas, Hanna Rosin, and Noreen Malone. Each episode follows a similar format whereby the women discuss a handful of highly relevant topics (mostly drawing from current events) from a feminist perspective. Perhaps my favorite thing about this podcast is that the women don't always agree with each other. In fact, sometimes it's outright disagreement that leads to really thought-provoking arguments and eye-opening discourse, all of which lends more support to the fact that feminism is quite multidimensional. 

    Most recent episode: The Women and Headphones Edition
    My current favorite episode: Actually Good News for Women Edition
     
  2. Vox's The Weeds
    I am a closet policy geek, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. I was recommended The Weeds from a good friend and I can't get enough. This podcast satisfies my heart's every little policy craving! The Weeds combines the tackling of highly relevant topics with discussions of policy, the implications of said policymaking, and really smart commentary.

    The 3 hosts (Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and Sarah Kliff) do a great job of summarizing each topic so that anyone listening in can understand. Similar to Double X Gabfest, the hosts each hold their own opinions and butt heads at times, which makes for really stimulating discussion. Each episode follows a similar format whereby the hosts discuss a few topics and then analyze a recently published white paper by dissecting its findings or approach live. 

    Most recent episode: Best Census Ever, the Trump Foundation, and Class Discrimination
    My current favorite episode: EpiPen Prices, the Clinton Foundation, and Lead Exposure
     
  3. Freakonomics Radio
    The majority of the reason why I enjoy Freakonomics is because I love the way Stephen Dubner presents information. Plus, the wide range of topics they cover, though sometimes seemingly disparate, on this podcast are pretty interesting questions I often have myself. This is one podcast that feeds curiosities I didn't even know I had but am extremely satisfied to have indulged in after I've listened to an episode.

    Most recent episode: Should Kids Pay Back Their Parents for Raising Them?
    My current favorite episode: Is the World Ready for a Guaranteed Basic Income?
     
  4. Slate's Political Gabfest
    Keeping up with politics and government on a day-to-day basis is confusing. Trying to do all of that during election year? Even more difficult and exhausting given all the mud-slinging, media bias, and drama on the campaign trail. When in doubt, I reach for Slate's Political Gabfest to break down the craziness of the American political system into digestible, if not also insightful, pieces. It doesn't hurt that David Plotz, Emily Bazelon, and John Dickerson also have such a powerful dynamic that lends so much credence to the arguments or analyses presented in each episode.

    Most recent episode: The “Hack, Sputter, Cough” Edition
    My current favorite episode: The “Get That Baby Out of Here” Edition
     
  5. New York Magazine's Sex Lives
    Sex is not taboo! It's an integral part of human life, and it's healthy to have forums where people can comfortably talk about their own experiences and learn from those of others. The existence of the Sex Lives podcast is representative of a growing movement in support of shifting the mentalities towards sex in the media and in society. It's really cool to encounter resources that aim to strip the stigma surrounding sex so that people can talk openly, healthily, and honestly without shame. Personally, I find it incredibly fascinating to interpret or dissect human behavior as it pertains to relationships, which is exactly what this podcast does!

    Most recent episode: Are the French Better at Sex?
    My current favorite episode: Is Dating in New York Actually That Bad?

Out of my love of music, I'd like to start the tradition of sharing a song with each blog post. Here's a current favorite to kickstart your week!