Universe Has a Way of Shaping Us


Star field with person looking up at it

A while back, maybe 7-8 years, one of my friends from high school was in town. We got in touch and set up a time to go out for a beer. We had a lot to catch up on, both of us got married, moved several times and changed several jobs. We became friends due to similar background, similar interests, personalities and general outlook on things. What surprised and struck me the most was just how different we became in the time that passed. I remember sitting there and thinking, this is really not the same person that I knew back in high school. And I’m sure he felt the same about me.

Then again, my own wife, with whom I’ve been together for the last 16 years, lately been telling me (in a good way), “you are not the same person you were 3 years ago.” Seems it’s time for me to face the reality and accept that we all change. It’s just part of nature and who we are.

But how does this change happen? This is the question that’s been on my mind lately.

The change doesn’t just snap and happen in an instant. Instead, we are continuously shaped by what we think and what we come in contact with. And often, what we come in contact with will influence what we end up thinking. Every event in our lives, every interaction with other people and our environment adds into our brains new patterns, new knowledge, new thoughts, new ideas. A lot of these ideas come and go, but some become ingrained and stay with us for a very long time.

I often go back to a series of events that in hindsight had a very drastic impact on me, but as I look back, seems each of them was almost a random occurrence in itself :

Spring 2015

  • In the middle of an argument (what software engineers call “philosophical discussion”) with JJ, don’t even remember what the actual topic was anymore
    • To make a point, JJ, pointed me to The Hacker’s Diet with intent to have me read the section that talks how “Many difficult and complicated problems require a combination of the skills of management and the insights of engineering.”
    • Read the section and jumped right back into the sparring match.
  • Some combination of the author’s tone, voice or deliver left enough of imprint on me to put the book on my reading list where it ended up sitting for over a year.

April 2016

  • I decide that I’d like to be a manager and lead a software engineering team.
  • I did not start off as a great (or even good) manager. I had the drive and the intentions, but those good intentions did not always translate into good impact.
  • My boss and I had a rough start, and this was one thing that she repeatedly drilled into me: “Dude, you need to be more mindful. Got to pay attention to yourself, your speech, your state of mind and how you react to other people”.

August 2016

  • Realizing how much I’m out of my depth in the new role, I turn to books. The book I ended up picking up was Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
  • To keep the scenery from getting too static, I generally read 2 or 3 books in parallel. As I happened to finish something else right around same time, next one at the top of the list just happened to be The Hacker’s Diet

Early September 2016

  • Finished the Drive and on the final page, my kindle displayed few other recommended books. Something there caught my eye: “Willpower Instinct”. Instinct, eh? About willpower, eh? Alright catchy title, click on a link just see what the description says about the book.
  • Started reading the Willpower Instinct

Late September 2016

  • Decided to change dog walking route. Being curious what the new distance, I pulled up a tracking phone app. 45 minutes later I am back home, pull out the phone, look at the report and it shows 1.5 miles walked. Excellent. And then I happen to glance at another number on the screen: 150 calories burned.
  • 1 hour after the dog talk
  • My wife says, “Hey, want some tea?” -- of course I want tea; “want some cookies with that?” -- of course I want cookies, I love cookies.
  • She puts the box in front of me and the nutrition label happens to be facing me and I’m reading:
    • “serving size 3 cookies; calories in 1 serving: 150”.
  • There’s a click in my head:
    • These 3 cookies, which will not even give me that much satisfaction are about to undo 45 minutes of walking a mile and a half.

January 1st, 2017

  • I start the new year with 25 lbs less than I was that night coming back from walking a dog

I lost the weight and kept it off, but I gained so much more through the experience of those events:

In Willpower Instinct, the homework at the end of Lesson 1 asks you to try meditating 5 minutes a day. There’s that concept again, “mindfulness” Starting that homework became the beginning of my regular meditation practice.

My blood pressure and resting pulse rate are both at their lowest point ever. In the middle of The Hacker’s Diet there’s a chapter on a simple exercise ladder that take less than 15 min in the morning. Sad fact mentioned in that book: if you do that 15 min exercise, you are already more active than 87% of U.S. population. 2.5 years later I still exercise every morning

I discovered as you lose weight, you body actually wants to be active. I’ve tried few things and now I’ve settled into doing yoga 3 mornings a week *Since I started meditating, I dusted off another book I had, Buddhism Plain and Simple because I wasn’t sure if I was meditating “right” and that set off a whole different chain of events.

Every time I think back and reflect on how things played out, I am incredibly grateful to JJ, my boss at the time, Melissa, the authors of those books and that box of cookies. But in my opinion, what I’ve mentioned so far isn’t even the most significant and important takeaway from this tale.

What if I didn’t have that argument with JJ on that day? What if The Hacker’s Diet book never came up or I never saved it in my reading list? What if my Kindle came up with different set of recommendations and I never discovered Willpower Instinct. Yep, I wouldn’t write about any of this. Maybe I’d write something else. Maybe. We’ll never know.

The universe shapes us. Things will happen to us and each one of those things will change us in some subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways. We do not have control over the universe and it would be healthy to simply accept that fact. But just because we do not have control, that does NOT mean that we do not have influence.

That is the ultimate challenge here: It’s up to us to learn where and how we can exercise the influence over ourselves and the world around us. And just like with everything else, by repeatedly practicing the acts of learning and exercising, we have the capacity to even get better at doing that over time.

We, the humans have a ton of potential, but how much of that potential goes untapped when we simply drift through life, allowing winds and currents decide where we end up. What would we do if we could take control of the steering wheel? Where would we go? Where would we want to end up?