Check out my new blog!

Hi all – I’m no longer using this blog but check out my new blog at

Thanks! Hope to connect with you there!


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The return of the generalist

When you think about Plato and Confucius, you probably think about their contributions to philosophy and politics. What you might not realize is that most of the ancient philosophers wrote about a wide variety of things. For instance, Aristotle wrote about physics, the history of animals, poetry, dreams, metaphysics, ethics, memory, prophesy, and more. Most of the early philosophers were generalists, explorers, and all around very curious people.

Many public intellectuals today also have this characteristic. I recently read Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker, who is trained as an experimental psychologist, takes his readers through history to argue that violence is on the decline. He reflects in depth on trends in politics, religion, biology, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Other curious generalists I tend to appreciate (even if I don’t agree with them from time to time) are Howard Gardner, Noam Chomsky, and David Brooks.

I recently started a doctoral program at George Washington. Doctoral programs are notorious for being ultra-specific. One’s dissertation is meant to be original research contributing to knowledge on a particular phenomenon, idea, historical event, piece of literature, or some other esoteric thing. In fact, when SAT or GRE prep books give example sentences to help the learner better understand the meaning of the word esoteric, they often will say something like, “The professor’s research was so esoteric that only a few people in her field understand it.” And while the nature of doing a doctoral degree is very specialized, I want to do everything I can do become a curious generalist.

How do you become a generalist? I think you become a generalist by following your interests, making connections across disciplines, and beginning to see how interconnected the world really is. One of my favorite teachers in all of life, Bruno della Chiesa in a class called Learning in a Globalizing World, talked about how, from a neuroscientific standpoint, making neural connections, discovery, and learning are extremely pleasurable. In fact discovery is one of the most pleasurable things the brain can experience.

Here are a couple of ideas. First, it’s important to follow your interests as best you can. For me, I remember becoming interested psychology at age 16 when I read Walden Two by the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner. Walden Two is a fictional story about a community based on Skinner’s understanding of behaviorism. I found it fascinating. I didn’t agree with Skinner and the sacrifice of personal liberty for the greater good in this fictional community. Actually in many ways I relegated the story to the same level as Stephen King who I also loved reading at the time. For a modern-day example of behaviorism but not to the extent of Walden Two, look at Singapore, which in many ways controls people’s behavior for the sake of the greater good. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s longtime leader, wrote an excellent book (albeit controversial to us Americans), called From Third World to First, which explains his ideas and reasoning for creating such a society. But back to the point. When I read Walden Two, it opened up a whole world of interest for me in the domain of psychology.

As I continued to explore psychology I became fascinated in religion and ethics as well.  What is right and wrong? How do you know? What does it mean to live a meaningful life? At Whitworth University I took core classes on Western civilization that reviewed history, philosophy, and policy. While I hated (and still despise) mass lecturing and what often felt like busy work, I found the topics in these core classes fascinating and applicable to life in many ways. I have continued to explore those ideas.

I also lived in Thailand for 4 years, which blew open my worldview and interests. I saw a whole new way of making meaning of the world, one that was based more on listening and acceptance rather than “understanding” and control. Culture has continued to fascinate me, so much so it appears now that my doctoral dissertation will likely revolve around the cultural component of learning. All that remains to be seen for sure, of course. My interests continue to evolve.

At the end of the day, to be a generalist means seeing the world as connected through space and time. It means following your interests, learning from others, and reading things you love. It means learning because you’re intrinsically motivated to do so. (There seems hardly a bigger tragedy in education than to learn because you have to!) Life is a surprising, complex, fantastic, and wondrous thing. Let’s be curious together about this amazing world we live in.



Be here now

This is the title to one of my favorite songs by Ray LaMontagne. It also seemed a fitting title to a short blog post regarding my reading this morning.

“For as Prometheus, which interpreted, is, the prudent man, was bound to the hill Caucasus, a place of large prospect, where, an eagle feeding on his liver, devoured in the day, as much as was repaired in the night: so that man, which looks too far before him, in the care of future time, hath his heart all the day long, gnawed on by fear of death, poverty, or other calamity; and has no repose, nor pause of his anxiety, but in sleep.” – Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Have no fear, friends. Life is beautiful. For me today I am enjoying a Sabbath – being mindful in the moment – laughing at silly things – thinking about compelling ideas – contemplating examples of love and redemption.
I also read a short essay on Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Robert Coles recently and this quote stuck with me and seems relevant to Hobbes dismal assessment:

“The heart of Bonhoeffer’s spiritual legacy to us is not to be found in his words, his books, but in the way he spent his time on this earth, in his decision to live as if the Lord were a neighbor and friend, a constant source of courage and inspiration, a presence amid travail and joy alike, a reminder of love’s obligations and affirmations and also of death’s decisive meaning (how we die as a measure of how we have lived, of who we are).”



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We learn when we ask.

“Often when one does not just accept something, the possibility of learning something significantly new emerges. And most great steps forward in development of mankind and society have taken place when someone did not accept a given truth or way of doing or understanding things.” – Knud Illeris, Danish scholar of education.

What a fantastic and simple idea: ask, learn, and innovate.

Here’s a few starter questions on my mind: What is the purpose of school? Why has the “back to school” section at Target not changed in 20 years with the exception of new cartoon characters on the notebooks? What does it mean to live?

I don’t think Illeris meant that one must always be a critic or contrarian. But in not accepting something we are compelled to learn. And who knows, maybe we’ll find out something we’re doing could be improved upon. Certainly, as Illeris mentions, this has been the modus operandi of the great reformers in history. But let’s not leave it up to great reformers. We are the reformers. And I believe to ask and learn is indeed a great task.

I hope to have the courage to ask sincerely, learn deeply, and innovate creatively.


Changing my focus.

Hi everyone,

I’m changing my focus a little with this blog. It is no longer “Making Meaning of Life in Southeast Asia” as I am now a student again and no longer living in Southeast Asia. I’m still, of course, making meaning of life as we all are and would love to continue writing if anyone will continue reading. Alas, I do not write to win the readership of others.

I write because I cannot not write. The words and ideas are moving inside of me and I can’t help but write them. The nice thing about blogs is that they allow us to share our ideas with others easily as a humble offering.

Here is my heart.

At the end of the day, to share one’s heart with another is the most valuable thing anyone can share. And I would say that receiving the heart of another–as you are all doing now–is of equal, if not greater, value.

I have a lot of ideas brewing in me these days as I’ve continued to try and embrace the complexity of this crazy world we live in. I’d like to continue writing them down here. I’m calling this blog “What it means to live” because it seems to be at the core of my desire to read, write, listen, learn, play, think, speak, laugh, and create.

It seems that I cannot do this without a community. I want to hear your thoughts, listen to your reflections, hear your stories. I won’t be posting this blog a lot on social media because I don’t want to write for others, which ironically can become a selfish end. I’m going to keep it low to the ground. Simple. Raw. And we’ll see where it goes.

Join me.



No Turning Back

“Men still want the crutch of dogma, of beliefs fixed by authority, to relieve them of the trouble of thinking and the responsibility of directing their activity by thought. They tend to confine their own thinking to a consideration of which one among the rival systems of dogma they will accept. Hence the schools are better adapted, as John Stuart Mill said, to make disciples than inquirers.” – John Dewey, Democracy and Education

This post is not meant to be a cheap shot at religion or public schools. It certainly could be, though. I’m more interested in how we learn and teach, how we communicate, how the media frames issues, how we like issues to be framed, and how we make sense of reality.

It seems to be true in my life that for most of it I was comfortable with “just tell me what’s the best thing and I’ll do/think that.” I preferred the easy way out. To begin asking the big questions is inevitably life changing, and once this journey begins it seems like there is no turning back.

I’ve begun down the road. The authoritative dogma (even from those I most deeply respect) is no longer satisfying. Truth, as other people see it, seems stale and empty. I am alone. The only way left is to continue the journey, to continue searching for meaning, to continue asking questions. There is no plausible return to the way life used to be. I cannot relearn the bliss of the past. And nor would I want to. I choose not to look back, to press on.



Sweet Home New Jersey

Made it back to Plainsboro, NJ yesterday. Good to be here. My mother picked me up at JFK and I spent some time with my little (not literally) brother. I got to see my newborn niece Waverly and my twin niece and nephew Sage and Foster as well. What a lovely family my sister Elza and brother-in-law Mike are creating together. I am so thankful to be a part of their family.

Jet lag is tough but provides quiet morning hours for reading and reflection. Sad to have left Chiang Mai but excited to begin life in the US once more.


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