I am going to talk about the art of my life and how I came to it. It is going to be a long article since it spans my whole life. I cut many things off, but it is still quite long. So please bear with me.
As a kid, I enjoyed playing very much (http://freestone.wordpress.com/2007/03/14/the-meaning-of-life/). Seeing that adults often get bored of life, I thought about it. My conclusion was that they forgot playing because their ability didn’t grow as they grew older and thus they could not play as much fun as they were kids. As you grow older, your ability is supposed to grow so you can open a new world, keep encountering fresh and exciting things, the curiosity keep going. And you enjoy on a higher level. So I decided that I have to keep improving myself so that I can keep playing and enjoying the same kind of fun as I have enjoyed when I was flying a kite, swimming, catching the dragonflies, hiking, and playing games with other kids (http://freestone.wordpress.com/2007/03/24/where-i-grew-up-a-tribute-to-gatto/).
In my high school, I was fascinated by knowledge. I was exposed to the beautiful literature world by a great Chinese teacher (I always have a tendency to write. But my primary school Chinese teacher sucks.) I also enjoyed all the thinking in mathematics and physics. I was determined that my life is to learn and enjoy all the fruits of human civilizations throughout the history, e.g. to learn human being’s experience in history. I am also determined that I want to pursue business. China was undergoing a rapid economic reform at that time and it was very exciting. I also saw that fighting in the business world is like a general in the wartime. I want to be a very good general. Doing business seems to be a way to be a general in peace time.
So pursuing my dream, I tried not to waste too much time on my engineering coursework while in college. During my freshmen, I felt I knew nothing about society. I was very eager to know about society. I didn’t want to get occupied by my engineering classes. I divided my classes into three categories: classed that I won’t miss a single class, such as the computer and electronic related classes; classes that I will attend once in a while; classes that I will only go to final exams (some classes are just totally stupid, but you have to take them in China). Fortunately, Chinese higher education system makes it easy for me to do so. I often do reading or work on my computer until 3 or 4 am in the morning, then got up close to 8am, ran to classroom, sat straight and listened carefully. When the bell rang, I immediately slept on the desk. After the bell rang again, I sprang up from the desk and kept listening. For the homework, during the first year, other students copied my answers (I did pretty well for my freshmen year. Then I found out getting No. 1 in college is too easy and I got more important things to do). But after the freshmen year, it was quite often me copying other people’s answers. I normally just thought it through, wrote the steps down, skipped the calculation, copied the answer from other people estimating it should be roughly the same answer from my steps. Sometimes, I read novels in class. Some novels are so funny that I almost laugh out loud in class. Every morning, I used to stand 20mins before the newspaper window, scanning through all the newspapers. Later, I found there is no news to read. Then I only read the entertainment sections and sports sections in the newspapers. I often stood in the bookstore scanning books (I bought a lot of books too. I just cannot buy all the books I read.). During the first summer of college, I stayed one month in school trying to read all the books in the library (later felt too lonely and bored and thus ran back home). In my senior year, when I walked into bookstores again, I found all the books are just copying each other. There were too few great original writings in China. I took quite a lot of liberal arts courses in my undergraduate. Almost all of my optional classes are liberal arts courses, with subjects in ancient Chinese poetry, novel reading and writing, photography, calligraphy, classic musics, western arts appreciation and so on. I went to various guest lectures and speaks on campus. I learned a lot more from those speakers than from my classroom.
I was also exposed to Rock and Roll at that time, and totally subscribed to its rebellious and ideal spirits. China’s rock and roll in the 80s and early 90s are very much the same kind of music and spirits as America in the 60s and 70s. Coming out of culture revolution, a lot of emotion and reflection went into rock and roll. It is the arena that individuals can get expressed. I got a lot of nutritions from those musics. Damn it, they don’t teach these at all in school. I also enjoyed western classic music later in my college years.
I did quite intensive study of culture revolution in my freshmen year. I read almost all the books in the library related to culture revolution. It was one of two darkest time I had in college. (The other one is the mandatory military training in the second summer, which makes me see the utter pervert of the military and set my opinion on military as something totally unnecessary and not doing any good, although personally I liked many of those low rank soldiers coming to train us.) It was all very horrible things. I was never exposed to those personal accounts of those horrible stories in the culture revolution. So many people jumped into the lakes just because they lost the hope of seeing the end of the dark time. Some survived only because they endured a little long enough and saw the light at end of the tunnel. Life was reduced to merely endurance and survival. There was no dignity at all. Ugly personalities were on full display. Why people lost mind and did all those crazy horrible things? This happened in my culture, which I had always been very proud of. It was conducted by people who still live around me, and of whom I am part of. We are always proud of the long history of our culture. But if a culture having that long history was still not mature enough and still made such a horrible mistake, then there was something deeply wrong with our culture. All the reflections (still quite restricted and had to stay in a certain boundary, and the real question still not answered) of culture revolution allowed me look deeply into my culture. Any modern Chinese has to study culture revolution. That is the great resource to understand our culture. The school doesn’t teach that.
Since China’s door was opened by the opium war, Chinese intellects didn’t stop questioning our culture. Those reflection is our greatest treasure in my culture. The school only teaches very reduced and filtered version of that treasure. My extensive reading got me exposed to this treasure, knowing what had been thought of. Living in Chinese society I was trying to provide my own answers. Without self-initiated learning, this great treasure passed down through generations won’t be inherited by me. Knowing their struggles and what they had sacrificed generation after generation, naturally I became part of the story. Many Chinese are very proud of being Chinese. But if they learned nothing of our greatest treasure, in a sense are they really Chinese? It is ironic that school teaches patriotism but doesn’t want you to be a real Chinese.
It was a crazy time then. I was mad in learning all kinds of things. Whatever I didn’t know I wanted to read it and understand the experience behind it. My mind got very messy. 🙂 And I was full of all kinds of emotions.
During my second summer in college, I didn’t go back home. I tried to find various jobs to do in the city of my university. So in the year of 1997, when China just started Internet networks, I was promoting Internet in China, trying to get companies to go online. Later I sold toothpaste, spring water to the grocery stores on the streets via direct sales. Also worked for a restaurant for a while. These experiences are very vital in my life. With reading, ideas and thoughts are just scattered. With business activities, thoughts can be filtered, channeled into tunnels, flow and have impacts. Through sales, I learned how to make judgment. You don’t learn good judgment through reading. You learn that through action, through interaction with various kinds of people in various kinds of situation. When promoting Internet or selling stuff on the streets, many people tried to humiliate me. It was hard not to be angry. Then I learned that no one can hurt my dignity except myself. I learned to make friends with various kinds of people, even very difficult people, and actually enjoyed it a lot. When doing sales job, I had to challenge myself a lot. I had to change myself. I learned that I should change myself bravely. If something that is good in me and really me, it cannot be changed. So by trying hard to change myself is actually a way to find out my real self. For example, while some people did whatever means they could to get profits, I always have bottom line. That bottom line is not conventional morals such as no cheating. It is a principle I developed myself: don’t harm other people. I just cannot do whatever including harming other people to get profits. I also learned that I have to improve my performance by improving my ability. That lesson is very important for me in Chinese society. There are too many moral dilemmas. The only way to deal with them is to improve your ability and play on a higher level. This is the way I see how I can make friends with various kinds of people and still keep my principles. So you see, doing sales job had very profound meaning to my life. School or reading will never teach me that. There are also many other thinking skills and abilities I learned when doing business activities. After going back to school, this ability diminished very fast. School is just such an isolated environment, and reading is so different from action. I went to listen to business classes in the business school. When I saw that the teachers teaching pricing had never bargained on the streets, I laughed at it. It is just totally another dimension of knowledge that they were never exposed to. When in the real world, in business, people’s minds are very flexible. No one plays by the artificial rules. It is all about breaking the rules, bending around the rules, achieving the end more directly. What the hell are they teaching in the business school?
Through my experiences in business activities and my liberal arts reading, I learned how to tell lies and what is more reliable information that I need to base my decisions and actions on, which is a very important living in China. Later I found that skill also helps me to tell lies in America.
When I was junior, I went to work as a volunteer in the Chinese Tea Museum, and started learning of Chinese tea culture. I did quite a lot of reading, thinking and some practice. Learning Chinese tea culture opened my eye to ancient Chinese history. Although we always were taught of Chinese history and ancient literature in our classrooms, learning Chinese tea culture intensively by myself provided me a very personal and deep experience with ancient Chinese and understanding of them. It is through this that I was able to see the great fruits of my culture and the serious scaffold that was put on it and how the culture was shaped accordingly. Studying Chinese tea culture also opened my eyes to the art of smell and taste, and thus understanding of arts in a deeper sense .
Also in my junior, I finally encountered a great novelist. He just died that year before his novels finally got published. Having read many novels in China, I think he is the only true novelist of modern novels in China. He said that during his stay as a foreign student in the states, he read all the interesting books that he wants to read in the west. I got the greatest fun reading his novels (also learned a lot from his view on Chinese culture and history). I learned enjoying the fun of life and being creative with the language. He found the way of how to write beautiful Chinese. His novels read like poetry. BTW, I need to mention that he was very good at mathematics and he wrote his software to help him rearrange various sections of a novel.
At the end of my junior, I got very bored of school. I also got bored of reading. Different from my freshmen year, I already saw and understood a lot of Chinese society. In my view, it is very difficult for individuals to make themselves in China. Thus I want to go to another place, the western world, to take a look, to see my chances. I also knew that I cannot totally understand China without really in touch with western culture. Thus I started my preparation of going abroad.
During that time, I met a girl. I have to mention this because she really changed me. Although I had been fighting very hard in my life trying to change myself, some change would be too hard through my own efforts. Just a sentence or a simple action from her can teach me in a very unexpected way. She told me Life is Colorful, and showed me various levels and aspects of the meaning of that through her very natural flow of personality. Before with her, I always need to reason: why I need to do this, what I need to do and so on. But when with her, there is no need to reason those anymore. It is direct experience. She is beauty. She is nature. She is the whole reason. I am not anxious, always wanting to go somewhere else anymore. That is the base of our experience. Without that experience, any thinking is useless.
With all these experiences, I came to prepare for my graduate school entrance exam in China. Having a very short time to prepare (since I also need to look for jobs and apply for schools abroad), I told myself that I had to study the most efficiently. I called it the third brain revolution (the previous two were in my middle school. I will talk about that later). It was a huge success. I finally put everything I learned together. I figured out the best way to learn (here is my summary of learning after that time http://freestone.wordpress.com/2006/12/08/a-summary-of-learning/). Because my liberal arts and business experience, my mind is very flexible. Thus I was able to learn tech very freely and apply various ways of thinking (Flexible mind and life experience are very important in learning software. Actually it is important in learning anything because you have to be able to FIGURE OUT things.). Furthermore, going through the engineering and science training again, it stimulated my endless creation. I became very creative in my words and the ways I handle things. I was able to look into every situation, and apply my thinking patterns and skills I learned in liberal arts or business accordingly. Actually when it comes to using brain to solve various subtle complex things in life, liberal arts, business and science ways of thinking are all needed depending on the nature and stage of the problem. People only skillful in one way of thinking will find it difficult dealing with many real life issues (a big reason why people feel powerless coming out of a long time of compulsory schooling). This is indeed power.
From my liberal arts study, I came to the conclusion that everyone needs to pursue a kind of art in his/her life that s/he can be the best person in the whole world doing it. Thus I was seeking my kind of art. I had tried various things at that point of my life, pursuing various parts of my interests. It seemed to be a time that I think about the art I want to pursue for my whole life.
I was very interested in novels. I was able to write very good novels. I felt if I invest enough time, I could be one of the best novelists in China. But I don’t feel my life is just to become a novelist. Although a great novelist can have a great impact, I feel that is not my total life and I can do more. I am more interested in action itself, and writing novels is something I can do after I retire (also playing musics). From my liberal arts learning, I learned of our history and culture. Especially I learned of stories going on in my culture, the threads of that big novel in my culture, and I put myself into that struggle, which in the larger context is human being’s struggle. My interest in business of course came from my interest in action. So being able to really change that space is important to me. My training in engineering and science, especially my strong interest in software (I loved software at the first sight. It is fascinating to see that ideas get converted into concrete forms (Bill Joy), and can be executed.), provides me the tool to really solve the problem fundamentally. My interest in tech and software gives me endless possibility of what I can do to solve the problems. So it came to me that the art of my life should be social software. It nicely combines my interests in arts (Software is art. Writing software is actually like writing a novel. It is about making stories. ), business (Software is very much about actions. Software is ideas in action.) and technology together. It is very creative and quite challenging. It is something that I feel is worth me working hard on for my life. It is also the tool that I feel I can use to really improve the space I live in. From my liberal arts learning, people thousands of years ago had very good ideas and they had fought very hard for those causes. But they couldn’t make it. The uniqueness of software made me realize that it is the way to change the world peacefully and fundamentally. (See my blog Web2.0 is Grassroots: http://freestone.wordpress.com/2007/03/28/web20-is-grassroots/)
Within social software, my strong focus will be learning. As I see through various revolutions in China, they changed the system, but they didn’t change the soil. That is why we have the culture revolution. If you don’t change the soil, what come out of it will be essentially the same as before. I also came to believe in non-violent way of improving the space. Only non-violent way can bring about real changes, however small it might be. I saw serious problems in the education system, which is not to make people learn, but to make people unable to learn. I think that is the root of all sorts of social problems.
Personally, I felt what I had experienced in my life suited me to the task. When as a kid, I was always curious of various ways of learning and developed many learning methods myself. For example, when in primary school, I went through the biology and geography textbooks in the summer and found that I almost forgot everything, and there were so many things that were just fun and I should remember. Realizing that, when starting a subject each semester, I asked myself what I want to learn in this subject then I only learn to that degree of details. I wasn’t going to memorize things that I was not going to remember anyway. So in the beginning of each semester, I usually go through the whole book to see what the subject is about and what I should learn. We all know that the education system doesn’t make sense in many ways. But I was trying to make sense of it. I was trying hard to really learn things. Even though the compulsory exams were always about memorizing details and you can get good scores even you don’t really understand it, I always try to get good score because I understand it.
When in the middle school, I attended many mathematics and physics contests. They greatly challenged my thinking ability. Up to now, I haven’t encountered anything else that is as mentally challenging as that. That is what I call my first brain revolution. I never need to make notes for mathematics classes. I always think notes are for other classes such as history or geography. But my high school math teacher demanded everyone to make notes in class and submit our notes to him for review. It was just stupid. I think if you need to make notes in math classes, that just mean you don’t understand it, and you are memorizing the examples for exams. If there is anything I don’t understand, I always do some exercise and think it through. There is never need for me to memorize examples from class and then try to imitate it in exams. So my math notes in that class always started with a title of the chapter and then nothing followed.
Starting high school, somehow I didn’t want to control myself anymore. I played soccer a lot and read a lot of novels. When I didn’t want to study, I just didn’t study it at all. So my score went straight to near the bottom. So I had the full experience being a low score student in the schooling system. It was just awful. Then I had to climb back. It was hard. On the flip side, I got the chance to experience how to learn by myself. I was then back to No.1. Then during my last year of high school, I did it again. I played too much soccer and read a lot of novels. Just half a year before the college entrance exam, I dropped to the bottom again. And I had to climb back again within a very short amount of time. I guess it trained me to think independently. This is my second brain revolution.
The college is really the chance that started my fully self-initiated learning. I was able to focus on what I really want to learn at the time. Having those experiences in high school, I learned how to just get by with those exams, and it was a lot easier to do that in college. Finally I was able to put tremendous amount of time into learning other things. In my undergraduate, 90% of my knowledge were learned outside of classroom. Some were inside the classroom when I was reading novels there. I learned all these various things by myself. Most of them are vital for me as a human being, or even as a Chinese, but are never taught by school.
I guess I can say I have quite rich learning experiences. With all those experiences, I felt I was equipped to tackle the issue of learning, through software in elearning (not the sense of elearning as messed up by those academic and corporate people, but real grassroots oriented learning). So I then decided that the art of my life should be social software, with emphasis in elearning.
My mind was flying at that time. After so many years of learning, I felt finally it was the adult world. I was enjoying the fun in the adult world, and it was the same kind of fun that I enjoyed when I was a kid.
Although doing social software is a quite big undertaking since it requires knowledge in arts, business and tech, which can be very different skills if you haven’t learned enough. I felt I was able to do it and it was just big enough for me to work on for my whole life. Coming to US added another magnitude to the whole matter, making it almost impossible to accomplish. If I want to stay here, I have to encompass both cultures (which is a huge challenge but also of very great fun). Being a foreigner here also puts a lot of restriction on me (I don’t think there should be a border. And I don’t think that border will exist forever.). I am bounded by time. I don’t know if I am making my pie too big (I will be satisfied with a smaller pie if that is what I can get only 🙂 ). I cannot spend forever time in learning English and culture. My current age is the age that I should be fighting in the battle field, not learning the language as a kid. (Hopefully playing soccer can keep my young age a little longer. 🙂 ) My mind is crawling and it wants to fly.
But I am grateful for the opportunity I already had during my years in US. I was always looking for a teacher for my life. Here I found my teacher. This alone makes the whole journey to the west worthwhile. Coming to New York seems to provide another opportunity. 🙂
There is of course a lot of pains in the pursuit of arts. But the spirit of playing is to ignore all of them and just play. In a sense, life is about pushing your limits. Only when you meet your limits, can you have a better sense of who you are. Life is then pushing the boundary outwards, and growing bigger.
So this is my art. This is how I came to it (now you see why I am very much against compulsory schooling: http://freestone.wordpress.com/2007/03/25/against-compulsory-schooling/ ) and how I am doing it now. I enjoy the greatest fun playing in it, exactly the same kind of fun I played as a kid when flying kites or catching the dragonflies. What is your art?
Note: This article turns out to be much longer than I have expected. I had to explain many things since I haven’t written about them in my other articles. This is why I feel it is a good idea to write many short ones then I can just reference to them or you can read them and put them together to make the whole story. I was not very good at writing long English articles. My English is quite insufficient to write a good long article. If you read this far, I hope you enjoyed the content at least. 🙂