Tuesday, December 07, 2004


Whenever I play Dungeons & Dragons (a pen-and-paper RPG), a vital factor that determines who wins combat is initiative. To put it simply, initiative is what determines who gets to act first. If I get a high initiative, I usually get to deal the lethal blow to my opponent even before they've acted. It's a simple principle that can be applied practically: act now. But as you all know, one of our favorite traits as Filipinos is to procrastinate.

I'm someone who likes to delay doing until it's necessary. I cram for exams, papers, reports, etc. Some of us do it because we can (i.e. we work fast). Others because they fear doing the work and so postpone it until it's absolutely necessary. I know people who are simply lazy (and they admit it). And sometimes, it happens because of the backlog of things we have to do or an unforeseen event happens that forces us to delay whatever activity we're doing. We'll always have an excuse. Do excuses change the results? And so we fall prey to procrastination, delaying everything and everything delayed delays whatever we're going to do next.

Perhaps one of the harsher lessons I learned this year is to do something now. When I was working in a call center (and that wasn't even the regular call-center hours with imposed overtime), I found my free time diminishing. I'm at work for nine hours at least, and it takes me an hour to walk to work and get back home. Now I know a lot of other people have it worse. You're at work for around ten hours and commuting or driving home can take as much as two hours per day. And then you have all your other family obligations. That experience suddenly made me treasure my weekends. If there was something I could do now, I'll do it. Because I honestly don't know when I'll get the next chance to do so. When you have that kind of urgency, things actually start happening in your life.

The other realization I came upon is the fact that we have time. We have 24 hours in a day. Nothing can take that away. What we don't have a lot of is free time. Let's assume we sleep. That already takes 8 hours off (and that's not exactly something we can multitask). And then there's breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That's already one hour spent eating, and that assumes somebody else is cooking for us. Let's also assume you spend one hour in the bathroom, whether it's to take a bath, get rid of your bowels, wear your make-up, or for the guys, to jack off. And then another two hours travel time to go to wherever you have to go, whether it's school, work, home, or simply to celebrate an event somewhere else. That's already half your day. Another nine hours will probably consume your work hours. So does that really leave us with three hours of free time? Not necessarily. It's merely about prioritizing our needs. I mean if somebody close got sick, we'd probably skip lunch or our long bathroom routine just to visit them in the hospital. And if it's somebody who must depend on us, we'd probably give up half the time at work to make sure the other person gets better. There is no such thing as "I don't have the time". What people really mean is that "you're not a priority". If something is of high priority to a person, we don't usually procrastinate. Or perhaps even then, we still do, especially if it's something we don't normally like, but we make sure to get the job done by the deadline. Because it's a priority.

What are the two vital factors here? Acting now, and prioritizing. The pair must work in tandem. I mean I can act and do something now, but if it's of little significance, nothing will change in my life. Similarly, I might prioritize something, but it's meaningless if we don't act on it. And strangely enough, these things do happen to us. A lot of us don't necessarily prioritize the important things in our life. And a number of us know what's important and vital, but we nonetheless procrastinate.

So does acting and prioritizing the only factors in initiative? Hell no. To me, it's only half of what we need to do. Right now, if you're stuck in your daily routines (i.e. wake up, go to work, eat, sleep), then you need to get out of situation quickly! (At least if "work" is not something you enjoy.) That might mean finding the time to look for new solutions. Or trying out new things. Or simply exploring other options. Remember that as human beings, one of our greatest assets is our ability to learn. Unfortunately, the more we do something we're familiar with, there's less and less learning involved. And to me, the math is simple. If what we're doing now doesn't get us out of the ditch we're in, we should explore and find something new. Get uncomfortable. Try something you don't think doesn't work or something you're unfamiliar with. At least you're learning something new in the process. And who knows, one of them might actually be the solution to your dilemma.

One of the theater arts teachers in Ateneo had an extreme view of writing playwrights. He only wrote plays where the characters act on their own and aren't reactive. What's being reactive? EDSA was reactive. The only reason Filipinos rebelled was because they were being oppressed. If Ninoy didn't get shot several years earlier, would Filipinos have banded together? Or if Ramos didn't defect to Cory's side, would we have had the same resilience to stand up against Marcos? Why wait for events to happen? Why wait for something to trigger in us? Or simply put, why wait for the problem? Find the solution now while you're comfortable rather than waiting for the problem to arise before seeking a solution. I mean if there was a famine, you don't stock food during the famine: you do it before, when the land is fertile and prosperous. That's what initiative means. Don't let the problem find you; find the solution before the problem occurs.

Besides, when it comes to personal growth, the question you might want to ask yourself is whether you're growing and maturing because you have to, or because you chose to. I mean situations and circumstances can mold us and make us better people. But so can personal choice and commitment. Wouldn't we have more pride in saying that "I'm a better person because I chose to" rather than someone who was forced into it by unforeseen circumstances (and there will be a lot of that in our lives). Right now, one of the biggest regrets of my dad is the fact that he was successful in business, but not because of his own efforts. Rather, it was because he depended on other people for it (i.e. trusting the advice of his friends). Does that make him any less successful? Of course not. But he has that inner feeling of inadequacy, that what has put him in this situation was merely a fluke. I don't think my father is a fluke because of the attitudes he encourages in other people, but he wouldn't believe me even if I told him that. Another reason for having initiative is pride. Act, prioritize, and learn because you have the ability to do so, and not because it's the only option left to you.

What I mentioned is a tall order. I don't claim to be someone who possesses all these traits. I'm just someone who knows my priorities. Whether I act on them or not is a different discussion altogether. Hopefully, the results of which can be seen in my actions. But that doesn't change the fact that in order to be better people, we need to have initiative. It's really asking a lot from you. I never claimed it would be easy or simple. I can talk on and on about the rewards of doing so. But my personal belief is that it's better for me to attempt it rather than merely talk about it. And that means doing it now. The only thing worth procrastinating is procrastination.

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When I was in high school and in college, I met a lot of bright and talented people. There was just one thing crippling them: they were perfectionists. Now I'm not saying striving to be a better person is wrong. It's good. Perfection is actually something we should aim for, although in most cases, it's not always obtained. But I'm talking about a different kind of perfectionist. These aren't people who are striving to be the best that they can be. Rather, they're only aiming for the illusion of it.

The first kind of faux perfectionists were the ones I met in high school. Most of them comprised the elite of the class, the "advanced students". Whether it's through sheer genius or hard work, they got the highest grades in class. They won awards every quarter, gaining prestige and the respect of their teachers and parents. And perhaps the problem was the fact that they became addicted to it. Anything less than an A, for example, would be a crime. They all have their own justifications, whether it's because their parents don't want anything less than a perfect grade, or because they want a good record, or simply for the sake of retaining their status. And they maintain this "perfection" through means like cheating. Now we've all heard of the student who resorts to cheating in order to pass his or her subjects. Some of my former classmates cheat in order to get a 100, not a passing grade. Second honors wouldn't do; it must be first honor! Or I have these classmates who refuse to explore for themselves and ponder the solutions independently: when it comes to studying required readings, their first action is to consult their Barron's guide or Cliff Notes, rather than the text itself (now I don't have any qualms with people using guides to help them understand their readings, but at least make the effort first to understand it yourself; guides for me are the last resort, not the first one... don't underestimate your intelligence so actually use it).

While there were still cheaters when I started studying in college, there was significantly less of them. But since college is different from high school in the fact that you could choose your classes or teachers, it introduced me to a different set of so-called perfectionists. When I'm asked which teacher to take in a particular class, I often ask them "do you want to learn or do you want to get a high grade?" It's usually the perfectionists who opt for the latter. I mean personally I prefer the former. Sure, I might not get a high grade (but hopefully a passing grade) and I might even fail the subject (and this has happened to me, although admittedly, I didn't know what I was getting into initially), but I'll learn. These kinds of teachers are those who usually have a high standard of teaching, or they teach in unconventional ways that the typical student who merely takes down notes and reads the readings won't get an A (they might get a B but not an A). When you choose the latter, sure, you might get a high grade on paper, but more often than not, the quality of the teaching isn't as good as you would have gotten if you opted for the more difficult teacher (that's not to say that these teachers aren't capable of teaching; they are, but it's just that they're usually less comprehensive, demand less, or simply teach in a conventional manner that you'll miss out on some material that's more sophisticated). It's like choosing the unknown or something which you already know the result. Sure, the latter is the easiest, since you know exactly what you're getting into. No surprises there. But personal growth can only be found in the former, since you simply don't know what's going to be required of you. And you can take greater pride in the fact that you excelled in something that you were initially unfamiliar with.

To me, the real perfectionists are those who are willing to risk everything and explore the unknown. Will they fail? Perhaps at the start. But the mark of the real perfectionist is that they stand up when they fall down and keep on trying. And trying. And trying. Until they finally get it right. And getting it right is not enough. It must be excellent. And so they try and try again.

I think the problem with society today is that we're too afraid of failing. For me, failure is only a true failure if you didn't learn anything from it. Some of the best lessons I've learned come from my mistakes. I mean if you excel at something, you tend to ignore or underestimate it the next time it comes around. But if you fail at something, the next time you encounter it, you become wary and alert. And so you avoid disaster by heeding your previous experiences. Trial and error, while perhaps is not the best way to learn things (since you often end up injured), has always been the most effective method (since it becomes ingrained in us). And perhaps the most important thing about failing is getting back up. And that's what true perfectionists do. They're not afraid of failing. Rather, failing has no hold over them. They might end up not succeeding but that doesn't stop them. They get back up until they get it right.

We should recognize that failure is not a bad trait. Just because a person didn't succeed doesn't mean he or she is less of a person. It's a radical paradigm from today's modern world where results and perfection are popular. Our parents ask it from us, our peers, our coworkers. For me what's important is that you get back up and learn something from the experience. I may not be the most talented person around, or even the most hard-working. But I know that as long as I have an open minded and an optimistic attitude, I can get back up from whatever failings that I have and become a better person. And that is a better guage of who I am than any report card can give.

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Monday, December 06, 2004

Second Home: A Tribute to CCHQ

I was never a "home" person. Perhaps the worst days of my life was during Holy Week, when the only option I had was to stay at home and there wasn't even anything good on television. I'm often struck with wanderlust. I need to travel or a change of scenery, even if it's just a place nearby. Since I was once a student, one conclusion some people might think is that my alma matter was my second home. It would probably be right, if it weren't for the fact that I wasn't really accepted by my classmates and batchmates, at least during my grade school and high school years. No, solace was found somewhere else. I may wander around malls and buildings, but in the end, I was grounded to a certain shop.

In my last two years of high school, the place where I could be me and no one would judge me was one shop alone: Comic Alley. Sure, I'd wander around Virra Mall looking for places to go to and sights to see, but in the end, I always went back to Comic Alley. I'd meet up with people there, make new friends, and play a game of Magic: The Gathering. The salesladies were kind to me and I got to know the owners. One of my earliest mentors was probably Teddy Sy, an avid Magic player and anime fan. He took me in, despite my far-from-pleasant personality (at the time of course). Even if I refused to smile to customers, he still hired me. And of course, I got to mix the best of both worlds. Not only was I pursuing my passion in Collectible Card Games (CCGs), but I was also fueling the flames of my love for anime. I got assigned to the anime portion of the shop, and it was there that I learned more about myself as well as providing me with the opportunity to make new friends (although admittedly for less than altruistic reasons). Even when I wasn't working for them anymore, I was nonetheless welcome in their shop, and there were times when I'd sit there for hours doing nothing (and someone who dislikes me even named me "Gargoyle" for doing just that that).

Unfortunately, in 2001, everything changed. Not only did Magic: The Gathering wane in popularity, but Virra Mall itself was changing. Vendors would harass everyone coming into the mall by asking them if they wanted to purchase pornographic videos. Suddenly, traveling to my second home was far from comfortable. And if you thought lightning doesn't strike twice, well, Virra Mall got burned for the second time. And Comic Alley was one of its casualties.

Strangely enough, my second home got reincarnated ten months later. On February of 2002, a new shop was set up opposite of the college I was studying in. It also had the word "comic" on its name. The owners called it CCHQ, an acronym for Central Comic Headquarters, or our in-joke, Cheng Chua headquarters. They sold comics, both Western (including the ever-elusive indie comics) and Japanese (authentic manga!). Perhaps what impressed me the most was the fact that I could go in there and leave without purchasing anything, yet come out a better person. The owners talked to you even if you were just curious and didn't have plans of buying anything from the store. You were accepted for who you are. If I stayed there unnecessarily (i.e. bum around), they never complained. Relatively cheap prices and good products didn't hurt either. But make no mistake, CCHQ was my second home not because of its merchandise or location, but because of the owners who were running it and the people that were attracted to it as well. Some of CCHQ's customers were like me: wandering aimlessly in life, yet the place provided a home for us. A passion for comics or manga might be popular now, but it wasn't always so back then. And perhaps the best thing about CCHQ was the fact that I could be me. I mean even in Comic Alley, I refrained from mentioning other stores, especially when it came to comparing the prices of other shops (on a side note, Comic Alley does have good prices for their merchandise... sometimes it's not always the cheapest place to purchase items, but they were fair prices). That wasn't the case with CCHQ. The owners themselves would recommend customers going to Powerbooks or some other shop if that place had a cheaper price compared to theirs. I immediately knew CCHQ would be a success.

Nearly three years later, CCHQ will now close its doors. I've graduated from Ateneo, but I still visit the place. And I still receive the same amount of warmth, even if there's one less person running it, or if there's fewer people passing by the shop. I did one smart thing in 2002. I befriended the owners. What also makes me happy is that I wrote an interview article about them back then. It's not my best-written work (and all I really did was transcribe their words). But perhaps what makes that interview great was the fact that I didn't have to embellish anything. Sometimes, mentioning something as it is is brilliant. Some of the best advice I've heard in my lifetime came from interviews. One mentioned that failing is not a hindrance but something to learn from; the guy I interviewed told me that he felt more reassured hiring someone who tried and failed rather than someone who has always been successful, because the former learned something from his experience. The other heartfelt advice upon retrospect came from Khristine and Katya, who offered me this during the interview: "Hold on to your dreams. Never give up because there will be times that you will be disheartened and discouraged and the only thing that will sustain you through the bad times would be how deep your dedication is to the things that you love. That's the only thing."

I'm actually surprised when people mourn the loss of CCHQ and tell me "poor them". Yes, the loss of CCHQ is something to lament, but the owners are not to be pitied or somebody to feel sorry for. They succeeded in what they wanted to do. They've satisfied many people along the way and made new friends. True success, after all, isn't about winning or failing. I was listening to this tape a few weeks ago and the speaker's beliefs echoes mine: "I'd rather fail in a business with good people, rather than succeed with bad people." And CCHQ has one of the best people that I personally know. As for their business, it was time to move on. They're not bankrupt (although it would be nice if you patronized their shop one last time before it closes for Christmas) and they owners are actually well off. They have their lives ahead of them. Maybe their dreams have been satisfied. Or it's taken on a new form. Or it'll be emerge again later on. I don't know the future. I can only be sure of what I feel. And it's that I was touched and changed by the quaint shop called CCHQ. It was my second home.

In certain ways, I've moved on. My current haunt is the Comic Quest branch in Mega Mall (and hopefully my curse doesn't cause the shop to collapse by some unforeseen circumstances, hehehe) where I'm with good friends and mentors like Dean and Vin. But CCHQ has been an integral part of my life, and I'm glad I'm immortalizing it in my writing. I'm not as lost as I once was. This time, I'm taking steps to fulfill my dreams. And other people's dreams as well. It's one of the things CCHQ has taught me.

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Sad Anecdote

On a certain level, I'm laughing inside, but on another level, I'm disappointed as well. One of my friends just questioned my integrity (as well as the integrity of the people I'm with). To be fair to him, at least he's transparent about his feelings and firm in his convictions so much so that he's willing to compromise our relationship. (Some people claim that George Bush won the elections because of the moral vote, which is to say that he is firm in his stand against abortion, homosexuality, and the like... hey, I may not like the guy, but they do have a point; Bush is a man of conviction and willing to stand up for his beliefs even if it makes him unpopular, which is more than I can say for certain public officials.)

My only advice to people who are placed in a similar position is that in the end, it doesn't matter what other people think. What matters is what you think. It's your conscience, after all, that you have to live with, and not the other person's. (Of course if you reflect upon that statement, you'll realize that my friend is justified to a certain extent at the very least.)

Personally I blame the problem on ignorance, but everyone often thinks it's the other person that's ignorant and not them. And hey, I may be right this time, but that's no guarantee that I won't be the ignorant one the next time.

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Sunday, December 05, 2004

Winds of Change

If there's one attribute the best describes what it means to live, it's probably the ability change. I mean human beings aren't static; we're evolving creatures. And it's not just us that is evolving. Everything around us changes as well, whether it's as simple as the transition from day to night, or the evolution of our surroundings from simple huts to tall, concrete buildings. Yet change is something many of us resist, as if change was our worst nightmare. And sometimes it is, but it too can be our salvation.

Perhaps the most apparent kind of change is that that occurs around us. Situations change. I mean a long time ago, people were using pen and paper to write novels. Now, we have computers. Computers changed a lot of industries. I'm sure for every person that appreciates the change technology has brought, there's another person who resents it. I mean many people lost jobs because of modernization. Some people use it to make malicious programs, while others utilize it as a tool to help achieve their goals. Sometimes, these kinds of changes are out of our hands. A lot of people fear what the next age will bring. And so they cling to their old ideas and beliefs, hoping that it will shelter them in the times ahead even though if it's apparent that new paradigms are needed for a better world. There are also times when we have limited control over how the world around us will change, such as when we elect our public officials. I think one of the reasons many Filipinos voted for Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was because they were subscribing to the mentality "better the devil we know than the devil we don't know". I mean many people were frustrated with GMA's policies but they voted for her this year nonetheless, fearing the kind of change electing a different leader would bring.

The problem I see in clinging to the old is the fact that you're not making it any better for yourself. Taking the presidential-election example, sure, we're not adding new problems in the long run, but we're not solving old ones either. If we chose a different president, we could possibly live better lives. But what stops us is that we think that choosing a different leader would only increase our pain and suffering. I mean history has disappointed us several times in the past that we can't help but think something worse is in store when moments of change occur. We don't want to risk our future but in doing so, we forfeit any chance of changing it for the better.

The other kind of change is the one we undergo ourselves. It's easy to see how people get offended at the merest hint of changing a person. I mean boyfriend/girlfriend relationships suddenly break up because one person wants the other person to be "better", "different", and "more mature". A number of people are frustrated that call-center employees are being trained to speak in a different way and that they have to don a new person while on the job. Or perhaps it's just simple criticism, and we think that the other person has no right to judge us. I think the underlying emotion here is pride and comfort. Pride because we think we're already the best we can be, that there's no one else we should be other than who we already are. To admit that we should change means that there's something inherently wrong in our personality, or that we might have made a mistake. And nobody likes admitting mistakes. And there's also comfort, because we don't dare go further than what we already know. For example, a boyfriend who's asked by his girlfriend to give up drinking refuses to do so, because it's inconvenient for him. It is, after all, easier to live a life of our hold habits and routines. It's not necessarily better but it sure is easier, simply because we've been doing it for so long and don't know what it's like to not do so.

The weakness of this mentality is that there's never any growth, at least not consciously. A stubborn person will continue to be a stubborn person, while a liar will remain a liar. What we fail to see is that we're not perfect; there's always room for improvement. Change, while it can admittedly make us worse people (such as when your friend tries to pass on their bad habits to you), gives us the chance to become better. Many people fear this because they think it's losing their identity. If our identity could be lost so easily, then we've already lost it. Because the you now is definitely different from the you that came out of your mother's womb. With the latter, you didn't even know how to speak, much less know what can hurt other people and what can brighten up their day. With the former, we've grown and possess more knowledge and hopefully more wisdom since then. Even our physiology is different. But does that mean we lost our identity? Perhaps the only time we truly lose our identity in change is when we fight it all the way, when it's something that's forced upon us rather than something we choose for ourselves. Take, for example, when somebody orders us to do something, such as smoke a cigarette. If it's something we resent yet is forced upon us (whether through coercion, peer pressure, or physical force) and we give in to it, then in a way, we lose our identity and become merely the shadow of someone else's will. But if smoking a cigarette was something we were willing to try (even if you haven't smoked a cigarette before), then even if doing so ends up killing us, we will smoke a cigarette, and with pleasure. In both instances, the person has changed. But it's only the former who lost his identity, while the latter retained it. His identity merely took on a new form.

I think one of the problems many people have is that they take it as a personal affront at the merest hint of changing their personality. It's not. We could always be better people. And we won't achieve that by remaining who we are now. To do that, we must be willing to change. It's part of growing, of maturing, of becoming a better person. And unlike changes that involves circumstances and events, personal change is something we have control over. No one knows whether the change tomorrow brings will be a good thing or a bad thing, but when we take steps to change for the better, we do know that good will come out of it. It definitely won't be easy and it'll surely be painful, but hey, it's only by suffering and making mistakes that we learn.

Change is a two-ways street. Both good things and bad things can result from it. But change is also the key to salvation. Poor people might become rich someday, while the sick might get healed. If you're already rich or healthy, there's always the possiblity that you might become richer or more healthy. If you fear change, then you're insecure about yourself. If you were able to do it once, then you'll be able to do it again. Unless, of course, that accomplishment was just a fluke. And as for our future, well, if you want to gain control over it, you have to risk it. The unknown is only scary if you let it scare you; the only way to conquer fear of the uncertain is to familiarize yourself with it.

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