I often think about some of my lifelong regrets, probably because I’m in a stressful period of my life.

What could I have done different? Would I be a much better person today if I had done this instead of that? Why didn’t I think about doing such obvious acts earlier?

Hopefully if I list them here, I can look back at this blog post periodically and ask myself if I’m making progress towards mitigating my constant guilt over these regrets.

Here are ten of my major lifelong regrets:

  • (1) I did not do enough math, statistics, and computer programming, both during college and (especially) before college. To be clear, I have been a good student my entire life, getting mostly top grades in the hardest courses available to me. But gradually, it became clear to me that I was just an “average good student”, and at Berkeley, there are a lot of “better than good students” who boast ridiculously long lists of math/programming accomplishments, and long lists of graduate-level courses taken.

    I am constantly thinking about how I have to study a certain concept many times or take an extra class because I need to “catch up” to far more experienced students (in my year). Looking back, I wish I had taken all of my high school classes two years earlier than when I actually took them, which would have given me a bigger head-start in college. And programming? Upon graduating from high school, I couldn’t make a simple “Hello World” program, whereas other Berkeley students (and this is especially common among international students) were busy winning programming competitions in high school.

    In Outliers (more on that later) Malcolm Gladwell describes how hockey players who were born near January 1, and thus had the size edge during youth leagues, are more likely to reach the highest level of the sport than other guys born at different times of the year. This is because being good early leads to snowballing advantages. This “snowballing” is what I wish could be an advantage for me, not a disadvantage. It’s also partly why I don’t think that just taking courses makes it easy to catch up, as (to take an example) professors would rather work with students who have already taken graduate courses in their research area over “riskier” students who have to take those courses and who may not like them or may not do well in them. It’s really hard to catch up.

  • (2) I often did not make it clear to others that I was deaf, in part because I was embarrassed by it. I discussed my uneasiness in telling people that I was deaf in a blog post a few months ago, but here, my focus is on my pre-college life. Starting from middle school, which is when I first became conscious of my dreadful social hierarchy position, I constantly tried to hide my deafness by not signing in public and by focusing on my teachers instead of my sign language interpreters during classes. In high school, I expressed little enthusiasm in discussing “deafness” with anyone. In my senior year, it was awkward for me to write my college essays, since my parents were adamant that I should write about being deaf. (My difficulties in expressing my thoughts probably explains why I didn’t get into many colleges: lackluster essays plus lack of impressive extracurricular activities.) Fortunately, by the time I got to college, I had learned to watch the interpreters more often, but I still don’t generally tell people I’m deaf when we meet for the first time. It’s still a little awkward.

  • (3) I spent too much of my life emphasizing sports, either playing sports or following sports-related news. I have spent many hours doing organized soccer, baseball, basketball, skiing, and to a lesser extent, ultimate frisbee and track & field. In addition, during down-time, I would often read popular sports websites such as ESPN and NBA.com. But I think I could have put that time to better use, because sports haven’t exactly been the greatest thing for me. Some people join sports to get to know other people, but I don’t think I made a single friend out of being on a sports team. In addition, sports were often a source of stress in my life. I was usually not among the top players on my sports teams, and I constantly worried about screwing up and embarrassing myself. Finally, and probably most importantly, I’m not sure I genuinely enjoyed sports. When my high school soccer teams won important games (or scored game-winning goals), I was one of the least enthusiastic players on the team during the celebrations. While other players might hoot and holler and pile up upon the player who scored a winning goal, I would quietly do a few token jumps.

  • (4) On a related regret, I did not do enough to improve my physical fitness. This is not the same as playing a sport; it’s about the work of weight lifting to get stronger and running to improve stamina. Speaking as someone who’s played a lot of sports, I can definitely vouch for the importance of physical fitness and conditioning. Consider this: if someone doesn’t have the foot skills to handle a soccer ball well, but has incredible speed and strength, that player could be a solid defender on a good soccer team.

    I have this regret mainly because I was never among the most athletic players on my high school teams. (I know that a lot of this is genetics, but genetics doesn’t explain everything.) When I was on the high school soccer team, for instance, I was regularly among the slowest long-distance runners when we ran laps and probably the slowest sprinter on the team. And, while I had tried going to the weight room often, I was unable to really notice any strength difference. That changed once I had read Starting Strength and Stronglifts in college and got to see noticeable gains in my weight lifting and overall strength, but that begs the question: why didn’t I know about those resources before college? Fortunately, I’ve gotten a little better at working on my strength, but I’ve also been lagging behind on my running.

  • (5) I did not have a good diet until I was around 21. The biggest reason why I consider my my diet to be so bad was because I ate a lot of refined carbohydrates: lots of pizza, plain bagels, white rice, and (sometimes) white pasta and white cereals. Furthermore, even if I had always gone whole wheat for these, having a diet that is 90 percent based on whole wheat does not count as a good diet. I used to eat from Subway a lot, which has heavily processed meat. I also would drink a lot of diet soda, which are almost as bad as regular, sugary soda. What I should have done was emphasize lots of fruits and vegetables, lots of (properly-prepared) meat, and lots of eggs. Of course, all of these have to be cooked and prepared properly, especially in the case of meat. For this regret, I’m happy to say that I’ve made a lot of progress in overcoming my guilt over this. When I was 21, I forced myself to overhaul my diet, and it’s now far more rich and nutritious today than it was a few years ago.

  • (6) I spent too much time playing video games and computer games. I’ve played a variety of games in my lifetime: sports games, real time strategy games, turn-based games, shooter games, building/tycoon games, and others. The two that I have probably played the most are Age of Empires II and Civilization IV. In middle school and high school, I spent way too much time playing them than is healthy, sometimes spending ten hours a day when I didn’t have school. I guess one reason why I liked these games so much was that they were strategy games designed to test my mind, that they were related to designing and building empires, and that they were just a whole lot of fun. In addition, these games do not require me to understand any dialogue that happens in them. There are lots of in-game sounds, but that’s what they are: sounds, not words, which are harder for me to discriminate. Fortunately, while I still play some of these games once every few weeks, I no longer have the immediate urge to play a game whenever I have free time. I think I grew out of those during my college years.

  • (7) I didn’t read enough educational books in my spare time. It’s important to be clear about what I mean here: books assigned as class reading and books that can roughly be described as “non-educational” (e.g., comic books, books describing how to play games, most novels, etc.) do not count. I mostly want to read non-fiction books that cite relevant literature to back up their points. One of the few books I did read that satisfies my non-fiction criteria is Outliers, which I brought up earlier in point (1). It’s a testament to the book’s quality that I still remember a lot about it after eight years, but it’s also been a source of frustration for me. Outliers proposes an interesting “10,000-hour” rule, where one has to spend that amount of time deliberately practicing a skill in order to master it. But it cites Bill Gates as an example, who by the time he had arrived at Harvard as an undergraduate, already had lots of experience working with computers (and remember, this was back before they were commonplace). When I look at my life, I wish I had gotten a head-start on those 10,000 hours on a certain area; usually, I think of programming.

    Fortunately, I now have gotten a lot better at reading more books. I have read fifteen books this year (so far) and plan to write up a summary of each book I’ve read in a giant blog post at the end of this year. Most of the books I read are well-regarded non-fiction books that relate to real-world subjects of interest: foreign policy, history, technology, psychology, and other areas. But I still feel like I am reading all these books partly to make up for lost time.

  • (8) I spent too much time browsing random websites and message boards. In part, this was due to my obsession with playing games. For instance, I have almost 6,000 posts on the Civilization Fanatics Forum and was known as one of the top single-player Civilization IV players on the forum. (Yeeeaah … I was really obsessed with that game!) I also posted on other message boards in addition to game-related ones. Sadly, College Confidential was one of them1. In part because I don’t play games that much anymore, I have been a lot better in avoiding message boards. In addition, because I have so much on my plate now in terms of research and coursework, I spend far less time aimlessly browsing the Internet.

    Nowadays, there are only a handful of websites I check on a regular basis, and if they are blogs or news-related, I try not to check them until the evening. I deliberately have only a few websites bookmarked on Google Chrome, and I don’t spend much time reading other people’s blogs as I used to. Oh, and what about Facebook? Don’t worry – Facebook was actually one of the earliest sites that I was able to resist checking.

  • (9) In college, I was not aggressive enough in reaching out to other students to work on homework together. I think part of the reason for this is that, for some time, I actually wanted to do homework by myself. To be clear, I was not ignoring requests to work together; I was simply not active in reaching out to other students. I thought that if I worked on my own, I would avoid distractions and learn faster. That worked for a few courses, but as the material became more advanced, I needed to talk to more students, and it was hard for me because I lacked a social base. I relied almost entirely on TAs and professors for assistance with coursework. Fortunately, I’ve now completely changed my stubborn “work alone on homework” strategy and have found other students to work with during classes in recent semesters. As a bonus, my homeworks have generally improved.

  • (10) This is the most recent regret I have, focusing on my experience during the past three years. For some reason, I’ve (hopefully temporarily) lost the capability to ignore my isolation. I have let it adversely affect my mood and productivity and I worry about how others view me. It’s true that being able to do better in my courses and, especially, getting some research papers would help me combat my constant obsession about isolation, but at the moment I need to figure out how to ignore these thoughts. I think part of it has to do with growing up and getting older; I have higher expectations for myself, both socially and academically, and I want to aim high.

Hopefully in five more years I can look back at some of the progress I’ve made. As covered earlier, I have made some progress on overcoming some of the constant guilt I feel about myself. I just want to be a better person and not feel like I am constantly in “catch-up” mode with regards to my life.

  1. College Confidential is one of the most depressing places on the Internet. Please don’t go there.