“You can be anything you want to be” — we hear and read this a lot: in the media, in the (Hollywood) movies, in “successful” people’s biographies. This phrase has become a motivational mantra for success.

I did not grow up with “you can be anything you want to be” kind of way of thinking. My parents’ philosophy was: “No, you can’t be anything you want to be”. They always reminded me to be very mindful of what my limitations were and what I was not good at. They also pushed me to be realistic and to be aware of inherent constraints built into a(n) (unjust & unequal) system. For my parents, even “good” was not a good enough reason. “You need to be twice or even thrice as good, and even then it does not mean you’d beat the system” they said. With that message in mind, my formula was to pursue what I was “pretty darn good” at, work hard and focus on it, with a hope to outsmart the system and, eventually, prevail. No, I don’t say that it is the most ideal way of thinking or parenting. If fact, they were pretty much dream killers. Fortunately, their formula worked for me. It was a workable survival kit for me, someone who was born as a baby girl to lower income parents of a double minority in a developing country. In the end, I managed to pursue my dreams, be everything I wanted myself to be, and proved my parents wrong.

Don’t get my wrong, I am not saying we should stop pursuing doing what we love. After all, like what I wrote elsewhere, I believe we all need to and can be the best version of ourselves (see “Who are you NOT to be brilliant“). However, we need to be clear and sensitive about unequal and unjust societal system we live in.

At the other end of the spectrum is the “you can be anything you want to be” doctrine which, at glance, sounds wonderful and positive. This might be true for those who are economically and socially privileged. For most, however, it stays a myth. In reality, especially for those at the bottom, climbing the steps of the socio-economic ladder remains an arduous or even impossible journey. For every “rags to riches” story are thousands of others who are trapped in low-wage jobs and poverty. The privileged can tell their kids that they can be anything they want, precisely because the privileges they were born into and the system that is postured to protect the privileged.

Oh, let me remind you one of the side effects of this “you can be anything you want to be” credo: the rise of self-entitled mediocre privileged individuals, including self-centered-politicians, greedy-unethical-CEOs, journalists-without-integrity, racist-low-quality-talk-show-hosts, and arrogant-but-mediocre-scholars, to name a few… and, don’t forget one more, the most unqualified presidential candidate in the history (of America). In this context, I am so thankful to my parents for not encouraging me to be one of the mediocre as***les ;D

Probably parents and teachers should start saying: you can be anything you want to be, only if …………….. (fill in with a long list of criteria 😃). And in the meantime, collectively we need to work in a pursuit of justice and equality in the world, so someday when we tell our children and grandchildren “you can be anything you want to be” we are inches closer to telling the truth.


On Honorary Degree

People with PhDs shouldn’t be too upset with those who get doctorates without enduring years of doctoral student’ life-with-no-life. Honorary degrees are meant to be encouraging — which means people who are awarded the degrees are encouraged to do more — meaning they’re not doing enough, yet.

For example, Kermit the Frog received a Doctorate of Amphibious Letters in 1996 from Southampton College in New York. This only means to encourage Kermit to be more amphibious.


[US Election] Random quotes

The Obamas had the best speeches of #DNC.
Michelle scores better than Barack, though.
She gave the best speech not only at #DNC but also at #RNC

Listening to fear-mongering speeches at #RNC, it sounds like these people are living in the imaginative world full of flesh-eating zombies.

How many #Trumpence supporters does it take to change a lightbulb?
None, they live in an eternal darkness.

Knowledge is to know that an orange is a fruit. Wisdom is not to elect an orange as a president. Stupidity is to believe that an orange can build the wall.


My Grandma & Be Humane

My late grandmother never finished elementary school. She had to drop out of school in second grade. She did not know the term human rights. She couldn’t pronounce the word discrimination. And, yet, for all years of her life she always respected others, regardless of their religion, race/ethnicity, social status, or even sexual orientation. Continue reading “My Grandma & Be Humane”

A neighbour with a beautiful mind

In the last decade or so, I came across some intellectual celebrities in various occasions in various places. No, I don’t have any evidence of my encounters with these people, no autograph, no selfies, nada. I had some email exchanges with a couple of them but I’d keep these to myself. Also, while they’re inspirational, meeting them didn’t not make me any special. Just because they’re brilliant, genius, and famous, it doesn’t mean that I turned brilliant, genius, and famous once I met them. Unlike in scenes of many feel-good Hollywood movies, I don’t have any life-changing moments in any of these encounters. In fact, some of the stories are probably rather ordinary, as exemplified in the story I am going to tell you. Continue reading “A neighbour with a beautiful mind”

A traveling professor

Last Thursday I delivered a ten-minutes-speech at the Passion for Research Luncheon, a university-wide annual luncheon to celebrate research excellence. Instead of ‘preaching’ (to the choir) about research/being a researcher, I chose to tell a story…. the story … here it is…
Warning: (Most likely) You will not get smarter nor gain any knowledge by listening to this. But if you get ‘it’ from it, then you’d be a little happier, oh well, temporarily.

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Twelve years ago

#throwbackThursday #Kamisnostalgis

Early this year, in a conference where I presented a keynote address, a young researcher approached me and said,”Professor Lim, I’m a fan. I read every single work you have published, including the very old one from a long time ago.” I was flattered but also felt like a 100 year-old professor.

Continue reading “Twelve years ago”

A story in a string

An old man let me squat next to him while continued drawing on the ground. As usual he did not speak any word. After several minutes, a glimpse of a shape appeared from the emptiness. It was a temple. A beautiful pagoda.

I sighed, “Wow….”

The old man looked at me, broke a chalk he held into two pieces and gave me one of them. In the next five minutes or so I found myself doodling next to him.

“I didn’t know you can draw.”

“I didn’t know you can draw either,” I replied. Continue reading “A story in a string”