Category Archives: project

Making good progress on theming the site

The Drupal site I’m working on is slowly coming together. I still feel an itch to redo the big, hardcoded structures that a previous developer left behind, but I’m focusing on all the functional pieces first. Then I’ll do the styling and spacing tweaks, and then I’ll think of making that structure more flexible.

I like working with other people’s code, even if the code occasionally makes me go “Huh? What were they thinking?” It’s good to be able to work with other people’s structures and gradually immerse yourself in a project. Otherwise, you’d be limited to just the things you can build from scratch.

We’re still quite a bit away from having something that would be ready for launch, but we’re making progress. I don’t know if I’ll be on this project through launch, but it would be nice.

I like launches. =) I want to have more of them.

Love and reaction

Some interns are helping my mom with a memory book for my upcoming wedding, and one asked me to write about love.

I believe that much like happiness, love is a skill that you can develop, and that the real test and triumph of love isn’t found in nouns or even actions, but in reactions.

Let me explain.

Many people want to find the perfect person to love, just like they want to find the perfect life in order to be happy. I learned that happiness has a lot more to do with you than it does with the world around you, and that happiness is a skill you can practice. Perfection isn’t necessary. Challenges help you grow. Likewise, some people make it much easier to love them than other people do, and some people can be dangerously toxic, but there are always opportunities to grow (although that may mean practicing tough love, or even getting out).

Advertisements describe love as expressed through nouns: flowers, a diamond ring, a clean house. Books often describe love through actions: going on a date, giving a massage, spending time together. I think the most interesting part of love is revealed by people’s reactions.

After surviving the Holocaust, Victor Frankl wrote:

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Love is in that choice, and it is something you have a million opportunities to practice every day. For example, sometimes W- is preoccupied with work. I can feel lonely, or I can admire his concentration and look for ways to make things easier. Sometimes I misplace things. W- can get annoyed with me, or he can help me become better organized. Sometimes conversations with my mom can get awkward. I can become more distant, or I can get closer. Sometimes the cats throw up on the carpet. We can scold them, or we can accept that as part of the price we pay for their company and focus on cleaning up the mess.

You can make lists of loving actions to take, but the truth of love comes out in your reactions. When someone does something to tick you off, do you fall into a fight, or can you focus on the silver lining? When someone uses that tone of voice or that choice of words, do you get enraged, or can you mentally translate that into what was probably meant? It takes a little work, but just like happiness, love gets easier.

Reaction becomes action. I frequently tell W- that I love him, but it is not really an action—it is a reaction to the joy and the gift of life with someone like him. Far too many times, we think of love as something we initiate almost as part of an exchange: I will do this for you, so you will do that for me. Everything changes when your loving actions come from gratitude and joy.

This idea of love can go far beyond romantic relationships. To love life is to take it as it is, to throw yourself into it, to embrace it and see the best of it and choose that it brings out the best in you. My goal is to learn how to reply lovingly to everything that happens: to get better at seeing the best, and to become more deeply and more intimately human in response.


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I must be the happiest girl in the world. =)


I remember learning that you can’t help the face you’re born with, but you earn the face you have when you die.

I saw so many people with neutral or frowning expressions, and how their habitual grimaces had been carved into their wrinkles. I saw people whose crow’s feet and laugh lines spoke of lots of smiles instead.

Some people frowned a lot but were generally happy, like my dad. Some people smiled a lot but were generally happy, like my mom. And then there were people who were very good at talking themselves into sadness or anger or frustration, even though life was great, and there were people who were good at talking themselves into happiness, even though life occasionally took a curve.

I remember reading a story in Reader’s Digest about the difference between a pessimist and an optimist. Here is that story retold by Peter Robinson, excerpted from How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life:

Over lunch today I asked Ed Meese about one of Reagan’s favorite jokes. “The pony joke?” Meese replied. “Sure I remember it. If I heard him tell it once, I heard him tell it a thousand times.”

The joke concerns twin boys of five or six. Worried that the boys had developed extreme personalities — one was a total pessimist, the other a total optimist — their parents took them to a psychiatrist.

First the psychiatrist treated the pessimist. Trying to brighten his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with brand-new toys. But instead of yelping with delight, the little boy burst into tears. “What’s the matter?” the psychiatrist asked, baffled. “Don’t you want to play with any of the toys?” “Yes,” the little boy bawled, “but if I did I’d only break them.”

Next the psychiatrist treated the optimist. Trying to dampen his out look, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yelp of delight the psychiatrist had been hoping to hear from his brother, the pessimist. Then he clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to his knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands. “What do you think you’re doing?” the psychiatrist asked, just as baffled by the optimist as he had been by the pessimist. “With all this manure,” the little boy replied, beaming, “there must be a pony in here somewhere!”

How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, Peter Robinson

I read books about happiness, too. Some books talked about set points and circumstances, showing how both lottery winners and accident victims tend to return to their previous level of happiness even after significant events. Watching people, I learned that happiness is more about what’s in your head than what’s outside it.

Hugs: Growing up, I remember giving and receiving more hugs than either of my sisters did. My eldest sister was a little aloof. My middle sister was unpredictably angry or sweet. I was mostly affectionate. Even today, I still give my parents spontaneous hugs whenever I see them, and I hug people a lot.

In high school, I came across a book on neurochemistry that suggested that hugs were associated with higher oxytocin levels and lower cortisol: more bonding, happiness, and trust, and less stress. Over time, hugs and other forms of affection could increase the number of your cortisol receptors, helping you bounce back from stress faster. It tickled me to think that there could be geeky explanations for not just happiness, but the ability to be happy and resilient.

Splash Mountain: Perhaps that was why I was generally easy-going as a child. If we changed our mind about something, I might be temporarily disappointed (if at all), but I recovered quickly. I remember my dad and I once lined up for the Splash Mountain attraction at Disneyworld Orlando. We spent what felt like two hours in line while my sisters and my mom wandered around outside. When we got near the front of the line, they announced that the ride was closed due to mechanical troubles, and they couldn’t say when it would reopen. My dad was concerned about the rest of the family, who had been waiting for us, and he suggested that we leave. I was fine with that, so we went. Shortly after we left the line, the ride started back up again. I shrugged and laughed. We eventually lined up again because my dad said that if he didn’t do that, he knew he’d hear about it for years and years. I remember it well because of that – realizing that I wouldn’t have blamed him for being impatient or carried it along like a grudge, and that perhaps this was an odd thing…

This is not to say that my childhood was entirely amiable. I found that I was generally happier when I had more choice and more solitude, and got stressed out when I had neither. For example, when a drive south to attend a wedding turned into an extended road trip with no clear end, I felt trapped and upset. But in general, I was good at letting stress go.

I remember watching how my mom’s menopausal stress combined with my sister’s teenage angst to result in fireworks in the house. Stuck in the patterns of anger and frustration, they dredged up past grievances. They survived, and have since then become closer. I remember realizing that it did no good to hang on to old hurts. Much better to let go, to be like a pond of water rippling back to serenity after disruption.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull: My mom had a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull on her bookshelf. I remember not quite understanding it, but reading it and rereading it nonetheless. Looking back, I think I understand it better now. I remember thinking about the deliberate experiments of flight, the joy of learning, and the challenge and delight of sharing that with others. Then I thought about journeys, and perfect speed, and how most people think of happiness as something to be pursued—but what if it just is, if someone could just be happy? And I did.

More to come…


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My dad: As far as I can remember, I’ve always been surrounded by examples of passion. My father’s passion for making things happen drove him to become a legend in the Philippines (no, seriously, there’s a mountain tribe that’s woven him into their tribal stories), and his passion for advertising photography helped both our family and the business grow.

My dad works long hours and invests a lot of time and energy in learning, but it’s almost like play for him. From his example, I learned that passion is an amazing thing that can infect other people and make big things happen. I also learned that it can be difficult to find other people who are as passionate as you are, and you need to be strong so that you can weather the ups and downs of passion. I learned from how my mom supported and enabled my dad’s passions, and how they drew people together to help create opportunities.

I learned how passion can lead to success and prosperity, although the road may be long and difficult. But in the grips of your passion, you can’t help but follow it.

One of my dad’s favourite pieces of advice for beginning photographers is this:

Passion and Profit – nice to hear, di ba? Pero sa totoo lang – passion muna bago profit, and then hopefully later, they go together. Sometimes, matagal ka munang magpapasyon bago ka magka-profit.


Papa’s Talk, as recorded by Harvey Chua

Passion and profit – nice to hear, isn’t it? But the truth is, passion comes before profit, and then hopefully later, they go together. Sometimes, you have to suffer a long time before you can profit.

My mom: Compared with the clarity of my dad’s drive, my mom sometimes struggles to define her passions. She played a supporting role in building the family business, managing it and keeping it on an even keel. But I remember how she had shelves and shelves of books on parenting, education, advertising, and marketing, and how she was always learning. She told us a story of how she taught herself calculus so that she could help us prepare for exams. If that’s not passion for us, what is?

Grade school: My sisters and I went to St. Scholastica’s College for grade school, and there were many great role models for passion there as well. I have fond memories of many of my teachers, who showed their everyday dedication in the classroom. Mrs. Castillo (the principal) was clearly passionate about education, and she shared her enthusiasm with us in weekly speeches and newsletters. She was passionate about the role of drama in education, too, and we put on school plays with the help of Tita Naty Crame-Rogers—another powerhouse of passion.

I discovered the first of my great passions when I was in grade school, too. My eldest sister was learning Turbo Pascal in high school. I loved imitating whatever she did, and she hated it when I did that, so I wanted to learn how to program and she refused to teach me. I taught myself by reading the manual when she wasn’t around, and I found that I really enjoyed being able to get the computer to do what I wanted it to do. (Perhaps being the youngest had something to do with that too – I had no one to order around but the computer! ;) )

I loved working on the computer so much that my mom had to set up a much-contested schedule for computer time. The more I learned, the more I enjoyed learning. By the time I was in grade 6, I was helping my teachers learn how to use the new applications they had at school.

High school: Studying at Philippine Science High School meant being surrounded by geeks of all persuasions. I met people who were passionate about physics or chemistry or mathematics or biology. I saw how people could be incredibly talented at arts or drama or sports. My niche was computer programming, and I was very good at it. Being around so many people who were passionate about something or another was fantastic, and I learned a lot from our multiplicity of talents.

The only downside of this, I suppose, was that I let the abundance of talent convince me to focus on only a few things. In grade school, for example, everyone acted in the plays and everyone was involved in production. Everyone drew and everyone danced. In high school – especially in a high school that drew the best students from all over the Philippines – the differences in talent and experience meant that it became easy to think of writing or drawing or acting as things that other, more talented people did.

I had gotten to know my first year computer teacher through bulletin-board systems even before high school, and he knew that I was very interested in computers. While the rest of my classmates learned how to use MS-DOS Edit and Microsoft Windows, he challenged me by giving me administrator access to a Linux machine, telling me how to find the documentation, and asking me to set up a Linux-based BBS. I loved the way there was so much to learn about this unfamiliar operating system.

Programming contests: My first-year high school teacher also encouraged me to try out for programming competitions. I solved five of the problems they set for us, and I made it into the team. We trained during summers and the school year, and we participated in international competitions.

It was incredible being among so many computer geeks! I loved figuring out algorithms and discussing data structures with other people who enjoyed programming as much as I did. I learned how to work under time pressure and how to take advantage of other people’s strengths in our team.

I also learned about mismanagement. The international programming competitions we participated in high school were part of a regional computing conference. One year, the organization raised enough funds to make sure that the Philippines could send a team the next year. When the next year came around, the funds were missing, and we had to raise funds again. It taught me that passion is good, but you still need to keep an eye out for people who might take advantage of it.

University: I continued participating in programming competitions throughout university. I took computer science and had tons of fun learning. Because my entrance exam results had placed me in advanced classes and I took extra classes during summer, I had room to either do a double-major in math or take a lighter load in my fourth year of university. I took a few extra courses in math before deciding that path wasn’t for me, so I scaled down to 12 units a semester – about four classes – in my final year. This was also around the time that I got into open source development and wearable computing, and I put the extra time to great use. I discovered the joys of working on software that other people would actually use, and I had tons of fun experimenting with new technology.

I learned that time—particularly long blocks of unstructured time—can be really useful for pursuing passion, and that I loved working on things that made people’s lives easier. Working with about 200 passionate users of Planner (a Emacs-based personal information manager), I learned how I could help people work better by building tools that fit the way they work.

Blogging: Working on that personal information manager also got me into blogging. When I started working on the project, it already had a way to store quick notes and publish web pages. I figured out how to produce a feed based on those notes, and I tested it by publishing my own website. I used the site to share my class notes and programming ideas. I was surprised to find that people were reading it, and even more surprised to find that people thought it was valuable. So I got into the habit of writing about what I was learning, and that helped me learn so much more along the way.

Reading people’s blogs also taught me a lot about passion. When I learned about the skill/joy learning curve, I realized that passion doesn’t come immediately. As you learn more, you develop your ability to enjoy what you’re doing, and you learn even more, and you enjoy even more.

Work – must add to diagram: In fact, blogging helped me find an opportunity to follow my passion at work, too. While doing my thesis on social computing, I posted my thoughts, questions, and results on my internal blog. I got to know so many amazing people who were also passionate about what they were doing, and I wanted to continue working with them. After lots of exciting interest interviews with people all over the world, I chose a job role that had been created for me – Web 2.0 consulting and application development with IBM’s Global Business Services. Since I joined IBM in 2007, not a week has gone by without a wow! moment related to following my passion.

Hobbies – must add to diagram: I’ve also finally shaken off that hang-up I had from high school about other people being more talented than I was at particular things. I’m happily exploring writing and drawing. I’m even making my peace with subjects I’d disliked in school, like sewing and woodworking. It’s a lot of fun, and who knows which of these interests might develop into passions in the future?

What have I learned about passion?

  • Passion is my responsibility, not that of my company or of people around me.
  • There are different kinds of passion. Most people think of fiery enthusiasm, but slow-and-steady passion is also very useful.
  • Passion can be infectious.
  • Enthusiasm may come and go. Be prepared. Hang on to the fundamentals, and have ways to recharge.
  • Having multiple interests means having many seeds for future passions.
  • Passion can start small.
  • Passions that work together multiply your benefits.
  • Sharing your passion helps you learn more and make a bigger difference.
  • There are people who try to diminish or take advantage of your passion. Stay focused and don’t get discouraged. Find and help people who make good use of your passion.

Personal finance

So, about this influence map thing:
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I’ve written about introspection and goals. Now to write about personal finance and planning!

I enjoy learning about personal finance. I love balancing my books, evaluating my spending, and even doing my taxes. I’ve set up my retirement investments and a good opportunity fund. I live a simple, frugal, and abundant life. 

What I like about personal finance isn’t just the dollars and cents of it, although I do enjoy working with numbers. I like the way decisions help me understand and clarify my values. Is that really worth spending on? What do I want to save up for? What would make my life better? How can I use money and/or time (they’re very closely related) to make other people’s lives better?

How did I get to this point?

Relatives: I learned a lot about personal finance from our relatives on both sides of the family. People had different kinds of luck. Sometimes they struggled with finances, and they turned to my mom for help and advice. Sometimes they did well, and I saw how perseverance helped them make the most of opportunities. Sometimes, they were blindsided by sickness or accidents, and I learned that I needed to prepare.

I learned from the stories my mom and dad told me about growing up in very different circumstances. For example, my mom told us how she used to walk back and forth in front of one family’s house hoping to be invited in for lunch, and how her mother used to make and mend her dresses until the fabric fell apart. My parents told us stories about starting their business with PHP 1,000 and a borrowed camera, and how they built it from the ground up. I liked how they saw money as a tool to create or pursue opportunities, not as an end in itself, and I learned a lot from that.

House: Another story my mom told me was about how she and my dad bought the house which eventually grew into the studio. It was the worst of times – martial law and the assassination of Ninoy Aquino—but my mom and dad realized that they still liked the Philippines more than anywhere else. So while real estate was at the bottom, my parents scraped together enough money to buy the property they had been renting. I remember my mom telling me how she avoided debt as much as possible, using savings and reinvested profits to grow.

This reminds me of another story my parents like to tell, and which my mom has shared on her blog:

There were two entrepreneurs, one Filipino and one Chinese. They both had a “sari-sari” store (a humble variety store that sells, in retail, only small low-priced everyday items).

After a year, the Filipino used the profits of his store to buy himself a TV set. The Chinese man reinvests his money into the store, and turned his “sari-sari” store into a mini-grocery.

After the second year, the Filipino bought himself a second-hand car while the Chinese continued to commute using public transportation. He expanded his store, while the Filipino still had the same “sari-sari” store.

After the third year, the Filipino bought himself a house in BF Homes (a medium-level suburban subdivision) while the Chinaman continued to live in a tiny room above his store, which was by then, close to looking like a department store.

At this point, my husband butted in and said, “You see, the Chinese way is better,” to which I replied, “Better for the business but look at the two and see who is smiling.” It was easy for the three of us to reach the conclusion that the Chinese knew how to do business, while the Filipino knew how to enjoy life.

“Let’s have a Chinese decision,” John said. “Let’s offer to buy this house. After all, the studio is here, we won’t need to transfer, we might lose clients if we transferred, we won’t have to change business forms and stationary, etc.”

“Okay”, I said, “for now, we will have a Chinese decision, but I hope someday, we can enjoy a Filipino decision.”

The Chinese Decision, Harvey Chua

This taught me about the power of reinvesting and the value of enjoying the rewards.

Passbook: I remember my mom opening a savings account for me and showing me the regular deposits in a small passbook. I didn’t do much with it, but I remember realizing that you can have money even if it’s not in your wallet, and it’s great when it grows without much work.

Potlatch: I remember reading (in Childcraft, of course – loved that series!) about a Native American custom called the potlatch, where people demonstrate their status by giving away or burning (!) expensive goods. I liked the part about providing for others and how it all balanced out, but I wasn’t sure how burning goods made sense. Some cultures value frugality, too, and they provide an interesting contrast.

Monopoly: Our childhood games of Monopoly shaped my drive towards financial independence.

My mom occasionally tells a story about how we played Monopoly when my sisters and I were growing up. In the game, my eldest sister often gave my parents investing advice, my middle sister kept giving her money away, and my parents would often end up giving me money. With a seven-year difference between me and my eldest sister, I suspect that the finer points of real estate value, probability, and negotation were lost on me, and my parents probably just wanted to help me stay in the game. (Saling pusa.)

My mom probably sees the story as a wonderful example that three children can have very different temperaments. For me, that story’s one of the reasons why I think about money a lot. I plan and save so that I can enjoy financial independence. I find it difficult to accept gifts that feel extravagant, because I don’t want to be the spoiled youngest child. I keep my life simple and live within my means.

It also showed me that although luck can change the situation a little bit, once there’s a bit of an advantage, it’s easier to succeed if you’re successful and harder if you aren’t.

Parents: I learned a lot from my parents’ decisions, and I also learned from their partnership. My dad’s more of an generous and impulsive spender, while my mom is the one who budgets, saves, invests, and keeps records. It works well for them, and they’ve figured out how to avoid the control conflicts that often challenge other couples with different spending styles. My dad has come to enjoy Suze Orman’s show (particularly the part about whether people can afford something or not), and he’s even made jokes about it, like whether he could afford to buy a La-Z-Boy recliner for my mom. (“Mr. Chua, go buy your wife a La-Z-Boy!”)

Books: I learned a ton about personal finance from books, of course. I devoured all the personal finance books my mom had, and even today, I enjoy reading things I pick up from the library. Most of the personal finance books cover the same basics and I’m happy to keep my finances boring (index funds, etc.), but sometimes I come across interesting insights. Blogs and forums are great for ideas, too. Books give you the “bones” of a good strategy, while blogs and forums are good for figuring out more about what you want and what’s worth spending on.

My favourite personal finance book is “Your Money or Your Life’”, which has a particularly clear explanation of how to evaluate your expenses and calculate how much of your life you’re swapping for the things you have.

I also remember reading Virginia Woolf’s essay, “A Room of Your Own”. It talked about the freedom you can have by having your own money and a space where you won’t be disturbed. I remember thinking: I love what I do, but I’d still like to save up enough money so that I can freely do what I want to do.

I like what another personal finance book suggested: preparing a bare-bones plan, a comfortable plan, and a realistic plan. The bare-bones plan gives you confidence and a safety net, the comfortable or luxurious plan teaches you about what you value, and the realistic plan helps you enjoy some of that luxury without going overboard.

School: I liked math in grade school and high school, although calculus and I had a bit of a fight in university. Because math didn’t scare me, dealing with numbers in my personal life was okay, too.

I remember how my parents used to help us with math by translating exercises into real-life situations. That helped me learn, and it also showed me that math is useful.

Another story from school: my mom told me about how they were surprised by a bill from the school canteen. Apparently, my middle sister had negotiated her own line of credit with the canteen staff and had forgotten to tell my mom. She used it to not only buy extra snacks, but occasionally treat her classmates. I learned that negotiation skills are awesome, but surprises might not necessarily be so.

Credit card: My mom was always very firm on this. Credit cards are useful, but never carry a balance on them. I never have. She also taught me about keeping enough in my checking account to be safe from overdraft fees, and never buying anything unless I have the money to pay for it. I remember realizing that even though my parents signed for things, they didn’t get them for free, and they earned the money by working hard.

Travel: I learned a lot from how my parents saved up for and planned our big trips. We stayed in youth hostels instead of hotels, ate sandwiches instead of eating in restaurants, and walked or took public transit instead of taking cabs. This meant that we could enjoy more days on our vacation, and we had a more local experience, too. I learned that you don’t have to spend a lot in order to have a great time. I also learned a lot from the way my sister saved up for her trip to South Africa. Normally more of an impulsive spender, she became very careful with her spending. I remember how she shared with us that she was about to buy a hamburger, but then she realized that if she didn’t buy the hamburger, she could enjoy one more meal in South Africa. =) She also told us stories about how she backpacked and lived frugally while in South Africa, making the money last as long as she could. I learned that a clear and vivid goal can really help you examine your spending decisions, and that decisions have opportunity costs.

Immersion: In university, we all went on immersion programs, spending a few days living among the poor. Some of my classmates lived in the countryside. My group lived among the urban poor in one of the city slums. Many of my groupmates couldn’t take it, trying to soften the experience by bringing lots of canned goods or taking a breather by escaping to a nearby mall. Aside from being a little self-conscious about my accent and the attention we drew, I was fine with staying there and sharing people’s lives, eating rice and sardines with my hands, showering with a dipper, and learning how to prepare the food that they sold in mobile street carts.

I remember thinking about how my classmates were shocked (shocked!) once they stepped outside our lives of relative privilege. I remember listening to my host mother’s wry reflections that some families work hard to get out of the muck and some families drink and gamble themselves into oblivion or destruction. I remember the parish priest talking about how there were just so many children, and my host mother saying, ah, well, what can people do? I remember walking past shanties with shiny DVD players and karaoke machines, thinking about the story my parents told about the Chinese entrepreneur and the Filipino entrepreneur. I remember how some people were happy and some people were angry and some people were sad, and it was just like all the rest of the world.

Opportunity fund: When I was in second year, my team and I won a programming competition that had a top prize of PHP 1M, or roughly USD 20,000. Split five ways, it was still a decent sum and more money than I had ever had. I was on a scholarship and didn’t need the money, so my mom saved it for me.

In my final year of university, I wanted to explore wearable computing for my final-year project. The head-mounted display was pretty expensive for an experiment (USD 750 at the time, I think), and I wasn’t sure if it would be worth it. I realized it would be useful to think of my programming competition winnings as an opportunity fund for experiments. I ordered the head-mounted display, and I got tons of mileage out of that. Not only did I learn a lot about hacking, Emacs, wearable computing, and the interaction of society and technology, but I stumbled into the public imagination and I learned how to deal with television interviews, magazine features, and so on. Mass media had covered some of our programming contests in the past and one tabloid had featured me as a computer prodigy at the tender age of five or something like that, but the Borg-like contraption was something else entirely. Even as I protested that I’d shifted from head-mounted displays (too heavy, too obvious, too distracting for people) to speech synthesis (much more interesting, with applications for accessibility), people fixated on the cool stuff. I was made up (as in eyeshadow!), celebrated, misquoted, misspelled (often – my name is hard! ;) ), misrepresented (I hadn’t invented the thing, despite what Seventeen Philippines printed)… and yet, looking back, it was a good thing to do. It was good to be able to take some of that money, create that opportunity, learn something new, and nudge people’s imaginations. I learned that an opportunity fund and the freedom to experiment can lead to all sorts of good things, and that it takes very little to get something going.

I used this idea in Japan, too. Taking advantage of the decent stipend that the Association for Overseas Technical Scholarship gave us during our internships, I took weekend trips using cheap overnight buses to get to Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe. I took public transit to places like Hakone, and I went to onsens to enjoy the hot springs. I explored different places in Tokyo and surrounding areas, too, like Akihabara (of course!). I think that of all my classmates, I probably had the best time. Again, it helped to set aside some money in my budget so that I could explore without worry.

Canada: Moving to Canada made me grow up. I managed my money carefully as a student. My funding covered tuition and a decent stipend, which I stretched by cooking for myself and keeping my lifestyle simple. I tracked all of my expenses and reviewed my budget regularly. I finished my master’s with no student debt and decent savings.

Using an insight from one of the productivity books I’d read, I listed my goals and ideas, and I started figuring out the price tags for them. I realized, for example, that having a good set of plates and cups and bowls meant something to be, that Corelle was well within my budget, and that tea parties or dinner parties were definitely doable.

When I started working, I kept my student lifestyle, eating at home and borrowing books from the library. I took advantage of the registered retirement savings plan program to defer taxes on my investments. I started building up an even bigger opportunity fund and a decent emergency fund, too. I tried the free financial counseling at work, but the advisor and I figured out that it wouldn’t work out for us, as I had figured most of the stuff out and I liked my low-MER index funds more than actively managed high-MER funds.

W- is also pretty frugal, although I update my books more regularly than he does. We often talk ourselves out of watching movies or eating out because we enjoy the alternatives. We’re both good at saving up for major expenses and keeping a buffer for emergencies. We both enjoy the little things in life, but aren’t afraid to spend where it counts. I’m glad we both care about financial responsibility. That reduces the risk of money causing tension. If many couples fight over money and we can figure out how to keep money from putting us under pressure, we’ll be better prepared for great adventures.

What have I learned about personal finance and planning?

  • Money is a means to an end. You can use it to create experiences or explore opportunities.
  • Goals and experiments can be surprisingly affordable. Plan, prioritize, and figure out the price.
  • There’s a difference between needing something and wanting something.
  • Be careful with your financial commitments. Don’t commit to more than you can handle.
  • Invest for the long term. Don’t be scared by volatility, but don’t try to be too fancy.
  • Don’t beat yourself up with buyer’s remorse. Learn from your decision and move on.
  • Contribute to your favourite charitable causes. It helps you make a bigger difference than you could on your own.
  • Build in room for “play money” in your budget, and use that to treat yourself and others. If you forget, you might end up feeling deprived, which throws your willpower out of whack.
  • Build in room for “dream/opportunity money” in your budget. Use that for key opportunities and experiences.
  • It really helps if your partner and you are both frugal, but even if you have different spending styles, you can make things work if you work together.
  • The library is awesome. Tax dollars hard at work.
  • A little planning today can lead to lots of awesomeness tomorrow, twenty years from now, and so on.


I enjoy setting goals and planning how to reach them. I have a small notebook that includes sketches and descriptions of what I want to do. I like setting goals not because I’ll be happy when I achieve them (happiness isn’t a destination, it just is), but because they’re good experiments in how wonderful life can be.

I encourage my friends to set goals and track their progress, too. Before I left the Philippines for Canada, I asked all of my friends to write down their two-year plans.

Where did this begin?

Imbayah: My parents gave us plenty of examples of the power of setting great goals. For example, my mom and dad helped organize a festival of traditional games called the Imbayah. I wasn’t born yet, but I learned about it from stories they told when I was growing up. I learned that a good goal can move other people to action. I also learned that you need both vision and execution to make a difference, and my parents work together really well because of that. My parents also told me stories about how they wanted to start a business, how they wanted to build a studio, and so on. I don’t think they ever drifted aimlessly. They were always working on something cool.

Books:  I learned a lot about goal-setting from books, too. My mom had shelves of books on productivity, and she was always trying to help the employees in the company learn how to set and achieve goals.

Encyclopedias taught me an unexpected lesson about the power of setting goals and visualizing success, this by way of a story my mom told me about the time she sold encyclopedias door to door. She told me how she used to get through tough sales by imagining a check written to her for the amount of her commission, and mentally pasting this check on her prospect’s forehead.

 Travel: One of my mom’s goals was to create family experiences through travel. She planned for it, saved for it, and made it happen. I remember a story my parents told us about how my mom had been trying to get my dad to join us on the trip. He didn’t want to go because of work, but one day, he relented and told my mom to go ahead and make plans. A few hours later, he was about to change his mind—but my mom had already booked the tickets. From that and the stories my parents told me of planning, I learned that opportunities are part luck and part planning. It’s good to set goals and prepare, so that you can make the most of opportunities that come up.

Lightpainting: I also learned a lot from how my parents set learning goals for themselves, like the way my dad taught himself photography and techniques like lightpainting. I remember watching him experiment in a darkened studio, trying to figure out how to create the images he could see in his imagination. I learned that you need to set goals for your own growth and work on moving towards them, because people aren’t going to hand you a curriculum and all the course materials you need. My parents gave us plenty of great examples of goal-setting for growth, like the way my dad taught himself digital photography and my mom taught herself business and marketing.

Ultralights: There were big projects too, like the cross-country flight my dad completed in an ultralight airplane. I learned how sometimes awesome projects start as crazy ideas, and you have to be open to pursuing them. I saw how my dad’s vision and my mom’s support in execution came together in making something cool happen, and I saw how lots of people were inspired by it both during and after the flight and the exhibit.

R. Hidalgo: My dad’s always doing some kind of initiative or another. One time, he wanted to help clean up R. Hidalgo, a street that used to be famous for the photographic equipment stores that lined it. Vendors clogged the passage-ways and the sidewalks were grimy. My dad organized the local shopkeepers and photographers, got the street cleaned up and the vendors moved to a different place, and helped put together a street photography exhibit. It was great, and it restored a lot of pride in the place. But it drew bad feelings from the displaced vendors, and my dad even received death threats. The local community wanted my dad to stay involved, but he saw it as a project they needed to take over and own, because they had a stake in it and he was from the outside. This is where I learned that sometimes good goals run into real-life challenges, and that it’s all right if a great idea doesn’t get completely developed.

Alabang: Likewise, my mom had a goal of having a comfortable house that could serve as a nice retreat from work. She saved up for and found a house in Alabang, and we stayed there occasionally. It was wonderfully peaceful, but it was a long way from the studio, so my dad and sister often preferred to stay in Makati instead. Eventually my mom decided to rent out the house instead. I learned that sometimes you need other people in order to fully enjoy a goal.

(must add this to diagram – CookOrDie): I don’t remember explicitly setting a lot of big goals for myself when I was growing up. I remember once trying to read 100 books and realizing that the goal was distracting me from the joy of reading the book. I had smaller goals, like understanding a particular book, and my mom told me that I’d read something again and again in order to understand it. I participated in programming and chess competitions, but I don’t remember telling myself, “I want to win X competitions” or “I want to master Y techniques.” I do remember starting to experiment after I graduated from university: my CookOrDie project (eat at most one meal out a day), for example.

Master’s: Going for my master’s degree in Canada helped me do a lot of goal-setting. I needed to get all the paperwork together. I started managing my own finances more closely. I needed to do research and write my thesis. I needed to establish myself and make friends. There were some goals I abandoned along the way (the courtyard garden box, for example), but the rest of my goals gave me lots of satisfaction. I started setting more quantitative goals, too, like saving X in my opportunity fund.

Projects: Now that life has settled down a bit and we have a stable foundation to build on, I’ve been learning more about setting goals, planning, and persisting through hobby projects. Whether it’s gardening, sewing, or woodworking, there are plenty of things I can imagine and make happen. Work provides plenty of goals, too, and I enjoy making progress towards them.

What have I learned about goals?

  • If you don’t have them, you’ll drift, and you’ll end up following other people’s goals.
  • Goals are great for shaping life.
  • I like process-oriented goals more than outcome-oriented goals. That is, I tend to phrase my goals so that I focus on what I can control.
  • I don’t particularly relate to the kinds of goals lots of people share in their life lists (ex: travel to all seven continents). Introspection helps me figure out my own goals.
  • Drawing goals and regularly reviewing them is fun.
  • It’s okay to let goals go when you outgrow them.
  • Sharing your goals sometimes results in other people helping you with them, which is awesome.
  • Don’t set yourself up for failure and self-hate. Pick goals that help you do better and that help you feel good as you work on them.
  • A small paper notebook is a great way to keep sketches and lists of goals. Keep it handy so that you can add new ideas to it.