‘You need deliberate focus to master a skill’

In Photo: Dr. Reinabelle Reyes delivers a commencement speech at the Ateneo de Davao University.

In this age of fast-food and instant gratification, hard work, patience and dedication are still the factors to propel an individual to success.

In her recent commencement speech at the Ateneo de Davao University, Dr. Reinabelle Reyes told the students that they have to master a set of skills to accomplish their tasks or goals.

“How do you master a skill? There is only one way to do it—it takes deliberate focus over a long period of time. My PhD took five years, deliberately focused in training to become a scientist. The recipe is simple, but not easy: I’ll say it again—you need deliberate focus over a long period of time,” said Reyes, who graduated valedictorian at the Philippine Science High School.

Reyes, who finished her PhD in Astrophysics at Princeton University, said remaining focused is a big challenge for the current generation mainly because of the Internet, stressing that the emergence of Facebook and other apps that are constantly pinging and nonstop updating with new posts take an individual’s time and disturb one’s attention.


Admitting that she also faces the same challenge, she sympathized with the students, telling them “how hard it must be for you, who grew up with these devices.”

“My hope is that you consider your ability to focus—and find ways to improve it. Meditation worked wonders for me. In meditation, you sit still and focus your attention on your breath. It’s that simple, but not easy. Try it some time. It is an exercise for the mind and it strengthens your focus muscle. Do it enough and you’ll have a superpower,” she pointed out.

Reyes also urged the students to be patient in honing and developing their craft because nobody starts out being good.

She added that constant practice and learning from the mistakes would make them better individuals in the long run.

“You need to be patient. You can add a friend on Facebook instantly, but real friendships take time. You can get a date on Tinder instantly, but relationships take time. You can download course materials from Coursera instantly, but learning something deeply and becoming good at it—becoming great— takes time,” Reyes pointed out.

She urged students to take their first job seriously—“even if it may not end up being what your heart sings for.”

She added: “If you don’t take it seriously, you honestly wouldn’t know. Give it a fighting chance. Give yourself a chance to get better at something—at anything,” she said.

Reyes added it is also important to listen to one’s heart. After determining what the heart says, she advised students to focus and work on that until they become good.

“Focus on that—and become better than you were, better and better until you’re actually good—and useful. It is the path to a happy and fulfilled life,” she said.

While she was on her second year of the three-year postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Chicago, Reyes said she experienced a burnout and decided to go back to the Philippines afterward.

“I lost all motivation to work—or to do much of anything. To be honest, I was depressed. The social isolation and long Chicago winters did not help,” she recalled.

After attending a conference in Tokyo, Reyes grabbed the opportunity to travel to the Philippines and do a silent retreat at the Sacred Heart Novitiate

“It was a haven. There, I asked for advice from Fr. Earl Barredo, a kind and wise Jesuit priest. I told him that I was looking forward to coming back to the Philippines and starting my life here. But in the meantime, I needed to muster the motivation to continue my work back in the States and finish writing the paper I’m working on with my colleagues. I felt that it was something that I needed to do.”

Reyes said Father Barredo gave her a life-changing advice, which paved the way for her to stay in the country for good.

“He said, ‘Listen to your heart, Reina. Just come home.’ And just like that, the burden was lifted. He told me that I did not have a duty to stay. And he was right. I had been tied down by my own perceived obligation, which was actually not a real one. I started making plans to return much sooner, we came back two months after—that was January 2014—and never looked back since,” she said.

“In life, we sometimes make choices out of a feeling of obligation—to other people, our parents, perhaps, and sometimes even to ourselves, and sometimes it turns out to be the right choice. But other times, it turns out to be an unnecessary burden—one that you carry with you because you think you should,” She added.

Reyes urged the students to find the space and the courage to listen to what is in their heart because it will be smooth sailing in the end for them.

“I hope you find someone like Fr. Earl who will listen to your heart and tell you clearly—you don’t have to be miserable. You can just let it go, and in the end, all will be well. Trust me, it will.”

The 34-year-old astrophysicist said she was able to achieve high satisfaction in her various jobs—such as data scientist, consultant, professor, mentor and researcher. She is currently a part-time lecturer at the Ateneo de Manila University.

The BS Physics summa cum laude graduate of Ateneo de Manila give public talks in science and astronomy and is currently working on an astronomy book, which she hopes to finish by the end of the year.



Image Credits: Screen grab from a video

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