Book: When Breath Becomes Air


I picked up the book very randomly on Amazon while I was searching for some good reads upon completing Lean In. The cover artwork seems relaxing and reading the synopsis reminds me a lot of Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie. I might have not written here (or maybe I did, but I forgot) that I cried completing Tuesdays With Morrie. Maybe I was too sensitive that I’m reading the book in the middle of Pittsburgh’s cold weather and I was about to have my finals the next week. When Breath Becomes Air has the same effect on me.

WBBA chronicles the life of Paul Kalanithi, a medical doctor in California, and emphasizes on events after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. After his diagnosis, he took his audience for some flash back to his school years in Arizona and on how he decided to become a doctor and to finally become a neurosurgeon. I was actually impressed when he described his thought process of becoming a doctor. It’s logical and thoughtful. First of all, he is an avid reader; he likes poetry, he likes novels, and he’s interested in human linguistics. He then became curious on how human brains react to language. He was enrolled in English literature program in Stanford and also took some human biology classes; then he became a doctor.

At least for me, how I decided to be a software engineer is probably a coincidence. I got into ITB because of my mom’s recommendation (even the school too). However I chose my major (Information Systems) myself when I was in second year (but mostly because I flunked at the other subject –> electrical engineering, so I picked the other). Grad school is also a suggestion from my parents. I thought after graduating, I’ll become a consultant as I had planned when I was in college. Then during my masters, I got interested in computer science more and the coding courses are always my favorite classes to attend. I forget my intention of becoming a consultant (or analyst) and I strived to be an software developer.

Anywho, as I was saying….

My catch of WBBA triggers me to ask the same question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living? I admire the moment when Kalanithi was sick with cancer and thought of quitting his residence and focus on his treatment, then his oncologist suggested otherwise so that he feels much alive. Later in the book, after Kalanithi finished his treatment and see that his condition was improving, he decided to go back in the operating room. I think he somehow found his meaning of life while dying. It’s seems paradoxical, but absolutely moving.

The book is perfect for people who are striving in their career, who are perfectionists, who are always ambitious, who works 25 hours a day, who are wondering what the heck is going on in my life, and for everyone who are humans. I’m amazed with how the author becomes very honest about himself and how powerful his story become afterwards. I don’t think I can do that. When I’m writing I always try to be careful not to open up a lot, because a. I’m a paranoid, or b. I don’t want people to know me but I don’t know anything about them. It’s toxic I know. Anywho…

It also acts as a good reminder for me to enjoy my life more, to reevaluate if I like what I’m doing, to cherish what I have, to not be so fussy about little things, and to be appreciative of everything. It mentioned of what is important as a human and what is worth to pursue through the eyes of Paul Kalanithi.

If Lean In tells on empowering women; When Breath Becomes Air tells on how to become a human. It’s an eye-opening story of his life, which could be a gentle nudge to my mundane routine.

I always like reading an honest rendition of other person’s story. And I really appreciate when people discuss about their success, they are also not afraid to own their weaknesses. I think it’s very genuine and organic. I also one day want to write/create something that compels to others. Let’s see. Might take years. Haha.


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