Navigating Turbulent Waters Jimmy Liao had a difficult relationship with his short-tempered father. But he fondly remembers the fishing trips he took with his dad each Sunday. Liao is now a fish biologist. He says that fish have taught him how to swim through life's rough currents.
NPR logo

Navigating Turbulent Waters

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Navigating Turbulent Waters

Navigating Turbulent Waters

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Unidentified Man #1: I believe in mystery.

Unidentified Woman #1: I believe in family.

Unidentified Man #2: I believe in being who I am.

Unidentified Man #3: I believe in the power of failure.

Unidentified Man #4: And I believe normal life is extraordinary.

Unidentified Man #5: This I believe.


Today, a This I Believe essay about life's obstacles from Jimmy Liao. He's the son of a seamstress and gym teacher from Taiwan. Liao is now a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Neurobiology in Behavior at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Here's our series curator, independent producer Jay Alison.

JAY ALISON: In addition to being a scientist, Jimmy Liao is an adventurous sportsman. He skydives and bungee jumps, for instance. But his belief and his scientific study derived from a more venerable sporting activity - fishing.

Here's Jimmy Liao with his essay for This I Believe.

Dr. JIMMY LIAO (Post Doctoral Fellow, Department of Neurobiology in Behavior, Cornell University): I believe in using the turbulence in my life. I learned this studying fish.

My mother and father emigrated from Taiwan to New York City to raise a family. They bused tables at a Chinese restaurant and worked double shifts for years. On Sundays, my father and I would go out with our fishing rods. I was 2 years old when I caught my first fish in Prospect Park with my dad. No water was off-limits - golf ponds, marble quarries, private estates. We packed a lunch and we took off.

Sometimes we got in trouble and laughed about it later when we told the stories. Our best times together were spent trying to catch a fish. But there was another side to my father. He had a temper, and sometimes he got angry and would hit me. In those moments of uncontrolled rage, he could only see things his way. He would never let me win an argument. I was held under his will, unable to break out. And when I challenged him, he struck me in the face. It didn't break me, but it left me petrified, powerless and resentful. Just the same, come Sunday, regardless of what happened that week, we would fish together.

Years later, I followed my interest in fish to graduate school in biology. I was always a good student, but was often wracked with insecurity. I didn't have much confidence. I felt it was beaten out of me. I tried to find my direction, but just ended up spinning around and dissipating my energy. Then one night, something wonderful happened. I was researching how fish swim in turbulent flow and discovered that they could surf on swirling eddies without using much muscle. What I suddenly realized was that obstacles could actually help you struggle less; that was what I'd needed to know for a long time.

I dove into my experiments and published them quickly, culminating in an article that made the cover of Science magazine. And I received my Ph.D. from Harvard in 2004. My parents took a rare day off from the restaurant, and were by my side holding my hand when I stood to receive my diploma on a cloudy afternoon in June.

I believe I can get around the obstacles in my life, not by fighting them, but by yielding to them and pushing off from them. It's what Taoists call Wu Wei, literally, to go with the flow. Now I could take the energy of my father's violence and move through it, to surge past that turbulence. I could let my father be himself without giving up on myself. This is different from forgiveness. It's the way I choose to define the events in my life by my response to them. There are natural streamlines in our lives. I find by letting go, I can harness the complex currents of my life to propel me forward. It was the fish my dad introduced me to that finally taught me this.

ALLISON: Jimmy Liao with his essay for This I Believe. Liao signs his correspondence to us with the word upstream.

If you'd be interested in writing for our series, we invite you to visit to find out more and to find a link to our podcast.

For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison.

BLOCK: Jay Allison is co-editor with Dan Gediman, John Gregory and Viki Merrick of the book "This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women."

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.