Category Archives: _Essay ๐Ÿ“

What I learned in my 20s

I had the privilege of speaking to my friend Andre’s high school class this week about my career and path to it. I didn’t have time for all the advice I’d give, so I’m putting it here:


It’s ok to not be able to answer “So where do you see yourself in 5 years?”.

That’s a hard question, and it’s ok to not immediately know the answers to hard questions.

In my experience, most of my life was in a state of not really knowing this, with one major exception: When I realized in 2017-2018 that I really wanted to work for Ableton in Germany. Then it became startingly clear where I wanted to be, and approximately what I needed to do.

My advice would be to simply start taking actions while being observant of yourself, and your strengths, interests, and natural inclinations. At what things do you naturally work harder than other people? What things seem like play to you, but work to others? Those are hints at areas you can excel and become world class.

Eventually after enough action (and reflection), you might have an insight about something you deeply want to make happen. And then suddenly it becomes clear.

“As you start to walk on the way, the way appears.” – Rumi


It might seem like life is a race, from start to finish, where checkpoints are things like: university, job, marriage, children. When you “graduate high school” (i.e. become an adult), the gun goes off. Everyone starts running and the first one to make it through, wins.

In my experience, the “race” is actually a custom trail for every single person. When you “graduate high school” (i.e. become an adult), the gun goes off and everyone starts running in different directions. Another person’s progress towards their endpoint has little to no relevance on your progress towards yours.

The only competition is to know yourself as fully as possible, and act with maximum authenticity towards that truth.


A simple strategy towards achieving success and fulfillment is looking for:

  1. A “vertical”: An industry which you have particular interest (e.g. music, fashion, film, journalism, activism, sports, …)
  2. A “horizontal”: A skill which you have interest in and aptitude for (e.g. technology, writing, art, photography, communication, …)

And then work at the intersection of the two. Basically every vertical needs every horizontal. Every industry needs programmers, communicators, creatives, etc.

This strategy is not foolproof, but can be a good approximate path for those without one. And it worked well for me!


Seek like-minded peers. The first time this happened to me blew my mind โ€” I went to the National Guitar Workshop in 2010 and met a bunch of other teenagers that were interested in writing original metal compositions and recording them on computers. This was a strictly positive experience and gave me friendship, motivation, and a sense of community.

Then in college, I went to NU Hacks and the same thing happened. I found a great network of aspiring hackers, and we became great friends and learned together.

In both cases, all these people are now doing amazing things in the world in their field. And these relationships have turned into the kind of life-long friendships that are one of the best things in life.


Greatness is built iteratively, over a long period of time.


Don’t be afraid to exploit your unfair advantages.

The astonishing cost/benefit asymmetry of a four-day work week

Work update: I reduced to working 4 days/week and the cost/benefit asymmetry is astonishing.

Just one extra free day might not sound like much, but I feel like I gain >100% more high quality free time (Friday off is even better than Saturday; Sunday is not high quality free time for me – too much adulting to do).

And I lose only 20% of my productive work capacity (Well a bit more; Friday would be a more productive day than average for me b/c it’s quieter & less meetings).

I’ve constantly felt squashed the last few years, but always convinced myself it was a me problem, rather than a possibility that even “normal” working hours didnโ€™t actually leave me with enough free time for everything I had to do*. (Maybe some of both)

But my energy and mood are way better than in a long time, so maybe it goes to show that the latter was the case, and one extra day can go a long way. (But thatโ€™s less surprising when you frame it as 100% more time).

I do need to be a bit more conscious of how I use my work week, and I have noticed a tendency to try to fit 5 days of work into 4โ€ฆ but overall itโ€™s going well. Iโ€™m curious if I end up filling up the extra personal capacity and end up just as stressed, but I somehow doubt that will happen.

โ€”

*You might ask, well why are you so busy anyway? Are you just piling on voluntary responsibilities?

Iโ€™ve thought about this at length and I think my answer is glibly, “expat life”.

Creative potential energy

Creative potential is to potential energy as creative output is to kinetic energy.

I feel strongly that everyone has potential in them to be creative in some form โ€” “creative potential”. When someone creates something, the potential is released into some kind of output โ€” “creative output”. (This applies even to ephemeral creativity like a live performance.)

Just like how electric potential energy (voltage) is converted to tremendous kinetic energy (current) with lightning, or via a short in a circuit, creative potential can be violently converted into creative output when the conditions are right (a “channel”). Another name for this process is “creative flow”.

The trick is finding the right conditions for a person to unleash their creative potential. The space of environmental conditions is vast with infinite parameters, including:

  • Art form
  • Instruments available
  • Time & place
  • Solo or with others

While I firmly believe people can discover their medium at any age, I think it’s important to focus on finding at least one pre-adulthood. Unfortunately after that point I think people lose confidence in themselves and resign themselves as “uncreative”, which can be a tough hurdle to get over.


I’m happy to say I’ve personally, finally found a channel for my writing practice, right here on this blog. More on that here.

Learn to build your own tools

It’s worth it to learn to build your own tools. If you don’t, the only tools you’ll be able to use are those that someone else made, created a company around, then brought to mass market (henceforth, “the song and dance”).

That’s a herculean task, even for software tools which are the easiest to do all that with.

But just because someone didn’t do the song and dance (or failed at any of the infinite points to do so along the way, possibly even due to sheer bad luck) doesn’t mean that tool couldn’t exist today and be actively improving your life, right now.

There is a mind-boggling effort difference between making a prototype product that provides value today, and productionizing that product for the mass market and doing the song and dance.

Prototype products which are only ever used by the creator (i.e. expert user) for utilitarian reasons don’t need to have clean UIs, graceful error handling, or intuitive, consistent, and discoverable UX. They just need to kind of do the job.

The unreal effort required for mass market means that the actual products on the market today are only a tiny subset of the actual products possible in the world now without a technological breakthrough.

You, personally, would probably benefit from some of both sets of products; some that exist today on the market, some that could but no one did yet. Some of the latter might have even been game-changing for you.

But if you know how to build your own tools, you can access that superset of possible products today. Even if it’s just prototype quality tools, that might be good enough.

I’m talking mostly about digital tools but argument applies to anything. What I find especially interesting is how trends in technology continually decrease the effort to build prototype software. This used to require code. Then no-code came around. And finally AI generated code is here. People at large already do this today with tools like Excel, but I wouldn’t be surprised if many more people in the future are using bespoke one-off prototype mobile apps, desktop apps, and web software they’ve built for themselves to solve specific everyday problems.

Personally I do this a bunch already using code and no-code solutions:

And a few no-code apps I’ve built for myself using AppSheet:

  • Personal metrics tracking app
  • Simple personal finance and budgeting app

I’ve also created a custom calendar in Google Sheets which has really improved my life in 2023. Maybe I’ll write about that later.

Life is a business; life is a game; life is art

Here are three ways to view your life:

Life as a business

Life is a business, and you are the Founder & CEO.

You have goals, resources, and agency. The idea is to build the strongest business and life for yourself. You do this by making good decisions and generating profit.

The most savvy founders look for holes in the fabric of society, the market, their industry โ€” and exploit them. They seek trends that allow them to be ahead of the curve.

Life as a game

Life is a game, and you are a player.

You are initialized with random parameters that inform your strengths, weaknesses, and initial environment. There’s an endless world in front of you to explore and play in.

The idea is to do well at the game โ€” build points, power, connections. You encounter other players, transact with them, exchange moves, determine if they are trustworthy or hostile.

You learn the rules over time and understand what game you are even playing. You discover that within the greater context of “the game”, there are many sub-games you can play.

Randomness and luck are all built into the game.

Life as an art piece

Life is an art project, and you are the artist.

You have a blank canvas in front of you and an infinite number of creative decisions to make. The idea is to find a beautiful & satisfying creative endpoint for your piece.

There are many creative paths to take, leading to different ends. There is no best end, but some ends are better than others.

Like any other artist, you must apply techniques to manage the decision space. You apply constraints โ€” sometimes artificially, sometimes destructively โ€” to move forward.

Art/Artist Fit

Product/Market fit is when you’ve made a product that people actually want.

Product/Founder fit is when your product is a good fit for you, personally, as a founder.1

Art/Artist fit (something I just made up) is a generalization of Product/Founder given the point of view that products are art and making a product is an artistic practice.

Given that art is a reflection of the artist, it makes sense that certain kinds of art will be more or less natural for someone to make, given their personal inclinations.

A few examples from the wild:

In this episode of the Art of Product podcast (1:11:00), Adam Wathan talks about how a subscription-model content business isn’t a good fit for him, while it is a good fit for a friend. Adam doesn’t like the idea of “being on a treadmill” to constantly create new content for the subscribers but conversely his friend appreciates the continuous dopamine hits as opposed to a longer 4 month long effort to create something like an e-book or course.

Next is from Dan Luu, one of my favorite bloggers:

[Paul Graham’s writing] uses multiple aspects of what’s sometimes called classic style. […] . What that means is really too long to reasonably describe in this post, but I’ll say that one part of it is that the prose is clean, straightforward, and simple. […]

My style is opposite in many ways. I often have long, meandering, sentences, not for any particular literary purpose, but just because it reflects how I think

Dan Luu, https://danluu.com/writing-non-advice/

Last is from Kareful, one of my favorite musicians:

“does anyone have tips for finishing a song? these days i can only write the intro and 1st drop, and i can’t get passed this point” – Vavn

Maybe you’re not meant to write long music, I also had this discovery recently, now all my tracks are around 2 minutes, but I find this means I now finish 3/4 tracks a week.

Kareful

Personally, I find short, several-paragraph posts about a specific thought very much a fit for me right now. This blog started in a very different way, doing long, deeply technical researched pieces which were a fit for me at the time (gap year) but no longer are.

Musically, I loved hyper-technical electronic music production ~2020 (also during my gap year) but recently have been doing simpler, more “beatsy” music.

Creativity is like gardening

I see a strong parallel between creativity and gardening. Like a fruit, growing from seed to ripe, ideas do the same.


Idea seeds are those vague, half-formed thoughts that quietly appear in your mental space. They occupy a strange state where you are aware of them, but would struggle to write them down or explain to someone else coherently. That is the defining characteristic of an idea which is not mature yet.

Slightly more mature ideas are in the growth phase. They form of the idea has started to emerge, and you can half-express it, but there might be logical errors as you still haven’t fully thought it through yet.

Ripe ideas are fully developed and can be coherently expressed with the fewest words necessary.


Ideas can grow along this path explicitly or implicitly. You can explicitly grow ideas by sitting down and trying to write them. Or they can grow implicitly in the background as you live your life and expose yourself to experiences and other ideas.

Sitting down to write an idea is like trying to harvest it. It’s easiest and works best when the idea is ripe โ€” the idea will almost pour out of your brain onto the page in this case. If you try to harvest an idea before it’s ripe, it will be harder.

The analogy might break down slightly here. With ideas, the act of trying to harvest them actually accelerates their journey towards ripeness. Trying to express an idea forces you to understand it better and clarify it. This is one way of growing an idea: the explicit way.

Ideas can also grow implicitly. They can quietly sit on your mental back burner as you live your life and expose yourself to experiences and other ideas. Maybe another idea acts as a bee that pollinates the first idea and together they form a complete, ripe idea. But in order for them to be able to safely sit on the back burner as long as it takes, they should be still captured in some kind of way, or else you’ll probably forget them.


Note that an idea’s state of being written down vs in head, and public vs private are each orthogonal qualities. Ripe ideas aren’t the only ones that can be written down and published. Idea seeds can still be attempted to be written down (although it will be hard), and also published.

Sometimes, you just need to be willing

Sometimes, you just need to be willing. No special skills or particular competence necessary โ€” simply just being willing to do something others can but won’t do.

I learned and have profited from this realization at work in the past year. A certain set of important tasks on my team are somewhat hands-on in nature and not compatible with remote work. Our colleague that usually does these left the team. I stepped up and filled this gap.

The work is not particularly difficult โ€” my teammates are smarter than me and could surely do it also. But I’m the only one that was willing and able to sacrifice remote work and commute every day. So I’ve been doing it.

Although it’s not the hardest, the work is nonetheless very important โ€” critical, even. So I’ve been getting a lot of credit, brownie points, and even a raise from doing it.

Not because I’m smart โ€” just willing.

Why you feel stupider than ever, despite being smarter than ever

I’m 10 years into my tech career and yet I constantly feel so, so stupid.

It’s entirely self-originating; not because others are mean to me. (Ok maybe partly also because I’m lucky to be around smart people).

Why do I feel this way, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary โ€” that I’m not stupid, and know a thing or two about what I’m talking about? Is my self esteem really that bad?

I think it’s also because I’ve been learning so much. The more I learn, I more I realize I don’t know. And I posit that the weight of a known unknown feels disproportionately bad to the relief of converting it to known known.

So, the equation looks like:

All Knowns = Known Knowns + Known Unknowns

Perception Of Intelligence = Known Knowns / All Knowns

(Smaller = Less Intelligence = More Stupid)

This makes sense to me. I think I accumulate known unknowns at 10x the rate of known knowns โ€” it takes so much more energy to learn something, than to learn merely of the existence of something.

WIP: Asking for help in the age of AI

Before AI, if you asked someone a question that you could have just as well Googled, you might have gotten a link to letmegooglethat.com.

Sometimes this is fair; question askers do have some responsibility to not ask ultra-common questions which are easily answerable on the internet. But if the answer is not so easily found, it’s valid to ask.

AI changes things because it quickly gives answers to nearly any question. So it vastly reduces the number of “valid” opportunities to ask. Almost everything gets reduced to something that could easily be “AI’d”. That’s especially true if community-specific AIs exist (e.g. trained on your codebase and team wiki at work). Follow this far enough and one could imagine a dystopian future where no knowledge transfer happens human-to-human anymore.

What this robotic understanding misses, and a reason I dislike being excessively strict about lmgtfy’ing people, is that asking questions is a great way to build relationships and community. Communities (especially online ones) need activity to survive and good questions are a great source of activity. Questions often also spark valuable conversations adjacent to the original topic, and those would be missed out on if everyone strictly asked only the AI everything that is answerable by the AI.

Ultimately, I view this change as another step down the existing path of information becoming more readily accessible (like the internet before it, and books before that), rather than something fundamentally different from it.

We’ll use it to improve efficiency in the same way using internet search improved efficiency, but I doubt we’ll fully stop asking each other questions. Beyond the practical reasons (interesting adjacent conversations), relationship building via human-to-human knowledge sharing is too innate to our humanity and we’ll notice its absence.