Five Things I've Learned About Myself Recently

- 6 mins
  1. I love projects that have the potential to be big. I love working on small teams to accomplish daunting tasks, and I have a very low tolerance for bureaucracy and inefficiency. And for better or for worse, I run away from things that frustrate me, even if I should stay.
    • I read this article recently that really resonated me. I shared it with my sister, and she told me that she felt disappointed that instead of staying and trying to be a part of the solution, the author just left. Her decision to leave was definitely deeply personal, but I see what my sister is trying to get at. There is a definite level of privilege that people like the author and I have, and we can’t just all leave when we feel frustrated. There is a certain level of responsibility we all have in trying to make things better.
    • This made me think a lot about creating change inside vs outside systems.
    • Even though I believe that politics is the only way to really make substantial change, I feel like being in politics would make me feel so frustrated that I would just end up unhappy.
    • I also realize that that’s why I’m drawn to issues that are “universal”; everyone cares about climate change and space exploration, and there’s always good to be gotten out of working on these problems.
    • To really make change, though, I would still need to be able to operate within a system regardless of how I feel. At the same time, I wonder if that’s the most effective method.

    “I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering.

    But moreover, I discovered, in the only way that a man ever really learns anything important, the real skill that is required to succeed in a bureaucracy. I mean really succeed: do good, make a difference, serve. I discovered the key. This key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for. The key is a certain capacity that underlies all these qualities, rather the way that an ability to breathe and pump blood underlies all thought and action.

    The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.

    The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable.

    It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

    — David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

  2. Success is deeply personal. No one can define success for me, just as I cannot define success for anyone else. I had a great conversation with someone on the plane last Friday. He brought up Van Gough as an example of someone who became successful despite not being well-known in his day. I realized then that I disagreed with him—that we have no way of calling him a success, despite becoming so well-known after his death. I believe he is only successful if he lived the life he wanted; he is only as successful as he believes he is.
    • Life is not about earning a living. It is about being who you are meant to be—for following your voice, and helping others find theirs. To me, that is success.
    • On the subject of success, I read a Sal Kahn letter the other day ( My favorite line was:
      • “When we are afraid and insecure, we often look for validation by looking for other folks who have done what we would like to do. That is a mistake. Have courage to do something new. Almost every great effort started by carving out a unique lane that everyone else is ignoring. If you put your head down and keep feeding this fledgling organization with your energies, amazing people — even some heroes of yours — will join you. When faced with any major decision, don’t shy away from thinking about it in terms of an organization that one day will become an important institution for the world.”
    • Also on that note, a friend asked me what I though of my life so far. I told him that if I died today, would anyone really care? What would my life amount to? It would be about the lives that I have touched and those that have touched me. Ultimately, it would be about people. I think thinking intimately about death gave me some perspective on what was really important.

    If I can stop one heart from breaking,
    I shall not live in vain;
    If I can ease one life the aching,
    Or cool one pain,
    Or help one fainting robin
    Unto his nest again,
    I shall not live in vain.
    — Emily Dickinson, “If I Could Stop One Heart from Breaking”

  3. Reading for pleasure is an essential part of my well-being. I can’t put off long-term benefits for short-term tradeoffs. I’m not a particularly innately empathetic person, so I read because it helps me get into the minds of others and see things through a different perspective.

  4. I haven’t learned how to learn yet. Self-learning is one of the most important tools I should have, but I don’t think I’ve mastered it yet. This was incredibly apparent to me when I heard Stephen Wolfram give a talk—he can just read some books on CS, physics, linguistics, biology, etc. and delve deeply into those subject purely on his own. Although I love those subjects, I need external motivation to crack open a textbook and read. I’d really like to change that about myself.
    • I recently watched a talk on learning how to learn by Barbara Oakley that I absolutely loved (, and I hope to investigate this topic further.
  5. Two rare and valuable skills in life that I want to develop are: 1. Seeing the world as it is, and 2. Seeing the world as it could/should be
    • Unpacking #1: Clarity in thought and perception. Separating the signal from the noise.
    • Unpacking #2: Being able to imagine different possibilities. Seeing what others miss.
    • With both, it’s about sticking with things for a long time—for relentlessly pursuing something that matters with no intention of finding the end.
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