Today, I turn 30. Here are 30 things that I’ve learned in my 30 revolutions around the sun:
1. You can do everything you want, just not all at the same time.
What does it mean to “have it all”? For me and many people it includes having a balance of work, family, friends, healthy habits (sleep, good diet, exercise)… and maybe add some hobbies into the mix as well.
But on what time scale do we want all of these things? Clearly, people don’t mean that every hour of every day has to have an equal proportion of work, family, and friends. What about over the course of a day? A week? A month? A year? A decade? A life?
Some people want a balance of work and social life every single day. Others want it on the time scale of a week. Others on the time scale of a month. It’s important to recognize across what time scale you’re looking for balance.
For example, throughout college and grad school I balanced doing music intensely for one semester and then dance intensely for the other semester. I wanted balance on the scale of a year.
I developed a calendar method to help me keep track of goals that might not have a weekly or monthly cadence. I’ve learned that life is long and you can have multiple chapters.
“Most people overestimate what they can do in a day, and underestimate what they can do in a month. We overestimate what we can do in a year, and underestimate what we can accomplish in a decade.” – Matthew Kelly
2. We judge ourselves by our intentions, and others by their behavior.
Try to reverse that as much as possible.
3. You shouldn’t have an opinion on something unless you can argue both sides.
The year after Trump was elected, Sidney and I watched Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News every night during dinner. We fast-forwarded to the debates when Tucker brought in someone he disagreed with. We would pause in the middle of the debates and challenge each other on how to respond to Tucker’s questions. It was mind-blowing how few public-facing Democrats could handle common questions.
In this day and age when everyone has a social media platform to share their opinion, it would be wise to remind ourselves of the rule that one of the shrewdest men in the world set for himself:
“I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.” – Charlie Munger
4. Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.
You’ll have hardship either way, but it’s your choice whether you have control over it or not.
5. You can choose your thoughts.
When I was leading MIT Hacking Medicine, my Co-Director and I pitched a prominent faculty member and entrepreneurship leader at MIT. Through Hacking Medicine, we were organizing healthcare entrepreneurship events all around the world and had way too much inbound interest coming our way. We wanted more institutional support from MIT to achieve our organization’s mission and meet the world-wide demand for our events.
Unfortunately, this MIT faculty member dismissed us and didn’t even consider helping us out. We left the meeting feeling deflated and slowly thoughts started creeping in, “Did he treat us this way because we are women?”
The thoughts simmered for weeks and weeks. I felt rejected and hopeless. We were still drowning in the inbound demand for our services. At some point, however, I realized that my thoughts were hurting me and, eventually, I made a vow:
Even if I was treated this way because I’m a woman [or latina or insert other characteristic that I cannot change], there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. So I’m not going to let these thoughts take up any of my mindshare.
I realized that I am not my best self when I let myself think that I am being unjustly treated, and so I don’t let myself think those things. I realized that I can choose my thoughts.
Maria Konnikova, a high-stakes poker player, came to a similar realization early in her career in poker. When she was having a bad tournament and wondering why she was getting all the bad hands while the other players were getting good cards, her coach told her: “I’m worried about your thinking. You’re describing things as happening to you rather than taking responsibility for your actions. The great players don’t play that way. It’s too draining, and it makes you too much the victim. And the victim doesn’t win [link].”
6. What does the next chapter say?
When things don’t go your way (and they often will not), think about how you want this moment written about in your biography. You’re not on the last page. This is only chapter 2. What’s chapter 3 going to say? That thought kept me motivated after my PhD when I was homeless, living on friends’ couches, and generally feeling like a failure. A book where everything goes right is boring.
7. Tomatoes help me focus.
In today’s digital world, everyone is competing for your attention. Focus is a rare resource. To help myself focus, I developed a strategy at the end of my PhD called the “Tomato Method.”
8. Being a good listener means asking good questions.
I used to think that being a good listener meant that I could repeat back what the other person had just said. It’s not.
Being a good listener means actively processing what the person has said in real-time and asking thoughtful questions back.
A Harvard Business Review article notes that: “People perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight… Sitting there silently nodding does not provide sure evidence that a person is listening, but asking a good question tells the speaker the listener has not only heard what was said, but that they comprehended it well enough to want additional information.”
It’s extremely difficult to listen well, but it’s a skill worth practicing because it improves the quality of all of your relationships.
9. Develop your own taste in people.
When I was in high school, I was enamored with the “older kids.” The juniors and seniors who had won awards, received first chair in music competitions, and gotten into top universities. Then I got older, became a senior, and realized that my friends were now just as impressive and had achieved just as many awards and top university acceptances as the “older kids” before.
I realized then that there are amazing, smart, talented, kind people. And there are people who society has recognized (through fame, awards, high-status positions, etc.) as being amazing. Those are not the same thing.
Focus on developing your own criteria of who you think is incredible, and don’t mistake that as being the same thing as what society recognizes. Surround yourself by people who you admire by your own criteria and you will have a fulfilling life.
10. Deep breaths are more about the exhale than the inhale.
Deep inhales will come automatically as a result of long exhales. Focusing on the inhales is prone to lead to hyperventilation.
My formula is: inhale for X (i.e. 4 seconds), hold for X, exhale for 2X, hold at the bottom for X.
11. Tap yourself on the head.
I attended a leadership course back in college where we did an exercise that I’ve never forgotten. We were told to sit in our chairs, close our eyes, and wait for someone to tap us on the head. Once we felt a tap on our heads, we were to open our eyes, stand up, and tap someone else on the head.
We sat in a big room with our eyes closed for a very long time. After what felt like an eternity, I started hearing people moving around. Eventually, I was tapped on the head. And then I stood up and tapped someone else.
What happened is that, at some point during the interminable waiting period, someone had realized that no one was coming to tap them on the head. They needed to tap themselves. Note: this clever person was not me.
We’re all secretly waiting for permission from someone to do something in life.
“Once I get this job, then I’ll be able to learn machine learning.”
“Once I get a book deal, then I’ll be a writer.”
These invisible scripts prevent us from taking action. In reality, if you want to be a machine learning engineer, just start taking courses on Coursera and post your projects on Twitter. If you want to be an author, just start writing and sharing on Medium.
There has never been a better time in history to tap yourself on the head. There has never been more democratization of information. There has never been more platforms for sharing our voice. So stop waiting. No more excuses. Just tap yourself.
13. Networking is easy.
I used to be scared of networking until the Duke Career Office put it in a way I’ve never forgotten: “Networking is easy. All it means is that any time you think of someone, it’s a reason to send them a message.”
Whenever you read an article that makes you think of someone, send it to them. Whenever you have a conversation that makes you think of someone, tell them. Whenever you applied a lesson that someone taught you, thank them. Get in the habit of writing to people when you don’t need anything from them.
This framework for networking was helpful because I realized that people popped into my head all the time. I just needed to act upon it and actually tell them. “Networking” moved from a scary thing that I was terrible at, to something that was natural and authentic to do as part of my every day.
14. Put yourself in the other side’s shoes.
Interviewing someone for a job (even for a TaskRabbit job) will make you a better job candidate. Teaching a guest lecture will make you a better student. Doing the activities your spouse (or parent) normally does will make you a better spouse (or child).
Actively seek and create opportunities to experience the other side of a relationship, and it’ll immediately make you better at your role.
15. Be someone who others like to help.
One of the greatest skills you can develop is being someone that others like to help. By applying the previous learning, one way to do this is to help/mentor others and notice what you like and don’t like about how your mentees treat you.
16. Find an exercise routine you love and that you can do on your own.
This probably seems like an obvious thing for a lot of people, but it took me 29 years and a global pandemic to figure it out.
I grew up going to dance class or group exercises classes (like yoga, HIIT, Orange Theory, etc.). I tried brief stints of running or doing my own strength training at the gym, but these stints were never enjoyable and always short lived. I like being told what to do when I exercise. I don’t have the motivation to both show up to a workout and then tell myself what to do.
The problem with group classes is that they are lengthy (at least 60 min plus travel time) and (usually) exhausting. I could not understand how friends were more refreshed and motivated after doing exercise. I usually sat on the couch and fell into a deep YouTube hole for at least 2 hrs after going to Orange Theory.
Then I started using the exercise app “Down Dog” (both for HIIT and yoga).
I love Down Dog because I pick the length of the workout (anywhere from 5 min to 90 min), the focus (e.g. core, cardio, hip flexor stretches, etc.), and then the app generates a perfect workout fitting those requirements. I get bored easily and hate doing the same workout twice, so Down Dog is great in that it generates a new workout routine each time even if I pick the same requirements.
Now I understand how people can workout every day and feel more refreshed afterwards. I do 15min of HIIT in my backyard, get a good injection of endorphins, and then am back to work, refreshed and re-motivated within 30min. With a few exceptions, I don’t think I’m ever going back to in-person exercise classes.
17. Always smile before answering the phone.
Or, since it’s 2020… before answering the video call.
18. Get advice from people who have done what you want to do.
It’s bad to make major life decisions without asking anyone for advice (like I did before picking my PhD program). But it can be just as bad to ask too many people for advice because you’ll drown in conflicting perspectives (like I did when I was picking my PhD lab). Be selective with who you get advice from and make sure that those people have done what you aspire to do.
19. Massage therapy balls are magical.
For over 10 years, I have had neck and shoulder pain (I know, I know… I’m only 30). Something would get flared up through a weird sleeping position or computer overuse, and my neck would hurt for weeks on end. I had no recourse for dealing with this pain except waiting for it to pass.
Once I moved to Silicon Valley, I started going to a yoga teacher that taught me how to use therapy balls (thank you Amber at The Yoga Studio!) and they have been life changing. I now have a way to deal with the pain myself and make it subside in just 1-2 days.
20. Have a personal website.
Having a personal website and blog is one of the greatest ROI things you can do. It’s a place on the internet that is under your control and aggregates everything you want people to know about you. It doesn’t have to be fancy – start with the same information that’s on your LinkedIn and you can always add over time.
If you haven’t already, go buy your domain right now (FirstnameLastname.com on NameCheap) so at least it’s reserved for when you do get around to making your website.
21. Everyone feels like they are faking it. No one has it figured out.
Prepare as much as you can. Do your best. Be confident. That’s it.
22. “What brings you here?” is a golden phrase.
Certain phrases are like golden keys to social situations. “What brings you here?” is a golden phrase for professional events. None of that awkward, “So… what do you do?” or “Where do you work?” as you each try to scope out whether each other is worth your time to talk to.
The phrase “What brings you here?” invites each person to open up and share the most relevant thing about themselves in whatever way they choose. Maybe they work in the field. Maybe they don’t work in the field but do side projects in this space on the weekend. Maybe they’re the organizer’s sister who just moved to the city. Whatever the answer, it’s certain to be something meaningful that moves the conversation forward.
Be on the lookout for other golden phrases. Another one of my favorites is, “Have a good one.” It’s an easy way to say goodbye to anyone from a colleague to a stranger on the elevator.
23. Don’t put anything in writing that you wouldn’t want on the front page of the NY Times.
This is especially true with regards to writing things about other people.
24. Your childhood passions really do come back later in life. Embrace yours.
I always wanted to be an engineer and inventor. I wanted to be like Bill Gates or Steve Wozniak. The problem was that I didn’t spend my free time in my parent’s garage building computers. Instead I would come home from school and spend hours designing things in Adobe Illustrator or writing theories about the world in my journal. I thought that meant I would never be a “hardcore” engineer.
After an undergrad engineering degree from Duke, engineering PhD from MIT, and starting my own technical company, I feel comfortable saying I am, indeed, a “hardcore” engineer. However, my superpower as an engineer lies not in my technical skills but in my design and communication skills. I can put structure to complexity. I can easily make clear, beautiful presentations.
When I look back, those are exactly the things I was doing as a middle-schooler coming home and designing things in Illustrator, or synthesizing things into my journal.
Your “superpower” might be something that might not exist in current role models. Find a way to integrate them into your life, nonetheless. Maybe you loved reading mystery novels as a kid — you can be the physician who writes incredibly enthralling patient case studies on your blog. Maybe you loved organizing parties in high school — you can be the engineer in Silicon Valley that organizes the best events and brings people together.
Embrace your childhood passions. They are the key to your superpower.
25. Read primary sources whenever possible.
The actual scientific paper or the original video/interview, not CNN or Fox News or other pre-digested media. And definitely don’t trust headlines.
26. People are the only thing that really matters.
People are the only thing that really matters. Relationships get deals done. Relationships get people hired. Relationships make success feel worthwhile. Invest in your relationships because the quality of your relationships determines the quality of your life. Prioritize doing things with other people, even if it’s messier than doing it by yourself.
27. Time off increases productivity.
I used to never take time off. There was a massive “to do” list running in my head at all times and I felt guilty whenever I wasn’t actively checking something off. The reality, however, is that I was not being 100% productive. I was just feeling guilty 100% of the time. And time spent feeling guilty about not working does not count as working hard.
At some point in the middle of my PhD I began understanding that time off makes me more productive. In my PhD, I used to take 1 day off per week and go on a week-long vacation every 3 months or so. Now that I’m out of school and run a company, I take Friday nights to Sunday afternoons completely off and go on a vacation every 4-6 months. I push myself and work really hard during the week because I know that I get time off on the weekends. Whenever I try to work on the weekends, I usually wind up losing steam around Wednesday of the following week and wind up getting less done overall as a result.
“Balance is timing, not intensity. It is not doing multiple tasks at 80%, but developing the skill of turning it on and turning it off. Sleep fully, then work intensely. Focus deeply, then relax completely. Give each phase your full attention. Balance is “when to” not “how to.”” – James Clear
28. This too shall pass.
29. Write people notes. Bonus points if they’re handwritten.
Thank you notes. Congratulations notes. “Hey, you’re really awesome” notes. Notes are free to give and priceless to receive, so be generous with your words. Write someone a note when it’s their birthday, when they’ve made a life change, or when it’s a random day and they just happened to pop into your head.
30. “People will forget what you did. They’ll forget what you said. But they’ll never forget how you made them feel.”- Maya Angelou
So make sure that you make people feel valued and empowered. Challenged yet supported. Enrich others in every interaction. If there were only one lesson learned on this list, this would be it.