2019 & 2020 post & pre mortems

For the past 6 years, I was scared to openly share my writing because I feared it might somehow “matter,” ie. negatively affect my company or be misconstrued. But in 2019, my company got acquired! Now, I’m a cat of leisure so I can post whatever, starting with these notes on my 2019 and 2020 goals.

I had 3 big goals in 2019: 

  1. exit Apptimize (done)
  2. finish writing my YA sci-fi novel (not done)
  3. go on a date with 1 person monthly with P score of 70%+ (done, although currently single)

Let’s drill in on each goal!

Apptimize learnings: 
I ran Apptimize for 6 years, constantly hero-ing before I became aware that there was another way to operate. After all, who else could possibly be held responsible for anything? Not only was I the founder and CEO, I’d always been the one responsible for everything I wanted my whole life, never viewing my teachers or parents as authority figures, always questioning directives. It wasn’t until the final version of my executive team that I was able to recognize I was working with people who were smarter than me about everything. Then I felt I could stop hero-ing and risk learning what happens when I stop (big thanks to my CEO group).

I wrote a post mortem of my experiences running Apptimize when we hired a new CEO in 2018. I was still technically at the company while he was selling it, but I was figureheading and not part of the acquisition. LMK if you want to see the post mortem bc publicly sharing my failures scares me. That was one of my learnings— I can talk myself into a lot of stuff that I don’t actually want for the sake of wanting to view myself as “successful,” but I don’t want to operate like that anymore. 

My new rule of thumb is to only do stuff that I’d do even if I knew it was likely to fail and if no one knew I was doing it. That eliminates me doing stuff out of ego/ fear/ status. This way I’m only doing stuff for the joy of doing it and not ascribing meaning to whether I achieve my preferred outcome. I’m always going to be an ambitious, driven person, so I don’t need to solve for that part of the equation as long as I’m focused on something I enjoy the process of doing, which brings me to my writing. 

Writing my book: 
Although my 2nd major at MIT was writing, I’ve never written a book and I almost gave up wondering, “Why am I doing this?” Writing a novel is easier than running a company (or possibly any job) in almost every way because it has no grounding in reality. Except writing’s harder in 1 way, which is staying motivated. I miss having a team I love. Writing is isolating and I’ve enjoyed partnering with Eva on our writing project and taking writing workshops at Stanford. After my 5 why’s on how I’ve missed my goal of finishing my book last year, I’m going to be at Stanford 3 or 4 days a week for the next 9 weeks because I have so many workshops. I feel like I’m back in school, except Stanford is so relaxing and resort-like compared to the Spartan halls of MIT. But to be clear, both schools are way easier than running a company.

I’ve learned life lessons from writing fiction. For example, you can increase drama in a story by amping up the subtext. The more desire, emotion, and expectation that’s unsaid, the more tension and conflict you can generate in a scene. There’s a gap between an external conflict and an internal conflict that drives all the action. Eg. the more the hero views climbing the mountain as somehow equivalent to gaining his dad’s approval, or the more the lovers are uncertain how they each feel while they’re competing against each other for the same trophy, the more emotionally turbulent the story. Drama entertains me in fiction, but is not fun for me in reality. Thus, even as I’m amplifying the subtext in my stories, I’m minimizing the subtext in real life. You know I’m already really direct, but now I’m even more direct about what I want. 

I realized that I had been in denial about some of my more “needy” needs, which was creating unnecessary drama in my life. My goal has been to delete the gap between my internal and external goals, between what I feel and what I communicate to myself and others. I’ve told people, “I’m afraid you’re going to think I’m weak if I admit to wanting to impress you.” Up until last year, I never would’ve admitted even to myself to caring what others thought of me except as a vague preference. I view myself as strong, independent, iconoclast who authentically does whatever she wants without considering outside approval, but I now recognize the part of myself that does very much care about being liked, being seen as successful, etc. Recognizing and embracing these internal drivers by bringing them out into the external realm has minimized the subtext in my relationships and drama in my life.

Other than drama, I’ve learned that the quality of my hero depends on the quality of my villain, and that this is analogous to real life. 2D villains are a missed opportunity for building a better hero, and that’s why my favorite villains (and corresponding heroes) are complex anti-heroes like the Joker and Batman, Magneto and the Professor. In life, whenever I’ve viewed a VC or competitor as an obstacle or antagonist, they’ve turned out to be my greatest ally in growth. It’s the challenge that defines the hero and gives you the opportunity to change and affect change. The villain in my book is my favorite character, and he’s taught me to appreciate the “villains” in my life too.

I’ve “dated” dated 4 people in the last 15 years. I started 2019 resenting dating. Dating was a waste of my time, not fun. I had a scarcity mindset about the candidate pool— the single guys my age were defective, hot guys tend to be idiots, etc, etc. I had a spreadsheet that estimated the probability with error bars that a particular candidate might be a match for me based on previous data points, eliminating candidates as soon as they became “known defective.” Although I’d update the weightings as new data came in, this scoring system proved faulty. Since I wasn’t running a company anymore, my executive coach refocused on my dating life. “How many dates do you need to go on this month to hit your goal? Your coaching worksheet says you went on a date with this high scoring guy but you’re not attracted. How will you adjust your process and scorecard as a result?”

Adjustments I made to my dating process: 

  • Asking for playful interactions. I don’t find judgment fun. I also find talking about the past boring— I don’t care to hear a rehearsed spiel about the dude’s past and he can google me if he wants to know my resume.
  • Guaranteeing 2 dates because I hate everyone on the first date.
  • No longer using dating apps because I’m shallow and random when on apps— I don’t find judging fun. Now I’m back to dating people in my network after we’re friends, which is how my best relationships have started.
  • Recognizing when I’m lonely so I can avoid dating in that state, because when lonely I throw the scorecard out the window and choose whoever’s most obsessed with me. Instead, when lonely, I should be snuggling cats, reading and writing, and hanging with friends.

I’ve also learned that my scarcity beliefs were false, which was a relief to discover. One of my board members caused me to realize one of my scarcity fears had to do with fearing being a single mom like my mom was after my parents divorced. I lived with my mom while she was dating and I was a teenager, and I had this narrative that it was tough for her because of me, and I was afraid of enduring something similar one day. I’m nowhere near being a single mom, so I wasn’t aware I had this fear, but it was great to identify it and realize it was irrational. This crazy unconscious fear had been making dating not fun for me, but now dating is fun. I also rediscovered this book while on the Southern Startup road trip and now aim to run all relationships with this type of integrity.

Going into 2020, this is the first time in maybe 7 years that I haven’t had a company or relationship goal. Company and dating goals were my top 2 goals in previous years, so this is a big change! I do get depressed when I’m not intensely working on something, and I miss working with a team I love, and I still want to build a fulfilling relationship with a man who inspires and loves me, but somehow I trust that those things will work themselves out without having a plan or goals. 
My goals for 2020 more have to do with all my writing projects, plus I want to make a short film (survey says the “dates with Nancy” short film sounds most fun. Sign up to see it when it comes out because whatever I make will have a limited, non-public release). At Apptimize we did pre-mortems in engineering. I like doing that for my goals: checking in on how shocked I’d feel if I didn’t accomplish a particular goal and then asking how I can make a plan and block out time to make myself more shocked to fail. If you want to share goals, let me know! I am a collaborative planning nerd. Happy 2020!

My Mom’s Death Years Ago

My mom and me!
My mom and me!

When I think about all my failures, I don’t regret any of them, except my mom’s death because I didn’t do anything to delay it. My friends told me I did a lot, but they don’t know. The thing with failure is that no one else knows the gap between your reality and your potential the way you know it. No one can judge yourself the way you can.

My dad found he had stage 3 colon cancer at the same time as my mom’s cancer. My mother had left her husband and I was visiting her in Virginia where she’d found a room in an old lady’s mansion. We went to the doctor together to learn what was causing my mother’s back pain. The doctor said, “You have stage 4 lung cancer. I take cancer very seriously. We’re going to fight this.” My mother wrote an email to her friends that she was coming to live with me in Chicago, eliciting responses with references to Jesus.

The next day she told me she was going back to her husband, which filled me with both relief and doubt. That was certainly more convenient for me- I’m not a naturally nurturing, caring person because I’m monkishly devoted to work, but how could they get back together so suddenly?

I alternated flying to Pittsburgh and Princeton to see my parents, 20x more than I’d ever seen them since I left for MIT. For a while it seemed like she was getting better. I told her I needed to go to the London office and didn’t have anyone to care for my cat, and she said she’d come take care of it for me. My coworker exclaimed, “Wow, that’s a VIP cat.” She gave my cat a name, Mimi. I loved this cat so much but I’d never taken the time to name it, and my friends would call it, “The cat w no name.” During her stay in Chicago, she nested the way she always does for me- she cooked, she got me a maid, she arranged furniture, she potted plants, she got them to hang the painting the founder of my company gave me. They were late to hang it and she was running (her, running, with her chemotherapy port!) through the airport to make her flight. Tearfully she exclaimed, “I give my life for you!”

Annoyed, I said, “I didn’t ask you to do that. Who cares about hanging the painting?” It’s easy to be short and mean to people who love you unconditionally.

When it seemed my mother was getting worse, I moved my team to NYC to be closer to Princeton. I neglected my dad more because he was only stage 3. Both parents tried to tell me their frustrations about the medical system, but I was impatient and didn’t want to think about it. I was selfish about my own stress. Wasn’t it enough that I went with them to the doctor even though it was boring and tiring and I would’ve rather been doing something useful like work? Even though I was there, I wasn’t present. I went through the motions without opening my heart. Even though my parents have always been proud of me and in most ways I was the ideal Asian child who independently, ruthlessly achieved more than what my parents could’ve imagined without anyone saying a word, I was a terrible child child.

My father sent her a cure that had something to do with aloe. I read a few books and websites on cancer. There are a lot of alt-medicine theories out there because people are fighting for their lives and need something to believe in. My mother wanted to move to Texas to try the Burzynski clinic. But I was slow to pay for the clinic because it didn’t sound like it could be real. People had sued this doctor as a fraud, and it was tens of thousands of dollars per month, and they don’t take insurance (or insurance doesn’t take them). Even though I could easily afford it, my mother knew I didn’t want to and at the last minute didn’t turn in the paperwork, saying she didn’t want to be a “burden.” There’s a Netflix documentary about this doctor and I have avoided looking at it because I’m afraid it’ll show it was legit.

She had problems with her phone plan and wanted me to deal with it because I was paying the bill but I was too impatient and hate these types of chores, especially talking with Verizon people. Thus towards the end she didn’t have access to good internet to stay connected with her friends. That must’ve felt terrible, to be so isolated while lying in hospice, because she was always texting and very social. I have a story that this phone problem accelerated her death and that it’s my fault she died so unhappily.

For a few weeks I had wished that she would die so it could be over. There was a ticking clock because insurance would only cover up to a certain date and everyone expected her to die before then. Her body had grown bloated and disgusting- I always washed my hands thoroughly after massaging the blood into her clay-like, swollen legs and feet, dying flesh that held the mark of my touch for an unnaturally long time. She had been incontinent for a while and sometimes we’d clean it ourselves when the nurse was slow and the smell started to sink in. My stepfather wiped with brusque efficiency while my mother gasped in pain. I watched awkwardly, embarrassed for her.

I wasn’t there when my mother died. Shameful. My stepfather even hinted, “I’ve never seen her look so weak.” I had a trip planned to go to Chicago for a short vacation, my first in years, so I still left. That night I got his voicemail at 3am saying she’d passed away. I flew back in the morning.

I’d never been to a funeral before. I had grown so thin the flower-y dress I’d long inherited from my mom hung off my body, but people who didn’t know why I was skinny would say I looked great, a real New Yorker with my blowouts and Pradas. Four men declared their love for me. I said that I appreciated it but it wasn’t necessary that they come to the funeral, especially on such late notice and in New Jersey. My team got me flowers.

Friends came and I’ll always be grateful. My dad drove from Pittsburgh and we didn’t know what to do with him, putting him in a back pew. He’d cried when I told him she had cancer. My middle school friend drove from Philadelphia and I took her to my favorite dessert places. Even though he hates taking breaks from his research, my best friend from high school nerd camp flew from Stanford to visit for 1 day and be with me at the funeral. Everyone thought he was my boyfriend and I was relieved to lean on him.

At the funeral, I gave a speech about how she sent me on a flight with a houseplant in my carry-on. My stepdad talked about how she’d get last minute tickets and magically access things and get people to do stuff for her, enigmatically explaining, “I’m Chinese.” The priest said how she had so much assertive personality and insisted everyone wear colors to her funeral. Afterwards, some fobby Chinese people posed and took photos with the casket flowers. I never talked with her church friends again even though they’d done more for her than I did, bringing soup and praying with her every day.

I was in awe of their Christian charity because I doubt I would’ve done this for anyone else. When my high school friend Jeremy was dying of bone cancer, I thought of him and donated money to his causes, but I never went to Pittsburgh to see him. I would sometimes think of how often I’d walk by his house with the red door, how he introduced me to sparkling water, how we watched “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and he explained how her head really did get hit in the blooper, how we lay in the sun room and stared at the strangeness of how it is to be human in high school, how his dad smiled with delight at the “elfin” portrait I drew, immediately grabbing it to admire and figure out how to display.

I flew a lot to see my parents during their sickness, but it wasn’t real sacrifice. I didn’t know what real sacrifice was. I’d never been self sacrificing. With my parents, I was willfully ignorant and didn’t take ownership of helping them treat their diseases. I never viewed them as assets or part of my team, more as a burden I had to dutifully endure. I had my own goals separate from them.

Years later, I was at Beregovsky’s wedding and my date translated the Jewish contract, “He vows to give her the shirt off his back.” I thought about that level of love and commitment and thought about how much I’d have to love and value someone to be able to make a promise like that to my husband. If my mate had cancer, and I’d loved them enough to have vowed to become one flesh and give them the shirt off my back in the first place, I imagine I’d quit my job, I’d move with them to be near the best hospital, I’d become a research expert in the field, I’d do everything with a smile because there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. Basically the opposite of what I did for my parents.

I’ve always been very focused on my own goals. When I set a goal, I know it’ll happen because I’m an effective person and I always figure out a way to win. Nobody bets against me- when playing poker people say I’m intimidating/ scary, and my coworker wrote a song about how everyone wants to be on my team.

For me, failure isn’t about not accomplishing a goal. I fail at having the wrong goals in the first place, a deeper problem. I have the arrogance to believe that if I’d made it my goal to delay my mother’s death, I could’ve. I just didn’t think about it because I was too selfish and on autopilot in my focus on work. Because work was always making progress and thus more fun and easy to deem worthy of attention, whereas she was not making progress, her health hard for me to control, and generally thus a distraction. I don’t regret not trying harder to keep her alive, but I do regret not showing her more love and connecting more with her instead of sitting there with my kindle and VPN-ing into work- so much wasted time.

Even though she didn’t seem like a big part of my world, her death changed my world. I’m grateful for how selfless and kind my friends and family are. I try to be a better person every day but it’s hard. Since I was a child, I’d grade myself and I almost always give myself a B-, which is, as I explain to my team when giving out our grades, an Asian F. I’ll tell them, “99% of startups die, so if we’re not at least 99th percentile as a startup, we’re getting killed.” I hired the type of people who find this inspiring. We like to work and we like to win. But every day I remind myself that success without love is the biggest failure.

I knew from the womb that for me a life without impact would be failure. I knew from all my reading that wealth without meaning was failure. I never need to worry about not being ambitious enough, not growing enough, not working enough, not being insightful/ introspective/ perceptive enough. I don’t even have to worry about not being compassionate or empathetic enough because when my attention is on you, I’m emotional, giving, thankful, and intuitive. The failure modes I have are the flip side of my strengths- I can be too focused, too competitive, too right. I have to be less judging and more patient, more generous with my attention. Since her death, I’ve learned that everyone I love is a chance to practice loving more, loving better. Grading myself, I’m still generally failing at this, but I’m thankful that the people I love don’t judge me too harshly for it.

Iceland June 2018

Iceland June 2018 with MIT friends!
Iceland June 2018 with MIT friends!

It’s impossible to forget Iceland is an island. Being an island is Iceland’s whole brand. On the road, the mountain’s always on one hand and the sea’s on the other. My 3rd time there and I’m still newly shocked by how hot and unfashionable the women are. At the store, I see the grocery workers lined up at their registers, and I think, “Why are you goddesses swiping my bread alongside this pimply teenage boy?” I wonder how Diego’s confidence that Icelandic men would hit on me could possibly be true when their women look like this (he said they’re hungry for genetic diversity, which I do offer). Looking at a post I’d written about Iceland from my first visit in 2012, I still agree with it completely and am reliving the same impressions about everything from the people to the animals- funny how consistent and predictable my reactions are. I love the white geese posing with their wings cupping the wind, the fluffy ponies tossing their feathered feet, the bold duck with mud on its beak looking up at us expectantly outside the grocery store, waiting for crumbs. And there’s the endless wind- moving, moving, wind endlessly moving your hair and touching your face and hands.

The fact that a country of essentially 300,000 fishermen sells cake for $10 a slice and ice cream for $5 a cup is evidence no one understands macroeconomics. However, it’s true that when the girl handed me a spoon of licorice ice cream which I thought was going to be a terrible flavor, after one taste I immediately exclaimed, “This is amazing.” Maybe this is good for my ego, this surprise in the dairy farm. We had amazing cake outside the hot springs- another surprise. I told the baker lady she was gifted. I love how Gemma and I are always on the same wavelength on what and when to eat.

Traveling is fun because something always comes up and it helps me appreciate the kindness of others. In Beijing, I was fantasizing about coming home after 3 days until my friend selflessly let me use his company VPN and helped me with my SIM card. In Iceland Judy gave me cough drops and made me tea, Gemma gave me socks, Yinmeng gave me her coat. I also didn’t pack warm enough clothes and everyone keeps offering me jackets. Sometimes I feel so isolated, I want to leave, but all I have to do is reach out.

Given there are no bugs or danger other than geological wonders, I think the main risks to me in Iceland are squandering my time listening to audiobooks instead of paying attention to friends. I have trouble focusing and staying present. On this trip, I want to focus on asking questions and laughing together because otherwise I’ll focus on my own world which is the opposite of what I should be doing.  I can need help relaxing because a day into many trips I’m wondering how inconvenient it’d be to go home early. My friends on this trip are a good influence in terms of how agreeable and easygoing they are. Finance friends make me think about money, which can be good at times but also obnoxious. But MIT friends are always so curious, open, and kind.

A week before Iceland, the newness and bigness of Beijing made me focus on my own goals and forget others matter, which I’ve learned is bad for my soul. I hope one day my soul doesn’t rely on anything and is simply itself. For now, the people and environment around me affect me, which is why I’m lucky to be here.

I petted a calf that leaned heavily into my arm to scrape its surprisingly soft neck, so my animal goals were quickly sated. There are no native bugs or trees to iceland. It seems sad to contaminate a land w non-native species but at the same time what are you going to do? It can’t be isolated forever. Everything is at some point a foreign invasive species. It’s futile to keep things pure and it’s impossible to stay an island. Even Siddhartha eventually learned about death (and abandoned his whole family (doesn’t anyone think that’s messed up?)).

Beijing May 2018

Beijing Nancy Hua 2018 7 day's inn
Beijing Nancy Hua 2018 7 day’s inn

I was born in Beijing. I don’t remember ever liking it. I remember as a kid being cold and hauled by my dad’s professor to get shots in my butt, constantly sick. I remember never knowing what was going on and being strangely uncurious why anything was happening (kids can be easy to control because they don’t know what’s normal and haven’t learned how to ask, and in some cases learn not to ask). I remember my uncle sending me on a bus ride and then a plane to go to America to reunite with my parents.

In the last quarter, I’ve flown to Beijing more times than I have before in my whole life. In June, I even stayed for 9 days at a stretch, longer than I ever stay on a trip. I had never gone to Asia for business before. I’d actually been in Beijing briefly a few weeks earlier right before Roby’s wedding in Italy because my uncle was dying, but visiting with my family is totally different because I’m never alone and they do everything E2E, from picking me up at the airport to dropping me off. I don’t even change currencies when I go- one time, I forgot my credit cards and it didn’t matter.

When I was there to see my uncle, it was cold and snowing and scary how bad the driver was. He couldn’t see in the snow, wouldn’t turn on the headlights, and drove in the middle of the road, everyone around us honking. My cousin had arranged for this driver but we suspected her contact had outsourced it to an inept buddy.

Now a few weeks later, I was back in Beijing and surprised to find it insanely hot. My dad got one of his students Bing Bing to get me from the airport, intending to have her drive me everywhere the whole time. Bing Bing was also a comically bad driver and I was trying to stay out of it but could not always resist the urge to say, “You need to be in the other lane.” Although I actually loved the resort she put me in on the first night, it was an inconvenient 1.5 hours away from CBD (Chinese Business District). Bing Bing seemed like a nice person, but I thought, “If millions of random Chinese people can surprise in Beijing, then I can too.” So, grouchy with sleep deprivation, I sent her off and embarked on my own. I remembered that, after all, I was born in Beijing- I’m a native!

China changes fast. People smile more, like we do in America because smiles are the best way for immigrants to communicate. I explored Tsing Hua University during Y Combinator’s conference. A fancy gym gave me a free pass and I discovered I’m incredibly physically strong for a Chinese woman- I was the only one who could do a plank or a pushup. All the trainers were hot Russians and Australians.

My dad had warned me of random dangers but hadn’t filled me in on any of the basics, like what apps to use or how to get a VPN. Dad wrote, “How was Beijing result? Beware of cheaters. Especially love-cheaters.” He eventually elaborated, “Now, more men became professional love-rats, taking advantage of the rich and beautiful.” I guess it’s flattering my dad thinks I’m rich and beautiful enough to be the target of a con artist, but it’s bizarre this is what he considers the biggest risk to me in Beijing, like I’m in a soap opera, when really the risk was the smog in my lungs. When I started to get “Beijing cough,” I wanted to come home. I couldn’t breathe, I had no internet, and I didn’t know anyone well- I felt like I was dying.

Luckily the people I met in China were super nice to me. My startup friend set me up with his company’s VPN (the VPN SDK’s Gemma kept sending me weren’t working and cost $50 each) and helped me get a SIM card, I went to 5 banks before one of them gave me a bank account, and the hotel lady helped me order a gas mask using the JD app. VPN, bank account, and SIM card unlock China because otherwise you’re in the China of 20 years ago.

At events, dozens of people clustered around my QR code and scanned me into their WeChat en masse. Wechat norms baffled me. I asked my friend, “Why don’t they use punctuation? Also, why does this guy keep rescinding the messages he sends me- is he in love with me and grappling with how to say it like in those sappy Taiwanese movies I saw on the plane? He should be open and just tell me because it’ll save everyone decades of grief and produce more interesting movies. Why do these peoples’ Wechat profiles look nothing like them bc I have no idea who I’m texting right now? Why can’t I use Wechat desktop and phone apps at the same time? I can’t share this data via Wechat lest everyone and the government reads it, right?”
My friend said gravely, “I keep a separate phone for my Chinese apps and have separate web and mobile accounts.”

Despite the pollution, privacy and government stuff, and cultural differences, I started to love Beijing. And I love that I love Beijing! I love loving more things and losing my fear, especially my fear / distaste for entire countries. I love realizing that when you listen to the news about a place, it always sounds more terrible than it actually is. I realized my family always warns me of weird dangers no matter where I’m going. I loved getting over learned helplessness in certain regards and revisiting cached thoughts.

I started to build deeper friendships and thought, “I can do business here- it’s a matter of time.” Walking from a meeting on a beautiful street, I thought, “If someone I loved were here, one true friend, I could live here,” a thought that shocked me because I’d always been convinced I could never leave America. Watching my face as I talked about China, Jonathan immediately asked, “So when are you moving to China?” I won’t leave SF! But I find myself cautiously excited about traveling. Visit China with me!