Category Archives: Learn

Good “For My Age”

As a kid, I should’ve broken more rules. I knew so little about what mattered that I couldn’t even imagine how little anything I did mattered. Everything from brushing my baby teeth to “fitting in” was a wasted, once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity to act without consequences. I knew baby teeth fall out, but I didn’t connect the dots. I should’ve stowed away on airplanes, hacked into the FBI, and snuck into the white house. Nothing matters when you’re a kid! You’re held to the standard of a circus animal and anything you do remotely adult-like is extra, like how we applaud dogs for sitting. Why was kid Nancy role-playing her fake idea of an adult- like a chump!- when she had no idea what being an adult meant? Kid Nancy took on random burdens without realizing the potential benefits.

I guess if I had actually been a kid hoodlum I might not’ve transitioned fast enough into a law abiding adult, so better safe than sorry. But you can see there’s some sort of inefficiency there. Transitions are hard. Our minds are slow to update. The change from kid to adult is painful. You don’t move so much as get dunked from high school into college, college into yuppy real life, yuppy real life into Real real life where family and team members depend on you. Your actions acquire more and more consequences and you affect a bigger and bigger impact on the world.

At least earlier in life you’re alerted to these boundaries and in some ways prepared for them. In high school we noticed that standards were changing. We became aware we had to get our acts together at least by junior year because that stuff would be sent off to colleges. We started doing extracurriculars and conducting pretend lab work during the summer. In college, you know that the pressure is on for you to get stuff down on paper that looks legit enough for you to get a job. You apply for internships and participate in leadership.

But after college, no one warns you about the next transition. There’s no ceremony to ascend, so the post-college life boundaries sneak up on you. No one tells you there’s another event horizon in your late 20’s / early 30’s when you’re undramatically dunked into yet another category of human and the laws of gravity change again. After high school, I stopped celebrating my birthday and the years blended together. After college, I stopped seeing age as a thing. I have friends ages 18 to 70, and I don’t think about their ages (you find that nerds don’t really age).

It wasn’t until this “30 under 30” stuff started happening that I realized how close I was to the boundary of having an unflattering age. If I’d recognized that 29 would be my last laudable age, I would’ve tried to beef up my resume. I might’ve done more public speaking and maybe written a book. I’d probably have tried to get more twitter followers () and set some world records. But I didn’t glimpse this horizon until I was within its radius. I didn’t look up until I saw this “30 under 30” thing and the light hit that if I hadn’t won this year, I never would’ve gotten it.

I was ~22 when I first thought, “Oh crap, I now have to become legitimately accomplished instead of just accomplished ‘for my age.’”

All the stuff I didn’t know as a kid: was I dumb because of my age or was it my role as a person that age? It’s hard to imagine people used to get married at 13. Maybe that’s why human history’s so messed up; for millennia we had teenagers running things. It took me way too long to realize that the line between kid and adult was just not real. I was Hermione: “That’s not fair, Harry!… You can’t put that on people! It’s not our job to do that sort of thing, we’re kids!”

I think I lived my childhood ok. If I had to do it again, I’d say here’s how to be a successful kid:

  • Learn languages while your brain’s language centers are plastic enough to instinctively feel out everything natively.
  • Play with a variety of kids of different ages and learn to deal with different types of people.
  • Get into a moderate amount of trouble (not via boring stuff like drugs/alcohol/vandalism/theft but good original stuff like science experiments) because nothing that bad can happen to you.
  • Take initiative bc adults are nice to precocious kids.
  • Own a differentiated hobby so you can carnally know the direct relationship between relentless hours of practice and excellence.
  • Surprise people with some skill so that you realize no one knows anything and you can decide reality.
  • Deviate from what’s popular and set some trends so you can exercise knowing that human ideas are impermanent and aren’t like the laws of nature.

What does being an adult mean? I think it means realizing the extent of the consequences of your potential ideas and actions, and then figuring out how to navigate that to affect change in the world. It’s amazing the amount of impact you can have on the world.

Here’s everything I’ve figured out about how to prepare for your late 20’s. I’ll check back in a few years, but for now feel free to start altering the course of your life and career based on my advice:

  • Figure out what’s unique about you.
  • Figure out your niche target audience.
  • Expand beyond this niche.
  • Find the biggest problem you can plausibly successfully attack.
  • Talk about it and commit so that if you don’t at least make a dent in your problem it’s really mortifying.
  • Network with people who share ambitions similar to yours, possibly via some kind of incubator. Don’t just befriend or live with whoever happens to be around you because the people you spend the most time with matters and can set the trajectory of your life.
  • Get mentors and advisors.
  • Inspire strangers to give you resources, whether it’s charity, investments, crowdfunding, etc.
  • Identify the attributes of people you admire and sketch out a plan for acquiring those for yourself.

At 30 the bar gets higher. It’s like when you turn 18 and suddenly you’re kicked out of the house and into the army. I haven’t figured out that part yet and will keep you guys updated.

I’m 29. I’m turning 30 in the fall. I have 8 more months to get awards for not yet being 30. After that I will no longer be cool for “my age” until I’m 100 and will have to become legitimately cool for the next 70 years. Publications and societies, THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE TO CONSIDER ME FOR 30 UNDER 30 AWARDS. Won’t it be embarrassing for everyone if I turn out to be a bazillionaire and I never won your x under x award? Better to be safe and consider me! You’ll be in good company; here’s some publicity I’ve gotten during the last year of my 20’s:
MIT Alumni Profile,
Startup Beat,
Female Founders,
Forbes 30 under 30,
Alley Watch Women in Tech,
Fox Business News (I still haven’t watched this video- too embarrassing).

Ambitious without an Ambition

My best friend in 1st grade was the first person who ever told me I was the most ambitious person she knew. As a kid this was easy because most people I knew weren’t very ambitious. My parents were so swamped with work they were hands off raising me, so maybe my Asianness sensed the power vacuum and stepped up so that I effectively tiger-mommed myself. (My team has called me a tiger CEO, which is maybe not entirely flattering. For example, during a team meeting I said, “Hitting this revenue target would be a B+, which is an Asian F.”)

As a kid if I underperformed my expectations, friends would try to comfort me, “You did way better than most.” This type of thinking was alien to me because I held myself to a higher standard than others. Should I compare myself to a girl born in Sudan in the 13th century and congratulate myself for being literate? Of course not- it’d be a miserable failure if I were illiterate and I should compare myself only to people who have my privileges, and I unflinchingly admitted that I sucked compared to Einstein, etc. (who didn’t have half my privileges!).

Growing up, ambition was all I had, and all I understood. I liked proving I was the best. Demoralizing friends during casual games delighted me. Once I challenged my cofounder to photograph Dustin and forced our team to vote on which anonymized photos were better. Afterwards I rubbed in my victory a lot, because, although Jeremy did the camera settings for me (“Nancy, your photo isn’t even in focus”), I was 1) president of the photography club in high school, 2) a classically trained graphic artist, and 3) generally the best at everything. I was only satisfied after he verified, “You’ve crushed my spirit.” I still get competitive about everything from how fast I am at email (I send 400 emails a week within 1 hour of receiving them) to how much Lynn loves me relative to her husband (“You don’t love me more? But you’ve known me longer”).

Ambition as my primary motivator started running out of fuel around when I started considering what my wikipedia article would read while googling myself from my deathbed. (At this time, my mom was on what I hadn’t acknowledged to be her actual deathbed (My mother does not have anything remotely resembling a wikipedia article).) I modeled my deathbed wikipedia article with the most optimistic fit springing from current data, “HFT billionaire, MIT philanthropist, personal history includes leaving at the altar Justin Bieber and Peeta Mellark.”

I noticed I didn’t feel excited by this forecast. Thus was the hallmark of a bad plan: both unlikely to happen, and undesirable to happen.

This feeling was like sighting an iceberg in the horizon. I continued charging towards the South Pole, plowing through the ice, but glanced over every once in a while- had the feeling maybe gotten imperceptibly bigger? I brushed away the suspicion of lostness because near the pole all my compasses point due South- if you blindly follow ambition, direction is meaningless. For most of my life ambition was all I had. It was all I needed. It had taken me far, and it was always there. (I can be sharkish in my inability to not keep pushing. If my life were an epic poem, my fatal flaws would include my drive.)) What would I do if ambition stopped telling me how to go?

I left HFT. I read and I wrote. I walked the earth. My world was Apptimizes all the way down. I built my team. I thought about things you wouldn’t think about unless you were fixated on specific goals that are unusual and hard.

One day I was pondering the 7 deadly sins and thought, “I grapple with few of these. Lust? As if.” I decided I could write a better religion than the Bible and wrote my own version of deadly sins with corresponding virtues:

1. long term thinking vs impatience/ short sightedness
2. curiosity/ learning vs mental laziness
3. agency/ courage vs fear/ passivity
4. sincerity vs dishonesty
5. empathy/ compassion vs cruelty
6. love for something greater than oneself vs selfishness
7. commitment/ passion vs indifference

As I was wordsmithing my list (I never finished that project), I realized I had another thing that motivated me outside of “ambition:” Nancy’s virtue #6: love for something greater than me. For one thing, I loved my team. I learned the power of teams after high school, but I also recognized that the point of Apptimize was not to provide a cozy haven for us to live happily ever after. The point was the users. They’re the thing greater than myself or my team, the ones we must love.

I admit love for users was not natural. In HFT I never had users or clients- we traded our own money because it was all proprietary. I quickly discovered users can be annoying. They are silent, and then they ask something but it’s unclear if they really mean that thing. You try to help but they don’t listen and then you have to find another way to help and suppress the urge to point out if they’d just listened the first time it would’ve been much better for everyone.

I was unkind to our first users. I feel sorry for our early cohort and am amazed by the ones who stuck with us. I was like the crotchety, unfeeling businessman who reluctantly gets won over by exuberant wise child despite repeatedly trying to abandon her to a maid or an intelligent family dog (don’t remember if this is all the same movie, whatever). I thought I knew everything and that it was somehow all about me, but I realized when I don’t listen to our customers my decisions are confused and myopic. When I listen to them I learn so much. My users are the smart ones and I have to pay obsessive attention to everything they say and do.

The instant we had a user tell us they discovered a valuable insight, with the extra exclamation point in their email conveying excitement, I saw that customer success is what it’s all about. No matter how frustrating and exhausting, we’re nothing without our users. The smallest sign of excitement or happiness from them makes my day.

I stopped thinking about my own achievements or my team achievements and started thinking about our users’ achievements. Instead of how much more badass I would be, I thought about how much more badass our users would be. Instead of being ambitious for me or my team, I am ambitious for our users. Instead of my wikipedia article saying anything about me taking over the world, I think of how our users’ wikipedia articles say they took over the world, and it won’t mention Apptimize because our users do it on their own and we’re just one of the ways they figured out how to kick more ass.

Everyone on our team from sales to engineering has woken up at 6am and stayed up till midnight to take customer calls and push new builds. Once we accidentally forwarded an internal support discussion to users and were proud of not being in the least embarrassed by our casual thread- in fact we were secretly going the extra mile to make sure everything would work swimmingly. My team has worked on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Saturdays (while calling it vacation)- not for the team- but to keep our promises to our users. That’s love. That’s commitment. That’s the right kind of ambition. That’s my religion.

I’m excited for 2015 because I can’t wait to figure out how to help our users accomplish even more this year. In case you want to try out some new apps for 2015, here are some Apptimize customers who kick ass (Maybe Apptimize is installed on your mobile device right now! (If you use one of these apps and say, “I summon the spirit of Apptimize,” 3 times I’ll jump out of your phone and tell you to stop goofing off and get to work!)):

Strava: Top 10, running and biking
Omvana: #1 meditation
Runtastic: #1 fitness in 80+ countries

Vevo: #1 premium music videos
Rhapsody: Top 10

Glassdoor: Top 10 jobs postings and reviews
eToro: Top 10 social trading

Yik Yak: Top 10 anonymous social media
Glide: Top 10 video texting
Flipagram: #1 free app in 80+ countries, make video stories

Travel: Search 4 million cars
Autotrader: Buy and sell your car
HotelTonight: Book a hotel instantly on your phone

Rakuten: World’s #7 largest e-commerce company
ReTale/ KaufDA: Weekly offers
OLX: Top 10 in >100 countries, classifieds
Stubhub: #1 ticket marketplace

From Quora: Writing Classes at MIT with Junot Diaz before his Pulitzer

At MIT from 2003 to 2007, I took 3 classes with Junot Diaz. Although my lecture attendance is notoriously bad (sometimes I didn’t even show up for exams), Junot’s classes were different. That first class freshman year, I felt like I’d been rummaging for garbage scraps my whole life and finally someone cut me some steak.

Junot swears, in a friendly way. “This isn’t fucking church. If it doesn’t move you, it’s ok to walk out.” I don’t know if his classes attracted the awesome, or if the class made people awesome, but some of the most awesome people I know I met in this class. Every week we would look forward to the 3 hour meeting because we were so excited to see each other. Whenever we met in the Infinite, we’d pause to talk about the readings and our work. Through writing, you get to know people in ways you would never see otherwise, because people write about things they wouldn’t have occasion to talk about: parents lying to each other about bad investments, gods contemplating tree spirits, suicide letters, using malaria to lose weight, grandmas stealing back grandchildren, getting stopped by the Israeli border patrol, shrooms in your fraternity, walking off a broken foot.

Once we went up to Wellesley because Rosa invited him to give a talk. Junot did a reading, and then went into discussion like always.
“How do we make the reader ok with the fact our narrator Yunior is a jerk?”
Imran said, “Yunior will do something terrible, but then he makes me laugh, which takes me to the next line.”
“He tells the truth,” I said. “He’s honest about being a jerk so you trust him to tell you the rest of the story.”
“Is there a sexist theme?” someone asked. “Yunior doesn’t respect women.”
“If the narrator keeps saying women are stupid, but then in the story a woman comes and takes his money, and another woman beats him up, no matter how much the narrator insists women are dumb, does the story say that women are stupid?”
Afterwards the Wellesley students crowded around, “Why haven’t I taken a class with him?”
This all was before Junot had written Oscar Wao (or won his Pulitzer), but his talent was obvious- we kids saw the signs.

Our mailing lists were active:
“Ignore my last email- that one’s shit, this is a better draft.”
“Let’s all meet at my ILG for dinner.”
“If MIT has taught me anything, it’s that parties don’t throw themselves.”
“Essays due! Get to work, gang!”

“Students! My students!” Chalk loosely gripped, Junot would dramatically, slowly scratch the board behind him without looking, then haphazardly stab back at it as he talked. Afterwards the abstract lines looked like we’d been doing some crazy algebraic geometry- you’d never guess we were talking about life outside the story, or lacunae, or structure, or voice. On my writing, he’d put check marks near good parts, “No” near bad parts, and a rare “You kick ass Nancy!” near kick ass parts. After class during finals week, we crashed a lecture hall to watch “Fuckin’ Shaolin Soccer” on the projector, everyone getting drunk.

It’s one thing to read a dead man’s writing. You can even read the living Sherman Alexei and think, “Yeah, some folks have it really bad,” while simultaneously implicitly concluding that others never suffer a day in their lives, or even that most people never suffer. Having my writing teacher be someone who wrote the type of stuff I’d read, who experienced things, who encouraged us to write about what messed us up, to connect with my crazy genius classmates, to realize everyone has a billion secret selves, shifting between various identities, to draw aside the curtain to reveal our secret worlds, was personality-altering for me. In my math and CS classes, we talked about approximation algorithms, theory of mind, big O, BBN: the Problems of advancing science, problems we were solving- not the ugly worries of the lower realms, dead-end stuff with no reason, base stuff you can’t work on aside from letting it fade, subjective stuff that isn’t truth the way other parts of understanding reality are Truth. Elevate beyond animal emotion, abhor politics, the path to the heavens through technology goes the complete opposite direction!

I was a writing major (21W) in addition to a math major (18C), and Junot’s class was the first real writing class I ever had. I’ve always been a bookworm, but I don’t think I learned to read until Junot taught me to write. Writing reads differently when you read as a writer. Sometimes I mark time by how much a book or script has changed since the last time I read it (my overall conclusion is that the classics actually are good; the literary community and tradition is smarter than me). Learning to write teaches me how to read, which teaches me how to think, which teaches me what to ask, what to work on, what to value. How do we navigate this life, with the noble promises of our expanding human knowledge propelling us into the stars, only for the battering of our pathetic human hearts to tear us back down into the grime? These writing classes were the other half of the equation for me. Ten years ago, I was starved as a stray cat and didn’t suspect that at MIT of all places I’d find a home to take me in.

My answer to “What was it like to have Junot Diaz as your creative writing professor at MIT?”

Judging Strangers

Everything I do depends on other members of our species… And a lot of us want to contribute something back to our species.
-the inspiring Steve Jobs


I can be pretty judgmental. I believe I also change my mind as I get new information but I don’t know how true that is. In any case, after reading Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, I thought Jobs was an awesome visionary, a self-made hero who transformed, revolutionized and created several unique industries.

Isaacson’s book made me tear up- the drama of Jobs’ creative dreams was so inspiring to an enterprising young person like myself, plus he’s an orphan who grew up to enslave a meek, unambitious, gentle giant genius and force tons of people smarter than him to work harder and smarter than they would’ve asked of themselves. And he wore the same clothes all the time like a dorky superhero. What a courageous star!

Then I read Jobs’ favorite book, “Autobiography of a Yogi.” Apparently Steve Jobs read this book every single year. He made it the first iBook. Has anyone else read this?

My reaction to this book was, “I love Steve Jobs but I have no idea what this yogi is talking about. Am I insane?”

Midway through this book I concluded I had no idea what this yogi was talking about and Steve Jobs was insane.

I actually liked the book and found its preachings of spirituality over materialism inspiring. There were interesting parts about Bose’s plant and radio discoveries that I hadn’t known about (I used to be a Tesla fan (before it was cool!) but now I think Bose might be even cooler, plus I’m nicer to my plants and even my objects (Guys, it’s science. Seriously)) (Also I am really good at yoga, probably a prodigy). But most of the “autobiography” didn’t make any sense. Are we supposed to believe that yogis can levitate or are we supposed to view this whole book as some kind of metaphor? I got the impression it was NOT supposed to be read as fiction- the yogi seemed to believe all this stuff. Did he have the power to bend reality, or was he hallucinating, or was he deliberately lying, or was this some kind of meta art, or is none of it meant to be taken literally?

I still love Steve Jobs. What these books made me realize is how a relatively small new piece of information can really change one’s judgment of a stranger, and how weird that is relative to the slack I give to people I actually know, and the slack I wish for them to bestow me in return.

My best friends could (and do) say anything- no matter how offensive- and I still don’t think they’re bigots because it’s just one drop in the ocean of information we have on one another. In contrast if a total stranger said something evil, I’d probably just never talk to them again because now the only thing I know about them is that they say weird things. Even though I know the likelihood of someone being evil is low, when 100% of my information about someone is negative, maybe I can be justified in judging them for it.

The thing that happened with my judgment of Jobs is not like the complete stranger scenario because I knew a lot about Jobs- I’d read 700+ pages of writing about him, and yet this single new piece of information about this yogi book easily changed the way I viewed him. Maybe it’s because everything I know about Jobs is second hand, so this new piece of information is given the same weight as “founded Apple”- they’re both random facts that took me 30 seconds to learn and my brain doesn’t realize that “favorite book: Autobiography of a Yogi” maybe shouldn’t have the same weight as “founded the most valuable company ever and ran it for decades.”

People are complicated and have lots of inconsistencies because we’re all crazy. Public figures and strangers are not people the way people who we actually know are people. No matter how much you know about a stranger, you still don’t think of them as a real person. Our brains naturally assign stereotypes to people- we map stuff onto other stuff and when we don’t know someone, we make assumptions about them. Maybe a 30 second sound bite can undo 30 years of patriotism and civil service and professional excellence and loving parenthood because the time it took us to process the soundbite is the same as the amount of time it took us to learn they were war heroes or human rights advocates or whatever. We only know our own experiences so when we don’t have personal experience with someone, our judgment can be totally off.

People can be really mean to each other on the internet. The only Internet places I’ve participated in public discourse are Quora, Hacker News, and this blog, all places populated by nerds who are probably more intelligent and educated than 90% of humans. But many responses are either “This person agrees with me, except more so. This person is a genius” or “This person disagrees with me and is an idiot who’s also a jerk and probably hates me and begrudges my happiness and is trying to steal my freedom by annoying me with his crazy comments.”

I think in general people are actually really nice to me on the internet because I don’t hide my identity as a lovable Chinese girl. But whenever I do something anonymously, I see what many Internet men have to deal with. People will completely misread whatever you were saying! They assume you’re a stupid, disagreeable, male jerk and accuse you of all manner of nonsense. For a time this was very annoying because how could someone be so totally wrong! In response I’d either make some joke, present some data that proved their idiocy, or ignore them.

But now whenever I feel the urge to accuse the commenter of being a mean, illiterate troll and basically becoming a troll myself, I now do this trick of pretending the commenter is a particular friend of mine who disagrees with me about everything. I’m not going to say who this person is, but s/he knows who s/he is. And I find I’m way nicer to everyone on the internet when I do this because now my map of “disagreeable person” is no longer “anonymous jerk” but “annoyingly argumentative friend who doesn’t read the correct news sources but is still cool.” I can still get annoyed when a friend obstinately disagrees with me but I’m more open to changing my mind and don’t assume they’re being intentionally stupid or difficult.

Maybe I’ll also try this trick with public figures. Because most public figures are generally not that stupid or evil. They’re strangers, and strangers are not like real people.