Category Archives: Meaning of Life

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!)):

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

Entertainment:
Vevo: #1 premium music videos
Rhapsody: Top 10

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

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

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

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

Mother’s Day

I never asked her to work nights in a restaurant and go to school during the day. I never asked her to prepare my favorite fruits and vegetables with my favorite dipping sauces as my daily snack. I never asked her to turn down her big business opportunity to stay at home with me.

The debt you can never repay, the debt that makes you owe more than you can ever accomplish in your entire life, is the debt you owe for the stuff you never asked for. I never asked my mother to love me, or to give birth to me, and now I owe a debt impossible to repay.

How do you pay back that kind of love? Is it one of those divine conundrums where everything’s impossible except through grace?

Luckily, my mother told me how to pay it back. She said, “You simply owe it to me to become as amazing as you can. Also, promise me you’ll break up with that boy.”

I didn’t listen to my mother in many things, and I can never deserve everything I have, but I’m really trying to earn back my debt by making something good out of my life. It’s impossible to be worthy, but you try to be a better person.

I want to try as hard as I can because I owe a million debts like that. It’s impossible to repay all the innovators who birthed our amazing world, the scientists and artists. We didn’t ask for it and we can never deserve it- the past asks things of the future, but not the other way around. We just have to try our hardest. We pass on our best attempt so that when our children inherit our earth we have some right to ask them to make something even better.

To all the moms whose only wish is we do something good with the gifts we got without asking, happy mother’s day.

hua mom and dad!

Never Be Intimidated

apptimize.com/about makes me so happy!
apptimize.com/about makes me so happy!

After I introduced Lynn to my friend, she said he seemed intimidating.
“Really?! Why?”
“He’s a CS professor, the CEO of a successful startup, and is too busy to talk with anyone but you.”
“So?”
“…Maybe your power is that you’re not afraid of stuff.”

I was flattered to hear this but it’s not the whole story. I think I was never intimidated by intelligence or wealth, but once upon a time I was intimidated by physical beauty. Here’s how I realized one should never be intimidated, even by hot, rich geniuses:

I was an unkissed nerd for 16 years, then I had boyfriends for 4 years, and then I was single for years. During my senior year at MIT, which was the start of my 2nd phase of monkish devotion to knowledge, I went on 1 date. It was because he was the most beautiful human I’d ever seen in real life. The first time I saw him, he wasn’t wearing a shirt because he was ironing it. Yes, he went to Harvard. His suite mates were probably milling around- I have no idea. I remember I said, “Do you wax your chest because of swimming?” He had the grace to blush. “Mainly because I model.”

After verifying there were no pictures of him on the first Google results (his name is very ungoogleable. What were his parents thinking?), I forgot about him for a week. Then he asked me if I wanted “to hang out.” That night, I found that the shirtless pictures of him were on Facebook (this was many years ago and Facebook was not yet the first place one went to look at people).

That Friday, we walked around Harvard square. I found it hard to not stare at him, but I also evaded touch and felt anxious to be alone. Nothing happened. I can’t “date;” I’m incapable of romantic relationships that aren’t based on a monkish devotion to work. After the most awkward date this kid had ever been on, and the least awkward of the 5 dates I’d ever been on, I went back to East Campus and did a problem set while a black cat rattled my door and freshmen screamed on the thundering roller coaster in the courtyard.

I had expected the date to be really fun, but it wasn’t anything. I’d expected it to be more fun than being with a normal person because he was so much hotter than a normal person, and I realized this logic was wrong. I’m exceedingly grateful to him because it was actually the epiphany that he would ever consider dating *me* despite being so much hotter that allowed me to realize physical beauty doesn’t matter. For me, maturation has been a series of realizing what doesn’t matter.

Intelligence, beauty, and wealth used to seem like notable qualities, but now they’re commoditized by technology. Jesus and Buddha always said beauty and wealth didn’t matter, but for years I was reluctant to conclude intelligence was also irrelevant.

It was in high school that I realized I was in danger of dooming myself to unhappiness if I defined myself by my intelligence. Intelligence seems fundamentally different from beauty, right? Because it’s easier to use intelligence to create something… but it ultimately is just another commoditizable property. There will always be someone more beautiful or intelligent, and now technology elevates everyone to a high level. When headhunters were pimping me out to billionaires, “Her brain is huge and will make you a lot of money,” it was obvious intelligence has been commoditized.

A millennia ago, physical strength was actually useful and prized- the strongest dude was also the richest because he could bop you on the head and take your cow- but now physical strength is useless. Most modern men can run a marathon. One day science and technology will allow everyone will be as strong, healthy, smart, and beautiful as they wish. Technology made many crafts and skills obsolete because it commoditized fine motor skills. Technology is the great equalizer that commoditizes and equalizes everything, taking beauty, information, strength, and health, and giving it to everyone.

When you take away everything that the robots are going to do for us and allow us to be, when we’re all genius supermen, what will be left for us to identify ourselves by? If you put your identity next to beauty, you’ll feel worthless when beauty is commoditized by technology because anyone can purchase your identity. If money is an important part of your identity, you’ll bemoan the fact there’s always someone richer and scuff the wheel of your Tesla every time someone mentions Bill Gates. Instead of forming my identity in a way that allows technology to erode it, I want to form it such that technology would enhance it.

Now when I meet someone with intelligence, beauty, or wealth, which is basically everyone in the post-singularity society of Silicon Valley, I automatically delete those qualities from my perception of their Real Identity. I still recognize intelligence, etc. as a property they possess, but I don’t define them by it. I try to define people by their ambitions, creativity, drive, perspective, attitude, inspirations… that soft gushy core inside the genius billionaire playboy. Love, values, interests, goals. Not where they went to school, how good they look in Lululemon, or how many Lamborghini’s they drive, because eventually we’ll all be downloading MIT OCW straight into our brains using Matrix-style optogenetics tech, have enhanced cyborg bodies, and harvest infinite energy from asteroids so that resource constraints become a purely theoretical problem.

What do you view as the most important aspect of your identity?

How to Not Waste Your Life

Tired of your career? Lost and confused about your next move and unmotivated on your current path? You’re not alone. The only mystery intriguing to modern man is modern man himself: a terrifying labyrinth that often leads nowhere interesting.

In theory, through our every action, we’re constantly continuously deciding our private interpretations of the meaning of life. In reality, humans rely on cached thoughts to avoid decisions. You can easily go your whole life without making a deliberate, researched choice. Big decisions are painful and difficult, so we avoid them unless the default becomes more painful than the agonizing confusion of deciding. Why deviate from what you’re “supposed to do” when you’re already outperforming most humans that ever lived?

People on Quora ask, “I’m 20 or 30-something and don’t know what to do because I haven’t found my passion yet. What is my passion?” As first-world youth, we’re not responsible for anything beyond our own enjoyment, so we think we should simply find a passion and then do that forever. People who excel do seem passionate. Steve Jobs is dogmatic about design; Rowling wrote doggedly for years while waitressing. Leaders and founders are passionate. How do we be like that? What is the meaning of life!?

“Make something people want.”

That is Y Combinator’s motto, and I think that is the meaning of life. Note that it doesn’t say anything about passion. “Make something” is fundamental – people whose work doesn’t result in creation feel they’re wasting their lives. So is “people want” – if no one wants your hand-knitted cat sculptures, you’ll also feel  life is a waste. “Make something” and “people want” are two things I knew before Y Combinator. The unspoken middle is where I learned something new: “people,” as in “OTHER people.”

Most of my life was spent not thinking about other people. I’m an only child, and my primary motivation throughout the first 27 years of my life was very individualistic – I wanted to challenge myself, increase my understanding of nature, prove my own awesomeness, etc. I imagined that if I could live life wandering through a forest of libraries by day, deriving all the secrets of reality by night, I’d be satisfied.

The change came slowly, but one day, I realized that my motivations towards being the best were self absorbed. I imagined being the best trader in the world, and realized I would feel like my life had been a waste of time. I imagined being the smartest person in the world – making scientific discoveries, writing treatises on Proust; winning Nobel prizes; listening to my ex-boyfriend Ryan Gosling beg for a mold of my body so he could always remember how hot I am – and I felt nothing. Was I just not imagining it correctly? Was there some art, like chess or painting, so pure it would make me happy? My conclusion was “No.” I looked at the people who are the absolute best at what they do and, although I admire them, being them doesn’t feel like something I want.

The key to passion and having a useful, non-wasted life is to look beyond yourself. Selfishness and self-searching, what we do to “find ourselves,” hinder us from getting what we want.

Startups are about other people, and successful startups are one of the more selfless things in existence. It’s not about what you want, it’s about your users. Make something OTHER PEOPLE want, however different they are from you. Be passionate about your users, not yourself. (Even in the “startup of you”.)

I no longer think of Superposition Nancy as the main way of motivating myself. It doesn’t seem ambitious enough. I changed my reference frame from Superposition Nancy to Superposition All-Humans-Now-and-Forever. How do I act to make sure we humans collectively outperform our superposition fate? How do we change the fate of mankind? All the things I could do easily would move the needle very little for humanity at large. Money (look at the trillions of dollars the US prints and spends) is nothing compared to an invention like the light bulb, or the Internet, or the kind of thought leadership that came from Martin Luther or the founding fathers.

First I think locally, about the debt I owe to my parents who sacrificed to make my  life possible. Then I think about the debt I owe my community, for making me safe. Then I think back farther: back to the inventors of electricity, of books. I’m sure Gutenberg could have spent his days drinking and loafing instead of inventing the printing press. Because he didn’t, all of us benefit tremendously from his work in ways we can never repay. When I’m sitting at home thinking, “I should lie in bed and re-watch the Matrix and eat pizza and swipe around on Tinder,” then I think about how Gutenberg will punch me in the face in the afterlife. I want to repay some of what I owe all these people, who got off their butts and did something that elevated the rest of mankind, whose genius and labor keeps me safe and snug in bed at night. My parents could’ve raised me by leaving me alone with a TV and boxes of cereal. But they gave me the right food and taught me to be healthy; they took me to the library and taught me to learn. How do you repay something like that? You can’t, but you can try.

Everything we have is because of someone who rose above their self-absorption. I wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for people who valued adding something to the world above their own comfort. So when I’m not working, I feel a crushing sense of guilt. If I’m not helping out someone else, somewhere down the line, then I’m failing. Think of the people who are long dead, and those who might never be born. Look at the people around you, and the people on the other side of the earth. Do we leave the earth as if we’d never existed, or do we leave it better?

Ironically, in startups as in life, focusing on others lets you can gain the most for yourself. You learn the most, do the most, grow the most. So if you want to be awesome and productive, join a startup. Make something other people want.

Not unrelatedly, this is exactly what we at Apptimize are doing. What we’ve shown publicly is the tip of the iceberg and we’re looking for the missing members of our band! So, we want to meet the best frontend, iOS, Android, and backend engineers you know. We’re very picky, because it’s so important that we believe in our team, and believe that together we’re going somewhere worth going. By the grace of our Robot Invader friends, our office is on the Mountain View Googleplex, our board game collection is famed throughout the industry, and our technology is not too shabby either. Our investors and users uniformly say, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” We’re excited to be on this adventure together!

So, if you want to be part of a team working on something that affects a lot of people, invents new technologies, believes innovation, science, ideas, and culture can move the needle where material wealth cannot, and are frighteningly ambitious about where we’re going, then message me at nancy at apptimize dot com.

The Apptimize team minus Dustin, who's traveling!
The Apptimize team minus Dustin, who’s traveling!
Our Dustin!
Our Dustin!

PS. If you can guess our hack house wifi password, we will fly you out for a visit, plus I will tell you the rest of the plot of HPMOR. The network is chaoslegion. Hint: What house am I?

Thanks to Lucas Baker for reading a draft of this post.