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!

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.

What to Work on When You Don’t Need to Work

The “need to work” has to do with responsibility. As a kid, my only responsibility was not getting too sticky from all the candy I ate, and my work habits reflected this. As an adult, I’m responsible for myself and my family, but I don’t have a bunch of bloodsucking kids yet and my work habits reflect this: I don’t do any work I don’t enjoy; if something pooped its pants in my presence, leaping into work mode is the last thing I’d consider.

If I view my responsibilities as only including myself and my family, then the amount of “work I need to do” is small, especially since almost everything I want money for is either relatively cheap or really expensive. The first time I realized this, it felt great! I felt like I had arrived. I could watch movies all the time and have my “work” be shopping and exercise so that upon my high school reunion everyone dies of jealousy when they see how my hotness has only increased with time.

Ages ago when I graduated from MIT and told Junot Diaz about my uncertainty for the future, he shook his head and smiled, “You have nothing to worry about.” Since he’s super into the apocalypse and the injustice of inequality, I interpreted this as an allusion to our living in an illusory first world ivory tower, but now I think he also referred to how big my safety net is, especially considering the marketability of my degree. Working a white collar job was the default mode for me, not like North Korean prisoners for whom bathing means waiting for weather warm enough to allow standing in the rain. Working on Wall Street is beyond their greatest dreams, whereas for me it’s a backup plan. A poor person in another country takes a risk by experimenting with fertilizers, and if it doesn’t work out his family starves to death. If I take a risk that doesn’t work out, I’ll just feel embarrassed and delete some old blog entires. There’s no comparison.

I’m not sure when I realized my relative lack of responsibility was an illusion. Maybe it was from hanging out with altruistic friends or reading HPMOR that got me feeling it was a mistake and a sin to only claim responsibility for my own comfort and curiosity. Maybe it was when I saw Wall-E wherein through technology the humans have achieved a state of, “Well, I could do this forever: eat, grow fat, watch tv.” We laugh at the obese humans who can’t even stand up, but we are actually at that state now in our wonderful, first world, welfare society, incapable of starving to death no matter how much we lie around. Are we going to live like those hapless humans or are we going to exhume the Earth?

How can I go shopping and movie hopping all day if I’m responsible for my species? When I mentally tested expanding the scope of responsibility beyond my personal welfare to include my fellow man, my first reaction was to groan, “Oh no.” Because the instant you have that thought experiment, the amount of work we need to accomplish balloons up monstrously. If I’m responsible for more than myself, then the “need to work” morphs into a dauntingly huge problem with a totally different scope. Being responsible for another individual could include cooking meals for them or paying their rent, but you can’t take care of a whole species through chores or even money. To scale, we need to do bigger things, invent stuff, use our imaginations. I never cook and I’m still figuring out how to take responsibility for my family. How do I take responsibility for my species? This is the question I’ve been thinking about. What do you work on when you need to work for your species?

A while ago, I realized it’s mathematically irrational for people who can afford to take big risks to not take them, and who’s better positioned to take risks than us? Furthermore, if you claim responsibility for your whole species, it’s not just irrational to not take a risk- it’s irresponsible and morally wrong. Unambitious ambitions are false to my identity and potential: our ambitions have to match our abilities, and most people are not reaching high enough- because of fear, laziness, lack of imagination, etc, which is wrong. It’s like the Dalai Llama or someone wise was saying: if we have greater will and intelligence than flies, but we live the same as a fly lives, then the fly is more true and honest than we are. I have a duty to myself to monotonically increase in awesomeness, and I have a duty to mankind to do good in the world. From this perspective, there’s no end to the work I need to do. Which is sort of annoying and scary, but also fun and exciting! Just as we have a duty to pursue personal excellence, we have a responsibility to live up to our potential as a species. We humans could live off the land like flies, but we build structures and satellites because otherwise intelligent dolphins and alien civilizations would laugh at us.

So here’s the question that Elon Musk caused me to ask: What do you think are the biggest challenges and opportunities facing mankind? This question has led to many awesome discussions, so think about it. The only catch is that after you think about it, the follow up question is, “What are you doing to contribute to a solution?” If the answer is, “Nothing,” then we have to ask, “Why are we choosing to work on something we don’t consider important?” So watch out: a question can change everything.