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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.

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?”

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.