My smart phone has made me dumber

Has anyone ever noticed how smart phones have actually made us dumber? Before smart phones, whenever I had spare time waiting for something, whether its the bus or the dentist, that’d be my chance to think and reflect. There was just nothing else to do.

Now all I do is bring up Facebook, Reddit or email. I end up thinking less.

Before when I might be out with a group of friends and we didn’t know the answer to something, we’d try to apply our knowledge with logic to figure it out. We worked our brains.

Now all I do is pull up my phone and look it up. The answers are easy.

A big part of making yourself smarter is being able to reflect and critique yourself. I certainly have done it less since I’ve had my smart phone. I remember times where I might have gone to bed too early. I wasn’t tired enough to sleep, but I wasn’t awake enough to get up and go back to my desktop computer to browse the web. I just laid in bed and thought. Now I just browse my phone.

I’ve used my brain less. I’ve had less opportunities to think through hard problems and I think I’ve probably become dumber because of it.

The next time you’re bored and find yourself reaching for your phone, try to keep it in your pocket and let me know where it takes you.

Become successful in two steps

  1. Know what you want
  2. Pursue it relentlessly

[BTW This is really just me thinking out loud, not me trying to pass on some age old wisdom. In my own eyes, I wouldn't call myself successful.]

Reasons I have failed in the past

1) 99% I didn’t know what I want

Success is a condition that can only be defined by oneself. If I wanted to drink an entire can of Diet Coke, upon drinking the entire can of Diet Coke, I would have been successful, right?

So, what do you want?

Knowing what you want faces two difficulties. Its hard because its difficult to be introspective enough to know whether or not I really want it.

Do I really want to do a startup? Do I really want to become a developer? Why?

Knowing what I want is also uncomfortable because it requires me to ask myself really difficult questions and I have to be completely honest with myself. Why do I want to do a startup? Is it because I want the fame? The power? The money?

If you don’t know what you want, then you can never be successful. There’s no win condition.

1.1) Being wrong about what I want 

I don’t think I was ever completely wrong about what I wanted, usually its just me being dishonest with myself and I end up with the wrong conclusions. Say, maybe you actually really like money so you want to become a doctor or a lawyer and make a lot of it, but then you feel bad about it due to social stigmas. You conclude to yourself that you actually don’t like money all that much and you actually care more about helping people. Totally cool.

But if you’re wrong about that conclusion, you probably will feel unsatisfied when you don’t make a lot of money. Or vice versa, when you realize that you actually didn’t want all that money and realized you just wanted to help people instead, you might feel unfulfilled as a lawyer. There’s nothing wrong about realizing who you are and wanting something.

1.2) Not being clear about what I want

I used to tell myself, “I want to do a startup”, so once I incorporated and announced I was doing a startup, I should have popped open the champagne and partied well into the night, right?

Well, if you were correct in your conclusion that all you wanted to do was to “do a startup”, then you should rightfully feel amazing. If not, you weren’t detailed enough in what you wanted.

2) I didn’t pursue things relentlessly

I gave up.

2.1) The opportunity closed up

Given infinite time to do something, as long as it is physically possible and one makes gradually progress towards a goal, one will get there eventually.

If I wanted to run a marathon when I was 8 years old, I can’t do that physically because I can’t travel back in time (yet?). Likewise, if I wanted to run a marathon when I was 22, as soon as I turn 23, that becomes impossible.

Maybe my goal is to sell a mobile startup. In 20 years, maybe technology would have moved away from mobile altogether. It’d probably be impossible for me to achieve it at that point.

Most things have finite constraints and unfortunately, you can’t always work forever towards your goal. Eventually you’ll die, eventually the Sun will explode, eventually the universe will face its death.

So really, once you’ve correctly figured out what you want, its just about achieving your goals given finite constraints. Given that the goal is physically possible, there exists a path towards this goal and the problem becomes recursive.

My goal is to drink this entire can of Diet Coke.

My goal is to take a sip of Diet Coke.

My goal is to pick up this can of Diet Coke and bring it to my lips.

My goal is to move my hand.

My goal is to tell my brain to move my hand.

As long as I move my hand towards the Diet Coke, I’m getting closer to my goal.

You just need to move your hand towards your Diet Coke.

Conclusion

So I guess in conclusion, step one is figuring out what you want, but that in itself is hard. It’s like telling yourself, “I want to do a startup”. The goal is vague and immeasurable.

Maybe what you want is the things that make you the happiest. Maybe you can measure the dopamine in your brain released with fulfillment? But if that was the case, why don’t we all just do crack? Perhaps its not about the short term hit, but its to maximize the total dopamine released in our brain in the course of our life? I don’t know much about crack, but I’d imagine it’d be diminishing returns and you’ll probably lower your life expectancy, thus lowering your total happiness. Also, crack is expensive.

As I said in the beginning, success is a condition that can only be defined by oneself. So maybe for me, it really is to maximize the total amount of dopamine output throughout my life. In that case, I’m probably best off inventing crack that isn’t expensive, addictive and damaging, or figuring out how to extend my life indefinitely.

Hm… I still haven’t figured out the answer to problem 1 yet but I’ll skip it and come back to that problem later.

At least I’ve successfully wrote a blog post *pops champagne*.

3 Years Since Rejection

Wow! I can’t believe it has only been 3 years since I got rejected from the University of Washington CS program.

It feels like I’ve lived 10 years since then with all the crazy things I’ve been fortunate enough to experience.

I still remember how angsty, disappointed and disheartened I was at the time. I remember telling someone that if I didn’t get in, I wouldn’t know what to do with my life. It was the only thing I had planned for myself and it was the first time in my life where I felt like I didn’t know what to do.

Regardless, after the rejection, I felt like the only thing I could do was to pick myself up and find an internship. I applied to 15+ companies, and got rejected from all of them. Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, F5, Zillow, Google (twice) along with other medium sized companies. Talk about rubbing salt on an open wound. I went from feeling disheartened to feeling absolutely curb stomped.

I nearly gave up, but kept on reminding myself of the statistics. If I applied to 1000 places, surely, I would get a job at one? It wasn’t until I applied to work at a startup as the first employee that I was accepted. I remember the interview with the CEO. He never even bothered to ask me any technical coding questions at all. He gave me the job on the spot and when I asked why, he just told me, “I don’t know, I just saw something in you.”

This set in motion a series of strange events – from intern to a director, from writing scrapers in Java to authoring specs that almost all of you guys interact with on a daily basis. From working for others, to being part of YC to help found our own company and fundraise.

Everyone wears a mask and sometimes you just don’t see how hard others have to struggle. We are all main characters in our own movies.

It’s funny looking back because the amount of catastrophic failures I’ve experienced haven’t stopped. In fact, they’ve only increased in frequency and now in greater magnitude. I fail so much harder now.

From back then to now, I think the only thing that has changed is my attitude. Failing is just life’s way of telling you that you were meant to achieve bigger things. Because success is a mirage and never looks like what it appears to be. It’s generally a string of progressively getting better at failing. If you set yourself up to where you can see yourself fail, only then can set yourself up for success. Do or do not. There is no try.

It’s amazing to think that what felt to me like my worst failure at the time was the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s great because I almost get monthly emails from recruiters from companies such as, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and this time around, I’m the one dishing out the rejection.

Here’s to our next 100 failures! 

Make something people want (to pay for)

YC is famous for its mantra, “Make something people want”. It’s short, sweet and it makes sense… until you start thinking about it.

“But how do I know people actually WANT this?”

I think you can generally figure this out by asking people one thing, “how much would you be willing to pay for it?”

The failure to identify whether someone actually wants your product vs someone being largely apathetic is difficult to distinguish. Mostly because the people you might initially be talking to are your friends and family. These people don’t want to let you down. They’ll also already be excited because they will be excited for you. It’s hard to cut the crap.

Let’s imagine you’re building a social network for dogs and you’re pitching to one of your friends who’s a huge dog lover.

You: Yeah, this website is going to be great! You can upload pictures of your dog, communicate with a million other dog lovers, share stories! It’ll be amazing!

Your friend: Wow! That’s an awesome idea! I would love to use something like this!

With this conversation, you haven’t validated your product in any way. Any seasoned sales person knows that all this really shows is that there’s interests in your product, not exactly validation that they really want it. I know because as a developer trying to improve on my hustling, I personally make this mistake a lot. ( I still do).

I think to myself, “Great! This person is within my target demographic and she says she really wants the product! This means there’s validation!”

NO!  DON’T FALL FOR THIS TRAP! YOU CAN WASTE MONTHS, EVEN YEARS BUILDING SHIT NO ONE WANTS! 

All they’re essentially saying is that if this product as you have described to them were to exist today, they would consider using it but thats it.

Okay, so how should you follow up with this conversation then?

You: Yeah, this website is going to be great! You can upload pictures of your dog, communicate with a million other dog lovers, share stories! It’ll be amazing!

Your friend: Wow! That’s an awesome idea! I would love to use something like this!

You: Awesome! How much would you be willing to pay for it?

Your friend: Hmm, I don’t know. I’m not sure if it’s a product I’d exactly pay for.

If that’s their response, then you can almost guarantee that they don’t really want your product. If they’re not willing to pay for something, then it probably means you haven’t yet identified a product that serves any of their current need. In other words, they don’t want it.

However, this doesn’t exactly mean that your product sucks. It could just be that you’re pitching it wrong or that your idea needs some tweaking. Take for instance, a different approach:

You: Yeah, I’m building a website that enables you to book pet sitters for your pets!

Your friend: Wow! That’s an awesome idea! I would love to use something like this!

You: Awesome! How much would you be willing to pay for it?

I know it’s just an imaginary exercise, but I’d argue that even without knowing what your friend is going to say, intuitively, this approach has a better chance of her telling you that she might pay for it. The pitch was specific and identified a need.

Perhaps she’s been looking for a sitter for a while but can’t find a good one and would be willing to pay $5 for it. Who knows, but at least what this demonstrates that with this method of thinking, rather than building something that’s just cool, you’ve began to think of something that is actually catered to a specific problem someone out there is having.

The point is, if you’re working on a project where you can’t imagine trying to ask someone to pay for your product, then you’re probably not building anything people want.

It doesn’t matter if you’re even charging for your product or giving away for free on the App Store. I think even if you intended on giving away your product for free, you should always be in the mindset to make a product that’s so good that people would want to pay for it anyways.

Does fear of failure drive success?

In one of Paul Graham’s essays, “How Not To Die“, he simply states:

“So if you want to get millions of dollars, put yourself in a position where failure will be public and humiliating.”

Awesome, so if I want to succeed and get a million dollars, all I have to do is be afraid of failing, right? Well, I don’t exactly agree so much with Paul Graham on this one, and here’s why.

I don’t think fear of failure drives success as much as I think that fear of failure is a byproduct of putting yourself in a position where you CAN achieve success.

A little bit of background on myself. I work in the tech industry and startups are all I’ve known. So far, I’ve worked for 3 startups and did a YC company.

Right now, I’m a Dogecoin advocate and  I consider Dogecoins to be a lot like a startup in the sense that it can make me feel very similar. When I check the news, when I look at the charts, sometimes I feel the highest of highs but at other times, I can also feel the lowest of lows. It’s a lot like when doing a startup and checking your numbers, “Am I going to hit this week’s quota? Where will we be in 3 months? Is Dogecoin really the right choice? Is our product really the right thing we should be focusing on? Are we the right team to do it?”, etc.

You see, I think what I’ve discovered is that the reason why I was scared and worried is because my path to failure was clearly laid out. I could see it. I could grasp it. It was scary.

If I didn’t hit my targets, we’d be failing. If we couldn’t get x more signups, we’d be failing. If we couldn’t raise x dollars, we’d be failing.

You see, success at all times is binary. If your goal is 10%+ in revenue by the end of the month and you don’t hit it, you didn’t succeed. You failed. There is no in between.

I think the companies that are the most successful can often be the companies that are most afraid to fail because clarity of failure also means clarity of success. Because when we align ourselves to see downwards into the hole of failure, we can also look upward and see the rocket path to success. The companies that are most successful knows what it takes to succeed. They put themselves in the position where they can succeed and where they can also fail.

If we always allow ourselves to be the position where we’re COMFORTABLE, then we will never have RISK and without risk we will remain stagnant. Stagnation is not bad but just know that if we can NEVER FAIL, we can also NEVER SUCCEED.

Blahblah blah, blah blay godoastartup.

Stereotypes of a Seattleite from a Seattleite

  • If you’re a software engineer in your 40s+, you’re going to be wearing khakis in the summer, sandals with socks and a safari hat.
  • You can tell how long someone has been in Seattle by their unwillingness to use an umbrella. “Nah man, it’s just sprinkling.”
  • You can also tell a true Seattleite by the level of disgust in their face when they have to put up with another damn, unoriginal rain joke.
  • We can drive in the rain, but give us 2 inches of snow and the entire city shuts down
  • 90 degrees is too hot.
  • We always thank our bus drivers.
  • Most of us can passionately tell you their favorite place to get their Asian food fix (pho, sushi, thai food, etc.)
  • 50% of you reading this are either driving a Subaru or a Hybrid
  • We’re the most patient  and polite drivers in the world to the point of breaking laws. Even if you don’t have the right of way, some drivers will still block up traffic to let you turn out.
  • The only times a Seattleite experiences anger is when someone cuts down a tree or pollutes a stream. Oh, and against the San Francisco 49ers.
  • Some of our sports teams suck (I’m looking at you, Mariners) but we love them anyways.
  • We’re really proud of our Nirvana and Hendrix.
  • True Seattleites never go to Starbucks but that hipster coffee shop down the street. The barista there is probably tatted up with gauged ears.
  • If you’re between the ages 15-30, you own a plaid / flannel shirt.
  • We know that Seattle is the best city in the world. But we’re just too humble to brag.
  • We love our gays.
  • Recycling is our religion.
  • We love our trees and parks.

The $6,000,000,000,000 Price Tag of War

money falling

It’s estimated that the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars could total around $4 – $6 trillion dollars in a new study released by a Harvard Research.

$6 trillion dollars. When you read that number out loud the shear size of it completely skips over you. The number is so tremendous, that we have nothing to actually compare it to.

How much is $6,000,000,000,000 really?

education

Education

infrastructure

Infrastructure

  • The entirety of the US Interstate System is estimated to have costs $425 billion in 2006 dollars making it the “largest public works program since the Pyramids”. We could have rebuilt the highway system 14 times over. Think of all the new gas pipelines, internet infrastructure, electric cabling, clean energy plants we could have produced.

science

Science

  • It’s estimated that the first manned mission to the Moon, Apollo 11, costs about $2.2 billion in 2013 dollars. We could have gone to the moon and back 2700 times and still have money left over.
  • $6 trillion is 375 times the current NASA budget.

free money

Handouts

  • There are 243 million working aged adults in the United States. If we were to divide $6 trillion, each working aged adult would receive $25,000.
  • If the government were to provide you with $5,000 a day or close to $2 million a year for doing nothing for the rest of your life, they’d still be paying you after over a billion days.

Why does it cost so much?

I’ll just leave you with a single example: the $1 trillion plane that doesn’t fly quite right.

The US Government has been pursuing the now infamous joint US Stealth Fighter project for over a decade. At a 1 TRILLION DOLLAR price point, that alone is 1/6th the cost of the wars in the Middle East. $1,000,000,000,000 for just a single stealth fighter program? That’s enough to fund ANOTHER war or if we wanted to put it to actual good use, we’d be able to completely redo the USA’s road, internet, electrical, infrastructure over the next 5 years. It’s no wonder why war prices are so exuberant and is a slippery slope that has long spiraled out of control.

What a waste.

Shit Goggles and the Last 10%

Not to sound like an angsty teenager here but have you ever experienced a time where you’ve been so caught up in your own irritability that your perception of the world becomes entirely shit? It’s as if you’d just picked up a pair of glasses but rather than actual lenses, you realize that the lenses were actually made ofa thin film of shit.

Shit goggles. I have shit goggles.

I had plans for the 4th of July today and was supposed to be flying across the country right now. However this morning, I made the important realization that waking up 15 minutes after your flight was supposed to leave is not the best way to catch your flight. It was entirely my fault and I have no one to blame but myself but wow, short of inventing a time machine there was pretty much nothing I can do. Engage the shit goggles.

During this time, you’re hyper critical of everything and the smallest things can set you off. The smallest things that you didn’t realize before suddenly became so frustrating. It’s the little things like how you’re talking to a robot to route your call and it can’t quite understand what you’re saying so you have to repeat yourself several times with growing agitation in your voice.

“San Francisco. San.. Francisco. SAN FRANCISCO!”

At this point, you’re foaming at the mouth which coincidentally makes it even harder for the dumb robot to understand what you’re saying. Ugh, why can’t we have something better?

Or like how you’re trying to use the self-checkin system at the airport and the screen is slightly off calibrated and you have to press a little harder than you usually have to on your smartphone and it keeps on thinking you’re typing a ‘Y’ instead of a ‘T’.

Or how every 15 minutes someone comes on the PR system with a voice that’s too loud and catches you off guard while the microphone is poppy and clips:

“Your attention please… Due to a labor dispute between BART and its employees, service is not available for today. Please proceed to the nearest information booth for alternative transportation… Again, due to a labor dispute between BART and its employees, service is not available for today. Please proceed to the nearest information booth for alternative transportation..

The padding that is off on this onscreen layout. The sign that misled you because it was misplaced, the unfriendliness of a TSA officer, the towel dispenser that’s out of towels, etc, etc.

There were a bunch of small little things but on the flip side, all the while everything is sucking, it’s also amazing how much I grew to appreciate the little things so much more. Things such as:

  1. A genuine greeting.
  2. A power outlet next to my seat.
  3. A question on the FAQ section of my airline that tells me exactly what to do when I’ve missed my flight.
  4. Free airport Internet.

In my time of distress, those little extras really helped make my experience just a little bit more up-lifting.

Putting on your shit goggles

So I guess the point of this blog post is that being in a perpetual state of annoyance has really opened up my eyes on the value of the last 10%. Maybe your product is good, but is it great? Is it as perfect as it can be? If I were to use your product or service right now, do you think I’d find it easy to use or would I find myself annoyed with certain parts here and there?

I think that normally, 90% of the way is good enough for people of sound mind. But for the true believers of your product or the non-believers, that last 10% can make all the difference. Very quick and friendly customer support, a fast loading webpage, a very well designed page, extra little perks for valued customers, a little bit of personality sprinkled here and there, very easy to find documentation.

That 10% is what matters. It’s the difference between liking your product to LOVING your product and advocating for it. It’s the difference between being skeptical to being sold.

Anyways, that’s my 2-hours-of-sleep-speil for today. If you have some sort of product out there, ask yourself, if you tried to put on your shit goggles and just became the most bitchy, annoying customer in the history of the world, could you still say that your product is solid? I know for me at least, there are about a dozen things I need to improve right away.

The Best Programmers are the Quickest to Google

You know the famous quote:

Never commit to memory what can be easily looked up in books” - Albert Einstein.

So unless you’ve already memorized that sorting algorithm by heart, why in the world would you want to spend 2 hours trying to figure it out yourself? Worst, why would you want to re-implement something half-assed from scratch when you can just find someone who’s done it before?

Excluding for fun and educational purposes, I can understand some reasons wanting to build out something proprietary long term, but chances are, unless you’re an absolute genius, the collaborative efforts of an open source project will beat whatever you can do in 8 hrs.

If you need to implement something in code and it’s not cutting edge technology, Google it first. If someone else hasn’t already done it yet, you’re either Googling it wrong or way off in what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’ve given it your best effort, find someone to ask for help.

The best programmers I know understand how to architect and build large projects piece by piece. They can focus on the macro because don’t get hung up in the pieces. They know how to use Google to find solutions fast. DRY.

Never Let That Fire Go Out

There’s a feeling you get after you’ve graduated college, sat through a motivating commencement speech and started interviewing for your first job. It feels like the world’s your oyster and that you’re finally ready to set sail on your life’s journey. It feels like a burning flame, a passion, a motivator, a driver. You’re scared, but you have so many hopes and dreams for the future. You know that you can do anything you want as long as you set yourself to it and no one can stop you.

Never let that fire go out

I think many of us initially try to strive towards our high aspirations only to have those feelings squashed and squandered when first coming in green into the workplace. You start your job as employee #3895 at a large multinational corporation. It’s your first year and you’re still eager to make a good impression. You work hard, you come in early, you’re always quick to come up with creative suggestions or ideas, yet you might find that your hard work comes unrewarded, bureaucracy gets in your way and workers would rather adhere to the status quo.

Eventually, the fire you once felt starts to dimmer. Rather than pushing and pushing against the torrent you start to embrace the homogenous flow and eventually accept your fate as employee #3895 and accept that this is the way it was meant to be.

It doesn’t have to be that way

I recall when I was working my first real job. After almost a year, I opened up to a co-worker and explained to her that sometimes I felt frustrated that things couldn’t move faster. I told her how one day I wanted to start my own company which was why I was pushing myself so hard right now. She sort of chuckled and said in a condescending tone:

“Oh Vu. I know what you mean. I was like that once too — glossy eyed and naive. The feeling will eventually fade.”

I thought this through for a bit and the conclusion I eventually reached was “bullshit”. About several months later, I found a position at a different company and soon after that, did a startup.

Fight back

Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of people out there that will tell you, “No, you can’t do it”. Those people are the easy ones to ignore and brush away. What you really have to be cautious of are the doppelgängers that try to pretend that they know you and have some sort of wisdom over you.

Such as the guy that claims how he once too was as passionate as you and how you remind him of himself. He’ll tell you about how he tried and tried but eventually failed and settled for less. Those people can really deflate your tires.

Also be cautious of the people that seem to think that having a higher amount of experience allows them to preach ultimatums rather than give suggestions (feel free to call bullshit on me). Try to be open to suggestions and advice, but call bullshit on the whole “you’ll know when you’re older” spiel.

The winners are the ones that keep the fire going the longest

The fire is the engine that propagates change and movement. As long as you’re moving in a direction, you’ll eventually get somewhere. Sometimes movement is bad and sometimes you want to settle down. That’s totally cool.

But douse that flame for important matters like family, friends, personal happiness. Don’t let anyone else take it away from you and call bullshit on those that try to tell you otherwise.