transparency to life

The Fountain of Youth

on Apr 14, 2011

Are you looking for the fountain of youth? Do you wish to remain young through the years or perhaps turn back the clock on your body? The fountain of youth does indeed exist and I’ve met quite a few folks that have found it. Their secret is in fact not a secret at all. It’s the same advice that’s been around for ages – be very physically active, enjoy every part of life while having the spirit of a child, and have an open mind along with a sense of curiosity.

Consider a couple of the masters from my karate school, both around age 60. One of them enjoys sparring. But he’ll only have it one way – traditional full-contact stand-up. He’s started up a weekly fighting class recently. It’s outrageous that he’s always on the giving end, nearly knocking out advanced students two decades younger than him. The other master is the head of the school. It’s incredible to watch him demonstrate technique – the speed is boggling. Once, the parent of one of my karate students said “he looks pretty good. How old is he now, 40?” Needless to say, this parent was floored when I revealed a more accurate number. While these examples are of individuals practicing for decades, I once came across a 70 year old karate student in training. He had a very youthful nature about him as he enjoys riding his bike and push scooter around the city. More striking was what he told me: that though he seemed closer to his age during the day, he felt like a 20 year old at night when doing his physical activities.

It’s an interesting phenomenon – one I call the “Yoda effect,” named after Yoda’s fight sequence in Star Wars Ep. II (he walked in slowly with a cane, then in the battle he flipped and flew all over the place with grace and agility, only to walk slowly with the cane afterwards). And it’s one I’ve experienced myself – sometimes my entire body will be sore from some crazy training, and yet I can get it un-sore temporarily – by doing more physical activity. Still, the effect is starting to see in others because it seems to visibly remove years off their lives. I often cannot guess the age, even to the nearest decade, of many folks I meet in capoeira (a Brazilian martial art with much playfulness to it), especially female practitioners. They all seem so much younger than their chronological age. The disparity becomes obvious when I see these friends in another context, like when out socializing, where the additional years are no longer masked.

Just as we’re blessed with this fountain of youth, we’re cursed when we ignore its rules. Many people shun their innate child-like nature, thinking that this will make them more mature or responsible (oh how wrong they are). Likewise, these “adults” are too busy to engage in hours of physical activity. The consequence is scary – I know many people close to my age that seem so much older. They complain about their jobs and how tired they always are, and how they’re getting old. The body follows the mind in either case, and in this case, they’re putting their bodies on fast-forward. It’s a situation that deeply upsets me – young people who seem to have their spirits broken.

Still, I keep finding individuals, typically older than me (sometimes by a lot) that are full of life and energy. One good friend joined me and my superhuman friend, Ryan, on a dream week – hiking 50 miles of the major trails in Yosemite, followed by 100 miles of street skating in NYC. To put some perspective, this friend decided to go to law school in his 50s, and is already certified in two states. For the most part, he enjoys spending time with us young-ins, as he finds more common ground with us than with people closer to his age.

The list goes on: one friend, always with a smile on her face, that was doing an extended post-doc in biology after completing a PhD – she’s rock climbing in Spain. Another friend, hiked up Mount Whitney (tallest peak in the continental US) last year. She exhumes the personality and energy of a 4-year old as she yells “WOO HOO” before dropping into a double black-diamond ski trail. Yet she listens intently when others share their pearls of wisdom from life. And then there’s a regular on the weekly 20 mile skating event that started canoeing in the Hudson River last year. Note that she’s married and has kids that are close to my age. But she’s also full of childlike wonder and joy. And how about another skater friend that’s taking trapeze lessons despite a fear of heights…

Some takeaways to live young throughout life: Enjoy every part of life. Always smile at what you’re doing. Do physical activities – lots of different ones. Be open to trying and learning new things. Live as if you’re young – like a child. Your body will believe it. As for your aging friends, they’ll be the ones in disbelief.

What’s Your Specialist Mind?

on Mar 27, 2011

People’s brains are wired up in different ways. And while we like to think that we’re each unique in our own ways, there are actual patterns to the manners by which our minds are wired up and we see specific talents arise in individuals. A few examples include folks that can:

  • take apart and put together anything
  • play back music by ear
  • draw incredibly well
  • handle complex numbers in their heads
  • craft together anything
  • pick up languages with ease
  • be super coordinated in athletic activities
  • talk to anyone and pretty much get along with everybody

It seems that we’re genetically programmed to have a mind specialized in something or another and that this specialization is a more innate and natural ability. However, no mind can have it all – there’s always a tradeoff in ability. This should sound familiar – in a couple of  posts inspired by Temple Grandin’s TED Talk, I discussed how many specialist abilities, which I deemed technical abilities, come at the expense of natural social ability (this may very well relate to the autistic/asperger’s spectrum) and the technical talents can prove rather advantageous under certain situations. In the many months since reading Grandin’s book, Thinking in Pictures, I’ve noticed how her insights appear in scores of people. Particularly interesting are her classifications of specialist minds: the visual mind, the math/music (pattern) mind, and the verbal logic (language) mind (p. 28). These classifications are good but they are meant to describe autistic specialists rather than more normal people. Below are her classifications with my modified definitions*, based on what I’ve noticed of people of these minds.

Visual Mind

People with this type of mind think in pictures, like Temple Grandin, and are just very visual in general. They’re likely doodlers and tend to be artsy. Some can only visualize still images, though in great detail while others can effortlessly run full 3D virtual simulations in their heads. I’m confident that, at least in the case of the latter, they also have a strong spatial sense and are well coordinated in that regard.

Pattern Mind

Individuals with this mind find correlations between things and are very good at math. Much of what they see in the world is based on patterns and I would go as far to say that some may even think in mathematical terms. These folks are very good at putting together ideas and running logistical matters. Some of these individuals may also be very musically talented, or at least interested.

Language Mind

These are people of the word. They can easily pick up new languages and writing comes naturally to them. Unsurprisingly, they’re avid readers and seem very broadly interested in things like history and world matters.

Economic Mind

(This one isn’t part of Grandin’s original classifications so I’m not sure if it deserves its own category as it might fold into the pattern mind)

These individuals are hyper-rational and extremely good at evaluating cost-benefit scenarios with no involvement of emotions. They read and understand the fine print and are extremely difficult to dupe. Instead, they’re very good at taking advantage of any system to their benefit. Accountant-type folks fall into this category. Maybe lawyers too.

Mixed Specialties

While I described these minds as separate entities, it doesn’t have to be the case. There are people that have combinations of these types of minds and it may be the more prevalent case among specialist minds. For example, it appears that a combination of the visual and pattern minds make for some incredible engineering skills. The pattern mind allows one to put different things together while the visual mind allows one to see this in his head. This works well since much engineering requires one to build something virtually before doing so physically.

Social Mind

(not “specialist” but still special)

Grandin describes the other types of minds as specialist minds because they represent a more technical sophistication and because they seem less prevalent in the population. Still, I believe there’s much to like in having the social mind – and it’s likely a reason why it has evolved to become so prevalent. Individuals with this type of mind can naturally get along with others and are social butterflies. They thrive on interaction with others and are always up to head to the parties and clubs. They naturally understand social etiquette and are the ones that can help maintain social order with that human touch.

So yes, we are unique, but unique in particular ways that predict a medley of traits and abilities. Our minds are incredible technologies and it’s essential to understand the special power contained in each of our minds. With that, we can not only grow to embrace our talents and minimize the tradeoffs, but also understand the abilities in those all around us. More on that soon.

* In some ways, these mind classifications are somewhat arbitrary. The components of these specialist minds can be broken up and folded together in different ways. In fact, such classifications, such as the theory of multiple intelligences, have been discussed for decades. Still, I feel the organization provided by Grandin does a very good job of handling the correlations between different subspecialties.

Slaves to Our Genes

on Mar 7, 2011

In biology class, I learned about genes – that they serve as tools to help us reproduce. This idea seems simple enough, except that it’s backwards. It turns out that we’re the tools that our genes use to help themselves reproduce. Let this sink in for a moment. We are programmed by our genetic information, very much like the software of our computers, to have complex behavior that ultimately helps these genes reproduce. For one thing, this means we are much less in control of our actions than we’d like to think. This also means that we often exhibit quirky behavior that only makes sense in light of the evolutionary context that the behavior developed in.

While we are conscious creatures, there’s an arsenal of unconscious mechanisms at work, and they color our behavior in profound ways. I have a few posts forthcoming that explore this topic in detail. Each will cover an aspect of our behavior. Although the discussion will generalize explanations of behavior to everyone, please note that I refer to the evolved mechanisms contained in all of our genetic information and potentially exhibited in our behavior. Some of what I’ll discuss will offend our ethical sense (which in itself is one of the topics) so please bear in mind that the discussion is about the the programming from our selfish genes and not a reflection of any individual’s conscious sense.

Being aware of our programming allows us to do something about it. We don’t have to be slaves to our genes.

How to be Superhuman

on Feb 20, 2011

I’d like to tell you about my friend and skating brother, Ryan, an individual with seemingly superhuman powers. I first met Ryan in summer 2007 on Tuesday Night Skate, a group inline skating event where we fly through 20 miles of city streets each week. Needless to say, I was in the back of the pack that night, due to my limited experience with such distances and my low performance skates. But Ryan held the front with ease, despite wearing hockey skates with tiny wheels (these offer great maneuverability at the cost of top speed and momentum). He clearly had an incredible athletic ability; the extent of it is simply unreal.

For example, a few years ago, Ryan spontaneously entered a skating race. He wore his hockey skates as always and his attire consisted of a t-shirt of board shorts. Most everyone around him, speed skaters with racing level skates, was wearing spandex. Come the end of the race, Ryan placed fourth, beating out many folks that spend countless hours to be in tip-top racing form. This goes beyond skating. In the past year or two, Ryan participated in a bunch of running marathons and triathlons, seemingly just for kicks and to stay in better shape. He doesn’t train for these things. Despite this, he regularly beats out most of the competition, and sometimes wins outright.

How is it possible that he’s able to do this? Perhaps cause he’s young (a couple of years younger than I am), but even then, he’s quite unique among his peers. I’ve met many incredible individuals of all ages and while some have truly amazing athletic ability, none seem to be in the class Ryan sits in. Many folks claim that Ryan is simply innately talented – that he was born with superhuman abilities. I find this answer demeaning, to both Ryan and the claimer, and I’ll explain why below. If we step back and look at the big picture of Ryan’s life, we see the source of his talents.

Attitude

Ryan is driven for self-improvement and to better the world, learning at every opportunity. He sits front row center in his college classes, showing great interest in what his professors have to say (likewise, he connects with his professors to learn beyond the course material). His skating technique has changed over the years – it’s clear he always works to improve that. By the same token, Ryan shows great consideration outside of himself. One, he’s very friendly – it’s difficult for me to imagine a [sane] person that wouldn’t like this guy. There’s a strong aura about him. Two, he truly wants to better our world and does every bit to push for this, no matter how small. For example, he doesn’t waste a morsel of food and picks up litter in state parks. Three, he’s idealistic yet also down to earth. Like when he discusses ways to improve the grim condition of our planet, something he’s very passionate about, he speaks with such positivity while being completely aware of the true picture.

All or Nothing

Ryan is often pretty relaxed and easygoing – except when he’s not. When he does any physical activity, it’s full blast. When riding around campus, whether on skates or a bike, he always goes top speed. Although these trips are short, it does mean that Ryan’s muscles only understand one way react – 100%. Likewise, Ryan cranks it beyond our skating trips – he insists on doing a thorough job on any assignment whether for school or for work.

Connected to Nature

Ryan is quite in tune with nature. He has spent time in the Amazon, the villages of Peru, and the Andes. Likewise he’s worked summers in the Everglades and in Yosemite. He presently manages a nature preserve. Perhaps you’d think that Ryan is just a Tarzan type figure, but then there’s the fact that Ryan grew up in New York City and that this life surrounded by nature has been the case for only the past five years.

Disconnected from Distraction

Ryan stays away from many things that inject into our modern lives, particularly certain technologies. He spends little time using electronics (though does show curiosity in my gadgets, probably for the sake of learning). He does use email, but only as he needs it. He doesn’t use Facebook. And while Ryan does have a cell phone, you’d be lucky to get a hold of him on it. Likewise, Ryan doesn’t fixate on possessions or our modern standard of comfort. It is all about the experience for him – which means he doesn’t mind beat up gear. He makes it work, and it’s clear that he’s mindful about using technology.

Living Vitally

I consider this the most important factor. If there was someone that perfectly fit the ideals I put forth to live well, it’s Ryan. His eating habits are fantastic. His diet is mostly vegetarian, but by no means strict. It’s just that he loves fruits and vegetables, and often consumes them in a raw state. He’ll eat an apple, core and all, leaving just the stem. On his way to class, he’ll grab a zucchini or chunk of bread (whole grain, of course) and that’ll be his meal. Ryan doesn’t “exercise” but he’s more physically active than pretty much anyone you’d meet. Moving around is a core part of his life and not merely addendum to it. It helps immensely that he arranges his life around this: from biking around everywhere to digging up holes and such when at work at the nature preserve. Contrast this to most other folks, using cars or public transportation and sitting in offices all day (stuck inside and away from sunlight and fresh air). Moreover, Ryan has little unnecessary stress in his life. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t experience great stress, especially given his driven lifestyle. Still, this stress is self imposed and on his terms, so it likely bears few negative effects.

Really Superhuman?

Perhaps the perspective is relative, but I don’t think Ryan is really superhuman. More precisely, I feel the rest of us are just subhuman. Put simply – Ryan is maxing out human potential in its most natural and evolved way. In light of everything I discussed, there’s no surprise that Ryan is such an incredible human with seemingly unreal athletic ability. Ryan’s entire life is arranged to make this so and it’s not unintentional. I give him much credit for living in this manner – it’s a very difficult thing to do in our modern society. But knowing what makes for a person like Ryan is inspiring, because it means we have a realistic opportunity to be so much more than we are right now. We can use his methods, many the same as those I discuss on this blog, to live up to the human potential. Until then, no matter how hard we train for those athletic events, be ready to be outclassed by Ryan. We don’t stand a chance.

How Do YOU Use Your Free Time?

on Feb 13, 2011

I keep involved in many things. I train in and teach karate. I train in capoeira. I read many, many books (most of which are non-fiction). I go to weekly inline skating events where I skate NYC streets alongside dozens of other skaters. I work with research professors. And of course I write these blog posts. Many of these activities have been mainstays for years. People ask where I get the time to do these things. I don’t get the time from anywhere. I make time by cutting out other things, like TV and video games. The fact is, in our modern society, with little exception, everyone has free time. It’s all about what you choose to do with it.

Consider this example: oftentimes, I’ll see an interesting and perhaps silly project on the internet, like someone making a sniper rifle out of Lego. What kills me is when others see this and immediately claim: oh, someone has too much time on their hands. They’re missing the point. Everyone has free time – the difference with the person that made the Lego sniper rifle is that he knows how to make interesting use of his free time.

By far, the biggest time killer (and an uninteresting one at that) for past generations, including my own, has been TV. It bothers me that the television is at the center of our modern life. Walk into most homes and you’ll find the TV in the living room with all the furniture arranged around it. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, because for decades watching TV was more or less the only feasible way to spend free time. This bleak, but appropriate, claim is one made by Clay Shirky in his stellar book, Cognitive Surplus.

This point sets a stark contrast to a world that’s deeply changed over the last decade. Shirky discusses how the emergence of the internet is fast destroying the one way media model established by the TV. As I mentioned in my previous post on The Beauty of ‘The Cloud’, it costs nothing more than time and effort for anyone with an internet connection to share her thoughts with the world (just as I do so with this blog). Also, the internet allows people of specific interests to find and engage each other. Meetup.com is a fantastic service the makes this super easy.

Aren’t we fortunate to live in such a world? There’s more opportunity than ever before to do interesting things. But each requires our time. So we must make our choices on what to make of our free time, a precious resource. It should be obvious that my suggestion is to cut out TV. Just get rid of it. Or hide it. It’s a magnet that keeps us in its trance and squanders away our greatest asset.

Another medium to consider dropping, which especially applies to my own generation, is video games. It’s something that I’ve cut out nearly completely. Those that have known me for at least a few years are probably shocked to hear this. I used to be so deeply obsessed with video games. It was all I talked about. It pains me a bit when I see other folks that do this. One, cause I used to be like this and two, because there’s so much more to life. I’m not saying video games are all bad or even mostly bad. They’re incredibly interesting and imaginative and throw us into creative worlds. They help with coordination and can even be a great social experience when friends are also involved. Still, it’s just one of many interesting things in life. And some of those other things are so much more enriching – mentally, socially, and professionally – than video games.

So go do something that sparks your mind and gets it to churn in different ways. Read a book on your commute. Do something engaging when hanging out with friends (don’t just watch a movie). Partake in a social physical activity. Build something cool. If you insist on remaining in front of a screen, then read some well written blogs. Watch a TED Talk. Write about what’s on your mind and share it. Enrich your life!

The Beauty of ‘The Cloud’

on Jan 30, 2011

Imagine having a second brain – one that’s not just limited to the knowledge and information from your own self, but also has the collective knowledge of the world. This is no dream – it is real, here, and now – thanks to the emergence of cloud computing.

I’ve been speaking obsessively about the cloud for well over two years now. Yet it seems that not everyone understands what this means (someone may not be so technologically adept or they may be mixed up with the broad and different usages of the term cloud). This became apparent a month ago when I stopped using AOL Instant Messenger, citing incompatibility with the cloud as my reason – which resulted in a lot of questions from friends. So let me provide a clear definition of what I see as the cloud.

In a nutshell, the cloud is about having information (in its many manifestations as discussed below) universally accessible. The internet and all our various computers (with net access) are the tools that make this possible.

Access to the Cloud

In developed parts of the world and especially in urban areas, the internet is ubiquitous. Most people of at least moderate wealth can afford to own an internet capable device that fits inside their pockets (and can carry it with them at all times). I’m talking about app phones like the iPhone and Android devices as well as the iPod Touch and the plethora of tablet computers coming this year. This is the future – try and find a teenager that isn’t carrying one of these things. From the dedicated data lines available on these devices to the WiFi hotspots all over the place, all these devices are connected to the internet and its arsenal of information.

Types of Information

First, we have the world’s collective knowledge. Something like Wikipedia is astonishing in its own right. When I was a kid, I was among the few of my peers to have a computer at home and be able load up an encyclopedia on CD. So I had instant access to mostly up-to-date information while in my household. For anyone that was older than I was, the hunt for such knowledge as a child involved a trip to the library or bookstore (excluding the minority of folks that had expensive dead-tree encyclopedias in their homes). Jump to today – you can look up something on Wikipedia in an instant with your app phone and from any urban area. What I find more exciting is that we’re way beyond just encyclopedias of knowledge. You can see incredible people discuss world-stirring ideas on TED or learn an academic subject for free through the Kahn Academy. The collective knowledge of the world spreads further since any individual can share his or her insights through blog posts (such as this one you’re reading right now).

Another form of information harnessed into the cloud is media. TV shows and movies are available via Hulu and Netflix streaming, while more personal videos are seen on YouTube. Online news, from large news presses to bloggers, is instant – in accessibility and coverage. Print news is old news. Cloud music has made strides over the years, from online “stations” like Shoutcast, Pandora, and Slacker Radio to more collection style like mSpot (lets you upload your music online and access it from an internet connected device) to Spotify (pay a monthly fee access the world’s music library on any internet capable device [not yet available in the US]). I’m most excited for the recent rise of ebooks, which will overtake purchases of all dead-tree books in just a couple of years, if not sooner. I’ve waited my whole life to carry a library in my pocket; an added bonus is that with certain ebook platforms (like Kindle), even my highlighting and notes are stored in the cloud and accessible on all my devices. Even video gaming has moved on to the cloud. Steam is pretty popular among PC gamers since one can simply purchase and install games without leaving their chair (similar to how most other software is now acquired). Even more intriguing is the service OnLive, which doesn’t require any installation as the game lives and runs on their servers (in the cloud). Their box serves simply to bridge their servers to your TV and controllers.

The last major form of information is the kind we use personally. Communications are one part of this. Web based email (do people outside of corporations use anything else?) is ubiquitous and has served as a cloud based dumping ground for thoughts and files for years. Instant messaging, besides being always accessible, like via app phones, also allows us to store our chat logs online (AIM wasn’t good about this so I stopped using it). It’s incredibly handy to be able to reference a digital conversation from earlier when out and about. The same applies for other personal records like contacts, voicemails, and bank records. Even our productivity has moved to the cloud. Services like Google Docs put an end to losing your work if your computer crashes and the hassle of carrying work around on flash drives. A real interesting item in the cloud is our location. My app phone transmits my location online where certain trustworthy individuals can find out where I am at any given time (this has proved helpful in streamlining my communications). Likewise, this bit of information is very useful when combined with other tools, like to find nearby restaurants.

Where the Beauty Lies

The amount of information available today is tremendous and it’s only growing. Likewise, every single one of these forms of information is instantly accessible. Knowledge, TV shows, reading material, emails, documents – it takes mere seconds to get to this stuff and from anywhere there’s internet. There’s no need to print out stuff. There’s no need to spend unnecessary effort remembering every little thing. I’ve offloaded quite a lot to the cloud – which allows my brain space to do more advanced things.

Some Potential for Disaster

Now of course there are risks inherent in all this. Ease of access for us also means others can potentially have that same ease of access to our information. It’s a tradeoff but there are plenty of safeguards in place, should we use them wisely. Likewise, we do have to trust all these cloud services to respect our information. Transparency in these policies is important and we should insist on it. Also, by using the cloud heavily as I do, one does become dependent on it. Losing access to it can spell trouble or at the very least might be unnerving (I admit that I feel strangely uncomfortable when riding on the subway, where the lack of internet cuts me off from my article feeds, streaming music, and chats). Still, most systems are pretty reliable and we should still be smart about things. For example, I often memorize driving directions and use my navigation unit more for backup guidance. Again, it’s all a tradeoff and I feel I’m gaining significantly more in taking what the cloud has to offer.

The Future is in The Cloud

The handiness of the cloud is expanding in so many ways. Information is but one tool we find essential in our daily lives; there are other tools that the cloud has reached out to. Web applications are among the most interesting of these. Programs live in the cloud and sometimes offer usefulness beyond their desktop counterparts. For example, the aforementioned service, Google Docs, brings the ability for multiple individuals to collaborate on a document in real time. More of what we use on the desktop will move to the cloud. Other paradigms will shift for the better. Installing and maintaining software will no longer be a burden of the user. Printing out stuff will become passé (if it isn’t already). Powerful computers for personal use will be a thing of the past (except for specialists that really need it). It’s no surprise that anemic devices such as app phones, iPads, and netbooks are wildly popular – they offload their need for power to the cloud, where there is neither idleness nor wasted CPU cycles. Isn’t that just beautiful?

How I Landed the Dream Job

on Jan 17, 2011

As you may know, I’d been looking for work for a while and recently started at Google. Many friends are astounded by this news and are so happy that I landed the dream job. Likewise, I know many folks that are looking for work so I’d like to share the things that helped me get to where I am now.

Unconventional {Methods, Companies, People}

Much of what I discuss here is unconventional and even backwards seeming. Bear in mind that consistency is important: while the process below is unconventional, so too are the companies I targeted and the kind of person I am. What I did would not work for most potential jobs. Likewise, these methods may not work for many people. Let’s get a few definitions straight for the purposes of this article: the dream job resides at an unconventional company (and the world would be better off if we had more of these). This is the sort of company that offers much freedom (like work hours, working conditions, and projects), a nurturing environment (one that promotes learning, growth, and little bureaucracy), and solid compensation (salary, benefits, perks). By the same token, this job expects incredible work out of their employees: solving hairy (but interesting) problems, using creativity and thought to make significant decisions, and taking responsibility for getting stuff done and done well. I consider it more than a fair tradeoff. (Note: the dream job is not something that is easy where you can just cruise around on your managerial chair, raking in the dough.)  I feel it takes an unconventional person to take on this role (I could be wrong, but the description that follows won’t suit everyone). These are the sort of people that are go-getters. They’re the ones that like challenges and may take on difficult work (like in school) for fun. They don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. They’re troublemakers for sure, but they also make the impossible a reality. They’re the ones that want to do work that matters. If this applies to you, then read on.

Think Long Term

Pretty much everything I cover here involves a long term approach. I can almost guarantee that you won’t find any instant results. This entire process took about one year for me – but it was well worth it and my success would have been impossible if I didn’t invest in building for the future at the cost of the present. Don’t be discouraged if things don’t work out. Keep pressing on – your efforts will compound and at some point you’ll pass the tipping point.

Some Good Reading and Great Ideas

It seems I’m not alone in these unconventional thoughts. Desire for meaningful work has grown in the past few years. Seth Godin, marketing genius and someone who has his head on straight regarding good work, has discussed this for at least a year. His book, Linchpin, chronicles his thoughts and offers unconventional advice to practically do work that matters. Many of the strategies below were inspired or solidified by what he says. I highly advise checking it out, along with his blog, which is filled with succinct yet insightful posts.

Know Yourself

What is it that moves you? What is it that drives you to get up every morning? Knowing what you care for gives you a strong foundation for every part of your work and approach to finding work. It’s surprising how elusive it can be to determine what exactly this is. Having been involved in so many disciplines myself, I was especially unclear on this. I had so much in my head, but it was a jumbled mess. So I began organizing it, in the form of a blog. As I discussed in detail in my previous post, this helped immensely. The blog also helped to establish other attractive traits: from exhibiting my unique thoughts and insights to showing communication skills. A blog presents a great opportunity to show what you can do as I discuss below.

Show What You Can Do

A common error is to spend a lot of time polishing a resumé and not on much else. While having an acceptable resumé is important, it rarely makes someone stand out (resumés actually serve to weed out applicants more than anything else). Instead, focus on showing off your work and abilities in a tangible, visible, and lively way: through a portfolio. Unconventional people, without a doubt, have an arsenal of work, past and present, that they can show off. These don’t have to be anything outrageous or complicated – most of the larger projects on my own portfolio are from my university courses. Conversely, a portfolio is an opportunity to show off your original style and personality.

Learn at Every Moment

We’re surrounded by information – way more than we ever possibly consume. The upshot is that there’s more opportunity to learn than ever before. Will you take advantage? Or will you spend your time watching tv and playing video games? In 2010, I read more than 30 books, most of which were non-fiction. I watched many TED Talks. There’s no doubt that these things drastically improved my understanding of the world. Likewise, I invested much time in broadening my technical knowledge, whether it was learning the tried and true (through computer science algorithms video lectures) or the new hotness (iPhone development and jQuery). These were things I started doing long before I seriously considered delving into the tech world – I understood that the knowledge would prove useful in some regard.

Do Interesting Things

Perhaps you find a lot of what I mentioned above less than exciting. That’s fine; there should be space for fun – there’s plenty that’s also “productive”. Over the past five years, I took up two forms of martial arts (Kyokushin karate and capoeira) and joined the NYC inline skating community. What did it cost me? A great deal of time and effort, along with some money. What did I gain? Enjoyment, discipline, good friends, good health, and character. People like to be around (and work with) interesting people. You have nothing to lose by taking on some interesting hobbies and it’s another thing to make you stand out.

Try Different Things (and accept that some things won’t work out)

In one of my earliest blog posts, I discussed how it takes many bad ideas to come up with good ideas. This process applies well to finding the right calling and job. Don’t be afraid to try different and interesting things. There’s a good chance that some things won’t come to fruition. Don’t let that discourage you. One – you never know what might work out to an incredible project or experience. And two – just about anything can be a learning experience. Over the course of last year, I had several projects that didn’t pan out. It seemed that I’d wasted time and energy. But I can’t say that I didn’t learn anything. Likewise, I did manage to add a few pieces to my portfolio and also had solid things to discuss at job interviews.

Tell a Story

Another critical error is to skimp on the cover letter (or not have one at all). I followed the generic advice on cover letters and found that this pretty much didn’t work. So I tried something unconventional (naturally). I told my story. I was honest and real and personal. Go ahead and read the one I sent to Google. It teems with something that can’t be quantified. The meat of it (the second and third paragraphs) don’t even pertain to the position! And I actually copied this section nearly word for word in cover letters for other places I applied to. Note that these words couldn’t be “copied” by anyone else. It stood out as unique to me – no one else shares my story. I conveyed competence, curiosity, and leadership skills in a subtle way (which is often more convincing than a direct approach). This cover letter was the tipping point for me. This is when I started getting callbacks and interviews. The cover letter is a legitimate chance to wow someone; don’t throw it away.

Go Above and Beyond

Going the extra mile is effort; most people don’t bother doing more than the requirement when it comes to applying for work. Hence, there’s a big opportunity for those willing to put in a little more (also an easy way to stand out). What I covered so far (like the portfolio, blog, and cover letter) are a part of this. Is there room for more? I think so. I snuck in some unconventional material (see above) in my LinkedIn profile. I’m sure that this is a turn-off for many hiring organizations – probably the very type of companies I wouldn’t want to be a part of anyway. Conversely, this can grab the attention of organizations in which you’d have a good cultural fit with. Strikingly enough, a recruiter from Google reached out to me after seeing my LinkedIn profile. The potential cultural fit “visible” in my profile did play a role in this. There’s a thousand other ways to go. At a job fair, I snuck in a general version of my cover letter with my resumé. One company I interviewed at told me that this made a profound impact.
With Google, I pressed harder. I knew they wanted references at some point, so I included them with my resumé and cover letter. Not just names and phone numbers, but also a photo of each of my references, a short description of their incredible work, and a description of my work with each of them. Even more: I included a picture of myself in my home workspace (which I felt matched their culture very well). I have no idea if this helped, but considering that I got the job, I’m sure it didn’t hurt.

Prep, Practice, and Be Real

Know the companies you’re applying to inside and out. For technical positions, know your stuff and be ready. I spent a few solid weeks going over computer science stuff after receiving contact from a Google recruiter. I was sure to practice writing code by hand. Let your potential future employer know how important this is for you and how deeply you’ve prepared. I asked my Google recruiters on what to expect so that I could prep. On the interview day, I brought my own whiteboard markers (it helped immensely to have thin, functioning markers considering the amount of code I wrote that day) and was unashamed in telling my interviewers of this (at least one of them seemed impressed at my “unusual level of preparedness”). I learned from my progress – every interview with a company inadvertently served as practice for following interviews (the Google one was the last one I had so at that point I was pretty comfortable). Lastly, it helps to get along with those you meet. If you’re the interesting, knowledgeable, and capable person you claim to be (according to the unconventional advice above), then you should have little trouble connecting on interview days.

Don’t Be Shy to Ask for Help

Too many of us have this idea in our heads that we have to make it on our own – that we must prove ourselves this way. Not only is this a terrible way to approach things, it’s also potentially damaging. I’ve had support from so many people in the years it took me to figure out direction in life. My parents unconditionally gave me a home, meals, gas money, and trusted my judgement. Two professors I worked with fought bureaucracy to help me get some pocket money in exchange for helping them on their university course. They also allowed me to be a part of their own organization. Another two professors, in technical disciplines, offered their advice in career matters (one of which truly understood my creative nature and helped to shape my portfolio). All of them offered fruitful discussion without imposing judgement. Friends provided great emotional support (and sometimes covered my tab so I could come hang out with them). A mentor like friend helped me meet more folks in the tech world and offered his wisdom in looking for work. There’s no question that all this support went a long way. I was sure to take whatever help I could get, while giving back as much as I could – I still have unpaid debts to many of them; I’ll be sure to reconcile these in time.

Odds, Ends, and Some Final Thoughts

I haven’t really mentioned resumés. I don’t consider them as important as the other factors I discussed. Likewise, there’s plenty of good advice around for resumés. I’ll mention a couple of things: Avoid buzzwords and don’t blast your resumé. If you’re gonna go for real, meaningful work, then go all out. You won’t be able to apply to as many places, but your success rate will be higher, and it’ll be with interesting organizations. Quality over quantity.

Another thing to mention is that having a good academic record helps, especially if you don’t have much experience. I’ve had many classmates consider me silly for really pushing for solid work in every one of my courses. This is a testament to show that it did make a difference: my GPA and transcript was looked over during my job application process.

A little bit of luck always helps out. I was fortunate that interesting companies were hiring and that I wasn’t blown away in some important interviews. Still. you can make your own luck by being prepared – tip the scales in your favor.

Overall, I was determined to not compromise and not sell out. I was fortunate enough to have support so that I could stand by these principles. Not everyone has this option and I don’t hold it against anyone that’s trapped in this position.

I hope you enjoyed the story I shared above. Likewise, I hope you find some of the ideas helpful. There’s no right way to go about landing the dream job, but I’m sure there are plenty of wrong ways. There are other great ideas to consider still. I didn’t follow every one of them but I did find a path that worked for me. No matter what the process, expect it to take great effort and time – it’ll be worth it.

What It’s All About (One Year Later)

on Jan 3, 2011

It was about one year ago that I decided to start this blog. It was an interesting and difficult time for me – I was at the crossroads of life. I understood that I had something special – between my abilities, knowledge, and desires to better the world – but no clear direction. This blog’s purpose was to help rectify this with two specific goals from the beginning:

One – to figure out who I am and what I care for. To me, everything in the world is interconnected. My formal and informal education provided me with knowledge the spans the natural sciences, the social sciences, and engineering; from life to people to technology. One goal in this blog was to take all these interconnected thoughts – a huge and jumbled mess of ideas and insights in my head – and organize them in tangible ways.

Two – to build a repository of my thoughts, opinions, and insights that can be shared with others. Every single article I posted here was a conversation. As someone who spends many hours absorbing the world’s knowledge and even more time thinking over all I come to learn, these posts represent a window to my mind. But even beyond that, nearly all the posts are conversations I’ve had with other folks. I’ve found myself sharing the same insights with many people, retelling what’s on my mind. They connect me to others in deep ways and I understood that exposing my thoughts would help to forge connections with others that may help me find direction in life.

So what does this all mean a year later? Quantitatively, I made 75 posts in 2010 – most of them in the first half of the year, but the latter posts being significantly deeper (and longer). My writing and communication abilities improved manyfold – it was not easy to transform my unorganized thoughts into readable words but the practice has helped immensely. Most importantly (and qualitatively), I accomplished my goals – of both the blog and of finding direction in life. Many of my posts seemed of disparate topics. But as time went on and the number of posts grew, a pattern emerged. Seemingly unrelated discussions such as those involving antilock brakes and eating better actually have something in common – along with every other post I wrote: it is the mindful application of technology (in a broad sense) to better people’s lives. This is what the blog is about. This is what I am about. It’s about the intersection of humanism and technology. Perhaps the greatest insight regarding myself is that I am every bit an engineer as I am a scientist.

Having direction in life is not only comforting, but also deeply empowering. It allows one to apply his or her abilities in a precise manner – one that bears fruit. I am no longer at the crossroads of life; rather, I’m about to embark on an incredible journey. I will be surrounded by other incredible minds. I will work on interesting projects. I will be offered financial security. Most importantly, I will be in a nurturing environment that will help me to develop myself while simultaneously allow me to contribute to something that makes the world a better place. (To be specific about all this, I’ll be working as a Front-End Software Engineer at Google in NYC.) I’m excited.

Life has always been meaningful to me, but it’s enthralling to see meaning in a concentrated form. Much sweat, support, and luck has helped me reach to this successful place in life. Finding myself. Sharing my mind with others. Staying positive and proactive about the journey of life. Getting that encouragement and wisdom from friends, family, teachers, and colleagues when I was down and confused (I’m so thankful to have these people in my life). Having the stars align. Perhaps the unexpected shouldn’t be so surprising.

It’s now time to set some new goals, in life and on this blog. With life, it means forging along this direction, scaling up, and doing some incredible things. As for the blog, the first goal is officially complete. The second goal – while it’s done its job of getting me noticed for meaningful work – is also one of greater aspirations. It’s been a long term goal of mine to share and record my unconventional approach and insights (and this blog is certainly not my first attempt to do so). There are many things I wished to discuss but was [mentally] preoccupied with figuring out direction in life. It’ll all be out in coming posts; so many ideas have been churning in my head. It’s also now appropriate to set a goal to build the readership on this blog. It’s been near zero so far (which is fine since that wasn’t a goal the past year and also so I wasn’t pressured to produce). However, my network is about to expand; best I make the most of this opportune moment. This means I’ll have to post regularly; probably a good thing. I’ll do my best.

Consider this the real launch of this blog. See you soon and thanks for reading!

What Technology Wants – History and Future of Technology

on Nov 19, 2010

click to go to Kevin Kelly's websiteIt’s rare to come across something that touches the very fabric of our existence in such profound ways – it’s mesmerizing. So it is the case with What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly. In one of the most insightful books I’ve ever read, Kevin Kelly weaves together thoughts on the journey of technology (which as a whole, he calls the technium) and ties it in with all other parts of life, the universe, and everything (quite literally). This is of course through a broad interpretation of the definition of technology, going beyond just gizmos – to inventions and knowledge. It’s quite similar to the a crucial perspective I take on this blog and hence I welcome this understanding. With this, Kelly connects technology with the very birth of the universe and the increasing complexity that has emerged from the universe itself – from simple hydrogen atoms to energy-dense microprocessors. He likens technology to a sort of unstoppable force and considers it another kingdom of life. As strange as that seems, it’s very plausible in my eyes. His incredible comparisons between technology and evolution fit well in presenting such arguments – these comparisons are so thoughtful that I felt my deep background in evolution was strengthened with his discussion (and there is no question that he blew away my understanding of technology).

Kelly reconciles two opposing concepts – ordained-ness and free will – in an a strangely convincing manner. He states that technology, to elaborate that it’s an unstoppable force, builds upon itself and that its agents (we humans) inevitably bring it to greater life. This is the basis for his explanation of why similar ideas and invention seem to appear simultaneously from different areas of our globe. He shows that such convergent “evolution” is very much the regular case in the technium as it is in the [other] kingdoms of life. At the same time, he assesses the free will of technology and goes down to the very level of the seeming free will that appears in the random noise of subatomic particles.

There is a practical element to Kelly’s discussion as well. Kelly provides a framework by which to consider technology – new and old – providing guidance as the world around us is increasingly transformed by technology. For example, because he believes that the emergence of any technology cannot be indefinitely thwarted, he presents some rules on how to approach any technology in a manner that beneficial for the global human community. He discusses such rules in the seemingly extreme case of the Amish. Interestingly, many groups of Amish are not quite the luddites we typically perceive them to be. Rather, they’re extremely mindful of the technology they use: they take care to consider the potential community problems arising from inventions and often experiment and observe with a small adoption – one can’t help but respect such mindfulness. (In fact, this discussion is so striking that I suggest that you check out Kevin Kelly’s blog post on it.)

There are a couple of points where Kelly is off. Well, not quite off, but rather he’s missing a level. For example, he states that advances in human communication – such as the inventions of language and writing – were the cause of our uniquely human power. Based on the research of folks I work with, these communication technologies were instead a consequence of a more precise cause of our rise to dominating the planet – solving the conflict of interest problem on larger scales thus facilitating greater level of human cooperation. This Human Uniqueness Theory that I work with does well to explain the Behavioral Modern Revolution of 40,000 years ago and the Neolithic revolution of 10,000 years ago, among our other technological revolutions that Kelly mentions. It’s understandable why one would assume that communication tools were the catalyst for human advancement, especially given how closely they relate to our uniquely human trick of cooperating on large scales to do incredible things. Still despite these minor details, Kelly’s insights are very telling and completely appropriate.

As someone entrenched in technological and humanistic disciplines, I’ve had a real pleasure reading this book. Some of Kelly’s thoughts are sure to raise a few eyebrows, but it seems he accomplishes his goal to get us to step back and think over the technology our lives are intertwined with. At the very least, you’ll see how thoroughly he has put together his thoughts, and so eloquently too. I recommend this engaging book deeply to anyone with an interest in technology and to anyone that wishes to learn more about the world around them.  I especially encourage those in technological fields to consider Kelly’s points.

A Rally to Restore Sanity (and the First Amendment)

on Nov 1, 2010

This past weekend, I attended the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or Fear), hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. It was an incredible experience, and perhaps one monumental to the direction of this country as over 200,000 individuals attended to support a cause not [directly] related to politics. The crowd in attendence was diverse – I was expecting a fairly young bunch but was pleasantly surprised to see much more than the 18-35 age demographic. There were plenty of folks older than 35 and many had brought their children with them. While this astounding rally was not a political one, it did relate strongly to the foundations of our democratic government, particularly to free speech.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution ensures the freedom of press. This is important in ensuring transparency in government and industry affairs. In essence, this permits anyone to call out these institutions on any fishy matters. Unlike in countries such as China or North Korea, you can bad mouth the government and not end up being taken away by the police. Instead, such coversation is actually encouraged in the US and we have a well paid [and listened to] media that is assigned the role of doing this. The very purpose of the media is to inform the citizenry, covering organizations and institutions such as government and business.

Despite fitting this definition, our present media machine is barely useful and perhaps even dangerous. It is full of noise – instead of providing useful information that we Americans can act upon, it tells us all the things to be afraid of, often unnecessarily so. It tells us the extreme points of view and that the country is divided among issues. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, pun intended, where most Americans are simply busy people that want a better country for everyone and are willing to compromise on issues to foster progress.

Although a significant part of our mass media is broken, there is much hope for it. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are not merely political satirists – they are also the most influential journalists of this generation. Yes, journalists. They have stepped up to do the job that the rest of broadcast media has blatantly failed at doing. The hundreds of thousands of rally attendees understand this on some level, many unconsciously. And plenty clearly know what this is all about, as one rally member’s sign cleverly stated, “I get my news from Comedy Central and my comedy from Fox News.” Equally interesting is that the mainstream media didn’t understand that the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/Fear) was in fact about them, as this article [and the laughable videos of CNN, NBC, and Fox embedded] articulates.

Aside from Stewart and Colbert, the internet itself has proved to be a fantastic tool in reinforcing the First Amendment. Blogs provide a world of information in a globally accessible domain. The thoughts I share in this very post will reach more people than ever possible just a few years ago.

Transparency is not only important for the American people, but also for politicians. I believe that most government officials truly want to stand up for their official constituents (as in people, not corporations) and make the country a better place for everyone. But there are plenty of politicians that use the lack of transparency to push their own agendas forward at the cost of the American people. Likewise, insidious corporations will push for their interests when their actions can’t be unveiled.  However, we’re at a transition point, and one that’s for the better. We are reversing the consolidation of media. We have better tools than ever before to allow for transparency. A better world for Americans will prevail so long as we let useful media restore our sanity and prevent overblown media from keeping the fear alive.