5 things I wish I learned/knew sooner than later

What do you wish you knew sooner or later? I ask myself that question all the time. Here is what I came up with for myself.

Know how to curate what to read and how to read

A popular and widely cited stat reads that 90% of the world’s data is generated in the last two years. Regardless of the figures, I think the premise is true. We encounter a lot of information and data every day. News, social media, photos that we take, tweets that we write, new movies or shows that streamers release, songs that artists launch. The deluge of information makes it incredibly challenging for a person to know what information to absorb and from what source. There are days when I spend hours reading and there are days when I get information fatigue. What makes it more tricky and challenging is misinformation. It’s harder than ever to distinguish between accurate information and false information. The accuracy is only just relative, depending on how you look at things. For instance, somebody may claim that the government did a good job with the economy prior to Covid because the stock market hit all time highs and unemployment rate was rate. Well, that may be true, but it’s only part of the story. There are other serious issues to look at including but not limited to federal budget, minimum wages or income inequality. When you take those into account, the assessment won’t look as rosy. Additionally, while there is value in being informed in many areas, specialization into a few may serve you better. It would be valuable for us to learn how to curate what to read, how to read and how to say “no” to information.

No one knows everything all the time

Because we are overwhelmed by a lot of information every, as mentioned above, it makes everyone prone to mistakes in judgement. Hence, even established authorities in certain areas become wrong at times. Legendary investors lost money. Famous economists erred on their predictions. Analysts screwed up on assumptions and evaluations. Scientists’ claims were challenged and debunked. We often associate previous successes with the ability to be right all the time or successes in one area with knowledge in other areas. That often is not true. One tech founder that may succeed in building a billion dollar firm can make disastrously wrong claims on biology or sociology or even in other business areas such as fast food, hospitality or energy.

To figure out when an authority with credibility errs is tricky. How often do you read a scientific article from The Lancet and question it immediately? How often do you read a report from World Bank and pick it apart detail by detail? Or do you share them first? Past track record and credibility help, but they don’t guarantee accuracy all the time. Hence, although it’s good to respect and appreciate greatness, I think it’s valuable to learn to think for ourselves and be vigilant.

Focus. Focus. Focus

I sometimes have to stop myself from multitasking. Modern societies have trained us to constantly want to multitask. We have all been there. Listening to music or podcasts during work. Putting on radio while driving. Chatting while studying at night or doing homework. It’s incredibly difficult to stay completely immune from distractions. I don’t believe anyone can do that. Nonetheless, it is extremely helpful and valuable to learn to be “in the zone” more, even for just a few hours every day to do deep work. I do believe that the more a person can do so, the more he or she can succeed

Learn to write

I think writing is as important, if not more important, than coding which is touted as something we all should learn as early as possible. The ability to communicate in writing, even in the form of an email, a report or an article, is essential nowadays. First, writing is a form of communication with others. A well-written piece can carry a message effectively and there can only be good things coming from effective communication. Second, writing is thinking. When thoughts go into words, we think about the thoughts at hand more. We pick apart every aspect of our thoughts more to make them more refined. So when you come across some good content, it mostly comes from a vigorous thinking process beforehand. It’s not a coincidence that Jeff Bezos replaces the use of Power Points at Amazon with a 6-page memo. Therefore, learning to write is highly important

Learn to different yourself

Whatever you want to do, it’s impossible that you are the first or only person in the world to do it. If you want to launch a cryptocurrency hedge fund, there are hundreds out there. If you want to launch a newsletter, there are thousands already in the market. If you want to build an Asian eatery in the local community, it’s impossible that there is none already in operations. Modern societies and technological advances make it easier than ever to launch individual ventures. At the same time, it’s also exceedingly challenging to stand out from the crowd. What I think can make each of us stand out are individual uniqueness and work ethic. Nobody in the world can beat you at being you. Each of us has a different unbringing, life experience and personality. Infusing that uniqueness into our work, I believe, can make us stand out more. For instance, millions of people can speak English. If you speak English, it’s nothing special. If you add a foreign language such as Japanese, it narrows down the competition. If you add another such as Latin or a special specialty such as flying a commercial jet, it narrows down the competition even more. The chance of standing out from the crowd is now higher. Hence, capitalizing on our unique experience, personality and perspective can be very useful.

The second piece is work ethic. Even if you have all the talent in the world, it means nothing if you don’t put in the work. Athletes like Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Michael Jordan, Cristiano Ronaldo put in hours of work every day even after achieving success and fame. If you don’t have genius-level talent, like most of us, the ability to put in 12-15 hours of work a day will differentiate you from a lot of folks that are not willing to work beyond the required 8 hours. On the other hand, even if you work long hours every day, yet you don’t have a factor that can help differentiate you from others, it doesn’t mean anything. That’s why thousands of blue collar workers who work two or three jobs a day are not as famous or rich as others. The work they do deserves respect, but it is nothing different from the work of hundreds of thousands of others.

Learning about your uniqueness, deploying it and working hard is important and the sooner one does it, the better.

Learn to avoid jealousy and self-pity

I believe it is tremendously important to learn about controlling jealousy and self-pity early in life. Everyone in the world should be happy. Life is too short not to. Though we differ from one another in the things that make us tick, there are a few common factors that contribute to happiness such as being healthy, avoiding jealousy or feeling sorry for yourself all the time. While they seem obvious, they all require practice and learning. If you sit on the couch on the time and eat fast food every day, chances are that you won’t be healthy. If you don’t purposefully train your mind not to be jealous of others or compare yourself to others, chances are you may not be able to do it. If you are trapped in self-pity and don’t make effort to get out of that trap, how can you? I grew up in Asia where your parents subject you to comparison with other kids all the time. If you get a 9 out of 10 from a school assignment after putting in a lot of work, you may still be scolded if other kids get 10. I was trained and wired to be jealous as a kid. I worked really hard in the past few years to escape from that and I make concerted effort every day to stay away from the jealousy and self-pity. Does it make me completely happy? No, because there are other factors at play: work, family, relationship, goals. But it surely helps me not be unhappy.

What do you wish you learned/knew sooner than later?

Random poem #2

Determined to get better at writing, I forced myself to sit down till I actually put together something. Here it is, a short poem.

Come here if you wanna know

How Midwest summer really is

Green leaves blossom on the trees

Happy faces are all that you see

——————————————-

By dawn, the night bids its goodbye

Making way for the gorgeous sunlight

15 hours long, it will be

For the sun truly takes its hike

——————————————-

Contrary to what you think

Work in the summer is not easier

Beautiful and enticing sun

Makes us nothing but much less efficient

——————————————-

Every day I look out from the office window

Longing badly to bathe in the sun

To walk, to hike and to bike

To really revel in the summer fun

Why I blog

One of my goals in 2019 is to write often and specifically, have at least 200 published blog posts when the year closes its curtains. So far I have been on track to meet the target. As I look back at the last 8 months of consistent blogging, this endeavor has brought to me so much more than I anticipated.

Last August, I started this blog as a medium to practice what I learned, share my opinion in my own way to give back, create a healthy habit and build up my self-confidence. Fast forward to now:

  1. I have learned a lot more along the way. To really write about something, first I need to know what I am going to write about. I read more quarterly/annual reports, earning call transcripts, industry reports, long blog posts, you know, the boring stuff to many of my peers. I listen to more podcasts, interviews. I read more books. I analyze reported numbers by companies more. And it leads to a lot learning; which fits the name of this blog.
  2. I enjoy the process. Writing is such a pleasant experience to me nowadays that I often really look forward to it as a highlight of my day, especially when I have a long day at work. Anne Lamott said it best: “Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do – the actual act of writing – turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”
  3. I feel much more confident about blogging now than when I first started. Not because I am an expert now. I still have a long way to go. But I believe it is because of the practice. Blogging often helps me reduce my self-doubt and shyness bit by bit and gives my confidence a little boost. Even though the progress is nothing earth-shattering, as long as I don’t stand still, I am happy.
  4. I came to realization that this blog gradually is becoming a collection of my notes, a bookmarking tool, a mind-refresher. Sometimes, I come back to remind myself of some highlights in a book I read, of some code I wrote and of something that I jogged down. Instead of carrying an actual notebook which would be challenging to categorize and search, I know where to find what I need with just a few key strokes.

I came across a post by M.G. Siegler that really hit home to me:

Imagine the humiliation of putting yourself out there and zero people caring because zero people saw it. I know a lot of people feel this way when they start doing something with regard to content on the internet — I applied it to blogging, but I imagine it’s the exact same story with recording videos for YouTube, starting a podcast, etc. Just keep at it.

This is, of course, easier said than done. It takes time to do anything, no matter the type of content you’re focused on. The good news is that even if the audience doesn’t show up at first, the work pays off in other ways. Namely, you’ll get better at what you’re doing.

I look back at some of my early blog posts and cringe. They were awful. I was foolish. But I kept going and the posts got less awful and less foolish (this statement is subject to review in another decade). I honestly think the worst thing that could have happened was getting a large audience from day one. I wouldn’t have been ready for it (even if I thought I was).

And so again, the advice is simply to keep at it. Even if the next post gets zero readers too. And the next one. Eventually, zero turns to one and then one to two and then you’re off to the races.

M.G. Siegler

I know the feeling of having zero people view what you wrote all too well. Part of it is I don’t advertise it. I put a link to my blog on my Instagram profile, LinkedIn profile and in my resume. That’s it. I don’t actively post on Facebook or tweet about it whenever I publish. I am doing this for me first and foremost, not to be validated by others. Plus, I know I am not ready. Even though this blog has gained traction in the last few months , I am still on my way from zero to one. Good news is that I am willing to keep at it.

Book: Bird by Bird Some Instructions on Writing and Life

If you love writing, but get stuck at not knowing how to write better, this book is for you. It’s a light-toned therapy session that consists of practical lessons on how to write better. I found it reassuring to learn about the struggles that even great writers faced. It was equally reassuring to know that writing is tough, but if you keep at it, eventually you’ll get something out of it.

The book can get dull as it drags on, if you are not that interested in the author’s personal anecdotes. The main take-aways for me include:

  • Just sit your ass down and force yourself to write. It’ll come
  • First drafts are always horrible, for everyone. Just let it all out at first
  • Little by little, just write. Or in the author’s father’s words: “bird by bird”!

Below are few great quotes from the book:

E.L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. “You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard

“Do it every day for a while”, my father kept saying. “Do it as you would do scales on the piano. Do it by prearrangement with yourself. Do it as a debt of honor. And make a commitment to finishing things”

Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do – the actual act of writing – turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said. ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird’.”

One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, “It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do—you can either type or kill yourself.”

This blog is my “tea ceremony”. I don’t know what I would get out of it. I just enjoy it.

Bonus: Below are the four blogs that inspire me to write as often as I can

 

Compounding Effect

Even though there are still 12 days or something left in September, it is the busiest month so far in this little project’s history. It is mainly due to my commitment to write more. The target is 100 posts by the end of the year and even though I don’t write every day (try to), I do as often as I can.

It’s nice to see some appreciate what I have to say, but the biggest benefit is that the more I write, the more I want to write. Before, it took quite an effort for me to sit down, have an agenda, start writing, edit, have a friend edit again for me and decide whether I should publish the piece or not. But mostly it was due to my lack of commitment to do it often. Nowadays, it became significantly easier for me to finish an entry. The compounding effect starts to show some impact on my personal progress as well as on the number of interactions with this blog.

I am not the first to notice it, but apparently compounding effect is the secret. Put some effort in something every day and let it compound. Study, career, side projects, writing, love, friendship, gym. Anything can be greater when compounded. The hard part is to avoid distractions, make it a routine and be patient. It’s exceedingly difficult. But like someone wise said: difficult choices, easy life. Easy choices, difficult life.

 

What should be taught more at schools

After years of being at school, I cannot wait to graduate in a few months’ time. Looking back at my academic career so far, even though schools offer some values, most of the courses can now be learned online provided that one has the will and the discipline to learn. What stands out more to me is what schools don’t teach. Here are some lessons that I feel are missing at schools, but play an important role in one’s life and career

Personal finance

I cannot stress enough how important this is. I have seen and known people get thousands of dollars in student loans for education. Then, get more debt in car loans to buy that new car that will be worth significantly less a few years from now. When a new car arrives in your home, it comes with parking fees, gas expenses and insurance. Consequently, monthly expenses rise and savings become even smaller.

On top of that, some gather whatever savings are left to make a down payment for a house and will still have to make installments on a regular basis. A monthly paycheck, after tax, will be used to pay for critical expenses such as rent, food and gas. What is left is used to pay for interests and some outstanding debt. In the end, there is almost no savings. I once read a report recently that many Americans cannot make a $400 emergency payment. Here is a simple breakdown of monthly income and expenses. It is for illustration purpose only. The relative size of the components is different in reality.

Income and Expenses

I didn’t take into account expenses such as bars, celebrations, birthday gifts, wedding gifts, books, travel, shopping, that broken Macbook charger, that flat tire, that media subscription you appreciate so much and others that add values to our lives.

What if something terrible happens and you are hospitalized? How will you pay for the hefty medical bills? It is impossible to assume that you won’t get sick even once for years. It’s practically unsustainable to cross-finger and hope that no severe accident such as car accidents will not happen ever. One of my classmates was hit in a car accident through no fault of her own simply because a person ran the red lights to make it to a Black Friday sale!

There is no shortage of studies and media coverage on pay day loans – a quick way to get your hands on cash, but at the expense of extremely high interest. Life will quickly become just a constant loop of being stuck to your job and paying off debts. If you don’t like the current job, you won’t be able to change jobs or quit because of the debt burden. You don’t have much margin of error or freedom to enjoy life. The lack of freedom to make choices is highly devastating.

Communication

Too cliché? Nah, it is really relevant based on what I have seen so far. . I have seen a lot of PowerPoint decks made by experienced professionals that are littered with text without visuals. As data is taking the world by storm, the ability to convey insights from data is important as well. How could anyone understand anything from highly complex Excel sheets?

The ability to present and communicate effectively is very crucial in one’s career. However, I think that point is missing at schools.

Writing is thinking

It’s easy to sit down, think of an idea and feel that it’s the best idea that has ever been thought of. Unfortunately, it is not true, most of the time. There are a lot of gaps in our thinking unless we write it down on a Word document or a sheet of paper. When we write, we can think more about the points being made, the gaps in logic, evidence to back the logic up and the way to present it. It’s true that students have to write a lot of papers. They; however, have little idea on WHY they have to write papers except for grades.

Reading

It’s all in the books. I am not in a position to tell what one should read. One should just read to see where it is going and what areas one is interested in. Let’s say if a person reads constantly and improves by 1% every month, starting from a base ability value of 100, here is how the person will grow after a while

Ability value

After 4 years, you’ll grow by more than 50% and become twice as good as when you started after 7 years.

Titles, fame or wealth doesn’t always equal to being right

Being logical and having a good idea are not exclusive to fame, authority, fame or wealth. CEOs make mistakes and are dismissed all the time. Crypto fans would be happy to recall that Jamie Dimon – CEO of JP Morgan – dismissed the value of cryptocurrency at first and made a 180 turn to embrace it. I once heard a classmate publicly claim in class that he regretted not mirroring Warren Buffett’s investments. He is a legendary investor, but he is not immune to mistakes nor he is right all the time.

My point is that it’s important to stay vigilant and look at ideas for their merits, not for the fame, titles or wealth of the person who proposed them.

I believe that graduates would be much better prepared for life and career post education if these lessons were emphasized more at school.