Amazing Experiences, life heuristics, motivation

Always Ask for Help – a Q&A with DJ Patil


Carl and I had a chance to sit in on an hour of Q and A with DJ Patil at Greylock recently, alongside the Princeton TigerTrek. Under the mantle of Data Science fame, I was surprised and pleased to find a very authentic person – a huge practioner of Carol Dweck‘s growth mindset, who is open about his own struggles, and despite all of his successes, remains humble. At the same time, there is also a fierce streak of determination – and the belief for change that accompanies all great entrepreneurs.  A lot of what he said resonated with me, and I hope, with you:


Start with needs that you identify at a gut level. Use data to refine those feelings into concrete product decisions.

Even the term “Data Scientist” itself was born out of a need and decided by data. DJ and Jeff Hammerbacher shared a mutual problem. HR was asking for a common term to describe the people that they wanted to hire, as they respectively built out Linkedin and Facebook’s Data Science teams. After some thinking and clever A/B testing, they found that the term ‘data scientist’ attracted the right profile of people they wanted – strong analytical skills.

Ask for Help. 

This is something that I struggle with. Often I want to hide away and study it on my own, but I’ve come to appreciate that often the best way to learn is from other people. DJ talks about not being afraid of asking for help – “the worst thing that someone can say is: ‘You should know this by now?’ – to which one can just respond: ‘That’s why I’m asking now!’” It takes courage and humility to say: “I’m struggling with X.”

Reality is always malleable, but some parts are more malleable then others. Place yourself in areas of ambiguity and chaos.

That is where you can have the most freeway in defining reality. Like the title of Amy Jo Martin’s book: “Renegades Write the Rules.” Axioms:

There are no such things as rules, just guidelines.

There are no such things as no, just yes’s that have not been said.

////////////////////// Some snippets of thought:

On Finding Direction:
When starting a company – ask the smartest 100 people around you – “what do you struggle with?”

On Goal-Setting:
Establish a goal. Pursue the goal. Be relentless in the pursuit of the goal.
Use the inverse function: decide where you want to be in 20 years, and work backwards from there. Ex. If you want to be CEO of a Fortune 10 company, you want to be X in 15 years. … This allows you to look for unconventional roles that might get you closer to your goal, instead of directionless prestige projection-pursuiting.

On Finishing:
If you embark on a doctorate program, you must finish. Otherwise, you will leave irreversible psychological scars.

On civil service:
“I was raised on government funds, and feel a responsibility to give back to my community.” DJ has a passion for education, and in the long term, wants to go back and reform government.”

On Change in Companies:
Surprisingly, DJ says that it was an incredible struggle to get LinkedIn and Fb to be data-driven. Why as the adoption so hard? Inertia and people’s own agendas. Fortunately, DJ had spent time previously working in academic and government agencies, so he was ready to deal with bureaucracy. Where other entrepreneurial types would have thrown their hands up and given up in the face of the red-tape and patience required to get buy-in, DJ hunkered down and worked to convince stake-holders. One of his favorite statements when met with rejection was to say: “Okay, I hear that you are telling me ‘No’. Can I ask you, as a personal favor, if we could just set that aside for 5 minutes, and have a conversation about ‘How’. I am not asking you to commit to anything, just humor me.”

The ability to deal with and resolve conflict is also augmented by a novel definition of the word itself. As DJ says, “Conflict is when someone is in the way of your objective. Most people have the same objective, but tension arises when people are out of alignment.”

On Dealing with Others:
In terms of difficult moments, when someone has wronged you – the best way to respond is to let the other party know what the impact of the negative thing is for you, and then embrace the silence.

On where to work:
Ask yourself: Is this going to be a place where you are going learn an amazing amazing amount? Who is your boss, and will they help you learn?

On the best education for a data scientist:
Mathematics (Probability, not necessarily statistics), Computer Science and something in the humanities, like literature or theatre. In order to understand product, you have to have a deep grounding in something human.

On entrepreneurship
the idea is that you are constantly growing the organization so that you can fire yourself.

On Hiring
You are only as good as the people you can hire.
How to attract the best people? Passion. Authentic passion in what you are doing.

On expectations:
When DJ hires a new person, he sits down to make a list of expectations with them. On the top of the list is the visibility of their career goals. The best way to keep talent is not to make it hard for them to move, but to show them that you are sincerely interested in developing themselves.

On Talent:
Perhaps we are looking at talent wrong – instead of looking at talent as an innate thing, you can grow talent by growing yourself, and those around you.

Amazing Experiences, life heuristics

Building Creative Confidence


Tonight I had a chance to hear Tom and David Kelley of IDEO and fame speak at the Kepler bookstore in Menlo Park. The topic of the night? Something that could not have been more timely – their new book on building and sustaining creative confidence.

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 I took some notes from the conversation (paraphrased in bold), and made an effort to make the points as concise and actionable as I can in plain text underneath. If any of these speak to you – give your feedback in comments!

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1. Everyone can be creative. It is not a genetic gift, it is learned through cultivation and practice. David says: people think that if you come out of the womb and cant draw, its all over for you – whereas if you are born and can’t play the piano off the bat – that’s okay. 

If you don’t consider yourself a creative type right now, that’s okay! Its been beaten of you by traditional system and definitions, but don’t worry it can be restored by the tips below.

2. Practice involves guided mastery – someone more experienced holding you by the hand and showing you step by step. To improve yourself at something – find a mentor to teach you incrementally; human beings are excellent imitators.

3. The kind of productive creativity that David/Tom/IDEO/ practice is called Design Thinking. The central idea is to empathize with human beings. Look at what is meaningful for people. This is a huge untapped opportunity – people start new businesses around new technology, and new business models – but the new business that needs will change everything. 

This is a huge untapped business opportunity. Ask yourself carefully what people need – validate that need – and build it.

4. To understand people – you have to understand their motivations – and the easiest way to do that is to ask: “Why?” normal response… “Why?” deeper response… “Why?” somewhere they have not gone before… “Why?”


4.5 To get things started – begin by asking: “How can we ….”

It assumes that the thing can be done, that we are in this together all in the first 3 words!

5. Its okay to do the same thing over and over again – that is how you get better. 


6. The grade system in schools is a terrible motivation system. It teaches you to be good at predicting what the professor wants. It does not encourage you to fail. 

I propose a more productive definition of failure – when things dont happen the way that you want them to because you stopped working on it. That is the only definition of failure that matters. I am so happy to be on leave from school at the moment – brown has great classes, but being tested in the school of life is a whole nother level of awesome.

7. In school you are taught Problem Solving. In the world, you also need Design Thinking – deciding what problems are important to solve, and sometimes even rephrasing the problems that clients give to you. 

Again, always ask why. Check to make sure that the problem is actually a problem for the people who will “benefit” from it.

Final take-aways: 

1. I need to get into a project/class.

2. Its better to learn things when you need them in service of a bigger project.

3. I need to get my hands dirty more.

Final surprise – on my way back from the talk, I ride into the middle of a film scene! The crew is filming excerpts from James Franco‘s book Palo Alto. I ask: “How can I help?” One of the producers introduced me to the head of the Art team. I’ll be waking up at 8 am tomorrow to start making things. Woo!

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life heuristics, motivation

How to do Hard Things Pt. 2: Going Super Saiyan

TL;DR: Things get harder before they get easier. When exercising, or doing anything else hard, embrace the pain – its the only way to level up. 

If you are like me and was born in the 1990s, you probably familiar with the show Dragon Ball Z. I used to watch it over cereal on Saturday mornings, and the thing that always struck me about the show was how in the epic fights as Goku or one of his friends faced off against the forces of evil,   would always suffer some sort of initial defeat.  The power of their opponent was so enormous that the outcome seemed hopeless.

Then magically,  the background music would swell and Goku would reach into himself to pull out some extraordinary ability that evened the odds.

Remember this scene?

Even as a kid, I  thought that the cycle was pretty cheesy – if he had so much power why didn’t he use it in the first place? Why did he let himself (and us) suffer through all of the brutal beatings that led up to his transformation? Why didn’t he start out with Super Saiyan 4, or as the Giant Gorilla, and just beat the ever-living-shit out of his opponents in the first place?

This guy was enormous.

Today, I think that I found one answer. As context, earlier this week I broke through some internal walls, and swam 3000 meters non stop in the pool. Then, I went back to try my hand at repeating the phenomenon,  to see if I could do it or that it was a fluke. And it was HARD. The first 700 meters were slow and brutal, and the next 700 were even worse, by the end of that I was gasping for air, stumbling around in the pool, my shoulders screaming. And I thought to myself, golly, I guess I was just lucky and couldn’t actually swim at this length.

Then a funny thing happened at 1500 m. I got my breath back. My shoulders cooled down, and my strokes got longer. The end-of-the-wall kickturn became routine, and I started cruising.

I found that the same thing works for running as well. I used to be afraid of running, but after running 2.5 miles, the feeling of tightness went away and there was just calm resolve. It seems like when you commit yourself to something, and keep working through the pain, your body realizes “Oh, you are going for the long run – guess I better give you more energy.” I’m sure that there is a scientific explanation as well, something about aerobic vs. non-areobic exercise, using up the cellular creatine, etc, but its the good thing to know is that you have much more in reserve then you thought 🙂

So going back to Goku, maybe getting beat up was just part of the cycle, and he could not become more powerful without opposing resistance. So the next time that you feel uncertain about your ability, or capability, just remember- it will scale to match the problem you are matching. Grit your teeth and think of Goku 😉

Kick Ass and Take Names.

life heuristics, motivation

Breaking Boundaries

“We often make the mistake of giving up before we really, truly, begin.” ~Anonymous

Daniel Bell (AUS) action reflections Swimming 2000 Sydney PG

Today I swam 3 kilometers. I never thought that I could do it, or even that it was within the scope of things of which was available to me. Now after the experience, I’m forced to come back and look at other aspects of my life where I’ve demarcated realms of possibility and impossibility.

Goal setting is important. But sometimes the slow progress that you make through the journey to your goal is deceiving – for example, when we set out to swim 10 laps, the first and the second and third seem like an eternity, and there are yet so many to go, but suddenly you’re at four, and five and halfway there. A few more and you have made it over the halfway hump and it’s now an accelerating rush, as you surge closer to your goal.

My old mentor at Brown, Keith Thompson, once told me something that I thought was remarkably simple and insightful. Essentially, the goals that we set ourselves are also limits or boundaries on the things that were willing to push ourselves to do – when he runs or reads a book he doesn’t say “I’m going to stop at page so-and-so or by that landmark there”, because once you do as you approach a landmark case begins the slow any check more quickly about your progress.

Rather his internal dialogue goes something more like “I’m going to try to make it to that point, and then will reevaluate my progress”. Something so simple as not having a definite end in mind, so allows you to keep pushing in a way that he couldn’t after a supposedly resolution.

Which brings us to one of the age-old questions – what would you do if it was not impossible? …. And how do you know for certain that it is?

life heuristics, motivation

Finding your rhythm for excellence

A question I been thinking a lot about lately is: what is the best way to establish a routine in order to improve at something important?

One thing I’ve noticed about biking is that after three weeks, it’s become more of a habit then a conscious decision – and interestingly the consequence is that the outcome of each ride, whether I ride faster or slower that day, matters less than just the fact that I keep riding. Progress, especially in something large and intricate, takes a lot of time. Our human need for gratification sometimes gets in the way of maintaining steady rhythm in order to put in the necessary work as we are constantly thinking about whether or not we are improving. If we plateau in our performance, we may get discouraged.

One way to get around this problem might be what Drew Houston suggested in his commencement speech at MIT this year, when he said something to the lines of:

But it was a fascinating challenge. I was possessed. I would think about it in the shower. I would think about it in the middle of the night. It was like a switch went on — suddenly I was a machine.

In the middle of all this, my mom and dad wanted all of us to come up to New Hampshire to spend a family weekend together. But I really wanted to keep working on my poker bot. So I pull up in my Accord and open the trunk, and next I’m dragging all my computer stuff and all these wires into our little cottage. The dining room table wasn’t big enough so I started moving all the pots and pans off the stove to make room for all my monitors. This time it was my mom who thought something was wrong with me. She was convinced I was going to jail.

I was going to say work on what you love, but that’s not really it. It’s so easy to convince yourself that you love what you’re doing — who wants to admit that they don’t? When I think about it, the happiest and most successful people I know don’t just love what they do, they’re obsessed with solving an important problem, something that matters to them. They remind me of a dog chasing a tennis ball: their eyes go a little crazy, the leash snaps and they go bounding off, plowing through whatever gets in the way. I have some other friends who also work hard and get paid well in their jobs, but they complain as if they were shackled to a desk.


Obsession definitely is a cure for this problem, in fact it’s probably the best cure because it doesn’t take any conscious will or volition. It almost sounds little magical, if you manage to find the thing that you become obsessed about then discipline is secondary.

That’s all fine and dandy, but what if you’re not obsessed about anything just yet? One thing might be to keep seeking and find your passion that will absolve you of the responsibility, but in the meantime there is something else that you can start doing right now. It’s not as glamorous or easy as being obsessed, but something within your control.


I call it: Having a rhythm. It involves building a routine in which you practice the thing you want to prove at every day, and instead focusing on the immediate outcomes of each day, you focus on the process, and rest in your confidence that over time you will improve. It’s not easy, and I haven’t figured it out exactly – but one thing that biking is taught me the setting aside time for it each day, especially in the morning we don’t have any other distractions or obligations, really helps.

I keep you updated on how it goes. If you have something that works for you, or thought along similar veins, feel free to share them below 🙂

life heuristics, motivation

Whose time do you live by?


Not all time is created equal. 

The Greeks believed in two kinds of time, Chronos and Kairos. Chronos was the time of man, man’s time – it was the space, and pace that ordinary human life progressed along. All the joys and sorrows that are common to man – the spring sowing, the autumn harvest; the joys of new life, the mornings of death— Chronos encapsulated them all. This is the natural harmony of life, the eternal cycle of the mundane. And the lesson in life with the find one’s rhythm, because there was no escape.

And then, there is Kairos. God’s time. Absolute, resolute and magnificent. Acyclic, unprecedented, this was when epochs were decided, when immortals wrestled with fate – and won. When outcomes depended as much on the will of its contestants as it did on the circumstances.

These two parallel planes of existence coexist side-by-side. At any point one can choose to cross between one or the other. There is security and comfort in Chronos, the security that believes in the long history of humanity and “who am I to assume that my life will be different”; the comfort of finding one’s pace and rhythm – and belonging. There is hardship and sacrifice in Kairos, where the granite record of one’s fate can be re-carved with the price of blood, and the only steadfast companion is the shadow that drags at one’s feet. But there is also a secret joy, that few should know – and that is the joy of creating something new.

The fire of the Forge demands its payment of sweat, and flickers hungrily over charred bones and wasted metal, but that it is the only place where diamonds are made.

In rhetoric, Kairos means “a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved.”

life heuristics, motivation

How to do hard things (Part one)


 in a liquid world of solid will, rhythm drives you on.

Today I had an inflection point in my positive behavior loop, it felt so amazing.

Since last Wednesday, I’ve been waking up every morning and biking in preparation for an exciting adventure  I’ll write about in a future post. I learned to  ride  a bike as a child, but never really seriously pursued cycling as a physical activity. Nevertheless, the adventure called for some serious stamina, so I thought that I would start.

It hasn’t been easy – the first few days, it was really difficult to wake up in the morning, with the alarm clock blaring, and sleepily roll out of bed and onto a bike. Also, when I came back from the ride I would feel exhausted – not energized and excited to start the day: on two occasions I even took a nap after to recover from the ride.

Slowly, though my stamina “– and I started to add more distance to each ride. I had an occasion to measure the distance last night, it turned out that I am riding about about 10 miles each morning!

this morning, for the first time I woke up before the alarm sounded. My columns and shoulders were sore, and I briefly considered taking a rest day in order for my muscles recover – at the online forms suggest. However, to my own surprise I found that I really wanted to go, and for the first time my inertia was actually to go out and get on the bike. As I started  riding,  I surprisingly did not feel any soreness at all, in fact I felt amazing!


In population genetics, there is idea that when a beneficial mutation first appears – before it “fixes”  –there’s a chance that it will be lost,  even if it is a really good beneficial mutation.  This is because the organisms that host it are so small in number,  and can be easily wiped out by some random process.  However given enough time, the mutation will spread to the rest of the population, and  the majority of the population will host it. Once this happens it will be very hard for the population to lose the mutation.

I feel like the same is true for good habits you want to develop – in the beginning, when it has not become a routine, there’s a chance that  random perturbations  cause you to lose it: it might rain for several days in a row,  you might have a flat tire, you might oversleep your scheduled time. However if you keep at it, eventually  it will  become part of your schedule, and instead of having to make a conscious decision to do it – you  will have to make a conscious decision NOT to do it. That is when you know that you  have hit the sweet spot.

 Takeaway: when trying to add the new behavior to your repertoire, the beginning is always difficult. Don’t  being discouraged by the early failures, they are part of the process – continue to nurture the behavior until it becomes a routine. When you wake up in the morning and look forward to doing that thing, you know you have succeeded.

Do you have something that you want to learn or get better at?  Share what it is in the comments below, and may we all keep improving ourselves.