Hello beautiful people,
My mentor (and soon-to-be boss) Andrew visited Cornell yesterday, and he gave some really candid career advice to a small group of students.
He’s one of the youngest VC investors with a stellar track record, but what I respect the most is his genuine and relentless curiosity of a wide range of topics, as well as his ability to make everyone feel included, cherished, and valued.
There are a few advice I thought people don’t talk about enough these days and could share here as gentle reminders.
1 / Most people in their early 20s prioritize process and productivity over thoughtfulness.
This is particularly true for the overachievers who take on as many projects as they can. They usually have back-to-back schedule without time to think and try to optimize every second of their time to do something “productive.” They get to enjoy many short-term positive feedback loops by operating this way. A pat on the shoulder from someone they respect. Words of praise from people who look up to them.
However, doing too much may not necessarily lead to a significant outcome. In fact, being a high performer under a particular rubric (being able to crunch out 100 emails a day, or cold calling 10 startups, etc.) is probably less valuable than being creative, generating something in a part of the world that is “dark” to the rest of us. In Naval’s words: “giving society what it wants but does not yet know how to get. At scale.”
Being creative requires being thoughtful and reflecting deeply about the world around us, and this requires “deep work,” a large chunk of time we block out just to think and reflect. This is the antithesis of being extremely good at finishing tasks.
Yet many young people aren’t armed with the tools to think. College is supposed to teach us how to do that, but the way they are being taught is rarely successful. This makes me think through what, if not college, can we cultivate the ability to become thoughtful?
2 / There is a market for literally everything.
He said one of the biggest takeaways from working in VC is realizing there really is a market for even the niche-est market, and the market is bigger than one would have expected.
This validates the point that you should follow your strength and what you like to do. Many people are paralyzed thinking “what if the world doesn’t need this or won’t pay for this” before trying to optimize for their strengths and passion.
If you truly become one of the best in the world at what you love to do, someone will pay for it.
I remember when I was at Facebook last summer, an engineer who loves making her dog look cute ended up making more money from running her dog’s Instagram than her paycheck at Facebook (which is a lot).
3 / Before you find that niche, optimize for the brand.
Not everyone knows their strengths and interests until trying out a lot of different things. During the time of explorations, it’s wise to optimize for the brand for more optionality. Yet I’ve found many people in prestigious universities over-optimize for the brand, and the brand itself becomes the goal.
That’s missing the whole point. The brand can be a powerful signal that facilitates the process of credibility building as you are getting to where YOU want to be. The brand should be helping you, or even better, the cause you believe in, not the other way around. That’s why I’m not a fan of the word “dream company” or “dream college.” I believe your “dream” and the institution that helps you get there should be two separate entities. It’s very easy to become resentful and cynical when your dream institution disappoints you in any way.
4 / Etiquette and style matter. Even though being casual is cool these days.
Learn how to write. A piece of thoughtful, concise, and informative email, memo, or blog post is euphoric. People in tech in general like a casual way of doing things. That’s fine, but not at the cost of being sloppy that borderlines disrespectful. Elegant business writing is the aestheticization of the late-capitalism corporate narrative; it’s becoming a literary genre on its own. So master the art.
Some of the best books on writing (many have asked):
- Several Short Sentences About Writing: my favorite book on writing and I recommend this to everyone who’ve asked.
- Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life: this is one of my favorite books of all time. It highlights“all you can give us is what life is about from your point of view.” This message is what keeps me writing.
5 / Prioritize well-being and health.
This may sound super cliché, but when we are young, we think we are superhumans until our body eventually fails us.
My father is a surgeon, and I remember growing up seeing executives tearing up when they opened up to him, confessing that they’d forgotten that death is at their fingertips.
I personally haven’t taken this seriously until I encountered a few burnouts that led to some health issues. Luckily, tech startups in the wellness space are making this a lot easier and accessible.
My favorite fasting app:
- Zero: elegant interface that does what it says. There are different plans you can choose from. I’ve been doing the 6:18 fast, but I want to slowly move into 4:20 or OMAD. This may not work for everyone, it just provides me with the mental clarity that I need.
My favorite fitness apps:
- Nike Training Club: it’s free and gets everything done.
- Asana Rebel: a recent favorite. I’m never a fan of yoga, but I like how the workouts are designed here.
- Aaptiv: I cannot treadmill or elliptical without this app. It’s so worth it for the price.
I figured my writing has been highly conceptual for the past weeks. Thinking deeply about a concept for a prolonged period of time feels like tilling a garden before growing the plants. People told me tilling too often or deep can do more damage than good to the soil, so I draft up this letter as a healthy intermission with some practical snacks.