2015 isn't even that long ago, but the past four years have felt like a lifetime. So much has happened.
I had the privilege of helping launch major products at Google, putting on dozens of live shows for up-and-coming artists through Dancing Pineapple, and spearheading cause-related social media campaigns that reached millions of people.
And May of this year, I quit Google to start a new chapter of my life. Ever since, I have been eating, sleeping, and breathing my latest venture, Civics Unplugged—a social enterprise dedicated to helping America’s youth become the change they want to see in their communities.
I'm thrilled about what I've been able to do since graduating from Duke in 2015, but let me be clear: I made so many mistakes that caused me a lot of pain. Let me help you avoid those mistakes.
Below, I have shared the four most useful rules I've learned for surviving and thriving in the real world. I know they will serve you in your own journey.
Rule 1: Use technology, don't let it use you 📴
Do you know that person who is constantly glued to their phone? That person who can always be found scrolling mindlessly on some newsfeed? That person who is always only half listening when you speak to them?
That person who gets restless, moody, and irritable when they can't get their daily social media fix, who stays online way longer than they intended, and who—above all—vehemently denies they have any problem with their phone use?
I'm sure you know that person. As did I. In fact, I knew that person intimately, because that person... was me.
It took me years to get honest with myself, but in 2018 I could no longer deny that my phone use was not just killing my personal productivity, but also harming my health and relationships. An embarrassing number of times a day, I found myself lost in a digital vortex designed to strip me of my greatest assets: my time and attention. It was hard to admit, but I had given predatory tech companies an ungodly amount of control over my time, headspace, and future.
I got my life back in order at the start of this year when I decided to do two things: 1) delete all social media apps from my phone, and 2) fully deactivate my Instagram account.
Implementing these two changes worked wonders for me.
I stopped checking my phone unconsciously and compulsively throughout the day. I stopped feeling like I had to constantly stay updated on matters over which I had no control or reply to messages that didn't demand urgent response. I stopped experiencing FOMO (or "fear of missing out") with regards to events that people I barely knew were attending.
I became happier, more present, and more focused. I started doing more things because I wanted to do them. And I became more optimistic about my future and the future of the world than I had ever been.
Perhaps most importantly, I reclaimed control over my thoughts, actions, and life as a whole.
The benefits of my social media detox clarified to me the hidden costs of social media addiction. Social media use may not cost you a dime, but every time you scroll mindlessly instead of choosing to engage in a meaningful, generative activity, you forfeit a precious opportunity to do something that will bring your far greater happiness—whether in the present moment or in the long run.
As someone who worked at Google for four years and authored this internet blog post, I'm not saying that we should become luddites and reject advances in technology. But we owe it to our current and future selves to be thoughtful about what kinds of technology we let into our lives, and how we use that technology. Technology should be "bicycles for our minds," augmenting our capabilities, helping us become smarter and more capable.
Sure, that ethos has largely failed to stick, and we find ourselves in a Pavlovian relationship with push notifications, incapacitated by the multi-directional pull on our attention spans. But even though we have given so much ourselves thus far to this toxic relationship, we can become free again if we just summon the courage to say, "Hey, maybe it's time that we break up."
Rule 2: Master the basics before you get fancy 🛌
Early last year, I discovered the world of biohacking. I became obsessed with learning about the latest "hacks" to take my performance to the next level. I experimented with neurotransmitter-boosters, cryotherapy, trendy dietary supplements, and even organ meat consumption as I tumbled down a rabbit hole.
But here's the thing: despite my obsession, I had little to show for it. I didn't feel healthy. Most days I actually felt terrible. And too often, I struggled to even get out of bed in the morning.
It took me until this year to understand why my expectations and reality were mismatched. I had focused on the finishings before I had even laid the foundations, which include: getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night, exercising several times a week, eating fresh whole foods, engaging in contemplative practices like meditation and journaling, limiting sugar and alcohol intake, limiting phone and social media use, and surrounding myself with people who bring me joy.
I decided to commit to all of the above at the beginning of 2019. And while living up to these commitments is still a work of progress, on any week that I come close, I feel healthier and happier than I had felt during almost any week pre-2019.
Don't get me wrong, I still love the world of biohacking and all that it promises. The difference is that I now know that, above all else, you must establish a strong foundation in the basics before experimenting with taking your mind and body to the next level.
Rule 3: Write way more stuff down 📝
2019 was the year I became borderline obsessed with documentation. As lame as it sounds, no new habit has changed the way I think, act, and feel more than writing down information that is too important to forget.
Most of us overestimate our ability to remember things. Why rely on your human mind to manage all the information that matters to your future, when there are so many more reliable ways today to store that information?
Here are a few examples of things that, through documenting them, have changed my life:
- My goals for the day, week, month, year, next few years, and so on.
Defining success across multiple time horizons has helped me stay focused and motivated in a world full of distractions.
- Decisions and action items made and created in meetings.
Capturing what was decided and assigned has kept my team more aligned and accountable.
- My daily activity—what I got done today.
Comparing this with what I thought I would do has helped me figure out how to improve how I work.
- My thoughts, especially when I am anxious.
Journaling has helped me process whatever I am going through and has done wonders for my mental health.
- Every "good" idea that comes to mind.
It doesn't matter if the idea sounds as good the following day. Rewarding my brain for coming up with ideas by writing them down has trained my brain to come up with more.
- My commitments. To people. To projects. To companies. To whatever.
Taking stock of which commitments energize or drain me has helped me decide where to dedicate my time.
Documentation is a love letter that you write to your future self. If you're anything like me, adopting the habit of writing more stuff down will transform your life.
The more you document, the more you will value the practice of documentation, and the more "things" your brain will notice as worthy of documentation. And the more things you deem worthy of documentation, the more you will document, and the more you will reap from the practice.
There are a lot of fantastic note-taking and information management tools out there, but I give my highest possible recommendation for Notion. It’s a joy to use. I use it for 90% of my documentation needs. I'm eager to share how I've used to build a "digital brain," but I'll save that for a coming post.
Rule 4: Know how little you know 🤐
When I got handed my university diploma on May 10th, 2015, I felt on top of the world.
I had consistently earned good grades. I had fostered rewarding friendships with classmates. I had landed my dream job at Google, then "America's Best Place to Work." And I would soon start a new chapter of my life in one of the greatest cities in the world: New York City.
While I was not immune to imposter syndrome, I had few doubts that I would succeed in the "real world." I trusted my cognitive abilities, seeing little reason to question myself after what I had accomplished thus far.
But just one year later, Trump's election shattered my confidence. I simply wasn't able to fathom how he won; his victory simply didn't compute. And the dissonance between my expectations and reality revealed an uncomfortable truth: that I wasn't as smart, wise, or knowledgeable as I thought I was.
I began to question my assumptions about everything, starting with American politics. While I initially felt dumb asking simple questions like "Why did so many Americans distrust Hillary Clinton?," and "Why did so many Obama voters go for Trump?," and "What does it mean to be 'conservative' today?," I soon realized that these simple questions did not have simple answers, that they deserved to be taken seriously, and that far too few people—including political pundits—were open and curious enough to give them the interrogation they deserved.
Since the election, I’ve spent thousands of hours exploring all kinds of questions and working to understand diverse perspectives. And you know what? The more I learned, the more I realized how little I truly understood. But as terrifying as it was to confront my own ignorance, this embrace of how little I knew is what inspired me to learn more in the past three years than I had probably learned in the previous decade.
It took me years to admit, but I now realize that most of my political views on November 8th, 2016 were either overly simplistic or flat out wrong. It’s scary challenging your fundamental assumptions. There's comfort in clinging to grand narratives about how the world works. It’s nice believing you're on the “good” team, and that they—whoever they refers to—are definitely the bad guys. But reality is far messier and far more complex than any story any of us can conceive of.
Today, I’m wise enough to recognize the limits of what I know. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that those who seek truth should start by embracing how little they know, then permit themselves to ask all the “dumb” questions whose answers might slowly but surely chip away at their ignorance.
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