Even when the world is burning around you

Toni Morrison passed away last week. With the Administration’s hateful rhetoric, and three mass shootings in the span of a week and a half,  I found hope in re-visiting her 1993 Nobel Prize speech.

She begins her speech with a story about a wise, blind woman, who is asked by a group of children if a bird that they are holding in their hands is dead or alive. Dead or alive —  the blind woman thinks this is a trick, a cruelty, the fate of this poor creature in the hands of the children. As a part of this story, Morrison uses the bird to illustrate her fear of how language can enable oppression and violence, which feels so timely in our political climate: “The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed.”

But alas! The children are ultimately not cruel. They wish to tap into the women’s wisdom and experience to understand life — all of it — and death. I love that Morrison uses the vulnerability of language to build up our own sense of vulnerability for the bird and the power of the children. I can viscerally feel the cruelty, or the anticipation of it, from the children. I imagine the myriad times when I, as I get older, with all my rhyme or reason, look into the eyes of children and feel sheer terror for not knowing what’s behind them.

And then Morrison quickly reverses our expectations of how the story should go.

Reading this was a reminder of how vulnerability and fear can make it easy to build up walls and false narratives, and I need to fight the desire to judge and close down. Especially during times like this, and even when the world can be so, so ugly. And it was a reminder to have faith that we will have a path toward shared prosperity if we approach these difficult moments without judgement and with openness.

“Finally”, she says, “I trust you now. I trust you with the bird that is not in your hands because you have truly caught it. Look. How lovely it is, this thing we have done – together.”

An ode to unspoken stories

What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? – Audre Lorde, The Transformation

What I read this weekend: I’ve experienced the power of great storytelling in all of its forms: from exceptional journalism that broke my heart and opened my eyes wide, poetry that spoke intimately to my consciousness, to the chic Glossier ad that sold me the promise of feeling chic, effortless, and free when you sport skin as smooth as a baby’s ass.

I wish I could tell good stories. I suck at telling good stories. I never seem to get the pacing right, I don’t give enough context, my punchline is only funny or compelling to me, and I focus in on all the wrong details.

I suck in part because I’m not practiced. I’ve mostly stayed silent. Perhaps to appear normal, or because of fear and trauma. Or maybe because I didn’t see a space for my stories.  Last weekend, I sat on a panel with a Vietnamese woman that grew up in my neighborhood. In hearing her frank and unsentimental account of her life, I realized that I had never shared my own. With friends, even! I realized that I’m not afraid of vulnerability; I’ve kept silent in fear of being cast as “other”.  And for so long, I’ve adopted versions of stories, allowing other people’s narratives set the bar of what is OK to share.

It feels comfortable to say storytelling isn’t my jam, shrug it away, and move on with my life. But I need to learn. My story is so important, and so is yours. We further our collective consciousness in deep and meaningful ways when we tell our stories.

So how do you begin? For me, it starts with getting my stream of consciousness into clear, concise, and digestible writing. I also want to use a variety of tools, including data and strong imagery. Think Matthew Desmond.  Here are the resources I’ve started with:

Emergent behaviors

I enjoyed this wide ranging conversation between Marc Andreessen, Ben Horowitz, and Tyler Cowen, which covers their partnership, how Marc and Ben thought about a16z’s differentiation when they founded the firm, how VC has evolved, and what’s next for [insert your favorite tech or industry here]. There are several gems in this episode (which somebody painstakingly captured on Breaker) and worth a full listen. Here’s one that I found particularly useful…

From Marc, in response to Tyler’s question, “Did you invent the tweet storm?”:

“I literally couldn’t shut up, so it sort of catalyzed. The big lesson for these internet platforms is […] emergent behaviors is incredibly important. The really successful platforms let users surface the behaviors that the creators of the platform could have never thought of. Twitter has had issues over the years, but […] the compelling ways people have used Twitter have been invented by users. […] It’s not just Twitter. It was true of the personal computer. It was true of smart phones. It’s been true for many of these Internet platforms. It’s a useful principle for product design: let the users innovate.”

Emergent behavior extends far beyond product, and is a useful principle across a number of domains. For me, top of mind are community building, advocacy and organizing, but I do wonder how one tracks and responds to these interactions in an offline environment. You’re operating in an environment wherein the data isn’t (1) readily available, and (2) as responsive, so how do you know when that behavior is indicative of a larger group behavior? What is real and what is noise? If you want to co-create with your community, how do you set up a response system for that kind of interaction?

In any case, as a person that’s constantly holding everything in her head, planning everything from A to Z, I appreciate the reminder to let go, enjoy the magic of improvisation, and make it up as I go along (with co-conspirators, if possible).

(P.S. I just realized that my blogs ask a lot of questions but rarely suggests a hypothesis or attempts to find the answer. I’m going to try to do that more in 2019.)

A case for optimism

What I read this weekend: I feel such heaviness from the vicious cycle of bad news and bad forecasts, from immigration policy, deteriorating social safety net and world order to climate change and automation. It feels like we’re only going backward. And some days, this weight compounds because these problems feel insurmountable. This Shouts & Murmurs piece does a great job of capturing the manic hum of doom and gloom.

I found this hopeful article that makes a case for progress, and in turn, optimism. The author cites Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now book and a few other notable thinkers on this topic, and an observation that really stuck with me is that this pessimism could ultimately affect the policies we choose to support and how we vote. I also listened to an interview with Vitalik Buterin (the founder of Ethereum), who believes that the most popular delusion or irrationality should be our belief in progress. I’m now thinking of ways to actively flip these negative scripts in my head, and to find scripts for hope, optimism, and progress even in trying times. I shared this reflection with my team and some friends, who shared their own awesome life hacks: </p>

  • Don’t get caught up in the minutia of day-to-day news. It’s OK not to hear every update. Know the key themes.
  • Subscribe to articles about new discoveries and innovations in science.
  • Check out Gap Minder, which provides you with raw data about the world to react to,  rather than hearing about an issue from a news outlet that may have distorted the data to fit a specific narrative. Also, see Outlier’s series on data storytelling, where the team explores how data can mislead you.
  • Find and follow people that start from an empty whiteboard to re-design the world, such as Jeremy Rifkin and his thinking around a zero marginal cost society.

(Thanks Eliza, Larry, Ryan, and Markeze.)

So: what does give me hope? People that show up, as much as they can, like these wonderful humans that came together for the Families Together demonstration. We walked from Dolores Park to Civic Center to protest immigration policy in solidarity with our neighbors.

Eat your vegetables: a reflection on meditation

I’ve never met a vegetable that I didn’t like, and I credit this to the magic of Vietnamese cuisine and my mother’s cooking.

She grew up in the cooking traditions of Huế, the former imperial capital of Vietnam. To accommodate royalty, its people had a fierce devotion to perfectionism, and you can see this conscious attention to quality in every part of its culture. When I think of food from Central Vietnam, I think of dishes that are focused on nuance and the details, with a particular gift for illuminating the flavor profile of vegetables. Take my mom’s bún bò Huế (Huế-style beef noodle soup) for example: you blanche a mixture of raw bean sprouts, mint, basil, banana flower in a steaming bowl of 12-hour lemongrass and beef broth. Vegetables were/are dank.

I remember reading books and watching Disney channel shows about American families, and was struck by how much other kids seemed to hate vegetables. Vegetables were a dramatic point of contention between kids and their parents. I remember lying to my friends about hating broccoli to fit in.

All this to say, my relationship with what is good and healthy for my mind, body, and soul started off easy. And this became my experience with self-care: mostly easy. There was nothing a good run, a face mask, or treating myself couldn’t fix.

But sometimes, the things that are good for you can be difficult and unpleasant

I joined venture capital a few years ago, and I wish I could say it’s been smooth sailing. I feel like I’m continually battling the decision fatigue and emotional roller coaster of (1) making (many) sound decisions and (2) being thoughtful about how to best support and empower entrepreneurs. And day after day of this stress and anxiety, I found it harder to recover. Things that used to get me back to baseline–like say, the sheer physical exhaustion from a run that gives you that incredible runner’s high–no longer worked. Nursing running injuries, I feared what would happen if I could no longer run.

The thing is, I didn’t even realize I was burning out until I discovered Steve Shlafman’s blog on his experience of a 10-day Goenka Vipassana meditation retreat. He writes (emphasis mine): “I was healing myself by focusing on and accepting these physical pains that I’ve been afraid of for more than a decade. Instead of running, I had no choice but to surrender and in many ways kill my ego. […] In some ways, I felt like performed surgery on my mind and body. It was a surreal and deeply moving experience. Thankfully, I was able to face some deeply rooted and underlying issues that had been bothering me for nearly two decades.”

Something clicked. I craved that mental clarity and peace, to re-orient the neurons in my brain that fired in all directions. I recognized that I had to learn new models of self-care or else I’d truly burn out. And so I texted my friend Ryan Seys a link to Steve’s blog and asked him to embark on a 30-Day Meditation Challenge with me, and hold me accountable to learning how to be healthy and well.

It wasn’t easy. It still isn’t.  But here I am, four months later, with a daily practice, to say: thank goodness for meditation. If you’re craving that clarity and peace and haven’t started, I hope you do. Here’s my hot take for you, in case something clicks to help you get started: three tips to start your practice today, three tips to sustain your practice, and three takeaways. Good luck!

Tips on starting

  • Don’t start your meditation practice on a Monday. Do you ever find yourself daydreaming about the new person you’ll become on Monday? Or after your birthday, next month, or after the New Year? We use these arbitrary benchmarks based on our time biases, but data shows that those are the worst days to start new habits. I always tried to start on Monday, and so I never picked it up. My tip for you: just start. Don’t wait for the perfect day, because it likely won’t happen. And don’t wait to try when you’re already feeling uneasy or anxious.
  • Start small, but it may take longer sessions to find your groove. Don’t let the folks on /r/meditation that finish hour long meditations and have out-of-body experiences scare you from trying. Try it right now: set a timer for 2 minutes. Inhale for one second, exhale for two, rinse and repeat. Congratulations, you just started! You may not feel anything, but that’s OK. I tried a few times to start before my 30-Day Challenge, and I’d quit because I didn’t feel anything after a 5-minute meditation. After forcing myself to sit through 10-30 minute meditations for 30 days, I found my breakthrough moment at 25 minutes. But it can be intimidating to start your practice by sitting with yourself for that long, so start small and build up.
  • Find an accountability partner. Find someone that will actually call you up and call you out. It helps if that person is committed to learning as much as you. Ryan and I kept a meditation log, which you can make a copy of and use with your partner. We also journaled about our experience, which allowed us to talk through some of the questions we had. See below for tips on sustaining. I also kept a version of this log with my friends Radha and Charlotte.

Tips on sustaining

  • Commit to trying. In the beginning, it didn’t feel like anything was happening, and I felt so uncomfortable without a framework for how it should work. Am I doing this right? How am I supposed to be breathing? Why do I breathe so weird? What is my mind supposed to do? Is it supposed to do that? Don’t worry, that’s normal. It helped that Ryan and I had our daily journal to compare notes. According to our logs, Ryan had his breakthrough on Day 18. For me, it took until Day 22. And when you first start, getting into the habit is more important than getting it right.
  • Acknowledge potential distractions, and set intentions. In my early meditations, I would suddenly remember that I had to add something to my task list and would fixate on it. I would also fixate on the deeper, less fun stuff that I’d rather not share on the Internet. I found that setting a 5 minute timer to write it all down, to verbalize to myself that I had acknowledged it and that I was committed to meditating for the sake of my health and wellbeing, helped make the meditation smoother.
  • If it’s not working, try other ways. During my experience, I switched between Headspace, Meditation Studio, setting a timer, and several YouTube videos. Before my challenge, I’d quit because I thought Andy (from Headspace) had the most annoying voice in the entire universe. Funny enough, I now use Headspace (in combination with other things, as needed) and adore Andy, but trying different things allowed me to find something that worked.


  • Yielding to the present: In reflection, I learned that I have two modes of operating: (1) rehashing the past, and giving it a narrative, or (2) rehearsing the future. It’s great to reflect and be thoughtful, but not to the point where you no longer live in the present. Slowly following each rise and fall of my breath taught me how to be singularly focused on the present. Most powerfully, I learned that it can be unproductive to rehash and rehearse. Often the past and future are out of your control, and the only thing you can impact is what’s happening right now.
  • Shifting gears from multi-tasking to deliberate action. Do you have moments in your life where you do just one thing? Probably few. If you’re like me, you probably didn’t make it this far because you’re reading the other tab open in your browser. I’ve recognized that multi-tasking doesn’t work, but couldn’t shake off years of this learned behavior. In meditation, the act of doing nothing but sitting with myself, as well as  mentally shifting my attention back to my breath every time I was distracted, was the ultimate forcing function to break from this habit. But multi-tasking is an addiction, and so meditation is a daily reminder to slow down and be more deliberate.
  • What you feel isn’t (always) real. I like to break down everything I feel, and to look at it from many different angles. Before meditation, I found peace in being able to assign narrative to my feelings, and this gave my life order and structure. In the course of watching the myriad thoughts that rushed through my brain for 10-30 minutes, I learned that much of what I feel is fleeting, and I have the ability to let emotions pass. This has been the greatest gift to manage (the volume of) stress: instead of mulling over each new feeling that pops up in my brain, I kind of let it hang for awhile, and see how it flows. And I developed a bias towards action, rather than dwelling. 

And lastly, my experience with meditation is, and continues to be, so much more about the journey than arriving at some final state where I’m more resilient, happier, and healthier. The journey hasn’t been easy, at times unpleasant, but it’s the ultimate act of self-care that I’ve learned. Eat your vegetables, kids.

Next step: tackling sleep + sleep hygiene. 

Special thanks to Ryan, Radha, Charlotte, and Steve.

You can also read about Ryan’s experience here.