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.

Experiencing power

I just spent an eye-opening ten days in Vietnam, filled with overwhelming amounts of food, tropical fruit, and great conversation.

I went in knowing that Vietnam was one of the fastest growing economies in the world.  And Vietnam’s middle and upper class were enjoying everyday evidence of this, from pizza to craft beer, while new skyscraper developments scattered across Saigon’s skyline. I also knew the other side of the story: one party rule, corruption, repression, and inequality.

But knowing is not as powerful as seeing, and I found myself startled by the poignant signs of unequal growth. Through out the entire trip, this feeling gnawed at me, and I struggled to articulate the current that ran through my reflections.

I found my first clue to make sense of this tension in re-reading Barack Obama’s extraordinary Dreams from My Father. He writes of his Indonesian stepfather’s sudden change in disposition when the family moved to Indonesia (bolded emphasis my own):

“Power. The word fixed in my mother’s mind like a curse. In America, it had generally remained hidden from view until you dug beneath the surface of things; until you visited an Indian reservation or spoke to a black person whose trust you had earned. But here power was undisguised, indiscriminate, naked, always fresh in memory. Power had taken Lolo and yanked him back in line just when he thought he’d escape, making him feel its weight, letting him know that his life wasn’t his own. That’s how things were; you couldn’t change it, you could just live by the rules, so simple once you learned them. And so Lolo had made his peace with power, learned the wisdom of forgetting…”

I’m flooded with reactions, but I’ll let this clue (and the others I’m finding) marinate for now and report back. Hold me accountable to it.

Some contextual reads, if you’re interested:

And a few current-ish events to know:

Informal (and inclusive) economies

In April, I spoke at Utopia’s San Francisco studio opening.

Utopia is an urban design and innovation firm that looks to re-imagine slums, and to develop tools to help people design their own city. A group of us were asked to speak about considerations in city design and beyond, and we had the opportunity to openly interpret this prompt:

  • Barry Pousman (Institute for the Future) shared the narrative power of VR to start movements and raise philanthropy
  • Karen Mok (Citizens Advisory Council of the SF Grants for the Arts) talked about the frictions in public arts funding, and why it’s important to invest in a vibrant arts community and cultural policy
  • Lance Cassidy (DXLabs, Singularity U) shared his work at DXLabs, and how they’re enabling people and companies to consider and design for the distant future

I shared something very close to my heart: my community in San Jose. And the economic arrangements that we created to survive and to build our lives.

Slide from my talk: my favorite tofu house in San Jose, with prices that have not risen to match inflation or the rising cost of living in the Bay Area

Like other refugees that immigrated to the United States after the Vietnam war, my parents didn’t have much when they arrived. They slowly built a life for themselves and their families, and I credit much of this to our community and the informal economy we created to make ends meet. What does that mean? Rather than transact in cold hard cash, we traded in goodwill and services. Together, we bootstrapped toward a more tolerable quality of life. 

For example, I damaged my car in an accident and the local mechanic effectively fixed that car for free because my mom helped his son find a job. I was fresh out of college, I had student loans, and I would’ve otherwise wiped out my savings. I’m not unique: 44% of Americans are unable to cover a $400 emergency expense out of pocket.

Another example: my uncle – a doctor in the community – gives free health advice. In return, his patients share what they can. We get the sweetest, most mouthwatering oranges from one of his patients.  This is a compelling arrangement when you compare it against the exorbitant cost of being healthy and well in our country.

Certainly, the informal economy also allows for bad actors. You don’t have to look hard to find the hundreds of vulnerable domestic workers that are unseen by our society.

But in the best way, our informal economy acted as a de-facto social safety net that we, the people, built. A safety net of our own design.

So my case to the room:

  • How might we consider the informal economy in our design, while providing the necessary social protections?
  • How do we create space and policy that reflect and enhance dynamics of these arrangements?

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.

To see without my eyes

Huh. I can’t believe it’s already March. If this is any indication of how the rest of the year will unfold…

In any case, here’s a playlist I made that dampens any unease I feel as I stare into the abyss of 2018. It has some sludgey lo-fi, opera, new age chill meets electronica banger, a delicate Trịnh Công Sơn track sung by Khánh Ly, that still feels fresh off vinyl—all inspired by Sufjan Steven’s devastatingly beautiful score for Call Me By Your Name.


Vulture did a fun profile of Sufjan Steven and his collaboration with director Luca Guadagnino, which included several golden nuggets on their creative process.

To share two that stuck with me…

The magic of sharing sensibilities, or sharing how you intimately process and communicate the various textures of being alive:

“Luca’s a real sensualist, and I very quickly keyed into that because I am, as well […] There’s a physicality to his work that’s really profound, and there’s an emotional experience that’s occurring as well, and they have this divine interaction. So that’s really what I was working on, this idea of first love being really irrational and sensational, and feeling boundless in its experience.”

And the state of flow behind the magic:

“I firmly believe in the power of impulse and instinct, and the ideology of ‘first thought, best thought,’ […] I have to admit that often when I’m writing music, I’m sort of at a loss for how it all transpires. It feels so immediate and impulsive that I feel like I’m almost not in control. I’m not writing in a state of ecstasy, per se, but I feel almost powerless to the creative motion.”

Hope you’ll take a chance on the playlist, and may you find flow, people, and work that speak to your consciousness.

(Also, I make a lot of these things. Follow me on Spotify!)

Finding hope in the next frontier

Today, everyone’s favorite billionaire bro genius slash Internet cult leader pushed the bounds of possibility and our imagination, and launched the world’s most powerful rocket into space.

As I sit here and drill these images into my memory, I think of a conversation I had with a remarkable entrepreneur looking to refuel satellites. He had this insatiable desire to tackle the next frontier, grounded in a vision that exploring space would be such a grand endeavor that it’d unite humanity. I was also struck by his vision of the near-term impact: “What if this could be the next industrial revolution? What if we could bridge developing economies to the next revolution by helping them invest in systems and infrastructure to manufacture these large scale projects?” I immediately thought of the new opportunity for skilled work in the United States.

Refueling satellites. Big idea. Creating more harmonious, symbiotic systems. Bigger idea. Sure, there are several ways you could find fallacy in that line of thought, but it’s not every day Elon sends a Tesla to space. Let’s suspend judgement for a second, ponder the possibilities, and dream big.

P.S. If you’re reading this blog and you happen to be an impact investor looking for new ideas, take a look at Space Angels and peep their portfolio.

Beyond our borders: what's our responsibility?

SiR— Something Foreign ft. ScHoolboy Q

It’s devastating that the Trump Administration is ending Temporary Protected Status for the 200,000 people who migrated to the U.S. after the 2001 earthquakes in El Salvador.  These Salvadorans must now leave the home they’ve known for nearly two decades, where they’ve had families, developed community ties, and contributed to our economy by working, starting small businesses, and paying taxes. As I woke up to the announcement this morning, I was reminded of the half-baked foreign and immigration policies between the U.S. and El Salvador in the 80s/90s—and the longstanding impact these policies have had on our country and beyond.

The first wave of Salvadorans entered the U.S. in the early 80s, seeking asylum from the Civil War between the military-led government and left-wing guerillas. This was a war that the United States actively supported via monetary and military aid to a government that committed scores of human rights offenses to stay in power. In its post-war report, the U.N. found that “more than 85 percent of the killings, kidnappings, and torture had been the work of government forces, which included paramilitaries, death squads, and army units trained by the United States.”

Many asylum seekers settled in Los Angeles, where they encountered the poverty of South Central and brutality of Black and Mexican street gangs. In response, Salvadorans banded together to form the violent MS-13 and Barrio 18. Against the backdrop of race-related gang violence was also the beginning of the Crack Epidemic, and Los Angeles saw a 50% increase in gang-related homicides during this time. Gang members began filling up California prisons, and non-US citizens were deported back to their home country.  For Salvadorans, El Salvador had just signed the Peace Treaty in 1992. The country was still rebuilding itself after the war. Without the infrastructure to support these deportees, the gang members of South Central returned to continue their reign of violence.

This violence still continues to plague the country today. San Salvador is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, where, in lieu of other opportunities, gang members rely on extortion and violence to make ends meet. Returning to El Salvador could be a death sentence for Salvadorans on the Temporary Protected Status. It’s also unlikely El Salvador will have the infrastructure to support this large influx of people. That’s 200,000 re-entering a small country of 6.4 million people.

When I shared the news with a friend, he responded: “Well, it’s a temporary protection. It’s not like they can stay here forever. What’s our responsibility?” In an imaginary world where the impact and consequences of our actions are neatly confined to our corner of the universe, and our corner only—um, sure, maybe. We wipe our hands clean and call it a day. However, with El Salvador, there is a very clear link between our actions and policies and what El Salvador looks like today. We are very much responsible. And today, our country chooses again to enact haphazard policies that may have irrevocable, devastating impact on Salvadoran communities here and abroad. And we are also responsible for what happens next.

In the case of El Salvador, the events are a bit more linear, closer to home, the timeline is shorter, and the impact is tangible. We’re afforded a tighter aperture to judge our actions, and it’s easier to connect the dots if you have the facts and do a little digging. That’s not always the case in other situations, and our complicated history is riddled with secrets and sins. Like say, compared to trying to comprehend what happened/is happening in Syria and the Middle East (but hey, this is a good start if you’re interested). It’s hard to sit down and parse out the nuance. Personally for me and my little pea brain, I often can’t find the mental space or emotional energy.

So what if, instead, we broke away from the minutia of figuring out who’s responsible for what and whom? What if we just flipped our mental model of how we should interact with the world beyond our borders? Start with: it’s always our responsibility. There are no borders. (Quick aside: being borderless could be our country’s ultimate reparation.) Let’s start from a blank slate on how the world could look. Perhaps then, we can begin thinking creatively about what comes next.

I’m very hopeful that what comes next is a more prosperous, inclusive world.

Coping mechanisms

Hey, world!

It’s my first blog.

To celebrate, I’d like to share my favorite (possibly counterfeit) comic from Calvin and Hobbes. I revisit this comic every time I have a panic attack about sharing too much of my data and contributing to the inevitable AI takeover. (All this said as I purr sweet nothings into my Google Home.)

What are you doing? Why are you reading this? Go play already.