2023 was the best year I've had in a while. It's not even comparable when looking at the amount of objective change I've gone through. Over the span of 12 months, here are some notable life changes:
- I began improv/standup comedy and performed on stage multiple times.
- I took up Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and can fight without panicking.
- I resumed playing the piano after a decade long hiatus.
- I began hosting local mixer parties.
- I visited China for the first time in 20 years.
- I snowboarded my first black trail.
Most of the credit goes to the fact that I was intentionally leaving my comfort zone. If you stay in your comfort zone, you won't grow. It's not what you want in the long term. Therefore, you must always seek to remain right outside the cusp of your comfort zone at all times. It's like progressive overload applied outside of the weight room. It doesn't have to be much, nor does it have to be done in a specific way. Just don't live life on autopilot.
Recap of the year
Late in 2022, I resolved to stop being a tech bro maximalist. I'm a good software engineer. My career was never a problem. It's not my failure mode. But looking ahead, I'd still be living a pretty shit life.
After leaving the Bay Area, it's easy to see that people who are a bit too into tech can be a bit...boring. I didn't want to be like that. If work is your personality, that's no fun. Why not try to be more interesting?
So that was the theme of 2023. Reject tech bro maximalism. Keep yourself outside of your comfort zone however possible. Optimize for being a more interesting person.
(Since this is a public blog post, a lot of the spicier details and events are omitted. They're pretty important. While I'd like to say I'm an open book, but I'm not going arbitrarily broadcast everything into the public. So if you'd like to hear more, hit me up in private.)
In 2022, I fell down a bit of a UFC rabbit hole. It's a fascinating question: what's the "meta" of human unarmed combat? Turns out it's a combination of striking and grappling (which makes up modern MMA). Not all martial arts are created equal.
So I started Muay Thai in late 2022 to explore the fighting rabbit hole. Since I didn't want brain damage, I quit Muay Thai and started Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in early 2023. Muay Thai is a form of striking, while BJJ is a form of grappling. Instead of getting punched in the face, I can get choked out instead.
I really enjoy BJJ. It's something I've kept up throughout the year and up to the present. It really does change you. I recall going to the gym at 7 am and being pinned to the ground for minutes on end. It gets hard to breathe. You feel like you're literally being squashed. At the end of class, your ears are ringing and you feel like throwing up. And the next day, you rinse and repeat.
But the change has been priceless. There's a level of peace that you earn. You know your day literally can't get worse. You know that in case shit really goes down, you can remain calm.
Back in 2018, when I was at Google, there was a program where you could have 1:1 time with a random director for career advice. The chat wasn't useful. But I remember the director mentioning if I should try out an improv class, which caused me to get a mini panic attack from the very thought of trying such a class.
Five years later, I take my first improv class. It really isn't that bad. In fact, it's the most fun I've had as adult in a good while. Rarely do we get the opportunity to just play around. I recommend every adult try out an improv class at least once. It's not like you're performing or acting. A beginner class has you playing some simple games in private. It's a ton of fun.
I'm the type of person to overthink. I'm quite introspective and tend to be in my head too much. Improv actively punishes that behavior. You have to be living in the moment. Thinking and doing nothing is worse than doing something stupid. It's carried over into my life as a whole. Take conversations, for example. Not everything you say has to be insightful. It's better to keep the flow going.
Improv went so well that I decided to continue that journey and tried doing standup comedy. Standup and improv are pretty different, even though they're cut from the same cloth. When doing standup comedy, you have to write a lot. You need to rehearse your performance. For improv, the less you prepare, the better.
After writing a few bits and bombing a few open mics, I ended up doing a few performances as well. Here are a few neat observations about standup comedy:
- It's one of the most honest forms of communication: you can't really hide laughter, nor can you fake laughter. So it's clear if you're funny or not.
- Comedy writing has a clear purpose: control the audience's emotion. It's not like some work presentation where you're supposed to convey useful information. If anything, the audience losing brain cells is a sign of success.
- Even though you're supposed to be "funny," that does not mean you don't take the craft seriously. Open mics are for A/B testing your jokes. You need to kill your ego and notice if your material sucks. I've seen plenty of delusional comedians who think they're funny and don't improve.
Throughout the year, I did more improv and standup classes. At my core, I'm an introvert. But I've become pretty damn good at pretending to be extroverted.
(If you want to see videos of me performing, hit me up.)
This season, I began snowboarding. The previous season, I tried skiing, but it wasn't for me. I didn't grow up as an athletic kid, so the self-preservation instinct made skiing difficult. I was too afraid of falling to learn.
Instead, I decided to give snowboarding a shot. Why? Because there was a higher learning curve. The first few days of snowboarding suck, but once it "clicks," it becomes a lot better. If you can do a green trail, you can survive a black trail. Whereas with skiing, moving up in skill will be a constant battle.
My plan was to bite the bullet and grind out the early learning stages of snowboarding. It was an investment of sorts: I have a few bad days at the beginning, and then I'll be fine afterward. It paid off. For my first few days at the slopes, my focus was on improving rather than having fun. Once I was able to do S-turns, then I really began to enjoy snowboarding. There's something to be said about sacrificing fun for intentional improvement: in the long term, you maximize your fun.
You've probably heard the stereotypes: the immigrant parents make their kid learn piano. The kid grinds outs the piano for 12 or so years throughout his childhood. He gets pretty good, but he grows to hate the piano. Once college comes, he quits and doesn't touch the instrument ever again.
That was me about a decade ago. I've always felt it to be a shame that I threw away such a talent. Learning the piano ate up a bunch of time and money. Halfway through 2023, I bought a keyboard and started practicing independently. It's pretty nice; I haven't forgotten all that much. But this time it's on my terms: I'm playing for my own enjoyment.
So far I've only described the hits when it comes to trying out new hobbies. Early 2023 was definitely more of an exploration phase where I tried out multiple things. Not everything stuck. For example, I tried other things like woodworking, volunteering, and I got my concealed carry license. None of those were super interesting, so I wasn't consistent with them. It seems like my "trinity" of hobbies are BJJ, comedy, and piano. And maybe snowboarding during the winter. This may change in the future, but they've stuck for the time being.
It seems that I've done a good strategy for figuring out what I like: try out everything, do more of what sticks. People tend to have natural affinities towards different activities. A good test seems to be to ask what you'd enjoy doing alone. Some activities you'd do if a friend does. For other activities, you're the one dragging your friends. And once they quit, you're still happy doing it by yourself.
Hosting cocktail parties
The first ~2 years after Covid were a waste. I left the Bay Area and returned to the DMV, and most of my time was spent journaling. Otherwise I have very little to show for it. It feels bad grappling with the fact that you've thrown away years of your life.
I had since moved to my own place, so it was time to touch grass and bring people together. By pure coincidence I stumbled upon a book about hosting cocktail parties while listening to a podcast. I agreed many of the book's theses, so I started to implement them.
Throughout the year, I hosted multiple mixer-styled cocktail parties. You know how you have multiple friend groups that don't know each other? They're all invited to the same event. Throw in some name tags, icebreakers, and alcohol, and you've got yourself a party.
A few pro tips when it comes to hosting parties:
- Yes, you SHOULD intermingle your various friend groups. Being a connector is good for the world.
- People are both nice and lonely. Usually they appreciate that you think of them, and they're happy to support you. Stop thinking otherwise.
- No offense, but most people are lazy bums. So you have to be the change you wish to see in the world. Waiting doesn't work.
- Before a party, make sure the food, drinks, and seating are all uniformly distributed across the room. People tend to gravitate towards the food or seats, so you don't want people to crowd towards (or avoid) any singular area.
- When hosting parties, only a few things really matter (e.g. marketing and name tags). Otherwise, let the people self organize and have fun. They're adults, and you should treat them as such.
As a self-proclaimed shy introvert, I've become surprisingly good at making new friends and talking to random people. Most things in life are learnable skills, and hosting lots of events is starting to make people think that I'm a social butterfly.
I don't get the romanticization of travel. Personally, I'm a bit of a homebody. The biggest value I get from traveling is the reminder that the world moves on, regardless of whether or not you keep up. Throughout 2023, I left my home base a total of 5 times:
- Early in the year, I took a vacation to Amsterdam and London. That was cool, I guess.
- Shortly afterward, I visited the Bay Area for work (and snowboarding).
- A few months later, there was a work offsite in Vegas. I normally go to Vegas annually for DEF CON, so it wasn't that novel.
- Pretty much right after that offsite, I returned to Vegas for DEF CON 31. I'm in Las Vegas way too much...
- Towards the end of the year, I took a trip to China. That was the interesting one. It was the first time I'd been to the country in 20 years.
It might be a stretch to say that the China trip was life changing, but it really did give me an appreciation of the culture. Two decades ago, it was a third world country. Over the years, it's modernized. The cities are arguably nicer than America's major cities.
Chinese and American culture are wildly different from each other. I don't think most Americans understand how the Chinese think (and vice versa). American was created because the people value freedom and independence: that makes them good at innovation. China was built up from centuries of war: the people will happily conform to a powerful government in return for the promise of prosperity. That makes China good at copying what works and scaling it up.
Their "app ecosystem" is a pretty neat case study: the WeChat and Alipay duopoly shows how a single app can do everything for you. It's pretty convenient. I suspect Instagram, Twitter, or Apple should race to become the WeChat of America. All of them need to get their peer-to-peer payments story down first. That makes the app practically useful. And Threads should have been a tab in the Instagram app. Since it's its own app, nobody's using it anymore.
Ah yes, work. While life was happening, Stairwell was going through its own adventures.
I'm going to be vague with this. We lost some good people. We lost some bad people. We also gained some good people. It was a turbulent year. And now the company is in its best shape since I joined.
Now's actually a really good time to join. If you're interested in working at a security startup (and you're competent), hit me up.
If you received a holiday card from me, you'd know that this blog post was written pretty late. As of the time of writing (late-ish January), I just got back from travel, so I haven't had time to think too deeply about what I hope to accomplish in 2024.
They're not well-fleshed out, but here are a few thoughts:
- Everything that I began in 2023, I should continue into 2024. It shouldn't be a one-and-done deal. Keep up the trajectory.
- Ever since I started sparring in BJJ, I've been neglecting the weight room. I currently weigh 140 pounds. Back in SF I was sustainably in the 160's and was an absolute unit. I need to recover my strength and muscle.
- Stairwell's in a state where success is guaranteed, now I can think about growing instead of putting out fires. My career role model is Kelsey Hightower; emulating his journey would be amazing.
- I need a girlfriend.
- I may be moving to a city next year. There's only so much you can do in the Maryland suburbs. I feel like I've pulled most of the levers that I can.
To be honest, I'm a bit worried that it's all downhill from here. What can I accomplish in 2024 that would make it an equal or better year than 2023? I do feel some pressure in this regard, and I don't have a game plan for that.
On that note, let's wrap up this blog post with random wisdom that I gathered throughout the year.
These are in no particular order. Some of these might be repeated.
On the self
- You must intentionally leave your comfort zone or else you won't grow. At all times, you should be living right outside the cusp of your comfort zone.
- Most worthwhile results come in the long term, but honestly you can see pretty cool results over the span of a year.
- Your ego tends to be the biggest blocker to happiness. Get rejected a lot: you'll realize it's not a big deal. Get your ass kicked: it'll end your physical insecurities. Humiliate yourself on stage: you'll learn how big your balls truly are.
- Don't be afraid to delegate. You can only do so much as an individual. If I want to keep moving forward, I'll need some help. Most of my friends are supportive: I should take them up on their offers to help.
- Without sounding like too much of a douchebag, I move past the change curve really fast. It might be because I'm intentional about being outside my comfort zone. But I can work past things in a month or two, when it would take other people years.
- The point of human conversation is to give the other person good vibes. It is not to conduct high-bandwidth information transfer.
- You don't need to understand everything to make use of it. Not everything needs a rigorous definition. For example, I don't know what exactly "good vibes" or being funny entails. Yet I'll know it when I see it.
- The best way to get your message across is to be funny and tell stories. Humans struggle to pay attention, let alone retain information.
- Overthinking is the best way to ruin a conversation. Just say what's on your mind. Don't be afraid to attempt to joke around or sound stupid. Usually, these are of low consequence and high upside.
- Being a connector is both the easiest and the best way to create social value. Humans are lonely and love it that you're thinking of them. Bringing people together will generate a lot of happiness in the world.
- When meeting new people, be sure to exchange contact information before parting ways. (Both phone number AND Instagram.) You may regret not doing so.
- If people aren't interested in talking, respect them. Don't try to win them over. Read the room. Move on.
- Don't procrastinate on organizing social events. When things depend on other people, time is of the essence. Don't be the blocker, and give people ample buffer time.
On human nature
- Random people tend to like it when you talk to them. So talk to as many people as possible. Just find some random excuse to talk. Or don't. Either works. Again, humans are lonely and actually would love to make a new friend.
- Friendships are formed by frequent, casual, ad hoc interactions. So scheduling a monthly calendar event to catch up isn't effective. It kills the vibe. Not everybody may be in the mood to talk. It's better to randomly call or text. Or randomly invite them to events like dinner on the same day.
- Women tend to have a higher baseline of social awareness than men. So the issue with most men is that they might be too dense (i.e. insufficient social awareness). On the other hand, the failure mode for women is that they become "divas" (i.e. they're way too particular about their social sensitivities).
- Do not shy away from conflict, especially if you're intimidated. Not everything is black and white, but some things are. There are some people who are too stupid to see nuance. Don't entertain such stupidity.
- Learning how to fight gives you outsized benefits to your confidence and calmness. Your body language even changes. It makes all the difference knowing that you have a backup plan if all hell breaks loose.