On the power of mirror neurons and adverse effects of grand life plans

My friend Miles introduced me to Kathy Matsui, Chief equity strategist at Goldman Sachs Japan, and I was excited to get together with her upon reading up on her accomplishments overcoming many forces that seemed against her, and her work championing Womenomics in Japan. 

Two takeaways from our conversation.


The power of exposure and female role models

I wasn’t always attracted to the idea of having a role model I could empathize with — I always thought, if you really wanted to do something, why do you need a role model? Why not just use your agency? The line of having someone you could see reflected in yourself seemed trite.

One thread that has been crossing my mind repeatedly, however, is the power of mirror neurons, which, as my good friend Alton put it, are “inspiring forces through modeling and recognizing what’s possible and crossing that to plausible.”

Exposure subconsciously affects our idea of normal. 

I was at the Miraikan Science Museum on Odaiba Island in Tokyo, Japan the other day (now my favorite museum!). While there was amazing technology (if you think of Japan as the future, this museum was the epitome of the future, showcasing droid robots that looked human like from the skin and hair, to the furrowing of the brows).

It wasn’t the technology that most struck me, however, than it was this amazing sign I read. The sign read something along the lines of

Oftentimes when a new technology comes out, we often think of it as being weird/different, because this new innovation is not a concept that fits our definition of normal, but what if we just expanded our concept of normal to include x?

How would that change the way we think about the world?

Exposure creates this vehicle for expanding our concept of normal.


Human-like droid simulating a newcaster, Miraikan Museum


Plant acorns everyday. Too often, people limit their success by getting caught up staring at the shiny oak tree and never planting acorns.

Kathy said when she first started working at Goldman, she would grind at work everyday because she wanted to prove herself. She didn’t have a grand life plan (like I thought she might have, in an OCD excel-spreadsheet type way of all her life goals like I imagine all successful people must have) — she just knew the components of the work she wanted to do, found a job that let her do that, and grit those acorns into the ground.

I noticed I often only see people at the height of their game — Bill Clinton being President, Steve Jobs being the CEO of Apple, Warren Buffet being the most successful investor of the 20th century — I see nothing of the time and effort that was put into it. I think this is scary because it encourages people to become restless when we put in effort and don’t see immediate gains.

This is related to Paul Graham’s essay on How to Not Die.

If you can just avoid dying, you get rich. That sounds like a joke, but it’s actually a pretty good description of what happens in a typical startup. It certainly describes what happened in Viaweb. We avoided dying till we got rich.

It’s easy to give up if the “getting rich” comes much later, and you’re deluded to believe that it should come sooner.


Post inspired by Alton Sun.

Oct 10, 2014

Two uncommon beliefs about love that I want to internalize.

I had a series of interesting conversations yesterday. It was strange- I noticed the conversations I had and book I was reading last night all had the same threads, even though I was doing all of them in parallel. 

One was with Alton. The major takeaway was-


Indulging in your feelings.

Why do you resist feeling fondly for someone? Why not indulge in your feelings, tell them how much you appreciate them, and use their response as a signal for your filtering mechanism?


I had an experience a few months ago where I was seeing a guy named Sam, who I thought was super-cute. I wrote him a letter telling him all the things I appreciated about him and what I enjoyed about our relationship. I noticed that soon after, he started taking our relationship for granted and getting annoyed at me for little things. We ended up breaking up.

At first, I saw my communicativeness as a bad thing. Had I not sent him that letter, he wouldn’t have realized how much I liked him and would not have taken me for granted. Then, I realized that if anything, surfacing the way he reacted was a wonderful thing. He wasn’t mature enough to handle such a relationship (prone to play hard to get, and only want what he didn’t have), and his reaction served as a filtering mechanism to expedite the end of our relationship.


"Being in love" vs. "Falling in love"

Separately, I ran into a conversation with Laura in the kitchen and she was telling me about how it’s easy for her to switch her love for someone on and off, and how when she decides to love someone, it’s a choice.

It was a strange idea to me, because we often see falling in love as an emotional experience that is hard to help — your attraction for someone.

Then I stumbled upon The Road Less Traveled, and the synthesis of my main takeaway is that there is a difference between being in love (choice; genuine; self-replenishing) vs. falling in love (emotional; taxing if not reciprocated).

Being in love with someone is a choice, similar to how you would love your child. Falling in love is two things: 1) temporary, and 2) involuntary. Falling is that rush of ecstasy you get when you are first dating someone, often driven by sexual desire. “Falling” also involves some sort of dependency, where you’re tying your identity with the person you are dating. It gives you a rush of pleasure because it validates you as a human being, this being with someone else.

Being in love, on the other hand, is a conscious decision you make to care about someone.

Some streams of thought that might be helpful in understanding:


Aug 25, 2014

On modes of operating: “I’m just gonna do me, until you tell me I’m imposing on you.”

One thing I enjoy is observing people’s modus operandi’s and teasing out how it causes them to act differently from others in situations. One of the MOs of my best friend is: “I’m just gonna do me, until you tell me I’m imposing on you.”

Tthere is a subset of people who do the opposite. They question themselves too much, have an extraordinary amount of self-doubt, and fail to recognize that “this is my intuition, so I must be right on some spectrum, because I am a product of my experiences.” Rather, they tend to see right and wrong as binary and assume since everyone is doing things a way that is different from them, they must be wrong.

I think people often know what they want — what needs to happen, what dots need to connect — but too often they wait for permission from others to take action. It is a shame; they have so much gift and privilege, that will not be manifested into the world.

Some people have enough imagination to procure a vision, but are stifled by those without the perceptibility.

Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of some one else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him.

I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream—I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediaevalist…

But the bravest man is afraid of himself.

- “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde

I want to create a space to pursue unconventional lines of thought for a sustained while and not be cut off by the first step.

If you have any interest or a comment that may be even tangentially related, please let me know.

Aug 15, 2014

Two inflection points on relationships


I’ve decided that if I’m going to love, I’m going to love. hard.

Many people look at what didn’t work in their past relationships that lead to their heart being broken. They then try to avoid this in the future by having less emotional investment and being more guarded about who they let their heart out to.

I think people are conflating emotional investment with open communication. They think that if they had just been less invested in the person, then they could have avoided all this pain.I think people are deluding themselves. Two reasons:

  1. It wasn’t emotional investment that lead to them being hurt — it was a lack of open communication — consistent transparency about each other’s pulse on the relationship and trusting each other enough to be vulnerable about thoughts and emotions.

    If you had just openly communicated in the first place, then you would’ve been able to exchange quick feedback loops and adjust your speedometer accordingly.

    It’s when these pulses are not in sync and people begin to leave things (addictingly!) ambiguous, that signals get crossed and people end up being hurt.

  2. There’s nothing wrong with being hurt. I can be less hurt by being more guarded about who I give my heart to, but what is the fun in that.

    To feel emotion is to be human. And you can never fully live out what it means to be human without living intensely. 


I’m going to prioritize the person over the relationship [1].

A lot of times, when just entering the rush of a new intimate relationship, we get worried about defining the relationship - what it should be, whether or not we’re boyfriend/girlfriend, whether or not he’s seeing someone else. These trains of thoughts make it difficult to live in the moment, to appreciate the person for who they are, and savor the time when you’re with them. 

It’s the prioritization of the relationship over the person that creates bad outcomes. Things start to become binary — we’re either exclusive or we’re not friends at all — and power dynamics come into play — he took 5 hours to respond to my text, is the ball in his court or mine? We’re no longer happy with the time we spend with them, rather, we suddenly build up expectations and want more.

I think this is related to my lines of thought on the replaceability of people. People are replaceable — but that doesn’t mean I don’t deeply value the people I have formed relationships with. Our relationship is not defined by my constantly looking into the future and weighing the value you could add to my life — it’s defined by the deep experiences that we’ve shared in the past to create the meaningful relationship we have now.

Few people are worth your EQ. When you meet someone you believe is worth emotionally investing in, instead of trying to put them into a hole and asking, “Is he the one?” why not ask, “Am I building something amazing with this person? What else do I want to build with them?”

Impetus inspired by conversations with Hani [1], Eddie, Luis, and TheAngryTherapist ((1) Love. hard. (2) On intimacy).

Jul 17, 2014

When you are famous, it is hard to work on small problems. The great scientists often make this error.

via Richard Hamming’s “You and Your Research”

Jun 26, 2014

Design Week is wear the sartorial-obsessed people come out to play.

I attended the grand opening party of Flexform’s first flagship showroom last night.

Stimulating conversation with Italy-based Flexform owner Giuliano Galimberti, moderated by acclaimed design editor Zahid Sardar.


Coralie Langston-Jones

I am obsessed with her jacket. And it turns inside out. what what. Back to the good days in grade school when my clothing was reversible.


Timothy Ho

If I were ever a man, one of the biggest things I’d be excited about is being able to properly fit my suits. How good does well-tailored look.


Celia Shuman

I’m in love Celia Shuman’s androgynous style. Few people can pull it off well.

Jun 20, 2014

5 Things I Learned at 20.

1. It will be a gift if you treat it that way.

Sometimes I get really frustrated when I hear my mom talk about “saving face” and caring so much about what other people think and bragging to them about her daughter being a doctor (which is great, but not when you tie that into your self-worth and identity).

I should just accept her the way she it. It’s a very human thing to do. I appreciate the contrast when I hang out with friends who attribute their self-worth to other things (like inherent self-worth).

Additionally, there is unlocked power in gratitude. You could just see them as books.

There are 129 million books out there. How many have you read?

You could also see them as… having private access to the greatest minds in history. Oh, and what a coincidence that the most common language these books are written in is one that you are able to read! (approx. 2 in 3 people in the world cannot read English).

2. Your feelings are always valid, even if they’re not logically justified.

People don’t know what you want. It is your obligation (and your responsibility if you have self-respect) to communicate what you want and 
hold them accountable to respecting your boundaries.

I’ve realized that sometimes I won’t state my boundaries first, because I’m afraid of what may happen, usually that I’ll piss them off. But often the opposite usually happens — people are more attracted to you for your clarity. They respect you, because you respect yourself. You take care of yourself. :)

3. People, are just people.

Your boss? He’s just a guy. Peter Thiel? He’s just a person.

I further realized this upon meeting one of my biggest idols ever. I think he is such a visionary. When I asked him about he stumbled upon his vision, he said it just seemed logical. Now leafing through all the literature and talks and people who inspire him, I realize it only makes sense that he would have come to the conclusion that he did.

"I noticed a long time ago that people, on the whole, are stupid, and behave stupidly and responding to their stupidity is bad for me in the long run now, i’m not saying that people are stupid as individuals but people have this habit of forming opinions before they understand things or before they’ve been exposed to more than one viewpoint which is a stupid thing to do, because it opens you up to utter manipulation and demagoguery and then, to top it off they revel in their stoicism as they deal with the consequences of their ill-formed judgements.”

4. Being lonely does not mean that you are alone.

Sometimes when I’m lonely, I think I am the only person in the world who is alone and all my friends are busy and people-filled. How ridiculous does that sound? 

You are only alone, if you ignore all the other people who are exactly like you.

5. Prioritizing surfacing reality vs. controlling reality.

Being vulnerable is important. You might feel anxious at first. Why not take the mindset of:

This is what I like about you. If you don’t like me, then it just speeds up this process faster.

Give up trying to control. I realized I was being delusional when I used to conceal my emotions or how I felt about someone. Now I focus on surfacing reality. I get better outcomes and I learn to design around it.

It’s a matter of prioritization. Confronting reality and controlling reality are not mutually exclusive. First do one, then do the other. There are some things:

  1. You cannot control and/or
  2. are not worth your time and effort.

This makes things temporary, because you’re no longer attaching yourself to outcomes. And that’s OK.

I like that I can appreciate the past and the present and what I have. But I can also understand the temporal nature and not be longing for things or be sad that I won’t have it in the future.

Jun 19, 2014

On impostor syndrome: To think that everything you have accomplished can be attributed to luck is some sort of perverse egotism.

While I’m all for checking your ego at the door (a la Ray Dalio’s “Principles”), it’s important to recognize and own your accomplishments and the value you bring to a setting.

Think about the power dynamics at play when a teacher walks into a classroom. The teacher is able to bring that much more value because he is aware of what he has to offer.

Let us imagine a universe in which he attributed all his past accomplishments to luck. It would be much harder for him to recognize what he could bring to the table — there would be a gift there, but his doubts would kill the gift. Attributing accomplishments to luck and circumstance can lead one to a mindset that deprives others of the gift you behold.

What if you took that power mindset to every situation — a situation in which you’d generally take a more deferential role, like your next job interview? How much more value could you add?

As my former manager Jeff Taylor says, “I figure if I’m going to be attending a meeting, I might as well run it.” People will tell you if you’re stepping over their boundaries.

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

Martha Graham.

Jun 18, 2014

On lack of progress: 2 takeaways on a conversation with Alan Kay, a father on object-oriented programming

I had the pleasure of sitting with Alan Kay ("The best way to predict the future is to invent it.") last week during his visit to the CDG. Some personal takeaways:

1. Self-consciousness is scary.

It forces you to consider that you may be doing something wrong, at the expense of entering a herd-like mentality — a desire to conform to social approval. This mindset stifles progress, because people just end up making copies.

How do we bootstrap self-consciousness in children and get them to grapple with themselves as creatures?

We can accomplish this through expanding outlook and an openness to intellectual weirdness - anthropology, for example, pushes at the bounds of this. The discipline forces you to realize that everything that is strange to someone is normal to someone — teetering towards validating your independent thinking.

2. Awareness triggers excellence by:

1) Expanding your possibility/imagination space

One of the fastest ways to accelerate awareness (and get smarter) is through reading. We have access to some of the best minds in history — writing has enabled us to not only share ideas at different times, but also piece through the cleaned-up thought processes of others.

2) Enabling you to realize that everything is a construction.

By the time I got to school, I had already read a couple hundred books. I knew in the first grade that they were lying to me because I had already been exposed to other points of view. School is basically about one point of view — the one the teacher has or the textbooks have.

- Alan Kay

Jun 16, 2014

[microthoughts] Find the elephant in the room and mention it.


I’m playing a new game: 1. Find the elephant in the room, 2. Mention it.

Sometimes I get into conversations where there is something I am thinking, but for some reason I am not saying it. This often leads to bad outcomes. My good friend Eddie once mentioned:

If you don’t voice your opinion, then I won’t know what you’re thinking.

(Common sense. But common sense is not always common.)

The other day, my friend James was frustrated that an ex-girlfriend Sasha he still wanted to keep in touch with wasn’t responding to his emails or texts; or would respond sporadically and be flakey about it. James went on about his frustrations, and I asked him, “Have you told her that this frustrates you?” He responded, “You know what Adrienne; I had not even thought of that.”

A few days later, James told me he had talked to Sasha about her unresponsiveness, and Sasha was surprised and had not even realized he was trying to contact her.

Why do we not mention the elephant in the room? This can be attributed to a (dangerous!) mindset:

'No one is saying anything, so everything must be right.'

In other words, we allow ourselves to be pulled into a crowd mentality, and fail to give credibility to our individual thoughts.

At the Stanford Salon yesterday night, I was giving a talk on visualizing probability distributions, where I was explaining an equation and assumed everyone was with me.

It wasn’t until Rafael interjected with, “If that makes sense to you, give a thumbs up,” that I realized some people were lost. His interjection led to furthered understanding and learning in our conversation, which would have been lost without his independent thinking.

As Nietzche notes:

Madness is rare in individuals — but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.

Read More

Jun 10, 2014

A Short Rant about Pie Charts and the Dangerous Cult of Adoption

I discovered a dangerous phenomenon the other day over conversation with my co-workers Bret Victor and Glen Chiacchieri.

Bret was speaking of the requests he gets to release the source code for his prototypes, and his rationale behind not doing so — that it could lead to innovation halting, because the release creates a standard for what products should be.

I realized,

When an inventor creates a tool and makes it available to the world, the public has a tendency to simply accept the tool as is, use it, and stop thinking of new ways to do things. (thus halting development of the product).

Example #1: the Pie Chart

Pie charts are pervasive…



… And a poor way to represent information. (See Edward Tufte, The Worst Chart in the World, and Oracle’s Reasons Not to Use a Pie Chart)

A simple example illustrates that pie charts make it difficult to make comparisons between two quantities. See:


What if we represented the same information like this, instead? This illustration enables us to make direct comparisons between quantities.


Because pie charts cannot spatially fit all information, they also are pleasantly accompanied by a key (right-hand side), which attempts to illustrate what all the components of the pie chart designate.


Could we design another way to represent this information — one that doesn’t require you darting your eyes back and forth to understand the information?

What about this?


Okay. Maybe not as aesthetically pleasing. Perhaps a reason why people use pie charts is because all the circles look pretty. But I would argue that we should not sell ourselves short — can we not have a representation that is both intuitively functional, and aesthetically pleasing?

I re-designed a representation of the same information; illustrated below.



So what?

These are just pie charts. Okay, it’ll take a millisecond longer to process the percentages. Why does it matter?

I think we vastly underestimate how good the quality of an experience (in this case, understanding and exploring the world) could be, because we already have models in our heads of what the medium is currently like.

One step further: Understanding Bayesian Probability

Another way to view this idea is through the lens of Bayes’ theorem. The traditional example is the cancer testing scenario, where you’re presented with a series of probabilities.


You are typically asked:

Assuming you have a positive test, what is the chance you have cancer?

When calculated out, the number seems much lower than expected. 

Some of us simply accept that our brains do not intuitively grasp probabilities, but I’d argue that statistics is only unintuitive because we don’t have proper representations.

How would you design another representation of Bayes’ Theorem?

More to come.

Jun 5, 2014

Sitting down with Neil deGrasse Tyson: 2 Takeaways on His Acquired Wisdom


I like people with extreme personalities. People who are loud, aggressively opinionated, even. Some might find it a turn off, but my good friend Alton taught me we learn more from extremes than from the mediocrity of the means. Neil is one of those.

If you Google Neil deGrasse Tyson, a contentious array of headlines appear, from Neil deGrasse Tyson Slammed for Dismissing Philosophy as Useless to Neil deGrasse Tyson Destroys Climate Deniers.

I asked him, “What were key moments in your life when you acquired key pieces of wisdom? How did it inform your life going forward?”

2 things:

  1. Meaning. People have a tendency to search for meaning — but meaning cannot be found, you must create meaning for yourself. Meaning is manufactured.


  2. The prime of your life. He spoke of the poem Desiderata, and how some people have a tendency to constantly reminisce about the so-called prime of their life, and live in the past — but the prime of your life is now.

    I interpreted his point as mindfulness. Gratefulness for the present doesn’t create complacency, but rather enables you to notice the abundance and throw your hand into it.


Mind-tickley lines from the conversation

On taking the red pill to live forever if the choice were given to you:

It is the fact that we die that brings focus to our lives. Imagine animals that live for one cycle. Think about the intensity of their experience.

[During the Civil War period] many slaves thought, “Something great happens in the after life.” This led to complacency. There was no urge for them to change their circumstances.

On working with the government for space exploration:

[We should] remind ourselves that the president works for us. So if I have a five-minute statement, somebody ought to sit the fuck down and listen to me.

Jun 3, 2014
Most business relationships either become too tense to tolerate or not tense enough to be productive after a while. Either people challenge each other to the point where they don’t like each other or they become complacent about each other’s feedback and no longer benefit from the relationship. With Marc and me, even after eighteen years, he upsets me almost every day by finding something wrong in my thinking, and I do the same for him. It works.
"The Hard Thing about Hard Things" by Ben Horowitz May 30, 2014

What is running through your head when you’re having a conversation with someone?

There are different lenses in which people perceive the world, which enable them to process thoughts and concepts in different ways. I’ve asked this question to several people after my friend Hani asked me.

This is an illustration of the responses I’ve received:


A mutual friend visualizes a running thread, where he bookmarks salient points, synthesizes them, and then communicates them when the fellow conversationalist is done talking.


Hani visualizes conversations as a stream of images and text. I notice in our conversations, he’s always pulling out entities.


I visualize many conversations by constantly trying to put ideas into buckets. For two reasons: 1) an anchor that I can keep for later, or 2) an association that helps me arrive at a new insight.


My colleague Gil is more contrarian who might view many conversations in this manner: he synthesizes the points of the fellow conversationalist, and then maps each point to a counter-point. The goal is to turn over the same concept in as many ways as possible.

As Marvin Minsky says, “You don’t understand something until you understand it more than one way.”

Think about the last meaningful conversation you had with someone. What was running through your mind?

May 30, 2014

Making break ups fun.

 You know how when you stop seeing someone you’ve been emotionally involved with, and every.thing. reminds you of them? It’s painful to think about how I can draw associations between a guy I was seeing to all of these things that are completely unrelated.

But what if I instead applied this to learning a new concept? Every time I learn something new — an economic theory, a cognitive bias, a sorting algorithm — I try and anchor it to as many other (tangentially-related) concepts as possible?

The power is in the person who can make the most connections and build their latticework of mental models. :)


One day I was surprised to discover that some adults—even most adults—did not understand or even care about the magic of the gears… I have never turned away from the questions that started with that discovery: How could what was so simple for me be incomprehensible to other people?

My proud father suggested “being clever” as an explanation. But I was painfully aware that some people who could not understand the differential could easily do things I found much more difficult. 

Slowly I began to formulate what I still consider the fundamental fact about learning: Anything is easy if you can assimilate it to your collection of models. If you can’t, anything can be painfully difficult.

"Mindstorms" by Seymour Papert.

Addendum: Research paper on Mapping Relational Knowledge

Reasoning, problem solving, and learning depend on a capacity to code and manipulate relational knowledge, with complex structures emerging from the systematic recombination of more primitive elements.

"Distributed Representations of Structure: A Theory of Analogical Access and Mapping" by John Hummel, UCLA

May 13, 2014