I used to have an “advice” tab on my website. I realized later that I was giving advice to myself which isn’t necessarily relevant to other people in other situations. So instead I’ve kept this page where I list the things that have inspired me in case it’s useful for other people too (without some value judgement about what’s the “best” way to do things).
Happiness, work, and fulfillment
Maybe these topics don’t seem related, but I find it hard to separate these three. I’m fortunate enough to feel like my work is part of my life and my fulfillment, not just a means to enable my non-working hours. I also tend now to focus more on whether I feel I’m living a “full” life instead of just paying attention to happiness, as I think it’s pretty natural to experience a wide range of emotion. I also feel fortunate to live in an era where happiness has been studied and we know more about the things that lead to a fulfilling life.
I think a podcast that sums up my own views on happiness more intelligently than I could is Tal Ben-Shahar’s interview with Dax Shepard. I highly recommend it! On work-specific fulfillment, I really like this article from 80,000 hours on dream jobs.
A few key thoughts from those which have stuck with me:
- Success (both impact and financial) is based more on luck than most people will admit, so I focus on values and process, not outcomes (though I do measure them)
- Happiness is relative and there’s no finite thing or achievement that grants us permanent happiness, so I try to “maximize the derivative” or focus on incremental improvements
- Money doesn’t buy happiness, past a certain point, so I try to give my excess money away
- Fulfillment is ultimately rooted in doing things that help others (for me, but I suspect for a lot of people this is true too)
- Experiencing all emotions is ok, it’s all signal and we don’t have to be happy all the time (and shouldn’t be, I would argue)
For work, most points are summarized in the article I link above, so I’ll post them here:
- Work you’re good at
- Work that helps others
- Supportive conditions:
- Engaging work that lets you enter a state of flow
- Supportive colleagues
- Lack of major negatives like unfair pay
- Work that fits your personal life (location, hours, working style)
I used to think the only requirement for work was that it was impactful (helping others) but quickly realized how important it was for me to feel that I was the “right person for the job”, meaning I’m applying what I think are the things I’m particularly good at (math, software, talking to people).
How can we do the most good?
As is hopefully clear, I’m pretty focused on trying to have a positive impact with my time spent on Earth. I don’t think this is the right or appropriate focus for everyone, but if you find yourself with a similar desire, I’ve been substantively influenced by the Effective Altruism movement, which mostly boils down to a few key ideas: (1) well-intentioned people can often accidentally make the world worse by not measuring their impact, (2) there are some things we can spend our time on which have much more positive impact than others, and (3) there are ways we can develop our careers and live happy lives while increasing the amount of positive impact we can have.
For a lot more detail, see this Introduction to Effective Altruism (and thanks Christina Machak for introducing me to the introduction!)
The area in which I’ve dedicated most of my career is to companies working on climate change, specifically those focused on clean energy. For some inspiration, here are two pieces that have inspired my dedication to this industry:
- Tackling climate change with machine learning
- What can a technologist do about climate change
- Note: my views on what precisely technologists should do are much different now.
I think having a productivity system has really helped me get something out of each hour of my day. I try not to be too intense about it, otherwise you start to feel like a robot. But time blocking in particular has been great. The main thing I do is each night after work, I look at what I intended to do, record how I actually spent my time, and then think about what I want to do tomorrow, and fit those in to specific hours in the day.
So most of my productivity system boils down to (1) having a todo list that I check regularly (I use Todoist) and (2) using time blocking to give the things I want to do a particular time of my day.
There are lots of reasons I do something like this, but the main one that appeals to me is being proactive instead of responsive. I get to exert some control over my time and what’s prioritized, taking some of that away from the demon that is instant Slack notifications. For a better overview of productivity and some pros/cons to spending time setting up systems, I recommend this blog post by Cal Newport
For some more details:
- Goal setting: OKRs
- Planning: Time blocking
- Execution: Pomodoro
- Task management: GTD (I do a lightweight version)
It’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day of making things incrementally/marginally “better”. But where does all this improvement leave us? What ultimately are we working towards? I’ve resigned myself to accept the idea that humanity always wants to see progress and will not be content with a purely “sustainable” life. I think I’m also ok with this because part of the fun of being human is experiencing and learning new things, exploring. In light of that, I’ve enjoyed reading stories about how this might play out, some of those are here:
- The Last Question – Isaac Asimov – thanks Ilias Tagkopoulos
- This is my most frequent recommendation and my favorite short story
- Exhalation, Ted Chiang
- A collection of short stories that I really love, mostly focused on technology and alternate futures
- Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari
- I know there’s a lot of baggage around liking this book, but I like it anyway, an interesting take on human history
- The story of your life and others, Ted Chiang
- Another collection of short stories by Ted Chiang
- The Foundation Series, Isaac Asimov
- The first book holds most of the interesting ideas in the series in my opinion
- The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu (Translated by Ken Liu)
- The first book is great
- The first half of the second book is pretty skip-able, really any of the parts about Luo Ji imagining “the perfect woman”… sexist garbage
- I haven’t finished the third book, partly due to tiredness in reading the sexist garbage parts
Since being illegally underpaid at one point in my career, then running my own company (Nanogrid), I’ve picked up a few things on negotiation. I have a lot to say on this subject and have semi-successfully advised friends on job offers and negotiated large pay increases for myself and others. For what it’s worth, I’m happy to do that for you, too, especially if you’re focusing your career on impact.
Ultimately I feel people should be paid fairly for their work, and I don’t really believe that CEOs and founders contribute 100-1000X more than normal employees. The only book I’ve read on negotiation is “Never split the difference” by Chris Voss. It’s what you’d expect from a former FBI negotiator, but I think the tips are solid and based in science and applied research.