A birthday letter

I wrote this as a private letter. There is some specific advice to the reciever but general advice I think it helpful to others.

As your bed touches the pillow tonight, know that although you’re one year older, the spirit of youth and discovery shouldn’t exit your system like bowels do each morning. 

You have an impressive sense of quality, design, capture, curiosity, . 

On quality, I suppose you adopted this characteristic through imitation. You observed what was you, subjectively believed was quality, and imitated it. Learning to juggle is an example. Launching shots from 20 yards outside the box is an example. I think many of the skills you’ve learnt in soccer have come because of imitation. But, it’s a good imitation, not like the one school tells you to stay away from. They call it ‘plagiarism.’ 

While it’s good to imitate the best (Kevin de Bryne or Erling Haaland), be cautious about imitating more comfortable, less recognizable things. The communities you’re apart of, high school and club soccer, are comfortable. You are close to the people on the team. You share laughs and memories with them. You travel with them, one of the most intimate experiences you can have with others. These communities are high on the mimetic scale. It’s easy to desire what they desire simply because they announce that it’s what they desire. It’s easy to get frustrated when it takes you longer to obtain something desirable in that community (an example: committing to a school to play soccer). It’s easy to waste your days of high school in a mimetic zone. And, it’s easiest to not recognize that you’re mimetic. 

I’ve thought about tests you can do to see how mimetic someone is. Asking them why ten times about the decisions they make has given me some success. If you interrogate enough people in high school you’ll probably find that they chose the cheese pizza because their friend told them too. A non-obvious test is to observe they hand strokes of someone during a break period. Where do their hands go first? Is it iMessage, Snapchat, Hacker News? People who use social media too often adopt the need to publicize every action. It’s dangerous because over time they’re value is too tied to the engagements they’ll get when they do something good. Originally when I heard people use the words social media and drug in the same sentence I thought the cause was isolable to likes and dopamine. Now, I think the drug is more harmful. There’s a behavior change that makes everyone do something for the followers they have. You no longer decide to get Starbucks because you crave it. You crave the swipe ups on Snapchat with people asking you to get their favorite order, more. You crave a feeling of being popular or having a drink they don’t have (exclusivity). 

When you leave high school the mental model of making decisions based on how other people react disintegrates. At least it did for me, partly because I isolated myself. I wanted negative mimesis, the desire to desire things that people don’t desire. Spending time writing essays on the weekends after hours of coding isn’t something most people desire. What doesn’t disintegrate is mimesis. That’s a rule of society, it’s how humans are programmed. Learning how to protect against this in high school is hard, I think it gets less difficult as you age, partly because you have more choice. I think you should test yourself, what do you click, why do you click it? When something good happens, what’s your instant reaction? Does your heart warm and you feel present or do you want to pull our your iPhone and click share to story

Without being curious about how you could get better at soccer, you probably wouldn’t have learnt to juggle. Not to mention you needed immense determination to master a task where your feet are the key drivers of movement not the more mobile and accessible hands. I think you’ve found ways to be curious I don’t understand but remain an embodiment of the word. You’re curious about cookie flavors. Curious about new Oreos. Curious about what your friends are doing. Curious about player statistics and opening lineups. Curious about the people living in the heart of Europe’s cities. Curious about health. Curious about strategy and how decisions are made. Curious about what to do in life to make it memorable. Don’t let curiosity die. To maintain it’s vitality, you have to ask good questions. How does one ask a good question? It begins by looking beyond the first layer. Don’t be obvious. If you met coach Pep would you ask him about Manchester City’s formation? Probably not, because you know the answer, 4-3-3. It’s googleable too, that’s a hint that the question isn’t good. You could ask about the ten iterations of the formation that led to the current one, how Haaland has changed the style of Man City’s play (because they didn’t have a striker who had little dribbles but high goals) and Pep’s coaching. You could ask about how he watches the opposing team and communicates to his team at half time what he’s seeing. 

Once you get to the third or fourth layer, I think surprises are good. What has Pep not thought about that you could ask? This is a good thought experiment to run too. Because of his influence, experience, and current role at City, he’s thought about a lot; gigabytes worth of answers to press questions, assistant coach/player questions, tactical questions exist in his head. It’s difficult too because you can’t access that data before asking your question. 

Good questions don’t stop at the answer. You’ve done roughly 30% of the work when you ask the question. Taking the answer and treating it as an atomic unit you can use to grow an organism is the other 70% of the work (atoms, molecules, organisms, all matter in universe). Good questions create a flywheel in your brain. The more good questions you ask, the more your mind makes. The more you do the work to answer those questions, the more unique thoughts you output. School doesn’t teach you about mental flywheels or mention how important they are to platform businesses. Seek to create flywheels: structures in your brain that integrate so well it produces more unique thoughts, expending less energy each time. 

School is great at keeping curious thoughts in your mind. Teachers use bucket statements to subtly do this. They’ll say something is too complex or it’s a deviation from the class material. At that moment, I imagine a present. That present is a truth about the world that’s hidden behind my curiosity but it’s guarded closely by the teacher. She won’t let me unwrap it because it’s going to create too big of a mess. But I don’t care. I like messes. I want to rip the present apart and throw the wrapping paper over the floor. I want to get complex, I think complexity is where life is the most interesting. If a teacher tells you something is too complex, ask why it’s complex. Is there prerequisite material needed to understand something? If yes, ask about that material after class. School isn’t going to help you be curious, it’s too stubborn. Attend classes from 7:30 - 3:00, time box two hours for your homework, and spend the rest of the time on Google; searching for answers to your questions. The best thing about today (the current moment) is the permissionless world. You can find truth by yourself, you just have to ask good questions. 

On capturing, the iPhone might be the single biggest spark to your life (spark implies good but we can debate how good the iPhone has been for you). The camera has permitted you to capture a photo or video of every moment, whether you think it needs to be captured or not. I found the photo wall you created this summer to be a display of this quality. 

Reflection is a good way to capture your current self’s thinking about your past self’s actions. You can reflect on an event from three years ago and traverse the infinite paths that saying yes or no could’ve taken you down. Many people around you are into “self-care.” Journaling is a technique that’s been grouped into this category. It’s important to distinguish journaling from reflection. Journaling is emotional. It’s a record of your thoughts and feelings at moment in time. It’s a mechanism to talk to yourself through writing. Reflection is analytical. It’s deep and thoughtful. When you reflect, you time travel, back to an experience, and observe yourself in third person. It’s like watching film, except instead of projecting the film onto a screen, you close your eyes and relive the experience. Reflection requires hours, unlike journaling which can be done in a thirty minute time box. When reflecting, don’t focus on the business post-mortem questions of what did I do well, what did I not do well; these questions don’t capture the specificity of what makes a good reflection. Right now, this essay is a reflection. I’m reflecting on our relationship, what I would’ve done differently as a high schooler, and where I think world is going. Good reflections include specific examples of moments. Good reflections have action items. Good reflections wander, appropriately, discovering new connections to a moment in the experience you’re reflecting on. 

To-do lists are another technique in self-care. I think finished lists are superior. I think to-do lists have a tense problem. To-do lists include tasks you want to complete in the future. Finished lists are tasks you’ve gotten done. In order to have a finished list, you first need a to-do list. But, the trick is to only publicize your finished list, not your to-do list. Too many people talk about what they will do instead of what they’ve done. Talking is simpler. It’s easier to convince yourself (and others) that because you have a to-do list, the actual work is simpler. In rare occasions, this holds true, but in most cases getting things done is harder. I think a general rule of goals is to keep most, if not all a secret until they’re completed. Therefore you get rewarded for goal completion not to-do list completion. 

On design, this is something you should do more often. Create new things. It can be instagram stories or your version of a BeReal. But, I’d use only your brain to do this. Don’t use the knockoff canva tools that populate the App Store. Sit down with a piece of paper (and a pencil), timer on for an hour, and sketch. I think you'd be surprised with your output and it might inspire you to design more. 

I look forward to seeing what you design this coming year. Happy 16th.