A fruiting year

On December 30th, my family and I review the year. Usually, it's in video format, populated with photos and five-second clips. The review brings images of experiences members of our family have talked about but the rest haven't seen. For example, my parents get to put faces to the names of friends my sister and I talk about. Pausing is typical. Each person gets up from the couch and explains the context of their media piece.

This year I suggested we change the review to a reflection and move from video to writing. A review is more like a slideshow of things the family experienced instead of a critique or assessment of the year. The reviews are fun, but new insights aren't drawn. Instead, we usually discuss what we should experience next or what we should've done that year but didn't. I think the discussion questions are a flaw of the method rather than how we execute it. The review takes a few minutes. Select the right media, stitch them together on iMovie, and add a title slide with everyone's name, so the sections are separated. It's difficult to learn anything new when 5-10 minutes is the time dedicated to the review. And now, with the capability of Google Photos, there isn't a need to create the review either; it's auto-generated without any video editing required from the family.

Reflection, on the other hand, takes hours and necessitates methodical thought.

I think good reflection begins with two steps. A mental capture of the event written with as much detail as a Jane Austen novel. And an annotated reading where the goal is to pry new insights and write action. I typically do the capture and reading on successive days. Usually, there's more to add after the first step, and splitting the tasks between days gives my mind time to dig up insights before I do the second step.

We switched from video to writing because the latter is more honest. It's more difficult to lie to yourself when you see your reflection of the year on paper.

Below are the reflections I talked about this year, split up into three categories: learnings, things I noticed, and what I was intentional about.


Read to write, write to figure out what to read next.

To produce good writing, one needs to be a good reader. This includes reading good things and knowing how to read well. Good writing makes the reader think days after they've completed the piece. The reader hooks onto a concept or story repeated in their head on playback. It's worse than an earworm because, unlike a song you can't get out of your head, this thought leads to more and more ideas, multiplying faster than you can process. This is how I feel when I read Paul Graham. I have more annotated notes on some of his essays than the words in the essay themself. PG's writing helps me see the world anew. His essays on hacking and making are good at this. His writing asks how I could have lived without this insight. Good writing also makes you eager to write. It's a similar rush to watching good soccer. You want to get outside and try the same moves you see Messi doing.

Good readers research the concepts they highlighted or annotated instead of leaving them like decorations. The research typically gets them to read something else and leads them down a path where they wonder if there's a book on this subtopic so they can go deeper. Good readers silence the permissions in their heads and let the author take over their minds. Suspending permissions is a prerequisite to understanding what the author is trying to convey without a bias to stop you. This feeling is somewhere in between brainwashing and elastic beliefs.

Journaling is a necessity after reading. If you've read something good, thoughts will be ping-ponging around your head, and writing will help slow them down. Writing gives space to questions, and after a journal entry is complete, classifications of questions will become obvious. These classifications answer the question, what should I read next?

I'm obsessed with the virtuous cycle between good reading and good writing because good thinkers embrace this loop. If you've read anything from thinkers like Balaji Srinivasan or Peter Thiel, it's obvious. In fact, many of the best thinkers are good readers and writers (the opposite is less accurate).

Test physical limits first, intellectual limits second.

As I worked out more this year, I learned to let my mind take over my body rarely. Instead of hitting pause on the treadmill, I'd force my legs to move for at least thirty more seconds before hitting the button to stop. Each second over my previous limit raised the bar for the following day, where I'd test to see if I could beat yesterday's PR. This competition of mind versus body helped in knowledge work too. Instead of leaving my computer after an hour of debugging with no progress, I'd keep my body stuck to the chair until the error was gone.

Exercise, particularly running, is a reliable way to learn the limits of your mind. David Goggins refers to it as learning about the darkness in your head. When you're on mile 40 of a race, and your mind wants to stop, what is it afraid of? What thoughts are causing you to forget the years of training that prepared you for this race so your mind can get out of the darkness?

Observing what appears in your mind when these dark moments arise during exercise is important, as they're insights that help you learn about yourself. Goggins races home after gym workouts, where his mind clocks into a dark zone and journals his thoughts.

I suppose the darkness of the mind is similar to the flow state. It's abstract as a description, and once experienced, the descriptions become underwhelming. So, off you go on a 40-minute run to unlock this zone.

Work backward from a desired characteristic to a trainable skill.

My desired characteristic is to write well. To reach my desired characteristic, I need to spend hours with words. Reading, writing, and publishing. I think soccer provides a good model for how to train skills in writing.

Messi juggled and played hours of street soccer to learn how to play with the ball. Writers create poems, essays, and technical pieces to learn how words can be used in different contexts. By playing with words in different spaces, a writer learns how to control words, get them to follow instructions, and create a relationship with them so when it's game time, a writer can trust them. Unlike soccer, words can move positions and break the rules a writer sets. Reading a dictionary isn't how a writer gets better at playing with words. A writer must a) read the best writing they can find, b) write for hours/day c) search for the best words to connect their ideas after they've written them. The thesaurus is more valuable than the dictionary.

Empirically, there's a tight relationship between how great someone is and how obsessed they are with their craft. Messi's ability to move with the ball and place it in undefendable spots results from how deeply he understood what a soccer ball could do. Steph Curry spent time in the 21' summer learning how to place the ball in the hoop from every angle of the court, so it produced the swoosh he wanted.

To be a great writer, one should understand what makes a good sentence. Why do the words create something elegant? How does this comma change the meaning of a sentence? How do I get my readers to think deeply about the concepts in my piece?

What did you get done this week is a great question.

Elon asked the former CEO of Twitter, Parag Agrawal, what did you get done this week during acquisition talks at the company. It's a great question because it cuts through bullshit and rewards results.

For example, "completed a storyboard for an essay" is a result, whereas "thought about what I would write" isn't.

The question is also great because it monitors your ability to do things, ship, in other words. Hyperlinks are how I keep myself honest and discern between results and fluff. If something isn't tangible, it's hard to believe.

Confidence is about skills, not motivational talks or personal belief.

Statements like "I can't do this" or "I'm not good enough" are probably true for most people who believe in them.

I used to believe in these statements, and it was because I didn't have enough skill to complete a task I wanted to. For example, last year, I didn't know how to create classes in Python, so it was near impossible for me to feel confident writing a new ML framework for a company. In other words, no amount of motivational talks or friends telling me, "Zayn, you can do it," would've helped.

I subscribe to John Danaher's belief that confidence comes from a base of hard skills. He says that his athletes feel confident if they know how to perform any jiu-jitsu move against an opponent, and they've proved it against athletes above their weight class and skill level. The training serves as evidence that bolsters confidence for the competition.

So, to have confidence, a) build evidence through experiences and b) test your hard skills regularly (this helps a).

Many people value how they feel around you over how smart you are.

Although it's logical, I forget this maxim often. I didn't get this insight until June 22nd' when a good friend, Aryan Sharma, mentioned that my energy was fun to be around. I've defaulted towards people who could teach me something and didn't think too much about how they made me feel. This may be because interactions were intellectual only and not social.


Laughing with my family through FT in the evenings is the most important part of my day.

In my first semester of college (January 22nd' - April 22nd'), my family called me more than I called them. The calls were like a team standup. Short, filled with dual updates, and ended with love you.

Roles reversed during my second semester (August 22nd - December 22nd'). I called my family more than they called me. I set the alarm for 10:00 PM EST, at which point I'd pack up whatever I was doing and walk to my dorm room, singing to myself as a way of controlling my excitement as I waited to hear what my mom, dad, and sister had done that day. Calls lasted forty minutes, with laughter and jokes exchanged on both sides.

During my second semester, I realized I was missing the growing up my parents and sister were doing. My mom began a new job in August. My dad was impressing every technical architect he spoke to at Amazon, Salesforce, etc. My sister received all-county honors and was a runner-up for the golden boot (an award given to the player who scores the most goals). Perhaps I missed my family so much that longer calls were necessary to wash the feeling away like rain washes up chalk.

Or, I realized that I'm at an age where I can understand what my parents do and how it interfaces with the world. And my life stage is one of curiosity and learning instead of the unnecessary pressure of college applications, so the queue of tasks my parents used to have in their minds when we talked has changed to topics we prefer over how many hours I studied for my SAT.

I returned home for winter break three weeks ago, and laughing with Ikhlas (my sister) is as enjoyable as my high school days. It may be more enjoyable now. I notice the dimensions of her smile and how her face moves up and down when she's laughing. When she's in a joking mood, the laughs come like avalanches. In this sense, it's faster than you expect and difficult to stop. She thinks about new jokes quickly, so you have little time to catch your breath before weird noises come from your mouth as your body tries to get some air. Like a star boxer in the ring, she feeds off "the crowd," which consists of mom, dad, and I. Energy is injected into her, and she says punchline after punchline causing everyone to stop what they're doing and focus only on laughing.

I've also appreciated the unspoken cohesion of views from my family. We don't need to say I agree with you. A nod and smile say it instead.

Intentional about

I don't want too much space between my worldview and my actions.

For example, I believe that the 2020s will see many lean companies built by great engineers with most business and design work completed through automation. Engineers will build open-source tools to do the non-engineering work rejecting the need for a salesperson or graphic designer.

Since I hold this belief, my actions should include whatever software practice is necessary to become a great engineer.

In other words, if I believe the world should be a certain way, I should act additively to this belief. If this means developing a new skill set, that's the action.

Doing my research.

I found myself repeating things I heard smart people say this year. For example, if Chamath said the market was going to drop in 2023, I'd say that the market was going to drop in 2023. Sentences like this make me sound smart to a group of people less knowledgeable than me. But if I said this to a group of people smarter than me, I'd be eaten up like a bear snatching salmon out of the water. The latter is true because questions would follow. What market metric makes you believe the market will drop in 23'? What patterns in the macro environment can you refer to in past recessions?

Questions like these expose that I'm repeating an abstracted piece of information from Chamath without knowing how he arrived at the prediction. Instead of repeating, I asked more questions and could eventually argue both sides of Chamath's prediction.

Interestingly, doing more research helped me stay away from the intellectually fake and mischievous feeling attached to predictions. When predicting, I felt smart for a few hours but regretful after a week.

2023 Look Forward

I will continue making. Essays, programs, puzzles, relationships, et al.

I've enjoyed technically and physically challenging myself this year, and the challenge will only strengthen in 2023. I'm addicted to the feeling of learning. With each unit of knowledge I acquire, I shoot up like I'm in an elevator on the space needle. As I go higher, I can see more. By the time I'm on the sky deck, I can see the twenty surrounding cities of Seattle. I'd like to have a wider view of the world in 2023. I will continue learning new things about myself and the world.

I'm also eager to find the dark zones Goggins speaks of, and I'll be sure to write an essay when I get there.

Ps - I named this essay "A fruiting year" because the UXD classroom at Olin was also home to a mushroom garden where students were growing them. I think I grew like a mushroom this year, expanding from a small seed into an interesting object.