On February 2, 2019, I got the opportunity to present at the inaugural TEDxUTEP conference. The theme of the event was “Access and Excellence” which is the dual mission set by our long-time University President, Dr. Diana Natalicio. I’m incredibly grateful for the experiences I received at UTEP, and I love El Paso, so I decided to speak on the growth mindset imparted on the people of the desert. Friends have been asking for a video of the presentation. I don’t know when that will go live, so in the meantime, I thought I’d share the transcript I wrote to prepare my talk. This isn’t 100% what came out on stage. I’m less eloquent in speaking and memory isn’t perfect. But the message I wanted to deliver is here.
I feel compelled to admit that I wasn’t as interested to read about Leonardo Da Vinci as much as Walter Isaacson’s other biographies. To my uncultured mind, Da Vinci was a painter, and I had an insufficient understanding of art to know of his contributions to the field. I ultimately read the book based on Isaacson’s name, not Da Vinci’s, but Isaacson’s admiration of the ultimate renaisasance man is contagious. Da Vinci was not only a brilliant painter, he was a brilliant scientist, engineer, and entertainer. Like Isaacson’s biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs, the biography of Da Vinci chronicles a life of immense innovation. Da Vinci’s life of curiousiuty and creativity left me with a few lessons that I feel apply to this age of boundless access to information and unprecedented ability to create.
I teach an undergrad business law course at UTEP's College of business. The focus of the course are the legal issues faced by startups, but I end up teaching a lot about starting a company as the business context is relevant to the legal issues. Most of my lectures comes from personal experience, but I quote and refer to several books. For any past or future students, here's the list of all the books I use in Business Law 4391.
People in tech often talk about science-fiction predicting the future. But science-fiction is more about our current times than they are about the future. Good science-fiction writers will take a few existing concepts and extrapolate the implications of those concepts to an extreme. William Gibson, one of the writers listed below, says "I was never able to predict," Gibson says. "But I could sort of curate what had already happened.”
John Perry Barlow, one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, shares a similar sentiment. “Predicting the present is not an entirely useless enterprise, since most people are very busy predicting the past.” As Barlow argues, exponential changes are hard to detect. In the early stages of development of a technology, change is slow. It’s not until the change hits the steep part of the curve that anyone notices, and at that point, it seems like a dramatic shift.
I’ve pulled together a short list of approachable and influential books for people who might be unfamiliar with science-fiction. I feel these books do a great job of presenting a compelling future based on the technologies and ideas of today. These futures are compelling either because they offers a glimpse into a positive development, or because they warn us of the problems with our species. I’ve pulled plot synopsis from .
1. Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card
"Young Andrew 'Ender' Wiggin, bred to be a genius, is drafted to Battle School where he trains to lead the century-long fight against the alien Buggers."
The future of Ender’s Game is cool at first glance, but as you examine it a little more deeply, it becomes scary. How cool would it be if all of humanity was working towards a single cause? How cool would it be if kids were born geniuses and trained to expertise in strategy by the time they were 10? How scary would that all be?
Themes: war, strategy, victory, defeat, education, indoctrination, time travel, space
2. Neuromancer - William Gibson
"Gibson's groundbreaking debut novel follows Case, a burned-out computer whiz, who is asked to steal a security code that is locked in the most heavily guarded databank in the solar system. A seminal work in the genre that would come to be known as cyberpunk."
Predating the modern internet, this book imagines "cyberspace", a digital realm that people can plug into with neural laces. This book epitomizes the cyberpunk genre, influencing fiction such as The Matrix.
Themes: internet, cybersecurity, neural implants, virtual reality, AI
3. The Diamond Age - Neil Stephenson
"The story of an engineer who creates a device to raise a girl capable of thinking for herself reveals what happens when a young girl of the poor underclass obtains the device.”
In The Diamond Age, nanotechnology opens the door for new forms of engineering. Governments have collapsed after losing control of currency, and are replaced with cooperative city-states.
This is one of the books we were assigned in Peter Thiel's Sovereignty course at Stanford Law.
Themes: education, nanotechnology, scarcity, poverty, AI, sovereignty, race, currency
4. Dune - Frank Herbert
"Follows the adventures of Paul Atreides, the son of a betrayed duke given up for dead on a treacherous desert planet and adopted by its fierce, nomadic people, who help him unravel his most unexpected destiny."
Set in the distant future, two feudal families are at war over the control of space. One family retreats to the desert planet Arrakis and must learn to survive in harsh desert conditions. This straddles the line between science fiction and fantasy, as the technology in the book is extrapolated so far out that it's hard to recognize as being from our lifetimes.
This was one of the biggest sources of inspiration for Star Wars. It also has some good lines about growing up in the desert.
Themes: war, AI, cognitive enhancements, terraforming, trade, religion, decision making, strategy
If you're not familiar with startups, the amount of resources to learn about them can be overwhelming. The Internet can make it hard to navigate new subjects because the useful stuff is usually scattered across various blogs, videos, and articles, so I like to turn to books.
A single book can't capture everything that goes into building a new company, but I've found a few books that serve as a solid starting point.
The Story of on Entrepreneurial Life
In his autobiography, Nike founder, Phil Knight, recounts the challenges faced in the creation of what is now the largest apparel company in the US. The story given by Knight is a prototypical founder story. He openly describes the euphoria, anxiety, pride, and remorse that he experienced in building one of business's biggest successes.
A Philosopher's Take on Big Ideas
Peter Thiel has earned the nickname "The Godfather of Silicon Valley." A successful entrepreneur and investor, Thiel taught a couple of courses on startups and innovation at Stanford. One of his students published notes on his blog, and he and Thiel later converted the notes into a book. Zero to One doesn't give technical explanations on how to start a company. Instead, it explores why new companies are created and what it means to truly innovate.
An Analysis of Tough Structural Decisions
Based on a decade of quantitative and qualitative research on startups, this book explores some of the important decisions a founder has to make about the structure of their startup, such as how to split equity with cofounders, whether to take on debt, and when to hire executives. While the book is more dense than other books on startup management, it does a great job of introducing concepts that might be pitfalls for first-time founders.
One of the most common questions I get as a teacher and mentor is around being exceptional. People want to be special or they want to be interesting and they don’t know how to get there. There are infinite self-help books on the subject of working hard and tons of new marketing schemes on developing a "personal brand," but my personal take is that they start with the wrong assumption that setting yourself apart begins with doing something special. I think the simplest first step to being exceptional is in not doing things.
"New growth cannot exist without first the destruction of the old." - The Guru Laghima
The idea of creative destruction isn't new. The creation of anything new entails the destruction of something old. This is especially true for individuals. Every decision made is not just a selection or a choice, but rejection of all alternatives.
Keeping that in mind, I don’t start each new year with a resolution to achieve something new. Instead, I identify the things that I know I spend too much time on and work to reduce the amount of time I spend on them.
Our time is finite, and rather than cram in more stuff into an already busy schedule, it may be more productive to find where you can do more with less. If your 24-hour day is already full, you won’t succeed in doing something new unless you clear time for it first.
One of the most glaring cultural problems I’ve found in the city is that few people seem to be proud of being from here. I must’ve felt the same sentiment as a youth, but the more time I’ve spent outside of the city, the more fondness and respect I develop for the upbringing the city afforded me.
Manifestos for their own sake are stupid. This isn’t that. Rather, I think it's important for people to level with who they are so they can track a course for who they want to be. Unfortunately, there’s an odd disconnect between what the city is and what every local campaign claims it to be.
It was recently the 15th Anniversary of the Halo series. It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of the games, but it’s been something of a dirty secret that I’m also a big fan of the mythos. To celebrate 15 years, I thought I'd write a bit on how the unlikeliest of books changed my outlook on our entire species.
I've noticed that good people tend to have good friends. Many people chase the friendship of people who are rich and famous or entertaining and lavish and loud. But good people don’t seek the same thing. Good people simply enjoy good people.
This has left this vague curiosity in my mind: Why do good people end up surrounded by other good people?
When I graduated from law school, I wanted to start making contributions to my college. I didn’t have any money, but I’d just spent a few years in Silicon Valley learning about startups. So I contacted some people at my college to see if there was any way that I could share some of my experiences with current students. One thing led to another, and I ended up with an offer to teach a business law course.
Yes, law school classmates, I know it is unbelievable given my class attendance, but I am an adjunct professor.
I was excited to start. I thought it would be fun to talk about all these interesting things I knew. I’d waltz into the room and inspire the class with my words and intellect. But instead, I seriously got my ass kicked. Not by the students, but by the sheer amount of work that goes into teaching. It’s a huge investment. During my courses, I lecture five hours a day for two weeks, spend all afternoon preparing for the next class, and use the night to catch up on my day job. I lose weight, fall behind on work, and end up exhausted. Despite the amount of work and the challenges teaching creates for me, I’ve likely benefitted more from the experience than anyone else.
Today I turn 26. I get oddly depressed and introspective every year around my birthday. There’s something heavy about having the clock tick off another year. As my 20s wane, I’ve become worried that I haven’t been learning or developing as much as I should. So in an effort to determine whether I learned anything in the last year, I sat down to write to me from one year ago to tell him what it is he would learn at 25. Some of the lessons are things that other people have picked up earlier in life, but they’re things I didn’t internalize until this past year. While these lessons are deeply personal, one of the big lessons I’ve learned is that should I share interesting learnings with people. So now I’m following my own advice to myself. It’s really meta.
I’ve written a lot about being fit lately, and one of my friends chidingly shared with me an article which discusses being "swole for no reason.” “Swole,” if you don’t know, is slang for being jacked, which is slang for being buff. The author, a writer, recounts his experience trying to get swole. After failing to achieve swoleness, the writer experiences "the delusion of getting out of shape as a form of martyrdom.” Writers don’t need to be swole. Wouldn’t it be silly for him to go out and get fit? How shameful it would be if he was swole for no reason.
From the perspective of evolutionary history, there’s a whole host of reasons for being swole, or for at least exercising frequently; even if you’re one of the intellectual martyrs who doesn’t care about how looking fit because only the inner-mind is beautiful or whatever. We evolved to use our bodies, and our bodies evolved to require use. Without activity to challenge our physical structure, humans become susceptible to debilitating diseases.
Some people find reminders of their death depressing, but thinking about death can actually make you happier. I first heard about this idea in Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken. Jane McGonigal designs and researches games, and in her 2011 bestseller, she explores the ways in which game mechanics positively influence human psychology. McGonigal proposes that we apply the structures and mechanics of games as solutions to problems in reality.
One particular problem McGonigal discusses is depression. The World Health Organization calls depression “the leading cause of disability worldwide.” Being unhappy is a big issue, and thinking about death is one simple, although non-obvious, solution.
At some point in my life, I began to feel concerns for self-preservation and I eventually had a rare moment of awareness where I realized I should start taking care of my health. I must have gotten half-way decent at addressing the health issue because I've had friends, acquaintances, and even students ask me what it is I do to get in shape.
I always dodge the question and promise to follow-up with some helpful knowledge resources. After years of making this promise, I’ve finally delivered. Here are the top 5 resources I’ve used to get in shape and stay in shape.
One of the biggest barriers between me and broadcasting more thoughtful things on the Internet has been the difficulty in using Tumblr. It's almost as if the Tumblr people were trying to get people not to post things. I'm transitioning my few blog posts to a Squarespace-hosted site and, hopefully, uploading more of my writing in the next several days.
As a test of Squarespace's usability, here's the album I'm listening to as I set this bad boy up. It samples from Blade Runner, my favorite movie about death and humanity.
I've always been a bit of a fitness nut, but until recently, I had never been particularly fit. When I was a student, I spent most of my time chasing strength and mass gains. I was strong within limited patterns, but I was otherwise weak and inflexible. I was muscular, but not very lean. And the bulk didn't make me look particularly great.
Once I graduated and started working at my first job, maintaining the long gym-sessions became unsustainable, so I started looking for more time-efficient ways to train. I had a little 25 lb. kettlebell from Onnit lying around, and I started to swap lifting sessions with kettlebell training. Rather than spending 2 hours at a gym a few days a week, I found it easier to train for 30-60 minute sessions on most days. I've since picked up more challenging weights, and the change in my fitness has been dramatic. I'm faster, leaner, more flexible, and I generally feel better.
I wouldn't shut up about how cool kettlebells were, and several friends asked me for training resources. I couldn't find a solid starting point for ultra beginners, so I made my own. I tried to collect all the introductory information that I felt I needed as a beginner so the guide ended up longer than I anticipated, but if you're curious about kettlebells, my Ultra Beginner's Guide to Kettlebells should be a good place to start.
- Part 1 is a short rant on why kettlebells are efficient training tools, especially for busy people.
- Part 2 has my thoughts on picking a starting weight and recommendations for buying kettlebells.
- Part 3 collects a list of helpful videos for basic exercises.
- Part 4 has a list of helpful videos for slightly more advanced exercises.
- Part 5 includes a few resources for training routines and quick recommendations for protecting your arms and hands.
I've only seriously trained with kettlebells for a year or so, and I consider myself a beginner. If you train with kettlebells and you think I'm missing anything, please add a comment.
Upon graduating from Stanford Law School this past June, I had the privilege of joining the team at Knotch, a StartX alumni company and the first to receive an investment from the new Stanford-StartX Fund. Several students have asked me how they, too, could land a job at a startup. While the exact steps (and missteps) I took are far from a formula, I do believe there are some repeatable lessons.