Harvard Foodie Meets Beauty Pageant Contestant: Lingbo Li in Kick Ass Interview #4

Welcome to Kick Ass Interview Number 4!

Today I have a very awesome guest, Lingbo Li, who I mentioned in another post about the power that blogging can have in creating luck. I’m lucky enough to have her on the AoAK for an interview. Here’s a quick peek at what you’ll learn:

  • Having conquered cow genitals, the one “food” she’s still squeamish about
  • Her advice for anyone contemplating entering a beauty pageant
  • What the best part of her Harvard experience has been (hint: it’s not the classes)
  • How she gets herself to learn challenging skills like programming
  • Her strategy for breaking out of a conventional life path

1) You say on your website that you have a mission to eat everything. I know lots of people who aren’t interested in trying things that might not taste so good but you seem to be pretty fearless about it – and even enjoy it. What drives you to do this? And why did you choose to document it on your site?

It’s part of my personality. The thing I find most boring is routine and predictability – which is what some people expect from their food. I take the opposite tack. I see every meal as a new adventure, something I haven’t experienced before. More rare items – like veal testicles, or shish-kebabed bull penis – just aren’t available in daily life, so I’ll jump at an opportunity to try something for the first time. Even if it’s just Chinese delivery off Foodler, I’ll try out a new place instead of ordering from a tried-and-true restaurant. The worst that happens? It doesn’t taste very good. (Like fermented shark. Texture of rubber and scent of ammonia.)

I like writing about unusual foods because it’s more interesting to write about than trying to tease out why the 50th cupcake I’ve eaten is different from the other 49 cupcakes. It allows my personality to come through, and it’s a great way to encourage other people to take more risks with their food, even if it’s just trying a different restaurant.

That being said, the final food frontier for me is actually… insects. They kind of freak me out. I also realized, after staring down my first crayfish, that they’re just overgrown sea insects. I ate it anyway.

2) Speaking of taking risks and doing uncomfortable things – another crazy thing you did was enter into the Miss USA pageant a few years ago. You mentioned working out a ton, depriving yourself of most of your favorite foods and caking your face with makeup. I know it was a good experience overall for you but is it something you would recommend to other girls? How would you encourage girls to think about when consider doing something like Miss USA?

I would recommend it, as long as you can laugh at yourself and have the financial means (pageants aren’t cheap). You definitely don’t “need” to diet or do anything crazy beforehand, and I think overall, it’s a great way to expand your portfolio of life experiences and meet interesting women you wouldn’t have otherwise.

If you’re considering entering a pageant, be extremely clear about what you want to get out of it. Set up expectations so that you can succeed. Pick a pageant that either 1) aligns well with your interests (there are pageants for every cause under the sun) or 2) is part of a world you’re interested in. I did Miss NY USA for the second reason.

Judging for pageants is incredibly random, so the only real mistake you can make is not being yourself, as cheesy as that sounds.

3) You’re about to graduate from Harvard but according to your blog, you almost didn’t apply and was seriously considering art school. (I know a guy from RISD by the way, he’s brilliant.) What changed your mind? Has attending Harvard lived up to your expectations? How are you different now from 4 years ago?

To be perfectly honest, my parents made me. I didn’t end up applying to art school, but I was choosing between Brown (where you can cross register with RISD) and Harvard. So I kind of got forced into it.

Academically, it’s been a mixed bag – a few amazing professors and classes, some duds. I’ve spent most of my time on clubs and jobs: news reporter and food columnist for The Crimson, editor at a travel guide called Let’s Go, freelance writing and internships at various places, running the Harvard Culinary Society, writing my food blog.

The last one completely exceeded my expectations for what might happen during college. It’s really been a blast – I’ve gotten to connect with so many people interested in food and feel like what I write is actually affecting how a few people eat and think about their food.

How am I different? A very broad question, so I’ll give a specific way that I’ve changed:

I’ve been challenging myself a lot more in my final semester by making a run on computer science classes (I’m an Anthropology major) so I actually have enough credits for a CS minor. It’s been a really interesting, incredibly frustrating experience, because I’m doing something I’m not intrinsically good at – at all. I don’t think in the very linear, methodical way that programming requires.

I’ll have these enormously frustrating moments where I just can’t seem to get through to someone. I’ve had problems getting effective help for programming assignments, where I just get told the homework should be easy – and then I end up struggling with it for hours, asking for help again, only to get sequence of for loops repeated back to me. Or someone will try to explain a project idea to me, but 15 minutes in, I’ll realize we’re getting nowhere.

Programming is incredibly difficult, and I respect – more than ever – what programmers do after struggling with segfaults and typedef errors. But I understand that my role, as a designer and communicator who uses technology but who’s not mired in it, is equally important.

4) You definitely can appreciate what someone does better after you’ve struggled with it yourself – great point. Let’s talk about pushing through vs giving up. You mention the frustration of programming and struggling for hours. How do you know when you should call it a lost cause and move on? And when it’s worth digging your heels in and making it happen? How can we learn to distinguish between those two modes?

Being aware of your motivations and gut feelings. There were times when I stuck with something for fear of what other people would think. After I quit, I found out that the world just moves on. It also helped to talk about the decision with people who cared about me and understand where I was coming from.

The trick with learning a skill – versus leaving a bad situation – is to give practice a purpose. I learned this semester how to write web scrapers. The first one I wrote took me 15-20 hours and help from two people. It was brutal. (I also had picked the worst possible site to scrape, which didn’t help.) But the 2nd one took 4 hours.

It really only became fun, though, when I scraped data as part of project I was excited about. I felt positively god-like. Machines bent to my command! Amazingness!

So in the future, the project will come first. Then I’ll learn enough to do each piece of it. Learning a new skill then becomes an added bonus.

If it’s still impossible and unrewarding, then definitely give up.

5) You started your own company while in school, Sauced Media, which is awesome. What lead you to that decision? Why not go into banking or consulting or grad school like many elite university grads do? Why have you chosen this path?

Did I think about banking, consulting, et al? Of course. Everyone here at least flirts with the idea. But I also considered working at a magazine, a TV production company, a blog, a PR company, a publishing house…

With design, I get to be creative, work with decision makers, and be wholly accountable for myself. I get to work with clients who value what I do and see how they run their companies. It also doesn’t hurt that I get paid – which almost never happened when I worked as a writer.

Along with Sauced Media, I’ll be working on a couple of business ideas, my online media presence, and traveling this year. I’m excited, in a deep, improbably optimistic kind of way.

So many Ivy League grads think they don’t have other options open to them. Just because you don’t see your friends doing it doesn’t mean you can’t.

6) Your last statement is funny in some ways because I bet most people think that Ivy League graduates have more opportunities than pretty much anyone. Why do you think people artificially close off options for themselves? And how can people learn to take more risks and go off the beaten path?

By thinking about the worse case scenario of *not* going down the conventional path. Will you starve? Die? Be disowned? Feel good about your decision when you’re 80 and looking back on your life? Most of the conventional paths will still be there if plan A doesn’t work out. My friend postponed med school to work on his startup, for example.

And just do stuff you’re interested in. If you want to paint, paint. If you want to be a journalist, pitch a local paper. Confidently tell strangers your new job title without caveats: “Hi, I’m Lingbo! I’m a painter.” See how it feels.

Unless you want to do bariatric surgery, just acting “as if” works incredibly well. It’s like a new world suddenly open up – so and so’s brother is a painter, would you like to talk with him? Oh, turns out his friend owns a gallery… etc. At this point, I always get nervous. Oh, I’m not really X, Y, or Z… but I remind myself it’s just an experiment. See how far this takes you, and whether you like the people you’re meeting and the experiences along the way.

If turns out painting isn’t your thing, move on. That was a fun adventure, now time to try something else.

If you want to follow Lingbo Li’s adventures as she leaves Harvard and pursues her entrepreneurial endeavors – check out the following links:

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and advocate for Asian American men. He's written extensively and spoken all over the world about how individuals and organizations develop their competitive advantage. Follow him at @jasonshen.

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  1. I discovered this year that fear is truly the mind killer – it can paralyze you from making the bold decisions you should make in living your life. In my first year of law school, I was terribly afraid of getting bad grades, not finding a job for the summer, and ultimately living a life of mediocrity. And what I realize now is that not only were my fears somewhat exaggerated, but that even if the worst case scenario did happen, that shouldn’t prevent me from making the best decision I can make today. Thus, in moving forward, I am taking steps to address some health issues (even if I need to take the off beaten path) and remind myself that the reason why I am in school is to gain skills as an entrepreneur – not to become a practicing lawyer. Instead of pursuing legal scholarship generally, I’m really focusing on improving skills so that I can be an effective cofounder by the time I graduate – and to stop being afraid of how I don’t fit traditional stereotypes.

    Anyway, thanks Jason for doing this interview. I really enjoyed it.

    P.S. Found it hard to comment through Twitter app, FYI.

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