Diego, Sarah, Jason - Presidential Innovation Fellows

With Diego Mayer-Cantu and Sarah Allen, my Presidential Innovation Fellows teammates at the Smithsonian

A little over two years ago, I wrote about taking the leap to start a company. Starting and building Ridejoy has one of the most thrilling, challenging, humbling and educational experiences of my life. That chapter of my life is coming to a close and I am embarking on a new adventure. [1]

Today, I am happy to share that I’ve been selected to serve as Presidential Innovation Fellow (PIF). Along with two other amazing PIFs, Diego Mayer-Cantu and Sarah Allen, I will be working on initiatives to strengthen the Smithsonian Institution’s digital enterprise. I packed up my life in San Francisco in early June and shipped out to Washington DC, where I’ll be for the next six months.

What Will I Be Doing at the Smithsonian?

We’ve all heard of the Smithsonian, but like a lot of people, I didn’t fully appreciate the scale at which it operates. The Smithsonian Institution runs  —  get ready for this —  19 museums, 20 libraries, 11 research centers, 2 magazines and a freaking zoo. There are over 137 million artifacts, specimens and national treasures in their stewardship and yet only a fraction of a fraction of those pieces are physically accessible to the public at any given time.

The organization’s mission is “the increase and diffusion of knowledge” and while you might not traditionally think of a museum as an educational institution, that’s very much what the Smithsonian is. So along those lines, Sarah, Diego and I will be working with the Office of the Secretary and staff across the various museums and facilities toward three priorities:

  • accelerating the Institution’s digitization efforts
  • building a crowdsourcing platform to enlist the public in strengthening the digital collections and
  • improving the tools for the public to search and discover digital content.

It’s an amazing opportunity, but also a huge undertaking. We have learned a ton in the past week and I anticipate we’ll continue drinking from the firehose for some time to come.

What is the Deal with the Fellowship?

At first glance, the federal government is basically the antithesis of a startup. It operates at gigantic scale, moves at the speed of molasses most of the time, and is saddled with lots of rules and regulations. Which is why the Presidential Innovation Fellowship is so fascinating.

The big idea behind the program is basically this: what if we got the best entrepreneurs and innovators in America to partner with forward thinking government leaders? Could we make some awesome things happen? Based on the work from the Round 1 fellows selected in 2012, the answer appears to be “Definitely”.

This year, 43 fellows were selected to work across 20-something agencies within the government. From USAID, the State Department, FDA, Veteran’s Affairs and more, my peers will be working on really hard, interesting and important challenges that aim to help the government deliver better services and reduce expenses. I like the way one person put it: “helping taxpayers get better ROI on their government”.

I’m incredibly excited to work with White House CTO Todd Park, and Deputy CTO Jenn Pahlka (who is directly overseeing the program and previously ran Code for America) and just floored by the talent, experience and desire to contribute of the other fellows. They have done amazing things and as a guy who rates really high on the self-confidence scale,  I am humbled to be part of this group.

Get Involved

We are just starting to figure things out and brainstorming ways to help the Smithsonian do (even more) Seriously Amazing™ things in the digital space. I welcome your help and support.

If you have ideas, resources or other opportunities you think would benefit the fellowship and or specifically the work we are pursuing at the Smithsonian, please do not hesitate to reach out to me at ShenJa@si.edu

FOOTNOTES

[1] This post today is about what’s next. I have a lot more to say about my experiences at Ridejoy but it deserves more thought and space than I have here. I promise I’ll be sharing more about that soon.

My first and only post on Storylane was responding to the prompt: One thing my father always said was…

Since the company was acquired earlier this year, I’ve decided to port this post over and share it with you guys. Hope you enjoy it!

There's Nothing to Complain About

Photo: My father reunited with some of his old friends

My father was born in China as the middle of three brothers. His father rose through the ranks in the local college to become the Dean of Foreign Languages – the only one without a PhD. When he was 16, the Cultural Revolution occurred and young people everywhere were sent to be “re-educated” in rural China.

My father spent his later youth and early adulthood living and working on essentially a rice farm with his brothers. They woke up at dawn, worked in the fields, ate giant bowls of white rice and slept in shacks. Sometimes they would man a concrete boat that carried a massive load of manure on a two-day trip down the river to sell in the market. My father and his brothers would eat and sleep on literally a floating pile of cow dung.
Continue reading

avoid-emptiness-delayed-gratification-stairs

Photo Credit: papalars via Compfight cc

As a Chinese-American immigrant, my parents ingrained upon me the idea of sacrifice. They sacrificed so much to uproot their lives and raise me in a foreign country where they knew no one. They both worked two jobs for a long time so we could live in a town that had great public schools. If I forgot my lunch, my mom would literally drive my lunch to school to make sure I ate, so I wouldn’t be tired and starving at gymnastics practice.

I appreciated my parent’s dedication, but at times it wore on me. Because their sacrifice meant I, too, had to make sacrifices. There was a path I had to follow and it went something like this:

  • Because my parents sacrificed for me, I would bust my ass to get good grades and get into a good college.
  • Then I could enjoy life. Then I would bust my ass in college to get a good job.
  • Then I could enjoy life. Then I would bust my ass in my job to rise through the ranks and increase my salary.
  • Then I could enjoy life. Then I would have children and bust my ass so they could have a better and brighter future than I did.

At some point I realized there didn’t seem to be a real payoff. It was some living version of MC Escher’s eternal stairs — always climbing and never reaching the top. I knew I had to get off the staircase.

Beware of the eternal staircase of delayed gratification

The ability to delay gratification is an essential willpower skill, and children who are better able to delay gratification score higher on their SATs and are more socially well adjusted as teens.

But delayed gratification can go too far. Here’s a refrain that many-an-entrepreneur has said:

“Once we launch our product, I’ll be able to rest and appreciate the success I’ve achieved  Until then, I’m basically failing and need to bust my ass like mad.”

Once the product launches, the goal posts get moved to hiring an important team member, raising another round of financing, getting profitable, getting acquired, etc. I fell into this trap and I often see a lot of other founders do the same. And of course, this mindset applies to not just entrepreneurs but ambitious people of all stripes.

The game never ends

When discussing this topic with a friend, (specifically in regards to personal growth), he asked: “When is enough, enough?”

I’m not sure this is the right question.  There will always be more work ahead. There will always be more challenges to overcome. You will never be completely satisfied (for more than a very brief period).

Living is about growing, conquering, stumbling, recovering, reflecting, learning and so on. Delayed gratification is important because most big projects require sustained commitment over a long period. But you have to learn to appreciate each and every day too.

Maybe a better question to ask would be: “How can I work towards the future while enjoying what I have?”

Moment-to-moment Happiness

It’s definitely possible to be busting your butt for a big future win, and appreciating and enjoying your life on a moment-to-moment basis. It may not be easy, but it’s possible.

Partly inspired by my friend Kevin Gao, I started jotting down little score cards for each day. Over time, I’ve figured out that my daily happiness is more or less governed by four things:

  • How healthy I felt (eating well, working out, feeling energized)
  • How productive I felt (getting worthwhile things done)
  • How much I got to socialize (hang out with cool people, talk to friends over Skype, spend time with my girlfriend)
  • How excited I am for tomorrow (Life is good if you’re looking forward to the next day)

Just tracking these stats makes me more cognizant of opportunities to eat healthier or see someone I like. Trends have emerged: I should to plan fun activities so I can look forward to them. These things help me be happy.

Happiness Makes You More Productive

I think that ultimately, giving yourself the space to enjoy the day to day actually allows you to work harder. I’ve sometimes seen my work as a burden —  something I’m resentful of, because it’s the ugly crap I have to overcome to get to the perceived gratification that lies on the other side. Thinking of work that way doesn’t make me want to keep trying harder.

But alternatively, if I give myself a little room to read a book, work on a side project, exercise, and see friends, then I feel fresh and alive and ready to drive harder on that long-term challenge that will bring the big, distant payoff.

That’s my take — I’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you deal with delayed gratification?

Between 2007 and 2010, I was an avid user of Tumblr. I saved snippets of articles, links, videos and images I liked. When I started this blog, I imported all my old posts so if you dig into the archives in, say, May 2008, you’ll see the kinds of stuff I was saving.

When I started this blog in fall of 2010, all my creative writing and posting focus went to content for the main blog. I stopped doing anything with the Tumblr. Over time, I’ve been thinking more about why I used Tumblr in the first place – to save inspiration and collect cool things across the web.

Recent things I’ve saved in my Tumblr:

This is stuff I want to hold onto. I already tweet stuff like this, but Twitter is so ephemeral and hard to review (infinite scroll is a poor way to look at old tweeets). I’m not alone in this need to categorize and archive.

Human culture reveals a deep seated interest in collecting, saving and sharing things they care about. This is why Pinterest is so freaking popular – it’s collections of stuff people love. I think Pinterest is great, but I don’t always want to save images and I prefer having a semi-private page all to myself rather than living in an ocean of pins.

This doesn’t mean I’m going to stop blogging here – not at all. I just needed another outlet to save and share all the interesting things I find across the web – and it’d be far too much to dump in this site. My tumbling actually means I’ll be even more focused on making every single post on The Art of Ass-Kicking count.

Curation and production are two nearby trees in the forest of creativity. I know that by water one, I’ll be fostering the other as well. If you don’t use Tumblr or Pinterest, considering checking them out as a way to save and share awesome stuff.

Saving Inspiration – Jason’s Tumblr

 

12 Life Lessons Learned at Burning Man

I recently went to Burning Man for the second time this August – it was a great experience, though very different from the first time I went in 2011. I’ve heard from veteran Burners that your first time at Black Rock City will always be your best.

I’m not sure that’s true yet. It’s definitely less mind-blowing when you know what to expect, but on the other hand, this second experienced allowed me to think more about what we all can take from the values, culture and experience of Burning Man.

1) Listen to your body

One of the 10 principles of Burning Man is “radical self-reliance” and it’s a critical one when you’re trying to survive out in the middle of nowhere. The 100+ degree heat, chalky alkaline dust, reduced sleep schedule and new diet of dried fruit, beef jerky and water forces you to really be mindful of your body. If you’re not careful, you can be hit with heat exhaustion, super chapped hands and feet, or a GI issue.

But why leave that mindfulness out in the playa? Back in the “default world” there are plenty of opportunities to be more aware of what you’re eating, how well you’re sleeping and how stress is affecting your body.

2) Be more open to new opportunities

There are so many things to do out at Burning Man – send post cards, connect with camp mates, volunteer to light lamps, dance on art cars or run 5k’s. I heard someone call it “Disneyland for adults” at one point this year.

But in most cities and of course with the internet, opportunities are everywhere. You can volunteer at a local homeless shelter or take up a new yoga class or study to become a bartender or just say hi to your neighbors. If you feel like you’re stuck in a rut, just look around and find something that catches your eye. Opportunities to do interesting things are all around us.

3) Focus on the now

There’s a joke at Burning Man that everything runs on “playa time”. Meaning scheduled events often start late or perhaps not at all and coordinating anything is tricky (in part because of all those shiny opportunities we talked about).

In some ways that’s a hassle, but in other ways, it’s very freeing. People aren’t operating on schedules and tight timelines – instead they live in the moment. They’re not thinking about what they have to do next but focus on what they’re experiencing right now.

Obviously, we can’t all be like Arnold Schwarzenegger and work without a schedule, but if we can remember to catch our breath in a busy work day and realize that we’ll do our best work when we focus on the now, we’ll all be better off.

Continue reading