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Making Connections #003

Biological thinking, no sweat workouts, "talent needs trauma", birthday coaching

Jason Shen
Jason Shen
6 min read
Making Connections #003

Hey friends,

Welcome back the 3rd edition of Making Connections, where we take a random walk down tech, fitness, product thinking, org design, nerd culture, persuasion, and behavior change.

It was my birthday on Friday - happy birthday to me! 🥳 🎂 🎉


1. 🧬 Biological thinking

I have two degrees in biology and often people will comment on how "random" it is that I got into tech. I mean, my school was in the heart of Silicon Valley so it's honestly not that crazy. But still, earlier in my career I often wished I had studied product design or computer science - something closer to tech.

I was listening to the Farnam Street podcast and one of the guests wrote a book on dealing with complexity where he makes the distinction between Biology (has a messy, complex history) with Physics (clean, idealized environments)

[B]iological systems are distinct from many physical systems in that they have a history. Living things evolve over time. While the objects of physics clearly do not emerge from thin air—astrophysicists even talk about the evolution of stars—biological systems are especially subject to evolutionary pressures; in fact, that is one of their defining features. — Sam Arbesman in Overcomplicated

Because biological systems are complex and have evolved via tinkering, sometimes small changes to the system can trigger large effects as this is how past changes have taken place.

The Need for Biological Thinking to Solve Complex Problems (Farnam Street)

If I had to make a list of ideas from biology, here's a short list:

  • Nothing is created in a vacuum. Everything is a hack ontop of something else (Twitter's 140 char limit from SMS, railroad widths based on 2 horse wagons)
  • A feature can evolve for one purpose and be co-opted into something else (feathers were for warmth and mating before flying, Facebook was for scoping out dates, and is now used to organize protests and knitting clubs)
  • Adaptation wins. Humans and viruses are both so potent because we are able to quickly adapt to new environments. Amazon is the ultimate example of a tech co that's constantly evolving to do more.
  • Diversity means resilience against shocks. Humans are attracted by smell to other humans whose MHC receptors are different (meaning we're immune against different pathogens, so our kids will be extra healthy). Monoculture farming falls prey to insects and viruses. Companies that only hire white dudes have cultural blind spots.
  • Feedback loops can blow up in your face. Steroids shrink your balls because your body stops producing testosterone b/c there's so much now in your system. Spending too much money on ads means you don't get good at organic traffic and aren't pressured to hone your conversion rate.

2. 🏃‍♂️No Sweat Workouts

Speaking of biological systems, how about the one you're living in? Our bodies are a biological system that work best with physical activity.

I'm a big fan of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) but I know not everyone is trying to break a sweat everyday. But I think we'd all agree that getting some physical activity everyday is important, especially while sheltering in place. It's surprising how much a commute adds to your daily calorie burn that you're not getting now.

But don't take it from me. Scott Adams makes this point better than I could in his hilarious book "How to Fail At Almost Everything and Still Win Big".

Of the big five factors in happiness—flexible schedule, imagination, diet, exercise, and sleep—my pick for the most important is exercise...After a lifetime of trying nearly every exercise tip, trick, and fad and sometimes scientifically proven techniques, I have condensed the entire field of fitness advice into one sentence: Be Active Every Day.

So what do you do on days where you're pressed for time or don't want to break into a huge sweat? Here's my list:

  • Walk stairs. You can do these on conference calls or personal catchups. Try to build up to 10 flights at a time or more.
  • Wall sit. Start at 30 seconds at a time with breaks and build up. You can browse social media while you sit which takes your mind of it.
  • Plank holds. Similar to wall sits. Pull up a 3-5 min Youtube video and try to hold for as much of it as possible, taking breaks when necessary.
  • Pushups. Spread them out throughout the day. I've heard of people using every bathroom break as a chance to pop out 10-20 throughout the day.
  • Carry something heavy. I have a 30lbs kettlebell but you can use a jug of water, a bag of rice, a or a backpack loaded with books or canned food. Also good for while on a call.
  • Shadow boxing. Jab, cross, hooks, uppercuts, elbows. Fire off 30 strikes in between conferences calls to get the blood pumping without a sweat.

Give these a shot and let me know what you think!


3. 🤯 "Talent Needs Trauma"

Let's return to this idea of feedback loops and how one thing can cause something else in unexpected ways.

My good friend Kalvin gave me a book for my birthday called The Passion Paradox, and it's all about the delicate balance of finding, keeping, and not getting consumed by your passions. They made two points that resonated:

  • The word "passion" originally means "suffering" (ie The Passion of Christ). Only later did it come to mean something you love.
  • The concept of "talent needs trauma". Not coined by them but the first time I had encountered it.

I came across these ideas in 2 situations recently. The first is in a Rolling Stones profile of Elon Musk back in 2017 by none other than Neil Strauss (author of the pickup bible The Game)

“When I was a child, there’s one thing I said,” Musk continues. His demeanor is stiff, yet in the sheen of his eyes and the trembling of his lips, a high tide of emotion is visible, pushing against the retaining walls. “‘I never want to be alone.’ That’s what I would say.”

Musk is a titan, a visionary, a human-size lever pushing forward massive historical inevitabilities – the kind of person who comes around only a few times in a century – but in this moment, he seems like a child who is afraid of abandonment. And that may be the origin story of Musk’s superambitions

And secondly, in the story of Jonny Kim, an insanely accomplished Korean American (Navy SEAL, Harvard Medical School grad, NASA astronaut candidate, father of 3 kids). This guy is literally a meme for being "the perfect Asian".

That said, Kim was recently interviewed on the Jocko Podcast. Jocko Willink is a highly decorated US commander who led Kim and other SEALS in Iraq.

On the podcast, Kim talks about growing up  abusive father who hurt him, his brother, and his mom, and was ultimately killed by the police when Kim was 18. The desire to be someone who could protect his family was one of the reasons that drove him to join the SEALs, and the death of his fellow teammates later turned him towards being a medic. That’s a lot of trauma go with with all that talent, and this "Asian overachiever" joke into a much more painful reality.

I don't necessarily believe that all talented people have suffered significant trauma, but I do think that pain is a powerful motivator and can be channeled towards positive things (though obv for others it can lead down dark paths. Supersurvivors is a great book with more on this. Also see Michael Jordan.)


4. 🎂 Birthday Coaching

I turned 34 earlier this week. Birthdays are always a time for reflection for me (I've been documenting birthday lessons for the past 8 years and I'll have another one out next week).

I'm obviously grateful to just be safe and healthy know that my immediate family and friends are as well. The fact that I've been able to keep working almost uninterrupted is a great boon as well. In this place of relative privilege, I'd like to do something to give back, and perhaps unlock some talent as well.

A few years ago, I held a day of mini-coaching calls. In 20m increments, I was able to connect with men and women all over the world who wanted someone to reflect, challenge, question, and encourage them as they faced challenges and pursued opportunities.

I'm excited to do that again, on Monday May 24 (Memorial Day). The calls are free, the only catch is you being willing to push your comfort zone.

I opened 12 slots yesterday and there are now 7 after I shared it on Twitter. Use the button below if you’d like to chat.

Book a call


And that’s it for edition #003 for Making Connections. Thanks for sticking with me on this and if you think someone would dig this newsletter, why not send it over?

The birthday boy,

Jason

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Jason Shen

Human(e) technologist on a mission to help build resilient teams and organizations. Former NCAA gymnast and three-time startup founder.