Zayn as a Company
2021 Annual Letter
I fired several Zayns this year.
In March, I fired overcommitted Zayn. Every time he was faced with a decision to join something new, he would say yes. For two years, overcommitted Zayn took on too many projects, failed to be present, and was too slow to execute. He fell into the temptation of saying yes out of fear he would miss out on a life-changing opportunity.
In May, I fired unhealthy Zayn. Hamburgers, Belgian Cream Puffs, Cheese were foods on the daily menu. In May, he cut out gluten, dairy, beef, soy and several other processed foods.
I also fired egotistical Zayn, night owl Zayn, non-technical Zayn, etc.
Firing ~8 of my selves led to a hiring of new Zayns.
In October, I hired default to action Zayn. In November, I hired obsessive writer Zayn. In December I hired harmony assistant Zayn - a self that maintains balance between work, learning, and relaxation.
Every week, I have an all-Zayn meeting. Internally, we call it a weekly retrospective. We gather together and ask each self what went well in the week, what didn’t go well, what bottlenecks we’re facing, what we learned about ourselves and the world, questions we’re thinking about, and an outlook for the week.
These all-Zayn meetings have similar intentions to a company all-hands. I need to check-in on personal culture and alignment. Are all selves happy with the work we’re doing, are there any unhappy selves, do we need to hire/fire a new self? I need to check in on acquisitions - are there new skills I need to learn to return more value for myself? What old skills need to be refreshed?
Companies have stakeholders. These stakeholders invest in a companies stock as a method of support. Individuals also have stakeholders. I have people investing time, money, and resources in me. If I fail to make progress, hit quarterly and yearly results, my stock falls.
The mental model: zayn as a company allows me to live my life like an organization. One that has values, vision and a mission. One that iterates relentlessly and runs test & learn experiments to find what works. One that has high consistent, compounding returns. One that attracts new hires and fires those that don’t fit in the agile environment of a company.
This year, I gained 15,000 reads on my newsletter, article content. I worked with the United Nations and 3 world-class NGOs. Built a natural language processing oral assessment tool and validated it with two school boards. Interviewed the CEO of Tonal, a unicorn company with Lebron James as a user. Prototyped Augmented Reality lenses for a digital fan experience with the Seattle Kraken. Worked with Schmidt Futures to build a curriculum and sms-based platform to help Nigerian students go from 0 - 100% literate in 6 years. Assisted in designing a billboard that launched in Times Square. Co-developed a Unity College XR course alongside MetaVRse and worked with a multi-billion dollar client, developing an employee training curriculum. Joined On Deck as the youngest fellow and built a venture capital academy. Wrote 35,000 words for draft #1 of my book and am progressing towards a Summer 2022 release. Designed a new feature for Quizlet to help reduce student study time by 2 hours. etc.
Here’s what I learned:
mental model: missed opportunities
In May, I interviewed to Aly Orady, the CEO of Tonal. We talked company strategy, culture, how he built the first prototype. We didn’t talk about his engineering background, the smart AI tools used in the device, or the physics behind the product.
What we didn’t talk about mattered more than what we did talk about; because it was the biggest missed opportunity in the conversation.
Since the interview, I’ve reflected on this question: what should I have asked that I didn’t? Every person I have a conversation with has knowledge, experiences I don’t. It’s like a knowledge mine exists in their head and if I ask the right questions, I can get gold insight.
Similar to conversations, every experience has different outcomes that vary based on the opportunities I choose. For example, if I see technologies like AR/VR or blockchain trending and I don’t learn about them now, the missed opportunity could be a $1B startup idea. The missed opportunity could be a side project that I get to work on with the founder of Ethereum. Missed opportunities are visible, sometimes. Other times you don’t know they were missed.
I began asking the question, why do missed opportunities exist?
Poor default to action. In the emerging tech example, a poor default to action causes you to miss building, researching, investing opportunities.
Perception of the moment. Tonal’s example was me not realizing the stature, knowledge of the person I was talking to.
Doubling-down on these two seems to solve this problem.
search for triggers
Reflection is beautiful because it gives your current and future self data points. You can reflect on experiences and write about lessons learned, feelings consumed.
The reflection also serves as a guide for future decisions. If you noticed February of 2020 was a stagnant month because you didn’t have a project to work on, you can change that behavior in February of 2021, reflect again and see if there is a difference.
I’ve found reflection most useful to search for my triggers. What experiences triggered peak motivation? Why did I feel tied to the end goal and what did my past self say about the moment? When did I experience frustration? How long did this period of frustration persist and once I got over it, what happened next?
Triggers help me understand what to avoid and what to double-down on.
leverage and transferability to decide skills
I spend a lot of time thinking about my time. When thinking about new skills to acquire or what opportunities make sense to invest in, leverage and transferability hit my list first.
The question I ask is: what won’t change?
Computers and the burgeoning of technology won’t change; coding makes sense to invest into. Humans are born with a body and a brain which, if they master, can help them maximize power and energy; makes sense to learn about the nervous system.
I also think about the skills that most people don’t focus on or skills that have trending value.
Or, areas that have unique intersections. How many people know community building, machine learning, and personal essay writing? Is that a niche I can takeover?
With transferability, I ask the question: is this skill niche enough for leverage but have a large enough market so I have upside in other domains. Community building, machine learning, and personal essay writing is broad enough of an intersectional skillset to have several opportunities.
This model can also be applied to skills like podcasting where you stack 5-10 micro-skills. Podcasting includes learning about public relations, verbal communication, audio and video production, networking, etc. You gain leverage by focusing on podcasting vs. one of the micro-skills mentioned.
Loops are part of the core structure for how I live.
I think about four loops in my life:
feedback loops - getting feedback, analyzing it, acting on feedback, following up with feedback provider.
learning loops - experiencing learning, taking notes and abstracting takeaways, reflecting on learning and creating insights, acting on learning by storing in personal knowledge system and integrating into life.
task loops - given a task by self or another person, completing task.
daily reflection loops - experience a day, write what went well, didn’t go well, improve for tomorrow, action.
Too many open loops causes mental bloating. My mind feels heavy, doesn’t know what to focus on, and can’t input any more information.
Closing the loop was a focus this year. Can I complete learning on 1 topic before I move to the next? Have I completed a task or is it still sitting on my desk waiting to be done?
The faster I close the loop, the faster I can make progress.
mentally exploit yourself. your future self will thank you
In February, during a conversation with Noel Hurst, she mentioned: “The more you discover, the more you realize how much you don’t know.”
I’ve spent the past four months pondering this quote as I’ve spent more time around very smart people.
Now, as we end 2021, I don’t think the Dunning-Krugger Effect has had a stronger position on me. The past four months mentally exploited me. I realized how much I don’t know. Discovered that the standard of my work is above average, far from exceptional. I learned that the skills I thought I knew I don’t know very well. I struggled to have conviction in myself, what I was writing about or saying.
I enjoyed learning about what I didn’t know. I enjoyed discovering how naive I was in thinking that I was smarter than I was. It was through the process of finding new friends, relationships, and challenging my baseline that I arrived at the conclusion that the ideal Zayn is very far away.
2021 had loud and silent points of growth but I don’t think this year was great. I rate it a 4/10. My writing got better. I began building more interesting projects. My technical knowledge is increasing and I’m building projects across natural language processing, deep learning now. The trend is positive but I spent too much time this year re-learning lessons because I didn’t properly reflect and close the loop the first time I made a mistake.
I was too slow to act on some opportunities and missed the window for capitalization.
I’m curious for 2022. Curious about the changes I make in a quest to re-invent myself and stop my stock from fluctuating up and down; my stakeholders need a growth stock they can rely on.
Ian Lockhart for weekly meetings about what I’m building/thinking about.
Michael Raspuzzi for the past 1.75 years of olympic-level training + for pushing my baseline.
Navid Nathoo for helping me think about what the future of education looks like.
Dev, Sri, Anush, Mikael, Aahaan, Kabeer for the conversations that inform the essays, ideas I write about.
Joseph Choi, Vicky Liu, Alex Sarlin, Lohit Potnuru, Amna Hyder, Jimmy Cerone, Erik Koester, Angela Ivey, Henry Belcaster, KP, James Zhang, Xiangan He, Aryan Saha, Julie/Alan Smithson for the opportunities and relationships.
Every subscriber I had a conversation with this year. I appreciate it.
what’s up, thanks for reading the annual letter! shoot me an email with some thoughts, an update on what you’re working on, or just to say hi!
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