2: Philly

We landed in Philadelphia after what must have been an exciting first flight for me and an exhausting one for the grandparents. As a kid I loved to fly and would always order a cup of hot cocoa to drink, not realizing then how much extra work this required of the overworked flight attendants. And as a kid that steaming mug of watery cocoa was divine. Kids create their own world and to paraphrase David Foster Wallace, it is a small and serious one. Kids see everything the way they want to see it, which is what makes them so inspiring yet so ridiculous. For child me, airplanes = hot cocoa and turbulence = a mild roller coaster. All that’s changed now of course. Adult me is too embarrassed to order cocoa in economy class as you’d get either a flat “we don’t serve it” rejection or a harassed acquiescence. And every mid-flight dip or pilot announcement of upcoming turbulence makes my hands sweat as they flee to the hardened safety of the arm rest.

Today when I think of Philadelphia I think of UPenn because my first girlfriend – my first love – went there. I think of squeezed and packed philly cheesesteaks wit wiz, of a street grimyness and art culture and a particular kind of American pride, part nativist and part clan-al, a tight East Coast us-versus-them set that is parts amusing and inspiring and foreign to my Austin and Bay Area sensibilities. I think of our apartment building pot lucks, where Chinese immigrant families gathered so the kids could run amok and the parents could chatter loudly and play rousing games of Monopoly.

We were poor, and not just grad student poor, but immigrant grad students with a young kid poor. Census poor. Like certain sections of San Francisco today, we lived in a Philly neighborhood where it was not uncommon to find your car with its windows smashed, car radio taken, or wheels replaced by cinders. My Dad used a red steering wheel lock and I always thought it looked like a ninja weapon. In fact I was disappointed when we later moved to Florida and stopped using it. Only today do I recognize the stress he must have shouldered from the very nature of having to use and think about those lack-of-trust devices.

We were poor but with a key difference: We were immigrants. Immigrants are like newborn babies, sucking at the teat of the American dream. Everyone in America is an immigrant, but the newer immigrants retain hope. Hope in the right hands is more valuable than cash. Hope made my parents work hard. Hope made them endure whatever indignities surfaced daily, helped them plan and save and worry and push until they carried us up the class ladder, rung by rung. In America, they did what they were told, and they resented it later at home.


This is one in a series of personal reflections. I’m writing them in roughly chronological order, starting with childhood, and hope to arrive at the present day. Click here to see what’s been published. Thanks!

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

1: America bound

Nine months after I was born in small town China, six months after receiving the smallpox vaccination that would leave my left shoulder with a bullet sized scar, a patchy circle that is the Asian Fob scarlet letter, I was left in grandparental care as my parents flew to east coast America to become STEM graduate students.

Thus I was raised in those early years by both sets of grandparents. I have always felt the deepest and easiest bond with Dad’s Dad, though of course I love them all. And three years later, I was reunited with my parents in winter Philly. There is an old colored photo of my China sendoff: carried in the arms of Dad’s older sister, surrounded by a big group of relatives and friends outside the airport terminal. I’m wearing a child’s sailor outfit and a baby resting bitch face. It is very cold outside as evidenced by the sea of red cheeks and the vapor trails of exhaled breathe. There are many faces gathered, some small, some tall, some young, mostly old, all clothed in puffy jackets of dusty blue and faded black. Familiar faces all, in the way you just know a face, but I can’t tell you any of their names or how to properly address them. And I haven’t seen most of them since I left.


This is one in a series of personal reflections. I’m writing them in roughly chronological order, starting with childhood, and hope to arrive at the present day. Click here to see what’s been published. Thanks!

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

10 thoughts I shared with my cousin before she started college

My cousin started college last month and when I was spending time with her and family in Shanghai I couldn’t help but think back on my college years and what I loved and didn’t like so much and missed and reminisced. With 10 years of hindsight now I don’t think I could have squeezed much more juice out of the orange that is college life. I do wish I’d studied overseas, though. Perhaps I’m making up for it, subconsciously and otherwise, by living in Asia now…

So I wrote a few suggestions for her in an email and as I did, the words kept pouring out. College is just such a unique and unparalleled time in a person’s life. Here’s a slightly edited version of what I sent her (I can’t share EVERYTHING :P).

1. Don’t stress about your major right now, or really ever. It should be about #7 on your list of important things to worry about freshman year. Picking the right major is important, but the process shouldn’t be rushed. You can still do it sophomore year, junior year, even senior year (your parents might not appreciate my saying this, however :). What’s more important: Pick the right PROFESSORS. People who love to teach and who students love (you’ll know who those yodas are pretty quickly). Engage as deeply as you can with their material. Through that process, a major will emerge. It’s like how you discovered that you enjoyed dance, or liked a boy. Good things have a gravity of their own. Another method to determine your major: Work backwards. Look at the alumni and upperclassmen who you envy and admire. Find out their majors. And copy them. Simple, but it works.

2. It’s NEVER too late to change. If you at any point worry that you’re too “old” to change – whether your extracurriculars, or your group of friends, or your major, or even your study habits – you should step far far back and look at the big picture of your life. No one who is young ever thinks they’re going to be old. Ok, I stole that last sentence from somewhere. Look at me: I’m 10 years out of college and still changing where I live, what I do, my attitude about life. And the scary but honest part? Just about every person I know who is my age or older wants to change, each and every day. Some make the attempt, but most don’t. Regret is what separates the two.

3. You should choose one or two extracurriculars that you LOVE and really invest deeply in them. This is a better approach than joining 10 groups, and then missing most of their meetings. The best fruits are born of commitment. Of course you can take your time to choose those extracurriculars, and try them all out buffet-style. In fact it’s better, I think, not to be too pre-professional or career oriented when choosing these groups. You have the rest of your life to work a job. You don’t need to start now.

4. The friends you make freshman year – in your dorm, in your classes, at the parties – will probably become your closest and tightest friends through college and even beyond. That’s why reunions often have reunions by freshman year dorm, and not sophomore or senior year. Freshman year, you’re like a piece of gak, soft and gooey and easily shaped by and mixed into those around you. By senior year you’ve become something more like a rubber ball, still bouncy!, but with more shape and structure :) Freshman year, you’re thrown together with these people, largely at random, like most occurrences in life, but everything works out. Really invest in these people and appreciate who you have around you. Even the ones you might not like because they’re messy or don’t shower or never seem to pay for stuff.

5. For many, this will be their first extended experience without parental supervision. This is a great and terrible thing. Everyone will struggle without mom’s nagging and dad’s discipline. But most people adapt. Some, however, don’t. They wind up skipping classes and partying six days a week and subsisting on junk food and generally just crapping out. Some of them realize their mistakes by junior or senior year, and regret their decisions for a long time. Try not to become that kind of person. It’s not even their fault, because taking ownership of your life is difficult. I’m still learning how to do it today. You’ll learn to be responsible for your choices: from when you wake up, to what you eat for lunch, to how you balance classes and friends and extracurriculars and the million other options that college presents on a platter. Just remember that the person who’s truly accountable now is you :)

6. Going greek is a good experience. Of course I’m biased but it was an important part of my college years and my pledge brothers are among my closest friends today. People who criticize you for joining a fraternity / sorority are usually jealous, or lazy, or simply have never bothered to understand greek life and rely on second hand rumors and simple stereotypes the same way someone watches Fox News and believes Muslims and Mexicans should be evicted from America. If you DO decide to pledge, what matters is who you join alongside. It’s not about the sisters in the house, it’s not about any of the pageantry, it’s about those you stand beside who you will get to know better than just about anyone else you meet in college.

7. Everyone on campus is there to help you. Truly. Everyone wants you to succeed: from your roommate to your advisors to upperclassmen to admin to professors and alumni (in fact, ESPECIALLY alumni!). You just won’t find a group of people more universally committed to your success. Never hesitate to seek help. You’ll consistently be amazed. I still am, whenever I bother to ask, that is :)

8. A sense of loneliness and ennui hit me after freshman year Christmas Break. The first semester, everything was exciting and new and you’re so over-scheduled and overwhelmed that you don’t have time to reflect. But you return from the holidays, and you’ve got a set of new and tougher classes. Maybe the weather’s gotten worse. From your time at home you realize how much you miss your childhood friends. The reality of four years in college begins to sink in. For some people this realization doesn’t occur until sophomore year. But everyone goes through a sort of lull. Don’t get stuck in it. That’s what friends are there for. Lean on them. This is often when grades dip. Work harder. Be more committed. Call your mom more. Exercise.

9. There’s always some hot job or perfect company that everyone wants to work for. Especially at a good school. In my time it was Goldman Sachs and Bain and the like. Today maybe it’s Facebook or Google or a hot startup. My friends who got finance jobs in New York thought they were the shit. Yet they missed the Facebook gold rush and were jealous of other friends who became millionaires at 25. And people who join Facebook today will probably see the same thing happen to them. Point is, there’s always another gold rush. You can never predict it. Trying to do so means changing who you are in a way that you’ll probably regret.

10. Instead of thinking, what do I want to do immediately after college?, think instead: Where do I imagine myself when I’m 30? Now, I realize 30 seems eternally far away, and it doesn’t have to be 30, it could be 26 or 28. Point is, the exercise forces you to think at least two if not four steps after college. Each life decision that you make is like setting down a small stepping stone. And you can place the stepping stone wherever you like, but if you place them all in different directions, you’ll never get far. The farther out you can anticipate or plan or dream of, the better your chances of creating the right path to get there.

Finally finally: take time, step back, and enjoy the moments when you can. 4 years will fly by, believe it or not. Sometimes I would just walk around campus, lay on the grass, take a nap, watch the people around me, and soak in the moment. So many people desperately want to be in your place. Appreciate it and enjoy it for all its worth!

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

Why I had to exit the overachiever highway: New York and McKinsey (Part 3)

The ideals which have lighted me on my way and time after time given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. […] The ordinary objects of human endeavour—property, outward success, luxury—have always seemed to me contemptible. — Einstein

(the below continues my ramblings about life, success, whatever, here are parts 1 and 2)

New York and McKinsey

I said yes to McKinsey and joined its New York office upon graduating. This was 2006. Together with two college friends who were to become bankers at Goldman Sachs, we crammed into a small luxury apartment in Murray Hill and began our adult working lives. Yes, the whole thing was very much a cliche.

My roommates worked 90-hour weeks with the Sunday night conference calls and the $50 expensed dinners. I watched the job and its lifestyle take its toll on their bodies and their relationships. Despite sleeping less than 10 feet away from both guys, sometimes I’d go weeks where I fell asleep before they returned home (usually between 1-2am). I’d hear at least one of them return in the middle of the night. And when I awoke in the morning (usually between 8-9am), that person had already left. Brutal.

My McKinsey tenure was tough, but in a different way: the struggle was mostly internal. Strategy consulting was an introduction to a demanding, high-speed version of adulthood. Looking back on that period, I’d compare the recruiting process to an audition for a dramatic play. And the job itself to a daily live performance of that play. You were thrust onstage and made to learn the lines and skills as you go.

They put a lot of trust in you – the Goldmans, the McKinseys, the Googles. They let 21 year olds have access to information and conversations that were light years beyond anything they’d experienced previously. Some people thrived in this environment. They had dreamed of such an opportunity, had planned and prepared for years. Finally, here was the real deal. Like premiering on Broadway. Performance time.

I was by comparison a bad and lazy actor, always struggling with the sense that I was faking it. To me, we were little kids playing expensive dress. That feeling never went away. As an analyst, the job sometimes felt like a recipe for instant ramen: soak in Powerpoint presentations for three hours, and voila, you have a steaming cup of insights and solutions. How people do this with a straight face, day after day, project after project, is beyond me. But that’s probably why I’m not a natural.

To succeed at a place like McKinsey, it is crucial that you learn and then follow its unspoken rules. There are the rules put down on paper, such as the number of vacation days and the timing of performance reviews. But far more important are the ones left unsaid. For example, as the youngest person on the team you should generally be the first person to arrive in the morning and the last one to leave. You should bring energy and curiosity to the team, and the occasional crazy idea. You should master the numbers, the data. The managers and partners will rely on you for them.

I slowly divined the rules. But while I understood them, I could not for my life follow them. Some internal part of me simply wouldn’t obey. I had sensed that hot energy in earlier periods. A rebellious repressed energy that had been there in high school, had grown hotter in college, and was amassing new force and momentum now. It was the same defiance that caused me to curse out Chinese school in front of my parents, the same anger that made me a bully to some kids in grade school, the same stubborn masochism that was now hurting my career.

Thank god for the city. New York was like a giant coping mechanism. If Stanford was the love of my life, then New York was the crazy rebound. In the words of EB White, “the city makes up for its hazards and its deficiencies by supplying its citizens with massive doses of a supplementary vitamin-the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty and unparalleled”. Our vitamins were more tangible: alcohol and parties, mostly, enhanced by the same self-assured wildness of young and employed college grads everywhere. We were all growed up. We were on top of the world.

My body was treated more like the festival grounds of Coachella than a Zen Buddhist garden. I slept 5-6 hours a night, which is like paying $6 for a morning coffee. It’s silly, and it adds up. The binge drinking didn’t help, nor did the occasional joint or all the sloppy 5am afterparty meals in Ktown. In Facebook photos from that time, what I notice first are my swollen chipmunk cheeks, then the puffy and folded eyes, like a teenager with a light peanut allergy.

Then there was the weather. In my childhood hometown of Austin, we were oppressed by 100+ degree heat for three months. Most of the remaining nine were by comparison balmy, tranquil, lazy. And Bay Area weather has a great and deserved reputation (ignoring SF, of course): like a Vegas slot machine with a frequent payout, it had just enough bad weather days to make you appreciate that golden delicious sun. There is something about Bay Area sunlight and the angle of its approach, filtered through those majestic oaks and conifers, that cuts deep.

New York weather? Not as bad as Boston or even Chicago, say the hardy East Coast natives. But it was an opponent and not a friend. Something to endure. It wrestled you into submission in the winter. Not satisfied with this victory, it returned with the hot humid summer and struck sweaty body blows until you wilted. Of course I am exaggerating. Nothing beats a nice Big Apple spring, when the entire city is beaming and basking. The air is charged with energy and bathed in heavy fragrance and young hormones that waft alongside the shawarma lamb of the halal food carts and the decaying piles of curbside garbage.

And of course how can I forget the people. New York is where ambitious people come to do two things: meet and succeed. You don’t throw yourself into a tornado of human interaction unless you want sometimes to be hit by the debris. My most treasured memories from this time are of close new friendships. People whom were gifted by sheer circumstance. They say that traveling together is the best way to bond. New York, then, even for its locals, is an urban safari, an enduring voyage.

But of my parents, I have few memories. My dad and I hadn’t spoken since graduation, the result of a miscommunication that I assumed was a trivial event but was for him the match that lit the fuse that detonated a life’s worth of sacrifice and disapproval. Of course he’s not here to defend himself, but not to worry, I will return to this topic and dig deeper. While dad and I gave each other the silent treatment, mom had moved to China. Her official reason was to become primary caretaker for her dad / my grandfather in the tradition of Confucius filial piety. This was a move she’d longed to make for many years. Mostly, she had tired of America, of the immigrant grind. We kept in touch through weekly phone calls. She visited me in NYC once, stayed in our Murray Hill apartment, experienced the appropriate motherly shock and disgust upon seeing the filth of our shared bathroom. I remember too a nice meal together at Sushiden in Midtown, a warm feeling that I could treat her to good fish and a dinner between adults.

The time at McKinsey eventually ended. In those two years – or twenty two months, to be precise – I had gained fifteen pounds. I began to smoke cigarettes during the day, even bought my own packs. Thought it was cool. But towards the experience, the sum adventure, there was no regret. No lingering what ifs. Mostly, the feeling was one of disappointment. I had been an A+ student in high school and an A student in college. But at McKinsey I distinctly felt like a B.

My then-girlfriend was also newly unemployed, a victim of the 2008 Wall Street shenanigans. We were watching the financial crisis unfold on CNBC when news arrived that Bear Stearns was collapsing. She worked at Bear. A few weeks later, she, too, quit her job.

With little savings, no backup plan, and unwilling to get a regular job, New York was no longer an option. A city that thrives on get rich quick, it has no time for patient experimentation.

I wanted to start a startup. The logic went as follows: the corporate life was terrible, so why not do the exact opposite and become an entrepreneur? To take the startup thing seriously, there was only one choice: return to the Bay Area, to entrepreneurship’s epicenter. Back, back, to Cali Cali. My girlfriend agreed to join me. Together we rented a remodeled one-bedroom in San Francisco’s Lower Haight. It was time to start a company.

continued here

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

Why I had to exit the overachiever highway: random reflections (Part 1)

And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. – DFW

High school and college admissions

For most of my life I was the definition of an overachiever. Someone who worked hard, perhaps beyond my abilities, to accomplish things. To not just achieve, but to over-achieve. The standard Tiger Mom litany, except I was my own Tiger Mom.

In high school an overachiever’s goal is simple: get into the best college you possibly can. Race to beat everyone for the 20K or so spots at the country’s top schools. And by top schools, I pretty much mean the Ivy Leagues plus a few. I was 15, 16, 17 years old, too young and sheltered to have discovered alcohol or drugs, and too immature to have stable, self-driven dreams. Any interests or hobbies or passions that I did have, like playing tennis, were mostly done because they might help my Common App.

And I never questioned why. The why seemed obvious. Maybe it’s like growing up in an arranged marriage. You accept the arrangement because it’s what you know. That’s how things are done around here. It’s good and it’s right because it’s right and it’s good. It’s the default setting, and like David Foster Wallace says, the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings…

So you move on, because you’ve got things to do. Getting into an Ivy League school is hard work. The homework wasn’t going to do itself. Club presidents weren’t going to elect themselves.

In high school, this college admissions rat race was enough. Ivy League dreams and scholarship wishes. Proud parents and envious friends. The goal created within me an unwavering, almost militaristic commitment. I would wake up at 6am for swim practice and stay after school until 6pm for science club. Then I’d come home and eat dinner with my parents.

Behind the scenes, our family was falling apart (had fallen apart?) but I couldn’t acknowledge it. The parental fighting and eventual divorce were, relatively speaking, background noise compared to the screaming fear of a low SAT score or an A-minus grade. I only knew how to soldier on. American history essays were easier than fixing family relationships. Dinner devoured, usually white rice and whatever Chinese dishes my parents whipped up, I would wash the dishes, then do homework until 11pm, falling asleep and waking up repeatedly in order to finish this chemistry problem set or that calculus assignment. Sometimes a friend would call and we’d commiserate together. But mostly it was just me, plugging away, swathed in silence and yellow lamplight.

One dark chilly weekday morning, I woke up and began my pre-dawn routine to prepare for swim practice. Pitch black outside. Daybreak wouldn’t be for many more taps of the snooze button. I didn’t want to go. I don’t think there was a single morning where I did. Waiting for the shower to heat up, I fell asleep sitting on the toilet.

Finally I walk into the garage and get into my 1996 Nissan Maxima. As I start the car and begin to reverse, I hear a loud screech behind me, a metallic snap crackle and pop. I look through my rearview mirror. Completely black. Can see nothing. I look over my shoulder. Also nothing. I get out of the car and walk to the rear. Only then do I realize, as my eyes adjust to the dim orange flood of the car’s taillights, that I forgot to open the garage door before backing out. The loud screech was the whine and ache of the aluminum garage door as it slowly bent outward. My now-mangled rear bumper had driven a dent at least six inches deep and several feet wide. I stared blankly at it for a minute, then got back into the car, hit the open button on my garage door clicker, and drove to practice anyway.

…continued here

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.