On dreams, education, and how I learn

Hello! I’m James Hsu, co-founder of CardBoard Live, author, technologist, and host of the Humans of Magic podcast.

Every Monday, I share what’s on my mind. In the midst of the pandemic, I’ve come to realize that one of the things that truly bring me joy — writing — is missing from the equation. This is my attempt to rectify the situation.

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When we’re young, we carry big dreams.

We dream as adults, too. Dreams just become more realistic for us once we consider financial and other worldly realities.

We carried intense dreams as kids; we just didn’t have the tools to actualize them. We were idealistic enough to feel the calling, but were light years away from realizing it.

Some kids wanted to get rich and famous. Others wanted to be astronauts or scientists. I wanted to be a courtroom judge.

One of the key tools is education. Education gives us a vocabulary, plan, thought process and work experience to make something happen, career-wise.

Contrast that to early adulthood. The path is known but our motivation generally wanes.

I studied with many failed first-year science students. Many wanted to become doctors, and the majority failed after a rude awakening with introductory chemistry or physics.

The tool is crystalized right in front of us. Here’s introductory chemistry. Get a score of 95% or better, and you’ll stand out. You’ll be on your way to the next challenge.

But we can’t hold the tool properly. It eludes our grasp and slips away the moment we put our hands on it.

Life tells us:

You’re not good enough.

You’re not hard-working enough.

You’re not sacrificing enough.

And as I’ve learned over the years:

You’re not lucky enough.

Never underestimate good fortune. Luck at the point we’re born, in our childhood, then adulthood. Did we have the right parents? Did we meet the right people?

That’s not to say my first-year science classmates didn’t try again or find contentment elsewhere.

Just as it’s natural for humans to want to be anywhere other than where we are right now, we also have a remarkable capacity for self-rationalization. The former drives our civilization forward; the latter helps us cope.

We are the central protagonists in our personal stories, but plenty of things happen to us, too. The world isn’t out to get us, but it can certainly feel that way. We try and hold on to the bits of control we possess.

Life is a series of fortuitous and unfortunate events. Our minds string together incoherent events into narratives.

This takes me back to my own journey with learning.

I have not been in the classroom since the mid-2000s, when I completed my bachelor’s degree in Computer Science.

To be completely honest, I went to college or university, as they say up in Canada on auto-pilot. It wasn’t due to some intense desire to become a programmer, or because I thought about the career opportunities available to me at the time.

Rather, I went through the motions because that’s what my parents expected of me. I liked computers, and the degree requirements were attainable. Hey, why not?

In elementary school, I wanted to become a judge. I wanted the prestige of sitting up at the front of the courtroom. To give the final verdict and be respected by the lawyers, jury, and whomever else.

The child version of me believed those things to be important that being respected, or seen, validated my self-worth.

Dreams also change once we change. In my teenage years I lacked self-esteem and confidence. My communication skills were terrible.

At that point, becoming a judge didn’t seem great anymore.

In some ways, training to become a programmer, or software developer, made sense. Talking to machines, and studying how they worked via deterministic inputs, seemed valuable if I wasn’t good at talking to people.

I happened to choose a degree that provided a better career, income-wise, than that of the liberal arts or humanities. It was luck. I applied myself, but there were plenty of people more talented than me.

A decade and a half later, I’m content with where I am. Over the years, I moved from programming into project management, to product management, to people management.

Finally, as a culmination of these experiences, I transitioned from corporate life into entrepreneurship.

I stayed in the software industry and found a way to reformulate what I did on a daily basis. This was self-taught.

Not many industries are as fluid as tech in terms of the ability to re-invent one’s career and provide a decent wage in the process.

Just because I haven’t been back in the classroom doesn’t mean I’ve stopped teaching myself new tricks.

As the world evolves, my desires and re-formulated dreams evolve, too. I’ve continued my pursuit of new knowledge via sharpening the tools available to me.

I’ve always been an avid reader. I’m greatly influenced by the written word, and believe that solid writing is the hallmark of strong leadership.

There are a nearly infinite amount of books, containing lived experiences from alive and dead people. Books are one of the few categories of things I splurge on.

The flip side of reading is writing. If you can write convincingly and persuasively, on anything, then I know you have attributes that matter: discipline, clarity of thought, and a long attention span.

Discipline: writing takes work, practice, and self-reflection. I’ve been writing pieces like this one for years and I’m still nowhere close to where I want to be. I feel improvement, though, and that’s rewarding.

Clarity of thought: unlike verbal communication, writing gives the writer the luxury of shifting words, sentences, paragraphs around. It’s a playground of the mind, and also a privilege. There is time to shift ideas and passages around, so make the arguments count.

Long attention span: good writers read. An adequate attention span is needed to absorb the knowledge in a book and retain it for the long-term. Notably, building up a knowledge index allows one to argue persuasively from combining multiple points of view.

As Shane Parrish of Farnam Street says, it is easy to regurgitate information or a viewpoint from one source. That’s elementary stuff. The harder thing to do is to combine, mix, and make things uniquely yours.

Which brings me back to my self-education journey.

My learning method = theory + practice.

The theory comes from reading books, listening to podcasts, and talking to key people for knowledge reinforcement and directional guidance.

To be fair, I’ve taken my share of structured online courses, but nothing as rigorous as my four-year undergraduate program in Computer Science.

The practice comes from re-imagining situations using new mental frameworks, acquiring work experience, and bouncing ideas off of other people.

My view is that theory without practice is worthless. With every piece of new material I add to the toolbox, it is imperative that I apply it to my life.

I make it a point to write down new insights. A day later, I will review it and think about how this new piece of knowledge can be applied to a current event or situation I’m facing.

I review the insight both one day and one month later. I’m conscientious of recency bias. New knowledge can be like a new girlfriend. Infatuation leads to illogical leaps in the short-term. Great knowledge stands the test of time.

If I’m using the knowledge to form a point of view, I do a gut check by forming contrarian arguments against myself.

I ask: “What if I’m wrong?”

And: “What are the reasons for why this view may be incorrect, if I place myself in someone else’s shoes?”

While it is impossible to get this exercise perfect, it’s the least I can do in terms of checking for my own blind spots.

The superior approach is to discuss the point of view with trusted friends 1:1 to elicit feedback, which I’ve done on multiple occasions. It’s easy to get lost in one’s head; going outside of it to seek perspective is immensely valuable.

Do not fall into the trap of thinking that we have it all figured out. Constantly challenge expectation.

Here are some subjects I’ve taught myself on, over the past five years:

Learning how to learn and reason. Added some refinement to the toolbox: critical thinking methodologies, mental models, reasoning via first principles. Forming mental frameworks for how to approach challenging personal and business situations.

The financial industry, and investing literacy. Key economic events and unexpected Black Swans. Asset allocation, efficient market theory, and ETFs. The intrinsic value of equities, gold, currency. This led me down the path to learning about…

Blockchain and cryptocurrencies. What it is, what the future holds, how to invest.

Philosophy and political theory. The history of philosophy and the great thinkers, dating back to Thales and Aristotle. The purpose of life and society. Stoicism and minimizing negative emotions.

What it means to be an American liberal vs. conservative. Arguments for framing social and economic issues, both historically and in contemporary times. How to frame the concept of justice and fairness at the individual and national levels.

Introductory economic theory in the Keynesian and neoliberal traditions since it is all connected.

The business of sports. How teams make business decisions. The legacy of key decisions in a sport.

More abstractly: why do we watch sports? What do we take out of fandom? Why do we hold wildly different opinions on the same players, coaches, and teams?

The business of esports.

Publishing a book.

Publishing a regular podcast.

Training for a marathon.

How to play Magic: The Gathering more effectively.

How to be a better husband.

I list these areas not only to broadcast my own interests, but to seek feedback. I’m happy to expand on any of the above and provide fuel for future writing material if there is sufficient interest.

I also want to make a point: one can dabble into many new domains, absent the traditional educational approach. It is possible to develop more tools in the box; it just takes focused effort and discipline.

Having done my share of reflection, I am strongly considering going back to the classroom.

This time I am confident that I will get something more valuable out of it.

Have a great week!

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