Khantemplations: A Khanpilation of thoughts on life and work

14 Jan 2015

Dear colleague,

Hi, I’m David. I just graduated from college earlier this year, and I just started full-time a month ago.

As a student, life has always been structured with a clear next step and short-term goals. Get good grades. Get into university. Get a job.

But what now? I have no one to answer to now. No one to enforce rules or set expectations. No clear directions or structure.

Should I work hard at work? Make new friends or maintain existing ones? How do I find a soulmate? Should I climb our corporate breadmaster hierarchy ladder,  and strive for the coveted Assistant Breadmaster title?

In the process of figuring out priorities and structuring my life, I’ve found our 1:1s and AMAs very helpful. But I want to know more about everyone here, and so I have a few questions for you:

  • What is one thing you wish you knew when you first started at Khan Academy?
  • What is one thing you wish you knew when you first graduated?
  • Is there anything you think you did right? What worked well for you?
  • What advice do you have for new grads or interns?
  • … and anything else that you want to say.

Whoever you are — intern or full-timer, junior or senior, young or 26-and-married,  developer or content producer, De-Facto Software Kingpin or Director of Wellness,  human or dancer  — I want to hear from you! I would love to get a broad range of differing perspectives.

Be specific or general. Talk about work or not. Anything from “Small and frequent code reviews” to “Announce ‘bread’ loudly because people are wearing headphones”  to “If you’re not happy, be happy.”

Say a little or a lot. Maybe just one cryptic word to puzzle over, or make this your magnum opus. Whatever it is, I will read it and think about it.

I also think this would be a great opportunity to share with everyone — not only the new grads and interns among us, but also existing and future employees. So, I’m planning to compile this into an internal publication for everyone’s edification. By default, I will anonymize your contribution. But,

  • If you use the codeword fearless somewhere, I will attach your name next to your thoughts. 
  • If you don’t want me to share your thoughts at all with anyone, use codeword bread. 
  • If you’re allergic to emails or have more to say, I’d be happy to have a 1:1. Respond with codeword Tea-Rex. 
  • If we’ve already had this conversation before, reply with the standard company codeword for this situation, tortoise. 

Thank you so much. I, and I hope others, will appreciate this.

In the words of the highly respected CEO, educational philanthropist, and role model to many of us here, 

I don’t think you should wait. I think you should Speak Now.

(Note: The spinning hand-tree asterisk thing   denotes an inside joke at Khan Academy.)

So I sent the above annoyingly long email to err’body at work. And they didn’t fire me — far from it, my colleagues turned out to be really helpful people:

  • Received responses from 25 individuals
  • Responses with codeword Tea-Rex: 2
  • Responses with codeword bread: 2
  • Responses with codeword fearless: 11
  • One response used every codeword (I ended up cancelling out bread with fearless and went on a 1:1 with this mischievous individual)
  • Responses from young and old, intern and full-timer, and across departments

Khantemplations Khanpilation

I had enough responses that I decided to compile this into a book made from dead trees. To add insult to injury to my environmentalist friends, I ordered 150 of these (to distribute. I promise I’m not smoking them):

Box of Khantemplations

Here are the table of contents:

Table of contents of Khantemplations

And here’s a photo of one of the section dividers because I like how fancy they look:

Section divider of Khantemplations

Thanks to Marcos for knowing all the things about printed book design — from suggesting Adobe InDesign for layout to giving me ideas for cover designs. I used BookBaby for the printing.

Butchered paraphrasing and merciless editorializing of responses

I don’t want to distribute this book publicly, because I told my colleagues this would be distributed for internal publication only (and I love them). So instead, here is a summary with anonymized quotes mixed in (I hope. If I leak PII, you are free to sue me). It’s a hodge-podge of advice, regrets, and lessons from my co-workers. By condensing it into a dry list of bulleted points, I've managed to suck out all the anecdotes that once weaved each response into a beautiful flowing narrative with story and character. Well beauty and soul be damned — I'm an emotionless engineer!

My proofreader friends encouraged me to actually de-wall-of-text it. So I did. Thanks to you, I’m no longer emotionless and am now capable of love.

1. Take risks, make mistakes, and learn from them

This is the single most unanimous and uncontested life advice from my colleagues. Take chances, go on adventures, be bold, and be outgoing, especially when you’re young, energetic, and unburdened:

  • “Take risks — it will only get harder to take them the older you get.”
  • “I wish I could have been less nervous and more outgoing in work and social life. There’s not much to gain by being shy.”
  • “Taking chances always pays off. Tackle unknowns, not knowns.”

It’s not always rainbows and butterflies. And you’ll make mistakes. But do it anyway, because it is through mistakes that we learn the most.

  • “Don’t be afraid to struggle through difficult experiences.”
  • “Oh and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Go looking for mistakes.”
  • “It is okay to make mistakes. In fact it is preferable.”

I hear this very often, but it takes courage to take risks:

  • “I live my life by two rules: 1) Do the right thing. 2) Do the courageous thing. Courage means doing something in spite of our fears. Because we all have fears, and not being afraid of something isn’t hard. Being afraid of something and doing it anyways is.”

It’s all too easy to do what we’ve always done before. Go home. Play video games. Facebook stalk. Catch up on /r/taylorswift. (Wait… what do you mean not everyone does this?) Having lived in the real world for only 7 months, I’ve found that doing things outside of my comfort zone — flying to a random desert with a bunch of lunatics I just met who wear onesies through the airport (I love you all) — have allowed me to grow as a person.

2. Invest in people

  • “One of the biggest takeaways from my year abroad is to value and prioritize my relationships more.”

So much of finding a career is just knowing the right people.

  • “I wish I knew the value of a network. Jobs, internships, and general career opportunities are so heavily based on who you know and how you can get in.”

Multiple respondents expounded on the importance of mentorship in growing at work.

  • “Find role models and mentors. Invest in good people, personally and professionally. Be proactive in this — reach out.”

But also make an effort to reach out to people outside of work. For one coworker, work consumed their conversations, social activity, and life. And then,

  • “When it came time for that job to pass, and for me to go join something else, I felt a very strange hole in my identity.”

Transitioning from school to work means transitioning from seeing classmates everyday to maintaining those friendships, but is also an opportunity to make new friends:

  • “After college, maintaining friendships takes a lot more effort. You have to actually schedule things! … Just accept the extra overhead because it’ll be worth it when you look back.”
  • “For the first 3 years out of school, I formed a lot of close friendships that still last today. We were all single, enjoying independence, and learning a lot about growing up — work, money, dating, traveling, cooking, etc.”
  • “Your health, the health of the people you care about, and the relationships you have with your close family and friends are the only things that really matter.”

3. No, really, invest in people

People and relationships were discussed in so many different ways that I split this into two points! (But really, it’s so I can title this blog post “10 Things You Must Know After You Graduate Or Be A Regretful Miserable Lonely Wreck Forever” if I wanted to.)

This section is more about how and what you can do.

Perhaps the best way to grow is by surrounding yourself with the sort of people you want to become:

  • “Find the role models who can be your true mentors, and do your best to work with them.”
  • “Don’t wait for people to come to you. If you see a person you really respect or is doing something cool or seems like they have their head on straight or could be someone you can lean on (or could lean on you) reach out to them! Build the bridge yourself and make the first move.”

Love.

  • “Care and be helpful. You will never (NEVER) regret going out of your way to do something helpful to or nice for someone else. You will regret times when you could have gone out of your way and chose not to.”
  • “I tried to have lots of love and respect for those around me.”
  • “Hone the art of really good listening.”
  • “Tell your parents you love them.”

Stay in touch and just spend time:

  • “Identify the bright and kind people in your life, and make sure you stay in touch with them.”
  • “Keep a list of the contacts you value; use recurring tasks to ensure you keep in touch; learn from them and network through them; return the favor.”
  • “One of my favorite things was a weekly supper club where we’d all get together and try to cook a home cooked meal.”

Put yourself in different social circles:

  • “Finding a soulmate: There’s no science to this. Lots of my friends are in happy relationships through friends. Just have to make time and space for this to happen. Surround yourself with interesting people you want to be around, and put yourself in different circles.”

But, at the end of the day, you have to accept that nothing is permanent:

  • “People around you will come and go. People around you will change and you will too.”

4. Make yourself happy, because impressing your grandmother won’t

Listen to yourself and do what makes you happy. Make happiness something you control, and not something dictated by the approval of others:

  • “You are the only one you have to impress and be accountable to at the end of the day. An amazing resume, a prestigious job, a diploma from the best school, stays at the coolest hotels, first class tickets, basically anything that is about impressing others will not necessarily make you happy and satisfied.”
  • “Don’t ever sacrifice your happiness or sanity for money, power or some ill-fated glory. All that stuff fades away and at the end of the day you’re left with yourself.”
  • “Don’t make decisions based on how you think you’ll be perceived by others.”
  • “I followed my heart and went with my gut, rather than being influenced by others’ opinions.”

How to be happy? I don’t know. But here are some ideas:

  • “Take some time off after graduation to just focus on yourself. Do those things you love. I travelled, spent time with friends, and played guitar. Reevaluate things.”
  • “Live and work in the moment.”
  • “Practice gratitude every day.”

I do the latter by writing three different things/people I’m grateful for in my journal each day.

5. Work hard, take a break, work hard

Many of my colleagues credit where they’re at now to hard work:

  • “Guard your time for creating things. This doesn’t mean sacrificing family or love — there are lots of other things people waste time on.”
  • “Work hard. Be present and proactive. Do not underestimate how much impact you can have on the world if you consistently work hard. Consistently working hard will have more impact than any single decision.”
  • “I worked (and still work) really hard. That’s a hard thing for a lot of people to do, to actually commit yourself 100% into something no matter what the pay, outcome or gain for you is.”

But what does it mean to work hard? Work 25 hours a day? Clone yourself? Blast Taylor Swift while you work?

Perhaps, focus only on the important things and drop the rest:

  • “You — and only you — are in charge of your own attention and focus. They are very finite resources which you spend every second. Spend them with care.”
  • “If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it is going to lead to something important, then why are you doing it?”

And maybe you’ll be able to work hard in the long run by not working hard all the time:

  • “At past jobs I have worked too much and it led to burnout and feeling pretty miserable. I’ve found that by just working hard when I can and not being upset at myself for when I can’t, I can keep a much more sustainable and productive cadence.”
  • “If college is a series of sprints, life after college is a marathon. … Pace yourself, and you’ll accomplish more and be much happier.”

6. Assume you’re stupid so you can always be learning

I’ve struggled with this — I’ve always felt I had to prove myself. But I’ve found that ultimately, being selfless and working towards shared goals is for the best. And that means if there’s something you don’t understand, if there’s something that will deter you from getting the job done, speak up, even if you think you’ll look foolish for it.

  • “Don’t worry about being smart. It just causes you to stress out too much about your mistakes and occasionally even decide not to ask for help when you might need it.”
  • “Don’t be afraid to be honest with your mentors and managers — they want honesty above all else and will do whatever they can to help.”
  • “School didn’t teach you as much as you think it did. Assume you are stupid going in and just listen. Learn from others.”
  • “If you see every experience as a learning experience, you’ll come to value every moment.”
  • “Don’t just practice — deliberate practice.”

7. Take the lead; be proactive

Paraphrasing a response: Be grateful if you work in a good environment, but at the same time, it is your responsibility to speak up, voice dissent, and improve the work culture, for that is how a good environment is made and preserved.

  • “Company culture is comprised of individuals stepping forward and taking the lead on shaping it — from board game nights to karaoke nights to hiking trips.”
  • “Don’t wait for others to tell you what to do. Nobody knows what the fuck is going on in this world… they look for others to tell them what is next. Be that person.”
  • “Aim high and take ownership.”

8. Figure out what you want to do, and do it… maybe

Should you follow your passion? Many of my colleagues are at Khan Academy because they’re so passionate about education:

  • “You have to find what you’re doing personally meaningful. If you’re like me, spending 8+ hours a day on something you don’t believe in just isn’t possible.”
  • “There were moments when I told myself I was an idiot to leave… just for a chance at KA. There was a period of a few months where I was definitely following my feelings rather than thoughts about which route was the most secure, but I’m tremendously glad I did it.”

But what if you don’t know what you enjoy? How can you find out?

  • “One of the best things that I did was reading blogs and looking for companies that appeal to me on more than just a monetary level, but on some sort of spiritual or philosophical level.”
  • “One thing I’ve found helpful is to take a few minutes at the end of every weekday to list the things I did at work. I then mark my favorite and least favorite things. Over time, I can see what I’m enjoying and what I’m not enjoying, and I can work towards doing more of the things I love and less of the things I don’t.”
  • “I tried to take on a variety of projects… which really paid off as time went on — in part, because I discovered what kind of work I enjoy doing”.

But, be pragmatic. Like the answer to so many questions, it depends. Where are you now? What do you enjoy? Will you grow? Can you can support yourself?

  • “You’ll have time to follow your passion your whole life, build a reputation of great work and trust to enable you to do whatever your passion may be.”
  • (paraphrased) “Financial success is not insignificant, and I don’t deride people who choose financial well-being. It allows you to take care of your family. What matters most to me is you weigh that proportionately relative to your other criteria.”
  • “When choosing a job, I would have been much better off optimizing for the right team to work with over function…. They were very nice people, but unfortunately, they were not inspirational, and I didn’t realize how much I needed that.”

One respondent noted that earning experience put them in a position to choose rather than beg for any job they could get.

9. Climb the corporate bureaucracy by using this 1 weird old tip

Sorry, I don’t really have a neat theme to tie all this together. It’s just a collection of work-related thoughts.

  • At your first job, you may initially feel overwhelmed. But things are going to be OK. You’ll figure them out. It just takes time.
  • One colleague learned to be pragmatic instead of stressing out about doing everything the right way, and in so doing, developed a bias towards doing and shipping things.
  • Priorities shift and projects change. So, “developing skills is what really counts — learning how to work well with others, communicate ideas, manage stress, and balance your life.”
  • “Take time every week to reflect, set goals, and work for yourself. Be your own ‘academic advisor.’”
  • From a team lead: “It is absolutely critical that you become a person who does not drop things on the floor. When you say you’ll do something, when an idea occurs to you, when an issue is raised in a meeting and isn’t resolved, you have got that thing. It is recorded in some safe place, and you know that you will follow up on it. If you’re not going to do something, that is a conscious decision, not an accident.”
  • You can accomplish a lot more with a team, and build something bigger than yourself.

10. How I learned to stop worrying and accept that no one really knows what they’re doing

But it’s OK, because we’re young and we’re reckless. We’ll take this way too far. It’ll leave you breathless, or with a nasty scar….

  • “If something is likely to make your life better, you should do it. If it turns out poorly, you can change that decision later.”
  • “I think most of the best things that have happened to me in my life have been not totally my own choice. Looking back on them, I made some proximal decision that put me in a position to experience that thing, but very rarely was I primarily responsible for the best things that have happened to me.”
  • “Most decisions you’re going to make are not going to ruin your life. It may seem so scary at the time, but the things that I look back on most fondly are the times when I was pretty scared.”
  • “That thing you are losing sleep over because you are worrying about it? Get over it, it’s not worth that kind of time and energy.”

Takeaways

Okay, that was a long list of stuff. And you’ve probably heard a lot of it before. Yeah yeah, take risks. Yeah yeah, be happy instead of chasing approval. Yeah yeah, love. Yeah yeah, yeah yeah, yeah yeaaaaahhhh!!!!! It’s a damn cold night, tryna figure out this life….

So what’s going to be different this time? Frankly, I don’t know. That’s up to you to figure out. But I hear ya — I don’t remember myself the last time a blog post changed my life.

I’m not saying I want to change your life. But on the other hand, I’d feel bad if you read this far and just ended up wasting 10 minutes of your life, so actually yes, maybe I do want to change your life. Let’s frame it as, I hope you can derive some tangible benefit from this.

So here’s an idea. Pretend this is an experiment. Try to live by just one of these principles for a day. If you didn’t die, great success! Maybe try for a week next time, and push yourself to go even further. You can stop at any time if it isn’t working and you’ve given it a serious honest effort.

So I’d love to know if you found this worthwhile — if there’s something you read that challenged your beliefs, if you chose to do something differently because you were successfully brainwashed by my Silicon Valley tech company friends’ words, if you become a billionaire one day (and it was all because of this post, right?), or if you just have Taylor Swift (or Avril Lavgine or Sara Bareilles) stuck in your head right now. Any of these outcomes would make me happy.

You can tell me when it’s over, if the high was worth the pain. Something something Starbucks lovers.


Acknowledgements

Credits to Ben Kamens for the   gif.

The acknowledgments from Khantemplations is reprinted below.

Thanks to Marcia for giving me that little nudge to actually send out the initial email. Thanks to Marcos for suggesting InDesign for typesetting this compilation and conceiving and laying out various book cover concepts. Thanks to Jessie for reading drafts, providing feedback, and keeping me on track to finish this. Thanks to Ian for providing feedback on cover designs. Thanks to Marcos and Tabitha for giving last minute feedback on the content typesetting and layout.

And of course, thanks to all you Khantributors whose responses made up this book. Thank you for taking the time to send me your words or go on walks. Thank you for being brave and letting your thoughts be heard. You have made this possible. So from the bottom of my heart, thank you. Your thoughts have given me much to think about and to act on.

Did you not have a chance to have your voice heard? Well, I hope this is just the beginning. May this be the kindling that fuels future discussions!

Thanks to Eddie Du, Jessie Duan, Mary He, Nigel Pynn-Coates, Owen Wang, and Jamie Wong for proofreading making me realize the first draft of this blog post was a piece of turd. Especially thanks to Jessie for bringing up thoughtful points that got me to rewrite this blog post, and Eddie for the quotes formatting. I’d let any of you teach English to of my future unborn baby(ies). I love you all.