Thirty Observations at Thirty

published November 30th, 2023

1. Marry well and early:

I’ve found that being married makes you far more selfless, a longer term thinker, and if you marry well, you end up absorbing some of your spouse’s best traits.

While impossible to perfectly control when you meet your partner, I do think I set myself up well by dating seriously throughout my teenage years and early 20s. This helped me understand the type of relationship that would make me happiest for life, and was mentally prepared for lifetime commitment when I met my wife at 25.

2. It’s always possible to learn:

In my early 20s I was surrounded by people only a few years older than me that felt like they had an impossibly better grasp of the world and deeper understanding of a large set of technical fields that I did not.

My assumption was that it was far too late for me to catch up, my mental plasticity was waning, and so it was unlikely I could catch up, I needed to have learned more sooner.

This was wrong. What started as going to an initial aerospace conference at age 23, led to starting Varda at age 27, which led to now having a deep grasp of the entire field, both technically and as an industry.

3. Everything in life compounds:

Compound interest exists in personal relationships, knowledge, and finances. It’s hard to appreciate this fact when you’re at the beginning of the curve.

Now, being in the middle of the curve, it’s amazing to see what one coffee with a future wife, a $25k check into a seed round, or taking the plunge to go to an aerospace conference can lead into. As long as you let those early investments ride and continue to double down on your winners, those early efforts can have massive outcomes.

4. Embracing mimetic desires:

Envy is difficult to cut entirely out of your life. If you surround yourself with a phenomenal peer set, mimetic desire can provide a very strong motivation to accomplish incredible things.

I feel quite lucky that at age 19 I stumbled into a core set of peers through the Thiel Fellowship / SF that have been my closest friends, but also strongest motivators to accomplish great things, since many of them have accomplished great things already.

5. Improving personal inputs improves output

I treat the quality of my sleep, physical health, and food I eat as top-tier priorities above almost all else. Life and Work are truly marathons, and if you expect to be able to contribute to those compounding curves every day, you need to be well-rested, fit, and energized in order to do so.

Too many people overly focus on their professional outputs while discarding their personal health, and that can work for a short-term sprint, but in long term compounding, it’s the marathon that matters.

6. Swallow your ego, it’s good for you:

Dropping out of MIT to start a startup and being awarded the Thiel Fellowship at 19 sets you up on quite the pedestal. I truly thought I was the best thing since sliced bread and was guaranteed to be on a path for greatness.

Instead, my ego failed me, my first startup failed, and the only thing that got me to where I am today was admitting I knew nothing and needed to learn from the best if I wanted to be amongst the best.

7. Find mentors that can help, and want to:

When I was 19, an older brother in my fraternity told me that he felt compelled to help me, because he always felt I was the cusp of greatness but had critical flaws like a Shakespearean character and would never get to greatness without his help. So he was motivated to help me far more than those lacking flaws.

At an earlier age I would philosophize in my own head when I hit a problem. Now, whenever I encounter a problem, my first instinct is, who can I find that will want to meet with me regularly and is an expert at guiding me to a solution.

8. The world of people who change the world is quite small:

Arriving in Silicon Valley in 2012 I was overwhelmed by how much there was to learn about who actually built large tech companies and how it was done. Now, a decade later, I realize that the set of players relevant today has a massive overlap with those a decade ago. Not a whole lot changes.

And the same is true in politics, media, science, and entertainment. Once you understand these worlds of people and how they think, it’s far easier to understand where the world is headed.

9. Sometimes it’s the right idea, but the wrong time:

I’ve been thinking about in-space manufacturing since 10th grade. There were at least three times I considered pulling the trigger to either work at a company doing it, invest in someone, or start it myself before finally doing Varda.

Had I done it any sooner, I am confident those earlier endeavors would have failed. You can have the right ideas, but it’s important to wait until it’s their time to shine.

10. There’s no substitute for focus:

I admit on an average week, my time is split amongst a multitude of projects and priorities. But occasionally, when there’s an existential boulder that needs to be pushed up a hill, it really pays off to force yourself to *only* work on that, say no to everything else, even if it means empty time on the calendar.

In the summer of 2022, Varda had a critical role we needed to fill. I bought a one-way flight to LA and locked myself in a conference room. I had lots of spare afternoons where I didn’t have a candidate to chat with, where I could have easily worked on another project, but those spare afternoons gave me the mental space I needed to noodle on how to push that boulder up.

11. Nothing matters more than family:

I feel that the year is demarcated by times with my family, and everything in between is just the noise that I reflect on during my time with them. If I didn’t architect my life this way, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.

It’s always been my top priority, and I am thankful my family life is meaningful and filled with joy. That doesn’t happen by default, it has to be your top priority.

12. If you’re not scared, you’re not pushing:

In the summer of 2020, in the midst of some pillow talk with my wife, I confronted the existential dread I had towards the leap of faith I was about to take by starting Varda.

I thought, why would I do this to myself, starting a company is a miserable experience. Thankfully she reminded me this is my life’s work and is worth the dread. If you don’t proactively take on some existential dread every few years, you probably aren’t pushing yourself hard enough.

13. Get your adrenaline out with sports:

I thrive off adrenaline and competitive pressure. Most of the time, that need is not satisfied or productive to have in a work environment. I’ve found that I’m far more productive when I am regularly competing in a physical activity multiple times a week.

In the times in my life where my physical workouts had no tie to any competitive spirit, I found myself unfocused during the rest of the week.

14. Speaking directly comes with costs and gains:

I was born into a family and culture where you speak your mind quite unfiltered. At times, this has definitely gotten me into trouble, whether on twitter or in a board meeting or with friends.

However, with the benefit of hindsight, there have been a multitude of situations, especially when advising friends or founders professionally, and the recipient’s initial reaction was quite adverse, that they’ve turned around and thanked me profusely years later. Be direct even when it’s not easy, because it’s what will help that person the most in the long term.

15. Meditate when your mind gets noisy:

There’s a reason why Java has built-in garbage collection. When you spend all day thinking quite hard, it’s impossible to not have reverberations of your earlier thoughts throughout the day.

When I was younger, I struggled with this quite a bit and by the end of a few days of hard work, I could not quiet it down. When I was fundraising for my first company, Sam Altman delivered some backchannel feedback after my first few weeks, that I appeared too “frenetic” to investors. I had never heard that adjective before. Turns out the solution was to just sit quietly and not think for 20 minutes with my eyes closed and let the echoes knock themselves back and forth without any new ones being introduced until everything went quiet.

16. There’s no substitute for face to face:

Covid allowed us to all suffer a mass delusion that it was possible to do meaningful work with small teams by staring at a computer screen. Thankfully I was quickly cured of this delusion, I went back to working at a desk May 1, 2020, and from Aug 1, 2020 until this summer, I’ve been on a plane on average once every ~3.5 days.

Do not sit quietly in your home office clacking away on a keyboard and let your whole life slip by you.

17. You can’t please or convince everyone:

My early Twitter fame was quite fun at first. And then from 10k → ~50k followers was quite the struggle. You go from a circle of friends, friends of friends, and acquaintances to true strangers on the internet.

For some reason, early on, I thought I had to please them all. Thankfully there’s no better way to be disillusioned by that hope than having the void of the internet scream at you over and over, if anything I should’ve worn earplugs even sooner.

18. Pets are a good way to level up your responsibilities:

I generally detest the urban Millennial substitution of having children with pets. However, they are a useful way to dip your toe into being responsible for another living being.

A pet also enforces some great habits, getting out on a walk every day, and they remind you that if you just think a little less, you can be default-happy every damn day.

19. Hone your strengths, avoid your weaknesses:

For the longest time I was obsessed with the idea of being a founding CEO of a large company, and that was my only path in life. The biggest step-change in my career was recognizing that I have some core weaknesses in terms of how I work and what type of work I like to do, that make me a much better investor, board member, confidant, than a day in, day out manager.

Rather than mitigate these weaknesses, I found a way to accomplish my goals by leaning into the strengths I did have, by being an investor + chairman of Varda, and surrounding myself with co-founders and colleagues that are stronger in the areas where I am weak.

20. Your physical space matters:

If you want to accomplish great things in life, there’s no real substitute for being in the office for as many hours as possible. The best way to ensure you want to do that, day in day out, is to go for the office that might be smaller or a bit further away, but is a nicer physical space with better natural lighting and aesthetics.

I tell founders after we lead their seed round, that the most important decision they will make for the first year of the company, is their choice in office lease. If you don’t have a top-tier office, top-tier talent will subconsciously be averse to joining you.

21. Decide on what’s actually most important in a relationship:

When I was 23 I would loudly tell my friends that my number one filter for who would be my future wife was whether she was a phenomenal skier, given how important that sport is to my family (we spend Christmas together on the slopes).

Turns out, my actual number one filter was whether my wife could challenge me intellectually and had a rich life of her own. A willingness to learn to ski was plenty enough.

22. Starting a company comes with sacrifices:

There’s no way around it, being irrational enough to think that you and some friends in the garage can change the world, comes with tradeoffs. In that same pillow talk conversation with my wife in 2020, I told her that I felt I wouldn’t be as great of a partner if I took on this endeavor.

It absolutely has come with real tradeoffs to my physical and mental health, and has introduced significant time constraints. Make sure that what you’re working on is truly worth those downsides.

23. Take the time to teach, even when you don’t have much to teach:

Shortly after my YC batch in S14, I started to offer mock YC interviews to prospective applicants. I would do on the order of ~100 of these per YC batch for several years.

Even though I had relatively limited experience in life, I thought it was important to begin paying back all the favors my prior mentors had done for me. Many of those mock interviews turned into future colleagues and investments years down the line. When you pay it forward, you never know when it will come back around.

24. Being in the air is heaven on earth:

As someone with undiagnosed ADD, the art of flying small airplanes is truly a blissful, flow-state-inducing activity. Every ten seconds, there is a new task or gauge to monitor, so your mind is constantly engaged at a low level.

Experiencing the world from 500 feet above the ground, under your own power and control of where you go is a vantage point that really strikes my nerves in a unique way as someone with a strong spatial awareness. In my head, I tend to believe I have an accurate 3d reconstruction of wherever I am, but there is no better way to get ground truth than seeing it from above at 130 knots.

25. Working for your country is glorious:

When I was younger, I had a conflict of identities. In America, I never felt truly American given I was not born in this country and spent most of my free time during summers as a child in Bulgaria.

In Bulgaria, I felt out of place as someone who no longer went to school there. However, as I exited schooling and entered the real world I gained a deep appreciation for how special America is as a country due to the freedom and opportunities it offers. There’s no better way to express that appreciation for this country than to work for our armed forces, and I am proud and and grateful that I am able to do so.

26. Maintaining your roots keeps your grounded:

Despite being a proud American, I find now that it’s even more important to remind myself of where I came from. America truly is the greatest country on Earth, but it’s hard to have that perspective if the only country you truly understand is America.

My annual pilgrimage to my home country reminds me that much of my unique personality can just be attributed to our country’s culture, and reminds me that America’s democratic, meritocratic, infinitely ambitious nature, is a gem that should be treasured as it exists nowhere else on this planet.

27. Walking every day is the best way to touch grass:

In this new-fangled technological age, it’s easy to get swept up by the pace of life and forget that we are only a few gene swaps away from a chimpanzee.

Putting one foot in front of the other ten thousand times in a row, with your eyes and ears observing the world around you every day reminds you of who you are.

28. If you want to feel a city’s energy, run through it:

Cities are a network of electric currents, their voltage, frequency, and resistance defined by a million small decisions from the width of the street, to their orientation relative to the sun, to the material used on the facades.

You can’t feel those currents and a city’s pattern without being on your own two feet, and in order to get enough data, I recommend moving your feet as quick as you can.

29. If you can’t write it, you aren’t thinking it:

After working with Keith for 2 years every day quite closely, I felt I had learned a tremendous amount about how the Valley operates and how to build companies.

However, the pain of sitting for weeks at a time, distilling all of that knowledge into a series of 6, concise essays, was a stark reminder that feeling that you know something, and writing it down, are two vastly different things, by many orders of magnitude.

30. The time will pass whether you worry about it or not:

When I was younger, I found birthdays to be paralyzing because they marked the passage of time towards my inevitable end. As I would lay down to sleep the night before a birthday, I’d imagine all the future birthday eves I would have until I wouldn’t, my heart rate would quicken, my breath would sharpen, and I’d wish there was some way I could ensure I had as many birthday eves as I wanted, entirely within my control.

And one day I realized worrying about how many eves I had in my future wouldn’t change a thing, so I might as well enjoy myself. Now I don’t think much about my birthdays at all.