On a regular basis, people who get to know me describe me as one of the happiest, most positive people they know (an assessment I agree with). Is this a matter of circumstance? Genetics? Blind luck? My cousin Stephen asked me to share my reflections on this topic, and I realized that I had never put all these thoughts in writing in one place. Until now.
Let’s begin with the accident of birth. Here, I was very lucky. I was born in Santa Monica, California, long-considered one of the world’s nicest places, in a classic American nuclear family. My father worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a research scientist, while my mother was what we now call a stay-at-home mom, using her Master’s degree in Library Science from USC (concentration on children’s literature) to fill my and my sister’s life with books. I was the second child, born four and a half years after my sister Caroline. My parents still live in my childhood home, so I never even had to move.
I was also lucky with genetics; I showed signs of intellectual precocity from a young age, along with a happy disposition and strong degree of extraversion. I was a happy, outgoing child, especially with any adults who praised my intelligence and curiosity.
I was lucky once again in my intellectual diet. On the math and science side, my father, who has a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from UCLA, but is also a lifelong tinkerer and natural engineer, would generously answer all of my various questions about the natural and technological world. One of my childhood rituals was to go into my parents’ bedroom on Sunday mornings and barrage my dad with questions. Looking back on this practice today, I’m grateful to my parents for their willingness to indulge this habit! On the humanities side, not only did I have my mother as an in-house resource, along with a house full of award-winning children’s literature, but I also had my Auntie Janie, who showered me, her only nephew, with even more books and cultural experiences (even though many of them were beyond my childhood comprehension; she treated me more like a small adult than a kid). When I was old enough to go to the library, my mom would take me on a regular basis and also check out books for me, since I would churn through my single cardholder’s allotment of books in less than a week.
My life wasn’t perfect though. If intellectual pursuits came naturally, emotional self-regulation did not. If I felt strong anger or frustration, those emotions would boil over in crying jags. These weren’t quiet, subdued sobs of sadness that people could pretend not to see; they were operatic and uncontrollable, and frustrated those around me.
The main cause of these negative emotions was the frequent bullying I experienced, both in and out of school. I was younger, smarter, and more attention-seeking and attention-grabbing than most of my peers, and many of them resented me. They quickly discovered that name-calling, other cruelty, or better yet, physical violence, would trigger my emotional responses. The 1980s, which accounted for the bulk of my childhood (age 5 to 15) were an era of minimal adult supervision. Kids were left to fend for themselves for many hours at a time. I had few defenders other than my sister Caroline, who was a tough, no-nonsense protector, but she wasn’t there most of the time, and her own frustrations with me would sometimes boil over as well.
This state of affairs persisted for most of my childhood: A generally happy and idyllic life, punctuated with regular bullying and tears. The level of bullying waxed and waned with circumstances. My parents moved me to the Mirman School for Gifted Children in the third grade, which helped things considerably. While I was still younger and smarter than my peers (during my time at Mirman, my nickname was Encyclopedia Yeh, a play on the then-popular “Encyclopedia Brown” detective stories; even among gifted kids, I was widely acknowledged as the fastest reader and smartest student in every topic other than math, where my classmate Masi Oka was even more preternaturally gifted…he was studying Calculus in the 5th grade), the gap was much less, and the bullying, while still present, was dramatically less. I also have to admit that some of the troubles I ran into were my own fault; I once threw a tantrum after only getting a 4.8 out of 5 on a math exam, and got sent to the principal’s office.
Then I returned to the public school system for the 7th grade. This was a disastrous and unhappy year. After four years in gifted school, I was even farther ahead of my classmates in my academic and intellectual capabilities. My classes were covering material I had studied years before, so I was bored and spent most of the classes reading on my own, ignoring the teachers, and still getting the highest scores in every class. I especially feuded with my science teacher, since I was fairly certain I knew a lot more about the subject than she, and corrected her mistakes at every opportunity. In turn, she took every chance she could to fight back, with her greatest moment of triumph being on one test where I didn’t realize that the paper had questions on the back as well as the front. I had finished the front page of the test in five minutes, and spent the rest of the hour being incredibly bored, since I wasn’t allowed to read during tests. When the tests were turned in, I saw the second page, and asked her for another five minutes to finish the second page, a request she rejected with glee. It was a pointless battle, since we both knew I would finish the class with an A+ anyway, but I suppose she needed the emotional gratification of besting a 7th grader at this one thing.
Outside the classroom, the bullying was truly relentless, including frequent physical violence. One set of brothers, Oscar and Sergio, took a dislike to me for no apparent reason (the only class we shared was Physical Education, where I certainly wasn’t going to outdo them) and would punch me every time they saw me. To give you a sense of how school worked back in those days, on one occasion, a classmate named Jamie (no, not Lannister) sprayed me with the contents of a juice box. Outraged, I found a playground monitor and reported the crime. The teacher meted out frontier justice by bringing Jamie over and allowing me to spray him with juice box in turn. Not sure that would fly these days!
My parents could see I was unhappy (the frequent and vocal complaints probably helped), so my mother met with the principal, Ilene Strauss, to figure out how to improve the situation for the following year. The principal’s response was essentially nothing—that the school would make no accommodations for my learning, and that I should be glad, because repeating material I had previously learned would let me earn straight As. When my mother protested that I was capable of far more (I had already taken the SAT for the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth program, and scored higher than the 98th percentile of college students) the principal responded that I was just good at taking tests.
(Naturally, she ended up as the Vice President of the California State Board of Education)
I was very lucky that my mother was willing to fight for me. Finding middle school a dead end, we then met with the leadership at Santa Monica High School, as well as the early admissions program at UCLA. After interviewing me, I was offered a choice: Skip two grades and start high school early, or skip four grades, and start college early. We took Option 1, which I think was the right decision. I had two other friends who took Option 2; one of them struggled, the other became a celebrity plastic surgeon, so I guess one for two?
High school was a big improvement over middle school, though it brought its own challenges. I was generally two to three years younger than any of my classmates, which led to an odd dynamic. My “classmates” who were only two years older than me would show some signs of jealousy, but my classmates who where three or more years older than me more or less adopted me as a mascot. Perhaps these upperclassmen felt more secure in their status, or perhaps it was easier to accept me when they didn’t have to compete with me for class honors or college admission.
While isolated incidents of bullying still occurred (I was actually stabbed once, albeit by accident, and with a small enough knife that I didn’t require stitches…again, in a sign of how different the 1980s were, I don’t even think the stabber was suspended) they were at least an order of magnitude less frequent than in middle school. Yet while the situation was greatly improved, I still wasn’t learning how to regulate my emotions; they simply weren’t being triggered as often, and of course as I grew older, my brain naturally matured to some extent.
The big change came when I went off to college at Stanford. Once again, I was lucky on many levels.
First, Stanford is a remarkably warm and supportive place. My wife attended Harvard, and the first time I described how Stanford worked, she was stunned. As a freshman, when my parents and I pulled up to my dormitory, we were greeted with cheers of welcome. “Hey everybody, look, it’s Chris!” (My resident assistants had spent the previous week memorizing the photographs of all their charges so they could make them feel welcome.) We were then escorted to my room, and handed a sheet of paper listing all the welcome activities scheduled for the next two days. I had the following professional staff looking after me: a resident assistant (RA) on my hallway, a resident computer coordinator (RCC) in the dormitory to answer any technology questions, an academic associate (AA) who was an upperclassman who met with me to help me plan out my schedule, a resident fellow (RF) down the hall, who was a faculty member who lived in the dormitory and oversaw the other staff; we would sometimes play basketball together, a faculty advisor who would discuss and approve my schedule until I declared a major, and a writing tutor assigned by the Structured Liberal Education program to help me improve my academic writing. That’s four upperclassmen and two faculty members assigned to help me find my way at Stanford. In contrast, Alisha told me that when she and her parents arrived at Harvard, they had to ask a number of people before they could even find her dorm room, and that she saw her RA twice during her freshman year, and her resident fellow zero times. She had no academic advisors to help her pick her classes, which led to her picking some excessively difficult math classes.
All of this helped me academically, but also with emotional support as well. And I didn’t even bother mentioning the many resources that I never actually used, such as the Center for Teaching and Learning, which offered free tutors in every subject, or the Bridge Peer Counseling Center, which offered free counseling to any who needed it. (We will return to the subject of the Bridge later.)
Even more importantly, living at Stanford was a crash course in friendship and community. Once again, I was extremely lucky. My freshman dormmates (who were typically two years older than me) both accepted my differences and also sought out common ground. It helped that they were extremely tolerant—the first week of school, I called the police with a noise complaint because it was past 11 PM, and my dormmates were still partying, and refused to turn off their music so that I could sleep. The bemused police officer responding to that rare noise complaint from a freshman, spoke with my RA and recommended that she encourage me not to call the police on such matters in the future. With a different, less generous group of dormmates, my actions might have led to ostracism or worse. Fortunately, my new friends took this in stride as just another one of my quirks (much like my older high school classmates had done). It didn’t matter that I was unwilling to drink alcohol (it helped that my RA was Muslim, and thus also an abstainer, and that one of my closest new friends, Rick St. John, was also a teetotaler), I was still accepted as part of the community, and an important one at that, helping to organize intramural sports teams and other such activities.
This also gives me a good excuse to post a recent photo of Rick and our RA Maie, who is now his wife. They were dropping off their eldest son for his freshman year at Stanford. The circle is now complete!
It also helped that many of us were part of the Structured Liberal Education program, an intensive residential humanities course that occupied half our schedules, required us to read truly heroic amounts of literature, history, and philosophy every week, and included 6-10 hours of small-group discussion as well, which spilled over into our free time. Even when we weren’t in class, we debated philosophy, religion, and history.
We also made time for daily volleyball, basketball, and Ultimate Frisbee games, watching movies, going to concerts, and all sorts of other “teen” activities that I hadn’t experienced before. In high school and before, I might have 8-12 hours per week of seeing friends outside the classroom. Now I was getting that nearly every day. The result was a rapid acculturation and enhancement of my social skills. In addition, there were many fewer emotionally triggering incidents, though they still occasionally occurred. In my experience, a disproportionate number of these occurred with other male students of East Asian descent; I think that there were a lot of high achievers who had built an identity around being the youngest and smartest person they knew, and they didn’t like the fact that I was even younger and smarter. With hindsight, I can quote the great philosopher Taylor Swift, who was just being born then: “Haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate.”
My first two years at Stanford were happy ones; I was with my new friends almost constantly, and I was also learning a lot in the classroom. But I’m not sure whether I had actually achieved emotional regulation, or if I was simply benefitting from favorable circumstances. I think the actual breakthrough occurred when I was an upperclassman.
My junior year at Stanford was a time of transition and change. My freshman dorm friends and I were now living apart due to circumstances (studying abroad, becoming a resident assistant, etc.) which meant that I was no longer in my comfortable small-group cocoon. Meanwhile, I had now declared my major, or rather two of them: Product Design Engineering and English (Creative Writing) which meant I was now deeply engaged in taking two core curricula. Finally, I was now taking on positions of responsibility; based on my success as a freshman, I had been recruited to be a SLE writing tutor myself, which meant that I could stay connected to the program, but also putting me in the somewhat unusual position of tutoring students who were my age, or sometimes older.
But while the year brought challenges, events proved that it was time for me to leave the cocoon, having undergone a metamorphosis within its protective walls. I took naturally to my new role as a teacher/mentor, even if I resorted to a few tricks to reinforce my position. For example, I would deliberately wear button-down shirts and khakis to my tutoring sessions so that I would appear older to my students. I believe that this kind of positional or reputational status can act as a scaffolding for interactions, making it easier to build positive relationships.
I also pursued a more diverse social diet. I stayed in close contact with my old dormmates, but now that they were scattered across the school and the world, it meant that I was now experiencing more differentiated social groups. Instead of just people living together, I would alternate between groups like Christian Women, Engineering Friends, Creative Writing Friends, Fraternity Guys, International Friends, and so on. Paradoxically, maintaining old relationships turns out to be one of the best ways to make new ones, as you meet new friends through old friends.
My confidence also grew because I had “leveled up” my academic work as well. While I had always done well at Stanford, by my junior year, I had reached an exceptional level of efficiency and excellence. Not only was I receiving top marks in nearly every class, I had developed my productivity to the point where I could take on roughly double the normal amount of schoolwork as the typical Stanford student. An unexpected set of circumstances allowed me to hack Stanford’s system to take more classes than I should have been allowed to take. When I was a freshman and sophomore, Stanford was still running on a paper system of enrollment. Each quarter, students would fill out a class enrollment form; a four inch tall cardboard rectangle on which we would write out our class selections in pen. My AA and Faculty Advisor would review the enrollment form and sign off on it before I turned it in. But my junior year, Stanford shifted to an online enrollment system. It was certainly more efficient, but the developers who created it hadn’t anticipated all the possible exploits. That first quarter of my junior year, I discovered that the number of credits per class weren’t coded into the system. Instead, each student would enter the (presumably correct) number of credits. The system would check and make sure that students weren’t taking a class for more credits than it was worth, but crucially, and perhaps because no one would expect it, it wouldn’t check to make sure that students weren’t taking classes for fewer credits than they were worth. I exploited this bug mercilessly; if I didn’t need the credits for a class to fulfill a numerical credit requirement, I took the class for fewer credits than it was technically worth. Under Stanford’s quarter system, students were allowed to take up to 20 credits, with the average being 15 credits (15 credits x 3 quarters/year x 4 years = the 180 credits required to graduate). My first two years, being both ambitious and a voracious student, I typically took 18-20 credits per quarter. My junior year, I used my “fewer credits” exploit to take 30 to 35 credits per quarter. Technically, I only earned 20 credits per quarter, but I was taking a double class load. Sadly, the university figured out this exploit; when I tried to pull off the same trick my senior year, the system had class units hard-coded into the system.
To manage this very full schedule, plus a heavy load of extracurricular activities (more on these later), I started carrying around a day planner and scheduling my days, a habit which then served me well when I started working. I also viewed it as cross-training. If I got tired of Engineering problem sets, I could switch to my English reading. When I was tired of reading, I could switch to writing. I felt confident that I had this college thing figured out. And the amazing thing is, I think I did.
Taking a double course load not only allowed me to double-major, but it also allowed me to take more classes based on personal interest. A normal class load would have been so full of required classes for my two majors that I wouldn’t have been able to take many more. But with my double schedule, I was free to explore completely unrelated interests. Four of these interests proved to be extremely valuable, both in my career, and for my social-emotional learning.
The first, which I mentioned before, was my role as a SLE writing tutor. This work forced me to think critically from a teacher’s point of view, rather than just a student’s, and gave me a complementary perspective to my own freshman year experience. It also showed me that, far from being higher order beings, teachers were simply people like me, trying to get by and do the best they could given the circumstances. Not only were my fellow tutors a fascinating social group unto themselves—the most intellectually curious and eccentric student population at Stanford—but the work also made me a semi-peer of the professors I worked with as well. All of a sudden, I was a colleague of professors I had previously looked upon as impossibly learned, solving problems together.
The second, which I began laying the groundwork for when I was a freshman, was improvisational comedy. I had taken improvisation, or improv as it is generally known, from the legendary Patricia Ryan Madson after taking the prerequisite Introduction to Acting when I was a freshman. Improv was a challenge. I was used to controlling things in my life, and improv is about learning to give up control. I had very high standards for my performance, and it pained me when I didn’t excel. Not only did improv bring constant failure, it was also apparent to me that I wasn’t close to being the best performer in my class. I was average at best, even after putting in my usual intense amount of work. But these struggles were actually great teachers. I learned that events usually don’t go according to plan, and that the way to succeed regardless was to be willing to abandon preconceptions and build on what actually happened, rather than trying to deny reality. I learned that failure was an option, and that failing in a safe context is a great way to dispel the irrational fear of failure. And I learned that no matter how much I excelled in many different areas, I couldn’t always be the best. Meanwhile, I was also racking up stage experience, performing in front of audiences and learning how to stay focused and in the moment. Over my time at Stanford, I was a part of dozens of performances, including traveling to perform at the Southwest College Comedy Festival, and even got to be the Director of our comedy troupe. Today, I travel the world for my public speaking engagements; circumstances are often far from ideal; events start late or have to change the amount of time I have to speak at the last minute, audiences have language barriers, I might be sleep-deprived or hungry, but having experienced far worse on an improv stage, I take these challenges in stride. I’m generally far more worried about being able to get to the airport on time than I am about anything that happens on stage.
The third was getting involved in peer counseling. As I had previously mentioned, at Stanford, the Bridge is a student-run peer counseling program that serves the mental health needs of the community. To work at the Bridge, a student has to first take a quarter-long peer counseling course in the Psychology department, and then be accepted by the current Bridge staff. The course teaches the very critical skills of active listening and deferring judgment. The challenge is that these skills go against many of our natural instincts, especially for men. The all-too-accurate stereotype is that most men, when confronted with a mental health issue, listen just long enough to name the problem, and then try to find a quick, straightforward way to solve the problem. This works well for repairing a motor vehicle, but not a human mind. As with improv, peer counseling was a challenge for me. While the Myers-Briggs test is discredited pseudoscience, it is widely known, and offers a good way to illustrate my challenge. The very first time I took the Myers-Briggs, I was strongly an ENTJ (Extroverted-Intuitive-Thinking-Judging). ENTJ is known as the “CEO” profile for its focus on decisive action. This is exactly the opposite of what peer counseling requires. I had to learn, through lots of painful practice, how to listen without judging, diagnosing, or problem-solving, and to use seemingly unnatural phrases like, “How does that make you feel?” But by the end of the quarter, I had learned this new set of skills, and been invited to volunteer at the Bridge. These active listening skills also formed the core of a higher level of social-emotional skills. As with most of my activities, I pursued peer counseling with intensity and persistence; I went from taking the class to teaching the class as a junior instructor, and finally as a senior instructor, teaching other instructors. By the time I graduated, I took the Myers-Briggs again, and all this training had transformed me from an ENTJ to an ENFP (Extroverted-Intuitive-Feeling-Perceiving)—the mentor profile. I hadn’t lost my decisiveness, but I had learned a whole new set of skills that I could apply instead when called for.
The fourth interest was public speaking. The Engineering department ran a Technical Communications Program to teach its students public speaking (the program was founded after industry complained that Stanford engineers were impossible to understand). While I had plenty of experience getting in front of audiences because of my improv background, I hadn’t learned traditional public speaking. The public speaking course at Stanford was practical and powerful; I learned how to compose a persuasive argument and use my voice and gestures to state my case in a more effective way. Unlike some of these other activities, public speaking came naturally to me. And like these other activities, as soon as the class ended, the Technical Communications Program approached me about becoming an instructor, which was another great learning experience. Teaching a subject is one of the best ways to learn it forever.
By the time I graduated, most of my social-emotional learning journey was complete, but I still had three more important experiences that affected me greatly.
The first was an accident, but a happy one. After Stanford, as I prepared to go into the business world, I decided to finally read a book that my aunt had given me years before: “How To Win Friends an Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. I still think this is one of the most important books I’ve ever read. The book is controversial to some, but I think that’s because they misinterpret it. The complaint I hear is that Dale Carnegie teaches people how to manipulate others. There is no question that the book teaches you how to influence people—it’s right in the title! But influence isn’t based on some secret techniques of hypnosis or subconscious linguistic manipulation. Influence comes from understanding what other people want, feel, and find interesting, and then giving them what they want, helping them feel better, and focusing on what they find interesting. That’s not manipulation; that’s being a good conversational partner! Carnegie’s lessons helped me become more likeable (perhaps I should have read the book back in my middle school days to save myself quite a bit of grief), which in turn has helped me to be more persuasive and influential.
The second experience was attending Harvard Business School. Mind you, if at any point in my school days you had told the people who knew me that I would go to Harvard Business School, they would have burst out laughing. I showed no particular interest in business or business school. But after my work experiences at D. E. Shaw & Co., HBS was a logical next step to gain a broader foundation in business of all kinds, and to build a diverse network in the business world. There were two key aspects to my experience at HBS. The first is the way it curates your peer group. Just as Stanford brought together many of the country’s smartest young people, HBS brought together many of the country’s most ambitious young businesspeople. We had t-shirts made reading “Leaders of the New Millennium” and we wore them unironically (though my practical friend George Dennis pointed out, “Yeah, I wouldn’t go wearing that shirt around Southie if you wanted to avoid a beating.” At Stanford, ENTJ types were a small minority; at HBS, extroverted Type-A personalities were the norm. It was a great place for me to meet new friends. HBS was also the experience that caused me to develop my “Pond Theory.” I remember one of my friends who was attending graduate school at MIT argued that it was best to be a big fish in a small pond. The best way to get into MIT, he said, was to be the top student at good-but-not-top-tier school. Even when I heard him speak, I remember thinking that I disagreed. My experience at HBS led me to develop a different theory: A goldfish grows to the size of the tank in which it lives. Small bowl? Small fish. Big bowl? Big fish. I was a great student in high school, but didn’t do much outside of school. I was a great student at Stanford, and participated in a variety of crucial extracurricular activities. At HBS, I was an outstanding student, and one of the key community leaders. HBS gave me a perfect practice ground for the skills I had developed, including what I learned from Dale Carnegie. It wasn’t a coincidence that I became one of the most well-known and influential students in my class, a class that has already now produced a number of renowned business leaders.
The other key aspect of my HBS experience was the case study method. Rather than tackling defined problem sets, case studies ask students to read a narrative, and sift the wheat of relevant information from the chaff of meaningless detail. Furthermore, the majority of grading is based on class participation. In each class session, there are 80 students who are being graded on their participation, but only a fraction of them will have the chance to speak. I learned how to pick strategic times to participate; solving thorny problems or dilemmas, or providing key insights when the discussion seemed to stall. I learned to make my points quickly, but with a twist of humor to keep people interested. And I learned that the most important thing isn’t arriving at the one optimal answer, but rather to find a productive answer around which you can rally a team. I also decided to set a personal goal to speak at least once in every one of my class sessions. This was a challenge, because the professors needed to get every student to participate, so they actively avoided calling on students who had already spoken a great deal. I learned to make myself indispensable, and to be willing to speak when others were afraid to venture a guess or plan of action. These too were valuable and practical lessons.
The final puzzle piece for my social-emotional journey was my encounter with the field of Positive Psychology. While I had plenty of experience with dealing with mental health challenges, I had never considered the core aim of positive psychology—figuring out, scientifically, how human beings could thrive. While I was always a very happy person, I had my down moments. And as I approached my 30s, living and working in Silicon Valley, I was feeling more and more challenged.
Here I was, nearly a decade into my career, with a young family to provide for, and I hadn’t yet founded a company and taken it public, or made enough money to be “post-economic” and never work again. I knew it could be done, because I had friends who were billionaires (being the first couple of employees at Google after Larry and Sergey will do that for you) and yet I stubbornly remained not rich and famous. I also felt guilty, because in 2000, against the wishes of my wife, I had refused to buy a house, figuring that with the startup economy in a shambles and everyone out of work, that it was crazy to pay $700,000 for a house in Palo Alto! Whoops. Worse, it was hard to correct the problem. Palo Alto housing prices kept rising, and I never seemed to make enough money to catch up. This house-less, unfamous, unwealthy existence had me sighing with discontent.
When I studied the principles of positive psychology, I realized that I had fallen into the trap of extrinsic motivation. I had seen what all the people around me were chasing, and decided I should chase those things as well, and that getting them would make me happy. The truth is that focusing on extrinsic motivations makes people unhappy, even if they achieve their goals, and that true happiness comes from focusing on intrinsic motivations: Close relationships with people you like and love, personal growth, and contributing to something bigger than yourself. And unlike extrinsic motivations, achieving these things is within everyone’s reach, and they don’t invite comparison with others. This insight changed my life. I had always known that I had everything that money couldn’t buy. But the culture of Silicon Valley made me think that meant I needed to focus on making lots of money. Instead, I needed to be grateful for the emotional riches I already had, and that contentment allowed me to pursue professional success out of passion and interest, rather than desperation and envy.
That moment of insight took place nearly two decades ago. And while I continue to learn from my many experiences, the portion of my life since then has been marked by greater happiness and contentment, and yes, by great professional accomplishment and fulfillment as well.
I hope that by sharing the (long) story of my journey, that some of these lessons can help you as well. Good luck on your own journey!