🌻 words on how i got here
a brief history of a love affair with language
I started a new internship at Substack two weeks ago, where I’m supporting writer growth and success. (What’s Substack? It’s the platform you’re reading this newsletter through.)
Being a company for and of writers, they encourage new hires to send introductions on the company blog. I’ve been alive for a very short and uneventful 21 years, so I decided to write about how I fell in love with words—and how that brought me to this job. I’m resharing it here:
My Substack story started with a series of coincidences.
I met Sachin, Fiona's1 husband, just over a year ago. He's the founder of Cocoon: an intimate, minimal, and ad-free social app (sound familiar?) for a person's closest friends and family. Inspired by the approach, I convinced my parents to start using the app, and was put in touch with Sachin after he conducted a user interview with my mom. We then talked to a journalist about our experience using Cocoon, who promptly betrayed me by making my skipped lectures the lede of the article. (I think this was pretty bad for my personal SEO.)
Eventually, it paid off, especially since that article no longer makes the first page of Google results for my name. And because in November 2020, Sachin reached out about doing interviews again. At the end of his three-point email, he wrote, PS - just subscribed to your Substack! Looks great. My wife is their head of partnerships I'm somewhat of a power user :)
No way, I think. Just a week earlier, while ruminating on my lack of post-graduation plans, I'd sent a few futile LinkedIn messages to Hamish2 and Fiona to ask about a role on the partnerships team. But fate acts in funny ways, so I promptly agreed to Sachin's three requests and added a P.S. of my own: If possible, an intro to Fiona, please?
I'm here now, but my love affair with language started long before that.
In fact, I'm pretty certain I peaked around age 8. In first grade, I drew my own picture book and got to read it on Reading Rainbow; in third, I was interviewed on two local TV channels after winning a Harry Potter writing contest for Amazon.com (its bookselling days), and throughout elementary school, I spent basically every weekend at the Seattle branch of 826 National, a nonprofit that runs free writing programs for youth around the country.
At 826 Seattle's first annual fundraiser in 2009, they flew out famed author and 826 National founder Dave Eggers to give the keynote. I also happened to be there as the token "cute kid to raise money," but was too overwhelmed by my itchy dress and the three-course menu to make sense of much. So when it was my turn to go up to the big podium and a strange man looked down to ask How old are you?, I snatched the microphone from him and said Excuse me, I have my own introduction prepared. Years later, I was told that the strange man was Dave Eggers, and that all the rich white people laughed at me for interrupting. Oops.
By high school, I'd aged out of 826's programs and into the rat race of IB tests and college admissions.
I instead picked up competitive debate, which is like reading and writing but with less vulnerability and more trophies. I honestly loved debate—it satisfied my competitive itch, I gained the party trick of being able to speak at 300+ WPM, and there's nothing like the adrenaline rush of being told you've won an argument by a neutral third party. (Just me? Okay, fine.) But even in debate, I turned away from pure policy wonkiness, and toward personal narrative. We talked about biodiversity loss and cyberattacks and nuclear non-proliferation, but I yearned to know where my life fit into all this. So much information, and so little to do with it!
It's sad to say, but I didn't write much in undergrad either; at least, not in the literary sense. I ran an opinion column at the Stanford Daily, briefly hosted a podcast on civic tech, and added 2-3 blogs to my arsenal (10+ total, most anonymous and defunct). Still, I remained convinced that writing was an unemployable hobby. It didn't help that all the successful journalists I talked to on the phone were telling me not to follow in their footsteps. I took some CS classes I hated and bounced around majors: public policy, economics, urban studies, communications. I got excited about technology, but only insofar as it shaped culture and ideas.
I spent a lot of the past year reading people writing about themselves. Minor Feelings, Uncanny Valley, The Collected Schizophrenias, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. On Substack, I signed up for Maybe Baby and Fakepixels and bookbear express. I read Sally Rooney's "Even if you beat me" at least five times and sent it to at least five friends. I stopped browsing most tech news; it didn't seem to matter anymore.
I started two Substacks of my own: the first, for personal updates and essays, another, to feature events and essays for students thinking about ethical technology. (Why Substack? Because it was easy. Put that in the NPS survey.3) I created my first-ever journaling habit with "Morning Pages," which is a woo-woo self-help thing about hand-writing three pages in a journal every day when you wake up. I now think, in all these years, I have just been writing in a quest to know myself.
It's very sexy in startup-world right now to talk about "tools for thought" and the "creator economy" and all that jazz. But what the thought leaders don't get is that most people are tired of abstraction, tired of scale, tired of impersonal polls and models and hockey-stick charts.4 (I am thankful for the COVID scientists, but I choose to look away.) Yesterday, I asked my friends what keeps them optimistic nowadays, and got the answers longer days, my family, not reading the news.
So why am I here? I want to build tools for expression and connection: for personality, community, and feeling less alone in this uncertain world. I have to be honest with you all. I do not have a dream job; I do not dream of labor. But I do dream of words, and perhaps here I'll find a bit of both.
I'll leave you with a screenshot I got Monday morning, on my first day of work:
Fiona is the Head of Partnerships and my manager at Substack! Also hell yeah, love footnotes.
Founder and COO of Substack.
NPS = Net Promoter Score; it’s a survey of writer satisfaction on the platform.