Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

What I learned from my friends during my Summer 2008 Boston/NYC vacation

I present a collection of observations and lessons about life, work, and interpersonal interactions, each of which I learned from spending time with a different friend during my Summer 2008 vacation to Boston and New York City.

I present a distilled collection of observations and lessons I've learned from friends I talked to during my Summer 2008 trip to Boston and New York City, where many of my college friends still reside.

At the conclusion of my 3-week trip, I tried to write down only one thing I learned from each of my friends, either by them directly telling me or via my indirect observations during our interactions. For some friends, it was difficult to choose just one thing to include, while for others, I had to really think hard about what generalizable statement about life, work, or people that I could extract from our interactions.

I now present selected entries from these notes, with the names of my friends anonymized and some details changed to make the results a bit more generalizable:

On life priorities

  • Certain people highly value the ideal of living life to the fullest; for such people, if they are not living life to the fullest, then they are always wondering whether something more optimal is just around the corner waiting to be found with just a tad more effort (e.g., with regards to jobs, spouses, travel experiences, etc.).

  • Certain people truly value the prospect of spending significant amounts of time with their children during their children's early years, and would be willing to take a less-than-ideal job that allows them to do that more effectively; it seems that a job as an assistant professor fighting for tenure would definitely not enable one to spend time with one's children during their early years.

  • Certain people could greatly benefit from being independently wealthy so that they can spend their time exploring creative and deeply thoughtful activities that aren't necessarily in any economic demand; even academia imposes too much overhead (namely where funding comes from) to allow such people the freedom that they truly desire.

On rapport

  • The source of some of the greatest shared laughter derives from context-specific shared experiences (e.g., inside jokes, funny past memories from living or working together) that aren't funny at all to outsiders.

  • When two people naturally get along well and have good rapport, they can easily talk for 2 to 3 hours after not seeing one another for a few years and not feel like much time has elapsed at all since their last meeting; most meetings with casual friends can last at most 45 minutes to 1 hour before the mood dies down and begins to feel lame.

  • You can have lots of fun with someone even though you aren't intimately close friends; good superficial friendships can be rewarding in itself without the expectation of being emotionally close at all.

On charisma

  • A male doctor's attractiveness as a potential mate goes up with age (well into his late 20s and 30s) whereas an equivalently smart and attractive female doctor's attractiveness drastically goes down with age, an unfortunate double standard with origins in evolutionary differences between the sexes. The same goes for other high-status professional positions requiring many years of post-graduate education.

  • Strong positive restless exuberant energy is infectious and can spread throughout an entire room if it resonates well with others; otherwise it can be construed as random and annoying rambling.

  • The good thing about speaking slowly and deliberately is that you can convey wisdom and authority (since you can think carefully before you speak); the bad thing is that, in this modern fast-paced world, people might get impatient and annoyed with you for being so slow to react.

  • Being good-looking can allow you to get away with a lot and receive favorable treatment from people up to a point, but it can only go so far; eventually you'll find important, high-status people who won't treat you preferentially based on your looks, so you will need to actually be both good-looking and pleasant to be around.

On being recent MIT alum

  • Certain MIT alum fresh off the heels of an exuberant and challenging MIT experience with peers who are enthusiastic and hardworking get shell-shocked by the fact that in real-world organizations, people are often much less focused, hardworking, or motivated; of course, the quality of the employees and morale vary greatly across different organizations, but it is difficult to replicate the MIT undergraduate teamwork experience (nor is it feasible since, for undergraduates, MIT is an educational institution, not a place of employment).

  • Certain MIT alum are really ambitious about doing something 'game-changing' and impactful and wouldn't be happy simply working a 9-5 job at a normal company; they don't want to waste any of their potential. However, this sort of ambition leads to great stress and disappointment since these grand goals are very difficult to achieve and success often consists of many factors out of one's control.

  • Certain MIT alum who are bitter about their undergraduate experience partially attribute the blame on the extremely high expectations they had of themselves and of the school before starting freshman year; oftentimes these kids came from prestigious public or private high schools where it was almost commonplace for the top students to be admitted to top-ranking private colleges, thus setting up an expectation that they will easily fit in and excel at a rigorous place like MIT.

On working life

  • In any career (such as being a professor), there are tasks you need to do that aren't directly relevant to your job description (e.g., serving on academic committees); since these are largely unavoidable, rather than griping about them and viewing them as errands, try to pick tasks that can teach you about some new area and make the most out of an otherwise boring experience.

  • It's great to be able to find a job whose requirements match well with one's natural personality.

  • Women might be able to think of innovative and creative technical ideas even in traditionally male-dominated fields (e.g., software start-ups) just because women think about and see the world differently; thus, female-founded companies don't just have to be typecast into niche genres that solely cater to women.

  • Software engineers want as little administrative overhead as possible from layers above them and would rather communicate amongst themselves to solve problems and to make adjustments; an informal email mailing list monitored by all engineers at a small organization can work fairly well to provide a form of decentralized organization.

  • Only outsource tasks (e.g., programming jobs) that you confidently understand so that you can easily evaluate how good of a job your contractor did in completing your task; otherwise you might get screwed over with a crappy end-product and not know how or why it sucks.

On respect

  • During your younger years (e.g., in high school and as a college undergraduate), the most effective way to gain the respect of your peers and elders is to work hard, remain humble, and be reliable, dependable, and helpful; more experienced folks tend to (rightly) look down on young hotshot punks who flaunt their supposed skillz without having actually done anything of substance yet.

  • The rare and gifted few who are truly at the top of their field (and command the most respect from me) have a zen-like calm and humility and aren't afraid to ask the simplest of questions or to talk in a way that others might interpret as naive, because deep down they are absolutely confident in their abilities and limitations.

  • It feels satisfying and comforting to work in an environment where your position is highly valued and respected; e.g., it's better to be writing software in a company that specializes in creating software (e.g., Microsoft, Google) rather than at a company in which software is required as a means to an end.

On Ph.D. student life

  • No matter how smart or brilliant or creative you are as a Ph.D. student, you'll never be able to produce any research of substance or worth unless you buckle down, focus, and work hard; there's simply no substitute for hard work, especially not in grad school.

  • A smart person in his/her early 20s can either work for a start-up company and 'invest in the company' or can go to pursue a Ph.D. and 'invest in him/herself'; the latter is wiser because investing in yourself is more likely to have more longer-term life benefits than investing in an early-stage company which is most likely not going to succeed.

  • When working on theoretical research (e.g., theoretical physics) with little visible day-to-day progress, it can be emotionally comforting to also concurrently work on a side project (e.g., part-time contract programming) that allows one to gain the satisfaction of making concrete, short-term, day-to-day progress.

  • The tinge of awkwardness present in many Ph.D. students is comforting to me, because while so many people in their mid-20's are being indoctrinated into the sycophantic corporate ass-kissing mind-set, it's refreshing to interact with people who give off a more genuine (and slightly more awkward and earnest) vibe.

  • One effective way to motivate yourself to make progress on a long-term project (e.g., research as a Ph.D. student) is to always plan the next bite-sized chunk that you want to attack and then just focus on working on it until you're ready to define and tackle the next chunk; getting bootstrapped is the hardest part, and the rest should (hopefully) come out of induction (i.e., one chunk follows another).

  • Treating undergraduates who work in your research lab with respect and courtesy will allow them to be more optimistic and enthusiastic upon starting a Ph.D. program and to have them develop a love for the subject during their (relatively) younger years.

On hobbies

  • Devoting a small but non-trivial amount of disciplined time (1-2 hours) consistently every day to a personal hobby project can allow one to make satisfying and significant progress after a few months. The summation of lots of small daily contributions can be moderately significant after several months.

  • Participating in an art-related social extracurricular activity (such as dance or improv theater) allows one to express creativity in a supportive environment, to have lots of fun, and most likely to get together with like-minded people in a recreational setting; the social group forged by common participation is a natural launchpad for further social activities.


  • It's possible to only know someone very superficially (albeit know a lot about them superficially) even though you've spent years in close proximity with one another; if both parties don't prioritize one another high enough to develop and maintain relations, then close proximity is, alone, insufficient to establish a genuine feeling of closeness.

  • It's not healthy for kids to grow up in a family environment where there is a constant focus on money (or more specifically, on why the family doesn't have enough of it), especially exposing children to financial worries and woes of the parents.

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Created: 2008-09-21
Last modified: 2008-10-06
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