Real Growth Can Not Be Measured. It Is Internal, Not External.
When I was 8 I wanted to swim with dolphins for a living.
When I was 10 I wanted to be a journalist.
When I was 12 I wanted to travel the world and make nature documentaries.
When I was 14 I wanted to be a professional runner.
Now, I’m 16, and I want to change the world.
Trust me. I’m more surprised than you. I still can’t believe I am part of TKS, a human accelerator program that teaches teens how to solve the world’s biggest problems. It has completely transformed the way I think about life and my purpose as a tiny dot in the universe.
The past year at TKS has been the most transformative year of my life, and no, I am not exaggerating. I have met lifelong best friends, built a deep rooted hatred towards the problem of poverty & food insecurity and realized that the world is so much bigger than I could have ever imagined.
- worked on a consulting project with Walmart to imagine the future of retail,
- proposed a transgenic strand of maize to produce 1.7X larger yields,
- started and grew a podcast,
- worked as a content creator at an edtech startup,
- won the TKS moonshot challenge for my team’s bacteria solar panels,
- attended Canada’s biggest tech conference,
- ran a marathon 8 minutes over a Boston Qualifying time
- and ran an ultramarathon.
Now I could keep listing off the projects I’ve worked on, conversations I’ve had and things I’ve done, but this does not accurately represent or describe 2022.
The growth I’ve experienced this year cannot be measured or quantified by the number of claps on my medium articles, the awards I won, or the ‘legit’ people I talked to.
My growth has been completely internal.
I stopped giving a f*ck
My biggest achievement this year is that I’ve developed into me. I am not the emotional teenager I was this time last year — I feel alive and authentic. I guess this is what growing up feels like…
It is really strange to look back and realize how much I have changed. I look the same as I did in old pictures (sort of), but what is going through my brain is completely different.
I remember a few years ago my sister started running. And that pissed me off. I was the runner, I was the athletic one in the family. And it bugged me that my sister was ‘trying to steal my thing.’
I think that the idea of my sister being a better runner than me scared me.
And it is so interesting to know look back in retrospect and laugh at how surface level and petty I was. That I let something that small and trivial make me so upset.
This is the mindset switch I am talking about. I went from surface level and petty to not giving a f*ck about stupid, meaningless, small things. I started to care less about what others thought of me, and started improving how I thought about myself. Searching deep inside my soul for answers to questions like:
“What legacy do I want to leave behind?” “What kind of person do I want to be?” “What do I value in life?”
So if I were to summarize this year in one word it would be self discovery. I have spent this year getting to know myself — what I need to feel happy each day, what I want to do with my life, my strengths and my weaknesses.
And throughout my journey of self discovery I have developed life philosophies which I know live by. I credit all my growth to these philosophies I have internalized. So in no particular order, here are the philosophies I have embodied this year:
01 🧠💪 [mental strength]
Developing mental strength is the most important tool to have. Period.
If you have ironclad mental strength, you can conquer anything.
Grinding for hours without a break becomes easy, fasting all day becomes simple, grueling workouts become the norm, and you become unstoppable.
I have two definitions of mental strength:
- the ability to push through stressors, pressures and challenges
- the capacity to withstand discomfort and pain.
Someone with low mental strength cracks when things get hard. But people with high mental strength can push through the mental battle and come out the other side stronger.
I believe that if don’t have mental strength (and if you don’t work everyday to increase your mental strength) you wont improve as a human being.
My story of mental strength
I first became aware of mental strength in middle school. I was in grade 7; 12 years old. My house was less than a kilometer away from the school, and I would bike every day to school. (I actually biked to and from school four times each day since I came home for lunch.)
I made the phrase “through rain or shine” look like a sissy because I biked to school no matter the conditions. I biked home from school when I broke my ankle, I biked in the pouring rain, I biked in the snow.
When I say snow, I mean SNOW. I biked all through the intense North Canadian winter with daily temperature averages of -30°C and over 6 feet of snow. These bike rides could get miserable. Instead of the 2.5 minutes it took in the summer, a one way ride would take close to 15 minutes.
I remember this one time it was really bad. There had been a massive dump of snow the night before, and when I walked outside to get my bike the snow was past my knees.
I walked my bike around to the front of my house and positioned myself right in the middle a tire track down the right side of the road. The snow was cut up by half a dozen tire tracks which had skidded the snow throughout the road, making it very hard to keep my handle bars straight. I took two powerful pushes and my front tires got caught in another tire track, sending my handlebars 90° to the right. My front tire rammed into the tall snow bank and I tumbled off my bike.
And it went like this the entire ride. I would bike a few feet then crash to the ground.
With each fall I got more and more upset. My brain was screaming at my arms to hold my handlebars in place and my legs to balance my body from falling off. But it didn’t work. I kept smashing into the ground. With each crash I got more distressed, until I got off and walked my bike through the deep snow to the front of my school. By the time I got there I was a hot, sweaty, exhausted mess. Tears of frustration and anger ran down my face.
I sat through the first half of school yelling silently at myself for giving up and walking my bike. I was so mad at myself that I didn’t push through and bike all the way to school. I saw walking my bike as a massive failure. But even more than that, I was mad at how I let my emotions take control of me, and allowed myself to get so upset.
So when the bell rang for lunch and I suited up in my snow pants, ski helmet, balaclava and jacket, I vowed that I would not walk my bike. No matter what it took, I would bike the entire way back home without a single tear. I would stay calm and not get upset.
And that’s what I did. I slowly made my way down the street with calmer legs and a focused mind. I only fell off my bike 3 times.
And it was at this moment that I started to become aware of mental strength. I had found out one of the biggest secrets in life — that the mind is more powerful than the body. Anyone who leverages this secret will make it to the top.
That snowy wintery day I learnt one of the most powerful lessons of my life. If I cave into my body and stop when my body is tired, I fail. But if my mind is strong enough to make me push through, I will come out the other side stronger.
And ever since then, I have been obsessed about hardening my mental strength and improving it to the point where I can conquer anything, because my mind is strong enough to win the mental battle of fatigue, pain and self doubt.
02 I hate numbers
During my middle school years I defined myself as numbers. I lived for that number on the scale, the number on the test, the number the clock said in swimming. I was fixated on lowering that number (or raising it in the context of school).
Part of this mentality carried on with me to high school, where I was surrounded by kids who defined their existence by the number of likes on a social media post, the number of friends they had, the average they had in a class.
After living like this throughout middle and early high school, I can attest to how toxic this mindset is. School molds cookie cutter kids to shoot for the highest number, and social media tells kids to shoot for the lowest number on the scale.
It was this way of living that drove me into deep stress, desolation and an eating disorder.
This year, 2022, is the first year of my life that I have said fuck with this toxic obsession with numbers.
I refuse to define myself by a number. I am not the number on the scale, I am not the number on the test, I am not the number of likes on my article. I refuse to pay attention to these numbers because they make me feel worthless. And, quite frankly, these numbers mean nothing. They are useless numbers that cannot quantify the kind of person you are, the talents you have, the passion you bring to your work or the love you shine to those around you.
I am more than a number. Fuck numbers.
I credit 90% of my growth this year to the people in my life. The incredible community of supportive and ambitious people at TKS that push me to be the best person I can be, and celebrate the wins and losses of life with me. I am forever grateful for the close friendships I have made over the past year and a bit.
This is the first time in my life where I have real friends. Lifelong friends. Best friends who like me. It is a big change from the ‘friends’ at school who only liked me when I acted like someone I’m not (talking about boys and parties and clothes, all things I have no interest in). I have realized more than ever that the people you surround yourself with matter. They are the people that will determine how fast you get up when you fall down, and will help you navigate the rocky parts of life.
I have learnt first hand that surrounding yourself with people who share the same values as you is one of the best ways to accelerate your personal growth (and enjoyment of life).
(Thank you so much Ciara, Apoorva, Noémie, Graeme, Tobias and all my other close friends for being there for me. You guys bring so much joy and happiness to me and I love you so much.)
Some of my favorite moments from this year:
05 prove yourself right instead of proving others wrong
When I first started running long races, I had a chip on my shoulder, and I wanted to prove myself and other people wrong.
During my first half marathon in 2020, I was going for a sub 1:30, and I didn’t believe in myself so much that I was repeating the very popular phrase ‘prove them wrong’ in my head over and over. During hard parts in the race, a small voice inside my head would wisper “Rachel you can’t do this.” And my sole goal was to prove that voice inside my head wrong. (While I did finish the race in third place, I did not achieve a sub 1:30. I finished the race in 1:36. So I failed my one goal.)
There is a common theme in motivational talks and self help books to prove other people wrong, and in some cases, prove yourself wrong. The mentality comes from the idea that other people (or you yourself) will put limits on your potential and discourage you from accomplishing your goals.
I think this is actually a very negative mentality to have. It is built off the framework that you don’t believe in yourself, you don’t believe in what you’re trying to do. You don’t think you can accomplish that lofty goal, so you resolve to prove yourself and those around you wrong.
But the script has flipped now. I no longer am aiming to prove myself wrong. Now I want to prove myself and other people right.
If you’re trying to prove yourself right, it means you believe in your potential, you believe that you can push yourself towards the result. Now all you need to do is be committed and disciplined and put the work in to achieve that outcome, but you know that it is achievable. The small voice inside my head is no longer screaming “you can’t do it”. That voice is now my support and help during the tough times in races and life. it is screaming “you can do it. push harder. go faster.” And this new voice has helped me not only accomplish different time goals during races, but also helped me enjoy these races more.
And this transfers to other areas of life as well — instead of pushing myself to be better by telling myself I can’t do something, I set high goals for myself and put in the work so that I do believe I can accomplish the goal. This mentality has been the reason why I feel confident networking with any professional or speaking in front of large groups of people. Because deep down, I know that I can do it, and I’ve put in the work to make sure that I will surpass the end goal.
06 do. hard. things.
Humans like to live inside their comfort zone. This perfect little bubble of comfort that society tells us to wrap ourselves in. We’ve been taught to seek comfort at all costs — when you’re hungry, you eat; when you’re tired, you sleep; when you’re cold, you find warmth.
And there seems to be this idea that living the most comfortable life will bring you the most happiness (the life with the highest paying desk job, fanciest car, biggest house, best food).
But I just don’t buy into this idea of comfort equaling happiness.
This quote perfectly outlines how I’ve been thinking about comfort vs discomfort:
“If you don’t have any discomfort in your life, how do you know when you feel good?” — Lazarus Lake, creator of the Barkley Marathons (the hardest ultramarathon in the world)
I like doing hard things. They definitely aren’t easy and definitely hurt for the majority of the time (aka aren’t always fun during the process), but the satisfaction and pride I feel when I conquer something I didn’t believe was possible is unreal. This is true happiness. Moving the needle on my personal limits is something I have been obsessed with this year. What is my limit? How far can I go before I break? My hope is that I can keep pushing and never find a limit. I want to live on the brink of my potential, and dance on the edge of my capabilities for the rest of my life.
I dub moments in my life when I achieve crazy goals my “new hardest thing”, and I am always on the lookout to achieve my next hardest thing. Currently my hardest thing is a 50km trail run I ran in October 2022. My next hardest thing is an 100km trail run I will be running in June of 2023.
My favorite hard thing of 2022
But when I look back on 2022 and my favorite hard thing I did, it would have to be a 3 day backcountry hiking trip with my older sister, Claire. It was not the physical part of hiking over 20km each day that made this experience hard, but it was the mental component.
We set out to circumnavigate the Sleeping Giant in July, which is black fly and mosquito season here in Northern Ontario.
I remember the first day of hiking. We pulled into the Sleeping Giant Park to buy our hiking passes, and it was pouring. Completely pouring. We sprinted out of the car to the window to buy our tickets, then back to the SUV to pack up our bags. So in the pouring ran we were standing outside stuffing our backpacks with all our gear, getting our one pair of clothes completely drenched.
Once the bags were packed we started off up the trail with our 20lb backpacks on our backs. We hiked for a kilometer or two before I started to feel sick. It was still pouring, but I was baking in my rain jacket and rain paints. So I huddled under a tree, tore my rain gear off and stuffed it in my backpack. As I was walking back on the trail I didn’t notice a massive puddle in front of me. I stepped right in it, drenching my hiking boots in water which would stay wet for the rest of the trip.
Taking off my rain gear was not a smart idea. Because the humidity and moisture of the rain had brought out the mosquitos and black flies which seemed instantly attracted to me.
By the end of our first day of hiking, I don’t think that there was a centimeter of my skin left that didn’t have a bug bite on it. I was covered.
Hiking all day like this, in the pouring rain with lots of bugs, is so mentally draining. And the hardest thing is knowing that you don’t have a warm house or shower to come into at the end of the day. You have a damp tent and wet clothes. And you have to wake up the next morning and do it all over again.
Finding your new hardest thing doesn’t have to be physical. It could be raising 30K in funding for your startup, or speaking on stage to thousands of people. Maybe your hard thing is reaching out to someone you haven’t talked to for years, or letting go of a grudge you’ve heled onto for months.
07 solving for big problems part 1
I have spent hours and hours of 2022 thinking about how to solve big problems in the world.
How do we end the violence in Haiti? How do we equally distribute wealth throughout countries? How do we increase income of small scale rural farmers in India and Sub Saharan Africa?
These are all massive questions which I don’t have the answer to.
The insight that I have gained from looking at both failed and successful interventions and solutions for social issues, is providing autonomy. It’s like the saying give a person a fish, they eat for a day. teach a person to fish, they eat for a lifetime. So much resources and money goes into social issues and crises around the world, but all this capital is used for short term supplies, like meals or clothes.
Now short term relief is essential for social interventions to get individuals back up on their feet, but it does not solve the root of the problem, that these people cannot provide for themselves.
And this is the real problem that we need to be solving for. How can we provide people with the skills, tools and resources to make a living without relying on external organizations and support? The goal of all social interventions should be to provide enough short term physical resources to get individuals to a place where physical resources can be switched to training and long term investments so the individual can become self sufficient.
solving for big problems part 2
Think of the most successful products. Phones, apple watches, T.V, etc.
Put simply, what all of these products have in common is that they are decentralized — users have full control over how they operate and use the product.
Why aren’t solutions to big problems like this? Why does our entire society run off centralized systems?
Take food production for example— all food is grown centrally, then sent out across the world through more centralized laws, and waits in a central location (grocery store) to be bought. Or take the example of power generation and distribution, which is centralized right from production to use. It is interesting that both food production and power generation are two of the largest problem areas of our time, and they both run off broken, outdated systems…to effectively solve these problems we need to blow up the current system and create a completely new system.
I believe that the most change will occur when we cut the cord of these centralized systems. This is why solar panels get me so excited; they offer people a way to take one step away from centralized energy companies and produce their own power.
When I think about developing countries, this model of decentralization is especially important. Many of the governments and centralized companies in developing countries are very corrupt. So taking these corrupt organizations out of the picture helps solve the big problem of corruption in important organizations.
When I brainstorm solutions to fertilizer accessibility in Sub Saharan Africa, I envision bioreactors in every farmers backyard which convert food waste into fertilizer. I envision small solar and wind generators in every village in Sub Saharan Africa to provide electricity to power each home, and hydroponics systems in every home in the world to produce enough vegetables and fruits to sustain every household.
I currently have no way of knowing if this idea is correct, but it is something that I have been thinking about over the past year. If so many social problems are mixed up with political issues and bureaucracy, why don’t we just take these centralized companies out of the mix?
All throughout 2021 I worked on proposing a transgenic strand of maize to increase yields by 1.7X. After a year I had moved from researching into Benchling and was designing plasmids and vectors so I could test my proposal out in the lab.
I started to think about what would happen if I eventually did create a transgenic seed that adopted all the genes I inserted and possessed the traits I designed. What would happen?
Commercialization would be next. But a massive roadblock to transgenic crops is that the process of approving a transgenic seed for commercial use takes anywhere from 15–30 years, and sometimes the crop doesn’t even get adopted by the end of the process.
Take the example of golden rice, a transgenic strand of rice genetically engineered to contain Beta Carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, to fight vitamin A deficiency in developing Asia. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of death for children under the age of 8. Golden rice took 17 years and millions of dollars to create, with the seed finally being finished in 1998. Now in 2022, golden rice is still not accepted on the commercial scale. It is an example of a failed social intervention because of bureaucracy — governments in developing Asia were extremely opposed to gene edited crops and and technology of genetic engineering, and refused to approve or commercialize golden rice.
It was a deep dive about golden rice that got me thinking about my own transgenic maize project. Do I want my proposal to end up like golden rice? A perfect solution that is destroyed by bureaucracy?
And I realized that solving for any social problem is so challenging because it is so intertwined with bureaucracy. As of right now, the only way I see to solve social problems is to cut the cord and decentralize solutions. Bring solutions down to the individual level.
08 If life were a lemon, how much lemon juice could you squeeze out of that lemon before you die?
This is a question I heard on Nick Bare’s podcast and it has stuck with me.
We are each given the same amount of hours in the day, and it is up to us to choose how to spend those hours. Every single minute of our lives is a gift, so use it intentionally.
My top goal is to be able to look back on my life when I am lying on my death bed and say “I am happy with how I spent my time.”
We are given this one life and we get to choose how to spend it. Will we spend it with the people we love, doing the things we love? Will we make time for things that are important to us? Will we make a difference in the world and leave it in a better state then when we found it? Will we have fun and enjoy life?
I want to squeeze as much juice of love, happiness, enjoyment and impact out of my life before I die.
Looking back on 2022, I’m happy with the amount of juice I squeezed out of my life.
I worked on projects that gave me fulfilment and meaning. I learned about the world around me and expanded my knowledge of global problems and how to solve them. I explored my curiosity and learned about things that interested me.
I spent time with the people I love. Went on many outdoor adventures with my family, and long conversations with my best friends.
I made time for running and found my new hardest thing.
I started treating myself with kindness and healing old wounds.
I would say that this year has been a great year, and I am so grateful for all the beautiful people in my life that helped make this year so amazing.
To my best friends (Apoorva and Ciara), my family, my mentors, my directors, my teachers, my friends; thank you! I appreciate all that you do for me.
Here’s to a great 2023. May you all squeeze as much juice out of your life as possible.