It was 3am and I couldn’t fall asleep. My mind brain was racing and thoughts were firing through my head at a hundred miles an hour. It was one of those moments which at the time you don’t think are too special, but years later, it turns out to be a core memory that sticks with you for a long time…yeah, this was one of those moments.
I opened my eyes, only to find that I couldn’t tell the difference between keeping my eyes closed or open because it was so dark. So I lay awake with my eyes open in the pitch black, thinking. I was completely at peace. And felt so happy.
A few thoughts kept circulating in my brain:
- Pinch me this feels like a fantasy. I love life.
- I will dedicate my life to improving the standard of living in the poorest communities in the world
- I haven’t felt this confident all year, what has changed?
- I love Swiss chocolate
To provide some context, I had spent the past 4 days in the Swiss Alps talking with the most influential scientists, policy makers and (social) entrepreneurs in the world, and my blood was boiling with excitement and enthusiasm.
I was probably experiencing a massive sugar spike due to the volume of (delicious) Swiss chocolate I was consuming.
And my cheeks hurt from smiling and laughing so much, spending every day with my friends from around the world.
I am privileged to have attended Villars, an amazing conference in Switzerland, a few weeks ago. I spent 10 days hanging out with my best friends, talking with the coolest and most inspiring people I have ever met and hiking in the Swiss alps.
Although I hate when people drop big blanket statements like “it changed my life”, I am definitely a different Rachel than the Rachel that walked on that Boeing 787–9 three weeks ago:
- My hunger has increased (and no, not I’m not talking about my hunger for high quality chocolate)
- The frameworks I use to view my life and the world have changed
- I have so many more stories to tell:))
1. An unquenchable hunger
Let me start by saying that Villars is not your average conference. Instead of slide decks and chairs, picture engaging workshops and presentations, round tables (where you very well might be sitting across from a billionaire, CEO of a massive company, or entrepreneur that is literally making waves in the biggest problems of our time). And all with yummy food and a stunning view.
Villars was nothing like any conference I have been to. I learned so much from the people I met and conversations I had.
One of my largest takeaways from multiple conversations with someone I really look up to (Carl!) is what I now call, The Art of the Master Communicator. I will be writing about this soon, but the most important aspect is storytelling.
I learned that storytelling is the #1 characteristic of a good communicator (it’s a superpower of Master Communicator’s), and stories, if told in the right way, can change an entire nation or end a war (more on this later). So here’s the story about my unquestionable hunger. And it starts with a box of Swiss chocolates.
In Geneva, we toured a chocolate factory, and got to have a ‘chocolate tasting tour’. (It’s exactly what it sounds like — you move down a long table and try every different chocolate product the store offers. Chocolate fondu with fresh strawberries, chocolate covered nuts, every flavor of chocolate bark, etc.)
The moment I put the first piece of chocolate in my mouth, my taste buds felt more sophisticated. It was like nothing I had ever tasted before. It did not even compare to the chocolate back home in Canada.
And in that moment, I mourned for a few seconds the fact that I would never enjoy chocolate at home as much. Even the best Canadian chocolate would not impress or satisfy me after having the [literal] best chocolate in the world.
And I didn’t know it at the time, but my Swiss chocolate experience would become a metaphor for my experience at Villars.
At Villars, I got a peak into a world where being “above average” is the bare minimum, and people think about solving global problems all day. After being emersed in this environment, and eating dinner with people changing the world, I can’t accept anything less of myself. And I don’t want to.
Being around the most intelligent and influential people I have ever met, lit this spark in me to do more. Ambition, I guess, is the closest word to describe it.
I have always been very ambitious, but after Villars, I feel even more ambitious.
I have met the superheroes of my childhood dreams (like the directors of Our Planet!), and the only thing I can think about after these kinds of interactions is “that can be me.”
The Rachel two years ago wouldn’t believe the people I met and am now friends with: billionaires, top executives at my favorite high impact companies, CEOs of massive corporations, social entrepreneurs solving problems in the communities they work in, Nobel Laureates and changemakers who have inspired every bone in my body.
Normally, the idea of having a conversation with this caliber of people would intimidate me. But I have so many funny stories of just turning to the person beside me at the dinner table, having an epic conversation, and then googling them after the convo and finding out that they are the coolest most successful person ever. And it is these conversations that normalize the fancy job titles and impressive LinkedIn bios.
And it is these conversations that leave me feeling restless. I want to do sooo much with my life. I have so many plans and goals. I am hungry to see the world, deeply understand complicated societal problems like poverty and food insecurity, and spend my life making asymmetric impact working towards impacting billions.
I am hungry to see and understand the world.
I am hungry to follow an unconventional path.
I am hungry for independence, and to truly get to know myself and craft my own life.
What this has looked like right now in my life:
- I’m much more intentional about my time. I now really understand how much you can get done in 25 minutes (our TKS group + Navid + Nadeem walked to the top of a hill overlooking Montreux, sat down, and researched everything about CERN for a tour we had the next day. I got so much done during that 25 minute research sprint). Because of this, I’m now extremely intentional about how I’m spending my time. I’m spending more hours doing high quality research and work, and am enjoying my time with family, friends and spare moments so much more. I am putting a higher value on my time so I enjoy it more.
- After Villars, I spent days reflecting. One of the things I reflected on was ‘what is the impact I want to make in the world?’ This exercise morphed into a discovery of what I value in life, and what I want to do with my life. I worked back from here to map out what I want to be spending my time on. And I came up with a project plan that I am so excited about, working on things that I am extremely driven by. (Much more to come about my project in future articles, but I will be doing a big case study of Singapore, one of the best examples of economic and social development. Understanding the policies and interventions that took the country from majority living in extreme poverty to now one of the lowest poverty rates in the world, in a mater of 20 years. This is “step 3” in my “4 part” project to get super good at route cause analysis and deeply understand all aspects of poverty and food insecurity.)
- I am obnoxiously productive, working not only more and harder than I ever had, but also being much more productive than I ever had.
- Even though I’m reading research papers and having calls for over 6 hours every day + balancing other commitments, I’m so happy. I’m working on something that I care a lot about, and I am intentionally spending my time working towards a big goal for the end of this project, with lots of fun time in nature and with people I enjoy spending time with sprinkled in between.
- I’m been thinking bigger. Before Villars I was beginning to settle. Settle for an “above average” career (like working at the World Economic Forum or GoogleX. Both incredible careers with large impact, but still conventional in my mind). These are now my baseline and I’m thinking bigger. And much more unconventionally. Both of these things (thinking bigger and unconventionally) are spilling over into my decision making (e.g. like how I’m thinking about what to do after gr.12).
2. Life and world frameworks
Have you ever met a smart/successful person that isn’t philosophical and has unique insights about life?
Chances are, probably not. Smart people understand the world and have built frameworks to guide how they live their lives.
Both from spending time in rooms with wildly successful people, and from reflecting on what I want to do in my life, I have gathered and created some life/world philosophies and frameworks that have changed the way I think.
Confidence is rooted in authenticity
We were in Switzerland for 10 days, and for the entire time I felt unapologetically myself. I was around my friends from TKS, who are equally as ambitious and nerdy as me.
I felt like I could let my natural excitement and energy flow (I usually feel like I need to tame down my energy at school). My curiosity was fed from deep conversations with Navid and Nadeem, and a 2 hour train ride conversation which can be summarized as ‘making money 101.’ I did not know all the “answers” or how to get to them, but this group of people gave me the space to figure it out on my own, and eventually I reached the answer. (I learned so much about 1) making money in this convo and 2) how to think through problems.)
For these 10 days I was completely authentic. I wasn’t masking an important part of me, or trying to embody another trait. I was literally just me. (Authentic).
And for these 10 days I felt so confident.
Confidence starts with understanding yourself enough to be unapologetically you. For example, if you are naturally introverted but are trying to be more extraverted because you want to get invited to parties, you will not be natural or authentic to yourself.
And you won’t feel confident because you are personifying a characteristic that is not in line with your values and who you are.
In the past few years I’ve struggled with real confidence (not just acting confident, but actually being confident), and I’ve realized it’s because I’m trying to turn off and turn on different parts of myself when I’m with different people. But as soon as I met the TKS squad at the airport I was one hundred percent myself.
And I felt like a confident bad bitch.
Be unapologetically yourself. Always.
During this entire trip I was 100% me, with all my quirks and cringiness. I pointed out all the many slugs on the sidewalk, commented way too many times about how yummy the food is, and was the obnoxiously energetic Rachel that is authentic to me.
And I wasn’t just “like this” around our TKS group — I was like this with all the CEOs, experts and billionaires that I met.
I have reached a point where I’ve covered up parts of who I am for too long. I am tired of lowering my ambition and energy to not stick out like a sore thumb at school. This makes me tired and unhappy.
Being one hundred percent me wasn’t a conscious choice I made going into Villars. It was that I finally accepted and learned to love who I am. I had reached a high level of inner peace, self love and confidence, so I couldn’t care less if people find me too obnoxious or roll their eyes at my silly comments.
You can’t be unapologetically yourself if you don’t love yourself. Self love is a zero sum multiplier.
Being truly me around everyone I met may have turned some people off, but it also meant that I connected with the right people. The relationships with mentors and experts I built at Villars were much deeper than other conferences I’ve been to when I have tried to ‘fit in’ to the mould of the conference vibe.
This also meant that I got more out of Villars, since I asked questions and had conversations that I actually care about, instead of acting like I’m an expert in blockchain even though I don’t really care that much about it.
Prioritize long term over short term
My final grade 11 exams where the last week of June. The exact same time the Villars Symposium was.
So of course I did what any ambitious problem solver would do and talked to my principal the very next day and got them to make a special exception for me to write my exams a week early.
And then came the decision of where I wanted to spend my time. I could either dedicate the next few weeks to studying for exams, or I could dedicate my time to learning about new advances in tech, science and geopolitics.
I chose the later.
This is an example of long term thinking over short term thinking:
- I want to solve problems in the poorest communities in the world.
- I need to build relationships with people at the forefront of policy, STEM and changemaking to do this.
- I also need knowledge about how the world works.
Based on my long term goal of solving problems, optimizing for getting the most out of Villars is a much better use of my time than optimizing for 99% on my final exams.
This framework goes to everything in life. Prioritize investing in friendships + relationships and having unique experiences if that is what will get you closer to your long term end goal.
The truth is that humans are hard wired to prioritize the short term (e.g. food and drink as soon as you are a little hungry, even though the benefits of fasting are much better for you in the long term.)
Most people cave into their short term goals, instead of seeing farther than their monkey mind and optimizing for the long term, which is the only thing that actually matters.
What will make you the most interesting?
If you are faced with two decisions or opportunities, which one will make you more interesting?
I have been reflecting on this question lately — ever since Villars my eyes have been open to the potential of a “gap year” travelling the world, and doing an internship on the ground in a rural community. Gaining actual knowledge and experience, and discovering myself in the process.
So the decision I am faced with now is university right after gr.12, or a year off?
The year off would sure as hell make me more interesting…
There is always a third door
You can create a third door. Always.
I was talking with Carl, who told me so many stories of times when it seemed like every single door was nailed shut.
One story he told me was a time when he was on assignment for a major news magazine reporting the frontlines of infectious diseases in Southeast Asia.
Carl went to a national infectious disease hospital and showed the receptionist his papers and documents, including a letter from the nation’s minister of public health, to prove he had permission to visit and report a globally significant story.
But the administrator said no.
Carl waited until the next receptionist was on duty. She said no, too.
But he knew behind the doors were patients who were sick, stigmatized and mostly forgotten. Their voices needed to be heard.
Good journalists are trained to not take no for an answer. And to be curious, to always find a way in.
So Carl created a third door. He was walking down the crowded streets and saw clothes more like those worn in the hospital. He bought them so he looked like he should be there. This time it worked. He not only fit the reality of the paperwork, he fit their perception that he looked like he should be there.
He was the first journalist allowed into the wards, he built trust with the patients, and the pictures were published widely, telling an important story that otherwise would have remained hidden behind closed doors.
I heard countless stories from extremely successful people of times when it seemed like there was no hope and it honestly would have been easier to give up. But even in the most dire circumstances, there is always a third door, you just need to be creative enough to build the third door.
Specificity is the spice of life
This became the motto of our trip. We actually named our group chat Spice of Life because of this.
Whenever I hear large blanket statements (like “I want to change the world” or “I am passionate about climate change) I always silently roll my eyes. What do these statements actually mean? I don’t know because they aren’t specific. Broad statements lack specificity and are just words.
I don’t want to just say words — I want to effectively communicate ideas in a way that resonates with people. The kind of communicator that can stand in front of crowds of people and move an entire audience. That is what I aspire to.
Specificity is a key component of all communication; verbal, written.
- If you are giving someone a compliment, just saying “you are beautiful” does not hold much value by itself because we say this all the time. Saying “I really admire x quality about you, and watching you apply x quality to y experience made me really proud” is a much more meaningful compliment.
- If you are sending cold emails with the intent of landing an internship, saying “Hi I’m x and am really passionate about y, I am inspired by z company and would love to stay in touch for future opportunities” will not be very effective. When you’re specific, you can show tangible skills that can provide value to the company and can articulate your ask clearly: “Hi I’m x and I’m really passionate about y. I am currently working on a, b, c [links or further conscious explanations of work and projects]. Through this I have built d and e skill [link to example to prove], and have been inspired the work that you are doing at z company. I can provide value in f and g area of the company by doing h. I am very interested in discussing the possibility of an internship and would love to chat if you’re available in the next few weeks. When would you be free? [Also link Calendly and phone number].
- If you ask a broad question, you’ll get a broad answer that is unactionable and not useful to you. Instead of asking “how did you choose what to do with your life?” (you’ll get an answer like “I followed my passions”), ask what specifically about their journey you want to know “I am currently a high school senior deciding what to take in University. I’m really passionate about x and would like to pursue x passion by taking y in University. I haven’t told my parents yet because they’ve always wanted me to follow z path. How did you deal with the pressure of family, teachers and mentors when choosing to take an unconventional path, and stick true to what you wanted without being influenced by external sources?”
(As a side note, do you see how much better you understood the importance of being specific and how to use it from the *specific* examples I gave? Specificity works!)
Ashes gave birth to fire
Spending time with Peter at Villars was an absolute joy because he is one of (if not the) happiest person I’ve ever met. The vibe of happiness, love and passion he emits is incredible.
We were talking about happiness, and he said a few things that stuck out to me (I’m paraphrasing them) “what is there to not be happy about. I woke up this morning. My co founder woke up this morning. Life is beautiful”.
He was telling me about a short saying his grandmother would tell him every weekend when he was at her home “ashes gave birth to fire.”
I love this saying. It’s antifragility in a nut shell.
I wear this t-shirt now almost every day. It is my daily reminder to not get so wrapped up in the present that I loose sight of the future (wrapped up in exams and loose sight of my life goal to increase the quality of life in the poorest communities in the world). And to keep working towards my goal of improving the quality of life and increasing the wages of the bottom billion on our planet.
These two words are the embodiment of my ambitions and mission in life.
If you had $10 billion in the bank, what would you be doing?
This is the question that started TKS. (And maybe in a few years this will be the question that started my company.)
I have been reflecting on this question in regards to what I want to do after gr.12, and I have come up with some very interesting points…
What is the biggest problem you’ve experienced in the last month?
Navid asked us this question at dinner one night.
We each went around saying exams, school, stress, family health problems.
When you take a second to detach yourself from your bubble and get a bird’s eye view of your life, it becomes clear how nice so much of us got it. Speaking for myself, I have access to food, clean water and good healthcare. I live in a country with a stable government, I have a roof over my head, bed to sleep in, family that loves me, quality education, and the list goes on and on.
For me personally, my problems are so privilaged, and yet some days I complain.
I love this question because it reframes your life and puts things into a bit more perspective. If my biggest problem in the past month is that I had exams which were stressful, then I have it really good.
Now, whenever I feel sad or upset, I ask myself this question and it’s like an automatic reset. And at the same time, asking myself this question is like a gratitude prompt:))
3. A collection of stories
The best meal of my life
It was an average evening, the day I had the best meal of my life. But not an average day.
I had spent the entire day talking with project leads and people in senior positions at the World Economic Forum, CERN, AKDN and Mercuria. It was a jam packed day of riding the train to each headquarter, and getting 1.5+ hours to ask questions and leave an impression with some incredible people.
When the day was done, I literally couldn’t stop smiling. “How freaking insane is my life?” I thought to myself as we walked down the sidewalk. I was sitting across from people who are leading projects and building policy to improve the state of the world.
As we said goodbye to the CTO of Mercuria I could feel my hunger growing. Both my hunger to change the world, but more pressing in the moment, was my physical hunger.
I walked unassumingly down the sidewalk and we turned right onto a cute little road and walked into a packed restaurant. The outside wasn’t special, but as soon as you walked inside it was a little oasis. The vibe immediently changed. There was dark rock on the entire back wall (it felt like we had walked underground to a secret basement tavern!), the lighting was dim, and the entire room was bustling with life and energy.
We walked to the back of the room to watch three guys cranking out pizzas in an assembly line (one guy made and rolled the dough, the other put the toppings on, the last slide them into the wood fire oven and took out the cooked ones).
When the pizza came and I put the first slice of triple cheese pizza into my mouth, and I again mourned for a few seconds the fact that my mom’s homemade pizza would never quite taste as good, because this pizza was stunning. The crust, the cheese, the sauce, the toppings, so good!!!
As we all ate, I talked with Manoj, and it was one of the most genuine and kind conversations from the whole trip, about life, success, happiness and enjoyment.
I was stuffed by the time we demolished five large pizzas.
And as the waiter came by, Manoj asked for pasta!
And that pesto pasta was like nothing I’ve ever tasted.
AND THEN came desert — tiramisu and chocolate mousse.
This was the perfect last night in Switzerland, and the story of how I had the best meal of my life.
Lesson: the best things in life are not planned. I learned so much about spontaneity from this trip — spontaneously meeting people who inspired and changed the trajectory of my life, and spontaneously walking into an unassuming restaurant and making one of the best memories of my life. I like to plan and schedule everything out, and I’m still learning how to live my life spontaneously…
Running in the Alps with cows
On the final day of Villars all the students and experts went on a hike in the Swiss Alps. It was beautiful! We took a train from Villars at 1258ft elevation, up to 1600ft elevation. We saw the majestic mountain tops sticking above the fog, cows with big bells around their necks and beautiful scenery.
I, with my deep love for nature, hiking and the outdoors was in my glory.
Each group of students was paired with one (or two) guide, people who had grown up in the Alps, knew all the paths like the back of their hand, were trained in case of emergencies and loved the mountains.
I talked with one of our guides, Beck, for the entire hike. (I asked her how she fell in love with the mountains, and we talked about what success means and what both of our dream lives look like. AND it turns out that Beck is best friends with one of my favorite ultra runners!)
It was crazy, because as we were hiking, Beck was pointing things out to us. She was smiling at the view and taking pictures, even though she had done this hike hundreds of times. Beck was so excited to be in the mountains, even though she had grown up in the mountains and spent most of her time there.
I don’t know about you, but after I eat my favorite sandwich seven days in a row it starts to seem less exciting and appetizing. When I run the same 10km loop every day I stop noticing how pretty the reflection of the trees is on the lake.
I would think that after living in the Alps for your whole life (your “normal”) the mountains become less shiny in your eyes. But for Beck, this was not the case.
Lesson: there is beauty in the old and excitement in the mundane. Never loose the awe of life. Don’t take your “normal” for granted.
(After we hiked to the lake, Beck took our TKS group on an extra trail. We hiked up the mountain and were greeted by a stunning view. And then since we had to hurry to catch the train, we rain down the mountain and were running in between a herd of cows!)
On the outside, I “just” spent 10 days in Switzerland.
But it was so much more than that. And it is hard to articulate the all things that I learned, the experiences that I had and the fire that has been light inside me in a nicely manicured sentence that people want when they ask “how was your trip?”
The short answer is that it was great, Switzerland is beautiful, the chocolate is yummy and I met interesting people.
But the real answer is that it subtly changed me. It has raised the bar for what I thought was capable, and kindled a fire to make a big impact in the world. After talking with the best changemakers alive right now, I know that it is possible to live an unconventional life and do something big.
And now I am hungry to carve out my own path in life.
I’m not drawn to or excited by any life that is mainstream. I don’t want to be a doctor working 9–5, bored by the monotonous of the day-to-day tasks. I don’t want to be an unhappy teacher who waits all day for the bell to be rung and school to be done.
I have a long list of things “I don’t want” and a much smaller list of things “I do want”. And this is because I get to create the “I do wants”.
No one has lived the life I want to live (I have a few examples of people I am inspired by, but none of them run 100 mile ultramarathons which will be an integral part of my life).
I think the easiest short answer to “how was Switzerland?” is that it sparked a lot of reflection. Reflection on who I am, what I want to do with my life and the impact I want to have on the world. I know myself better since this trip, and know what I want in life.
And although there is some fear in the uncertainty of my unconventional aspirations, I can’t wait to build this life.