Daniel Kao: “Inspire them to think instead of killing their dreams”
When I left Hungary in October, I knew I’d write about my journey but didn’t feel like writing a travel blog. Partly because every place worth writing about has been written about many times and in many ways. But mostly because I’m more interested in the people I meet than the places I see. To me, the most magnificent architecture and breathtaking landscape doesn’t come close to the story of a human being in terms of mystery and inspiration.
I met Daniel on a Live Your Legend forum (highly recommended if you need a final push to make a carrier change). As soon as I looked at his website, I knew he had a story to tell and some wisdom to share. I talked to him about living in Silicon Valley, his online ventures, the flow state and the Promodoro technique, different aspects of education and learning, being an ambivert and some other exciting stuff.
Listen to our conversation or read the edited transcript below.
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So why don’t we start with a little background info so that people get a quick idea of who you are?
Of course. I grew up in San Jose, California, which is frequently known as the Silicon Valley in the Bay Area, where all the tech companies are. I come from a family of five. My dad is an engineer, and my mom has stayed at home to take care of the family.
So, how did you end up studying, computer sciences? Have you always been interested in that kind of thing?
Ever since I was a kid, I had a computer, it wasn’t in my room it was downstairs. I would get up at 6 or 7 in the morning and just go straight to my computer and I’d be just spending time, a lot of time reading about web development, web design in my freshman year of high school. So a lot of my interest got developed there. I was just always interested in technology I mean I just loved little gadgets and devices and things and I paid attention to them all the time. So for me computer science was a pretty logical choice because of my interest and fascination with technology. And then after taking a couple programming classes in high school it just made sense to me, I knew it was something that I could do.
And did the fact that you were so close to Silicon Valley have any influence in this?
In retrospect, I think yes. But I think during the time my teenage years a lot of things I wasn’t quite aware of but I think, just being around my dad, him being and engineer and just being around all these people who have all the new technology all the time. A couple of my classmates would always be the first people to get iPhones so I feel like just being in that Silicon Valley bubble helped me a lot in my interests. It probably would’ve been a completely different story if I grew up in some other rural place without so much technology.
Yeah I mean the funny thing is that there are lots of people, even Hungarians that grew up in tiny villages like myself in some hidden part of Hungary and they ended up in Silicon Valley or some other part of the states and made a successful business. So, it’s not impossible but I think that being there is definitely a great help. I get the sense that there is a great buzz going on in California right now. All the greatest bloggers are there and they keep writing about how important it is to network and to put yourself out there and I just wonder if you experienced any of that personally.
Oh yeah, definitely. I think it’s definitely huge just because there’s so many people here and I’ve now worked, I’ve connected with countless numbers of people over the internet. I’m also working for a nonprofit right now called Student Voice and I found them over Twitter, too. Just, being in California I think is, is huge too because a lot of the conferences are up in San Francisco or Mountain View. Not to mention, we have some of the best institutions of higher education up in here, too. We have Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA. I feel like there’s a lot going on here.
Let’s talk a little bit about your online ventures and I would like to start with Tallymark.
I have a good friend. He is an amazing, graphic and user interface designer. He was doing rent calculations in his apartment, which was basically our idea for Tallymark. But at the time, they were doing it on Google Docs. And so he decided like, why don’t we make this Google spreadsheet and application for everyone to use so that other people can do the same thing because everyone pays the rent. For example if you buy, toilet paper for the whole apartment, instead of figuring out, who to pay back and how to divide up the cost for that, all you have to do is log it into Tallymark and it’ll adjust everyone’s rent so that at the end of the month, all you have to do is write one check and it calculates all the expenses and everything’s balanced. We got together in the summer, we started programming in July and we pushed it out in late September. So it only took us about three months and we were able to put this thing out, just the two of us.
That’s impressive. So, what sort of feedback are you getting?
We didn’t really expect it to go too far and even today we’re not really pushing it to go too far. The response has been pretty surprising actually because one of our goals at the beginning of the project was like: ‘Hey, it’d be really cool if we got someone to use it that neither of us know.’ And so after launching it in September, the first day, we got like 100 sign ups, which is pretty good. It’s nothing like super impressive but it’s pretty decent. And all we did was advertise it to our friends.
Let’s move on to your Polyglot project because that’s also something very intriguing. When you say the word ‘Polyglot,’ what comes to mind is a language exchange club.
Yeah, I mean the reason why I called it Polyglot was wanted to be able to provide people with access to knowledge, ’cause I think that’s huge. Being able to know things and imagine things and see what other people are thinking and writing. A polyglot is someone who knows many languages as you said. And different ways of thinking can be seen as different kinds of languages because if you can think similarly to someone then it’s how you have a conversation. Even if you speak the same language it’s easier to hold a conversation if you actually can think on the same level as the other person. That’s why I call it Polyglot because it was this idea of expanding your knowledge by expanding your languages. But, for me, for my initiative, it was expanding your knowledge by expanding the different ways of thinking that you’re exposed to.
Okay. So how does it work in practice?
Basically, once a month I’ll buy a book, and I’ll pick a book, one I’ve read, I wanna start there first. I just pick a random person off my subscription list and just mail it to them.
Are the people who you mail the books happy?
The first book I gave out was the Seth Godin book called “The Icarus Deception.” It’s a book about creating your art, being yourself and finding your place in the world and being unique and creative, that stuff. So she really appreciated it and it’s been a really good response that I really like.
Do you have like any sort of requirements, like what the person needs to do once they’ve finished reading the book or anything like that?
I’m still trying to think if there’s any way for me to really enforce it. My idea was that once someone finishes a book that I give out, they are encouraged to pass it on to someone else. So, with every single book that I’m putting out there, I put a sticker on the front cover with the QR code and a book code. So, when they finish the book and they scan the QR code, it takes them to a secret page on my website where they can put where the book is now and who has it so I can have an idea of how many people the book is going around. It’s also an interesting little social experiment for me, too.
Let’s talk about your personal blog and website Diplateevo. Can you tell me about how long it took you to build all this up?
I started posting on it in 2009. Initially, it was just a way for me to get a website up because I was playing around in that area and I had a couple friends that knew a little bit more than I did and so that was just something that I set up and initially it was more like a personal blog where I just said whatever I wanted to say. And there wasn’t really a clear focus. In 2011, I restructured it and I reframed it related to education and leadership and teamwork, more along that sphere of things. Ever since I got serious about it in 2011 and completely redid the design, reworked, the whole thing, deleted everything and restarted, I’ve grown it from there and now I’m writing pretty regularly, twice a week, I’m trying to put out content and, trying to actually build more of a platform.
Looks like you’re getting somewhere with it, you are receiving some traction, right?
Yeah, it’s exciting to see, because I never thought that I would be able to write a post and it would be able to hit 60,000 people.
Did you work a lot on the promotion side of it or did you just focus on creating content and was it enough for it to grow?
I think I’ve been focusing a little more on content as opposed to promotion but I think moving forward there definitely is a lot of promotion that I’m thinking about doing in the next couple months. But it’s mainly through just networking and actually bringing value to people. Because personally I believe that it all boils down to how can I provide you value. I can’t expect someone to want to read my blog if it doesn’t provide value to them. So obviously I want to be able to be putting out solid content that can get people to think, and to think outside the box.
Do you have any plans of monetizing it in the future?
I’m currently having a couple of ideas. I’m working on a short little e-book that I might put out in the future and see where that goes. I do have a little bit of monetization on it right now, I have Google AdSense hooked up to it. I’ve set it so that the Google AdSense only shows to visitors that come from search engines.
That’s a very clever set up. Okay, let’s talk about a couple of your posts because some of them are really interesting, the first one being about, ambiverts. How did you come up with this idea and what got you thinking about it?
I was talking to one of my friends, she’s very much an introvert. We were talking about this and then I was just being honest with myself and I was like, ‘Hey, I actually don’t really know what I am.’ , I mean I read the things for ’10 signs you’re in introvert’ or ’10 signs you’re in extrovert’ and I see both of these, I see myself in both of these. I can identify with everything that both of these articles are saying and so I just couldn’t reconcile the fact that ‘Am I an introvert or am I an extrovert?’ People would ask me and I really don’t know, I don’t think I’m either. And then, when I would ask my friends ‘Do you think I’m an introvert or extrovert?’ I would get completely different results. So finally, it bugged me to the point where I did some research and to see if there is anything in between. And I found the term ambivert. I don’t think a lot of people really understand… there weren’t a lot of articles about ambiverts. So I thought I’d write about it. I’m someone who doesn’t see introvert or extrovert as a black or white thing, I see it as a scale, and I think that it’s totally okay for someone to be in the middle. So I wrote that and then it just got a lot of traction.
People definitely need to know more about this because when someone thinks of themselves as an introvert or as an extrovert, but then they get it wrong, it can lead to lots of missed opportunities and sad situations. So, if you understand what kind of a person you are, like you value your own time alone but you need your friends as well and you just can’t, or don’t want to, live without either of these, then you are right in the middle.
You write a lot about productivity and I wanted to ask you about the Flow state and the Pomodoro method. And I wonder how these work for you.
The guy who first came up with the idea of Flow.
Flow states is pretty much when you’re in a state that you’re just focused, that nothing can distract you, that you’re just concentrated on one thing. And I find that very productive because I’m not trying to handle a million things at once but I can just focus on one thing and give it my complete undivided attention. That’s the whole principle behind the Pomodoro technique because the Pomodoro technique is 25 minutes of complete, no interruption, focusing on one thing. And after 25 minutes I get a five minute break. What I don’t like about the Pomodoro technique is that it’s restricted by time. I like the same thing but I want to just do it until, I finish a task. So I’ll sit down and I’ll be like, ‘Okay, right now, I’m going to focus on, on ‘X’. Or, I’m gonna focus on coming up with an idea for this post, and that’s all I’m going to do right now. And so I sit down and, and I just get to it and I focus on just that.
Yeah the flow state is really something that, if you can get into, makes your work so much more productive. My problem with the Pomodoro method is that it’s just way too fragmented. 25 minutes is just not enough.
Sometimes it takes me that long to just get going.
And the break gets me out of the flow state.
Exactly, exactly. For all of the programmers that are listening, I think you would understand because there’s something about programming that when you sit down and you get into the zone, you get into your flow, that it’s just, you can’t stop.
Yeah. So I get the sense that you share my view that multitasking is a myth, basically.
You wrote a post about how much you learned at a TED conference. Could you talk a little bit about that?
I attended TEDx San Diego last year and it was just a completely mind-opening experience. I was able to hear from people that are experts at their field doing groundbreaking discoveries and hear from them directly. There were chips that could be tattooed onto your skin that could monitor your heart rate and things like that. It was fascinating. I think the difference between sitting in a TED conference and sitting in a classroom lecture at school is that in a TED conference, it’s so much more about the excitement. There’s just so much more passion within when a TED speaker goes up to talk, it’s exactly what they’re doing. It’s their life’s work. And connecting with those people themselves instead of listening from a textbook… Would you rather have a textbook tell you about Thomas Edison or would you rather have Thomas Edison come in and teach you about his discovery. And I think most people would agree that they would rather have Thomas Edison come in.
Yeah, and if you ask those people 10 years later, the group that listened to Thomas Edison would probably remember more details, right?
Yeah, exactly. And so I believe that learning is a very experiential thing. Learning is based on experience, and the level of learning that you get is dependent on what you experience. So if your experience of learning is through a textbook and through a lecture, that’s pretty much what you’re going to get. If your experience in learning is “I tried this app”, “I made this app” or “I talked to this person or I worked under this person”… imagine working under someone like Elon Musk. That would be crazy, it’d be a huge learning opportunity and you would learn things that would take you forever to learn in school and you’d be able to learn so fast because you’re working under someone that has that experience, that passion and drive and are doing the exact things.
Absolutely. I wonder whether you’ve heard about the 10,000 hour rule.
Yes, I have.
What do you think about it?
I think that it’s bogus. Have you heard of a guy called Tim Ferris?
Yeah, of course.
I love his stuff … I have his book, “The Four Hour Chef.” It’s a really great book, it teaches you how to cook and everything. And the principles behind it is that you really don’t need 10,000 hours to learn something because the way that Tim Ferris talks about learning, he has acronym called DSSS. Dissection, sequencing, selection and stakes I think. I think that’s so true because as long as you’re able to dissect what you want to learn, select what’s the most important… I’m a huge believer in the 80/20 rule. I apply 80/20 everywhere. To me that’s like 110% truth. So putting all that together I think, no it doesn’t require 10,000 hours to master something. I think you can definitely move a lot faster if you know how to break things down and how to learn things.
Yeah definitely and I think the problem with that is that most people can misunderstand it because they think that, ‘Oh, it takes 10,000 hours to get somewhat good at something.’
Which, it actually doesn’t. Josh Kaufman makes it quite clear, it takes only about 20 hours to get to that basic level, to see whether you want to dig deeper into this or not. That’s a fairly small investment compared to the 10,000 hours. I think that notion shouldn’t prevent anyone from starting anything.
Exactly. And that’s the same stuff I apply in school, too. Just, breaking things down, 80/20 rule. It’s what’s gotten me through school.
Yeah, that’s quite smart. You should write more about that.
Yeah, maybe I will, maybe I will.
I think it’s time to reveal your age … because … how old are you, actually?
I am 19.
Shouldn’t you be drunk right now and partying?
Right. That’s funny … I don’t know… I will say this, though. I’m glad to have the mentors that I did growing up. I have one mentor that I really look up to. He’s five years older than me and he is very much an entrepreneur himself and he dropped out of school to pursue a real estate business. And he’s currently working on that. He’s the one that, for a lot of the ways I think now, I can thank him for because he spent a lot of time investing in me and just helping me see things and I’ve always had that dream there to think and I mean it really is all about who you surround yourself with.
That’s fantastic. It’s really good to have someone like that in your life. Can I put it this way: what do you want to be when you grow up?
I want to be, above anything I mean and as cheesy as it sounds, I wanna be myself.
That’s the perfect answer.
But I guess what that looks like more specifically for me is, what makes me come alive is connecting with people and helping them see their dreams, helping them achieve their destiny, helping them think beyond the boxes that we’ve been given, socially trained a society to think within. For me, it’s just really exciting, when someone can see outside of boxes and so coming back and relating that to education and leadership. I think what I would really love to be doing in the future is having a platform and speaking and sharing my ideas, as well as writing my ideas and having people read them and actually changing people’s lives. But in terms of the education sphere I really want to see education policy shift to be more personalized for students that they can actually have the freedom to think outside of boxes within their education and learn things that they really are passionate, truly excited to learn. I mean, I have ideas of doing that through technology. It’s definitely the way of the future.
Well, you kind of answered my next question pretty much, but let’s see if you can come up with a different kind of answer. So, if you had a magic wand that could change one thing, but one thing only in the world, what would you change?
Probably education… but, man this is a hard one because, I believe that a lot of our education also starts in the families. I think if I wanted to get to the root of just my passions in education I think I would change it in the families. I would say that I want people to understand how to raise their kids in a way to inspire them to think instead of killing their dreams … inspire kids to give them a hope in the future. I think it all starts there, because there is a lot that education can do and a lot that a teacher can do, but it all starts in the family.
Fully agree with that. Well, I think that’s a, a great sentence to finish with, so thank you very much for joining me tonight.
To find out more about Daniel or to get in touch with him, visit his website.
If there is anything you’d like to add to what’s said here, please join the conversation.