When people ask what I do, I usually lead (excitedly) with “it involves a lot of numbers…” In Product Management, and in the particular subsection in which I specialize, Growth, metrics and conversion rates are the key to translating the subjective Human experience into something understandable and actionable. I love this contradiction: using data to make abstract sensations and motivations into something concrete.
So if I told you that I grew up as a mathlete, you would probably expect my path to be fairly linear, wouldn’t you?
Math whiz in High School
Went to a Quant-heavy school and majored in Math
Knew exactly how to apply that after college
Not so fast, my friend.
I can’t count the number of soul searches and reflections I’ve done over the years, carefully honing my perspective and point of view of what really makes me tick.
This is a story of the power of research to develop and sharpen that focus.
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From as early as I can remember, teachers and peers thought of me as a “math kid”. Perhaps some of this was natural ability, but a lot of this was through the sheer force and will of my mom. There were countless summer days I spent in the back office of her store, dutifully working through problem sheets and drilling Math Olympiad questions to the point that I could recite the formulas in my sleep.
As I got older, this turned into actual Math competitions, like district/statewide Mathcounts contests. My family and I discovered that I had an aptitude for them. It was such a point of pride for me that, by high school, I was literally memorizing the entire question book for the Colorado State Math Day competition. Our high school got second in the entire state, foiled by rivals with quicker trigger fingers than us.
I knew I was enjoying myself through doing Math, but the truth is, I couldn’t tell you why. There was no deeper connection than wanting to be good at something. I went through High School knowing my strengths, but not really feeling a true spark about anything. As applying to college neared, everything felt like an option.
Meanwhile, I was watching my brother, (Kean Hsu, PhD in Clinical Psychology), with fascination. While he was extraordinary at math, Kean also got bitten by the Psychology bug hard in high school.
Though he’s officially Dr. Hsu now, he was Dr. Kean long before he got his PhD. He seemed to find that life-altering spark early on. I remember overhearing his frequent phone conversations with friends, impressed with the way he patiently listened to and helped his friends work through their problems, even as a high schooler.
When it came time for college, he had his pick of schools. He had the brains. He had the focus. He applied to just one school (Yale), got in via early decision and was done. Off to the races on the Psychology path from which he’s never deviated.
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When it came time for me to think about my own college, I lacked that level of specificity. Without a strong why, a strong passion, I didn’t have a clear target in mind. That’s in large part why I chose to go to Tufts: it offered a Liberal Arts education that would afford me exposure to everything.
This level of optionality wasn’t necessarily a good thing. In my first few years there, I churned through many different potential lives, like a “select a character” screen in a video game.
Freshman year, I spent an extraordinary amount of time on Chinese, filling shoebox after shoebox with my vocab flashcards. There was a wild semester where I thought I was going to be a Philosophy major, because I liked dropping in for office hours and debating with my professor. I even considered focusing on English and writing, trying to become a contributor to one of those pretentious Men’s fashion magazines I loved buying at the airport.
I didn’t have the vocabulary for it then, but I was swirling. I lacked a clear understanding of what made my heart and mind sing, and because of that, I was struggling to make decisions with intention.
Ultimately, I settled into being a Psychology major, in part because that’s what my Brother had done, and in part because that allowed me to prolong the need to build a clear plan. I felt like there was so much I could do. In my mind, Psychology afforded me flexibility for that magical day when I finally understood myself enough to specialize.
Fortunately, I started to connect with one of the new professors in the department, Heather Urry. She was kind, thoughtful, and brought material to life in a way I’d never experienced. Inspired, I asked to be in her lab, the Emotion Brain and Behavior Lab (EBBL), and she gladly accepted me as one of her first students.
At EBBL, I was tasked with running experiments for her research study, The Physiological Correlates of Emotion. In the experiment, we would track the physical reactions of our participants as they watched different happy or sad stimuli. My job was to serve as the Master of Ceremonies for the experiment and to manage the sensors that gathered facial movements, perspiration, heart rate, and gaze.
My time there was reminiscent of the movie The Karate Kid. Initially, it felt like I was spending all my time doing menial tasks: hooking up finicky sensors, cleaning the apparatus in a minty blue solution, checking and re-checking connections on the wires. What was this all for? I would ask myself.
But eventually I had my Mister Miyagi moment, a moment of clarity that helped put everything together. I found my purpose in numbers.
One day, near the end of my first semester there, I was working with Jen, the Grad Student in the lab, who was processing the sensor data we had collected. Jen took files corresponding to all the previous participants and imported them all into MatLAB for us to analyze. With a few clicks of the mouse, the nebulous sensor data I had been collecting jumped into an orderly, discernable life, summarizing all of the smiles, frowns, laughs, and nerves I had witnessed over the past few months as I was administering the experiment.
That moment was like discovering the operating manual for my brain. It is what I would consider the beginning of my intellectual adulthood. I could finally pair the thing I was good at (numbers) with a discernible “why” I love it: numbers could help me make sense of people and the experience of people around me.
Numbers + People. That’s what I was all about all along.
With that epiphany, I suddenly went from drifting in a dark sea of options to finding a true Northstar against which I could orient myself. The power of having a Northstar anchored in passion is that it has clearly and straightforwardly guided my path ever since I found it.
While I have held a handful of jobs, ranging from Consulting to Marketing to Data Science to Growth Product Management, every position I’ve ever held has been an iteration to point my needle towards the exact orientation of that Northstar. Prior to my research experience at EBBL, I was still trying to figure out whether I should point to the left or the right. Now, these job changes feel like micro-adjustments to hone in on the exact coordinates.
I started my career in Economic consulting, an incredibly data-rich and intense field. When that felt too detached from human behavior, I went to business school to become a Data-Driven marketer, pairing user empathy with data.
When I got what I thought was my dream job in marketing, I found that it wasn’t quantitative enough. I wanted to break the world of brownies and brand perception into equations and models. So I shifted to Marketing Analytics and Predictive Analytics
Marketing Analytics and Data Science offered the most intense quantitative experience of my life, where I would routinely run queries on billions of lines of data. And yet, I wanted to be more human, more in touch with the people I was trying to understand.
And that has ultimately led me to Growth product management.
I found my passion and why later than a lot of folks, and yet it’s the first piece of advice I’d give any current high school student. Sometimes it feels like telling people about this hot new artist I found named Bruno Mars. (It’s like, “Yeah, dude, we know…”)
And yet, it is still true. Passions are the #1. My advice is that this is the most important thing that you can do as a high school student.
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