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Monthly newsletter
September-October 2020

My name is Samson Zhang. I'm a 17-year-old student, designer, and engineer training to impact billions. To my core, I'm a learner and a builder. I'm currently diving into machine learning and quantum computing and working as a Product Manager at StartupTree.

Welcome to my first newsletter! Consider checking me out on LinkedIn, Twitter, and my website too 😋

What I'm up to
"Olympic training for innovators"
TKS, at 2x speed

TKS is a year-round program that trains high schoolers into unicorn tech people: the Steve Jobs, Elon Musks, and Jeff Bezos of the world, who impact billions and help push humanity forwards. There's no magic bullet for making this kind of impact, or substitutes for hard work and personal ambition, but TKS provides valuable guidance, resources, and community to give students exposure and steer them in the right direction.

Being on the older side and with some past tech/entrepreneurship experience, I directly joined the second-year program, attending first-year sessions at the same time. I'm a month in now, getting a grasp on some of TKS' fundamental philosophies and gearing up for some really exciting projects. To quickly throw a few out here:

  • Participating in a consulting competition for gene sequencing giant Illumina, with two incredible biotech enthusiasts on my team 🤩
  • Learning rapidly about emerging technologies like genomics, blockchain, and quantum computing (more on this later)
  • Hearing explicit statements and examples for various mindsets: curiosity, unconventional paths, high performance...
  • Meeting dozens of ambitious high schoolers in TKS programs around the world

Driving exponential growth by empowering student entrepreneurs
Product Manager/UX/Engineering at StartupTree

StartupTree powers the entrepreneurship ecosystems of MIT, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and 100+ other schools and institutions. I got to know the CEO over the summer, in September joining StartupTree's eight-person team as a UX researcher, designer, and software builder (I just go by PM :P). I'll be building solutions to empower student entrepreneurs on the platform, increasing user engagement and driving exponential growth as the company moves from a B2B SaaS to B2C model.


In pursuit of the TKS mantra, I've been building a breadth of knowledge in these areas...

AI + Machine Learning

Almost every technical solution today uses some form of AI or ML, with huge potential remaining, making it obligatory exploration matter for an aspiring innovator.

Quantum computing

QC excites me because of the scope of its potential and how deeply technical it is. QC is in its infancy, and I want to understand and eventually push its frontiers.

Genomics, Longevity, and Biotech

The accessibility of genetic data has increased hugely in recent years, and with it the potential for life-changing new diagnosis and treatment methods.


I didn't know much about blockchain before, but learning about its promise of a massively decentralized new model for computing put it firmly on my radar.

...and depth of knowledge in AI and machine learning.

I learn best at a technical level, and with structure. On the recommendation of some friends, I completed Stanford prof. Andrew Ng's amazing intro ML course. I'm currently working through a deep learning sequence, after which I'll dive into reinforcement learning.

To solidify my learning, gain practical experience, and build a portfolio of work, I'll also be producing articles and projects. Here's one from September:

AI/ML Focus

Implementing and visualizing gradient descent from scratch

Gradient descent powers a huge amount of classification, neural network, and even unsupervised learning models. After taking Andrew Ng's algorithm-focused ML course, I implemented and visualized gradient descent to solidify my learning.

Other thoughts

"In high school, comparing my excellences to others’ was mostly a matter of self-perception, ego, and maybe college apps. After high school, though...learning is ultimately optional; what matters is that you can get good at something, provide value to someone, and get paid for it...these choices crashed down on me heavily in the past year."

I've had to come to terms with a huge number of new perspectives and understandings since leaving my high school campus in March. In the past month especially, I've come to new (practical) clarity about a couple of my big questions.

What does it mean to be, or feel, or be seen as being good at something?

A framework for excellence, ft. Jeff Bezos and Ira Glass

Excellence = f(external judgement, internal recognition, practice). Thoughts on what constitutes excellence, how to work towards it, and why it matters.

How do you find your passion and life a fulfilling life?
A practical, simple two-step process for finding your passion

1. Do what you want. It sounds stupid simple, but most of the time most of us aren't actually doing what we want. High-achieving people especially tend to try to be good at everything they encounter, because they know they have the potential and probably the resources to be so. The first step to finding your passion is to isolate possibilities and external pressures, instead honing in on your priorities and living by them. Learn to say no, a lot. You'll learn a lot more and go a lot farther if you pick a direction and dive into it than mulling over what direction to pick.

2. Continuously and honestly assess your experiences. Entrepreneur James Cole compares the process of personal self-discovery to that of refining a business strategy. In a TKS Q&A, James offered this example: say you open an ice cream shop and only sell chocolate ice cream. If you adverise that you have lots of flavors of ice cream, you'll attract more customers, but they will be disappointed and not leave you any useful insights about your business. If you advertise honestly and customers show up, you can ask them what they like about your ice cream. If they tell you the chocolate chips are the best part, you can now optimize, maybe by selling a flavor with more chocolate chips. By being honest with yourself and continuously building experience, you'll whittle all the possibilities down to something much sharper, honing in on fulfilling passions over time.

TKS alum Izzy Grandic likened this way of thinking to being a free-body diagram. As opposed to a systems diagram, showing all the objects that act on each other, a free-body diagram represents these objects only as forces on a single object. If such diagrams represent your life, you are the central object, with various structures and entities exerting forces on you. Your motivations and priorities make up forces pushing back against them.

The state of "finding your passion" can be represented as your internal forces aligning with the external forces around you: a fulfilling project, career, or relationships. Extending the analogy, imagine furthermore that this object is in a high-dimensional force field. Your internal forces determine where you move in this force field. If your internal forces point in mutliple directions, the magnitude of each one will be smaller, and you won't experience as much variance in the force field. But if you direct your internal forces strongly in one or two directions at a time, you'll keep accelerating and discover much more of the force field, giving you a lot more data to determine what direction to point your internal forces in too.

This framework is simplistic and somewhat high-level, of course, but they've provided me with practical goals to make decisions and build further mental models around. After half a year of near-constant anxiety over future paths and opportunities, arriving at these ideas in the last month feels like a journey beginning to come to a close, at least for now. I'm starting to bring new understanding and intention to my decisions, moving forward in the endless process of honing in on passion and fulfillment.

These thoughts also came together under the influence of several different sources: I've already mentioned James Cole and Izzy, and I want to further acknowledge TKS Boston director Michael Raspuzzi, Toronto alum Davide Radaelli, the books The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (Mark Manson) and When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi), and countless other people and resources I've come into contact with.

In closing

Thanks for reading the first of my monthly newsletters! I hope that it will be a good way for me to stay in touch with people, a basic tool for beginning and maintaining relationships with people I admire or care about.

If you have a personal newsletter of your own, I'd love to be added to it. Just shoot me a quick reply to this email! If you have any questions or thoughts on anything I'm working on or ideas that I've shared, please don't hesitate to reach out, too!

In the future, I'll have a page on my website linking to all past newsletters. For now, check out my blog for more of my thoughts.

See you all again in November! 😁

Samson Zhang
Samson Zhang
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Samson Zhang

17-year-old student, designer, and engineer training to impact billions. A learner and a builder to the core, currently diving into machine learning and quantum computing and working as a Product Manager at StartupTree.

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