Chip Huyen : Measuring personal growth


My founder friends constantly think about growth. They think about how to measure their business growth and how to get to the next order of magnitude scale. If they’re making $1M ARR today, they think about how to get to $10M ARR. If they have 1,000 users today, they think about how to get to 10,000 users.

This made me wonder if/how people are measuring personal growth. I don’t want to use metrics like net worth or the number of followers, because that’s not what I live for. After talking with a lot of friends, I found three interesting metrics: rate of change, time to solve problems, and number of future options.

Some friends told me they find this blog post mildly sociopathic. Why do I have to measure everything? Life is to be lived, not to be measured. As someone lowkey fascinated by numbers, I don’t see why measuring and living have to be mutually exclusive – measuring often helps me live better – but I see where they come from. This post is more of a thought exercise than a rigorous experiment.

Rate of change

I have this theory that life has a circadian rhythm. Every 3-6 years, you become a different person. You work on different problems. Your lifestyle changes. The people you hang out with are different. If you haven’t caught up with a friend in 5 years, you might no longer have anything in common. It’s not a coincidence that schools are structured into chunks of 3-6 years.

Looking back, I realized that every 3-6 years, my life completely changed. From grade 3 to grade 10, I did competitive math. For the next 5 years, I worked as a writer. Then I went to college and studied computer science for 4 years. After that, I fumbled around for almost 6 years. It was only recently that I felt like I had a handle on life.

Sami, a new friend who loves designing strategy games, told me about the rule of 72 in finance. It’s a simple formula that estimates the number of years it will take for an investment to double in value. If the annual interest rate is 8%, it’ll take 72/8 = 9 years for the value of your investment to double.

I wonder if I could treat myself as an investment, and measure my growth by how long it’d take me to become a new person. Becoming a new person isn’t always a good thing, and probably not the goal for everyone. But for me, it is. I want to be able to see things from a new perspective. I want to be exposed to new challenges. I treasure old friends (I still talk to my best friends in elementary school), but I like learning from new friends.

Time to solve problems

Quynh, an old friend who runs a publishing house in Vietnam, believes that there are three big problems in life: career, family, and finance. It usually takes people a decade to figure each out.

  1. For the first decade after graduation, you figure out what you want to do with your life.
  2. For the next decade, you get married, buy a house, and have kids.
  3. For the next decade, you build out your savings to retire.

Her goal is to solve these problems as fast as possible, so she can focus on more interesting problems.

This made me think that perhaps I can measure my growth by looking at what big problems I’ve solved. What big problems was I worried about 5 years ago that I no longer worry about now? What big problems am I worried about now that I don’t want to worry about in 5 years?

What is considered a big problem depends on each person. For me, it’s career, finance, social, immigration, family, and health. Here are a couple of concrete examples that made me feel like I’ve made progress. 5 years ago, I was anxious about being in the US on a visa. This problem went away when I got my green card. 5 years ago, I constantly felt insecure like I was an imposter in the Bay. Today, I feel at home here.

Number of future options

A friend I’ve met through my Discord, Denys, told me that his friend has this theory that every few years, half of your dreams die. People give up on their dreams because they realize that they can no longer achieve them.

I disagree. As I grow older, I have more dreams. I now know many things that I didn’t know before, and I have access to more resources than I ever did. This allows me to do things that I used to think of as impossible.

During a reinforcement learning course in college, I learned about empowerment maximization. It’s a simple principle that enables robots/agents to exhibit relatively intelligent behavior. In the face of uncertainty, an agent following empowerment maximization would choose the action that maximizes future options. For example, facing multiple switches, it’d choose the switch that opens the most doors.

I realized that this is the same principle that I’ve followed. In the face of uncertainty, I lean towards the decision that would give me the most future options. For example, I’d choose a job that pays less but gives me more job options in the future (e.g. if the job gives me exposure like allowing me to work on open source or publish papers). I’d prioritize tasks that teach me transferable skills instead of tasks that teach me niche, narrow skills.

Perhaps I can measure my growth by how many new options I have gained/lost. What options are available to me today that were not available to me 5 years ago? What options were available to me 5 years ago that aren’t available to me now? More importantly, what options that are not available to me today do I want 5 years from now?

Sami pointed me to this image from Wait But Why. As time goes by, many doors are closed to us, but many new doors open up. Denys’s friend was referring to the black lines on the left, and I focus on the green lines on the right.

Generative AI Stack


There are three heuristics that I follow for personal growth:

  1. I try to become a new person every 3-6 years.
  2. I try to solve big problems as fast as possible. I think of this as creating safety nets that allow me to take bigger risks and explore more things in the future.
  3. I take actions that help me maximize future options.

These heuristics work for me (so far) because I have a strong bias towards novelty and exploration. Maybe one day, I’ll get tired of exploration, and these heuristics will change. When that happens, that’ll be growth.