3 Minutes to read
Paul Duan, Founder of NGO Bayes Impact
Learning Inspiration 🌈 #74
Paul Duan is the founder of Base Impact, a nonprofit whose mission is to place technology in the service of the greater good. Paul is first and foremost a committed entrepreneur. His mission is to see how technology can empower people to create the public services they want to see exist (i.e. in the areas of employment, from health care to police violence).
Tell us more about yourself 🙂
I was lucky enough to start as a Data Scientist in Silicon Valley at the age of 19. It was great, but I found there was a real lack of common sense. I was struck by the enormous inequalities. We were in a place where you would find both the most wealth in innovation in the world and these absolutely huge social issues. So, I tried to find a way to address both. I started by handling things separately: during the day, I worked in tech, and at night, I volunteered. At one point, I thought to myself that I really needed to find a way to merge the two. That’s how I created Base Impact.
Who is your major source of inspiration? (Can be more than one)
I think there are good things to gain from many people.
Music composers inspire me a lot, like Chopin and Rachmaninoff who have two different ways of expressing passion. I’ve actually played a lot of piano myself.
In Tech, “tech freaks” like Elon Musk inspire me. It’s not all positive, but the “I don’t care what people think of me” attitude is very inspiring.
On the foundation side, I like Gates’ geek approach to philanthropy.
Cinema producers also inspire me. In cinema, there is a geek side, a tech side, and a side that involves managing personalities, ego, politics, etc.
I don’t necessarily have a role model. I don’t see myself in any particular boxes. I’ve done a lot of things. I don’t have a ready-made identity. I built myself by learning little bits from a lot of different people.
How do you keep learning on a daily basis? What are your learning routines?
I learn a lot on a regular basis and not necessarily from a routine. My main motivation for learning occurs when I hit a ceiling. When that happens, I go above and beyond to learn as much as possible about a given subject.
Professionally, I suddenly had to learn a lot about legalities to build solid contracts. In this case, my main sources of information were books – of course – and many exchanges with legal experts. I believe many would lie to him as a source of learning.
What are your favorite books and why?
Maitre et Marguerite by Gugakof: It’s a story that takes place in the middle of the Soviet era. I really like the surreal side of the book which, at times, delivers political messages.
I’ve read quite a few business books. But in reality, I gain more inspiration from fiction than I do from non-fiction. In non-fiction, I mainly read articles. I tend to find that business books often have a big, important idea, and after that you embroider a lot.
What is your favorite podcast and why?
I really don’t listen to podcasts that much. The only times I listen is when an episode is recommended to me.
Any recent articles you would recommend we read?
“Sexual Eeling,” an article on the long quest to find the sex organs of eels. You should know that it took thousands of years to find their reproductive organs, to the point that it shaped ancient Greek philosophers’ way of thinking (i.e. spontaneous generation). Since they couldn’t find the organs, they figured eels were created by Earth. It shaped thousands of years of philosophy. It also shaped Freud who, before practicing psychology, was a student of biology and had spent hours dissecting hundreds and hundreds of eels to find their reproductive organs. Not managing to find them, he became disgusted with biology. Rumor has it that this frustration influenced his philosophy.
How do you remember what you learn?
First of all, I mainly learn by doing. I analyze what I do a lot and looking back, I can identify what I learned. For example, when I was at Y combinator, I learned a lot of theories on how to launch a startup. I didn’t put them into practice right away but at some point, when I needed them, I remembered them and was able (and by the way, I still do 🙂 ) to put those theories into practice. I also learn through teaching. I often think about what the most effective way would be for me to share what I’ve learned with others.
What would you tell the 18- or 25-year-old version of yourself?
When I was 18, I was at Berkeley in the US, in a new world where anything seemed possible. There was a crazy energy there. I had a lot of freedom. If I could talk to Paul at the time, I would tell him to trust himself. The best advice I can give is to follow your instincts. It’s okay if you don’t see your course laid out in advance. On the contrary, you have to trust that the bricks will eventually fit together.
What is the biggest challenge you had to overcome this year and how did you do it?
My biggest challenge in the last 12 months has been managing my energy. We only realize after the fact what we lose with social distancing. On a daily basis, everything is fine, but there are actually a number of small things that ultimately create a real misalignment. I find it very hard to effectively communicate a vision to a team in this context. Socially, I also find it very complicated to not see yourself with your team.
If you were to stay alone on an island and could only bring one item, what would it be?
A cell phone with a connection would be cool. If there is no internet, I’d bring a Kindle with lots of books. And if we aren’t allowed to play with electronics, I’d bring something like a game of chess, to not get bored.
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