The Looking Glass: The Year of Everyday Risks

Aliveness, dullness and taking career risks

Julie Zhuo
7 min readJan 17, 2024

Dear Readers,

It’s January, and I love Januaries.

I love that they contain the weight of beginnings, solid as a piece of clay or wood.

I love their mystery, that tantalizing promise of dreams — what will the year bring? What hopes and hurts, what majesty and mayhem, what lessons and laments?

January holds in the palm of its hands the loss of the past. It reminds us starkly of another year slipping away into the sands of oblivion, which memory’s sieve can capture but a few grains.

January reminds us that we are still here, against all odds, and beckons toward the infinite paths of the horizon, the zigzagging forks that comprise our future.

We will never be younger than this. We will never have more options than today.

It’s time to choose.

Readers, I wish for all of us a path full of wonder and aliveness.

Thank you for being with me and The Looking Glass.

With great warmth,


In this issue:

  1. Not dead does not mean alive
  2. The year of everyday risks
  3. From the archives: How do you infuse learning into your life?

For paid subscribers:

  1. 5 Everyday Risks to Grow Your Career

For those waiting for Part 2 of Chains of Assumptions — I have not forgotten, and this is forthcoming!

Not dead does not mean alive

I used to think alive was a binary state. As in, the opposite of alive is dead. So if you aren’t dead, you are alive. Presto, bingo!

Many of us — particularly the engineers, scientists, and mathematicians — love this type of precision: 0s and 1s, molecules and atoms, the world boiled down into clean, disparate pieces.

But alive is more than that.

Aliveness is a quality of being. Its opposite is dullness.

Dullness in taste is when food becomes a habit — reaching for a snack when you’re procrastinating; stuffing yourself because you seek comfort; booking fancy reservations because you’re the kind of person that does that.

Dullness in physicality is when your body feels like a dungeon. You complain of the ways it lets you down — the aches, the limitations, the way it sags in the unblinking gaze of the mirror.

Dullness in relationships is obligation. When a work meeting, a family visit, a party invitation feels like something you have to do to prevent some greater chaos.

Dullness in vision is when you gaze out the window and there is nothing beautiful to see; gray clouds or ugly machines, the despair of Mother Nature or the flawed creations of human hands.

Dullness is impatience; dullness is lack. Dullness is the void, devoid of color.

Whereas —

Aliveness is flavor and fluidity, life and loss.

Aliveness is not just joy, but also its polar opposite, sadness. Aliveness is accepting the risk of both.

Aliveness is the subtle boundary between longing and impatience.

Aliveness is risk, not comfort.

Aliveness is the amplitude of emotion.

This year, I am working on living more alive.

The year of everyday risks

How does one live more alive?

The concrete way I will try is taking more risks.

Not Bet the farm on red, or Climb Mt. Everest-type risks, but rather, the everyday ones.

Everyday risks — the small actions that come with a twinge of discomfort.

Because of that twinge of discomfort, I haven’t jumped to do them. And so they continue to remain a notion in my mind, rejected for being too silly, stupid, effortful, fraught, impractical, ego-bruising, exposing. They remain untried.

Everyday risks, like:

…Apologizing when I didn’t want it to be my fault.

…Sharing that raw feedback with my mom.

…Asking a colleague I haven’t seen in years for a favor.

…Saying no when I don’t want to disappoint.

…Spilling the messy truth instead of controlling the narrative.

…Trying on that new outfit I bought on a whim and later worried made me look stupid.

…Calling instead of texting.

…Sitting with the awkward pause.

Everyday risks are not about the action in of itself; they are about the feeling.

Standing in front of a hundred people can seem unbelievably risky one day. Then, you do it 1000 times and you could do it in your sleep. That rough edge of risk gets sanded away.

Sure, others might still say admiringly, “Wow, what a bold, brave thing.”

But you know the truth: if it doesn’t carry a twinge of discomfort, it’s not a risk.

We are the only ones who can judge what is risky to us.

This year, every single day, I want to take an everyday risk.

From the archives: How do you infuse learning into your life?

We are so busy with everyday work, dealing with kids while home and all exhausted to fall asleep before opening a book to read. Curious if you have tips on how to keep learning outside work with a growth mindset.

I was delighted to receive this question because it’s something I think about all the time. Everyone has a different answer for “what gives you the most satisfaction in your work?” but for me learning is pretty much tops. I love the idea that no matter where I go or what I do, whether the waves are gentle or unkind, what I’ve learned stays with me forever. I find it incredibly inspiring that in one year, or five, or ten, I could be a better person than I am today — wiser, more compassionate, more skilled, capable of greater good. But to do that, I must learn. I must understand my blind spots and biases. I must spelunk the caves of the known unknowns as well as try to stumble upon the unknown unknowns.

But the beautiful thing about learning is that there are lessons everywhere if we only look closely. In this way, it’s like practicing gratitude. We humans aren’t great at gratitude because we are wired to see the negative. Sometimes it takes a sudden, momentous event like a near-death experience to jolt us into realizing how much there is to be thankful for every single day. I’m starting to see learning in the same way. Learning doesn’t have to come from the big, momentous things: books, lectures, formal instructions. Learning can come from anywhere. The question is: how attuned are we to picking up those lessons? Here are my three takeaways on how to best continue learning even when life is hectic.

Learning from others

This is the most reliable and frequent source of learning, in my opinion. Everyone has strengths, and no matter who you meet, they all have something they can teach you. One way to look at this is to ask, “What skills or experience does this person have that are stronger than mine?” or “What qualities do I admire about this person?” Note that this is different than asking “Do I admire or like this person?” The answer to the latter can be “No” but you can still take away something from your interactions with them. For example, I learned some of my most valuable lessons in persuasion from someone who I could never be friends with.

There is another hugely valuable learning that you get from others: they can help you better understand and improve yourself through feedback. If there is a secret sauce to self-improvement, it’s this: ask for feedback all the time. The beauty of this tactic is that anybody can do it. It doesn’t cost you any money, and it doesn’t depend on special circumstances. The only hurdle you need to overcome is yourself — can you remember to ask for feedback frequently? Can you be humble and self-aware enough to do so? Can you hear the feedback with an open mind and then incorporate that into your day-to-day? These things aren’t easy, but if you care about learning and approaching things with a growth mindset, getting more feedback is the rocket-ship path to improvement.


Reading is truly one of the greatest sources of learning there is. And today, with better access than ever before thanks to the Internet, we can read to inhabit the shining minds of millions and learn about topics we would never otherwise encounter in our day-to-day.

You don’t have to read just books. You can read articles, magazines, blogs (or watch videos, which isn’t “reading” per se but can fulfill the same purpose.) The key thing is to to be intentional with what you spend time reading (or watching), even if it’s just for 10 minutes a day (this is enough, in my experience, to pick up something useful).

I used to read tons of articles in my social media feed before I realized I usually ended up not remembering anything useful because I was skimming too quickly. Nowadays, I am choosier about which publications and types of articles I read — I’m less worried about being “caught up” and I spend more time with content that I hope will expand my thinking.

I’ve also come to realize that the value from reading doesn’t come from quantity. I used to think it was way better to read twenty books than two. Now, I think what matters most is how much you retain. It’s a shame how many thousands of books I’ve completed that I can’t really tell you very much about. Nowadays, when I come across a book that pushes my thinking, I slow down. I highlight passages and take notes. Even before I’ve finished the book, I’m usually re-reading old passages to try and make sure I’ve internalized the lessons. For this reason, it can take me a long time to finish a book. (Sapiens took me three months; Made to Stick took me over a year.) Last year, I only read a handful of books, but each one had a much greater impact on my worldview.

Deeper learning through reflecting and teaching

Related to the above, in order to better retain the lessons, I spend a lot of time reflecting. I keep journals about what I’ve learned every month. I make lists of “my top lessons on X”. I jot down goals and check in on those goals twice a year. Studies show that writing and reflecting helps you learn more deeply. It’s also well-proven that teaching is an effective learning tool. This is a big reason why I started my blog, and why I continue to write weekly. If writing’s not your thing though, you can also get this benefit through habits like telling a friend or significant other what happened to you the other day that made you realize something new, or explaining to them what you’ve been reading.

5 Everyday Risks to Grow Your Career

Because no one else can tell you what is risky to you, you must do a personal calibration. Ask yourself: which of a) or b) feels riskier to me right now?

Then pick one (or two, or five!) of the below to try over the next month.

Read more



Julie Zhuo

Building Sundial ( Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager. Find me @joulee. I love people, nuance, and systems.