katie zhu

katie zhu is a product manager and engineer at Medium, where she focuses on publications and content growth. Previously, she worked on the interactive news team at The New York Times, the news applications team at NPR, and the product team at GOOD. She cares about media and technology's ability to strengthen connections among individuals and better the world around us. katie lives in San Francisco and spends her evenings trying to channel her inner Beyoncé.

Published Thoughts

rational satisfaction

“This will do.”

I have a lot of stuff. I’ve also been labeled a “packing mouse” by my mom. She means packrat.

There are purchases made purely out of necessity—the kind of buying that’s like, shit my period is tomorrow and I am all out of tampons. I buy some things just because—that delicious pink mimosa candle smells too good to pass up, or a cute dress that’s on sale and makes my legs look skinnier. And then there are what I call my “maybe someday” purchases. Just in case. Maybe someday in the future, I’ll find myself in desperate need of this one thing and cannot realize my deepest goals without said thing. This last kind of buying—purchases made as some expression of my aspirations, a manifestation of my “someday” identity—is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently.

I buy sketchbooks in the hopes that someday I might become an artist; I buy new books with the far off idea that if only I learned more about X, then I could finally do Y. Or I buy endless new notebooks, each time hoping they’ll magically inspire me to become a more consistent journal-er. I buy countless pens and markers, convincing myself that I need such a wide assortment of writing tools and stationary supplies at my disposal before I can create anything of value.

As you might imagine, it’s a bit crippling.

Which brings me to my pen of choice—the unassuming yet reliable, basic yet versatile MUJI pen. My preference is the 0.38mm thickness.

MUJI is a no-brand brand, a minimalist Japanese retailer. Digging deeper into their mission and origin, I found this excerpt to be particularly resonant:

MUJI was founded in Japan in 1980 as an antithesis to the habits of consumer society at that time. On one hand, foreign-made luxury brands were gaining popularity within an economic environment of ever-rising prosperity. On the other, poor-quality, low-priced goods were appearing on the market, and had a polarizing effect on consumption patterns. MUJI was conceived as a critique of this prevailing condition, with the purpose of restoring a vision of products that are actually useful for the customer and maintain an ideal of the proper balance between living and the objects that make it possible. The concept was born of the intersection of two distinct stances: no brand (Mujirushi) and the value of good items (ryohin). MUJI began with three steps: selecting materials, scrutinizing processes, and simplifying packaging. MUJI’s concept of emphasizing the intrinsic appeal of an object through rationalization and meticulous elimination of excess is closely connected to the traditionally Japanese aesthetic of “su” — meaning plain or unadorned — the idea that simplicity is not merely modest or frugal, but could possibly be more appealing than luxury.

I have a deep love and commitment to MUJI. Everything I’ve bought from their store (they make more than just pens) has been high quality, durable, and extremely functional. Also, Ira Glass uses MUJI, and here’s his testimonial: “Lately we’ve been buying Muji notebooks and .38 Muji gel ink pens at the office for this purpose. They’re pleasant to touch and make the world seem like an orderly place.” So you should obviously be sold, because if it’s good enough for Ira, then it damn well should be good enough for anyone else.

Anyway, deep love. I read through their origin story, and their characterization of appealing to a rational satisfaction in their customers resonated deeply with me:

This is because we do not make objects to entice responses of strong affinity, like, “This is what I really want” or, “I must have this.” MUJI’s goal is to give customers a rational satisfaction, expressed not with, “This is what I really want” but with “This will do.” “This is what I really want” expresses both faint egoism and discord, while “This will do” expresses conciliatory reasoning. In fact, it may even incorporate resignation and a little dissatisfaction. MUJI’s goal is to sweep away that slight dissatisfaction, and raise the level of the response, “This will do” to one filled with clarity and confidence.

This will do.

The MUJI philosophy runs directly counter to so much of American consumerism, prioritizing “This will do" even over things that we really want. To be clear, it's a mentality I'm full well caught up in. Part of my consumption behavior is tied to me falsely or over-ascribing my hopes and aspirations to material things—I recognize this dependency is not rational, and leads down a path to becoming the very opposite of satisfied.

In 2016, I will strive for a consciousness towards rational satisfaction, learning to be content with something that does the job and not getting caught up in the spiral of things I *think* I really want. To not lose myself in the tide of maximization of material goods, continuing to buy more things or naively tricking myself into thinking they’ll let me take a step closer to some future imagined successful version of myself who is living her dreams. It’s a dangerous loop. Because I’ll continue to never actually feel satisfied, I will continue to want more things, when really—what I have will do.

And I should just put my head down and get to the work I dream of future katie doing, and just go after aspirations with what I’ve got—rather than making excuses.

One night at dinner, my mom asked me to finish my vegetables.

“You don’t know me. You don’t know my path,” I said solemnly.

Her eyes widened.

“What do you mean I don’t know you? I raised you.”

Not to be dissuaded, I repeated, “You don’t know my path.”

My mom furrowed her eyebrows at her four year old daughter. I continued poking earnestly at my broccoli.

I kept muttering "you don't know my path" under my breath over and over. Finally my mom burst out laughing.

"I see you liked the Pocahontas movie," she said, smiling at her stubborn daughter.

To this day, my mom loves to tell that story whenever I see her.


Whenever I feel like I have no idea what I'm doing (which is often), I think back to Pocahontas being guided by the spinning arrow in her dream, torn between wanting to find her own path and the life her father wants for her.

Even though I don't have a Grandmother Willow to guide me, I still have the capacity to make my own decisions and not simply do things because I feel obligated, or because I feel it's expected by someone else. We make our own paths.

Back in college, I studied both journalism and computer science. Earlier this year, I took on a product management role in addition to engineering. I guess I’m into straddling the lines and combining different perspectives, disciplines and experiences. I am still working to balance the two, whatever “balance” may mean. I’m often asked, “What is your actual plan?” I get it, people are curious, and this question actually causes me a great deal of inner tension. Because I really don’t know. But I feel compelled to give people a better answer than ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, so I usually ramble on about how I fell from one into the other, rationalizing my every decision and interest, closely monitoring the asker’s facial expressions to reaffirm that my story makes sense. It’s exhausting.

I don't have a grand scheme, a master plan, besides simply taking one step at a time and focusing on outcomes. Because the work is what matters, not some arbitrary designation of title or boxes I put myself in. By focusing on tangible, objective outcomes that are not pegged to other people's perceptions, I can continue to channel my inner Pocahontas and chart my own course.

You don't know my path.

And frankly, neither do I.

Yet.

the rothko chapel and creating spaces of intentionality

Welcome, everyone, to the Rothko Chapel. This is a sacred space for all. We invite you to unplug from technology while you are here. Quiet your phone. Let your emails wait. Turn off your camera. Snack later. Allow yourself to be completely present, a few steps back from our treasured works of art. The experience is in the silence.

A few weeks ago, I visited Houston and spent some time at the Rothko Chapel. I always try to visit some museum, art gallery or some place of cultural significance whenever I visit a new city.

The Rothko Chapel is named for Mark Rothko, one of the great artists of the twentieth century who played a prominent role in New York’s Abstract Expressionist movement. Rothko was commissioned by Dominique and John de Menil to create a meditative space filled with his paintings — an opportunity to shape and control a total environment for his work. He created a group of fourteen paintings specifically for this space.

I turned my phone off, put it away and entered the chapel. It’s a small space, an octagonal brick building with gray stucco walls. Large black and dark color-hued canvases of Rothko paintings adorn the walls. I sat on one of the eight benches towards the back, taking in the silence, enjoying the uninterrupted time to focus on my own thoughts. I opened my notebook and started journaling. My mind wandered back to the sign greeting you before entering. This is a sacred space. A space where the rules of engagement were made perfectly clear upfront, and by choosing to enter the chapel, I was committing to upholding their rules.

The Rothko Chapel is a space of intention. It’s a physically enclosed space, but open to everyone and anyone, of any faith or none. Visitors come with a purpose of their own, but the chapel also imposes a set of behavioral expectations on its visitors. It was refreshing, a welcome break from the overload of information I normally experience in a day. A small place to catch my breath, chill with myself and just let my mind wander, completely free of any sense of obligation.

I’ve long been intrigued by the art of physical space, and how the specificities of an environment affects our mood, behavior, and emotions. My space needs to reflect the nature of my work; I can never be productive in bed. I want a large table to sprawl my paper, notebooks, and other analog materials endlessly over if I’m trying to work through a high level, abstract problem. If I have a specific task I need to get done, I sit at my desk in my office — my space for focused thought and execution on my computer. But if I’m looking for some inspiration, I’ll park in a coffee shop and soak up the ambient sounds, observe the way people conduct themselves, eavesdrop on conversations, and just take in the space.

Rothko Chapel was created as a sacred space. A space that emphasizes silence, a space for people to be completely present. Enclosed, but open to everyone. A space to bring people together. It was so refreshing to sit in that chapel and have a breath of fresh air from being inundated with information. How do we translate a similar notion to the web? As creators of digital spaces, we can we be more intentional about the behaviors and experience we want people to walk away from our products with?

If you consider the sort of spaces we’ve built on the internet, by and large, it’s not a great look.

We have far too many spaces where marginalized people do not feel safe, are subject to harassment and obscene threats. Our current social platforms are all about publicness and broadcast. It’s about competing for attention and eyeballs and clicks, saturating people with things demanding their attention. Nothing is sacred.

If we impose some rules, some constraints from the beginning, can we help create social norms rather than letting conventions evolve wholly organically?

Space informs a particular posture, to borrow a concept from Matt Thompson and Robin Sloan. There’s a spectra of posture to think about when you consider how you want to fit into people’s lives. What’s the posture in which you want someone to consume something? Is it lean forward or lean back? Stand up and walk around? Curl up or scrunch forward?

Consider a movie theater. Dark room, surrounded by Dolby 5.0 sound, sitting upright facing the front. The very act of facing forward creates a distinct form for how we receive storytelling.

We’re constantly chasing what posture an audience is in, trying to reach them at the best moments and push relevant information to them. What about the opposite dynamic— where we create an intentional space, meant for a specific posture (which encompasses everything from mood to time of day, from weather to a person’s physical state), and simply let people come to the space on their own terms? And make these intentions very clear upfront, so people can judge for themselves whether they’re in or willing to get themselves into the right frame of mind to enter.

Let’s bring some of the intentionality of Rothko Chapel—an experience rooted in silence and being completely present—to the spaces we build and create on the web.

what journalism can learn from rap

If there’s one thing journalism can learn from rap, it’s that everything was better in the ‘90s.

The golden age of hip hop was characterized by the diversity, quality, innovation, and influence of the artists that emerged in that time. Names we still talk about today — Eric B. & Rakim, Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, the list goes on.

For journalism, the ‘90s were a simpler time. A time before the internet disrupted the entire industry, back when legacy advertising business models still worked, a time when media organizations were the primary source of news for most Americans.

Rap has always been interesting to me because it draws on so many genres to create something stunningly unique. This isn’t unlike what we’ve seen in journalism in recent years — look at the influence of fields like statistics and computer science in creating new disciplines of data journalism, editorial applications and tools, and computer-assisted reporting.

Rap can be poetic — full of word play, metaphors and snark. But at its purest, rap is the most powerful storytelling. The art form has provided a medium for those underrepresented in mainstream media to shed light on their neighborhoods, their communities, their story. “Our art is a reflection of our reality,” says O’Shea Jackson Jr. in the recent NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton.

“I’m living everyday like a hustle / Another drug to juggle, another day, another struggle” — Biggie Smalls, “Everyday Struggle”

Let’s consider rap on the axes of content and flow — each with valuable takeaways for journalism.

content

Sampling is okay.

It’s aggregation, and while that’s no substitute for creation, assembling different pieces of content and creating something where the whole is other than the sum of its parts can be compelling in its own right.

Listicles are the autotune of news.

It was kind of cool for a while, but we’re over it and let’s be real. You’re using the format to hide shitty content. I don’t really care about the 19 things I should know if I was born in the ‘90s.

We need better remixes.

The idea of “the scoop” in journalism kind of died with the rise of realtime platforms like Twitter. We should also kill the practice of dismissing stories just because they’ve “already been done.” That’s not an excuse to automatically shy away from covering something — rather, it’s an opportunity for remixing and innovation. Take the story of Brooklyn’s gentrification as an example. Not a new story. Pretty much old news at this point. But a couple summers ago, The New York Times remixed this story and told it through the lens of hip-hop:

“The mean streets of the borough that rappers like the Notorious B.I.G. crowed about are now hipster havens, where cupcakes and organic kale rule.”

Bring on the guest appearances.

Collaboration breeds greatness. HOV killed it on Ye’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix),” dropping one of his most quoted verses: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!” See also: Watch The Throne, What A Time To Be Alive, A$AP Mob.

We’ve seen guest appearances in journalism as well, and it’s produced some amazing work. Take the NSA encryption story that broke in August 2013, which brought The Guardian, The New York Times and ProPublica together on a groundbreaking story. Or think back to the 2011 WikiLeaks story, where The Guardian and The Times teamed up on the investigation and coverage.

flow

There’s metrical structure to rap verses. Each artist has a distinct flow — their command of rhythm and rhyme — which sets the tone and style for each song.

“I’m just a Chi-town nigga with a Nas flow”
 — Kanye West, “Dark Fantasy”

Similarly, every journalist has a unique voice. This bubbles up to the organizational level, so when people talk about “Timesian style,” there’s a general understanding of what that means. Mr. Obama. Mr. West. Mrs. Carter. The Times’s flow is markedly more uptight than say, The Awl.

Flow in rap and voice in journalism serve analogous roles. I’ve always been fascinated by the diversity in rap styles — from Biggie’s bounce-rhythm between bars to Twista’s ridiculously fast rhymes, from Jay-Z’s cool flow to ODB’s raw aggression. Each rapper owns their style, and publications should be more assertive about developing and owning their voice.

stray thoughts

Local is about celebrating place and integrating a native, authentic voice into the work itself. Our news outlets rep our cities just like rappers rep their cities. How can we embrace the flavor, voice and feel of our geographies and cultures in our content? I was running through the six with my woes…

We’re all familiar with the East Coast — West Coast hip-hop rivalry. But the media industry also has its own Biggie vs. 2Pac feud brewing. New York is arguably the media capital of the world and the East has long been home to most of America’s renowned publications. They own finance and politics. California is both the technological forefront and entertainment epicenter, industries that also substantially impact America’s cultural fabric. Vox Media acquired Re/Code, based in the Bay Area, and Buzzfeed also opened up a San Francisco office. Will we see the rise of a West Coast media capital with enough momentum to displace New York?

We need more feuds in journalism — minus the bloodshed. Competition is good, it prevents publications from stagnation and keeps things fresh.


if rappers were publications…

Gratuitous autotuning for your enjoyment.

  1. Kanye West is The New York Times: Critically acclaimed, and even though people like to shit on him, he really does do good work.
  2. Jay-Z is the Wall Street Journal: Basically hasn’t changed for the last 10 years. All content is behind a paywall. “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!”
  3. T-Pain is Buzzfeed: A repetoire full of club hits, but there’s actually some substance under all that autotune.
  4. Common is NPR: Socially conscious with cultural impact, especially among youths. All about engagement.
  5. The Game is The Washington Post: A major player on the national stage, but all about reppin’ his city. Old school.
  6. Kendrick is Quartz: Excellent newcomer a couple years ago that had everybody talking, but less buzzed about these days.
  7. Fetty Wap is The Awl: Strong following and earned respect by doing things their own way. Too cool to show up for awards. Hint of indie, but actually more of serious operation than you might think. Cranks out hit single after hit single, all the while making asymmetry look dope.
  8. J. Cole is Fusion: Backed by big corporations (Disney, Roc Nation), but appealing to a young, diverse, and inclusive audience. Doesn't shy away from addressing racial stereotypes and owning the dialogue in that space.
  9. Macklemore is the Seattle Times: Seattle about sums it up.

This post was inspired by a session I ran with my friend Trei at News Foo a couple years ago. I'm very timely. Also thanks to Rebekah, Marie, Ryan and everyone else who came, chilled, and listened to hip hop.

Taking Back Expectations

My sister and I have always been very close.

As kids, we pursued a host of entrepreneurial ventures: bike washing, because car washes were too mainstream and we were too small; rock polishing, which, to our great surprise, turned out to not be very lucrative; and an indie apple stand, where we exclusively sold Granny Smiths and discovered “sour tooth” isn’t really a thing. We didn’t limit our creativity to business either — after discovering our parents’ old typewriter, we spent two years working on a novel about the adventures of our stuffed animals. I wrote it and Nicole illustrated. Print date still to be announced.

This all goes to say that my sister and I have always been tight. Partners in crime. But I was unintentionally limiting the dynamic of our relationship with this preconceived notion of playing the “big sister,” always feeling the need to be the leader, compelled to project this aura of success and provide a shining star example of how to succeed.

A lot of this was self-imposed, and my sister fed into it. She’d always compare her performance to mine — academic, physical, emotional. I cast far too much of my shadow over her, and in trying endlessly to succeed (for her, I told myself, but the truth was more selfish than I’d care to admit), I eclipsed her personality with mine.

This compulsive need to over-assert myself, to display benchmarks of success, to prove my worth, stemmed from a place of deep vulnerability and self-doubt. And it manifested acutely in my relationship with Nicole. I’ve always found it hardest to be vulnerable with those who are closest to you. There was a limit to the realness I showed my sister.

She looked up to me, but I think what she didn’t realize was how much she was actually holding me up. Her validation, admiration, and unwavering support was something I needed, because I never fully believed in myself or my ability to succeed.

I spent a lot of time overcompensating for everything. Nothing ever felt like enough. I was never smart enough, never talented enough. Never pretty enough. Never skinny enough. Just never enough.

That was the wrong framing. It shouldn’t be about qualifying “enough,” because this idea of enough is inherently tied to your perceptions of those around you and comparisons to others. It should just be about yourself.

By always thinking in terms of “enough,” I stopped focusing on what my own internal bar for excellence looked like. I calculated everything outwardly based on what I thought others would think, and this drove me to lose control.

One summer weekend in college, I had my sister over to visit and spend a night with me. I was a sophomore, and my sister was a junior in high school. We went to a house party, and drank an appropriate amount of PBR to survive a hot summer night in Evanston. I started talking to a boy, which was fine. He was nice, I was vaguely interested.

But I soon left to take my sister home, and on our walk back, we had some Real Talk. She told me how unfair she thought I had it and that she felt she couldn’t measure up. She also pointed out how I was, in her eyes, skinny, attractive and could “get boys.” How she thought I did everything in high school — kept good grades, played sports, did extracurriculars and got into a good school. Now in college, all she saw were the times I made the Dean’s List, the internships I told her I landed, my close-knit circle of friends, boys hitting on me at parties… By all her external checkboxes, she counted me as successful.

I realized then I had done her a great disservice by selectively sharing only my accomplishments, and none of my failures or struggles. For every quarter I made the Dean’s List, there was one where I hadn’t. For every internship offer, there were miserable failures on technical interviews that made me think I never deserved to call myself a programmer ever again. Sure, I had found a great group of friends in college, but that was after enduring two years of intense bullying in high school where my “friends” pantsed me in the middle of the cafeteria, stole my iPod and then returned it to me (broken, may I add) months later, and drew cartoons of a blobby fat monster they named Fatie. The monster also had its own theme song. “Fatie fatie fatie, we made you out of lard…”

I finally opened up to Nicole about all of this. I told her how paralyzing my computer science classes were, and about shitty boys who had used me in the past. I detailed how grossly incompetent I felt on a daily basis. And I told her that somewhere in the middle of my junior year of high school, I learned how to make myself throw up.

I explained to her how every time I have a meal, it’s an intense battle with myself to not overeat. Because every time I feel even slightly stuffed, I think the only reasonable course of action is to shove my fingers to the back of my throat. It’s a concerted effort to talk myself out of this plan, to remind myself of the actual truths — that I’ll be fucking my body up in the long run, and having a bit of a food baby for the next couple hours will be okay.

Being vulnerable is really hard. It’s so easy to get caught up in the public personas of others, to only see the carefully edited Instagrams, the meticulously crafted Facebook posts and celebratory tweets. Realness gets lost. Even in close personal relationships – my sister is my best friend — it can be so scary and impossible to admit your faults out loud. But having done so, it only strengthened our relationship. I can be my full self, and not edit my life events to meet some barometer success before sharing them.

Embrace vulnerabilities as a means of accepting yourself and putting your true self out there.

See it as a way to take back expectations, and challenge any preconceived notions that you’ve tacitly accepted. To be vulnerable with someone is the most sincere form of trust — don’t cheat relationships.

Put the most raw, unfiltered version of yourself out there.

Not just for you, but also for the person you’re sharing yourself with, being honest does them a favor – especially if you’re in a situation where they’re looking up to you in some way.

It’s tempting to curate a narrative of yourself according to wins and other yardsticks of varying achievements, but we should strive to be more real and wholly representative of our experiences, disregarding the feelings of trying to be good enough in the eyes of someone else, and just be.

Connections are forged over real vulnerabilities, and these help make us better, stronger, and lift us up.

Being vulnerable opens up the possibilities for others to surprise you, to create moments of serendipity, to forge or strengthen relationships. I learned it’s not all about me, and we all need to rely on others — especially those who we feel might rely on us in some way.

My experience with my sister has reversed my idea of what it means to be the big sister, and our dynamic has changed for the better now that I’ve abandoned this pretense of being on some pedestal. At the end of the day, it’s no one else’s fault but mine for buying into that.

I’m trying to no longer run from those moments when I feel overexposed, and instead be the most honest version of myself, even if it means owning up to failures and letting insecurities creep through.

So. Tell me something about yourself.


I couldn't have written this without the amazing support and feedback from Nicole, Jacob, Winnie, and Grant. ❤