Anne-Laure Le Cunff is one of the best in the business when it comes to churning out valuable content, trying new things, and staying human while she does it. I had the immense pleasure of picking her very brilliant brain. I hope you find as much value here as I did.
When I got the job at Google, it was almost as if my mom did too. As an immigrant who started very, very poor, it meant her daughter had made it in life. So, it was really hard for her when I left.
I was doing really well, I had a really great team, I worked very decent hours. I had nothing to complain about. But I got to a point where I could see very clearly the path in front of me, step by step. And that, in a weird way, made me feel super depressed.
So, I left to start my own thing. That year, I was so stressed. I felt like I needed to succeed so that my mom would see that it was fine. But my startup failed.
I could have gone back to work for some other company, it probably would have made people around me feel better about my situation. But I wouldn't have been happy. I had this deep feeling that this was actually what's good for me, so I kept going.
The more confident I became with my decision the more chill my mom was. And since I’m still not homeless, I think she’s definitely come around.
Ness Labs started as a tiny newsletter in Summer, 2019. The community launched at the beginning of the pandemic in March, 2020. I wanted to offer a space where people could connect, learn together, and hopefully make friends who like to geek out about the same topics. (Check out her AMA for a more in-depth look at how she made this happen)
Consistency trumps strategy.
In 2019, I decided to write 100 articles in 100 days (minus the weekends - because I care about my mental health). I wanted to challenge myself to write more and to practice writing in English. And, I wanted to start from scratch and really learn in public.
I’ve been a big believer in “learning in public” for a while now, but I noticed most people actually learn quite a bit on their own before publicly sharing their process. And I wanted to actually start at zero and really be vulnerable about my journey.
I shared my goal on social media and people started following my journey because they thought it was crazy. If I’d committed to an article a week, no one would have cared. But one a day for a hundred days was worth following.
Once I announced it, there was no going back.
I blocked out two hours every morning and wrote. At the end of that two hours, even if I knew it wasn’t perfect, even if I knew it wasn’t the best I could do - I had to hit publish. The average length of my articles was around 880 words, with the longest being 2010 words and the shortest being 310 words.
At the time, I was also doing freelance consulting so I had clients waiting on me. The tight deadline I made for myself acted as a forcing mechanism. Sometimes those kinds of constraints can breed creativity, and that’s what happened for me.
I had no idea what I was doing, but I realized through this practice that consistency beats strategy. I kept going.
Though some of the articles I wrote during that challenge make me cringe because they're so badly written, I think that’s a good thing. If I was looking back at them and feeling that they were good enough, it would mean that I made no progress.
Learning in public in this way changed who I was as a person. Now, I’m comfortable making mistakes in public. Or trying to improve in public.
And Ness labs absolutely would not be what it is today without those articles. They laid the foundation for what Ness Labs is, and they generated hundreds of thousands of views, a dozen consulting contracts, and many coaching sessions to people randomly finding me through one of the articles. In terms of exposure, I have been invited to several podcasts and some articles were featured in the press.
Every time I’ve failed to keep a commitment to myself it’s been because I was pursuing too many goals at the same time. I find that if I choose one goal that I deeply, deeply care about and I don’t add unnecessary noise by adding other priorities, that I almost always keep my commitment to myself and reach my goal.
For me, 90 percent of the work is just getting clear on what my priority is.
Then the other ten percent is making space for it. It’s immensely helpful to actually block time out to pursue your number one priority. If you just try to make time for it throughout the day, you’ll add extra (unnecessary) cognitive load.
When I notice that I've been sitting in front of my laptop for a while and doing nothing or just browsing the internet and it feels like I’m working but I’m actually not, I just say to myself, like, “Okay, let’s reset everything.”
Then I get up, make myself some tea, and I come back to my desk and commit to doing a task for ten minutes. That’s it. I find that making a cup of tea is the little break I need and committing to just ten minutes is almost always doable. It gets me back in the flow.
I’m going to start a PhD program next month. There was a time in my life where I would have definitely thought it was already too late for that. But now I’m like, you know, I’m still alive. I’m here. There’s literally nothing preventing me from pursuing this thing I’m curious and passionate about. If it’s going to drive me forward and feed my curiosity, there is no reason I shouldn’t go for it.
It’s actually really sad when I look back at things I didn't do when I was younger, because I thought I was “too late”. In my early twenties, I wanted to start a Youtube channel but I thought I was too late. This year, at 31, I’ve started a channel and it’s a lot of fun.
I still sometimes struggle with “time anxiety” - this fear that I’m too late or this isn’t enough time or I’m not using my time as wisely as I could be. But time is a social construct, and as long as you’re alive, there is literally no reason not to try something new, if that’s where your ambition is.
I manage my time anxiety a couple of ways. First, I just let myself feel it. Time is always moving forward and that can feel scary and stressful. And that’s okay. I acknowledge my feelings, but I don’t let them stop me.
The other thing is, I stopped focusing on output (like getting a certain number of subscribers) and instead focus on input, like writing my first blog post or learning the first few words of a language.
It may seem paradoxical, but by trying to over-optimize our lives and only spend time on things that are sure to give us a certain amount of value, we actually end up reducing the value and meaning in our lives.
To avoid living on autopilot I try to take pieces of my routine and turn them instead into rituals. In this way, I create more presence and meaning in my life.
Right now, I’m really enjoying reading as a ritual. I used to just grab a book, read a couple of pages, and go to bed. But now I really try to make space for it and truly enjoy it. I’ve also started to read more fiction because non-fiction makes me feel like I’m still working. Fiction helps me disconnect from work and allows me to really be present with and enjoy what I’m reading.
Another thing that’s helped me move from routine to ritual is that starting last year, I’ve followed a strict rule of no electronic devices in my bedroom. It’s probably one of the simplest and best lifestyle changes I’ve made. It sounds obvious but not having devices in my room makes me sleep earlier, and better. I wake up with more energy and I’m more productive and creative.
First of all, I’m actually very afraid, all the time. But I guess that’s what being brave is. Being afraid, but still going for the things you believe in. I think I get that from my parents. An example is how they got married at Burning Man more than thirty years after they started dating, despite never having been there before.
My mom doesn’t have a formal education but whenever she saw someone doing something interesting, she’d be like, if they can do it, why can’t I? And my dad had a job where he traveled to some pretty dangerous places to help design airports. He almost died several times but he kept going back. He kept traveling and going to these places because he wanted - and still wants - to live life to the fullest.
My goal is to use science to empower everyone to make the most of their minds, whether it is through self-education, creative projects, or community-based learning. I want Ness Labs to become the go-to destination for curious, entrepreneurial explorers who want to achieve more without sacrificing their mental health. Hopefully being an entrepreneur and conducting research at the intersection of neuroscience and education will help me with this mission!
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