As part of the @Stanford project that culminated with the Stanford 2025 event, I re-imagined my life journey in a looping rather than a linear structure. The diagrams in this post became part of the Stanford 2025 exhibit, explaining and supplementing the looping mechanism behind the Open Loop University concept. From a very low-resolution hand-drawn prototype, I crafted the higher-resolution digital version below. The black-and-white diagram differentiates between projects that take me further away from Stanford and deeper into the institution. The diagram also differentiates between projects and classes I participated in and those I helped co-create.
Three key patterns emerge from this diagram. First, the frequency of co-creation increases over time. Second, until 2014, the loops more or less alternate between taking me out of and into Stanford. Third, in 2014, multiple different loops literally pull me in two separate directions. This point of pulling apart visually shows how unsustainable and dangerous my position became, requiring me to decide on a new course of action. The need for a decision to resolve the tension between the loops naturally arose when I received offers as much to stay at Stanford as to leave.
I needed to extract more meaning from this diagram, and I did so by color-coding the loops. I chose to code the loops in the same way that I color-coded my resume: orange for engineering; light blue for education; drab for business; white for arts, letters, and humanities. The color-coding forced me to introduce another design element: splitting the central stream/backbone. Like prism splitting light, different projects and occurrences in my life now began splitting the black backbone into the differently-colored looping strands. Sitting in Prof. Melosh’s ENGR 50: Introduction to Materials Science and Engineering lectures split my attention into engineering on one hand and humanities/arts on the other. After multiple cases of divergence, working at Khosla Ventures re-integrated my narrative. Working in venture capital also introduced the last color-coded loops in the form of business.
So what unique value does the color coding add? The colors allow us to notice moments that split our path and moments that re-integrated it. In this sense, the colors also provide us with the overall goal: to be whole in our central narrative. After my experience at Khosla Ventures, all I wanted was to find that same feeling of utilizing all of myself to do the work at hand. The idea is simple: if you are going to work at something, show up. And show up not just with your brain…show up with your body…show up with your heart…show up with all that you are. Bring to bear all that you are, so that you are whole and do not have to choose between which part of you shows up to which time of your day. I started seeking that state of being and feeling. I wanted to work on projects that accept and even require me to be all that I am, exactly who I am. It is a work in progress, but I believe that I have found it in researching and prototyping the future of education here at Stanford.
As an engineer and educator, I wanted to see how far I could develop this concept of looping. To that end, I came up with some basic vocabulary and theory for discussing and dissecting the loops themselves. Below, I show in greater detail how I think about the loops themselves.
The bottom-right diagram serves as the catalyst for the next evolution of my thinking. The more I kept drawing loops, the more I realized that they are not inherently two-dimensional. When we view three-dimensional spirals from a particular angle, we end up seeing a backbone with loops emanating from and returning back to it. Of course, these loops exist in three dimensions, but our vision can play tricks on us. The spirals allowed me to lend the loops a sense of progression (upward) and expansion (outward); they also allowed me to pull re-arrange the points along different loops into a single sequence. In other words, I can use the spirals to visualize key themes in my color-coded loop map and make sense of how a theme such as entrepreneurship developed through time. Apart from entrepreneurship, I tested this with my involvement in Prof. Salleo’s MATSCI 204: Thermodynamics and Phase Equilibria course, which we transformed from an offline to a blended learning experience.
The resulting diagrams show two critical features that the loop maps did not express as explicitly. First, while the loops only show my growth through projects, the spirals can additionally show my growth through the roles I played in those projects. Second, the spirals highlight less the projects that keep us in a loop and more the catalyzers that literally take us to the next level. The next level is not only higher, but also more expansive. These two qualities ensure that every loop takes us further away to explore around, but never lose sight of the central axis.
Poignant to this idea of literally elevating one’s endeavor through upward-catalyzed loops is that we can also re-define what being stuck feels and looks like. In a very linear sense, being stuck implies that one is either stuck in a rut and cannot change direction or faced with an obstacle and cannot continue along that direction. I illustrate this concept with a person, who might evolve from a student in some class to a course assistant and eventually to a teaching assistant.
Now, the teaching assistant can improve as a teaching assistant, but there is no clear career-benefiting upward catalyzer. The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) at Stanford offers a fantastic program called Mentors in Teaching (MinT) that definitely represents one option for upward catalysis. How career-benefiting and culturally-encouraged is pursuing that particular catalyst in light of research and other duties is probably unclear to many graduate students who are embroiled in their research. Those who care about teaching definitely seize the opportunity, which overall enhances the teaching experience for many other teaching assistants. For those teaching assistants who remain in their same loop, being stuck does not imply a lack of motion – being stuck implies a lack of elevation. As the diagram below shows, one can continue to loop endlessly – literally moving around in circles! – without ever rising above that current experience.
The question then becomes: what if you never get stuck? Do the loops keep rising and expanding endlessly? I do not think so. To test my intuition, I looked at one of the highly evolved themes in my life: teaching. As I began tracing the spiral for my history as a teacher/educator, I found that the spiral kept expanding until a certain point and then began narrowing again. The reason is that organically or strategically, I seized opportunities to re-visit roles I lived through in the past. The second time around, I came into the experience with a better understanding of what I was looking for. By that time, I will have probably processed and extracted new meaning not just from the previous instance of that role, but also from my other past roles, bringing to bear a richer history than before. In this way, I saw myself revisiting the same roles in similar environments, but with a radically different viewpoint and intention. A rather intriguing symmetry across the spiral emerges as a result of this exercise. I did not pursue these opportunities in that particular order consciously, but they allowed to explore the entire space around the central theme.
The loops and spirals have provided me with a new visual tool for understanding as well as communicating different aspects of my life. More importantly, the spirals emphasize for me that providing clear catalyzers for upward motion represents an optimal way to literally rise above our current situation. I believe that this is exactly what sophisticated investors and well-matched mentors do – they encourage a new way of thinking, feeling, and/or living through our present predicaments. Finally, the loops give us a simple yet powerful method for visualizing and comprehending the forces (pulls) acting on us in our lives right now. In the end, I look forward to exploring these tools further because I trust them to be beneficial for us as much for story-telling as for story-crafting.