Setting Personal Growth Goals & Feedback-Based Reflection

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a Harvard SICI retreat focused on identifying my strengths, growth areas, and action plans. Over the course of five hours, Kwame Griffith (who is an incredible communicator, coach, and inspirational speaker) led us through a journey of self-reflection, goal-setting, and peer-led feedback. This version of self-reflection was eye-opening for me, so I wanted to briefly share my learnings.

Roadmap:

  • Why and how to set personal growth goals
  • Examples: my own goals set during this session
  • How to solicit and provide useful feedback

Why and how to set personal growth goals

The EEE model of goal-setting (APA) explains that goal setting allows us to

  • Enlighten ourselves: provide meaningful insight into our abilities and weaknesses, help us prioritize goals depending on needs
  • Encourage ourselves: provide motivation and courage to implement the goals and execute plans efficiently
  • Enable ourselves: achieve the balance between our real and ideal self, allowing us to gain self-confidence, social support, and frameworks for evaluating our achievements

SMARTER goals should be:

  • Specific: What, specifically, do you want to achieve? The more detail, the better.
  • Measurable: How will you track progress and know that you’ve achieved the goal?
  • Achievable: Is it possible? What skills do you have, and which ones will you need to obtain?
  • Relevant: How important is the goal to you? Is it relevant to your values and can it get you toward your purpose?
  • Time-bound: When does this need to happen? Why?
  • Evaluated: How did you perform? What can you learn? Reflect on past goals to improve future ones.
  • Rewarded: When and how will you celebrate? Rewards help build sustainable habits.

Examples: my own goals set during this session

During the exercise, I brainstormed four specific areas in which I’d like to improve, specifically in the context of my work with Wave Learning Festival. It’s important to be honest with yourself on which areas you’ve noticed need work, but it’s also good to include areas that you might already feel competent at, but could do better.

By breaking down general goals into specific actions, I know exactly what to do and how to measure success. By visualizing the “win,” I have the motivation to remind myself why these goals are important.

How to solicit and provide useful feedback

Not all feedback is useful. We receive so much feedback in different forms that it can be hard to filter out the noise and focus on the most important, actionable points.

The STAR method for providing feedback:

  • Situation: What is the context for the feedback?
  • Task: What was the task at hand?
  • Action: What did you or the person do to handle the task?
  • Result: What was achieved by the action, or what impact came from the action?

The key insight to breaking down these steps while illustrating feedback is that you can isolate and question specific parts. For example, if a situation had a bad outcome, was it a direct effect of the action taken, or were other factors involved?

Kwame’s 3 recommended questions for performance reviews:

  1. What were X’s greatest contributions, achievements, and impacts over the past year?
  2. Tell me about 2-3 specific times in the last year when you’ve seen X at heir best.
  3. What is the single most important thing for X to get better at in order to be a stronger leader?

But the key to a great review is not just what questions are asked—it’s also how they are asked. Key behaviors from the listener:

  • Repeat what you are hearing to confirm you are receiving the intended message, and not introducing your own assumptions/bias
  • Always ask for more examples and illustrations of abstract concepts (e.g. If X is a great community-builder, “Can you tell me about a couple times X was able to bring people together?”)
  • Make sure you understand the “why” and the “how,” not just the “what”
  • Step back from all the data (perhaps collected from several sources) and identify 2-3 overarching themes to focus on

Though these recommendations were presented in the context of performance reviews for others, they are also an effective framework for framing your own growth and reflections.

I’m excited to try these strategies out this semester and see if I’m able to more clearly understand and implement my personal growth plans!

Dec 2021: A Whirlwind of a Fall Semester

A recap, September – now. And a lil’ video montage of warm moments.

I really loved all my classes this semester.

After being away from school for almost a year, I wanted to take a relatively light course schedule—that way, I’d have time to rediscover how to study and spend time with friends after so much quarantine.

I enrolled in

  • Math 131: Topology (Ana Balibanu)
  • CS 136: Economics & Computation (David Parkes)
  • Phil 34: Existentialism in Literature & Film (Sean Kelly)
  • Gened 1120: Political Economy of Globalization (Larry Summers, Robert Lawrence)
I usually don’t like putting this kind of stuff out there, but this was the first semester I’ve taken college classes that required me to do any sort of writing (aside from mandatory freshman expository writing). I didn’t think I could write at all, so it was a nice surprise to get positive feedback!

The one thing I appreciated most was actually having a course that forced me to read and write regularly. Without consciously

I got to work on really awesome stuff.

  1. I worked with my team at Wave LF to run an awesome semester of free student services and make some major structural upgrades. Check out our semester updates here!
  2. I was one of 16 SICI fellows at Harvard Kennedy School. I’m constantly awed by the impactful work my fellow fellows 🙂 are advancing across the US, Cameroon, Spain, Philippines, India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Slovakia, and more.
  3. I taught probability as a Stat 110 teaching fellow. The role consisted of preparing for and teaching a weekly section, running weekly office hours, and grading homework…which sounds pretty routine, but I had so much fun meeting and working with hundreds of wonderful students.
  4. I helped run Prod, a new Harvard-MIT entrepreneurship group fostering some incredible student startups (most importantly, full of incredibly passionate and interesting people!)
  5. I served as WiCS (women in CS) Community Director. IMO this is the best possible role—my job is literally to help people make friends and have a good time.

I tried new things and had so much fun.

  1. I fell out of a plane (over gorgeous Massachusetts Autumn foliage).


  2. I became a regular at the local Trader Joe’s. Running monthly large WiCS socials meant that I’d often leave TJ with an overflowing cart of cookies, dips, and flowers.
  3. I read poetry with The Advocate.
  4. I wrote college and grad school recommendation letters for 5 students!
  5. I lived out my charcuterie board dreams. I know this is insignificant, but I’ve always wanted to make one, and look how pretty!


  6. I went to Jefe’s too many times. Maybe not *too* many times…each 2am run was a special memory, honest conversation, and delicious nachos shared with friends.
  7. I bought myself flowers. And lots of art books. Harvard Bookstore will be the end of me and my bank account.
  8. I pulled an all-nighter. I think all-nighters are nearly always avoidable, so this one was just a product of poor time management. I also think they’re nearly always undesirable: skipping one night of sleep makes the next day useless and miserable. I’ve learned my lesson, and this will hopefully be the last one of college.

I was lucky to love so hard.

I didn’t think it was possible, but going home this semester was even harder than going home in the spring of 2020. I am endlessly grateful to all the people who welcomed me into their schedules, dorm rooms, and hearts.

A few lessons learned and some open questions.

After more than a year of quarantining at home with family, I was itching to get out into the world again and experience it as fully as possible. I wanted to see all the sights, try all the food, take all the pictures,

Related: 21 lessons learned in 2021 🤪

Lastly, a few new year’s goals:

Split into “resolutions”:

  1. Be active every day. Go outside every day. Hitting 150 bench would also be fun.
  2. Go to bed and wake up early. Out of bed by 9 am latest, every day.
  3. Be truly engaged in every class. Reprioritizing this year—no more wasting time.
  4. No flaking. Have already been working hard on this. But I’ll admit I rescheduled more meetings than I would’ve liked this year…
  5. Do things when I think of them. This includes processing important emails when I see them, instead of letting them accidentally collect dust.
  6. Give my best to everything I take on. It’s either in or out—no half-assing.

And “to-dos”:

  1. Read 24 books. Also, read other cool things more often, like poetry and the news.
  2. Write more often. Essays, stories, and poems are ideal, but journaling counts too.
  3. Improve my singing technique.
  4. Start doing actual skincare. Genetics can only go so far before California sun wins.
  5. Create at least one artwork I can be truly proud of.
  6. Publish at least one interesting technical project.
  7. Learn more about crypto. lmao

Overall, I will strive to live by being honest with myself. When lists of to-dos and to-bes grow too long, it can be hard to keep track of everything. But if I can stick to first principles, other details will follow. With that in mind, I’m excited for 2022 to be a year of learning, loving, and launching!

21 Lessons Learned in 2021

Title inspired by Sahil Bloom, but content of lessons in a different direction:

2021 has given us more plot twists than an episode of HTGAWM. I get whiplash when I remember that all these things happened in the past twelve months (in just the US):

  • January: Biden sworn in, Trump supporters storm the capital
  • February: NASA lands the Perseverance rover on Mars, Cuomo accused of sexual harassment
  • March: Atlanta spa shootings, Boulder shooting, Orange shooting
  • April: Derek Chauvin found guilty, Ma’Khia Bryant killed
  • May: Houston oil pipeline hacked, Colorado Springs shooting, San Jose shooting
  • June: Facebook bans Trump, first Juneteenth celebrated as federal holiday
  • July: Suni Lee wins gold at the Olympics
  • August: US withdraws troops from Afghanistan
  • September: Texas implements the Heartbeat Act, Gavin Newsom recall election in California, SpaceX launches civilian spaceflight, Collierville shooting
  • October: Huntington oil spill, Alec Baldwin accidentally shoots Halyna Hutchins, Facebook rebrands to Meta
  • November: Travis Scott concert incident, Kyle Rittenhouse trial, Jack Dorsey steps down as CEO of Twitter
  • December: Omicron arrives in the US

This list unintentionally became one of notable mass shootings (sorry). In the worst transition known to mankind, let’s accept that it’s been a wild year. Despite nationwide and personal craziness, I’m thankful for the growth it’s given me and the lessons I’ve learned:

  1. Expectation is reality. If your brain can be tricked into experiencing fake pain, your brain can also be manipulated in useful ways. If you approach something daunting with the expectation of success, you will do what is necessary to *manifest* that into reality. If you approach it with the expectation of failure, you will undercut yourself. If you focus on gratitude, awe, and beauty, your days become full of joy. If you focus on negativity and grudges, your days become full of frustration.
  2. Ideas have lifespans. At first, you’re full of excitement and momentum for getting it done. But if you let it sit, it fizzles out like a stale soda. “Saving an idea for later” is a myth—you will generate infinitely many ideas and creative maybes in the future, so an idea lost now is probably one lost forever.
  3. The hardest part of accomplishing anything is getting started. Once you get over that hurdle, continuing follows much more smoothly. To get more done, start by taking small steps.
  4. Reading and writing are always a good use of time. Reading gives you more fodder from which to generate ideas. Writing forces you to analyze and connect your ideas. You need to read a lot to have well-researched, interesting opinions.
  5. Make sure you truly understand something before you dismiss it. There is always more nuance than popular discourse reveals.
  6. Sleep is so important. Gone are the days where 4 hours make me feel alert. 7-8 hours every night, or the next day is just fatigue.
  7. Sometimes, you outgrow a relationship, and that’s okay. Most aren’t meant to last forever, but that transience doesn’t diminish its value.
  8. Never judge someone by their worst moment. Everyone messes up sometimes, and everyone grows. At any given point, people are fighting battles you’d never guess. Extend grace; assume best intentions whenever possible.
  9. There’s a lot of help out there, if you ask. People can be surprisingly generous with their time and grace, if you just ask (and are respectful).
  10. Kindness is the key to happiness. Recognize how wonderful others are, and let them know you feel that way. Help others without expectations. Act genuinely in others’ best interests.
  11. If you love someone, let them know.
  12. Everyone wants to be heard. Genuinely listening to someone and caring about what they have to say is an easy and impactful way to be a good friend.
  13. Surround yourself with people who encourage you to try new things, not those who dismiss your ideas or try to make you feel ashamed of them. Over time, that’s a formula for living in fear. Sometimes your ideas are bad…but they can be workshopped.
  14. When you attribute meaning to something, it becomes meaningful. Meaning makes life radiant. It’s okay, and good, to saturate with significance things that probably weren’t meant to be.
  15. It’s ok to drop things. I’ve always had an issue of taking on too many assorted interests, but at some point it becomes untenable.
  16. You are your own worst critic. Consider which of your self-worries are actually rooted in evidence, and extend to yourself even a portion of the grace you reserve for others.
  17. The arts make life worth living. Math and CS and things are so darn cool. But literature, philosophy, art, music—these are the studies that make you feel undeniably human. In the trance of a good painting or the right story, everything else pales in importance.
  18. Superficial joys don’t last. Parties and nice dinners are fun once in a while, but in excess don’t really provide fulfillment. I also can’t handle too much “downtime”/relaxation—idleness is frustrating.
  19. All phases pass. Joy and sorrow are both temporary. Enjoy joy while it lasts, but don’t be complacent. Savor sorrow, too, while it lasts—sadness isn’t always a “bad” feeling, if that makes sense. And if it gets too difficult, remember that it, too, will pass. Related: everything has a silver lining—look for it.
  20. Unstructured time is so important. Silence is important. The availability of “quick hits” (from Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, and other internet vortexes) means I never have to be alone with my thoughts, but that’s a dangerous habit. It’s no accident that some of my best ideas come to me in the shower or in bed. We need brain space to connect and combine all of our thoughts and experiences.
  21. Through it all, people are the only thing that really matters. Cherish them, prioritize them, be good to them. To live a good life is to love and be loved. Everything else will pass.

May 2021: Reflecting on a Gap Semester

Somehow, someway, 14 months at home have already passed. I’m a junior* now, though I still feel completely like a freshman (perhaps because we haven’t been on campus since 2/3 through our first year). Y’all remember the first stage of quarantine, when we were still drawing tomatoes and baking batch after batch of bread? Since then, it feels like time has distorted—each day melts into the next, with few defining boundaries. Still, here are some things that happened:

I worked on some really cool projects.

1. My team and I made some major advancements with Wave Learning Festival this semester. We celebrated our 1-year anniversary (!), strengthened our free tutoring platform (which now sees waves of students daily), got funded, closely supported two in-need schools, launched a podcast, improved our technical backend, promoted a new COO, and more. We’re only at the beginning of our journey, with big, big dreams ahead of us.

This work has pushed me, more than anything else I’ve ever taken on, to grow and reflect. It’s kept me up at night and brought me so much joy. I’ll save the monologue for another post, but I do want to say a huge thank-you to every single volunteer for making our mission a reality and to the Harvard iLab, Overdeck Foundation, and individual adult mentors for standing with us.

A few faces of the Wave team at our summer kickoff!

2. I started research in Professor Venkatesh Murthy’s computational neuroscience lab. I have to admit that I’ve never spent so much time thinking about ants, but there’s some surprisingly** fascinating science here. Special shoutout to Dong Hur, a graduating student in our group, for being a great teacher. I’ve already learned so much about data visualization, math, and physics, and can’t wait to continue contributing to the project.

One of many figures created modeling ant behavior.

3. I worked on a short-term project at Universidad Mayor (in Chile, virtually) through Harvard DRCLAS’s winternship program. I researched gendered differences in intergenerational mobility of education, wealth, and opportunity across Latin American countries. It was the perfect combination of a bunch of my interests: education, women’s empowerment, and economics. It’s always exciting when learnings from different parts of your life come together, and that happened here: in my reading and writing, I found myself incorporating concepts from the Microeconomics course I took last fall AND research around educational equity from my work at Wave. Cool stuff. I also refreshed my rusty español.

4. The WECode team and I organized and ran an incredible 3-day online conference for 1100 attendees globally, celebrating women trailblazing innovation in technology. My favorite talks were by Rana el Kaliouby and Jane Dunlevie, and I personally got to moderate a super cool research panel with Alix Lacoste, Finale Doshi-Velez, Marynel Vázquez, and Leslie Kaelbling. 

The 14 faces behind the Harvard WECode Conference. Look at these absolute cuties 🙂

5. I led my fantastic CBE consulting team in taking on one of the most challenging cases I’ve seen yet. Historically, I’ve been pretty skeptical about the value of college consulting groups, but I genuinely think we delivered some pretty cool stuff*** this semester. Still, I’m leaving the club to turn to more personally interesting endeavors.

Another team picture (slightly sabotaged by Zoom video flip), because look at these amazing smiles.

6. I redid my personal website (mostly to share my art, but also because the one I built in high school was getting pretty clunky).

I also learned so much through independent exploration!

The best part about time off from school was the amount of unstructured time I had to indulge in all my independent interests. I’m the kind of person who wants to try everything after seeing it done once, and rather than suppressing those curiosities to get my problem sets done, I got to just follow them.

  • I learned how to draw on a tablet. I also learned how to animate on Procreate.
  • I learned how to edit photos on Adobe Lightroom (shoutout to Harvard for providing us free CC subscriptions). Never going back to the random internet apps I used before.
  • I tried new things with art, but I’ll save elaborations for later.
  • I took Coursera’s Intro to Psychology course. Pretty cool stuff.
  • I learned how to play the ocarina through trial and error.
  • I self-learned enough French to read the safety label on the visor of our car.
  • I started dedicating time to self-learning how to sing. After 10 years in choir as a soprano, I’ve realized that my head voice is buff, but my chest/mix have been so neglected. Special thanks to my family for putting up with my wailing and warm-up sirens.
  • I got closer to becoming a “real adult” by learning to cook and bake.****
Left: creamy pasta with oyster mushrooms & sautéed shrimp.
Right: butterscotch budino with salted caramel and fresh whipped cream!

Despite pandemic-induced isolation, I made some amazing friends.

Because my family has erred on the cautious side over the past year, I haven’t met many friends in person. Though online interactions aim to emulate pre-pandemic times, contrived Zoom calls and 97284 Among Us hangouts do a poor job of filling in for the warmth of shared meals and casual hangouts. Perhaps most tragically, I feel like I’ve fallen out of touch with so many beloved acquaintances—you know, the people you pass in the stairwell every day, chat with in the library every evening, or check in with every Thursday dinner. I miss them, but it’s been hard to rouse conversation beyond “how have you been” without shared experiences.

At the same time, I’m so thankful to Wave for introducing me to some truly incredible people. Through this shared project, I’ve met some of the kindest and most talented students from around the world of all ages. I can’t imagine not knowing them. I’ve also gained amazing mentors who are personally invested in my success; every day I’m indebted to their endless wisdom and support.

Lastly, I’m confident that being deprived of hugs and group meals and study sessions and late-night conversations with friends will only make all of these moments even more special this fall.

Some other fun things:

SF day trip with family: despite living 40ish minutes from the city, we’ve visited like tourists for the past 10 years! Seriously, how many pictures can one person take with the Golden Gate? This was our first time seeing the Palace of Fine Arts, Bernal Heights Park, 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, and Mission District murals. They did not disappoint.

I watched Bojack Horseman and it changed my life. Also, pretty cool that the show’s creator graduated from my high school. Small world.

Mom, Grandma, and I visited Filoli Garden, which was absolutely gorgeous. 5-year-old me, who was obsessed with cataloguing plants, would be thrilled right now.

I learned to play tractor. It’s a great game for building grudges and pushing the limits of how many cards you can hold in one hand.

I participated in an art collective, “Drawing on Love and Justice,” organized by some Harvard folks.

I biked 500 miles.

I had a mini-crisis over how to do good with my future.

Thankful to be double vaxxed!

Growth & assorted reflections

They say that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.

I’m not sure I believe this anymore. Instead, I’ve realized that if you do what you love, you’ll work harder than you ever have. You’ll care more than you ever have, you’ll stress more than you ever have, but you’ll also be so grateful to have something that lights your fire.


Being stuck at home has reminded me of how much I want to explore new things with my remaining time in college. This is probably one of the best chances I have to join the opera, take a class in a totally random field, meet as many amazing people as I can, and do whatever else I always dreamed of trying. 


Being stuck at home has reminded me of how much I want to explore new things with my remaining time in college. This is probably one of the best chances I have to join the opera, take a class in a totally random field, meet as many amazing people as I can, and do whatever else I always dreamed of trying. 


Socially, I feel like I’ve allowed myself to become complacent over the past year. Freshman year, I made it a point to actively nurture relationships and never flake (something I was really proud of). Yet over quarantine, starting text conversations and picking up calls has become exhausting. I know it’s not because I love these people less—my heart still aches for them, but somehow I can’t bring myself to stare into a phone anymore. I apologize to anyone who had to wait multiple days for a Messenger response, promise to do better, and extend an invitation for in-person dinner which I will attend at all costs.

Last thoughts

Leaving home this summer feels somehow harder than leaving for college the first time. I feel closer than ever with my grandma, and I hope she doesn’t miss me too much when I’m gone.

Thanks for making it this far. Until next time,

Karly


* Junior-ish, technically sophomore-and-a-half because of this gap semester off.

** Don’t take “surprisingly” too seriously—this stuff is clearly very important to ethologists and olfactory scientists, but I’ve never personally thought about ants except while camping.

*** Unsatisfyingly vague; alas, NDAs.

**** This was also a cool step for me to take personally, because I’ve been working on decoupling masculinity and ability over the past few years—in short, recognizing that enjoying traditionally “feminine” things like baking does not make me any less capable of being a good leader or a talented engineer.