Turning 30

Sari Azout
9 min readJan 5, 2018

Every year, my husband and I share things we want to improve and plan goals for the upcoming year. We’ve been doing this for the past two years and it’s worked really well. This year, I am enhancing the tradition by reflecting on my 30 years of life and condensing that into a public post. So much of my day-to-day work is spent evaluating technology companies, understanding what beliefs and values are unique to a team. Being so close to entering the fourth decade of life has inspired me to apply that same thinking to my life and values. I planned to do that over the holidays, but vacation craziness with the kids and a nasty cold got in the way so it’s happening just a few hours before I turn 30.

I realize that my most productive years are ahead of me, but something about turning 30 feels important and worthy of reflection.

I’ve thought through the following values very, very carefully and deliberately chosen those that genuinely reflect how I want to live my life.

Now, it’s one thing to believe and understand these values intellectually and another to absorb them fully, with all their implications and promises. This is an aspirational document and the hope is that by having this in writing, I can make myself accountable to living by these principles.

Give a damn

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” — Howard Thurman

The sad reality is that most people never find something they’re truly passionate about. But life is an inspired person’s game. Having something to give a damn about is a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

“In life, our fucks must be spent on something. There really is no such thing as not giving a fuck. The question is simply how we each choose to allot our fucks. You only get a limited number of fucks to give over your lifetime, so you must spend them with care. As my father used to say, “Fucks don’t grow on trees, Mark.” OK, he never actually said that. But fuck it, pretend like he did. The point is that fucks have to be earned and then invested wisely. Fucks are cultivated like a beautiful fucking garden, where if you fuck shit up and the fucks get fucked, then you’ve fucking fucked your fucks all the fuck up.” — The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k

It’s impossible to give a damn about everything. In my case, I’ve chosen to give a damn about building empathetic technology products and my true passions include investing in and working with entrepreneurs to build companies that reimagine the future. That means caring about the details that make a customer experience more human and thoughtful. It means investing in companies that truly democratize access to products and services.

Surround myself with people who enrich me and make my life better

2017 was an intense year in many dimensions. Between raising two kids under three, building a home from the ground up, and keeping up with my work, it was the year where my productivity went from a skill to a superpower out of sheer necessity. It was also the year where I began to see my energy as precious and realized that the people I choose to surround myself with have enormous implications.

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with” - Jim Rohn

Earlier this year, I read Marie Kondo’s “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and I think this philosophy of discarding everything that doesn’t spark joy applies to personal relationships as well.

Time really is a zero sum game and there are plenty of smart, successful, kind, and happy people in the world. I plan to spend more time with those people. I’m excited about this new understanding. It makes it acceptable to prioritize genuine interactions and thin out people that drain my energy.

Work Life Harmony, not Work Life Balance

As someone who sees my work as a labor of love, I’ve always struggled with the term work-life balance. The term implies there’s a strict trade-off, work on the evil side and life on the other. The truth is feeling productive and inspired at work makes me better at home, and being happy at home makes me better at work.

Everyone loves to say, “On your deathbed, you won’t be happy you worked so much.” I’m actually very proud of what I do and think that spending time on something I am passionate about is one of the best ways to live a meaningful life.

At the end of the day, it’s not about how many hours I allocate to my work vs. my family but whether I have enough energy to participate mindfully in both.

So no, I don’t want work life balance. I want a happy, inspired life, and that involves beautiful memories with my family and work I’m passionate about.

Spend energy on how to organize

One great thing about having kids is that they’ve made me more accountable to how I spend my time.

When I started my first company, most of my time was spent on things that were urgent, like deadlines, answering emails, reacting to day-to-day events, etc. In other words, I was being governed by time. As a result, I spent little time on things that were important, but not urgent, like planning, reflecting on my goals and setting myself up for success.

“Don’t mistake activity with achievement.” — John Wooden

A few years ago, I listened to Deep Work’s Cal Newport podcast interview and it transformed the way I think about time.

In the last three years (ironically, since I became a mother), I’ve become much better at goal setting, adhering to my calendar, making lists, and carving out windows of non-stimulation to focus on higher-level thinking and longer term projects.

One thing that has become incredibly clear to me is that the planning process is far more important than the work itself. Without the proper set up, it doesn’t matter how hard I work.

From Ideas to Action — Scott Belsky

My natural state is to be intolerant of procedures and process (just ask my husband, he will be so proud of me for even mentioning the word organization on this post — and I totally credit him for teaching me the importance of organization).

But if I want big things, I have to set things up to succeed big. This applies to everything — I can’t expect to succeed as a VC without spending time developing a framework for how to diligence companies. And similarly, I can’t expect to hire a nanny and have her adapt to the dynamic in my family without setting her up for success.

Take ownership of my life

“The best day of your life is the one on which you decide your life is your own. No apologies or excuses. No one to lean on, rely on, or blame. The gift is yours — it is an amazing journey — and you alone are responsible for the quality of it. This is the day your life really begins.” — Bob Moawad

“I used to have horrible cars, because I never had money, so I’d always end up broken down on the highway. When I stood there trying to flag someone down, nobody stopped. But when I pushed my own car, other drivers would get out and push with me. If you want help, help yourself — people like to see that” — Chris Rock

I was looking back on my high school graduation speech and there are so many tidbits of wisdom that still hold true, but my favorite is that “life is 5% what happens to you and 95% how you deal with it.” As the daughter of the most loving and generous Jewish mother who was a call away and always eager to help, this one is particularly challenging for me.

Over the last few years, I’ve made a conscious effort to take responsibility for how I handle my circumstances and rather than waste time or energy on a problem (and defaulting to calling my mom to complain!) I make an effort to shift to solutions and remind myself that I am the chief architect of my life.

Keep my privilege in check

There is a myth in our culture that we earn our lot in life based on our talents. But the context under which we are born matters and this is my context: I am a citizen of the U.S., my skin is light, and I was born into a loving family that had the resources to give me the best education and take care of my every want. These things don’t shield me from personal hardships, but they do make my life much easier than most.

As I get older and navigate the privileged networks of Silicon Valley and elite universities, I hope I never forget what my father taught me — that privilege is when we think something is not a problem because it’s not a problem to us personally. Hard work is being a single mother working two minimum wage jobs back to back, not writing pitch decks, winning a deal, performing due diligence on a company, writing blog posts, or choosing the right language for an ad campaign.

Keep my ego in check and err in the direction of kindness

There are two pieces of writing that profoundly influenced me and have stuck with me over the years.

The first is David Foster’s Wallace’s This is Water. The speech is so powerful I encourage everyone to read it. Wallace describes day-to-day adult life — long lines at the supermarket, traffic, etc… and writes that “it is within our power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell type situation(s) as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars, compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things”

One particular statement touched me:

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able to care about other people and sacrifice for them, over, and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways over and over again”

— David Foster Wallace”

I so deeply and intellectually appreciate what Wallace is saying, and yet it is so easy to succumb to the day-to-day temptation of living life in a default state of being the center of my universe and looking at the world through my filter.

The second is Gorge Saunder’s commencement speech:

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly. Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth? Those who were kindest to you, I bet.”

My hope for the next decade is to be able to look back and say that, in the midst of pursuing my own dreams and building my family, I didn’t forget the power of small acts. I didn’t let my ego prevent me from seeing the world the way it is. I kept my insignificance in context (if I’m lucky, I’ve only got about 90 years out of the 40 billion or so that the universe is going to be around).

To get very practical about it, I have a whole series of hacks that I plan to use:

  • Apply the 10/10/10 rule: This one in particularly has been hugely helpful, and delays the anger and emotional response out of many situations. How will I feel about it 10 minutes from now? How about 10 months from now? How about 10 years from now?
  • Deliberately cultivate experiences and activities that help me get out of my mind.
  • Consciously tell my brain “no” when it wants to relate to a conversation with a bigger, personal story. What I mean is, if somebody is telling me a story about an experience they had and I have a related story, rather than jump in with my story, consciously let that desire go and ask them more questions about their experience.
  • When I’m stubborn, ask myself: Do I have an opinion? Or does the opinion have me?

Turning 30 seemed like such a far away and scary goal growing up and it’s actually going to happen in a few hours. Perhaps it’s because of how quickly time has gone that I find that arguments such as “Life is too short for X” have great force now (if you don’t believe it, this is an excellent post that brings the succinctness of life and family time to reality).

I learned a lot about myself in the last 30 years and feel incredibly excited for the decades ahead!



Sari Azout

Building products and brands that solve important problems @levelVC. Subscribe to my newsletter: https://sariazout.substack.com/