Andrei Lyskov: Quantified Self movement, Biohacking, and Buddhism

|| Jenny Kim

Andrei Lyskov is a Computer Science student at Queen’s University who has worked at Soylent in Los Angeles, IBM & Big Data University in Beijing through the Cansbridge fellowship, and is currently working as a data science intern at PeerStreet in LA. I would describe Andrei as a polymath – he’s extremely well-versed in a myriad of topics from data analytics to Buddhism. Hence, his very fitting and intriguing M.O. of “optimizing life for peak performance and tranquility”.

Our conversation was incredibly robust in the sense that I learned a great deal about a variety of subject matters in the hour that I spoke to Andrei. I could see that he chose every word and analogy very carefully to powerfully deliver valuable messages. Due to his eloquence and knowledge-packed answers, I had a difficult time cutting anything out and instead in typical polymath fashion, I’ve decided to present a menu of topics that you can pick and choose to consume. Below you’ll find four topics: Data Science & the Quantified Self movement, Soylent & Biohacking, Buddhism & Stoicism, and Books & Resources.

Topic #1: Data Science & the Quantified Self Movement

How did you decide you wanted to pursue data science and what advice do you have for people who are still searching for their own pursuits?

I’m a big proponent of building deep expertise in at least two different areas, in order to be able to cultivate unique insights. A lot of people have advanced this viewpoint such as Scott Adams, the creator of the famous comic “Dilbert”. He talks about how he wasn’t the funniest person nor the greatest drawer, but he was pretty good at being funny and drew pretty well and had some experience in corporate environments, so he started Dilbert, which became a cultural phenomenon. Instead of competing in a category with millions of people, he competed in his own category and became well-known because he had a unique set of skills and experiences that very few people had. I definitely thought hard about where I would like to see myself and I landed on data science as it’s the perfect intersection of my business acumen, technical knowledge, and interest in working on hard problems.

Hard problems such as?

I’m interested in the quantified self movement which is the idea of tracking and analyzing your data. One of the problems I would like to work on is automating decision making - exploring if we can build a model based on your personal data to advise you on decisions or automate decision making altogether. For example, when you open an email in your Gmail inbox, you get 3 auto-reply options. While this may seem trivial, given that you’re only saving micro-seconds, in the long run it helps reduce the cognitive load of choosing a reply, and allows you to focus on what really matters. There are also interesting extensions beyond email responses: having your own personal financial advisor, health coach, or virtually any agent that’s able to use your data to make decisions for you. They’re really providing you with prescriptive analyses- what the best options and decisions are and giving you feedback on why that’s the case. It’s about filtering the noise and getting to the signal.

What sparked your interest in this quantified self-movement?

Since high school, I’ve been interested in self-development. I read Tony Robbins in Grade 9. I was fortunate to have a friend group that was also into self-development. We would do ridiculous self experiments like lucid dreaming and trying to overcome our fears like approaching people in public. Going into University, I started to be a lot more methodical about the things I tracked, and with the proliferation of tracking devices and mobile applications I started to track a lot of different things in my life. At one point, I would have 3 different bluetooth devices on at all times, one for tracking my posture, another for tracking my breathing, and one for my heartrate. Additionally, I also had sensors that would track my sleep, and of course, the location data provided by your phone and time spent on my computer. I’ve since cut down a lot, because for me it’s about having a seamless integration into your life, and unfortunately today’s sensors are not as invisible as I’d like. Ultimately, the Peter Drucker quote of “What gets measured, gets managed” is one that deeply resonates with me and has been another reason for my interest in the quantified self.

I read your article about Facebook’s scandal and how you downloaded and analyzed your profile data in light of this (check out Andrei’s article). Have you tracked and analyzed any of your other personal data?

After seeing the heavy use of Key Performance Indicator dashboards, it dawned on me that I could easily create my own version of a KPI dashboard for my own life. The dashboard I created aggregates and visualizes all my personal data in real time, metrics such as my steps, focus time using a Pomodoro app called Toggl, productivity level which is based on RescueTime, daily goals chain (days I’ve hit all 3 goals or missed them), where I’m allocating my focus, coding time, locations I’ve visited, my weight, chess rating, Spotify, all which is tracked automatically and requires no effort on my end ensuring that compliance is 100%. I have a TV that’s hooked up to a Raspberry Pi, it turns on at 8am and turns off at 8pm. I can look at this and say, “Oh, I haven’t focused enough so I should focus more”. Eventually, I’d like to take all the data I’ve collected and extend this to an agent that can make decisions on my behalf - for example scheduling time for me to go for a walk if I haven’t hit my walking goal yet, or pushing my meetings if I haven’t hit my focus goal by a certain time.

Another benefit I’ve received from tracking is a shift from setting external goals to internal goals. An external goal would be winning a marathon whereas an internal goal would be to run an hour a day, eat healthy, and get plenty of sleep. To me the benefit of internal goals is self-evident, instead of focusing on something that’s outside of your control and being disappointed when you don’t achieve it (or worst achieving it and still feeling unfulfilled), you can instead focus on getting micro-wins in the form of internal goals, which set you up for macro wins in the long run. The reason for this being I want to set metrics that I can control instead of focusing externally where there are so many factors that could prevent you from winning a marathon. It’s the micro wins that in the long-term, lead to macro wins.

Andrei's personal KPI dashboard

Andrei’s personal KPI dashboard for his life

Topic #2: Soylent & Biohacking

How did you land your internship at Soylent and how was your experience there?

Working at Soylent was a random opportunity that I thought would never pan out – it was a long winding road to getting that internship. What happened was I reached out to one of the founders on LinkedIn saying, “Hey, I really like the product, here are 10 ideas I can help execute on. Let me know what you think, I’d love to hop on a call.” I surprisingly got a response, which led to a call where I gave a presentation on why they should bring me on as an intern, and then I flew to LA during march break to meet them in person. By the end of it, they told me, “Alright, you’re a stand-up guy but we aren’t at a point where we can bring in an intern.” However, I ended up staying in touch with one of the co-founders, David who I called later to ask for advice about whether I should take a year off school to attend Makeschool in SF or not. He told me, “Just take a year off, what’s the worst thing that could happen?” That’s all he said and I thought to myself, “You’re right, what is the worst thing that could happen?” I ended up taking a year off and flying to SF and I called David to tell him that I took his advice. We continued to stay in touch and he gave me an offer in January and the whole time I was thinking, “Is this actually happening?”

What really attracted me to the company was that they have a really sharp team, a lot of smart people, and I learned a ton from a startup that’s constantly in the limelight for their unconventional marketing and products. One of the more interest things I ended up doing there was being involved with their influencer marketing strategy. I found an opportunity where two guys were climbing Mount Everest, and we decided to do a partnership with them where they would drink Soylent on their ascent. There were a bunch of snaps of them drinking Soylent, and we ended up getting an article in Adweek. This campaign really reinforced the whole Soylent pioneer movement - the idea that “By drinking Soylent, I’m able to free my body and focus on things that are important to me”. In my opinion, the philosophy of the product has always been about freeing your body from constraints, not about getting people to stop eating food.

Soylent Instagram

Source: Soylent Instagram

When I think of Soylent, I associate it with hardcore devs biohacking in the Valley. For people who don’t know what biohacking is, how would you define it? Have you tried biohacking yourself?

There are two ways to define biohacking: hacking external biological systems, and ‘hacking’ your own biological system. It’s important to make this distinction because there’s a whole movement of external biohackers making amoeba cells glow and tinkering with CRISPR kits. Biohacking on a personal level is something I’ve dipped my toes in, but I think there’s a lot of snake oil in this industry because people use a lot of invalid scientific evidence to peddle products. There are products like fat water, it’s just water that has fat in it… There are some really absurd products and I question how much of it is placebo and how much is actually effective.

I’ve experimented with products and ideas that have a bit more clout in the community and have some scientific backing, things like blue light blocking glasses which are now installed as a filter option in phones. I also have a shutdown routine where I close my laptop an hour and 15 minutes before I go to sleep. My Philips hues lights change to red lights which are more conducive for initiating sleep. The overall idea of internal biohacking is to manage your biological tendencies (like your sleep cycles) and being aware of them and playing to those strengths. There’s definitely the extreme end of things where people buy brain zapping devices that help them become more productive. There are things like nootropics/smart drugs (JK: I’ve been interested in nootropics for a while now, check out this nootropics subreddit where people do some interesting experiments to enhance their cognitive performance). In a very competitive environment, you want every edge you can get. Ultimately, internal biohacking is really a spectrum from natural to extreme. But the main motivator is “I want to become a better version of myself through small tweaks”. Often times people come to biohacking looking for a magic pill, or a silver bullet. But really, the low hanging fruit for biohacking are things like having good sleep hygiene, eating well, and making time to exercise.

In your opinion, which should you prioritize most - sleep hygiene, eating well, or exercise?

Personally, I make sure I don’t sacrifice on sleep hygiene because every area of your life is affected by it. In my case, my work quality drastically goes down when I sleep less, and I can’t imagine people who get little sleep produce quality work during every waking hour. I try my best to keep to my circadian rhythm by going to sleep at the same time, I’m usually in bed at 10pm and wake up at 6-8am giving me between 8-10 hours of sleep. Quality of sleep is also important, which is dependent on if you’re waking up a lot in the middle of the night, how you’re feeling throughout the day, etc. I find that a lot of people are chronically under-sleeping and we have to do more to address this issue. We need to stop romanticizing this idea that if you sleep less, you’ll be more successful - at a certain point there are diminishing returns to sacrificing on sleep in order to get an extra hour of work in. There are certainly people who have a genetic predisposition to sleeping 3-4 hours a night, but I think for the vast majority of us, getting enough sleep will lead to a dramatic increase in your quality of life.

Topic #3: Buddhism & Stoicism

I heard you do deep dive sessions into various subjects, can you tell me more about that?

In the past I’ve read all sorts of different kinds of books, ranging from computer science to investing, to philosophy. However without fail, I would only end up remembering a small portion of the books I’d read. To combat this, I decided to do deep dive sessions where I’ll study a subject intensively for a certain period of time, in order to create deeper connections that won’t be easily forgotten. My current deep dive is on data science and Buddhism.

Data science and Buddhism, that’s an interesting mix. What instigated your deep dive into Buddhism?

I did a 5-day meditation retreat last summer which was the catalyst for doing this deep dive. I think there are a lot of interesting truths in Buddhism… this idea of impermanence being the one constant, there’s nothing that always stays the same. Things change. Even the universe will collapse back into itself. I’m really drawn to those ideas because it fits with my pursuit of tranquility as an aspirational state of mind. I find that the more times I’m in a tranquil state of mind, the better human I am.

Did any epiphanies occur to you during your meditation retreat?

Yep, the deep realization that thoughts think themselves. While I was sitting on the cushion, I started thinking about my best friend from grade 2 that I haven’t seen in literally 10 years and all I could think about is how did this thought even come up? What was the trigger? The point was there was no trigger. Having this attachment to your thoughts doesn’t seem to make sense- if your thoughts don’t think themselves, you are not your thoughts but rather, the observer of those thoughts. So over this trip, that was reinforced more than ever. My thoughts are not representative of who I am. Right before you go and give a public presentation you may think, “Oh I’m so nervous… what if I mess up?” But those are thoughts that you can merely observe and not necessarily identify with. You can just say, “Hey, these thoughts… they’re interesting.” But like a cloud, they’ll pass over. As long as you’re not grasping at them, you can just watch them float by. It’s a very empowering experience, watching them arise and then letting them drift off.

In what ways are stoicism and Buddhism similar and different to each other?

Stoicism is the toolkit for the common man, it’s an easily consumable philosophy. It doesn’t require a PhD to understand and it has central tenets that are applicable to anyone’s life. There are the ideas of zooming out and zooming into your life as well as negative visualization: picturing the worst case scenario so you prepare yourself for it. There’s also the idea of something being neither good or bad, but it’s simply thinking that makes it so. It has direct parallels to Buddhism in terms of the notion that perspective is what colours an event. If something happens to you, it’s not necessarily good or bad because you don’t have a map of the future. Maybe that accident that leaves you paraplegic sets you up to be the next Stephen Hawking, you have no idea. There are so many ways the future can unfold and to be able to make this categorization on this event could, in fact, be one of the best things that could happen to you. To me, this seems like the epitome of logical behaviour but humans are not rational - myself included. As much as I like to intellectualize this topic of not categorizing things, I’m still guilty of doing this. If something shitty happens I say “Well, this is shitty”. But if my first reaction is “Well, this is shitty”, I want my second reaction to be “Ok, in what ways is this not shitty? In what ways is this a gift?”. I also use this quick heuristic called the “Rule of Sevens” to ask myself: will I care about this seven seconds from now? Seven hours from now? Seven weeks? Seven years? Seven decades? Often times the thing that you’re concerned about, really won’t be a major concern seven weeks from now.

Topic #4: Books & Resources

Andrei’s Recommended Books:

Eckhart Tolle has had a profound influence in my life and was the catalyst for getting me into meditation when I was 14. He was able to pull me into this world with his writing that I haven’t experienced with any other writer. You’re just reading his stuff and you’re noticing the sensations in your body and it’s a very peculiar effect you get when you’re reading it. Even today when I read some of his writing I’ll get goosebumps.

This is a really fun sci-fi novel that is a bit of a social commentary on the state of the world. One of the most important takeaways has been this idea of asking the right questions.

Viktor Frankl was a holocaust survivor who wrote about his experience during the Holocaust. He explores the idea of suffering and came upon the realization that the difference between prisoners who survived and those who didn’t came down to being able to create meaning from their suffering. It was a very powerful message and story, and his ability to get through such a terrible event was his desire to document this so it never happens again.

Resources mentioned in this article:

  • Andrei’s reflection on his Facebook use for the past 11 years and his findings from analyzing his personal data
  • Can’t stop procrastinating? Check out these time management apps, RescueTime and Toggl
  • Andrei’s personal dashboard for life, feel free to fork his github code
  • Makeschool, a computer science college in San Francisco
  • Play God by buying your own CRISPR kit
  • Nootropics subreddit, a community of people/biohackers doing cognitive enhancement experiments

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