Listening and Innovating with Jacky Ye ’19

Jacky Ye is a Sophomore from Los Angeles, CA interested in technology, entrepreneurship, and education. We talked with him about writing, listening, and their applications in a multitude of settings.

You’re known for being talented at writing in a variety of formats, whether it’s blog posts, op-eds, poetry, or even Quora answers. What’s your thought process like when you start to write something?

Hahaha, first off, I’m super flattered by the way this question is framed. I don’t consider myself a particularly good writer. I just happen to write more frequently than your average college student. My thought process before I put words down on paper (or word doc) takes one of two forms. Either I know exactly what I’m going to say; or I have no frickin idea and hope to stumble upon one along the way. As a result, sometimes I can churn a page out in 10 minutes, whereas other times I’ll struggle for an hour to get one sentence down. One of my favorite writers, Ellen Vrana, calls striving for perfection – in writing and pretty much everything in life – paralysis. Set your sights on perfection and you’ll always fall short. I try to keep this in mind when I write to remind myself that my work doesn’t have to be great, or even good, for that matter. The act of doing is what really matters. Everything else will fall in place. Not saying this works for everyone, but it’s proven effective for me.

This past Fall, a project you co-founded called the Swarthmore Human Library made its debut. What were your main takeaways from that experience?

Quality over quantity: The number of people who attend your event might not be the best yardstick for success. Although less people attended than we initially wanted, we found that the smaller numbers worked in our favor and created an intimacy to the event that might not have been possible with a bigger crowd. As a result, the quality of the interactions that people shared increased.

Simply put, people are fascinating. I’m consistently amazed by the difficulties that people have endured and the experiences that people have had. Problem is, the most formative experiences of one’s life – “the deep stuff” – doesn’t come up that often in ordinary conversation. And so, we miss out on a lot of these opportunities to really get to know each other better. What I’ve learned is, if you give people a space to talk about themselves without fear of being judged, demeaned, etc., they will.

We can do better: Throughout the early stages of the Swarthmore Human Library, I consistently underestimated the amount of planning that it would take to successfully launch and overestimated the interest of the Swarthmore community in something like this. The result? Too little / rushed marketing. Not enough logistical certainty. Unorganized book / librarian framework. Although I wouldn’t consider the debut a failure, I think the whole team would agree with me when I say that we can do better. We made some mistakes the first time around. We’re probably make mistakes the next time too. The hope is to make different and better mistakes.


You also work one of the most challenging campus jobs as a Phonathon caller. What has working for Phonathon taught you about communication?

The number one thing I’ve learned from Phonathon is this: people want to feel like they’re special. Everyone we call knows in the back of their minds, that we’re calling them because we want money. There’s no getting around that. The key is to figure out what they want. Some want to give and get off the phone as quickly as possible. Some want to talk about their cat, Pablo, and then refuse to donate.  Others are on-the-fence about donating and need some persuading. This is where the real work comes in. Be too direct and you come across as pushy. Be too roundabout and you come across as manipulative. Are they looking for a conversation or are they looking for reasons to donate? Figure out what each person is looking to get out of the call, fulfill that need, make them feel special, and maybe even get a donation along the way. Everybody wins.

Like most Swatties, you’re clearly involved in a lot of activities outside of academics. What tips would you have for first-years trying to make the best use of their time at Swarthmore?

In my experience, advice is usually processed in this way.

  1. Hear / read about some good-great advice.
  2. Acknowledge that your life would be better if you acted on the advice.
  3. Change nothing because you can’t be bothered to actually act.

Consequently, I don’t have much advice to offer. Read good books. Ask good questions. Watch Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture. Do difficult things. Have fun.

What’s the biggest challenge you’re looking forward to in 2017?

Whenever people ask me about what I want to do, the answer usually sounds something like I want to do ____ in this amount of time. Example: I want to gain 15lbs of muscle in 6 months. But that’s not particularly challenging. Going to gym / tracking calories is painful and at times tedious, but it’s pretty simple. It’s a matter of doing or not doing.

I’m working on this other project right now. Not just for 2017, it’s kind of a lifelong commitment type of thing. I’m trying to see how honest I can be. For example, showing appreciation for others, talking about my insecurities, questioning my core values / beliefs, etc. are things that make me feel really uncomfortable. I’m looking forward to seeing how much progress I can make with opening up.

In addition to that, I also want to start taking responsibility for everything in my life. And I mean everything.  I learned this fascinating piece of insight from writer, Mark Manson. Things that happen to you may not be your fault, but you are always responsible for how you deal with them. Example: it’s not my fault that I come from a low-income background and am statistically less likely to fit in / do well at a place like Swarthmore. I could choose to attribute my shortcomings to this (e.g. I failed this class because I’m poor and since I can’t change the fact that I’m poor, there’s little I can do to improve my grades”).  In doing so, I’d be resigning myself to external, unchangeable circumstances. Not exactly the most empowering thing in the world.  On the other hand, I could choose to take responsibility for my education and press on despite unfavorable circumstances. The simple awareness that I have a choice is not only hugely enabling, but also psychologically productive. Long story short, people who feel that they have control over their lives are generally better off than people who believe that they don’t.

Take this idea of fault / responsibility and apply it to every aspect of life. That’s probably my biggest challenge in 2017 (and beyond).

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