This year, I’m going to be married to Cate Hall. Early on in our relationship, I told her that she was a really inspiring person, and that I would keep her in my life indefinitely whether or not we ended up together. I was not just flattering her: I have never met anyone like Cate. She is truly unusual. Someday, her biography will be available at fine bookstores everywhere.
Given that it is not yet available, however, I wanted to tell you some things I’ve learned from being around Cate day-to-day.
Really, Nobody Knows What They’re Doing
Cate’s accomplishments are pretty crazy, especially when you consider that she wasn’t born rich. Part of it is that she’s just smart and hard-working. But that’s not the end of the story—she’s managed to accomplish a lot more than some similarly smart and hard-working people I know, in a dizzying number of fields. Cate, among other things:
—Won a young composer’s prize for writing a symphony
—Ran the best student newspaper in the country
—Got degrees in biochemistry and philosophy
—Was a Supreme Court lawyer after graduating from Yale Law
—Quit that to become the world’s top female poker player
—Recovered from a serious drug addiction
—Co-founded a pandemic medicine company, where she is COO
It’s a little silly. She is also good at her hobbies; she does the Saturday Times crossword in under 15 minutes to relax, is a great cook, and has a flair for design. At one point she was a capable violinist. How is this possible?
I think the crucial difference with Cate is that she has really, really internalized the idea that everyone is winging it, which, luckily, means that you can wing it at everything, too. Like, the people writing symphonies? They’re just flailing in symphony-like ways as best they can. People who run biotech companies? They have just as much impostor syndrome as you do. I think Cate doesn’t allow herself to think she’s not allowed to do things. She said to me once: “it’s so corny, but believing that you can do it really is centrally important.”
This mentality enables her to approach potentially intimidating enterprises with eager open-mindedness; she is always willing to ask dumb questions, think from first principles, and look for ways to improve. It also allows her to shorten the gap between thought and action significantly; she is rarely paralyzed by uncertainty, given that she accepts uncertainty as a universal phenomenon.
She also assumes that other people have a similar degree of freedom: if you ask Cate for career or personal advice, she might tell you to do something that seems outlandishly audacious, but is, in fact, just possible. This makes it really fun to ask her for advice.
Accelerate Learning, Gain Information Quickly
Dating Cate is pretty wild. Our first date happened when, after a couple of weeks of talking remotely, she said “I don’t know why you’re not here right now,” and flew me out to Berkeley that day; the date was me moving into her apartment for a week. Our second date was her taking me along to a high-stakes professional event with some serious people on another continent, where there was a real possibility of me embarrassing her. She assumed that this would teach her a lot about me, and I think it did! Another one of our early dates was writing a blog post together; the first blog I have ever co-written. You know those TikToks chronicling NYC dating where people are still floating around indecisive nine dates in? She is the absolute opposite.
In many, many situations—interpersonal, professional, or otherwise—Cate attempts to gain as much information as she can, as quickly as she can. When she meets someone who’s an expert in something she doesn’t know about, she asks them a ton of specific questions. If she starts being curious about acupuncture one day, she books some acupuncture for that day. She noticed that I’m into perfume, so she ordered dozens of perfume samples and asked me to help acquaint her with their intricacies.
This means that she knows a lot about herself, what she is like relationally, her environment, the people around her, and the world, and the benefits of that learning keep compounding—her large volume of general knowledge makes it easier for her to keep picking up specifics.
You’re Not Above Learning Everything
I think lots of people who are capable have a hard time being bad at things or looking at their blind spots because it’s a threat to their ego. Cate does not feel this way. She will enthusiastically read entry-level self-help books about some area of communication where she doesn’t feel confident. She will feel shy about her first day of powerlifting but will go anyway. She consistently identifies her weaknesses and either chooses to accept them or works on them actively. For example, she is a lifelong introvert, who, upon noticing that being extroverted benefits me, has resolved to become Extrovert Cate, and says things like “extrovert Cate get freaky” to herself when she feels shy. She is doing well at this.
You Can Cultivate Incredible Levels of Frankness
Cate is one of the frankest people I’ve ever met; if she has relevant information she might be tempted to conceal, she reveals it right away instead. The first time we talked on Signal, she immediately told me a bunch of stuff about her that she thought I might find undesirable (her divorce, drug addiction, et cetera.) When I complimented a selfie she sent, she sent a less flattering selfie immediately afterward, to moderate my expectations. The way marriage came up was when she said, referring to a potential immigration issue, “it’ll be okay because we’ll be married soon.”
You know how on a Zoom call, your brain will start turning off, but you’ll just keep nodding along and pretending? Cate will say: “my brain can’t do this call anymore.” If you are her fiancee, friend, or co-worker, she will give you honest feedback about things that nobody else will. If she is uncomfortable with being frank about something, she will be frank about that. This is an acquired skill, and I think occasionally, exercising it is difficult for her. But as a result, Cate lives in a state of thorough integrity: she doesn’t have any false relationships, it is really hard to be mistaken about her priorities, and she doesn’t end up agreeing to things she doesn’t want to do.
Working Hard Doesn’t Have to Turn You Into an Automaton
Earlier on in my life, I noticed that a bunch of extremely hard-working people seem to let their lives shrink into boring monotony. This made me feel less inclined toward hard work, overall, and I think I thought of being a little lazy and scatterbrained as a hedge against becoming less human. Cate, however, is not an automaton. She is a lover of beauty in all things, an admirer of poetry, takes care of stray cats in our neighborhood, and likes to drive aimlessly and explore anything that seems cool by the side of the road. This makes me realize that I was previously confused, in a fairly obvious way: it’s not that people who work hard are inherently boring, it’s that many people who chase bigger paychecks do so for boring reasons, or fall into playing social games that make them boring. I am now working harder.
You Don’t Have to Chase Prestige
Most people who have the opportunity to be around prestige and social status take that opportunity. And I think Cate was more prestige-inclined at a certain point in her life. But then she simply… stopped. Like, she knows some pretty high-status people, but it’s extremely obvious, from up close, that she doesn’t pay them more attention than her non-famous or non-prestigious friends, and she doesn’t spend time doing the social climbing that the world has made available to her. I think many people absorb, early on, that social status is inherently valorous, and thus, passing up on it is foolish. Meanwhile, Cate, when I asked her about this, said: “At some point, I realized there are certain games you can never win, and I resolved to stop playing those games.”
You Can Be Impressive Without Being Prideful
Cate views her own life through a frame of responsibility: she takes responsibility for what happens to her. At the same time, she is genuinely not proud, and genuinely doesn’t think she’s better than anyone else. She credits luck for her good fortune and unusual attributes more than anything else, and is compassionate and curious toward everyone we meet. This is, I think, what sticks with me most.
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This was more motivating than any self help book I’ve read recently!
What a delightfully unconventional love letter, as well as good food for thought.