Karen Cheng famously learned how to dance in a year in a viral YouTube video that racked up millions of views and adoring blog posts over the summer. But as it turns out, that was just the beginning for the 26-year-old San Franciscan. She also taught herself to play guitar and cello. And how to juggle. And how to design — so well, in fact, that she quit her job at Microsoft to become a professional designer full-time.
Cheng’s accomplishments are, by any measure, pretty inspiring. But at this ambitious, optimistic time of year, they can also be instructive — particularly since, in the months since her video went viral, Cheng has become something of a self-improvement guru. She and co-founder Finbarr Taylor recently launched a start-up called Give It 100, a sort of social network for people to achieve their personal goals.
Cheng and I spoke over the summer about her dance-in-a-year project. We recently reconnected by e-mail to talk New Year’s resolutions, discipline and Cheng’s start-up. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
So first off, I know you’ve taught yourself a number of skills besides dancing. When did that start?
Karen Cheng: The first skill I learned was spinning a book on my finger. It was seventh grade and all the cool kids could do it, so I set out to learn. After about 20 hours of the book falling on the ground… I could do it (but that didn’t make me one of the cool kids unfortunately, haha). That was when I realized that things that look like magic are often just many hours of invisible practice.
Since then I’ve learned guitar, cello, singing, card tricks, juggling, unicycling, origami, public speaking and design. There’s something really rewarding about not knowing how to do something, practicing like crazy, and then being able to do it.
What inspired you to learn dance?
I saw a video on YouTube of a dancer doing crazy stuff. It looked downright supernatural.
How much time did you put aside for dancing each day?
At first my rule was “just dance five minutes a day.” Many days would be more, an hour maybe, but the five-minute rule helped keep the momentum going. Once I realized this was something I really loved, I started practicing more, about two hours a day.
You wrote over the summer that when it comes to learning a new skill or making a life change, “discipline is overrated.” What did you mean by that?
Honestly I think it’s about finding something you really love. I’ve tried so many things before — and have quit almost just as many. People tend to feel guilty when they give up a new hobby or don’t see it through, but it’s okay to quit. That will free you up to find something you really love. You have to be willing to try many things. When you find something you’re truly passionate about, it will prioritize itself.
Do you have any tools or tricks that you use to stay on track? When we spoke in the summer you introduced me to an app called Lift. Which I still use!
I use Lift and I keep a dance journal where I write down what I’m working on every day and ideas on how I can improve. Taking video was a huge part of that. Many times I would think I wasn’t improving — it’s happening so gradually for you, you hardly notice. I would watch back old videos of me and be reminded — yes, I really have improved.
Okay, so let’s say my New Year’s resolution is that I want to lose 10 pounds, which is a pretty common goal. How would you recommend going about that?
I’d say, instead of focusing on the goal, focus on the habit. So instead of naming your challenge “I’m going to lose 10 pounds,” name your challenge “I’m going to the gym five days a week” or “I’m going to exercise every day for at least five minutes” or whatever you think you can stick to. The thing with losing 10 pounds is that you can’t fully control it, and so it can be demotivating when you don’t get immediate results. But exercising every day for five minutes — you have full control over that, and if you stick to it, you’ll inevitably reach your 10-pound goal.
So let’s talk about your new company, Give It 100. How does that work, exactly?
You choose something you want to get better at for 100 days and you share a 10-second video of your progress every day. You get a simple daily routine to stick to and you’re totally accountable because you have to upload a video as proof. Plus practicing has always been a solitary, lonely thing — and 100 changes that.
I got the idea for 100 after my dance video went viral. I think there is something really compelling about seeing all the hard work that is usually invisible. When you see athletes or performers, you see them at the top of their game. You don’t see the invisible hard work they put in. You don’t see the moment they started, when they probably sucked. If you could see that, talent would be a lot less intimidating.
What’s the response been like so far?
We have 10,000 users so far. The best part is seeing people really make a difference in their lives, and becoming more confident. There are people doing all sorts of things: Exercising everyday, learning how to do a handstand, learning a new language, learning guitar, quitting bad habits like biting your fingernails. One of our users, Cynthia, is learning how to walk again after she was paralyzed from multiple sclerosis five years ago.
Inevitable last question: What are your resolutions for 2014?
Make 100 an even better place, dance every day and set a side time to practice creativity. You can actually see my resolutions here.