June 27, 2017 § 3 Comments
So, I have now spent more than 500 days in the Netherlands, and maybe it’s time for some updates, some reflections, some new ideas and many old ones. There is a mouthful here, so I added some pictures, and tweets. Here goes.
A New Mantra
I am revamping some core components of my belief system – making making the focus. Around 10 years ago, I articulated this mantra to guide me through life:
This guided my broad actions. Reading, networking (going to events) and ‘doing stuff’ – that is, doing anything which excited me at the moment, as opposed to doing nothing or wasting time in general.
I am changing it to:
The part about reading remains the same. Good books are jetpacks for moving ahead in life: this has been tested by myself over more than a decade, and by many successful people over their lifetimes. So I will continue finding good books, and urging everyone to read. Good books augment your mental toolkit – and hence arm you to deal with uncertain situations. People who read less will tend to take lesser risks, move lesser outside their field of knowledge, because we are always scared of uncertainty.
Whereas, as you read more, the zone of knowledge expands, you are more willing to try out new things and take risks, because they do not seem like risks to you, because you already read about these situations in a book, and how someone else tacked it.
Few tips about reading though – a good book is 100x better than an average one. It pays to be selective. Good books excite you, make you think – you can feel the connections forming in your head, little bursts of insight. Also, one reading is never enough. A good book breaks open and offers its nectar in 2nd, 3rd and 4th readings. You feel in your blood that you ‘get’ it. So, if a book is too easy or obvious, you probably should look for another.
Next in the mantra is the new element – Make Stuff. While ‘Do stuff’ was similar, it left out room for less impactful activities. For example, doing stuff means researching a company when you apply for a job, and stop there. Making stuff goes further, into making a prototype for the company to show during your interview. When you make, you overcome real challenges, you internalize knowledge.
The rewards today have shifted heavily in favour of makers. As an Indian student and professional, when I look back on the past two decades, I see that most of the time there was almost zero focus on creative output. We had to memorize facts, crack aptitude tests, and as we entered our first jobs, be good at communication (i.e., English) and teamwork. (and these all had value, sure). But no one asked us to make something. Even something trivial. No one pushed us to come up with new ideas or concepts. Someone had already found the best way a thing had to be done, and you were expected to replicate it. It was efficient. Why rock the boat?
But that does not pay dividends today, and the trend is clearly towards creating. Even earlier, makers had it better, but non-makers, followers, were fine too. Not anymore. To capture the upside from today’s technology, you must absolutely be a maker. Of course, the first few things you make – books you write, sketches you draw, algorithms you code, companies you create, might fail. Probably will fail. But that’s the beauty, a culture of making expects you to fail. The payoffs from making a successful product/service/idea is so high, you can’t afford not to try many times.
Now for the part about meeting people. Why remove it? Both global trends and personal experience. I believed in ‘networking’: going to events, talking with a lot of people, reading ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’, etc. Not a bad idea, and it works like a charm in some professions. And of course I do not plan to stop meeting people or having meaningful relationships.
However, my focus will shift towards quality from quantity. Basically, enjoying relationships for their intrinsic value, (you know, the warm, fuzzy feeling) rather than possible external rewards. Because in the age of permission-less innovation, the maker can always go out and offer his ideas to other makers, and get things rolling, while the networker (who does not make) will likely be lost in the quagmire of how to please a diverse array of people.
Now for the next big learning / formula.
Definitely Good >> Uncertain >> Definitely Bad
This is my framework now for taking important life decisions. It means this – if things in your life are definitely good, do not change them unless you are absolutely, 110% certain of the next move. And if they are definitely bad, well, change them right now. This is a but subjective, but you probably get what I am talking about.
First the bad v/s uncertain angle. I found that it takes many specific chance events for things to uniquely and definitely suck. In a previous job, I could easily put my finger on 4 to 5 things which specifically happened with my batch of employees (they did not happen to people who joined before or after), to classify it as unique bad luck. Thus, if you fall into such a place, it is statistically almost certain that going out into the unknown will be good for you. So, don’t delay, and don’t worry.
The same applies to good situations. We discount the worth of what we have achieved. It is very likely that it was a unique combination of both hard work and luck which landed us in a good place. Hence, by similar logic, an uncertain move will probably be sub-optimal, at least in the short run. This might make more sense as you get older, because with time we stabilize more variables in life (like career, living location, relationships).
I cannot decide for you, this is just my framework, going forward in life.
Next idea: News is toxic. End.
No seriously. From a news perspective, the world is in a shitty place. Machines will take over all jobs, Trump is screwing the planet, Brexit oh shit, Uber CEO pushed out, Bitcoin rising, ETH falling, etc. etc. How much of that can you influence, even if it matters to you?
Let me spare you the detailed rant. I have objectively, statistically, found that using Twitter lowers my productive output. Yes, I get to know a lot of cool stuff to impress my friends with, but it is not worth the loss of productivity. No. I can anyways learn things as I need them when I work.
And for special interesting topics (Technology/Venture Capital for me), you always have a good weekly/monthly newsletter which filters the dirt and gets you the tasty, juicy stuff – your antidote to FOMO. So I will minimize news consumption (am already off most social media, because why would you waste life?), if only for peace of mind.
About Dutch Culture
I need to explore more, but I have grown endeared to Dutch culture. Yes they do not have the French literature, Italian food, Swiss landscape or German philosophy, but they do have two very valuable assets – freedom to think, and an attitude of craftsmanship (read, a culture of making).
Freedom to think, freedom to be, is well known about this country. Since last few centuries, thinkers (like the philosopher Spinoza) have taken refuge here, when there lives were in danger elsewhere. You can say almost anything offensive to anyone, and they would probably not mind it. Well they would give their opinion on it, but clearly hierarchy is low, and there is tremendous value on consensus. Many people wonder that how does the system ever work if every stakeholder’s view is taken into account? When do they act? I wonder so too, but the effects are there. Case in point – for their health care system, they spent almost a decade in discussing the concerns of multiple stakeholders – patients, doctors, insurers, and now they have the best healthcare system in Europe for many years in a row.
But I find the craftsmanship part of the culture even more alluring. They put energy into crafting things, learn quickly, and are proud of things they make. You can’t offend a Dutch person with your thoughts on gay marriage, but you can offend them by doing a lousy job or advocating a shortcut. The Dutch Design approach stresses less on intuition and more on processes which are outlined in painstaking detail. At the design department of Delft Institute of Technology, it’s almost a science.
One more thing
Finally, my last take is about honoring the past. Honoring who you are. Honoring who you have been. Learning new things is great; it is exciting, exhilarating, fun. At the same time, it is stressful. If we have a clear sense of who we are, who we have been, where we come from, what are our beliefs, our strengths, our biases, we remain centered and relaxed. It is much better to integrate, to assimilate, and to learn those things which naturally attract us. We all need a sense of wholeness. And I will strive, and urge you to strive for that feeling, and when you get it, to preserve and respect it.
P.S. I am just learning to sketch a bit. I apologize if they are not pleasing, but hope they are able to push the ideas faster off the screen, into your mind.
Update on Aug 31, 2017:
A post by the Venture Capitalist Brad Feld called Effective Networking builds on some ideas I mentioned in this blog post.
January 2, 2017 § 2 Comments
As we grow apart in our work & personal lives it becomes harder to keep up. Every year, I send out a newsletter to friends to share updates on what I am doing and thinking.
This year’s edition: 2016 – The year of mixed feelings
Hope this year takes you to your happy place.
P.S. Here are previous years’ editions:
December 13, 2016 § Leave a comment
There is a box of marbles. You know, marbles like this.
If 1000 such marbles are in a jar, 998 of them white, and 2 of them red. Now you dip your hand into these smooth marbles and take out one.
What are the chances that it is red?
Yes, 2/1000, or 0.2%.
Now, let’s do something else. There are 1,000 students who apply for a very selective high-mathematics program. The program can only have 2 students this year. Yeah, it’s hyper-mega-selective.
For any random student, the chances of getting selected are – 2/1000. Right?
Because all students are not alike. Unlike the marbles. A student who comes from a a well educated family, say, a doctor’s son has much better chances than 0.2%, and the son of a bicycle repair mechanic has much worse chances than 0.2%. And also, both these odds are not strictly computable. The odds would be the same if the students were exact clones both in terms of DNA and Environmental factors – and this is never the case with the complexity life offers us.
This might seem simple and trivial, but we make this basic mistake many times. Even Elon Musk. See if you can see the flaw in his argument.
If you didn’t, sample this. There are more than 7 Billion people on the earth right now. Almost all of them dream. A dream is indistinguishable from reality. So, the chance that you are reading this blog in a dream is 1/7 Billion? Or, around 56 Billion people have been known to exist till now, so the chances could be 1/56 Billion that this is real? Or what about animals? Do they dream? Micro-organisms? Aliens?
Or let’s take this even further. You are in the room with say, 200 novels. All these novels have different characters. Let’s say there are 1,000 characters in the same room as you are. Now, are the chances you being a fictional character 1 in 1,000? What about all novels available? What about all novels which ever existed? What about all oral stories AND novels which ever existed?
It’s fun and stimulating intellectual exercise to think that whatever we see is a simulation. I definitely recommend it for the next party. But it is downright dangerous to not understand how probability works in making important decisions. Most of the times, it is almost impossible to judge probability in real-life situations. But what’s more, you don’t even need to judge. For example, you don’t need to know the exact chances of accident due to drunken driving, to know that you should not do it.
If you are interested in more regarding these, I strongly suggest reading books by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – which have a lot of stories about how massively impactful decisions went wrong, because people did not think about the odds clearly.
December 7, 2016 § Leave a comment
Human brains are miraculous machines for pattern matching.
I read quite a few books and many times I find thinking the same things as the author – esp if the author is a big intellectual authority. As a younger man (23), I found a lot of things in common with Vivekananda.
Now, I feel a sense of pride when I see Silicon Valley philosopher-kings like Naval who recommend some of the same books that I do, and I read these books/authors before them, or before knowing they also recommended these books. Cases in point – Sapiens – for which I followed the author’s lectures before the book was published, and Jiddu Krishnamurti which I discovered in a book fair in a small town 9 years ago.
This drives me into a self-congratulatory mode. But here’s the catch. These guys have also read and recommend a lot of books which I have not read yet.
And that’s where I need to focus to maximize learning.
As we grow familiar with people, places and ideas, we like them more. We feel more comfortable with them. And we stop growing. Looking for gaps helps in growing, and keeps you humble.
Similar thing also happens when I read books. I used to underline the ideas I already agreed with, and glaze over things which were new. Or something startlingly new. But to uncover new perspectives, I now try to highlight things/names/places/ideas which I know little about. This is very different. Hope to learn and grow more.
In general, the negative, the not, helps you learn more. To analyze someone’s behavior, it helps to think of things they have not done. This reveals their unconscious biases, which might be better predictors of their behavior than conscious actions. Similarly, to understand a product, sometimes it helps to ask what does the product not do. Here you can either get into the mind of the creator to better understand the product, or sometimes discover opportunities to create better ones.
December 2, 2016 § 2 Comments
So yes, I have crossed the 300 days mark in the Dutch Land. A lot has happened, because stuff keeps happening, you know. But rather than a review, here are some observations/insights in general which have been on my mind (and WhatsApp, and Twitter !)
* Create products and stories. Destroy concepts and ideologies.
*Rationality and intellectual honesty are independent of credentials, and raise the effective IQ. (An average Dutch guy is more rational than many IIT/IIM graduates I know). Corollary: better decisions defeat raw analytical power in the long term.
*If you are offended about something, you are clinging to an illusion.
*Better to be clearly wrong than vaguely right.
*Don’t think different. Just think for yourself.
*Pray for what you have. Not for what you want. It’s called Gratitude.
*I am not distracted. You are boring.
*Engagement is commitment. Take the first step. Or, for many people, avoid the first step.
*Highest impact entrepreneurs make tools for creators.
*Defining mental clarity – when you can criticize your beliefs better than anyone else.
*The more things you want, the less you are likely to get.
*If no one makes fun of you, you don’t have (or express) original ideas. You repress yourself to fit in.
*A great strategist will spend least amount of time strategizing.
*You hire a book to enhance your mental models. If it fails, you should fire it. You want quality, not quantity, of hires.
*A well-thought out idea – is less and less distinguishable from execution.
*The less the apparent value, the more effort needed to sell a product.
*If you point at technicalities, your central point is weak.
*Learning new things improves knowledge of older things.
*Doing projects in which you cannot fail is largely a waste of time.
*When people say ‘I truly believe’ – it is a marker they are boring.
*You can learn more in 1 year of a startup than 5 years of a university.
*’Living in a simulation’ is the new ‘Living in a dream’.
*Career strategy -> find what is weird about you and make it 100x.
*Some people should call you crazy – some of the time.
*There is a time to let things happen, and a time to make things happen.
*In MOOCs, instructors talking to an actual class seem way more interesting than those you know are talking to a camera.
*Winning the wrong battles is worse than losing the right ones.
*Sometimes, strategy is just the set of actions you feel most emotionally comfortable about.
*Great art solves a problem – connecting to yourself.
If you enjoyed these, or didn’t, I have more:
August 22, 2016 § 4 Comments
So, I have crossed the 200 days mark in the Netherlands. Reflections are in order.
So, far last 2 months or so, my wife Swati has been here and it has been a great time with a lot of trips and socialization and richly flavored food.
Some key experiences before the internship started:
Collage-making workshop. Probably the most transformative 20 hours at TU Delft yet. I had no idea collages could be so powerful. Ultimately it’s the familiar concept of combining ideas to generate new ideas. But here, these are visuals. And the power of visuals – can have a solid impact. Have a look at these I found on the net:
And the things other participants made in the workshop had even more impact.
New friends. I also made some new friends – people from contrasting backgrounds. One comes from a Bengali family and was raised in the USA, whose mom works at Princeton. One is a Brazilian designer who recently found a boyfriend. He is the first guy I know who is gay. And others. Sometimes I think people too are collages of different ideas. And the more collages you see, the more your mind expands (yeah I don’t like saying ‘mind expands’, but what else to call that feeling?). Sometimes I just think ‘mental model upgraded‘.
Old friends. I also met some longtime friends who traveled to EU in the summers and they gave me fresh eyes to see this place.
For work, I have been researching the applications of Virtual Reality and I found a whole new world. There are a lot of things I experienced and came to know – as this is my first (though mini) working assignment in the EU.
Stuff about workplace – UNITiD:
- People come on time and leave on time. No work on evenings or weekends.
- People speak Dutch. I should have learnt it. Picking up bits and pieces now.
- We had lunch together. Everyday. The food was very different from the food offered at TU Delft. But I found you can have healthy and efficient lunch.
- There is no visible hierarchy – open floors, no CEO offices. No dress code at all. This might be due to this being a design consulting firm.
- Slack is an awesome tool for workplace communication.
- I worked with Multiple screens for the first time and found it so cool to move a window from one screen to another.
It was mesmerizing to see the ships in Rotterdam from those large windows while working on cool concepts in Virtual Reality.
There is an awful lot I can talk about about my work here. But I will make a separate presentation for it and I guess add a link to it later. Most interesting: I got to experience latest gadgets like the HTC Vive and Microsoft Hololens (Oculus Rift too, but it made me sick). Here is a pic of me with the Hololens (and a stock picture showing the experience).
These gadgets can expand the human experience and the applications are pretty astounding. I am eagerly waiting for the awesome future. But sometimes I worry that tech. is moving too fast and I may not be able to keep up with it. Just like cultures do not embrace technology at the same speed, individuals too have varying rates of adoption. And while human brain surely has an upper bound for speed of learning, tech is advancing way too rapidly. Way too rapidly. I mean, self-driving cars are already there !
While I experienced the future, I also explored the past. Made a visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Swati and I spent 6 hours there and I spent 4 more reading about the guy.
While he did go nuts before he died a horrible death, he was painted with great care and discipline and wrote insightful, feeling-laden letters to his friends and family. Some people even assert that he was a natural writer who taught himself painting.
He learned a new ways of painting when he moved to Paris (the place to be for artists then) and his paintings became better. I could not help but think – Silicon Valley today is like Paris of that time – a hotbed of new ideas. How would a creator change if he went there? Also, Van Gogh was very much of a prolific doer who ‘executed’ and ‘failed fast’. In the last year of his short life, he averaged 1 painting a day !
Here are some of Van Gogh’s interesting works. In 2-D, their impact is greatly diminished. Significant power of a painting comes from the thick effect of a passionate artist’s brushstrokes.
I also visited the Magritte Museum in Belgium and dipped into surrealist art. I had heard about “Ceci n’est pas une pipe“. But had no idea it was from Magritte. Check out these interesting ones :
It is tempting to think that looking at paintings is a pretentious exercise. But these painters took far-fetched leaps of imagination and again, I can’t find words to describe the experience of looking at these except ‘mind-expanding’. This quote by surrealist painter Salvador Dali comes to mind:
And then finally, it has been so good to discover new places. We visited the Scheveningen beach in The Hague and Kralingse Lake in Rotterdam.
So well, there has been a lot of good time and mental-model upgrade in these days. And I hope there is more to come.
I see that this looks like it is just fun and happy time here. But there have been days of guilt and insecurity. And strong ones. Adjusting to a new culture is hard. Our hardwiring is very strong. I can opt to remain in my comfort zone and only talk to most Indians or people in international companies. Or I can soak in the new as much as possible. I choose the latter, because that’s what I see myself as. But it is hard. And it is definitely not for everyone.
Let’s see what the next 100 days have to offer 🙂
May 11, 2016 § Leave a comment
100 days completed here at Delft. Some reflections are in order.
How are things?
Things are good. Better than before.
Academics – Am scoring near or exactly the top of class in individual assignments, and fairly well in group work – overall efficient. In initial days, there were some fears of academic overload, but they are allayed. Academics are not my goal, but good to know that they don’t obstruct my way.
Weather – Way better. The days have become longer and warmer, and I ride a bike now. Fun and good cardiovascular exercise.
Internship – Being a bit hyperactive in initial days, I got an internship in a digital design company in Rotterdam. Feels good as I will be able to skill-up during July and August, and also learn more from pro-designers.
Dutch Culture – I have grown to like Dutch people and their style. Open and relaxed and easygoing and direct. Coming from startups where directness is valued, I feel more at home here. I particularly enjoy talking to Dutch Design professionals – they are straight-talking hard working no-bullshit people.
Also, I have not yet learned much of Dutch, but that’s never been a big problem.
Traveling – Have been traveling around a bit, and of course, many places are like pictures cut out of a postcard.
Work – Am able to resume design work with the awesome Indian-language startup Pratilipi. Remote work is not that tough if you have a good relationship with existing team.
What did I learn?
Ideas Matter – Yes, we all know execution matters. But you know that ideas create impact when you meet people who have no ideas. I love reading – this helped me sail through in assignments here.
Networking is the (probably) the best time investment – Maybe in today’s world ‘What you know’ is more important than ‘Who you know’ but I am not talking of networking in sense of pulling strings – but of exploring different perspectives. The more new people you meet, the more ways of thinking you have, and again, more ideas.
And connecting with people helps you create enormous leverage in output – you can do things which you never could have done alone.
Humility Matters – especially in design – it is very easy to fall in love with your work, it is your creation, your baby. But that closes your mind to other people’s ideas, and you cannot grow as a creator if you cannot receive new ideas. Being Indian, I also suffer from a sort of IQism, a bias for smart people, but some people need not be fast, widely read thinkers to create great output. They do it simply because of their love of the craft.
Keeping on the Treadmill – Sometimes, brute time investment produces far better results. Especially in design, iteration makes output dramatically better. Something like this:
It is quite easy to fall back on just-do-it attitude, and being satisfied with whatever result comes out. But even in other areas, like meeting new people – keeping the push on gives great results which make complacency look scary.
Social Interactions are like games – When I was new here, I could clearly see how so many of the social interaction were like little games. Little power games. Emotional gymnastics. Now that the relations are more stable, I don’t notice it that much, but initially, the observations were stark. Needless to say, people who are good at this have an easier time overall.
Concretization – While it is good to write read or discuss ideas on digital tools, it helps a lot to use pen, paper and colored printed material to do serious work with ideas. The more physical the process, the better your results.
So, yeah, overall, things are fine. I am worried about relaxing too much in the good weather, but maybe this post will help me keeping on the learning and growth. Looking forward to more fun ahead !