500 days !
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.