Feeling Useful

One of the little things I realized is that I feel happy when I feel useful.

Of course, this shouldn’t be all that surprising. Happiness and meaning have been showed to be very closely linked since time immemorial. The only issue with that is that ‘meaning’ is a big word, and one whose meaning is not all that easy to understand and apply(ironically enough).

It seems like we, as humans, share the need to wake up in the morning and do what we do knowing that if we decided not to show up tomorrow, we would be missed, hopefully sorely missed, not only for what we do but also for who we are. To simplify further, we share the need to be feel useful and feel loved.

Of course, the debate takes a new twist once we get down to understand what if we are useful/loved and don’t feel so. Too bad. Doesn’t count.

The wonderful part is that one half of this is entirely in our control. We have so many options  to feel useful – if the feeling isn’t coming from our work, we have more opportunities than ever before to participate and do thanks to this wonderful internet thing. (in addition to all those opportunities that already exist, of course!)

Of course, while the internet could mean the not-so-useful side of Facebook, Twitter and the like, it could also mean volunteering for not-for-profits, building online teams to work on initiatives, teaching kids steeped in poverty via the internet. Two sides to every coin after all.

We have the power. With that, comes great responsibility.. We can choose to make it count.

‘Looking for excuses, are you? Gone, they are. Left them behind 10 years ago. we did..’

3 Levels of Difficulty

I’ve found that any work/job/project typically comes with 3 levels of difficulty.

The least difficult, or level 1, is generally managing the work itself. However complex the financial model or however difficult the code, unless you have taken on something that’s way beyond your level of competence, you typically crack it. Of course, you may get lots of help in the process but you’ll get it done.

The next level of difficulty, or level 2, is managing the people we work with. This involves managing expectations of bosses, colleagues, clients and the like. This is always pretty challenging because it requires the awareness that every person has a different style.

If all is well on this dimension, we hardly even notice it. But, but if all is not well (i.e. if we have the good luck to be surrounded by unreasonable bosses and difficult colleagues), no matter how easy the job itself, work-life can become a really difficult experience. Potentially character building, but still rather painful.

The most difficult of them all, or level 3, is managing ourselves. It doesn’t matter how great the work or the colleagues, if we can’t get stuff done or manage our behaviour, it is pretty much game over.


The reason this is the hardest is because this directly impacts levels 1 and 2. If we have a prioritization or procrastination or I-don’t-seek-help problem, expect managing the work to be an uphill task. And if we lack the requisite amount of self awareness or patience to deal with people we work with, then level 2 can be really difficult.

Either way, this frame really helps me re-think my internal blame game when things are tough at work.

It is nice to know that, at the end of the day, I hold the key to defining my experience. Maybe not the events, but definitely what I make of them a.k.a. the experience.

And, maybe, by taking control of the experience, I gradually have more control over the events. Just maybe..

Work Hacks Wednesdays: Email nice-ities

It’s amazing how much of ‘work’ in our age is done via email. Yet, it is one of those things for which we never receive any kind of formal training! We are expected to go out into the world and just ‘do it’ and hopefully, just ‘do it right.’

Email is likely to pop up more than a few times on this work hacks feature as a result since I’ve learnt a tremendous amount about email over the past few years and have witnessed the amount of value it can add if done right (which, like most things, is pretty hard!.

Today’s focus will be on email nice-ities.

Disclaimer: Email nice-ities are a personal style thing. We all have our own preferences and styles. So, I’ll do my best to focus less on what I do vs why I do it. The principles should hold in most, if not all, cases.

Hacks and Principles:

1. Starting the email with a ‘Dear’

In a formal context, I am big on using ‘Dear’ as a precursor to the name. ‘Hey’ works if I know the person well. I never send an email addressing the person just by their name.

Here, the principle is very personal. When I receive an email that starts without a ‘Dear’ or a ‘Hey’, it feels to me a bit like an order/what one would use if pissed off. And, since I am not a fan of the style, I don’t send it to anyone else.

That said, I realize this is very common and not intended this way. I warned you though.. some of this is just personal preference. My view, in any case, is that you can’t go wrong starting an email with a ‘Dear’. And when you are young and learning the ropes, I find it’s best to take ‘no risk’ approaches in such things.

2. Warm first line like ‘Hope you are doing well.’

If I am reaching out to someone for the first time, I like putting in a first line like ‘Hope you are doing well.’ This is similar to calling a person and saying ‘How are you?’ before jumping into business. Even if the answer is a formal ‘Good, good, thank you!’ and a note about the weather’, I’ve learnt that these nice-ities matter.

3. Ending line like ‘Do let me know if I can help in any way.’/’Thank you so much’/’Looking forward to hearing from you!’

This is all contextual of course but again, the principle is that nice-ities matter!

4. Closing line like ‘Best Regards’

Lifehacker had a very good article on email closing lines that I featured once. A good read and hopefully that helps.

In my case, I typically alternate between ‘Thank you, and best regards’, ‘Thanks and best’, ‘Best regards’ and ‘Best’ depending on context.

5. Signature (if applicable) like ‘Sent from my handheld’

For most of us, the company probably puts this in by default. We often do have control over our mobile phone signatures. Again, I have a post from the past that is inspired from a Lifehacker article.

The end result. in my case, is ‘Sent from my handheld. Please ignore all typos’

6. Smileys – a bonus

While I would never use smileys in an email to anyone unfamiliar, I do use smileys when I know someone well. I am a fan of them because they often depict the mood of an email and lighten the little things like when you are asking someone for a favour.

Of course, this is all contextual but I’ve found them to be very useful in conveying the ‘feeling’ of an email right.

As I said, a lot here is style dependent. I’ve picked most of these up from others and some of these from articles and the like. Would love to understand how you do it as well..

Being Interested

A lot of our ‘social education’ revolves around being interesting.

The social scenario we tend to imagine typically involves making an impression on a room full of important/interesting people. Ideas like ‘fit in before you stand out’, ‘make a great first impression’ come to mind.

In our effort to be social successes, we are taught to speak clearly, dress well and the like. And, there are multiple popular blog posts out there in the blogosphere that talk about ‘how to be interesting’ – read more, travel more, catch up on the news etc.

If we stop for a moment, flip the situation around and think about the outcome we intend to achieve, it is likely to be around making a good impression/having an impact on the people we meet.

Perhaps, then, all our social training needs to just be geared to that outcome because, and this is my argument, all we need to really make an impression on someone is to be interested.

That’s not to say this is any easier. It actually requires us to pay full attention, to not worry about what we have to say, to ask meaningful questions and be fully engaged and present. It will likely endear us to the person on the other side much more than ‘being interesting’ will.

The most beautiful thing about the being interested approach is that you can’t fake it. Either you are listening, or not. It shows.

PS: I am not saying you shouldn’t go about being interesting. Just that doing things like traveling 40 countries just to be interesting sounds like an awful amount of time and effort for an outcome that can be achieved otherwise.

If you love the traveling, that’s a different matter. Do it because you care. Not because you feel it will pay dividends, would be my view. It shows.


We are who we are because of the systems that support us. We are always standing on someone’s shoulders and that’s why the whole ‘self made’ man adage is nothing but a myth. We either admit that our success is a by product of our circumstances or choose to ignore the big elephant in the room.

And, by success, I mean our greatest success – whether it is getting through school or college or doing well at what we do. Of course, we do put in the hard work but then again, you could argue that our family instils our work ethic. This is not to say we don’t have control on our lives. We do control our responses to events but our support system probably has the greatest power of them all, the power to make us or break us.

That is why kids born to wealthy families typically do well. That is why everyone wants to work in a prestigious company or study in a prestigious school. Brands, at the end of the day, are support systems (atleast their alumni groups are..). Success breeds success.

Keeping this in view, our family and close friends are our most basic support system. I term this one as framily. These are the folks we share our successes and failures with and hopefully, they support us during our lows and cheer us on during the highs. The expansion beyond family is very helpful here too since, for many, close friends play that role. Still, like it or not, family matters. When we fall seriously sick, no friend can afford to put a stop to their life to take care of us. Family will.

If we have mentor relationships in the ‘friends’ bucket, that’s helps as a lot too. For as we grow, they often tend to be the greatest support system of them all. I say this because they have not only ‘been there, done that’ but also offer a guiding, slightly less biased point of view. Such relationships are worth their weight in gold.

We all have support systems – whether we like it or not. The good news is that whether they are strong or weak depends a great deal on us. We DO control this part.

All that said then, I think the big question to start the week by is the obvious one –

Are we doing enough to build and nurture our support system?

Happy Monday!

On The Jack Story

This week’s learning is from ‘The Law of the Garbage Truck’ by David J Pollay.

David Pollay had just faced a setback and he was beginning to picture a chain of misfortunes that happened as a result that all ended with him being a complete failure!

That’s when his Dad told him the Jack story..

‘A guy is driving through a deserted highway when one of his tires blows out. He gets out of his car and pops open the trunk to look for a spare tire and realizes he doesn’t have a jack.

He realizes that he has to walk to the gas station he passed 5 miles ago.

As he walks, he says to himself ‘I hope he has a jack’.
Half way through, he mumbles anxiously ‘He better have a jack.’

When he’s close, he growls ‘The guy better let me use his jack.’

Minutes later, he arrives at the gas station – hot and fuming. He sees the owner in the garage and says ‘Hey buddy, you can forget it. Keep your stinkin’ jack!’

He turns back and marches five miles back to his car.. With no jack.’

‘Why spend all your energy thinking about all disastrous consequences? Not only do you upset yourself, you take away your ability to deal with the problem at hand. ‘Don’t build a Jack story’ David’s father said with a smile.

Wise advice.

Here’s to remembering the Jack story and smiling at misfortunes this week!


I just finished reading ‘The Geography of Bliss’ by Eric Weiner. I am in an understanding happiness phase at the moment and this book was a treat in every sense of the word. The book is a story about a grumpy journalist i.e. Eric Weiner who travels the world searching for the happiest places in a quest to understand happiness. The book is fun, happy, deep, humorous, relatable and insightful all at once.

There are many many great quotes, lessons and insights in the book. And I thought I’d pull one up about attention that stuck with me.

“Attention’ is an underrated word. It doesn’t get the… well, the attention it deserves. We pay homage to love, and happiness, and, God knows, productivity, but rarely do we have anything good to say about attention. We’re too busy, I suspect. Yet our lives are empty and meaningless without attention.

My two-year-old daughter fusses at my feet as I type these words. What does she want? My love? Yes, in a way, but what she really wants is my attention. Pure, undiluted attention. Children are expert at recognizing counterfeit attention. Perhaps love and attention are really the same thing. One can’t exist without the other.”

I’ve been thinking about that story since and reflecting about it. I’ve read over a 100 books in the past 4 years or so and it’s gotten to a point where I feel like hardly anything I read is new. The concepts are all similar, the underlying principles are the same.. yet, each book brings with it a different level of insight and understanding. It’s the power of words, really. String them together right and they work like magic. Stories have that magical power and perhaps that’s why this book was magical. It was one large story at the end of the day made up of many small ones, some of which really struck a chord.

In this case, the story didn’t just strike a chord. As a friend once joked, it was more of a gong. It instantly reminded me of the quote about zen – ‘The essence of zen is to do one thing at a time.’

If I have to brutally honest with myself, I have constantly hidden behind my natural ADD to justify my bad behaviour. On calls with family, I am almost always doing something else on the side that distracts me – checking email or browsing for example. Of late, I’ve been seriously considering getting an iPad since it is blindingly obvious when you are ‘multi tasking’ on an iPad. Your video doesn’t show! And I’ve also tried discipline myself to do more conversations on my phone, walk, run an errand if necessary so I’m not near the computer.

In short, I feel like I struggle with giving the ones I love the most the attention they deserve. They deserve much better and I could do much better.

Hence, this story came at a wonderful time. I am big on the importance of quality time vs quantity time. I just don’t walk the talk as often as I should. And that’s why I’m broadcasting it to the world. I only write stuff here that I do or intend/promise to do. And like all the other little personal betterment initiatives, I’ll keep you all posted.

And to Eric, thank you. This is likely to be the first of many quotes from your book that I will think about and talk about. You should know that you’ve made a difference and inspired me. And as one commenter here said, ‘You should know that inspiration is one of the most powerful things we do.’

Happy weekend everyone.

Just Like Magic

As a kid, the mental equivalent of something wonderful was that it was ‘just like magic’.

Of course, as a kid, I met with wonder pretty often. There were so many ‘new’ things that kept popping up in life, so many things I did not understand or know much about and very often, this meant experiencing or witnessing something completely unexpected.

As I have grown older, my encounters with wonder have reduced significantly. While I could conclude that this is thanks to my vast knowledge and deep understanding of the universe, I know enough to know otherwise. I just pay less attention. I am somehow wrapped in my own world of thoughts, ideas, issues and, I should add, push notifications. Too wrapped.

So, these days, I am beginning to actively take time out in the day to stare into nothingness, ignore all technology and see what the world throws at me. I’m much happier for it. (I don’t schedule it. Wouldn’t it be the ultimate irony if I did?) And I think I notice and experience life a little more.

And, yesterday evening, while I was speaking with a colleague at the train station, we suddenly spotted a rainbow. This time, I didn’t just ignore it and continue the conversation. Aside from it being terribly rude, I would have just missed my ‘moment of the day’.

I turned and saw a gorgeous array of colours in the sky (yes, also known as a rainbow…). All conversation stopped for a moment as I looked. I even pulled out my phone to take a picture so I could share it with you. This is a big deal as I don’t like taking photos or videos of things I see (yes, not an instagram user). I prefer just to experience things.

But, you simply had to see this picture..


..because the moment I turned to look at this wonderful sight that popped out of nowhere when my mind said ‘Wow. Just like Magic.’

Work Hack Wednesdays: Yes No No Yes Yes

After last week’s very practical and easy to apply work hack, this week’s hack will be less of a hack and more of a learning.

There is a lot of great literature out there that talk about the importance of saying ‘Yes’. The usual story here is that there are way too many naysayers and you automatically differentiate yourself when you say ‘Yes’ to things.

There’s equally compelling literature out there that talks of the importance of saying ‘No’. The logic here is that top performers are always saying ‘No’ to things that are lower in priority.

That’s the theory and as is always the case, it is very situational and contextual.

The real life application of this Yes-No Paradox for me has been to be (roughly) 60% yes, 40% no. My reasons are simple – there needs to be a balance between the two. Well, balance only happens in theory of course. We are constantly going to be straying to one side or the other. And, as a general rule, I’ve learnt that it’s better to stray towards the side of attempting too much than attempting too little.

The important caveat here is that these ratios change as you take on more important roles. When you start on a new challenge in a new work environment, it helps to be 90% Yes and grab all opportunities that come your way. Over time, you hopefully build a reputation of excellence and this allows you to pick and choose what you want to work on.

Of course, the only way to sustain the ability to choose is to continue delivering great work. The moment that stops happening, the choice magically disappears too.

The Hack: Be excellent and consistently push to deliver top class work. This naturally means that more opportunities will come your way. When they do, remember to exercise the option of saying ‘No’ and continue to keep focus on high priority stuff/things you enjoy. And of course, remember to make sure you don’t exercise it too much so as to become a naysayer.

Not much of a hack in the traditional sense of the word. But not much of work or life is hackable especially the ‘Be excellent’ part.

As Peter Drucker learnt in the first few weeks of his first job, you either ‘get good or get out.’

Why Not Me?

The moment misfortune strikes, we end up asking the ‘why me’ question.

Why do I have to be subject to bad luck, trials (that seem unnecessary), tests, failures, disappointments? Why now? and why ME?

The next time that happens – my suggestion would be to flip the question.

Why NOT me?

We have very limited control on the events that shape our lives. We have a lot of control over our responses.

If we are repeatedly responding badly (badly = with anger, jealousy, sadness, depression), there’s something fundamentally wrong with our approach to trials. And, if there’s something wrong with our approach, it’s time to flip the question.

PS: It works similarly for envy where we typically ask the ‘Why not me?’ question when someone else gets what we desire. Same concept applies. Flip the question..