Would it help?

In the movie “The Bridge of Spies,” Tom Hanks’ character, James Donovan, strikes a lovely unlikely friendship with the convicted Soviet spy, Rudolph Abel. After Donovan’s first meeting with the judge, the following exchange takes place.

Rudolf Abel: How did we do?
James Donovan: In there? Uh, not too good. Apparently you’re not an American citizen.
Rudolf Abel: That’s true.
James Donovan: And according to your boss, you’re not a Soviet citizen either.
Rudolf Abel: Well, the boss isn’t always right but he’s always the boss.
James Donovan: Do you never worry?
Rudolf Abel (in a tone that is politely curious): Would it help?

There are, I think, 2 other moments in the movie when Hanks mentions something potentially worrying and, surprised by Abel’s calm reaction, asks – “Aren’t you worried about that?”


To which, Abel always asks – “Would it help?”

Such an inspiring attitude towards problems and worry. One for us to take forward into the new year.

On writing every day

The biggest challenge involved with signing up for regular content generation is, well, content generation. Generating content becomes a lot easier if the content is tied with the news in some way. That way, there’s something new and interesting to write about every day.

I would argue that every daily blog is built on the idea of a news feed. Instead of seeing conventional news, we simply see a feed of ideas from the author’s brain. So, it is natural that Fred Wilson’s blog is mostly about technology, venture capital and entrepreneurship. And, it also makes sense that Seth Godin writes about marketing, taking initiative and writing among other such topics. As you might have noticed, what they write about has a lot to do with their chosen craft.

When I started writing here, I just wanted to change the way I thought about failure. I also fervently hoped that, over time, I’d build up my discipline muscles to be able to live up to my commitment to write a learning every day. I didn’t really believe I could, then. As I didn’t have any craft as a 19 year old in university, I was clearly not going to be writing about anything craft related. I wasn’t particularly wise either. So, I didn’t think I had too much insight to offer. But, hey, I figured anybody could look at their day and share a learning. So, this blog began as a theme-less blog. As time passes and I find myself committing to an industry (technology), I do find myself thinking about (often intentionally) technology more. However, a few posts aside, this blog has largely stayed, in my mind at least, theme-less.

Over time, however, I’ve realized that this blog isn’t really theme-less. It does, in fact, have a theme. Just one. It deals with an approach to life that is built on an idea – being a student of life. A few years into writing a learning a day, I realized that the act of looking for a learning every day had completely changed the way I saw the world. Things that were the same didn’t look the same any more. Writing here had changed me. And, I found myself switch from writing about my experiences and learnings all the time to writing about them some of the time. There arose a new genre of posts – posts about “how” to learn. And, since the grand theme was being a student of life, this naturally became about “how” to live. That was the moment it stopped being about me and my experiences and, instead, became about finding “the” answer to some meaty questions – how can you live a good life?, how do you learn?, how do you be happy?, etc. My experiences, thus, became just a means to carry out experiments and test the various theories that I thought made sense. This constant iteration-driven approach was intended at unearthing a set of principles which governed life on this planet. Lofty, I know. But, as with all worthy journeys, this was less about the destination and more about the journey.

All this brings me back to the idea of seeing a feed of ideas from the writer’s brain. As a result, blogging every day becomes all about seeing the world from the writer’s point of view. That is why I picked out topics folks like Fred and Seth write about – if they talk about their craft a lot, it is simply because they think about their craft a lot and see it everywhere.

(Seth, as per usual, has a shorter and better version of the above paragraphs in a post about “learning to see” that I’m unable to find right now. It is an idea I have only begun to appreciate over time.)

All of this, to me, is why writing every day is so powerful. It is just you, unvarnished – just your thoughts and your writing instrument stand between you and your readers. There is no act, no bullshit. You just learn to show up in your own authentic voice every day.

As of today, it’s been about 7 years and 7 months of daily blogging here. And, as I think about what this blog will look like in the next 7 years, I think I would expect to see more posts about my craft as my craft of choice becomes clearer. But, true to its roots, I expect the core of what I write to continue to be about “how” to learn. Teaching myself “how” to learn has underscored one thing – how we approach something is how we approach everything. That is why thinking about how to learn translates so beautifully into thinking about how to live.

I didn’t know any of this when I started on this journey, of course. It is only now that I’m beginning to grasp how this simple act of writing every day has transformed me. It has done what a great education does – not just changed what I see, but also shaped how I see. And, while I am benefiting greatly from a $200K education in the principles of business that is truly changing the way I see the world, I sometimes wonder what the real value of the sort of life education this blog has inspired is. It definitely gets an A+ for impact.

So, it follows that when I am asked the “how do I get started on blogging?” question from an aspiring blogger, I always try to get at the motive. If it is for someone else and isn’t something you’re getting paid to do, my experience dictates that it isn’t going to work in the long run. It is way too much work. The only way this can work is if you do so for yourself and if you focus on sharing what you see. That is why this blog goes against most conventional blogging advice – optimize heavily for SEO, spend at least as much time promoting as you spend on writing, get popular guest bloggers, focus on building an audience, etc.

The only thing I optimize for is showing up every day and sharing what I’m seeing. It is this simplicity that has made it work for me.

And, luckily, thanks to your thirst for learning related content on the Internet, I have gotten to have you join in the journey as readers and, then, hear from and engage with many of you wonderful people. So, for all of you who’ve joined the community over the course of this year, I thought I’d share the backstory of the thought process behind these daily notes.

As this year comes to a close, I’d like to thank you for sharing these notes with your friends and family, writing in every once a while, and, most importantly, for giving me a minute or two of your attention every day. It means more than you know. :-)

writing, write

Specific compliments

There’s a lot of focus on giving specific constructive feedback. Radical candor, etc., etc.

I believe there needs to be as much of emphasis on giving specific compliments. Don’t just say – “you did well” – help people understand what they did that resulted in the compliment.

A specific compliment is powerful because it can help point to a strength that the doer didn’t know of. For all our focus on eliminating weaknesses, weaknesses only avoid trouble.

It is our strengths that help us do work that matters.

The way of focus

The way of focus, fittingly, involves asking just one question – “Is this the best use of my time right now?” – over and over again.

Asking this question automatically requires us to evaluate if we’re spending wasting time focusing on urgent items vs. important ones. It means consistently understanding and evaluating trade-offs and, then, making the best decision given the constraints.

Relentless focus and great strategy are, in essence, the same thing.

focus, trade-offs

The growing outrage surrounding Free Basics by Facebook

Newspapers in India have had full page ads like the one below asking people to support “digital equality.” The Free Basics initiative by Facebook (previously called Internet.org) provides free access to a list of 20 “basic” websites on most mobile plans. More free internet for 1.2 Billion people – all good, then.

free basics, Facebook

However, since the ads were first published a week ago, there has been growing outrage. All of the criticism, to me, revolves around the two words that make up the name – Free and Basics.

The internet has been “free” throughout its history – free in the sense that we could always access any website we wanted for the same cost. There was no priority given to certain websites, regardless of whether or not it was controlled by a service provider. When measures to change this “net neutrality” were discussed in the US Congress a couple of years ago, internet denizens around the world rose up in arms to express their discontent and anger. So, there are a lot of people who hate folks who try to mess with this equality.

The other issue is with “basics.” The issue boils down to one question – who decides what constitutes “basics?” The fact that Facebook does so doesn’t sit well with most people because Facebook, like any profit driven corporation, has incentives. What are the chances Facebook would willingly label a competitive threat as part of their “basics” list?

As Techcrunch points out, Facebook definitely has its work cut out in resolving this.

If I were Facebook, I would consider re-branding the initiative. All of the marketing that has surrounded the initiative seems to indicate a philanthropic initiative and that is the center of this outrage. It is coming across as manipulative. Companies like Google and Facebook benefit greatly from having more people on the internet. More people = more ads = more money. It is no coincidence that the other company experimenting with providing internet for the masses is Google. This is a fantastic business idea – it is akin to subsidizing membership costs (effectively cost of data usage) in countries like India and then getting customers hooked on the service (Facebook does this well). Telling it as it is – “we want more of you to use Facebook and we will subsidize it” – would go a long way.

It is a pity that a fantastic business initiative is getting lost in some misplaced attempt at corporate social responsibility.

(Some folks are using the opportunity to also criticize Mark Zuckerberg for the way he structured his $45 Billion pledge. I think that is nonsense. There are always people who’re going to find ways to criticize people who give. In the critic’s world, the giver would find some unbiased way to donate their wealth. There is, however, no unbiased way. The way I see it, in Mark’s case, it is his money and he can do with it what he likes. If he is going to apply it to make the world better, good for him. At least he’s trying…)

No, not now

If you had to pick 3 words that, in combination, would change your life, it is unlikely you’d pick “No, not now.”

But, they would. Such is the power of delayed gratification. Say “No, not now” to unhealthy food and we gift ourselves better health in the future. Say “No, not now” to non essential time suckers and we gift ourselves productivity and happiness.

Why say “not now?” Because, we hate hearing “no.” Just delay it. Forever.

But, does this mean signing up for a life with no joy? Does everything good get perennially delayed?

Absolutely not. Once you start down the delayed gratification path, it takes a few months for the effects of your work to kick in. But, 6 months down the line, as you’re saying “No, not now” to a new beast, you’re probably experiencing the joys of good health thanks to your excellent exercise regime. Or, you’ve just finished celebrating your top notch performance at your half yearly performance review. And, what you’re doing now will be cause for celebration 6 or 8 months later. It is a beautiful virtuous cycle that encourages us to focus on what’s important for the long term.

The cycle is so beautiful that denial becomes a beautiful thing. Every time you find yourself in pain or denying yourself something, you know there’s something better in store later. The value of good stuff compounds over time.

not now

“No, not now” – they don’t just make things better, they make life awesome.

Simple traditions

During a visit home 2 years back, my mom and I started a simple tradition – we go for a walk to a park nearby (pic below) every evening I am at home. This is, of course, great for conversation as well as for our health. But, the biggest benefit is that it is now “our thing.”

traditions, simple

Simple traditions such as this evening walk have a way of becoming special over time. I have a long list of these over the years – McDonalds breakfast at 4am after hanging out on Saturday night, lunches at a particular restaurant with a certain friend, catch up on Friday afternoons at a particular spot – that remain very close to my heart.

I look to create these traditions from time to time. As with most of my experiments, many don’t work. :-) But, some do.. and these end up becoming very memorable.

Books that made an impact – 2015

I’ve shared my favorite books in 3 of the last 4 years. I generally manage to read ~25 books per year. This number has effectively halved while at school given all the reading I get through for coursework. So, I’d predicted I’d read 12 books this year during my end of year review of books that made an impact last year. I managed 14 (woohoo!) and I thought I’d pick out 4 fantastic books.

Books, 2015, impact,

1. Mastery by Robert Greene. I read half this book in 2014 and half in 2015. Many of the lessons from this stuck resonated deeply. While I didn’t necessarily find many of the topics around deliberate practice and effort new, I thought Greene’s take on emotional intelligence and managing mentorship enlightening. The most powerful lesson for me was – “Don’t listen to what people say, pay careful attention to what people do.” This sounds pretty obvious. But, it came to me at a time when I really needed this advice.

Great book. A must read.

2. How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams. Another book that receives my highest recommendation. Scott Adams is smart, savvy and lives his life as an experimenter. I love and relate to his approach to life and I think he’s gotten the skill of living well down pat. He has plenty of practical advice about success and day-to-day living. There are many favorite lessons from the book. However, his theory on collecting many mediocre skills versus mastery in just one and his insistence of designing systems versus setting goals are my favorites.

3. The Innovators by Walter Isaacson. This book is a history of technology from the times of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. I found this book both interesting and inspiring. It definitely helped solidify some of my thinking around the power of teams while also helping me understand the nature of innovation.

4. High Output Management by Andy Grove. I’ve written about this book in the past few weeks. A good part of this book wasn’t completely new to me as the wonderful Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing about Hard Things” was clearly inspired by Andy’s style. But, Andy’s “tell-it-as-it-is” style combined with his piercing insight on the science of management make this a management classic.

As always, book reviews from all books this year and before are on my book reviews blog. The books are categorized into 4 priorities based on the strength of their impact in my life.

Here’s to more reading in 2015. And, just for fun, I’ll continue the trend of making predictions and predict 18 books read next year as I expect the number to go up once I’m out of school.

Happy reading!

Picking people

Every human being we closely associate with is a result of a conscious or sub conscious choice we’ve made. We pick friends, life partners, colleagues, and managers. We control the picking process more in some cases than others. In cases where we didn’t directly pick a person we interact with, it was likely a result of association. If our friends are accomplished athletes, it is very likely they brought in a new athlete into the circle.

In the final analysis, the depth of our relationships will likely determine our happiness. And, what’s more, our intelligence, fitness, maturity and wisdom will likely be the average of the people we associate with the most.

Life, as a result, is an exercise in picking people.

So, as we reflect this holiday season, let’s examine all the relationships we’ve picked in our life. Let’s be open to letting go of relationships that aren’t working as well as they used to (I’ve learnt that is more because of “bad fit” rather than because of “bad people”). These relationships are a great opportunity to fine tune our picking process.

And, after we do that, let’s make sure we take a minute or two to give thanks (or, perhaps, write a quick note?) for those relationships that make us happier, wiser and better. Those don’t come by often. And, for every one of those, congratulations to you on picking well.

picking people,, pick, relationships

The 10 question annual reflection form

6 years ago, I created a 10 question annual review form as a way to do a “look back and look forward” reflection exercise at the end of the year. Of course, ten questions isn’t perfect and longer forms might do a better job. But, I wanted the reflection to be short and fun rather than something that felt daunting.

Over these years, I’ve found myself spending lesser time on this review. That’s because the questions from the exercise, particularly the ones around the skills I intend to develop, have increasingly driven my thought process during the year. So, the reflection has become an ongoing process rather than a once a year thing. And, I think that’s exactly how it should work.

Review, reflectionI have shared the form every year on this blog and, keeping with tradition, I have the PDF and word versions of the review form for you. Please feel free to use as is or edit to develop your own. Aside from suggesting you take 15 minutes to do this, I would definitely suggest keeping these forms with you. Revisiting them in future years is not just fascinating.. it is fun. :-)

Happy reflection!

PS: If you’re having difficulty with the word version, please just send me an email on rohan at rohanrajiv.com