Buying jeans

Like you, I’ve bought jeans since I was probably 10 years old. The nice thing about buying jeans once you are past your adolescent years is that they stay with you for a long time. I think one of my pairs is 10 years old and I still love it.

As I was largely using 2 pairs of jeans and since one was rapidly deteriorating, I decided to buy 4 more pairs of jeans over the course of last year since I wear jeans every day and since my job after graduation won’t require me to wear formal pants anymore. In doing so, I unwittingly ran it as an experiment. In the first run, I bought what I thought was the perfect pair of jeans as it was just the color I was looking for. However, as you might guess, there’s more to a good pair of jeans than color and I realized a few days in that the pair didn’t feel comfortable. I still wear it but I don’t love it.

In my next round of jeans shopping, I decided I would prioritize feel. And, so, I did. The pairs turned out to be very comfortable. But, I realized that one of the three pairs had a really small pocket. This makes carrying my collection of items – a phone, headphones, a handkerchief (old fashioned, I know), a Fitbit and a key nearly impossible. So, I use that pair slightly less than I’d have hoped.

Now that I’ve bored you with what must seem like painfully minor details about my wardrobe, let me get to the lessons I’ve learnt –

1. Things that seem obvious often aren’t so. You’d think I would know how to buy a good pair of jeans by now. But, I only figured the process out with experimentation. My priority list expanded from color to comfort to usability (pockets). This should have been obvious but, somehow, it wasn’t. A little bit of thought can help us get to the kind of clarity that makes things obvious.

2. Conscious buying is very important. I don’t like shopping. Maybe that explains the absence of a priority list for buying jeans? I do my clothes shopping in a few hours once or twice every year. As a fan of a generally minimal wardrobe (everything I own can easily fit into 2 suitcases), being conscious while purchasing clothes is very important. That is the only way to minimize waste and make sure I make full use of whatever I buy.

3. The scientific method. The process of experimentation is vital to making good buying decisions. Jeans are a very rare buy in my case. It has been at least 4-5 years since I’ve bought a pair. As a result, I wasn’t high up on the learning curve. However, I’ve bought t-shirts more often and I’ve gotten much better at buying t-shirts that I actually like and feel comfortable wearing. This wasn’t the case a few years ago. But, you experiment and learn.

A bit of thought tends to go a long way.

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The Power of Glass – The 200 words project

How often do we think about the impact glass has on our lives?

Glass making became mainstream as part of the Roman Empire. However, innovation occurred when glass makers from Constantinople relocated to Venice (the world’s top trading hub) after its fall. Since making glass involved high temperatures, accidents resulted in Venetian buildings being burnt down. So, all glass makers were exiled to the Venetian island of Murano. This led to an era of innovation among glass makers thanks to experimentation and sharing of ideas.

While the invention of the printing press has been lauded for its role in spreading radical ideas, it led to an important realization amongst now-literate common folk – they couldn’t see! The inventors from Murano rose to the challenge and churned out 3 massive innovations – spectacles, the microscope and the telescope. Within 20 years, Galileo had made the telescope famous. While it took longer for the microscope to have mainstream impact, Robert Hook’s study of insects and corks in the 1600s resulted in the naming of a fundamental building block – the cell. Discovery of microorganisms and vaccines followed.

In terms of impact, however, glass was just getting started. More next week.

A world without glass would strike at the foundation of modern progress: the extended lifespans that come from understanding the cell, the virus, and the bacterium; the genetic knowledge of what makes us human; the astronomer’s knowledge of our place in the universe. No material on Earth mattered more to those conceptual breakthroughs than glass. – Steven Johnson

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Source and thanks to: How We Got To Now by Steven Johnson

The benefits of being tough with yourself

I found 5 posts in the archives when I searched for the phrase “be kind to yourself.” I’m sure there are many other posts that have variants of that message.  A big part of learning is being able to take failure in your stride and move on. And, a big part of my learning journey over the past few years has been learning to be kind with myself.

Today, I thought I’d offer you, and myself, the counter point. There are a lot of advantages to being tough with yourself. For starters, it is impossible to truly reflect and evaluate yourself if you treat yourself and your actions as perfect. For me, however, the biggest benefit is that it helps me not take criticism to heart. If someone tells me that something I did sucked, it is rare that it catches me completely by surprise. There is a good chance I gave myself a bit of a hard time for doing so. And, if I did that, I’m probably working away on a solution. (Being told you sucked still hurts of course – it just hurts less).

So, if you’re the sort who is tough on yourself, fret not. Be tough – push yourself to extend yourself, learn and grow. Just don’t be so tough that it stops you from doing anything at all.

For, mis-steps are guaranteed. What matters in the final analysis is that we create space for a creative, constructive and corrective response.

tough, being tough with yourself

(“Its tough being a kid sometimes” – this pic of the reflective kid cracked me up.)

The Piano Guys

Great music is a very special thing. I love listening to instrumental music when I need to buckle down and focus. Over the last few days, I’ve been tuned into an album called “Wonders” by “The Piano Guys.” I blogged about their wonderful rendition of The Lord of the Rings theme once three years ago. Their continued excellence since has converted me from occasional listener to ardent fan.

If you haven’t spent time listening to The Piano Guys, please consider this a new year’s/birthday/valentine’s day gift from me. The place to start would be their wonderful YouTube channel – aside from incredible music, their videos are very well made.

As hard as it is to share just one of their songs, I’d like to share one of my current favorites – Home by Phillip Phillips.


Thank you, The Piano Guys team, for gifting us with great music and, in my case, productivity.

the piano guys

The first step to fixing something

is acknowledging that something is broken and taking responsibility for it.

When you do face the fact that something is broken, it is worth remembering that, when you committed to do something, you implicitly committed to the idea that it might not work. So, stumbling and falling are part of the deal. And, once you’ve stumbled or fallen, taking responsibility and picking yourself up is the only real way to get back on track.

The hardest step, however, is not the picking ourselves up. It is the acknowledging and taking responsibility.

Being disciplined about the critical path

Whenever I have a list of things to do, I find it very tempting to knock off everything except the one I need to be working on. It is always easy to justify doing something else (“I’ll have to do it anyway”).

Over the past weeks, I have, however, attempted to become more disciplined about working through the critical path. And, I do this by resolving to work on nothing but the highest priority item.

3 notes from having done so –

1. This approach makes negative stress caused by things you control non-existent. With this approach, you know you’re always making the right decision and that feels great.
2. You give yourself more time to iterate and polish since you’re not pushing things till the end. As long as you take the time to prioritize frequently, this approach enables you to get ahead.
3. And, by getting really ahead of stuff, you can proactively push items early in the critical path so you get started and let subconscious processing work its magic.

Fighting the resistance, and thus building your willpower muscle, is a habit. It is one I’m working hard on.
critical pathImage Source

(A long PS: Critical path is a term that makes a lot of sense after taking a course in Operations Management. I was, however, fortunate to learn about the concept before graduate school from a story from Seth once shared on his blog . The technique of doing nothing but the higher priority item/”MIT” as in the image above is another one I learnt two years ago from Roy Baumeister’s fantastic book on Willpower. It sure has taken me a while to implement both these lessons and is a good reminder of how long it takes for me/us to really learn, synthesize and act on important ideas.)

Welcome to Foundry – setting expectations 101

Foundry Group venture capitalist, Seth Levine, shared his note to portfolio companies recently. A few of my favorite bits were –

I work for you. This is core to our operating philosophy at Foundry. Treat me like someone on your team.

Communication is key. The more information we share the better we can work together (for example, I’m happy to have access to your admin dashboard and pull the data or have you (or an internal system push it to me).

You can’t send me too many emails. Let me do the filtering, not you. Send me anything/everything you think is interesting/relevant. If I have something to say I’ll respond, if not I won’t (I generally avoid “thanks” kind of responses – you don’t need that filling up your inbox).

Leverage my partners. You should feel free to reach out to Jason/Brad/Ryan any time you’d like. We don’t silo at all at Foundry and everyone is available to you. Copy me if you want, or not – up to you. Assume that information is completely fluid on our end so anything you tell them I’ll be up to speed on as well.

My mobile number is xxx-xxxx. That’s the easiest way to reach me (text or voice).

I use Voxer a lot with others that like that communication method – let me know if you’re on that.

A good friend of mine regularly draws my attention to the art of setting expectations. And, this note from Seth was a fantastic example of how to set expectations.

And, on a different note, my favorite line in the post is one for team geeks –  “Assume that information is completely fluid on our end so anything you tell them I’ll be up to speed on as well.

That’s the sign of a fantastic team.

Thank you, Seth and Foundry Group team, for sharing.

setting expectations

Earphones at dinner

We were at dinner at a restaurant last week when a father, mother and their daughter (likely a teenager) sat down in the table next to ours. We were engrossed in conversation as we were catching up with a friend we hadn’t seen in ages.

A few minutes later, our friend said – “Check out the quality conversation at the next table.”  Sure enough, all three of them were busy on the phone.

Minutes passed. Dinner had been served but that was just a side show – they were still on the phone.

A few minutes later, we saw the teenager abandon all pretense and put on her headphones. The Dad seemed busy on WeChat. The mom alone was silently eating her dinner.

It isn’t unusual to see phones being used at the dinner table. Earphones, however, are a completely different matter.

That is, at least, what I thought.

But, are they any different? Pulling out our phone at dinner is us implicitly saying – “This is more important than the food and the people on the table.” So, what makes putting on earphones any worse than texting?

This, to me, speaks to the danger of marginal cost thinking. Just as saying “just this once” is a recipe for disaster, making an excuse for a “small thing” isn’t any better.

Small things, done repeatedly, become the big things.

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Good relationships and the good life – The 200 words project

The Harvard study of adult development, one of the longest studies ever done, studied the life of 724 men over 75 years. The men were from 2 groups – a group that attended Harvard college in 1938 and another from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. Every year, they were interviewed about their work, their home lives, their health, and were also tested medically with blood tests and brain scans. Over the last decade, the study also expanded to wives and children.

So, what did they learn? 3 common sense lessons about relationships –
1. Loneliness kills. People who were more isolated were less happy and had worse health.
2. It isn’t about the number of social connections but the quality of your close social connections. Living in the midst of conflict was found to be really bad for health.
3. Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, but our brains. The memories of people with high quality relationships stayed sharper, longer. Good relationships were simply those where, despite disagreements, both people felt they could count on each other.

The good life, they found, is built on good relationships.

Many of the inner city Boston men ask us, “Why do you keep wanting to study me? My life just isn’t that interesting.” The Harvard men never ask that question. – Robert Waldinger :D

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Source and thanks to: TED talk by Robert Waldinger, the 4th Director of the study

Behind the curtain

1: A wise friend’s friend and ex-colleague, an accomplished entrepreneur, was once in a room with one of the richest, most successful businessmen of our time (let’s call him Mr.Forbes). They were discussing a potential business initiative and Mr.Forbes seemed to be behaving somewhat difficult through the discussions. He seemed to be putting an undue amount of pressure on himself to make absolutely sure the venture would be a big success. After the meeting, this friend asked one of Mr.Forbes’ close friends and associates about the behavior. “Yes” – the friend acknowledged, “he’s just very hard on himself because he’s worried people think of him as a one trick pony.”

2: David Heinemeier Hansson, the co-founder of Basecamp, has a fantastic post in 37 Signals blog about “The day I became a millionaire.” In the post, he shares what many of us know deep in our hearts. After a certain point, money doesn’t make you any happier. Of his realization, he says –

If anything, I began to appreciate even more intently that flow and tranquility were the true sources of happiness for me all along. It was like I had pulled back the curtain on that millionaire’s dream and found, to my surprise, that most of the things on the other side were things I already had. Equal parts shock and awe, but ultimately deeply reassuring.

He adds –

I can only speak to the experience I did have. The one I do share with millions of people who have the basics taken care of, but who still yearn for the treasure perceived to be behind the curtain. For those who might contemplate giving up all manners of integrity, dignity, or even humanity to pull it back.

3: In a conversation with a couple of close friends recently, one of them pointed out that my point of view on someone’s behavior is likely because of “negative goggles.” It was a comment that made me pause and ask myself a couple of questions – “Am I aware of an unconscious bias in my judgment of the situation?”, “Am I being judgmental when it isn’t necessary?”, and “Am I giving with expectations?” It didn’t take me long to answer these questions. I cleared myself of the unconscious bias and I believed I was applying judgment only when concerned with the specific discussion. But, I did feel I’d given something in this situation with certain expectations. The nature of the situation was such that I felt myself entangled in it and I hadn’t let go. That wasn’t something I’d intended to do and the conversation helped me take a simple step that helped me resolve it.

These stories and a certain friend’s recent experiences have exposed me two truths –

1. When you don’t have your basics, i.e. shelter, food and security (or the lower ends of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), taken care of, life is a fight for survival and making ends need. This happens to us occasionally during times of adversity. In such cases, our life has little do with our sense of self. If you are the daily wage laborer who has to work 16 hours to make ends meet, you don’t have time for much reflection. Even if it might make your life better, your priorities are different – it is about earning your bread and notching up a win for the day. Similarly, if your kid is very sick, your own well being is put on hold as you care for your kid. Again, during such times, it isn’t about you.

behind the curtain, life, needs, self

2. Once you do have your basics taken care of, life, in many ways, is everything you do with your sense of self. Notice how the upper pyramids have to do with love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization. For example, to be loved, you have to be, and feel, lovable. This is what lies “behind the curtain” of most human beings you and I know.

It is this struggle that explains Mr.Forbes’ behavior. It is this struggle that David Hansson refers to. And, it is this struggle that I went through this morning. The quality of our lives has everything to do with how we feel about ourselves. It doesn’t matter how much wealth or material success we have. If we don’t feel good, life isn’t going to be good.

So, how do we feel good or love ourselves? Here, I will go back to Scott Peck’s definition of love – “The will to extend ourselves for our own or another’s spiritual growth.” Or, to put it simply, to love, we must grow. And, to grow, we must love. Growth doesn’t come easy, of course. Self-growth is a constant cycle of learning, reflection, control and awareness. It is a cycle of – self-control -> deliberate action -> reflection or self evaluation -> self knowledge -> self awareness. It is easier to not complete the loop. Self evaluation is painful. I have been working over these years to give without expectations. And, yet, when I caught myself doing so this morning, it pained me. But, ignoring it isn’t going to solve the problem. Response is. And, now that I know this happens, I can be more aware and exercise better self control next time. It is an incredible loop. But, it is hard work. You can avoid this loop for a while (for years, in case of some people), but the pain felt as you grow is nothing compared to the pain felt when you don’t.

It is always better to do the work.

As Scott Peck says –

Life is difficult.
This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

It doesn’t matter who you are. The fact that life is difficult remains unchanged. If you, like me, are blessed to be free of worries around your basics, maybe this ought to be a reminder that our life is ours alone and we make of it what we will. It is best spent when we stop wondering what is behind the curtain of other people’s lives (especially those who’re more wealthy or more successful by some measure or other) and become better at loving ourselves.

So, it all comes down to this – we’ve been dealt a hand of cards. It isn’t easy to play it right. But, choose to grow, and we have the opportunity to make it meaningful, to make it count.

It truly is a wonderful life.