Dissents

There is a tradition in the US Supreme Court for justices in the minority to write a “dissent.”

I used to wonder why these mattered until I read Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s note on dissents – “Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.’ But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view.”

It is a beautiful articulation of why dissents matter.

It is also a useful reminder about playing the long game on disagreements that matter to us.

Government applications and ETAs

I recently sent in my passport for renewal.

A few days later, I began wondering if everything was okay. I hadn’t heard anything from the company processing the passport or the consulate. After some mucking around, I realized there was no online portal where I could check the status either.

Great.

Coincidentally, an email arrived the next day confirming their receipt of my application. They shared that it was now “processing.”

I have no idea when I will receive the next update.

Unlike visas/work permits/immigration documents, renewing my passport doesn’t cause anxiety. But, such documents are important and delays in processing can be painful. For example, my driver’s license was stuck in processing recently and I had no idea why till I went to a DMV and requested their help to resolve it.

I think there’s an easy way for our experience with government applications to by so much better. This product would have 3 requirements:

1) A place online where I can check my status
2) An ETA (estimated time of arrival) for processing my application and an explanation if the ETA has changed
3) Any issues or options to expedite it (e.g. “pay money here to process is quicker” or “no options – please just wait”)

These 3 requirements wouldn’t solve every problem. But, I think they’d go a long way in making the experience significantly better.

Failures of kindness

“So: What do I regret? Being poor from time to time? Not really.

Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?” (And don’t even ASK what that entails.) No. I don’t regret that.

Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked? And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months? Not so much.

Do I regret the occasional humiliation? Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl? No. I don’t even regret that.

But here’s something I do regret:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” — that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth.

At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then — they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

But still. It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.” | George Saunders’ commence speech at Syracuse University in 2013


Beautiful. It resonated.

Doctor Katalin Karikó

Doctor Katalin Kariko’s story has all the ingredients of a fascinating Netflix/Amazon limited series show. As a young biology student in 1976, she was fascinated by the potential of messenger RNA to create vaccines and drugs. After her PhD, she moved to the United States to realize this dream, fell out with her first boss at Temple University (who attempted to get her deported) before getting a job at UPenn.

But, she was struggling with getting grants as there were significant obstacles with making mRNA work in practice. Faced with bosses losing patience, a cancer diagnosis, and immigration issues, she decided to take a demotion with a salary less than that of a lab technician rather than lose her job.

A chance meeting with a respected immunologist – Drew Weissman – who had just moved to UPenn researcher changed everything. She found a partner who believed in her and was willing to fund her research and collaborate. By 2005, they had found a safe way to use mRNA in vaccines. They published a paper announcing this and this was followed by… the sound of crickets. No one seemed to be paying attention.

But, someone was. In 2010, Derrick Rossi, a Stanford post doc, had co-founded a company called “Moderna” with the goal of using their findings.

In 2013, UPenn rejected her request for Professorship again and laughed her out of the room when she said she’d be accepting an SVP position at a small Germany company – BioNTech – that had been licensing their technology. “They don’t even have a website” – they said.

We all know how it has played out. But, it took 44 years from when she first decided to dedicate her career to mRNA, 25 years after she took a demotion, and 15 years after publishing a paper that will probably result in a Nobel prize before it all began to work out.

There are so many lessons from this heroic story. But, one that that stood out for me was about how it often takes decades before becoming an overnight sensation.

Inspirational.

Perspective and hugs

Thank you for being part of this learning journey in 2021. ALearningaDay email is my favorite email – so, thank you for writing back when you do, for sharing your feedback and encouragement, and for your attention. It means more than I can say.

My wishes for all of us in 2021 are – plenty of perspective and plenty of hugs.

Perspective because there are few better gifts we can give ourselves. We all dealt with a lot in 2020. 2021 will have its own fair share of twists and turns before we all get vaccinated. And, when it gets inevitably challenging, it helps to remember that having a steady job and/or a cash buffer in our bank account is an incredible privilege at this time. It means our lives are sometimes challenging, rarely difficult, and never hard. So much to be grateful for.

And, plenty of hugs is what I imagine in a post vaccinated world. It’s been a rough start to the vaccination process in many parts of the world. But, I’m optimistic about progress. Fingers crossed.

The new year is a milestone. An arbitrary one at that. But, milestones like these remind us that we have the opportunity to take stock, reset, and recommit. They remind us that it is okay to stumble on commitments that matter. We now have an opportunity to hit refresh and simply begin again.

This won’t be the last refresh either. Any commitment worth making is a commitment that we’ll struggle with and stumble. That’s when we’ll have to remind ourselves of the true lesson from this (or any) milestone.

We don’t need to wait for the next milestone. We can… simply begin again.

Here’s to doing that whenever we need it in 2021.

Values to virtues

Ever since learning about the Samurai code, I’ve been fascinated by the difference between values and virtues. Values are what we believe, virtues are what we do.

So, how do they relate to one another? Our values become virtues when we take action and when that action costs us money (or something valuable).

Our virtues are the pillars of our personal strategy. That strategy only comes alive when we have to make trade-offs.

Transition words

The logic of writing as you learned in school
Turns out to mean little more than an obsession with transition
And the scattering of rhetorical tics – overused, nearly meaningless words and phrases.

In fact.
Indeed.
On the one hand.
On the other hand.
Therefore.
Moreover.
However.
In one respect.
Whereas.
Thus.

These are logical indicators. Emphasizers. Intensifiers.
They insist upon logic whether it exists or not.
They often come first in the sentence,
Trying to steer the reader’s understanding from the front,
As if the reader were incapable of following a logical shift in the middle of a sentence,
As if the sentence had been written in the order the writer thought of the words,
Without any reconsideration.
These words take the reader’s head between their hands and force her to look where they want her to.
Imagine how obnoxious that is,
The persistence effort to predetermine and overgovern the reader’s response.


I have vivid memories of being coached to use more transition phrases in my final year of high school. I have used them in plenty in my posts over the years. So, Verlyn Klinkenborg’s admonitions hit home.

I hope to use fewer transition words going forward.

4+ books that might change your mind – 2020 Edition

It was hard to narrow the list down to 5 books this year. So, I thought I’d share my top 4 and a collection of books that share 5th place.

1) Debt by David Graeber (Amazon): An anthropological dive into 5,000 years of human history from the lens of debt. I wrote an ode to the book recently – so, I will minimize repetition. In sum, this is a special book thanks to the audacity of what it attempts and the elegance with which it delivers it.

2) Range by David Epstein (Amazon): An important read because it is an antidote to the “start early and specialize as quickly as possible” advice that is often peddled. While it might appear that David Epstein is against the notion of deliberate practice and specialization, I didn’t take it as such. Instead, his push is for us to appreciate breadth and the meandering path we might take to figure out what we want to specialize in. He makes the case (repeatedly – my only quibble with the book) that the meandering path gives us the range to make the specialization count.

3) The Socrates Express by Eric Weiner (Amazon): If you haven’t read much philosophy and are curious about great philosophers and their schools of thought, this is the book for you. Eric brings together a witty travelogue, stories about the lives of great philosophers, a summary of their work, and insights about his attempts at applying their lessons. It made philosophy accessible – thank you, Eric!

4) The Ride of a Lifetime by Bob Iger (Amazon): This book is to corporate leaders what Shoe Dog is to sports entrepreneurs and The Hard Things About Hard Things is to tech entrepreneurs. Surprisingly candid, incisive, and insightful. A phenomenal read – the sort of book that should be mandatory reading in every graduate school of business.

I had a collection of books that all made it to 5th place.

The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel (Amazon) was an insightful take on how to think about thinking about money.

Upstream by Dan Heath (Amazon) tackles an important subject – how to solve problems before they happen.

Reboot by Jerry Colonna (Amazon) is a book built on the idea that “better humans make better leaders.” Jerry notes on leadership, insecurities, and love make for a beautiful read.

Several short sentences about Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg (Amazon) is a masterpiece on writing. It also packs plenty of wisdom about skills, practice, and life.

Becoming by Michelle Obama (Amazon) – I was curious about Michelle Obama’s memoir thanks to her grace and charisma in her speeches and interviews. This was a fun narration of the Obama story from her perspective.


Past editions of “Books that might change your mind” –20192018201720162015201420122011

My reviews of these books (and more) are on RohanRajiv.blog

10 questions – Annual Reflection 2020

The 10 question annual reflection is a longstanding ALearningaDay tradition. I recommend doing it in 3 steps:
i) Carve out an hour in the coming days to “look back and look forward.” It helps to do this in a quiet place with no distractions or interruptions.

ii) Work with a list of 10 questions that make you think. For a starter list, I’ve shared the 10 questions I asked myself below (also available to print as a doc or PDF on this folder).

iii) Archive your questions and notes for next year. Check in with them over the course of the year and read them before you start next year’s reflection. Looking at what was top-of-mind a few years later is also guaranteed to make you grin. :-)


“Sometimes, we need to just take a step back and look back at how the pieces fell. When we do that, we see what was important and what never was.”

(1) What are the top 2 themes/memories/moments I will remember 2020 for?

(2) What were the 2 biggest lessons I learnt in 2020?

(3) We learn from a mix of 3 sources – i) taking action and reflecting on our experiences, ii) people, and iii) books/synthesized information. What did my mix look like in 2020? How do I plan to keep this going in 2021?

i) Action + reflection:

ii) People:

iii) Books/synthesized info:

“Show me your schedule and I’ll show you your priorities.”

(4) Looking back at how I spent my time in 2020, what were the top 2-3 areas/buckets + processes/outcomes I prioritized (Examples: Career – prioritized ABC project or getting a raise, Health – prioritized more outdoor exercise or losing 10 pounds)? Did what I prioritize align with what I intended to prioritize/were there any surprises?

(5) What are the top 2 areas/buckets + processes/outcomes I intend to prioritize in 2021?

(6) What do I most need to learn in 2021 and how do I plan to do this?

“How we hope it works: Commit → Take action
How it actually works: Commit → Fail → Recommit x 20 → Fail x 20 → Recommit → Take action”

(7) What are habits/checkpoints I have in place to recommit to my priorities? (E.g. weekly/monthly check in)

(8) What have I got planned in 2020 to prioritize rest and renewal (e.g. holiday plans, weekend activities, hobbies)?

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

(9) Health, money, and relationships are foundational to the quality of our lives on this planet. What are my guiding principles or habits as I think of these dimensions in 2021?

Health:

Money:

Relationships:

(10) Do I have a personal philosophy, a set of principles or virtues that I want to live my life by? If not, would I consider putting together a first version?
And, if I do have them, what have I learnt about them in my attempts to live them? Do I plan to evolve them in 2021?

(Notes:
– “What I value” can be a way of stating our personal philosophy/principle.
– Virtues are values we actually embody. Inspired by the code of the Samurais, the difference is what we believe (values) vs. what we do (virtues).
– Our values become virtues when living them costs us money or something valuable that we need to trade-off)


I’ve been sharing my list of 10 questions since 2010. Changes in past editions have been minor/evolutionary. That wasn’t the case this year – perhaps it is fitting given the year we’ve all had. I hope you find the exercise/questions valuable.