Spending time with the why and the how

As you can tell, we’re in the midst of a series of end of year tradition posts. Today’s tradition is one that accompanies the annual review – spending time with my why and how.

This exercise involves revisiting how I define my why/purpose/mission, how that translates into my values, my culture, my approach/strategy, and the 3 most important principles I live my life by.

I have two reflections from this iteration. First, while most of it is consistent to the first version from 5 years ago, every tweak reminds me of the fact that this is a “living document” that I need to re-commit to.

The second reflection is a reminder of the power of deliberate iteration. Each iteration pushes me to articulate this better by making it flow more logically and simply. And, the more logical and simple it is, the more easier it is to live by.

v2018 is now below and on the “About” page.

My personal mission/“why”/“purpose”/what I care about: Build active relationships with framily (close friends and family), learn, and contribute positively to the world.

Thus, my simplified 3 word version articulation of what I value is – people, learning, contribution

My culture or the norms with which I make decisions flows from what I value. I aspire to show up every day by being thoughtful about how my actions impact the people around me, learning focused, and hungry to contribute. Again, in 3 words that would be – thoughtful, learning focused, hungry.

I approach my days by aiming to do my best in my 4 roles – I think of this as my strategy or my “how.” :-) These roles are sorted in priority order:
1. Leader of self
2. A caring member of my framily
3. A learning focused teammate
4. A responsible contributor to my community, i.e., the world

3 principles that I attempt to live my life by are:
1. Integrity: Integrity is making and keep commitments. This means walking what I talk and talking what I walk.

2. Love/Growth: Love is the will to extend oneself for one’s own or another’s spiritual/mental growth. This means committing to to doing small things with extraordinary love and investing in continuous growth.

3. Half-scientist, half student: I aspire to live my life as a mix of scientist and student. This means engaging with life to consciously take the time to define problems, build hypotheses, experiment, and then learn. Life, after all, is simply a series of experiments and learning opportunities. 

How to identify bad advice

You’re trying to make an important decision and you find that there’s a lot of advice flying around. Sadly, you soon realize that most of it isn’t good and very little of it is actually useful. How do you make it easier for yourself to identify bad advice?

There’s a lot in my sketch (below). So, here are the 3 key takeaways –

  1. Great advice has 2 characteristics – it is based on principles and it is intended for your benefit. Great advice is incredibly rare because it requires a lot of thought to get to the principles and in-person investment to understand your specific context.
  2. On the flip side, bad advice is what you hear 80%+ of the time. The most telling characteristic of bad advice is that the giver either speaks to himself/herself or to his/her interests. Combine this with a random jumble of thoughts and anecdotes and it is easy to spot. Most bad advice is a result of absence of “skin in the game” (H/T N N Taleb). When someone says something is ‘good for you’ when it is also good for them and when they don’t face the downside of the decision, it is likely not good for you. Think: Peter Thiel telling you to drop out of school.
  3. We are all asked for advice by folks around us. To become someone who gives generally useful advice, we need to combine 2 things – 1) Think in terms of principles – i.e. truths that are applicable across contexts (hard to do) and take the time to structure your advice, and 2) Stop giving advice to yourself (very hard to do). As a bonus – this scales as it doesn’t need to be personalized.

I hope you find this useful.

Doing the opposite

The best source of feedback that will help you get better is you. No one understands that combination of context, the natural impulse, and the internal decision making process that led to the final action better than you. Giving ourselves feedback is a skill worth developing and a principle I’ve found particularly helpful is “Doing the opposite.”

The most challenging kind of feedback is the one that involves finding the right balance between a great strength and its corresponding weakness. This is where doing the opposite helps a lot. For example, here a few experiment ideas –

(1) If you have trouble being assertive during meetings, walk into every meeting reminding yourself to be assertive for a few months.

(2) On the other hand, if you, like me, default to being loud and provocative, again, do the opposite.

(3) If you default to being pushy and impatient when you want to get something, work on relying on “pull” in every instance.

By pushing us to stretch and do something that isn’t natural, doing the opposite helps us develop a range of styles. This, in turn, helps us develop the ability to apply the right behavior in the right context. There are times when being provocative or pushy is helpful. But, it isn’t all the time.

A wonderful other side effect of doing the opposite is that it makes us realize we are all more malleable than we think. Once we get started down the path, experimenting on changing our style becomes a lot more fun. And, given we’re going to be doing plenty of it in our lifetime, it helps if we’re having fun.

PS: I’m actively working on challenge (2) as of the last more recent (~18 months), I’ve made a lot more headway on (3) over the last 5 years or so. For folks who know me now and still think I’m pushy, I’m glad you didn’t meet me 5 years ago. :-)

Attachment to principles versus processes

The biggest benefit of experience is better pattern matching. You’ve seen many of the today’s movies play out before and are equipped to deal with them. The downside is a growing attachment to processes versus principles. This when you say something like – “This worked before. This is how I do this sort of thing” instead of “This is why I do what I do.”

I’ve noticed this creep into my thought process from time to time when it wouldn’t have five years back.

Here’s an example – let’s say a rapid, iterative approach to product creation worked on your team in the last year. The process you could get attached to is “Rapid, iterative product creation is how to build products.” Instead, the principle probably is – “The best process to building products is dependent on the context, the company, and the kind of customer.” If you were attached to the principle, you might decide that slower, more thoughtful product creation process is what the current situation needs. Whatever the outcome, you’d consider the alternative.

The challenge with developing an attachment to a process over a principle is that the principle you implicitly choose is “Refusing to ask why means choosing comfort over growth and inflexibility over seeking the truth.”

That is the polar opposite of one of the most important life principles – change is the only constant. We either change proactively or are forced to do so by circumstance – an experience that is best avoided.

Principles first. Processes second.

The commencement speech problem

Many of us picture commencement speakers giving variations of the “Take more risks, work hard, do good” speech. The good news is that the proportion of speeches that contain such advice seems to be going down. Understanding why is useful for all of us as we often end up giving others advice from time-to-time.

The trouble with generic advice is that it doesn’t work for a large group of people. Some people need to take more risks while others don’t. Some folks need to work harder to earn their privilege while others need to be careful about avoiding burn out. Such advice is easy to give – but is generally flawed because it is either self serving (quit college and start companies so I can invest in the best of them) or designed for people similar to the advice giver.

While the best advice is given once you understand a person and their proclivities, that doesn’t scale. The better approach, then, is to focus on principles. For example, a career principle might be to – invest in understanding yourself and use that understanding to make better decisions and develop good judgment.

The challenge with principles is that getting to them takes considerable thought – the sort that should be a pre-requisite to giving advice.

(H/T Julia Galef, Shripriya Mahesh for notes/discussions on this)

Policies and principles

As we learn to manage ourselves, we often start by setting policies. Policies are iron clad rules that help us achieve certain objectives. Examples of policies are –

1. I will always go to the gym first thing in the morning
2. I will never check email on Saturdays
3. I only eat sweets on Sundays

Of course, these policies are just ways to live by certain principles. For example, the principles behind these 3 rules might be –

1. I care a lot about exercise and would like to make sure I get it done
2. I need to feel relaxed during the weekend
3. I care about the sugar levels in my blood and would like to make sure I keep them low

Now, these principles provide us degrees of freedom. For example, you might be okay checking your email on a Saturday as long as you are feeling relaxed. And, those degrees of freedom enable us to be more effective by applying these principles based on the context.

Managing by policy is an amateur’s game. This is just as applicable whether we’re managing ourselves or an organization.

This, in turn, is exactly why culture matters – both in organizations and individuals. Google’s employees are not held back from discussing confidential information from their company’s weekly all hands because of a policy. Rather, it is their commitment to the culture. Great cultures are important because they enable leaders to focus on principles rather than policy.

For short term wins, policies can work great. However, if you are in it for the long term, principles are the way to go.

16 life principles

Over the past weeks, I’ve been thinking of “principles” – ideas serves as fundamental truths. So, I decided to attempt to boil all my life related learning into 10 principles or ideas. While I couldn’t manage to boil them all down to 10 (maybe that’ll happen in another 20 years :)), here is my list of 16 –

1. There are 2 forces that shape our lives – our circumstances and our decisions. Our circumstances play a massive role in determining our impact on the world. If we’re blessed to have had the privilege of good circumstances (and, if you are reading this, the chances are high that that is true), we ought to treat that privilege with utmost humility and do our best to make it count.

2. We make decisions all the time and the nature of our decisions are shaped by our mindset. At any given moment, we can either choose to adopt a judging mindset (why am I so dumb? Why are they so stupid? What’s wrong with me?) or a learning mindset (what can I learn? What are my options?). The latter results in a much happier path.

3. Insecurity is the most powerful force on the planet. Our insecurities are the source of our drive, ego and any sort of desire to prove ourselves. Our ego is just our attempt at a shield that masks our insecurities. Every one of us has insecurities. The question that remains is whether we stay in the driving seat or let them drive us. Again, they could drive us to enormous wealth and power but it is very unlikely they will bring happiness.

4. Happiness is a by-product of a life where what we do is aligned with what we value and where we’ve learnt to keep perspective through life’s ups and downs. Perspective brings gratitude and that, in turn, brings happiness. Happiness, as a result, can’t be pursued and isn’t guaranteed on our birth certificate. It ensues from an approach to life that is deserving of it. And, it is also why the alignment of values, thoughts and actions are a thing of beauty.

5. If there was ever a secret to finding what we want, it is to simply strive to become deserving of it. To find a great job, be a great worker. To find great friendship, be a great friend. That is, of course, just one side of the puzzle. But, most importantly, it, “the process,” is the only part of the puzzle we control. In the long run, great processes lead to great results. All we can do, however, is give it our best shot and then let go.

6. Even with our best efforts, things (relationships, jobs, deals) may not work out, however – that’s because it still takes two hands to clap. Things work out when there is fit. Over time, we attract people and, thus, circumstances based on who we are. We demonstrate who we are by what we do. And, when we pursue relationships and engagements that fit with who we are, it is quite magical.
(A note on attracting people: in the long run, it is futile to attract people by attempting to be liked. Universal popularity is an oxymoron. All we can do is hope to be deserving of respect. Liking may follow.)

7. Fit underlines an important principle – our life is an exercise in picking people. At any point, our health, wealth, and happiness are likely to be the average of the 5 people we associate with. That is why it is vital we learn to pick people based on alignment with core values rather than other superficial traits – people who are similar on superficial traits will never challenge our thinking. Picking people requires us to continually hone our people judgment. And, once we get good at picking people, we have to then get good at keeping them – that requires character.

8. If there is one word that best describes people of character, it is, in my opinion, integrity. Integrity comes from the word integer – which means whole. To be whole as a human being requires us to be consistent – in our words and actions. Character, at the end of the day, comes down to one thing – our ability to make and keep commitments to ourselves and others. The integrative nature of character illustrates why dividing life into buckets such as work, personal, social, etc., is futile. How we approach one thing is how we approach everything.

9. It isn’t enough to make and keep commitments, though. Over time, we have to learn to pick the right commitments. Our ability to do that while keeping focused on our priorities is what defines our productivity. When we take actions that move us toward our priorities, we are productive. The rest is just activity. To be consistently productive, we need to combine focus (consistent prioritization or your “strategy”), intensity (what we commonly call focus or “tactics”) and hard work (execution). Good strategy, as a result, is simply making the best possible decision by being aware of the trade-offs involved.

10. If we do manage to do all of this, we become worthy leaders – of ourselves. Do more and we become worthy of leading other people. Leadership is simply caring more than the next person. And, leadership matters because great things are achieved by groups of people – teams. Learning to lead and manage teams, as a result, is as high value a skill as they come.

11. To be able to lead, i.e., care for the people around us, we must demonstrate ability to care for ourselves. We must sleep well, eat well, exercise well and nourish our minds with books and ideas. All of these help us maintain our willpower reserves, which, in turn, help us make good decisions. It is easy to lose track of these priorities in the daily grind. That’s why we need great habits.

12. Habits are life’s infrastructure. The better our habits, the easier it is to be effective. Again, the better our habits, the more we have access to our limited supply of willpower for the tough decisions that matter. Willpower matter so much because self-control is single highest determinant of the quality of our life.
Habits are built by developing a systems driven mindset that ignores short term goals. A 10 pound weight loss diet is a goal, exercising 3 times a week is a system.

13. Systems can only be developed with a willingness to embrace experimentation. Building habits that last the trials of time are hard. It requires us to test various approaches and, eventually, arrive at something that works for us. Failure is an essential part of experimentation. And, experimentation requires us to internalize the idea that “this might not work.”

14. Confidence is built on the idea of “this might not work” as it requires us to shun the easy, safe path. Confidence isn’t built on the belief that everything will work. It is built on the understanding that things will likely not work out and that will be just fine. Confidence requires an acceptance of this truth, the truth. As a result, the first true sign of confidence is vulnerability.

15. Vulnerability is difficult because it requires us to be comfortable with our fallibility. We are all, by default, a bundle of contradictions. That’s because every one of our strengths mirrors a weakness that can derail us. It is only with self-awareness can we understand this, accept this, and proceed to build a meaningful life. This building process requires us to constantly hone our self-control muscles because building a meaningful life requires us to consistently postpone immediate gratification and do what’s right for the long term. By definition, meaningful isn’t easy. But, it is worth it.

16. So, what does all this mean for our lives today? The best way we can bring this all together is that we must approach life as students of life. As students of life, we must take responsibility to design a life that’ll maximize our shot at leaving this place a bit better than we found it. Some days will be better than others. It is hard to tell which as we never really know if a good day is a good day. All we can do is be the best version of ourselves today, plan to be better tomorrow and ten years from now, and yet, listen to, hug, and celebrate people while we can today. We can live either nothing is a miracle or as if everything is a miracle – it is our choice.So, if we can go to bed every night knowing we gave it our best shot and being thankful for everything we have been given, we will have given ourselves and the world the most beautiful of gifts – a day well lived.

And, as we live our days, so we live our lives.


(a tag cloud of all the words in the post above courtesy Wordle.net – fitting that “people” takes top billing)

3 happiness principles – a synthesis of 50+ books

A wiser friend asked me an intriguing question – based on everything you’ve read, what are some tips you’d suggest for someone to lead a happier life?

I asked him for some time as I wanted to make sure I gave it thought. Any psychology hobbyist understands that you don’t throw around happiness tips lightly. I then asked myself 1 question – if I had to synthesize everything I’ve learnt about happiness from my readings (60+ relevant books) and experiments over these years, what are 3 principles that I would share? I was keen about 3 principles because I don’t think our mind retains more than 3 principles. Additionally, I was keen on principles over tips because tips are akin to specific advice. I prefer frameworks that we can all apply to our individual context.

So, here goes –

1. Optimize your energy over everything else. It is energy we must care about and not time. Spend your time on things and people that give you good energy. The same applies to resources – spend your money either on experiences or in areas where you spend a lot of your time. Great experiences, e.g.  a legendary trek up Kilimanjaro, give us positive energy that last us a long while. Similarly, if you spend a lot of time on your desk, investing in a standing desk might provide a ton of energy on a daily basis.

A key part of this principles is focusing on “your” energy, i.e., taking care of yourself before you attempt to take care of the world. If you’re burning yourself out in your attempts to do good, your energy is not going to last long. Once our own needs are met, most of us naturally begin to focus our energies on giving back.

This principle has far reaching implications – for example, it is impossible to keep good energy if you don’t work in an environment that suits your personality. You can’t hang out with people who just take energy from you and give little back. You can’t work with co-workers who you don’t learn from. All your decisions soon become decisions that either give you better energy or don’t. The only way to do this well in the long run is to treat yourself as a research subject and keep tabs on what it takes for you to have good energy. The better your energy, the happier you’ll be.

There are very few blanket rules that apply to everyone. However, there are a couple of things that generally work – sleeping enough, eating well, exercising regularly and counting your blessings are as close as you get to blanket “good energy” rules. But, to each their own.

2. Use your willpower to build good habits like exercising, reading, keeping a journal/meditating, and building meaningful relationships with people you care about. If you fight yourself every time you try to do something that you think is good for you, it is a losing cause. The best use of willpower is to use it to build habits. Habits are the infrastructure of your life experience. There’s a reason every developing economy focuses heavily on infrastructure. The better the infrastructure, the more good stuff can thrive. If you’re consistently having power outages (e.g. sickness), for example, you can’t do much with your life.

So, the question then becomes, what infrastructure should you build? A more involved, and, in my opinion, better way to build this infrastructure is to really ask yourself that tough question – how will you measure your life? If you are a person who’ll measure yourself by the number of people you’ll mentor, then part of your infrastructure needs to be include creating consistent space for mentorship. If you aren’t sure of where to start, exercise, reading and meditation are a great place to start.

Once you’ve identified this, there are plenty of great resources on how to hack your brain to do this. There are no generic principles, though – if you feel it is helpful, I’m happy to suggest ideas that’ll help make it easier to break the resistance on these habits. But, before anyone dives into brain hacking, I’d suggest getting really clear on why you want to do something. A lack of clarity is a recipe for internal resistance.

Finally, the best resulting outcome of this is the sort of discipline that inspires integrity. Integrity is simply making and keeping commitments. As we use our willpower to build good habits, it brings with it a tremendous level of confidence in our own word. There are few better things in life than the ability to face ourselves in the mirror.

3. Choose learner questions over judger question. At every moment in our life, we ask ourselves questions. Every decision we make is a product of questions we ask ourselves. For example, we probably asked ourselves – what will make me look good today? And, the result of that is the clothes we wear. Over time, many of these questions become subconscious. And, without realizing it, we default to certain kinds of questions that may or may not have a net positive effect on our lives.

There are two kinds of questions – learning questions or judging questions. When you ask learning questions, you spend more time in learning mode and judging questions means time spent in judging mode. There are many psychology terms that illustrate the same idea – fixed vs. growth mindset, “be good” goals vs. “get better” goals. They all say the same thing. The best illustration I’ve seen is a concept called the choice map (thanks to Marilee Adams’ Inquiry Institute).

Choice Map

Here’s why it is incredibly powerful – people who ask learning questions focus on learning (duh) while those who spend time asking judging questions focus on performance. As a result, learning questions force us to focus on process vs. results. And, that, in turn, means we spend most of our time focusing on situations that are in our control. It also means we put in effort without attaching ourselves to the outcomes. Outcomes and results are the judger’s way of life. Interacting with the world with non-attachment is the one of the most tell tale signs of happiness. It enables us to give our heart, mind and soul into the projects we work on without worrying about short term pay offs. It is all about the long game. It is all about the process. In the long run, good results follow good processes.

So, that’s that – energy, habits and learning questions sum up the three principles that I’ve gleaned from all my readings and experiments.

If you’re wondering about common threads among the three (I was), the thread I spotted was that they require us to make our daily decisions based on consistent and constant self awareness. Self awareness drives the production of data that helps us make better decisions (that’s why meditation/journaling are key habits).

So, if there’s a ‘one last thing’ idea here, it is that all this data is useless if we don’t use it to make better decisions. The Latin root of decision translates into ‘to cut’ or ‘to kill’. So, learning to say no, and in the process, deciding what we effectively say ‘yes’ to may be the single most important skill that affects our happiness. The quality of our lives are directly proportional to the quality of our daily decisions.

And, as we live our days, so we live our lives.

Things that will not change

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was recently asked about what Amazon might look ten years from now given all the changes sweeping through the world thanks to technology.

His response was that, instead of looking at what would change in the next decade, Amazon preferred to look at what would not change. So, there may be big shifts in the devices customers use to shop, for example, but customers will always favor low prices. A focus on things that will not change helps anchor Amazon to its objectives.

News websites and blogs called described this line as “Jeff Bezos’ advice to entrepreneurs.”

I think of it as advice for life. As we think about our lives in the coming years and decades, it should be clear that a lot of what we think will happen will not actually take place and that there will be more change in the way we do things than you and I can probably imagine. Instead of focusing on that, we’re better off focusing on what won’t change – our values and principles. It is worth thinking intentionally about these values and principles as we adapt to all that happens around us.

Despite its focus to lower prices and deliver a customer-centric experience, Amazon does make the odd misstep. We will, too. Change demands a relentless focus on what really matters.

It won’t be easy… but, boy, will it be worth it.

Small problems and big problems

Life throws small problems at us every day. They’re more than enough to keep us busy. However, it isn’t optimal to spend all our time solving small problems. When Toyota’s legendary thinker Taiichi Ono came to the same conclusion, he decided he would train the organization to look for the big problems using the five why approach.

Taiichi Ono isn’t alone in his approach to problem solving. Great thinkers over time have approached the world with a determination to understand the principles that govern it. That’s how Taiichi Ono and Henry Ford changed manufacturing. They dug deep into the hundreds of small problems in a manufacturing plant, understood the key principles, and developed frameworks that they then applied rigorously and tweaked with more feedback.

This is hard to do – no surprise there. So, how do you go about doing it? Albert Einstein’s approach was to just stay with problems longer. And he probably knows a thing or two about difficult problems.

The good news is that this approach can then be applied to every aspect of life. You can understand people better by understanding the principles that govern them. You can understand financial markets by understanding the principles that govern them. Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater Associates have made billions of dollars by doing this with unerring consistency.

Like any approach, this one has its downsides. When you begin applying this approach to understand people or when you help people through their problems, you can come across as very intimidating. That’s because digging deep requires you to ask tough questions and tough questions never fail to intimidate people. Additionally, a commitment to attempting to get to the big problems requires you to be open to consistently revisit your assumptions and approach to life. Most find that too overwhelming.

The final and most important pitfall is to do with ourselves. A commitment to constantly finding the underlying principles requires an assumption that most small problems are symptoms of a bigger problem. While that is largely true, it completely negates coincidences and outliers. In our desire to find patterns, we can end up falling prey to all sorts of false assumptions to explain a pattern that doesn’t exist. And, if we don’t guard against insularity and over-confidence, we might lose the ability to distinguish between reality and our perception of it. We will fail miserably without self awareness.

That said, the beauty of a principle-based approach is that when we put in the effort, we begin to understand and appreciate the inter-connectedness of this world and thus, begin to appreciate the beauty of this life. It is only when you learn the principles behind tennis do you really appreciate Roger Federer’s genius.

I’ve said this before and will say again – habitually ignoring the small problems and finding the big problems is very hard. Try the five why approach if you will and you will realize very quickly that the questions only get tougher as you make your way along the process.

And therein lies the tough part about digging deep and attempting to understand the principles – it doesn’t feel like a very rewarding process.

Until it does.