What makes it worth paying the tax?

Regardless of what we choose to work on and where we choose to do it, we pay a tax.

At big companies, it might be all that time spent planning and coordinating. At smaller firms, it might be the uncertainty of whether things will work out. And, for those at home caring for loved ones, it might be recurring questions about your own relevance.

And, in every one of these situations, there generally is * that * person who seems to make things difficult.

Since there’s no running away from the tax and assuming you like being where you are, the only question, then, is – what makes paying the tax worth it?

Generally, it comes down to one or two things that matter. For example, if you’re designing/building products at a big company, it may be the joy you feel when what you build touches thousands of people at once. And, if that’s what matters, intentionally pick the 1-3 battles you most want to fight for this month that make paying the tax worth it.

It is amazing how much of a difference this little bit of re-framing combined with focus can make – they help move all the energy we’d otherwise waste in complaining to focusing on the things that move the needle – in our work and for ourselves.

Our work won’t speak for itself.

Our work won’t speak for itself. On a good day, it may just do 70% of the talking required. But, it still needs us to make the effort to package it and make the case for it.

But, it bears repeating – it won’t speak for itself. And, even if we build it well, they may not come. In fact, unless we put in the effort to sell it, they most likely won’t.

A useful assumption, then, is that quality work will do half the talking. The rest is up to us.

The world and the places we work seem fairer places once we internalize that and do the work to make sure our efforts count – after we do the work.

PS: The note to self version of this started with – “To my intense disappointment, I’ve come to realize that our work alone won’t speak for itself.” :-)

Vacuuming and how work becomes meaningful

Vacuuming the home has been an ever present on my list of chores over the past few years. I cared about doing a decent job as I understand why it matters. But, it was never fun.

Until I started strapping our 6 month old baby and vacuuming the home with her.

At first, she mostly watched in silence. Then, she grew to enjoy it. And, twelve months later, it wouldn’t be the same without her. The issue is that she’s reached that point when the carrier isn’t comfortable anymore. I know it isn’t going to last for much longer – but, boy, was it a blast while it lasted.

This experience with vacuuming speaks to how work becomes meaningful. The first step is for folks to understand the “why.” Why does what they do matter? Once they understand that, merging the “why” with “who” they care about makes important work feel both meaningful and playful at once. It is these sorts of environments that make for incredible laboratories to grow, learn, and experiment.

And, in environments where people combine learning, meaning and fun, they do the work (the “how”) with great care.

This is the reason powerful visions need to co-exist with a great culture. It is the culture that ensures that people feel the kind of belonging to continue to find meaning in what they do. A vision is useless without strategy. And, culture is strategy in the long run.

PS: Getting back to vacuuming for a moment – it is another one of those reminders that the days are long but the years are short.

The work longer impulse

“This is an exciting new project. You will have to work longer, but it will be worth it.”

In our consciousness, new projects and working longer generally go together. Our ability to put in the hours for projects that matter is how we prove our mettle as dedicated workers after all.

Except, working longer is just one approach.

Instead of simply adding the number of work hours to the day, we could also do the following – cut existing low priority projects, streamline how we do our existing work, or build better processes to integrate the new project easily into our workflow.

Yes, we could work longer. But, we could also use the opportunity to work better.

Work worries

It’s the weekend. And, there’s a lot of room for worrying about work. There’s probably some office politics. Maybe even some uncertainty about what your manager things about you. Or, perhaps, you’d like that long overdue big raise.

Here’s the issue – nearly everything we tend to worry about is stuff that we don’t really control.

There are 3 things we do control –

1. Investing in ourselves

2. Seeking out growth and learning in our work. (This is the start of a beautiful cycle. We love work that enables us to learn and grow. And, when we love our work, we do great work.)

3. Being conscious in our interactions with ourselves and others.

When was the last time we spent time worrying about these things?

Working hard and offending people

I thought I’d channel some inspiration from G B Shaw for this weekend. Thanks to a wise friend for sharing..

“..this is the true joy in life — being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one… being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is sort of a splendid torch which I have a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it over to future generations.”  | GB Shaw

There are so many interesting things about the quote. Especially, the idea of “the harder I work, the more I live.”

Sam Altman, from Y Combinator, had a wonderful post on how the days are long but the decades are short (thanks, Sam, for sharing). One of his points were –

On work: it’s difficult to do a great job on work you don’t care about.  And it’s hard to be totally happy/fulfilled in life if you don’t like what you do for your work.  Work very hard—a surprising number of people will be offended that you choose to work hard—but not so hard that the rest of your life passes you by.  Aim to be the best in the world at whatever you do professionally.  Even if you miss, you’ll probably end up in a pretty good place.  Figure out your own productivity system—don’t waste time being unorganized, working at suboptimal times, etc.  Don’t be afraid to take some career risks, especially early on.  Most people pick their career fairly randomly—really think hard about what you like, what fields are going to be successful, and try to talk to people in those fields.

I’ve found Sam’s point about “a surprising number of people will be offended that you choose to work hard” to be very true. Many unfortunately view work as a chore. It can be, of course, but it definitely doesn’t need to be the case. It becomes a chore the moment you view it as a means to achievement. Then, it becomes all about minimizing the amount of work necessary to achieve what you set out to achieve. However, if you do things that flow from a sense of purpose, it doesn’t feel like work at all. You don’t yearn for “balance” because none is necessary. It just becomes a fluid continuum of things you enjoy and a state of “balancing” and constant prioritization and re-prioritization among these priorities.

Contrary to popular belief, we don’t find happiness when we achieve. We find happiness when we pursue ideas and goals that we find meaningful. Success and happiness ensue from that pursuit.

And, that’s where real joy lies..

What should I do if I’m really struggling at work and feel incredibly down because of it?

Someone (anonymous) prompted me to answer a question on Quora. I thought I’d share the question and my response below. The tough part about such a question is that no one can answer it. The best (I believe) you can do is provide a frame that will hopefully help. The response has many of elements I write about here on this blog and all of what is recommended has been tried and tested. So, here’s hoping this helps the person who asked the question and anyone else who might be having a difficult time.

What should I do if I’m really struggling at work and feel incredibly down because of it?

I changed job about a year ago, and really haven’t been doing well in my new job, definitely not as well as I did in my old. Some things are solvable, or at least I can see how to solve them, e.g. project management. However, my job is very technical and requires a deep understanding of material that is complex. I cannot seem to get my head around it, my learning on it is very slow. For that I just do not know what to do, and feel hopeless. It is strange for me because my technical grasp in my old job was good, I don’t know why I am struggling so much here. I feel so demotivated and I do not know who to talk to, as people who do not work in the industry do not understand. I really want some constructive feedback and something concrete to work on, but my colleagues and management say “understanding technical issues should be a given” which makes me wish I could just quit and do something else, although I can’t actually afford to do that financially.


Dear friend,

Congratulations! This is an opportunity that can make you and really change your life.

What you describe is the essence of the toughest struggle we face as humans – it is part external, part internal and part existential. It is when the resistance seems to just overpower you and suddenly everything that you seem to touch seems to have failure written all over it. There is nothing harder. I have experienced losing both my father and uncle between ages 9 and 11 and then facing many difficulties as a consequence of that. And, yet, when I look back at a time when I went through something like this, I found death and it’s consequences easier to deal with. This sort of experience will teach you to be human and, in many ways, I think it’s those that learn to be human are those that learn how to be happy.

The toughest part about this sort of situation is that it comes with a seeming lack of options. You seem stuck in an endless spiral and rebuilding your confidence and your sense of self feel like a lot of hard work.

So, given the situation, it is great that you are asking the question. It is sometimes hard to step out of ourselves when we are having tough times. And, this is definitely a good first step. Well done.

Here’s how I would approach it.

Step 1. Examine your options and make a conscious decision.

It seems to me that there are 4 options –
1. Quit now (which you can’t seem to afford financially)
2. Search for a job now
3. Stay and continue status quo
4. Stay and change things

Out of these 4 options, I think searching for a job now could be an escape. However, given your current mental state, it is unlikely that is going to be fruitful. Since option 3 is not one I would recommend, let’s focus on the decision you have in front of you – To fix it or not to  try.

If you decide to fix it, then we proceed to step 2.

Step 2. Rebuild with a 1 month short term plan.

Give yourself a clear short term process goal, e.g., “I’m going to work hard on “being happy” and I’m going to measure my efforts on it.”

This will take 3 steps – 

1. Get the basics – eating, sleeping, exercising, and reading – right. Eat healthy food every 4 hours, kill alcohol and cigarettes for a month, sleep 8 hours every day, exercise 6 days a week (aerobic for 20 minutes) and spend 30 mins every day reading/listening to a book (perhaps start with your commute). When you start,  start with “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E Frankl.

Create a simple tracker and measure yourself on these.

2. Journal your daily learnings. You are learning something every day. Reflect on it and write about it. Every challenge is learning and every day, we get better at dealing with them.

3. Recharge emotionally – via good times and volunteering. Spend at least a day a week with loved ones and get over yourself when you do (no moping / complaining). And, make 3 hours to volunteer at a place with underprivileged kids.

– This may not immediately change anything. You’re in a spiral, and as you face the inevitable frustration once you start trying, you’ll probably spiral further down. Allow yourself to hit rock bottom. It’s a liberating place to be when you realize you can’t sink any lower.
– Don’t take it personally – great footballing stars have gone on to become massive failures when they switched clubs. It isn’t just about you – it is also about the environment.
– As you might have gathered, this isn’t about the technical skills. Our first step is to work on your confidence and motivation. • Be willing to iterate and change approaches. This will help you with stage 1 – getting started and building your confidence. You’ll need to keep tailoring your approach as  some things will work and some won’t. That’s okay. It’s a long way up and there is no easy way out of it.

And, this is not going to be easy or quick. You will feel stuck and annoyed many many times as you work your way through the process. If that happens, welcome to the club. This is how we get made.

PS: I’d love to help beyond this Quora thread. If this thought process helps, that’s great. Even if it doesn’t, please feel free to write me on rohan@rohanrajiv.com if I can be of help in thinking through this. Good luck and good skill!

25 things I’ve learnt from 4 years of work

As I transition to being a student again, I thought I’d write down 25 things I’ve learnt. It started as a list of 7 but, somehow, there seemed to be many more that were just as important. Brevity is clearly not a strength as yet.

1. You are better off focusing on your “learn-rate” and skills than rewards that look good. Your learn-rate is the intensity with which you learn – focus hard on it. Seek learnings from all sources – teammates, bosses, peers, subordinates, books, movies – just be a learning machine and forget about rewards. In fact, be actively wary of jobs that give you too much of what’s considered good too early.

2. Being so good you can’t be ignored is one part. It isn’t enough – Learning to market your work is just as important.

3. The train you are on matters a lot more than how smart you are. Luck matters. I had a unique opportunity in the last 2 years that enabled me to work across 5 countries in 3 continents. Sure, I didn’t mess the first one up but I’d be a fool if I attributed it to my skill. Being at the right place at the right time helps a lot. And, being skilled, positive and open increases your odds of doing that. Allow luck to find you. But, don’t rely on it.

4. You don’t get what you deserve. You get what you ask for and what you negotiate. A PS here – you get the best possible results when you find others to champion your cause and negotiate on your behalf.

5. Build a great board of directors and do it deliberately. You are the CEO of Me, Inc. Execute well and seek counsel over long term strategy. A big part of learning is learning from the experience of those wiser than you and spending time with a great Board can vastly improve your learn-rate.

6. Last minute work will kill you in the long run. Avoid at all costs.

7. A well scoped project has no need for long hours of work and definitely no need for weekends. Your best 0 error work is done when you are working comfortably with 100% focus. Remember – we only have 3-5 super productive hours in a day. Focus on getting the most out of them – the rest is gravy.

8. Get your shit together. Be organized and responsive. That doesn’t mean checking email at 2 in the morning. It means banishing procrastination, being orderly and being responsible. It is a way of doing things.

9. Things have a way of working themselves out if you put in the work. The law of unattraction works here. Stay calm and let the universe do its work. (This is bloody hard)

10. Drive your own review and feedback process. Work hard on not allowing weaknesses to get in the way by actively working on them, one at a time (e.g. a weakness every 6 months/year). Pay a lot of attention to your strengths. Your weaknesses are a way of reducing unforced errors and your strengths are how you hit your winners. When you are a beginner, avoiding unforced errors matters most. But, as you get better, your winners count for more.

11. You can only push so much. After a point, it becomes counter productive.

12. Take some time to understand human nature. Working with and moving people is where great change is made. You may not like all you see but you can definitely learn to understand and accept it. Understanding what drives people is always useful.

13. Understanding people is only possible if you take the time to understand yourself. Self awareness is a learned trait and it boosts our ability to deal with that other large beast – insecurity.

14. Work on a project outside work. At the very least, have a hobby that you care about. Use your weekends well. Good weekends drive good weeks. That said, don’t take this to an extreme. Let your hair loose and do an all nighter that messes with your sleep patterns often.

15. Actively build and maintain a support system of people not connected to work. I call this group framily – or close friends and family. Keep them engaged in your life by working on small projects with them, e.g. by volunteering together.

16. Sleep 8 hours, eat breakfast, and exercise nearly everyday. A healthy mind lives in a healthy body.

17. Book at least 1 good vacation and 1 great vacation during the year. It does wonders to your productivity.

18. Read. A lot. This is the single biggest driver of your learn-rate. If  you’re wondering how to make time, here are 3 ideas. 1. Cut down your TV time 2. Try audio books while at the gym 3. Use every minute of your commute

19. Mistakes are an inevitability. Don’t worry about the mistake – worry about the process that led to the mistake and focus on a creative, constructive and corrective response. I repeat that every time I make a mistake – focus on a creative, constructive and corrective response.

20. Every experience is what you make of it.

21. Your reputation is everything. Guard it carefully. If you don’t create and manage what you are known for (i.e. your brand), someone else will.

22. Try to never be guilty of a bad attitude. This is hard, especially if you are stuck in frustrating circumstances, but important.

23. Manage people the way you’d like to be managed and not on how some bad manager managed you. Don’t be a jerk.

24. Make the effort to understand the politics. Politics is inevitable if there are more than 3 people in a room. Avoid politicking if you can, however. Keep the game as clean and as meritocratic as possible. (A general rule when it comes to politics – if you’re unable to identify the sucker at the table, it is probably you.)

25. What got you here won’t get you there. This is the simplest and most important principle. If you’ve been doing well so far, the bar will soon be raised and you will have to use your accumulated knowledge and wisdom to figure out the next curve and reinvent yourself. Drive the change actively… what got you here won’t get you there.