Reprogramming the mind program

I have recently been spending more time with my baby nephews and niece. Babies are simple. They eat, sleep, poop, explore, and cry or laugh depending on how well the situation supports this survival and comfort [1]. When you observe babies, it's very apparent that we are all just survival programs. Adults just play more complicated, indirect, and longer-term survival games. 

We begin as bootstrapped programs that function as follows: (a) feel pain and act distraught when we experience something threatening to survival, (b) feel pleasure and act happy when we experience something positive for survival, (c) seek more pleasure and avoid pain, and be curious about the environment, presumably to look out for those sources. 

Then the program learns rapidly over time, through memory and imitation - avoiding the pain, doubling down on the pleasurable, and exploring to discover more. There's also a fair bit of randomness in there too. A lot of the learnings are passed on to offsprings through their bootstrapped program and as inputs to their learning. 

The program is optimized for survival (because only the surviving programs continue to exist), but not for equanimity or happiness. In fact, feeling distraught - worried, fearful, sad, greedy, guilty, angry, etc. - are features of the program that enable survival in their own ways. So if you let the program run its course, you'll likely prolong your survival and propagate, but you will often feel distraught too. 

If "you" (which are just subprograms of "consciousness" and "ego" running within the main program) want to instead optimize for happiness, you will have to reprogram the main program and overcome millions of years of strong programming. 

This reprogramming takes deliberate and consistent effort and is the basis of several practices like mindfulness, Buddhism, journaling, and therapy. They all recommend a similar pattern: 

1. Increase your awareness of your programming, thoughts and feelings. You can do this through daily journaling, meditation, pausing & reflecting by yourself or with a therapist when you feel distraught. 

2. Understand the core reason, need, or belief on why you think or feel that way. 

3. Change the core reason, need, or belief when it isn't helping your happiness. 


Notes: 

[1] The most common aspects of survival are eating, physical safety, social safety, and reproducing. 

Focus on your mission

These are turbulent times - with inflation, market crashes, fears of a recession, a war in Ukraine, supply chain issues, climate scares, and political division. It's natural to get distracted, dismayed, or fearful of everything that's going on. 

In your personal life, business, or career, you can get around it is by focusing on your mission and what's in your control. 

For this to be possible, (a) your mission needs to be robust - something you really want to do, are capable of doing distinctly well, and something that others need and support, even during hard times, (b) you have partners who are aligned with you on mission and values, and (c) you need to live and operate well below your means and independently. 

Satisfice and simplify non-focus areas

I realized my investment portfolio is complex. I have investments across 6 different accounts and own over 25 individual stocks.  

This may not be that complex for someone who's a finance expert or actively manages their investments. I'm not that. Managing finances is essential but not the area of my life where I want to excel - I'd instead focus on interests and differentiated skills in building products, businesses, or writing. I'd be happy with a B+ than an A+ (satisficer vs. maximizer). 

The complexity prevents me from monitoring and managing effectively. I don't have enough knowledge, skills, or regular focus in this area to deal with the complexity either. 

A more straightforward strategy like - (a) Automated investment and dollar-cost averaging, (b) Investing into a balanced portfolio of cash, stock indices, and a very few individual stocks, bonds, real-estate, and (c) Buy & hold and then, rebalancing twice a year and as needed to adjust for disturbances in balance or both my age/risk/needs, Or paying a fee to outsource this to a financial advisor or to Robo advisor services like Wealthfront or Betterment to all of the above may also serve me better. 

The bottom line is to be a satisficer and simplify most areas of life to focus on, maximize, and enjoy a few areas that you care about. If you try to do everything, you do nothing well and are less happy. 

Credit score

Credit scores are like your gums. You know you need to take care of them now, or it'll be a pain in some distant future. 

I'm trying to buy a home now and realized how consequential they can be. 

Mortgage lenders, I was told, look at the middle of the scores from the 3 main credit bureaus/mafia (Experian, Equifax, and Transunion). If you're applying with a partner, they will pick the lowest one between you. 

You need a middle of at least 680 to qualify for a jumbo loan (over ~$650k in WA state). 

A middle of 680-700 can have an interest rate of ~5.6% vs. the ~4.8% that you get if it's >750. On a $1M loan, that's a significant ~$800 a month! 

A single collections account (usually >$100) can impact your credit report by 100 points and stay on your credit report for up to 7 years. So missing a one-time $150 payment can end up costing you $800/month for many years or even disqualify you from getting a loan and home (If you can, you can pay the creditor - either the original service provider or the collections agency - and request them to take the collections off your report, which takes 2 weeks - 2 months). 

So floss and take care of your credit score. 

Used book pricing

We were clearing up our house of unloved and unnecessary possessions before a move and decided to sell around 40 books that we'd never read or likely never reread.  

We hauled them to a Half Price Book store. The lady at the counter told me that they have a computer program that calculates the offer price for each book. 

That's an interesting programming puzzle. 

There are 3 factors I'd take into consideration: (1) the price at which it will sell, (2) the average time to sell (payback period), (3) risk and profit buffer 

These are related variables that can influence each other, but we can simplify the problem by treating them as independent varibles. For (1), we can assume it's half the average retail price across Amazon and maybe a couple of retailers. (2) is tricky as it involves predicting the future. We can use the past book sale date to do that. I'd use a weighted average of the recent average time to sell for (a) the very same book, (b) for the author, (c) for the category (could be multiple categories like genre, condition, hardcover, etc), and (d) for all books in general. For (3), I'd just use a flat constant overall or by category*.

You can also be fancy and use a black-box machine learning algorithm, but I don't know enough to say how. 

Anyway, I was disappointed when she offered us just $25, or ~50c per book. A good lesson to borrow books from the library than buy to save both money and clutter. 


Note 

* A marketplace, like Amazon, seems like a more efficient business model in some ways as they don't have to worry about paying upfront (cashflow) and inventory risk. 

Elon's goals and answer to the most fundamental question

The most fundamental question to understand, IMO, is the existential one...What the heck is all this?! Why and how are we here? What are we supposed to do?

Elon Musk is an incredibly smart guy - he has a track record of making things happen - both in the physical world (batteries, cars, rockets) and within human society (leading businesses, making money, acquiring a following). He's also a clear, first principles thinker and shares a lot about how he thinks about the world. So I think he can play a part in helping us understand life and the world*. So what is Elon's answer to the foundational question?

Elon has two answers - one explicit and another implicit.  

Elon recalls that at the age of 11 or 12, he had an existential crisis because he didn't understand why or how we are here. He concluded that we may never know but we may be able to find out if we expand the scope and scale of civilization and consciousness, and that's what he wants to do. 

I like Elon's framing of the goal as it builds up from a defensible first principle that we don't know why we are here. It is also a reasonable assumption that our consciousness will expand over time and that will help us discover and learn more, just like it has since the advent of life. So he wants to give humans more time and chance of survival over multiple generations (hence, Tesla and SpaceX to derisk planetary risk) and to some extent, expand the capacity to grow consciousness (hence, science, Neuralink, and his recent bid to buy Twitter)**.  

His second answer to the existential question is more implicit in his behaviors. He shot a Tesla into space, he speaks of going to Mars as a fun adventure, he time and again risked a fortune to pursue his passions, he posts dank memes on Twitter, he did an SNL skit and had an unlikely and wild romance with Grimes. Compared to other billionaires or people of his stature, Elon seems much more free-spirited, playful, goofy, and willing to try many different things. I have also personally concluded as much - have fun and enjoy life! 

Notes

* But with a heavy caveat that every person's commentary and actions are a mix of authenticity, limited perspective, ego, theatrics, and manipulation, and it is truly hard to distinguish between them especially when they are smart enough to deceive or totally clueless about their own intentions.

** A lot of people and organizations also work towards for survival and happiness for now and over generations. Elon's first principles approach and the boldness of his approach set him apart.    

Seek helpful advice

I have come across some research that showed that people with mentors are more successful in life and career, and I totally buy that. The world is a large and complex place. None of us know all the possibilities or how to navigate them well. But we can know a lot more by tapping into the experiences and wisdom of other people. 

1. Seek advice 

If you are doing something new or trying to make a difficult decision, in your personal or professional life, reach out to a few wise people who have walked the path before. It's also helpful to simply chat with wiser people about their lives and your life, without any specific topic in mind. 

There are many good strategies on how to develop these relationships. I'd call out these three - 

  • Be genuine - seek advice on topics or questions that you truly care about and can't figure out elsewhere (say, by just googling online). Don't do it to just "develop your network" or get something else from the other person. 
  • Make it easy - Ask specific questions that they can respond to by email or text, rather than for a "30 min chat to learn". Do and show your homework, to both signal seriousness and to go beyond basics. 
  • Become a person that people want to talk to - Be wise, interesting, fun, and successful in your own way. Be respectful, curious, and kind. Follow up and thank them. 
Most people actually enjoy sharing advice, especially with people who respect and act on it. It makes them feel useful and important, and relive and retell their life experiences. 

The Internet is also your friend and mentor. Books, podcasts, and blogs are abundant and easier to access alternatives. 

2. Advice from the right people and contexts 

Not all advice is good, but all of them have the power to influence you. We were recently figuring out how to buy a house and realized that advice from parents was a bit outdated for the current market situations, compared to advice from friends who had recently purchased houses. As a product manager, you may be getting product ideas from a team that barely understands the users or market. 

So seek advice from the right people - those who have the right expertise on the specific topic, those who you can trust, and those who are willing. Understand the context in which they are giving the advice, as your context may be very different. 

As with most things, there is a point of diminishing returns with advice too. You can't ask too many people either, as you can get stuck in analysis paralysis. 

3. Make your own decision 

At the end of the day, it's your life - you are responsible and you live with the consequences. Unless you are very young or incapacitated, it's usually not a good idea to ask others to make your decisions. You gather all the advice and information that's needed, then weigh and filter them appropriately to develop a predictive mental model of the system, and then, make a decision or act based on that. 

Emotions

I had a recent breakthrough in my pursuit of equanimity and joy

I have been trying the Buddhist / Stoic principle of not fighting with reality for a couple of years now. It's pretty sensible. We get flustered when the reality is different from our expectations and therefore, we'd be more equanimous if we fully accept and appreciate reality because it is what it is and focus on what we can do. 

But despite the intellectual acceptance of this principle, I'd still occasionally get upset with reality and feel like I'm falling short of this principle. When I was discussing this with someone, they pointed out that it isn't healthy or self-compassionate to deny or resent the emotions I feel. 

Then it clicked inside me that emotions are a part of reality too. We feel emotions because of how we are wired. So don't fight with emotions either. Let them happen, feel them, observe them, and focus on what you can do. 

Aha! 

I was assuming reality is only things outside of the "physical me". But if I define "me" as consciousness and anything outside of the consciousness as reality, then reality includes thoughts, emotions, body, and environment.   

Instead of being bothered by emotions, you can observe and understand them. Emotions are useful signals that something or someone is affecting us. They're a core part of our human system that's meant to draw our attention and reaction, and register them in our memories for future situations. Say, when you feel angry at someone, it may indicate that they are treating you unfairly. When you are sad, you may be feeling vulnerable, lonely, or unsafe. 

Bottled emotions can cause unhappiness and also have non-somatic physical and health repercussions like body aches, skin breakouts, organ dysfunction, etc.  

When we observe and dig deeper beyond the base emotions (happy mad, sad, fear, bad, surprise, disgust) to understand the deeper emotions and causes, we understand our internal wiring and our reality better. The feelings wheel is a fantastic tool to help us do that. 



Understanding and skillfully responding to emotions is tricky because of two reasons - 

1. Emotions usually have deeper roots beyond the current situation. Different situations affect different people differently based on how they are wired, which is determined by several factors like past experiences, their upbringing, beliefs, traumas, situations, and needs. Someone who's been cheated on and lost a lot will naturally tend to become less trustful and have more heightened emotions to even slight breaches of trust. 

It is helpful to understand the deeper roots of your feelings. What are the beliefs and needs behind the emotion? How did they originate and develop over your life?  

2. Sometimes, emotions may be inappropriate for the situation.  You may be feeling angry at someone even though they are acting for your good. Your frustration may be stemming from unrealistic or unsaid expectations out of a person or situation. 

I think the Internal Family Systems method of talking to your selves, regular mindfulness, and journalling are effective practices to observe and understand our emotions. 

Observing and understanding emotions help you respond skillfully, rather than react. Skillful responses are those that reflect your values and further your life goals. Reactions, on the other hand, are subconscious and automated, and not necessarily in your best interests. Reactions are quick, but responses are more thoughtful and principled, and therefore, more effective. Where possible, try to create the time and separation to respond, rather than react in the heat of the moment. A long reflective walk, exercise, good night's sleep, journaling, or talking it out with a mentor or friend usually help me. 

Depending on your understanding of your emotions, you can choose to respond internally, externally, or both. Internally, you can soothe yourself and where appropriate, rewire your inner self, beliefs, and maladaptations. Externally, you can do what's in your control to effect the change you want. That could include expressing your feelings to others, influencing, changing, or getting out of a situation. 

When you have to react quickly, my best recommendation is to not do something you'll regret, and for me, that means being kind, transparent, and fair to yourself and others, practical, and de-escalate (if possible). 

As you are training yourself to observe, understand, and respond to emotions skillfully, know that it is a difficult path for everyone and most aren't skillful either. So when you are subject to other people's emotions, understand, empathize and try to soothe their internal wiring, and you will be less affected and more effective.  

Notes

1. There is no "correct level of emotional feeling" for a situation - that is a made-up societal rule that often makes people feel guilty or inadequate.

Basic shit


Daljit (my SO) and I were chatting yesterday about how whenever we feel like we are in a rut, it's almost always because we stopped taking care of "basic shit". 

Basic shit includes - 

  1. Sleeping well 
  2. Time in the morning to relax, meditate, plan, and get ready for the day
  3. Walking outside and/or exercising  
  4. Taking a lunch break and breaks during work
  5. Winding down from work and doing other things we enjoy 
  6. Taking some alone time to think reflect, read, write
  7. Drinking enough water and eating healthy
  8. Doing the chores to keep our homes and lives in order 
  9. Keeping phone, social media, and TV time low 
  10. Relaxing and self-care nighttime rituals like tea, board games, reading, journaling 
  11. Using weekends well to do fun stuff, wind down, and do chores
  12. Connecting regularly with close friends and family
  13. Focusing on what you have, balance, and what's in control. Not overdoing, overcommitting, being obsessed, greedy, jealous, fearful, judgemental, or worried
  14. Having something exciting to look forward to
Just basic shit. Being happy is not rocket science (at least for most of us who have a reasonably comfortable life). I joke that Buddha spent years meditating on how to end suffering, explored and articulated many theories, and the crux of it is to stay in the "middle path" - do the basic shit and don't overdo. So simple, yet true. 

But despite knowing this intellectually, we all tend to slip on this basic shit. For us, it usually happens when there's a disruption like a vacation, COVID/remote work, busy time at work, or some unplanned emergency or issue. Sometimes it's just a slow decline with no particular cause.

I'm trying a few things that help - 
  • Recognizing regularly that basic shit is important 
  • Having a daily checklist of basic shit. Not only is it a good intentional reminder, but checking off things makes us feel good too. 
  • Being conscious of disruptions and being even more intentional about basic shit during those times.  
  • Restarting on basic shit when we are in a rut. Being okay with paying or signing up for special classes, trainers, events, EAs to get over the hump. 
  • Flagging when we see each other slipping.

Product leaders -- understanding customers is still a top priority

It's now somewhat common best practice (inconsistently practiced though) for Product Managers to talk to customers regularly. The reasoning is pretty straightforward - if you aren't really understanding what customers need, then how can you successfully prioritize what to build and build it well?

But product leaders (PM Manager) can feel a push away from talking to customers directly as they take on more team management and strategy tasks (based on my true story). I'd posit that's going to hurt your effectiveness, especially if you are new to the domain or company. How are you going to set or vet the right team strategy, provide feedback, or take bold bets/changes if you aren't familiar with customers? How can you stop falling for availability bias (over-index on a limited set of user insights presented to you to develop an incorrect or incomplete model)? How are you going to stay connected to the ground reality of customer experience vs what's visible to you through your team? How can you maintain enough empathy to drive yourself and your team to make things better?

You can't fully rely on metrics, broad market research, or secondary/tertiary hand downs of user research. Those are all necessary and helpful - you can triangulate from various signals. But I'd say it isn't sufficient -- you still need first-hand customer conversations. 

Some helpful tactics: 

  • Request one of the product managers or user researchers on the team to organize a weekly customer call that you, PMs on your team, UX/Engineers, and other stakeholders can listen in on. 
  • Schedule a weekly time slot to review or participate in customer forums and/or look at reviews and support tickets. I like to join relevant subreddits, for example. 
  • Pay attention to user research from your team and other teams; ask clarifying questions and point out if there are flawed or missing methods or insights. Ask for it if there isn't sufficient research (both broad and feature level) that's being done. 

Paying attention, listening, and caring

I was upset and having a particularly rough day. We were meeting a few of our close friends couples that day. Not wanting to be a downer (and likely to avoid being judged), I covered it up and put on my regular act. But I couldn’t fully hide it towards the end of the day. One of my friends noticed something was off and when we had a moment, he asked me if I was okay and even texted me later that day. I felt loved and supported, and it helped. 

People around you may be silently suffering. If you want to help, you can’t expect them to express an ask…you have to pay attention, listen closely to pick cues, and care and act thoughtfully. And that can make a big difference. 

Wrong goals and targets can be damaging for early-stage products

I was tasked with starting a "big bets" team at a startup I was working on. The goal of the team was loosely defined as to achieve step-level or 10X outcomes -- either in the core job-to-be-done or through a new job-to-be-done. 

I was previously leading growth for the core product and I set this team's key performance indicator (KPI) or key result (KR in OKR) similarly -- X monthly active users. 

And that was a mistake. 

Done right, a KPI is a measure of the most important thing, provides directional guidance, and is a measure of progress. A wrong KPI can be useless, misleading, and demotivating. 

For a new product area, the most important thing is to identify the problem space to play in and to achieve product-market fit. The goal of X monthly active users is a big step removed from that. It didn't provide us directional guidance, didn't provide a measure of progress to either the team or the execs, and it felt pretty demotivating to declare failure against that measure every quarter. Yes, eventually what we build would need engaged users and revenue, but that's pretty unhelpful as a KPI at that early stage. 

KPIs for early-stage products are a bit mushier. I'd prefer a checklist of inputs and KRs around making progress on it, rather than numerical measures. For example: 

  • Have we aligned with the team and execs on the approach, timeline, KPIs, and a way to check in on progress?
  • Have we identified and understood promising problem areas?
  • Have we developed confidence in the problem areas?
  • Have we identified and prototyped solutions?
  • Do prototypes show promise?
  • Are we ready to double down now or should we explore further? 

Rahul Vora, co-founder of Superhuman, has shared one of the most robust frameworks for getting to and measuring product-market fit. You may be able to define KRs and outcomes using that framework (score of X for "how would you feel if you could no longer use the product" for a segment Y, with sufficient TAM)

Some teams and execs feel compelled to use numerical goals and sometimes fall back to measuring inputs like the number of prototype iterations or user interviews, but you have to be very careful with those as that can direct people to do busy, but ineffective work (Goodhart's law - when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be useful). Bad measures, especially with early-stage teams, can be damaging. 

It's also hard to commit to a specific timeline for outcomes as the timeline to product-market fit is unpredictable and can sometimes take years, even with the most capable team. But you can have timelines around inputs, as long as you keep it short-term and flexible.

So if you are an exec or manager, you are largely relying on your PM and team to do their best attempt, without much visibility or measure on progress. So you'll have to give this responsibility to a trusted, capable, and innately motivated team that can communicate well. You'll have to reward them based on the quality of inputs, rather than on business outcome or impact as these are high-risk bets. 

I think this philosophy applies to personal life too. When you are starting on a new routine or hobby, say exercise, people often rush to set a goal to exercise X days of doing Y a week. They often fail at it, feel guilty or defeated, and give up. Instead, your initial goal should be to find a routine<>person fit first by exploring and iterating before you decide to operationalize and scale the routine. 

Talking to your parts and pasts

I may have stumbled onto a life-changing practice on Twitter yesterday. I have only practiced it a couple of times so far and I feel a dramatic effect on happiness and equanimity each time. 

Whenever a life-changing practice works out, it...well, changes your life. So well worth trying out strong recommendations. 

Here's how it starts: 

****

Hm well so all day I’m either talking to my parts or thinking “how can humanity become more alive” and diving into that question. That’s what my head is doing

Body is doing whatever it feels like basically on autopilot

— Nick Cammarata (@nickcammarata) June 11, 2021

****

wait hold up. all day you're talking to your parts? can we get a monologue demonstration?

— visa is doing final edits (99.2%) ✍πŸΎπŸ“– (@visakanv) June 11, 2021

****

I'm glad that Visa actually caught the casual mention and asks Nick for a demonstration (I'd probably have simply brushed through the tweet, so this is a good lesson in paying attention and being curious). Nick shares a live stream of self-talk as an example - 

****

Oh baby nick what do you feel wow you feel powerful why oh it’s because you’re excited for work why does that feel powerful oh you’re excited to show to me what your skills can do cool! Is everyone excited for the gym we’ll be there in fifteen minutes yeah it’s sad our ankle is 

hurt but it’s because of dancing and we looove dancing it’s so much fun! I really like being here with all of you oh teen nick what do you feel oh you’re wondering if a girl likes you. Ha that’s cute but you should also think through whether you like her it’s totally reasonable

feel can you do it? Flash it in our mind. Wow that’s beautiful that makes so much sense, I love the waves on the side like that ....

Okay that’s like a random 30 second livestream. Except almost none of it is lingual it’s mostly just feelings. Maybe 20% lingual

— Nick Cammarata (@nickcammarata) June 11, 2021

****

You can see that Nick has a few different kinds of talks with his parts and pasts in this example:

  1. Check-in talks: How is every part feeling and doing, is anything disturbed or joyful.
  2. Reflection / looking ahead talks: What do we think about what happened or is going to happen. 
  3. Past self talk: Talk to a past self about something memorable - good or bad, and show compassion and heal from that experience.  
  4. Casual chats: No particular agenda. Just talk about whatever is on your mind. 

The practice seems almost cuckoo! Basically, instead of thinking of yourself as one thing, you think of yourself as multiple different parts and pasts. Each is alive and has its own feelings. You are their attentive, caring, and compassionate leader. And you regularly acknowledge their presence, their feelings, and talk with them. 

****

I think the broad thing is I used to feel like one big piece and now I feel like a system of subprocesses I’m like the leader of. Except I’m very explicitly the slave. I remind the parts all the time that I don’t need anything from them, if they want to hurt me they can

— Nick Cammarata (@nickcammarata) June 11, 2021

If they want to call for attention they can, if they want to take over my whole qualia state they can. Any part has the full ability to get me to stop whatever I’m doing, they just have to send the message. My only goal as a leader is to make them feel comfortable and supported

— Nick Cammarata (@nickcammarata) June 11, 2021

****

Visa gets it and highlights how powerful this is to increase baseline happiness: 

*****

to be directly reassuring here – this was absolutely lovely and I am very, very grateful that you shared this

numbers are silly but: you gave me a direct glimpse of the *path* from "7 average" to "9 average". i've been 9 before but I didn't really have a compelling precise model for *why* I'm not 9 average all the time. seems exceedingly likely that this monologue makes the difference

— visa is doing final edits (99.2%) ✍πŸΎπŸ“– (@visakanv) June 11, 2021

****

After trying it out, I agree that this practice is very powerful for a few reasons.

  1. It gets you to regularly and systematically check in with yourself. Meditation practices like body scans do something similar. This leads to more presence, self-awareness, and resolution of internal conflicts. 
  2. The conversation style and humanization are more engaging. fun, and compassionate, compared to meditation practices.
  3. You show love, compassion, and care to all your parts and your pasts, which helps you heal and feel better. 
  4. I think the attention, love, and compassion to different parts and pasts of you translates to compassion and care towards other people, beings, and things. It takes you towards the high state of "awakening" where ego dissolves and you become everything.
  5. Conscious and deliberate self-talk takes time away from subconscious self-talk, which is usually less uplifting or beneficial. 
  6. Being conscious more often is the same as being present more often, which is effective for clarity and happiness. 

Such a lovely and insightful exchange on the Internet! 


Notes: 

[1] I'm learning that this is similar to a therapy approach - Internal Family Systems or IFS

[2] Naming and humanizing pets and things have a similar effect. Nameless, faceless people or things get less of our attention and compassion. 

I read only one book in a year and it was great

It's the start of a new year - a wonderful and optimistic time where we start off with a clean slate, lots of hope, goals, and resolutions. The general practice is to set lofty goals to read 25 books, pursue 3 hobbies, travel to 5 places, etc. My story below might make you consider an alternate approach of aiming to do less. 


I think I read only one book in 2019. It wasn't even a big book. It was ~100 pages on the Buddhist Eightfold path. 

The book had 8 key chapters and each chapter had 4 activities. I was reading this as a part of the program organized by Insights Meditation center. We read one chapter a month, then met for a group session, and practiced one activity per week, before moving to the next chapter. 

The group sessions were usually 1-2 hours long. The experts leading the program would give an hour talk explaining the summary and nuances of the topic covered in the chapter. We'd break out into small groups a few times to share our opinions and experiences on some pertinent questions. There were a couple of  Q&A segments. 

Every session always revealed a lot more depth than what I gathered from my reading of the chapter, offered real-world examples and practical tips, and resolved any lingering questions or doubts that I had. They made me understand more, think more, and be even more rigorous in exploring the next chapters. 

The weekly homework activities were hard to do consistently. But the half I did, helped me integrate the theory into my daily life and understand them even better. 

It's been 2 years and I still remember, practice, and benefit from many of the topics in the book. I continue to brush up on the chapters and practices every few months (Some people in the class were repeating for the 2nd or 3rd year). I can't say that for most books I have read quickly or express courses that I have completed in a week or month.  

Reading -> Insight -> Practice -> Insight -> Repetition -> Integration

Think of how you studied books and courses when you were in school or college. You had a teacher explain and walk through every chapter, you had multiple class discussions, projects and problem sets to practice the theory, chapter, and final tests as a forcing function to study and practice and to assess yourself and expose gaps. It takes a lot of exploration to understand a topic. 

It takes regular and deliberate practice to apply and integrate them into your life. It takes a lot of repetition for them to stick.  

But suddenly when we graduate from school, we expect that our brains can do magic. We read multiple books, 10-minute books summaries, tweets, watch quick Youtube videos, complete quick courses, pursue multiple different hobbies and goals. We go through life, relationships, activities, books, and jobs very quickly, shallowly, narrowly. Then we expect to master multiple topics and transform ourselves in different ways, very quickly and without as much effort. How we wish! How can that even work! We just end up setting ourselves up to be busy, anxious, guilty, and less effective.

Lex Fridman, a popular scientist and podcaster, lays out this framework for learning any new skill
  • Foundations - 2 hours of daily practice for 1 year
  • Expertise - 1 hour of daily practice for 5 years. Set a minimum time every day. 
  • Second nature - After 5 years, you can take time off and still return to it easily. 
I'd propose that you experience a lot more joy, success, and less stress when you do a few things, slowly, deliberately, and deeply. Things flourish when you invest time, effort, and focus. 

Notes

[1] I do think there is value, serendipity, and joy in exploration and dipping your feet quickly in multiple different things. But they are unlikely to result in deep mastery or a transformation. 

[2] Fiction books are somewhat different from non-fiction. They are entertainment and you can read them more quickly. But even fiction books and movies can be savored more if read and enjoyed slowly. 

[3] Multiple and quick iterations within the same topic or activity can be good. They help you go deeper and offer a quicker and more fun feedback loop to help you learn better. You may have heard about the study on how students who were tasked with making as many pots as possible made better pots than students who were tasked with making one perfect pot. 


Inner work

December is the reflective time of the year. During December 2020, I spent 3 days in this beautiful cabin, scribbling down a lot of thoughts - old and new - that eventually became this post. During breaks, I indulged in short walks and drives around the beautiful Olympic National Park, studied a Buddhist book on the Eightfold path and the Almanac of Naval Ravikant. I have hugely benefited from this "inner work" that's helped me understand my existence and what I want to do with it. That elaborate exercise, weekly check-ins, and the resulting clarity have kept me grounded and led me to make some bold and positive changes over this year. 

Inner work sounds like a suspect Indian guru term, but I think it’s quite apt. It is "work" because it takes systematic effort and the subject of the work is largely your mind. 

Beliefs, habits, needs, environment, triggers -> Thoughts and actions -> Feelings and outcomes. 

We have all developed thought patterns, beliefs, and other underlying conditions, mostly unconsciously,  throughout our lives. If we want to understand and fix what we do and how we feel, we need to dig deeper to understand the inner layers. Naval Ravikant refers to this as running your brain in a "debug" mode, a software development practice to execute your program line by line and observe the changes.

Inner work takes multiple and regular long blocks of free time and solitude. It takes deliberate practice, curiosity, a clear mind, an understanding of general psychology, and sometimes guidance. As with most things, the initial answers are often not right or interesting. You have to keep pressure testing them and peeling the onion to get to the core beliefs and your "true self". Meditation, journaling, blogging, discussing, reading about different perspectives, therapy, and guided psychedelics are some techniques that can help with this work. Inner work is not one and done. Layers of dust always form again and you have to regularly tidy up.  

Once you become familiar with your underlying beliefs, you can try to change them or live them fully. But that is a whole other process that requires ongoing reflection, drive, and regular, small, and progressive steps. 

I highly recommend this life-changing practice.