The Magic of Software

My entire career has been in software, and I have taken it for granted. Only when I recently started considering brick-and-mortar businesses, I truly appreciated the magnificence of software businesses. 

If you know how to code, you can create and sell software from your bedroom, with little investment or risk. You don’t have to sign leases, buy expensive tools or materials, or hire many people. It's so much easier and quicker to go from idea to MVP. 

Software also has tremendous leverage. Once written, it can serve millions of customers with little marginal cost and high margins. Aside from dealing with the occasional fires, you are free to direct your time and resources to innovate (or chill). Compare that to running a restaurant where you (or an employee) have to bake a pizza for every single customer, over and over again. 

And the reach of software is limitless! You can live in an idyllic village in India, like the CEO of Zoho, and sell your software to the Fortune 500. 

And lastly, software businesses tend to accumulate advantages over time, through flywheels of growth, data, network effects, and capability. 

It’s no surprise that many of the most valuable businesses in the world are software businesses. I guess I will continue to resist the urge to open a cafe, hospitality, or entertainment business.

Inspiration is perishable

"Sparks of inspiration" is an astute metaphor. A spark can turn into a glorious fire, but only if it immediately gets in contact with some kindling, which can burn and produce enough heat for bigger logs to light up. 

Think of how many times you have had compelling ideas, but didn't act on them. Most of our sparks of inspiration just die, without kindling and logs. Eventually, we even stop paying attention to the sparks and the sparks just stop. Why bother? 

What a tragedy it is to not follow our inspiration and to not engage our uniquely extraordinary capacity for creation! 

I have my share of unrequited inspiration, but let me share a recent spark that turned into a fire. 

Last week, I had an idea to build a newsletter that automatically summarizes top Hacker News posts and comments. A spark! If I had tried to develop a full program to do it with my rusty programming skills, it'd have been too overwhelming and a slog, and the spark would have died. 

Before throwing in a log, I needed twigs first; something I could do quickly to build on this inspiration. So, I prototyped a newsletter manually in 15 minutes using ChatGPT. It was promising...the spark had turned into a small fire. 

That gave me enough momentum to write a local program to do it automatically and print the results to the console. Fun! The fire was growing. 

Then, I tried to create a way for people to sign up and email them daily, but I ran into a few hurdles. It was too big a log and almost suffocated the fire. Luckily, I decided I could manually run the program and copy-paste the results into a Substack publication. That gave me a nice working prototype. I shared it with a couple of friends and they liked it! The fire is strong now, and I'm ready to throw in a few bigger logs!  

Our sparks of inspiration and ideas are precious, especially those that keep tugging at us passionately and repeatedly. Acting on them gives us joy and agency. And as you keep buying lottery tickets, you will likely end up with something life-changing. Regard your sparks as gifts that they are and kindle them gently until they turn into a fire. 

Conviction and playing to win

I shut down a startup within a year and closed a position on a stock within a day. In retrospect, I folded earlier than I should have. 

Many high-reward business and life opportunities start as bleak, lonely, and hard but pay off over the long run. 

You don't have to play these games. You can fare well with low/mid-risk-reward opportunities. But if you do decide to play these games, you might as well play to win. Don't half-ass them! 

The only way to win is if you commit for a long time. You can only commit if you have (a) deep belief, passion, and rationale in the thesis, outcomes, project, and yourself, (b) staying power to sustain losses and bad case scenarios, and (c) emotional resilience to weather failures and naysayers

In my recent, prematurely ended ventures, I was missing more than one of these factors. 

Catching the waves

There's no surfing without waves. 

Surfers need skills to balance, maneuver, and ride the waves as they break towards the shore. But it's as important for them to have waves! And to know where and when the waves will be swelling. 

Business is no different. 

We all know how Bill Gates and Steve Jobs surfed the microprocessor wave to create humongous businesses around personal computers, operating systems, and applications. That caused the internet wave, which shifted consumer behaviors online and led to the creation Google, Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, Youtube, and many popular web businesses. Then came the smartphone wave, which led to the rise of the likes of Uber, Instagram, and Robinhood. The fourth-degree and third decade ripples of the humble microprocessor led to an explosion of creator tools and businesses like Canva. All this explosion of digitized knowledge, data, and compute has resulted in the latest AI wave. 

The largest opportunities emerge from shifts in technology or behaviors. And the most successful companies and entrepreneurs are the ones who can spot the waves before most others can, and skillfully surf them. 

Slack

Someone on my team was facing a crisis and needed my help. I had room in my calendar, so I could spend a few hours to help them out. 

Slack in my calendar also means that I can explore curiosities and opportunities that could turn into something meaningful and significant. I can have leisurely strolls, or brunches that turn into day-long adventures. 

We are in a world obsessed with productivity and efficiency. Being busy with a packed calendar seems like the best way to succeed at work and in life. But high efficiency often means low resilience and innovation, because of low capacity to fight fires or uncover new possibilities. And not to mention, the risk of debilitating burnout. 

Gaps in your days and weeks because they are essential - to survive and to provide fertile ground for growth. Create and guard them. 

Rationality Paralysis

You can make fully rational decisions in a small, closed, predictable universe. 

But most situations aren't that. There are too many variables, unknowns, and unpredictability. The source and purpose of life itself are on shaky grounds, causing any rationality on top of it to be baseless outside a defined scope. Evolution through randomness, not logic, is the nature of our reality. 

Most big and hard decisions are based on some rationality but largely by instinct or circumstances. When a decision succeeds, there's post hoc rationalization and further success. When it fails, as most do, they disappear and are forgotten. This gives an illusion of a rational and deterministic universe. 

The best you can do is reason and decide on the high-order bits and then go with your gut for the rest. Make bets proportional to your risk tolerance and resources, make multiple bets, bias toward action, and course-correct along the way.

As John Von Neumann said, "Truth…is much too complicated to allow anything but approximations."

Leading without functional or domain expertise

We are remodeling our bathroom and I have to ensure that the work is done right and within a reasonable time and cost. But I have zero experience in construction! So how can I do this well?!

This is the predicament of product managers and leaders as well - they are responsible for product outcomes and quality, without having the functional expertise in engineering, design, or GTM.

Here’s what helped me with remodeling and product management -

1. You can be the curator and editor, even if you aren't the artist. You can bring an eye and taste for great work and craft; not just the end deliverables, but also how the sausage is made. You develop this through curiosity and interest, and by working with amazing people who can show you what's possible.

2. Make the goals, vision, and milestones crystal clear for everyone involved, and be an effective communication bridge. This will help the team avoid wastage and frustration because of miscommunication and misunderstanding. 

3. Help your team chunk the work into smaller complete, shippable milestones so they don't feel overwhelmed. This also helps you realize the benefits and catch problems early and along the way.

4. Ask your team to share plans, estimates, and quotes. Keep asking how we can make it simpler and more successful. The exercise of planning helps the team get more clarity. More details make it easier to understand and pressure test the plans.

5. Check in regularly to review and share progress against the plans. You anticipate and fix problems, blockers, and escalations.

6. Recruit and partner with capable functional leads and team members. You can assess people, hold a high bar, and influence hire/fire/promote/reward decisions thoughtfully and decisively.

7. Keep the team motivated by celebrating and rewarding good work, painting an inspiring vision, establishing an effective and healthy team culture, and just being someone people want to work with.

The Price of Cheap

Our contractor hired a tiler who quoted 1/4th of the usual price for our remodel. It seemed like a GREAT deal until 3 days later. 

We noticed many fundamental problems - the tiles weren’t lining up, the spacing was uneven and incorrect, the shower floor wasn’t sloped correctly, and one of the installed tiles was cracked. 

So the contractor had to bring in a more competent and expensive tiler who had to undo and redo the entire work, get another handyman to spend hours cleaning up the tiles for use again, and buy some new tile as well. Overall, it cost us more money, time, and frustration than hiring a more reputed and expensive tiler upfront. 

The lesson here isn’t to pay more. Not everything that’s expensive is good and not everything that’s cheap is bad; sometimes you can get a good deal. It’s to prioritize quality and risk as well when making consequential purchases or hiring decisions. 

Have tea with it

If you always instinctively react to negative feelings - say, anxiety, anger, insecurity, or boredom - then you’ll behave erratically, irrationally, and experience an emotional roller coaster. The underlying conflict or knot that’s causing the emotion will remain unresolved 

Instead, a Buddhist teacher advised me to invite the feeling to have tea with me. Talk to it to understand what it wants and why. Maybe you end up letting go of the underlying attachment and freeing yourself,  or you act on the need deliberately and practically. Either way, you’ll be calmer and more successful than being controlled by your emotions. 

The Human Nest

The modern American house is a miracle. The richest kings from 500 years ago would give up their palaces to live in a middle-grade townhome with taps that dispense instant hot water, abundant electricity and lighting, and centralized heating and cooling systems. 

Until I saw the innards of my house during a recent remodeling project, I took it for granted. I'm sharing a few basics about this marvel I learned. 

Let's start with the city infrastructure that makes this possible.

Three main pipes come into your house from the public system - water, electricity, and gas (not always). Each pipe connects to the main line on the street, through a meter and a shutoff switch. And one pipe - the sewer - leaves the house and connects to the sewer line. 

The water pipe connects first to the water heater and splits into two - a hot and cold line, which then flows through to the faucets, toilets, and showers in the house. This is how nearly every tap and shower in an American house dispenses hot and cold water, which is still rare in India where I grew up. 

The electric line plugs into a panel which splits it into multiple circuits. Each circuit then has cables that power different parts of your house. The gas (or alternatively, oil or heat pump) connects to the furnace, which conditions the air and circulates it through vents. 

All these pipes and vents run between or through the wooden framing in the walls or through joists under the floor to various points around the house. The showers, sinks, and toilets have drains connected to sewer pipes that join the main line under the ground below the concrete foundation. The framing is then filled with insulation and covered by drywall. The drywall is taped and mudded a few times before painting. 

This use of wooden framing and drywall is quite distinct from construction in India, where solid brick walls dominate. These walls are sturdy enough, way quicker to build, better for hiding wiring and hanging stuff, and easier to demolish and remodel.

I'm full of appreciation and awe for all the wonderful discoveries, inventions, techniques, enterprises, and professions that have developed over centuries so we can enjoy this nest of safety and comfort.  

Compounding

"All the benefits in life come from compound interest - relationship, money, habits - anything of importance." - Naval Ravikant

While there's excitement and discovery in trying new things, they don't last long. I find more sustained meaning, joy, and success in pursuing a few things deeply and over a long time. 

For instance, I feel happier and connected through spending quality time and conversing with close friends and family than mindlessly scrolling through and hearting posts of hundreds of people I barely know on Instagram or Facebook. 

I learn more by reading a book or doing a course or project on a subject than by reading fleeting tweets or news articles. 

I enjoy and succeed at a profession or hobby more as I practice and master it over many years. It's more enjoyable and effective to work with a familiar and trusted crew. 

As an immigrant and frequent mover, I have also found comfort and appreciation in living in the same neighborhood for a long time and revisiting places. You get to know and interact with the people, places, and things. 

Exploration is important, but it's a means to the end of finding a deeper and longer pursuit. If I feel short of meaningful pursuits, I'd spend more energy on exploration. But otherwise, I'd spend more time cultivating and going deeper into what I have than simply hopping around. 

There's a lot of richness and joy in everything that you only unlock with depth and over time. 

Is the Universe Benevolent, Malevolent, or just Ambivalent?

Most religious leaders want us to believe that the forces of the universe (god) are all-powerful and all-loving. But I’m skeptical.

I’m aware of the joys in the universe, but I’m also not blind to the unavoidable suffering that most beings have to endure - like the deer that falls prey to the lion, the mother who loses a child, or the frailties that come with aging. It’s hard for me to perform the mental gymnastics of theodicies to conclude that the omnipotent, benevolent creator didn’t have creative alternatives to this suffering for whatever their end goal might be. Maybe that’s a limit of my intellect, but I don’t see any other proponents of the theory articulating a sound defense either. 

I understand that the belief in a benevolent force can lead to psychological benefits, like optimism. But naive optimism only lasts so long as your brain is blissfully ignorant of the naivety. Such optimism is fragile and risks collapsing under the weight of reality. I’d rather settle on the belief that life is an unexplainable experience, that it isn’t all roses and butterflies, and the general universal forces are ambivalent to individual suffering, but we can try and make it enjoyable and meaningful for each other. We may not control the indifferent currents of the cosmos, but we can choose to navigate them with compassion and solidarity. 

Maybe we could be the capable and benevolent agents of the universe. 

The Roots of Tough Decisions


We are in the middle of a bathroom remodeling project. There are so many possibilities, it's an expensive project with long-term implications, and I had never done something like this before, so I was having a tough time figuring out the layout. Though warranted, I realized I was struggling more than necessary because of 3 reasons: 

1. Not having clarity on goals and priorities. We wanted a better bathroom, but we hadn't really articulated and ranked our main priorities. When we decided that our main goals were a larger shower, access from the bedroom, and a larger vanity, it was so much easier to come up with options and rank them against the clear criteria. This simple and nifty trick has helped me with every major decision like picking jobs or buying a home.  

2. Not having clarity on constraints. When I understood that we couldn't place the vanity in a spot because of a window, or place a shower in another spot because of the low ceiling, it eliminated more options and reduced my FOMO. Constraints can be freeing! 

3. Not laying out all possible options and their implications. When I exhaustively drew out all the options and numbered them, it was much easier to do a pair-wise comparison and rank them. A friend also created visualizations, which really helped me understand the differences and feel more confident in my decisions. 

Mind & Matter

I had a realization that whenever I'm attacked by the flu or any sickness, my mood's also caught in the crossfire! My usual sunny outlook clouds over faster than you can say "pass the tissues."

As I start to claw my way back to health, my spirits lift too. But try as I might, I'm not able to "happy thought" my way out of feeling crummy when sick. 

"Mind over matter" is exaggerated. Sure, our thoughts have power, but they're not always the captain of this ship. For most of us who aren't Buddha, our well-being is this intricate tapestry woven from our physical health, the love we get from those around us, where we are in life – literally and figuratively – and whether we feel safe and sound in our world.

Ever caught an episode of "Queer Eye"? It's like a masterclass in holistic healing. That fab five don't just revamp wardrobes; they renovate lives with their all-hands-on-deck approach – tackling everything from throw pillows to life goals.

That's why I'm all about embracing a more rounded approach when it comes to mental health. Chatting things out is great – don't get me wrong – but sometimes what you really need is someone who'll help repaint your kitchen sunshine yellow or remind you why your homemade lasagna could bring world peace.

Nowadays, instead of waging war against the sniffles-and-frowns brigade, I lean into it. It's okay not to be your sparkliest self when you're sick. Think of it like weathering a storm – hunker down, take it slow, and focus on getting back to full strength.

Radicalization

It was a beautiful tropical day and I was at the beach, happy to be away from the bustle of regular life. But as luck may have it, the spot we landed was right next to two ladies reading NY Times political articles to each other like they were poems of love. They smugly basked in the Times’ self-righteousness, eschewing the ignoramus followers of De Santis and Trump.

“How can they not get the separation of church and state”, one of them commented incredulously. “Right right right”, the other affirmed, with little consideration that it was as much a belief as the Bible.

They continued “right right right” ing each other as they preached familiar talking points with as little nuance and balance as an election pamphlet, each exchange lifting them higher on their horses and further from any middle ground.

Radicalization isn’t a distant phenomenon in mass gatherings in the Middle East or middle America. There are little bubbles of polarizing echo chambers all around us.

Ki

I attended an inspiring talk by Robin Wall Kinmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass, last year. In the talk and in her book, she poignantly describes the contrast between the colonizers and her indigenous peoples’ view of the world.

The settlers regarded nature as a resource, whereas they regarded the earth as a generous mother who bestows them with life and gifts.

The Westerners regarded humans as occupying the top position of a pyramid, whereas they regarded all species as inter-dependent kin in a circle of life and humans being the little brothers who are new to the scene and have a lot to learn from wise elder species.

The Westerners endlessly sought more and played god, while the natives learned to live harmoniously and gently, with divine reverence.

This difference in mindset and the language used to describe the world and our place in it both causes and affects their relationships and behaviors.

We live in a world of colonizers and are offsprings of colonizers because colonizers are the ones who dominate and spread. But hopefully, at some point, we’ll feel satiated and start considering the world around us. 

A first simple step, Robin recommends, could be to address the other living beings around us more personally and lovingly as Ki.

5 Year Rule

A cousin shared his 5 year rule with me recently - if you want to be successful at something hard and probabilistic, commit and do it for 5 years.

Success = Execution x Opportunity

It takes a few years to learn, make mistakes, understand the game, know the players, become known, and build trust in any new domain. The longer you play the game, the more skillful and “luckier” you become. Overnight success is a myth. You have to risk it and work it to get the biscuit.

Such commitment isn’t easy, especially during the early years when nothing seems to work out. You need to pick a game that you enjoy, have high conviction in, and leverages your aptitude, resources, and talents. You need to drop many other games that are also enticing. You need staying power (money, time, emotional fortitude, support) to sustain the 5 years.

Startup and PM advice in one sentence

Solve valuable and underserved problems or desires exceedingly well and sustainably while accumulating advantages.

Let's break it down!

(1) Valuable = It's very important and top of mind for enough people. 

I have heard someone describe these well as "hair-on-fire" problems. These are problems that people are actively google searching for or complaining to others about. Some examples of valuable problems from companies I have worked at: losing weight (Noom), getting to/from the airport (Lyft), passing a school test or interviews (Quizlet), satisfying energy efficiency requirements (Opower), buying anything conveniently and quickly (Amazon), and tools to make a living (Microsoft).  

(2) Underserved  = there is no good alternative. Customers dislike available options.

My belief is that there are tons of problems that are underserved. But if you only look at a very high level, you will think there aren't many. You find more underserved pockets when you go more niche in a segment or problem. For e.g. delivery for ethnic groceries, shopping websites for Botox studios, or CRM for solo consultants.

(3) Exceedingly well 

People hire a product to get a job done. Your product should offer a seamless, delightful, and cost-effective E2E solution. To do this, choose an area where you have some unfair advantage, or there's a shift in technology or environment that makes something previously impossible possible. For e.g. Uber or Instagram after smart phones.  

(4) Accumulating advantages =  #3 increases over time. 

This could happen because of network effects, brand effects, efficiencies at scale, etc. 

(5) Sustainability = you can do all of the above profitably 

En-lighten

In spiritual practice, enlightenment refers to the experience of seeing the light by unlocking a deep, revealing insight about your reality. 

Enlightenment also actually lightens your life and how you interact with the world by eliminating unnecessary burdens of cravings and aversions that you carry and by increasing your equanimity, ease, and love. 

When the eyes are bigger than the business potential

Wayfair announced their 3rd or 4th big round of recent layoffs last week. The CEO's email explained how they are trying to "right size" the organization in the face of a tough economic situation. Simply put, their online furniture retail business isn't panning out to be as large of an opportunity as they were hoping it to be and they are now painfully rolling back. They aren’t alone - there have been over 300,000 layoffs in tech since last year. Many startups have dropped to a fraction of their previous values or shut down completely. 

2015 to 2021 was a hype cycle of irrational exuberance in tech. We had seen huge successes from the previous wave of internet and mobile startups, like Facebook. Every startup and founder imagined they could also 10 or 100x their business. VCs and their LPs were willing to invest millions at extraordinary valuations, blinded by FOMO and free money. There’s smart risk and there’s stupid greed. Startups could sell $10 bills for $9, and say “Yeah we aren’t profitable yet but look at our insane growth!” to attract investors and employees. There are numerous examples - a niche but hot email startup raised funding at nearly $1B in valuation with less than $10M in revenue; a weight loss company raised a whopping $550M at a multi-billion dollar valuation, despite being a high CAC and high churn business, and multiple 15-min delivery companies raised millions with no realistic path to profitability. 

Raising lots of money at high valuations sounds great for a startup or founder. Mo money, mo fun, right? No, not really. Money always comes with strings. Investors expect big returns. Startups are under pressure to deploy their newly acquired gunpowder to deliver on the growth expectations, often quickly and unsustainably hiring more people or spending on marketing and discounts. The newer employees are also promised handsome returns on their equity, so more expectations build up. 

However, converting money into sustainable business growth is far from simple and hardly guaranteed. Every business has its limits that cannot be exceeded with more capital or people. A great $100M business can fail spectacularly as a wannabe $1B business. If you are a weight loss company, there are only so many weight loss programs you can sell. More capital cannot magically fix low margins, high churn, and undifferentiated business models and products. You also cannot simply count on expanding successfully into new categories or markets because finding a new P-M Fit is hard, and even more so at larger companies. Your new employees may be good, but not alchemists who can turn shit into gold. 

When the expected growth doesn't pan out, the companies end up in a worse place than before. They carry the baggage of failure against expectations, unsustainable business practices and investments, high expenses, and large and unwieldy teams. They bleed money and gain problems, but it's harder to raise more capital or attract employees. Nearly every stakeholder ends up unhappy - investors are disappointed, employees endure traumatic layoffs, and customers are often short-changed. Even founders and exec teams no longer enjoy the business they started, but many smartly cash out a personal fortune before the ship sinks for the rest. 

The CEOs of companies like Wayfair made a double-or-nothing bet, and they lost. Hopefully, this serves as a good (but painful lesson) for founders, investors, and employees. Get back to the basics.

Tinkerer vs Entrepreneur

Tinkering is simply working on projects we enjoy or are curious about. It could be a home improvement project, a newsletter, hosting events, a piece of art, or a software tool. You do what you want, the way you want. You may take pride in showing it, but you aren't doing it for others. And you certainly are not expecting to earn from it. It's mostly for your own pleasure; for the joy and energy of doing and creating.

Entrepreneurship is aimed at creating a sustainable business. You have to deliver solutions that customers want, in the way they want. You need to do a lot of external exploration, test, and pivot often to find the right idea. Even then, you can't just create; you need to do a bunch of extraneous work like marketing, customer calls, research, hiring, pricing, budgeting, fundraising, invoicing, taxes, etc. There's also a lot of uncertainty, pressure to succeed, ups and downs. Entrepreneurship can have fun aspects, but it will also have a lot of not-so-fun parts that are absolutely necessary, especially in pre-PMF stages and if you want to grow it into a large or VC-backed business.

Often people mistake a love for tinkering as a call to entrepreneurship. Tinkering is one part of entrepreneurship, but there are a lot of other parts that tinkerers don't like or aren't skilled at. You can love being a tinkerer, but end up a frustrated and unsuccessful entrepreneur. 

Soft life, Sad life

I try to pay more attention when ideas keep coming back. They highlight something important and usually add more depth.  

Day before yesterday, I was running in a sub-zero weather after an intense weight training session, and a familiar idea “Embrace doing hard things” resurfaced. 

I’m new to athleticism and this isn’t normal. The exercise was tough! Breathing in the freezing air was hard. I was losing feeling in my fingers and toes. And my legs were still screaming from the deadlifts. 

But I felt alive, strong, and joyful! More so than I did sitting on my couch inside my house and scrolling on my phone an hour before. 

The traditional wisdom is to pursue comfort and safety to enjoy a good life. And that’s what we have done. Now, at least in rich societies, we have incredibly predictable and cushy lives. But mental health has surprisingly declined, not improved, in this transition. 

Without regular exposure to controllable stress, we aren’t building our physical or mental resilience. We atrophy and become too sensitive and soft - incapable of weathering the changes, challenges, and stresses that life will inevitable throw at us. Without risk and hardship, we lack adventure and meaning. Our soft lives are making us sad. 

Culture isn't geographic anymore, but governance is.

Culture, simplistically, is a derivation of what we believe and how we think and act, which in turn are derivations of the information we are exposed to.

In the past, information was limited by geography to a large extent. Local newspapers, leaders, and intellectuals. With the Internet, it is not. You can have different information exposures and consequently, different cultures, between neighbors. You can find polarization within a street, rather than just between states, countries, or continents. 

This has interesting implications for governance, which is still geography-based. Governance, which is simplistically what strategy and policies should we collectively follow, largely derives from culture. If culture is no longer geographic, how can we govern geographically?

While this is short-term problematic, I think it is long-term positive as it unlocks a degree of freedom for people - to align themselves with whichever belief and culture they prefer. We still exist in the physical world and not just on the internet, so local cooperation is still essential. Eventually, governance will have to reduce to simply matters of local infrastructure and utilities, like roads, safety, and taxes, and not matters of morals. This philosophy is already reflected to some extent in the Federal-State split, but would probably lean further to Federal-State-Person. But the lines are blurry and most decisions are going to continue to be contentious. 

Don’t invest in space travel until you are a billionaire

I don’t know if many billionaires will read this blog, but this is still an important principle for the rest of us too. 

Almost every game in life - sports, business, career, academia, family and friendship, hobbies - is played in levels. For example, in car racing, you have to compete in your school clubs, then inter-school, then regional, then F4, F3, F2, and then finally F1. 

Seems reasonable, but most of us want to jump to the final level right away. We regularly see inspiring and glamours videos of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or Sam Altman, so we also want to aim high and start a space or AI company. We don’t want to work on a silly job or start a small business; we just want to change the world doing something way more important and shinier!

But what we don’t see as often is that these folks only got where they are because they worked through many lower levels of less glamorous jobs and business for decades. Elon Musk built and sold 3 businesses before he could start SpaceX. Jeff Bezos worked at a hedge fund for a decade, then started Amazon for just books and expanded it over a few more decades, before he started Blue Origin. Even before their careers, they spent decades learning and doing projects. 

Before they were at the top levels, they only had access to the lower levels. They worked hard and smart through these lower levels, and developed the skills, resources, network, and resilience that gave them access to the top and the ability to take bigger risks.

There’s no magic elevator, so don’t waste time looking for one. Take the steps. 

Sleep!

I'm realizing that a large percentage of my bad days start with bad sleep. 

I wake up tired. I try to get more sleep, so wake up late and skip my morning ritual of puttering around slowly and planning the day. I'm more irritable, more anxious, and less lucid. I eat more junk food. I skip exercise. I'm on my phone more. I have more restless energy and thoughts. I stay up late and can't sleep. The cycle repeats. 

If you are caught in this cycle, your main priority should be to get out of it by getting a good night's rest. Drop everything else that you can and dedicate most of the evening to just that. Put away your phone, exercise go for a walk, have a light dinner, and dim the lights. Have night-time tea, magnesium, or melatonin. Go to bed earlier than usual. If you can't sleep, meditate or listen to relaxing music. 

 

Funk

I have written about how peace and joy are in our control. Peace comes from acceptance of reality, and joy comes from appreciation and celebration of reality. So both are technically in our mind's control, I concluded, annoyingly. 

But it isn't that simple. We are human and emotional, and life throws things at us, so it is very natural and inevitable that our peace and joy get upset. If we stay upset over multiple days, we spiral into what I call a "funk", where our upset mind makes itself even more upset. Getting into funk sucks. It means losing several days or even weeks of peace and joy and is hard to get out of because your mind is compromised. 

Why do we get into a funk

Here are some of the main reasons why I get into a funk: 

1) Overthink things out of our control

Something in the past (what-ifs and only-ifs), or something that someone else did, or some bad luck or random event upsets us. We then obsess about it and our minds tend to become negative.  We experience feelings of sadness. helplessness, regret, mistrust, or anger. These feelings build on each other and lead to more negative thinking. 

2) Overwhelmed with a tough decision or challenge 

We are faced with a hard problem that we can't solve. Or we have to make a tough decision - maybe between two options that seem equal, or where you have to do something necessary but tough like break up or take a risk. Sometimes after we have made the tough choice, we relitigate and overthink it (refer back to 1). 

3) Losing balance or routine

For whatever reason, we stop doing things we usually do, like, or keep us balanced. For e.g., COVID shutdowns upset our routines quite significantly as we spent a lot more time at home, watching a lot of breaking news, overworking, and without regular social contact, sunlight, or exercise. 

Getting out of a funk

Even for the most Zen among us, we should expect to get upset and into a funk at times. So we need a playbook to get out of the funk and move on. Over time, as we master it, the hope is that we'll be getting into funk less frequently and getting out of it more quickly.

I understand it isn't easy to do these things when you are in a funk, but just small steps can help and give you the energy to take more steps. 

Quick Fixes

1. Treat yo self! 


Do something you love. Get your favorite food or drink, visit your favorite spot, meet some good friends, take a weekend vacation, etc. It isn't going to fix your situation, but you have earned it for the rough time and it'll make things feel brighter. 

2. Move the body, move the mind 

In a funk, it can feel hard to change anything. But you still have more control over your body than your mind. 

Breathe: Smile like an idiot, close your eyes, and take deep breaths for a minute. Repeat this every hour. 

Move: Do at least 15-30 mins of exercise every day. Exercise gets your mind to the present, clears up your head, and creates some happy hormones. Even something simple - going for a walk, 

Sleep: I feel much better after a deep, restful sleep. Get 8 hours of good sleep every day, especially if you are in a funk. Give yourself all the help for a great deep, resting sleep. Go to a dark bedroom, put your phone far away, and take melatonin if you need it (not medical advice; do your own research). 

3. Return to balance and routine 

When we get into a funk, we tend to drop everything else we usually do and enjoy, and that makes things worse. In general, I think it's good to have a balanced and diverse life that keeps you at peace. I have benefited a lot from intentionally designing a well-rounded routine that I can consistently practice and enjoy. I'm working on creating many different sources of joy - family, social life, work, hobbies, music, etc. Deliberately pick some which are mostly in your control whatever happens like writing or exercise. That way, even if one thing breaks, you always have other things that you can enjoy and get you out of the funk. 

Address the problem

Quick fixes help you feel better and clear your head, but they don't make the underlying problem go away. So you need to sort them out. 

1. Talk it out or write it out 

You need to step out of the situation to think rationally about it. You can do that by writing it out, talking to yourself (rubber ducking or acting as if you are giving advice to a friend), or talking to someone else.

Writing and self-talk are always available to you - so try to practice and master them. It's also nice to find a good listening partner - someone you are comfortable with, who cares for your well-being, who can listen patiently without judgment, and who can guide your thinking. If you don't have the right friend, mentor, or partner, a good therapist or coach can help too. You can't expect people to give you answers to your life questions, but a good listening partner can be a calming sounding board and guide you to clarity. 

2. Dealing with overthinking

You have to accept reality, things you cannot change, and go with the flow. You often imagine the worst. I know that's easy to say, but with repeated practice and self-talk, it will become a habit. Internalize this - You can't change things in the past or things that are not in your control. Life is a theater, you are an actor, and all scenes and actors are interesting. Watch, play, enjoy, learn.

Be an optimist and a realist! Shit happens - you should expect that, but see the positive side and take it in your stride. You have to develop a growth mindset of learning and a "well, that happened and that was interesting. now what?" attitude.

Write down the thoughts to get them out of your head and to lay them to rest. I maintain a document with learnings and reflections that I update weekly. 

3. Dealing with overwhelming challenges and decisions

What can you do now? Take the challenges in your stride. Don't have a victim mindset. Be the actor rather than being acted on. Don't hesitate to be vulnerable and ask for help. We are all playing the game of life for the first time. If it's a challenge involving another party, try to talk it out and be authentic. Maybe they can compromise or help when they understand your situation. 

Write down your options. Talk to an expert. Then make a decision. Some tricks to make a decision: 
  • Create a table to compare: columns for each option and rows for different attributes you care about. Highlight the top 3 attributes/rows that you care about. Strike off the equal rows. 
  • Regret minimalization: Life is short and it is meant for living. Which option will you regret more?
  • Timeframes: Think about how you will feel in 5 mins, 5 days, and 5 years after the decision. 
  • Set a deadline: Don't get stuck in analysis paralysis. Nothing is certain in life - you just have to embrace uncertainty, live, and learn.  
4. Post-funk: Reflect and improve 

As I said before, we will inevitably get into a funk. The goal is that over time, we learn from them and become more resilient - get into a funk less frequently and get out of it quicker. 

For that, do a quick retrospective. 

  • Why did you get into the funk? What is the underlying cause? How can you resolve that desire and prevent this in the future?
  • Did you recognize it early? Did you act by your playbook? What worked? Any new ideas?

The Achiever Virus

I grew up in the 1990s in a bustling city in India. The country was mostly poor, but everyone, through a few rich friends, media, or travel, knew there was a better life - one where you don't have to worry about the basics and can even indulge in luxuries. Every person aspired and craved for that better life - if not for them, at least for their kids. 

For middle class kids like me, a hopeful but difficult path emerged. If you study hard, get better test scores than everyone else, and get admission to top colleges, you either get a good career, or even better, you get to pursue a life abroad. This is the path to not only wealth, but also to being respected and liked by your friends, relatives, teachers, and community.

Some of us took this seriously. The achiever virus was etched into our brains - keep working hard and keep progressing - to more prestigious institutions and more lucrative opportunities. We did it, over and over again. And the more we did it, the more the virus multiplied. 

We became achievement machines and it worked very well for us. 

Until it didn't. 

We aced our tests, got into great schools, and then great jobs and richer countries. We enjoy salaries, savings, comforts, and luxuries that our parents never did. We work reasonable hours, in interesting jobs, and with managers and people who treat us well. We can shop freely in grocery stores, eat out in nice restaurants every week, enjoy fancy vacations, and buy independent houses and multiple cars.  We don't have to check our bank balances constantly, worry about paying bills, or figure out how to avoid debtors. We should be grateful, satisfied, and over the moon to enjoy a life that our younger selves could have only dreamed of. 

But happiness isn't the goal of the achiever virus, it is striving and progress. There's always more to achieve - more money, more status, more luxuries, even better life for our kids. 

The virus gets us to a point where we can be happy but never stops there. 

You don't know it yet, but you are probably addicted 😱

"The modern devil is cheap dopamine" - Naval Ravikant

Throughout history, each generation has been ensnared by a distinct addiction. Alcohol, tobacco, and processed foods trace a familiar arc: celebrated innovations morph into pervasive vices. Initially hailed for their pleasurable effects, these substances soon trigger a race to enhance their potency and availability. This cycle of desire and overindulgence, fueled by profit-driven peddlers and consumers alike, inevitably collides with the limitations of human biology, leading to widespread harm before an eventual and slow course correction.

The Dance of Pleasure and Pain

Tea bags, Microwave popcorn, Puff pastry sheets

I enjoyed all three of them this week :)

Cooking is remarkably more efficient when done in bulk. Cooking for 6 people or for a week isn’t that much harder than cooking for 2 or for a single meal. This is because the bulk of cooking involves “fixed cost” activities - researching the recipe, buying ingredients, combining them, and cleaning up - that don’t vary much with quantity. 

Cooking and eating are essential, universal, and time-consuming. So I’m a fan of companies and inventions that leverage this efficiency of “cooking in bulk” but also preserve the affordability, freshness, and satisfaction of homemade food. Typically they achieve this by doing 80% of the cooking and leaving the last 20% to the consumer. Packaged foods and food delivered from restaurants are too close to 100% and have the downsides of being too expensive, unhealthy, or stale. 

Tea bags are perfect. 

To B2C or not to B2C

I read yet another article advising people against attempting B2C startups. "It’s worse than a lottery ticket so avoid them at all costs", the post warned. The popular incubator, YCombinator, whose participants can be seen as a representative sample of promising startups, also seems to be accepting mostly B2B startups in recent years. 

This should be counter-intuitive. When you look around your home, you’ll see a bunch of products, and most of them are B2C. You, a consumer, went to a business and bought them. When you see your credit card bill, you first gasp at how much you spend and then also notice that’s all B2C - home, food, kids, shopping, travel, and entertainment. So what explains this low confidence in B2C startups? 

Action produces Information

The CEO of Coinbase shared this advice to pre-PM fit startup founders and it really resonated: 

https://twitter.com/StartupArchive_/status/1738905209093468459

Low certainty pursuits and decisions, like your life purpose or philosophy, career or startup idea to pursue, who’d be an ideal life partner, where would you like to live, etc. are often the most impactful and the most challenging aspects of our lives. 

They are unique in the sense you don’t have enough information to make a rational choice. The options and their outcomes are unknowns. So we can get stuck in analysis-paralysis trying to figure them out intellectually. But that doesn’t solve the core problem - the lack of information and certainty.

The way to get more information is to act - go explore, ask around, and try things out. Keep an open mind, your cycles fast and, learn from them. 

The best way to see through the fog is to take a few steps forward into the unknown. 

Manufacture urgency

 



I applied for a grant this year and the granters shared that 90% of the applications were submitted just 2 days before the deadline! 

This isn't uncommon. The majority of people are deadline-driven. We do a chore whenever it's urgent and absolutely necessary (unless it's a recurring habit or routine).

This is why creating urgency and setting a deadline is key for your own personal endeavors and when you expect others to do something. But our brains aren't that easy to trick. They know when a deadline is fake. So you need to make it as real and consequential as possible. 

This is why retailers have limited-time offers and sales - to force a buying decision or miss out on a great offer. This is why it's important to set a target response date whether you are fundraising or hiring someone. This is why you are more likely to succeed if you sign up for half marathons or business targets. 

Deadlines convert something that's only important to something urgent and important so that Eisenhower will command it. 


Notes: 

1. Only chores are subject to this behavior. We do a lot of absolutely unnecessary things often if they are fun and easy. So that's another trick - make important things fun and easy. 

The Joy of Competence

A recent survey showed that more than half of Americans hate their jobs. Probably another 30% feel pretty neutral about them. r/antiwork is one of the largest communities in Reddit and growing. So many people are looking to retire early (or FIRE).

The common complaints against work are the lack of a decent pay and benefits, potential for growth, work-life balance, meaning, respect, etc. Many people also justifiably think they can’t have a good life like their parents did despite working a job. There’s a pent up negativity against evil and heartless corporates and middle managers that treat workers as expendable resources. 

Maybe work was always seen as a necessary evil, but it seems like the relationship has become more negative in the last few decades. It feels like the capitalistic machinery has taken a wrong turn. Perhaps attitudes have also changed to want more leisure and comfort for less work, thanks to the unrealistic lifestyles popularized on the internet and the Cambrian explosion of entertainment options. 

Regardless of the cause, people hating how they spend half their waking life is one of the most dire problems facing humanity. Because the alternative is loving what you do. There is tremendous joy and pride in being competent, serving others, camaraderie of a good team, doing something meaningful, and being appreciated. 

Dear Dobby


Dobby, the lovable elf in Harry Potter, is often filled with so much self-loathing that it’s hard to watch. You want to hug him and reassure him that he’s okay and he’s loved.

It’s even harder because Dobby isn’t just a fictional character in a made-up magical world. Dobby is very real - we all have one within us. 

Our inner Dobby is often our meanest boss, negligent carer, and harshest critic. Inner Dobby is often upset or unhappy with us. Inner Dobby never thinks we are good enough. Inner Dobby never thinks we deserve a break. 

I want to hug mine and everyone else’s inner Dobby, and reassure them with this short poem - 

You learn more from successes than failures

The popular wisdom is to learn from failures. 

And I agree, you should. We are going to make a number of mistakes, especially if we pursue unpaved paths and risky ventures. Without bold risks and mistakes, we as humanity will not stand where we are. So being open to risk, mistakes and learning from them is crucial. Mistakes are also humbling - they force us to take a pause and reflect, whereas success can breed ego and complacency.

But I’d posit there’s more learning in successes.

Take a founder who has attempted 4 failed businesses vs a founder who has 1 successful business. Who do you think has more valuable knowledge?

I’d argue that the second founder knows at least one way to succeed and can replicate that. But the first founder can avoid a few ways to fail they have learned and has probably built up resilience to failures, but they are still left with hundreds of other ways to fail. They still don’t know a single path to success.

There’s a tongue in cheek wisdom - “Most happy families are the same, but most unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways!” 

So if you have an experience in an unhappy family, you can try to course correct and still end up unhappy in a different way. Whereas if you are in a happy family and truly reflect/acknowledge all the parts that make it happy, you learn how to develop and build a flourishing family!

The wisdom here isn’t to not take risks and not fail. But to learn and leverage from successes where you can, so that you can reach new frontiers and unpaved paths where the risks are necessary and failures are worth it.  


Mental knots and massaging them

If you think the Buddha is a religious leader and Buddhism is a religion, you are somewhat mistaken. 

Buddha was the first prolific DIY psychologist. He spent years observing his own mind, experimenting, and coming up with astute observations and techniques to alleviate suffering and increase joy. 

According to the Buddha, the root of all unhappiness is just one thing - "tanha". You can think of it as the quick grabby feeling that arises when we just can't accept a situation and when there’s disharmony between reality and our (mostly subconscious) selves. It manifests in many forms - fear, craving, anger, desire, worry, etc. 

I think of tanha as “mental clenching" arising from “knots” or sore spots. Similar to muscular knots or kinks in a hose, they prevent the natural flow of movement and life. Almost every person in the world is knotting and clenching thousands of times every day in different ways. Reducing the knotting may be the most powerful lever to improve our wellbeing. 

The Tale of Two Founders

A few years ago, two different friends of mine started startups with nearly the same idea - a coaching/mentorship marketplace for professionals. They had similar backgrounds and teams. Their products also were functionally identical. One friend has shuttered the business, and the other seems to be growing strong. How did that happen?

The friend who's still in the game was heavily focused on building a social following and community. She did multiple LinkedIn posts a week, attended events, met people 1:1, and hosted events. Eventually, she developed a community of over 50,000 professionals. She knew the community was the heart of the business and started with a community-first approach. She was also good at it and enjoyed doing it. The other friend was simply focused on building the software product. He was also more introverted and didn't enjoy posting publicly or organizing communities. 

A lot of tech founders make the critical mistake of assuming that building a startup means building a software product. That is rarely true. It's so common to build a perfect product but attract 0 customers and profits. GTM market matters a lot. Business model matters a lot. And software may not be the critical part of your business. 

This pithy quote captures the takeaway here - "First-time founders worry about the product, second-time founders worry about distribution, and third-time founders worry about the business model."

The Power of Positioning


I have used this product called Mudwtr for a few months. 

Mudwtr is a powdered mix of supplements like Lion’s mane, Reishi, Turmeric, etc. Most people have probably not heard of these or are convinced about their benefits. But Mudwtr didn’t position their product as a wellness supplement or nootropic. That’d appeal to an enthusiastic but very small market of body and mind hackers. 

Instead, they did something brilliant. They mixed masala chai (tea) with it and positioned it as a coffee alternative. They started talking about how this is better than a coffee, instead of trying to sell people on wellness benefits of taking dried mushroom supplements. 

It’s much more familiar and easier to understand. It’s an easier purchase decision to try a different coffee vs taking a mushroom supplement. It fits into their current lifestyle. 75% of the world drinks coffee - so suddenly their target market is 100x! Nearly the same product, but with much more effective positioning. 

Lululemon is another example of clever positioning. They entered a crowded market of sportswear that’s dominated by Nike, Adidas, etc. Instead of getting crushed as a small, new, and unknown player in a well-established category, they invented a new category “athleisure” that offered stylish functional clothes that can be worn in the gym and outside. Why not go to brunch and yoga in the same clothes?!

Most product and engineering-oriented founders tend to overthink product and underthink positioning when doing a startup. In today’s crowded marketplace, inventing a great product is necessary but not sufficient. Positioning and GTM are equally important levers that can determine the success of your business. 

Consciously programmed Subconscious

This paragraph from Ayn Rand's "Philosophy - who needs it?" speech and especially the remark on the nature of the subconscious resonated with me.

"A philosophic system is an integrated view of existence. As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation — or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind's wings should have grown."

The subconscious mind is quick, intuitive, and emotional. The conscious mind is deliberate, logical, rational, and unemotional. 

Both serve a purpose. Daniel Kahneman referred to them famously as System 1 and System 2 thinking. The subconscious mind can pattern-match and alert you to important things like danger, hunger, unfairness, opportunity, etc. It can be fast, creative, and automatic. But it can also be inaccurate, noisy, fearful, and needy. The conscious mind can think step-by-step - logically and analytically. But it's slow, robotic, and can miss cues.

In the last decade, I think there's been a societal shift in the balance between conscious to subconscious. I blame it almost entirely on the rise of incessant communication, media, and social feeds. 

We are constantly and unintentionally dumping garbage into our subconscious. We live hyper-stimulated, fast and furious dopamine-fueled lives that we barely have the time and boredom to think for ourselves and consciously process and integrate our experiences. We are becoming unhappy, group-thinking, shallow, materialistic, desire-maxing walking zombies who are losing the most important evolutionary gift that has gotten us so far - the prefrontal cortex and the conscious mind.

The solution? 

Create rituals and space to consistently surface the subconscious to your conscious mind and reprogram it. This is the common denominator of several effective mental health practices - mindfulness, therapy, journaling, planning, gratitude, affirmations, and prayers. Naval Ravikant refers to this as “running your brain in debug mode”. 

Your conscious mind holds your values and principles - like positivity, generosity, love, resilience, effort, focusing on what you control, etc. - that keep you calm, purposeful, and successful. Keep training the conscious mind, and let that consciousness filter and reprogram your subconscious so that your beliefs, thoughts, and actions are harmonious and serve your well-being.

Can a chimp decipher the universe?


This is a trick question.

Most of you would say no; definitely not even the smartest chimp.

Then I’d say - aha! relative to the scope and complexity of the universe, humans aren’t that much smarter than chimps. So humans can’t decipher the universe either! 

It's a humbling and eventually comforting thought. We pride ourselves on being the most intelligent species on Earth, yet when it comes to the scale of the universe's mysteries, are we that much more enlightened than our chimp cousins?

Transforming your mind holistically: Physical, Psychological, and Philosophical approaches

I have long been interested in the mind. Why wouldn’t everyone be?! Everything we perceive as life is through the mind. So much so that you can even hypothesize that the entire universe is conjured within the mind, rather than the other way around. 

The mind remains a mystery to us. But luckily, we don’t need to fully understand how something works to be able to operate it sufficiently well. Anyone who drives a car, browses the internet, uses a microwave, or relies on gravity to stay put would agree. We have discovered several techniques to alter this black box of mind to be more pleasant and effective. 

This is my semi-organized brain dump of some of those across 3 broad realms - 

The Best Job Rejection

I still remember the phone call 14 years later, so it clearly meant a lot to me.

In my final year of college in Singapore, I was selected to interview with Boston Consulting Group (BCG). BCG Singapore was known to be extremely selective - interviewing only a handful of people every year and hiring maybe 1 or 2. So the pressure was on and I spent every ounce of my energy in the next 1-2 weeks preparing for the interview. I also bought and borrowed some nice clothes and got a haircut to look presentable.

The interview day arrived. I was nervous but as prepared as I could be. I did okay, but I knew I hadn't really nailed it.

A couple of days later, I got a phone call. It was one of the partners who had interviewed me. He shared the bad news quickly - I didn't receive the job offer. He also explained that he was the dissenting partner, so he was calling to explain his decision. He talked through the case study (it was about a small airport trying to grow profitable), highlighted the parts I solved well, and what I had missed. I agreed with him and thanked him for the feedback. He ended on an encouraging note and wished me the best. I didn’t get the job, but I got closure and helpful feedback.

A partner at a top firm called a fresh college grad after interviews to explain his rejection decision - what an incredible standard for being empathetic, respectful, transparent, accountable, and helpful!

I have been through many interviews since, but this has never happened again. Companies worry about legal risks and efficiencies but forget the human effort and emotions. To be fair, candidates also do the same when deciding to accept a different offer or when leaving a company. We could all benefit from a more empathetic, respectful, and transparent interview etiquette.

Tell me about a time when the job hiring process was broken.

It's been a few weeks since I published my first book - The 5-Step Job Search. I feel happy about the milestone and how the book has been received. But I have to admit that I also feel conflicted about writing a book on the topic of job searching.

I was confident it was needed and would be helpful - that isn't the problem. I feel conflicted because it's a band-aid to succeed in an inherently broken system that I have come to despise, despite being reasonably good at it.

I'd much rather prefer if we can fix the system. I'd much rather prefer if we made the system perfectly meritocratic so that everyone can just focus on being good at their jobs and be magically placed in the right job for them, rather than spending even an ounce of energy in learning to be good at this bizarre skill of job searching.

Fitness, not Health

"Be healthy" is a misleading and unhelpful slogan and goal. 

Most young or middle-aged people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s enjoy "good enough" health. So being healthy isn't a very inspiring or urgent call to action. It's a low bar that they have already hit.  

The health issues start in their 50s and beyond. 

Fitness, as measured by strength, speed, flexibility, or endurance, is a much better goal because most people would agree they aren't fit enough and fitness is actually a leading indicator of long-term health.

Selective Aggression

In poker, there’s a concept called selective aggression to maximize your winnings - be conservative when you have an okay hand but get aggressive whenever you have a good one. 

A few years back, I got a good hand in my career. I was doing really well in the job and had also developed a good rhythm and reputation. I was also getting paid over 3X what I had ever made before, with a path to more raises and promotions. 

But instead of doubling down, I decided to roll the die again and take up another opportunity that seemed interesting. Turns out I didn’t roll sixes this time. 

The lesson is that life is always going to be a game of chance. When you hit a winner, double down. Explore and extract. 

This is true for business as well. It’s extremely hard to find a Product-Marlet fit, but when you do, go all-in and extract as much as possible, rather than exploring another P-M fit. This is also true in investing, relationships, hobbies, or habits. 

2+ Hard Things

I published my first book last week, and I’m very happy about the milestone and how it’s been received so far. 

The process has made me more familiar with the Amazon Kindle bookstore. I’m suddenly aware there are tons of books published and many of them seem quite promising. But despite that most never really take off in a big way. 

This has made me realize that the secret to success isn’t doing just one hard thing. Writing a book is hard! It takes a ton of motivation, resilience, domain knowledge, writing skills, and creativity. But clearly, just doing that one hard thing isn’t enough. 

But if you combine that one hard thing with another hard thing, you dramatically increase your chances. If you do a tour promoting your book, run a marketing campaign, or if you have already earned a reputation in your domain, your book suddenly rises above all others. 

The reason is simple - there are 7 billion people in the world and we have a pretty efficient market. For any single hard thing you are doing, there are many others doing something similar. But the competition, quality, and uniqueness of what you do dramatically increases with you do 2+ hard things*.

The first hard thing gets you the entry ticket into the game. The second hard thing onward is when you really start playing and winning. 

Notes: 

1. You can also do a less popular hard thing or one hard thing really, really well. Those are challenging as well. I'd argue that, in general, doing 2 hard things well is easier than doing one hard thing really, really excellently. 

2. This is synonymous with Scott Adam's Talent Stack theory. 

The #1 trait for Product Managers and Founders

I have been splitting my time between a part-time PM role and starting my own company. In both, I realized breakthroughs and progress happen because of one main underlying character trait. 

Obsession. 

Obsession about the domain. 

Obsession about the customer and problem. 

Obsession about the goals and strategy. 

Obsession about the current product and business. 

Obsession about execution details. 

Obsession about delivery.

Obsession about feedback and results.

Obsession about learning and improving. 

Obsession with the craft of PM and product development.

When you are obsessed, there's a constant thread in your brain that's always obsessing about all these factors. You are also constantly researching, learning, tinkering, discussing, ideating, and iterating. 

Obsession, when combined with curiosity, knowledge, intellect, and collaboration, leads to clarity, evolution of ideas, elegant simplifications, breakthroughs, and getting all the details right. 

To be a successful PM or a Founder, you need to truly pick a domain and area that you can be obsessed with. If you're hiring, prioritize obsession. 

Notes:

1. Obsession is probably the main trait to succeed in any profession.

We

We can all agree that it would kinda suck to exist alone in the universe.

Adversity with friends is better than success or comfort alone. 

Hear it from Shaq: “I live in a 30 thousand square foot house by myself. You don’t think I know I messed up?”

I appreciate whatever transpired to get us to this moment in reality because it brought us together, with each other, capable of problem-solving, empathy, kindness, togetherness, play, and love. 

We can make lives better for each other - less suffering, more enjoyable, and more meaningful. In fact, that may be the only way to do it. 

The ego is often the root of most unhappiness. When we focus on just the I, just ourselves, we suffer. The I is a small, transient, fickle, greedy, and fearful illusion. 

When we focus beyond us - our loved ones, our society, all of humanity, all of everything - we feel limitless and we thrive.

Be it your personal life or your career/business, expand your focus beyond yourself. 

Banda Ho To Zinda Ho - my new anthem


This Zinda Banda track from the new Bollywood blockbuster, "Jawan," has taken over my playlist recently. It's not just Anirudh's peppy music or Shah Rukh Khan's swag. 

What truly speaks to me is the lyrical essence of the song, which has crystallized a powerful epiphany I've had in recent months. A realization that serves as a clarion call whenever I find myself teetering on the edge of self-doubt or an important decision in my startup or life journey.

***

Banda Ho To Zinda Ho!
If you're alive, truly live!

Banda Zinda Ho To Zinda Nazar Haana Zaroori Hai!
To be alive, it’s necessary to have a lively vision. 

A few months ago, I took the plunge into entrepreneurship, leaving behind the relative stability of a 9-to-5 job. It was a leap of faith into a realm filled with uncertainties and risks. Entrepreneurs, you'll get me when I say the looming specter of failure has often kept me awake at night, pondering whether it's time to pack it up and return to corporate life.

Then came the aha realization, during one late-night worry session. And interestingly, it was through chatting with my startup’s product, Appi.

Working on my startup ignites my soul in a way a regular job could never hope to match. I find myself engrossed and in a flow state for hours on end, so much so that the clock's hands seem to whirl in a delightful blur. It's what I can read, talk, and obsess about around the clock.

I love having my own creative freedom, choosing why and what I work on, how, and with whom. I enjoy the breadth of running a business - from strategy to product to programming to marketing to UX to growth to fundraising. It's like being a composer, conductor, and musician—all in one grand symphony of life.

***

Himmat Se Nacho Thirak Thirak Yaro
Dharti Hilla Do Thirak Thirak Re
Mati Ka Badal Ufak Ufak Jaye
Ambar Jhuka Do Thirak Thirak Re

My buddies dance with passion and groove
With your dancing, shake the ground
Make the clouds dance with you
Make the sky come and dance with you

Thirak Thirak Thakna Kyun
Tunak Tunak Takna Kyun
Jhijhak Jhijhak Jakhna Kyun
Banda Ho Zinda Ho

Why must you get exhausted when dancing?
Why should we be looking around when dancing?
Why should we be hesitant?
A person must make the most of his life

Yes, it's tough and uncertain. But the path I'm following is the one I desire and makes me come alive. So what other choice do I have? Just choose something easier and less fulfilling in the one life I have?

And yes, I will make mistakes and even fail at the startup. But I'd much rather pursue and shape my own destiny boldly, stumbling and learning along the way, than be afraid to start and live with regrets and what ifs.

***

Jeena Jane Joh Dil Ki Mane Joh
Kar De Thane Jo Zinda Banda Ho
A living person is one who understands how to live
One who listens to his heart
One who does what he chooses

The point of life is to be alive and follow your heart. Not to play it safe and meek. Because there's no special prize in the end - we will all die and be forgotten. The reward is the journey, in the very act of living. 


Notes: 

1. Doing a startup isn't everyone's spark. Find yours. It's elusive, but when you find it, pursue it and turn the spark into a fire. Inspiration expires if it isn't used. 

2. Some jobs can create a similar spark. I have experienced it at an early stage startup, with an aligned and interesting mission, low bureaucracy, smart people, significant personal upside, and where the leadership was kind and empowering. 

3. My startup's mission also had to be truly aligned with what I wanted to do for me to feel this way. It didn't feel like that when I was working on an idea that didn't personally speak to me.

4. Lyrics and Translations from: https://www.intolyrics.com/zinda-banda/

In America, capitalists are the kings

This talk by Bill Gurley, a popular venture capitalist, is a master class in both the subject of regulatory capture and presentation. It's so well-crafted and powerful - the story-telling, the flow, the energy and intonation, the slides, the creative title and close, the eye-opening lived experiences and insider insights, the authenticity, and the truth to power and corruption. 

It drives home that America is the land of capitalists. If you are a large business, there's probably no better place in the world. Conversely, if you are in America, consider starting a business or owning equity to thrive. Capitalists are the kings here. 

Compare it to Europe, where capital gains taxes are high, and employees and consumers have strong protections and social services. Or to India, where politicians, cricketers, and movie stars are the kings. Or to China, where the CCP is the only monarch. 

Most companies need to do some objective good for their customers to rise and survive, so this might be the best of all alternatives.

But as this talk highlights, there are also problems. Even though the country is a democracy, capitalists have an oversized influence on politics and laws, often to benefit the incumbents, the rich and powerful, and at the expense of the common person and startups. "Regulation" is a sophomoric solution as it doesn't address the messiness of implementation, incentives, influence, and power.

Keep buying lottery tickets

I woke up excited today because I had shared my new app on Reddit, and I was eager to check if it had taken off. 

I have been waking up excited on many days over the last few months for similar reasons. I'd have taken a long shot the previous day - launched a new product, shared a blog or social media post, sent an email to an influential person, applied for an exciting job, etc. Long shots (or moon shots) have small odds of turning into something really big, exciting, and life-changing. 

Extraordinary successes are almost always a result of taking long shots and asymmetric bets. Sam Altman in his blog on How to be Successful, writes "I always choose a next project that, if successful, will make the rest of my career look like a footnote."  

Most people, most of the time, are on a very linear path, with no possibility of a big win or exponential take-off. They don't buy any lottery tickets and they don't win any big prizes. 

When you keep buying lottery tickets, you increase the chances of winning a golden ticket. And life becomes more exciting too. 

Notes: 

1. You don't have to give up your stability or take substantial risks. Most of the examples I have above are low-risk, but high upside side-bets. 

2. Lottery ticket may not be the most apt term as it implies pure luck and no skill. In reality, you get better at both identifying and executing long-shots, so your probability of winning increases. 

3. You can apply this within a company or product roadmaps as well, where you invest in a few moon shot bets. 

Hold and raise the bar

In a recent team meeting, someone announced we wouldn't be able to meet a project deadline and we'll have to move it to later. Not wanting to be pushy or unreasonable, I accepted and updated the date. But another colleague interjected and held the bar. He pointed out that we had slipped a few times already and rallied the team to figure out options to meet the date. 

Oftentimes, we avoid hard things and uncomfortable conversations, and try to be "naively nice". This leads to a slippery slope that snowballs into low accountability, performance, quality, outcomes, morale, and pent-up frustration. I say naively nice because ultimately this turns out to be not very nice to the team, stakeholders, managers, business, and customers. 

The nicer way is to set clear and reasonable expectations, hold and raise the bar, provide direct and timely feedback, identify and fix the problems, and work together compassionately and collaboratively to make it happen. 

Notes: 

1. Amazon appoints a "bar raiser" in interview panels to avoid this slippery slope. 

2. It is possible to be both kind and maintain the bar.  

Product Managers: Make $100 on the internet

There is now plenty of great advice, thought leadership, frameworks, newsletters, podcasts, and courses for being a good product manager (this blog included). 

Maybe even too much. 

My simple advice that supersedes everything else is this: First, make $100 on the internet on your own. 

My first job out of college was as a consultant for startups in an incubator in Ghana. While I could give helpful technical advice on how to build their products, I felt like an imposter when advising on the business or approach. I was a new grad who had never started a business on my own, so who the heck was I to share my business advice?! 

What if you had a $0 budget?

 

I was watching this interview with Rich Barton, one of the few people in the world who has created multiple successful businesses across industries - Expedia, Zillow, and Glassdoor.*

He recalls the story of how Zestimate (home price estimate) was created. 

One of the investors, Bill Gurly, asked him a powerful question before they launched Zillow - what would you do if you had no ad budget? 

Good questions can be life and business changing. And in this case, it turned out to be. 

Rich and his team ended up creating Zestimate and market reports, which generated a lot of interest and organic traffic.

Constraints breed creativity. Sometimes, imagination can solve problems better than money can. 

Coincidentally, I watched another video on the same week where Linkedin's CBO shared how the other end of the spectrum - thinking without any constraints - leads to more creative solutions as well. 

I'd square both these points into this one piece of advice: If you are in a place of abundance, think with constraints. If you are in a place of scarcity or business as usual, think without any constraints. 

Notes: 

1. Rich Barton's common theme behind all his businesses was "power to the people". Give more visibility, so people can make informed decisions.

You're not doing a tour of gas stations

Growing up in the middle class in India, the first 20 years of my life were somewhat consumed in the pursuit of academic, career, and financial success to secure a comfortable life. But now that I'm comfortable and have checked off those boxes, the same scarcity and survival mindset is unhelpful. 

This quote really drove it home for me. 
“Money is like gasoline during a road trip. You don’t want to run out of gas on your trip, but you’re not doing a tour of gas stations.”

– Tim O’Reilly

Gasoline and money are really important when you are low. But they are hardly important if you have enough. The same can be said about other pursuits like fame. Get what you need, so you can finally enjoy the life you want.

Skeptics vs Innovators

The world always has a lot more skeptics than innovators.

***

Skeptics question any change.

While blindly accepting the status quo and all its flaws. 

They are limited by their own fears, lack of vision, beliefs, and capabilities.

They choose the easy path of nay-saying and changing nothing. 

Innovators question the status quo. 

They see a better way. They are eager to invent and try new things.

They are bold, creative, capable, and action-oriented.

They are choosing the hard path of solving problems and creating change.

***

Every innovator is met with skeptics who try to douse their spirit. If you are trying to be an innovator, surround yourself with other innovators who energize you and help you figure out a way. 


Notes: 

1. Yes, there are thoughtful skeptics and clueless or evil innovators.