Mostly peaceful, often joyful, and sometimes upset

An ongoing exploration of my goals and purpose. Inspired by the Naval, Buddha, and Seinfeld.

Background



"How was the first person born? Who will bury the last dead person?"

I was six years old, and out of the blue, I had posed child versions of existential questions to my amused and proud mother. I don't remember any answers, and if there was one, it probably went over my little head.

I grew up in a middle-class family in Chennai, a bustling metropolis in India. My ambitions were driven by my culture's obsession and a necessity for meritocracy. In my world, academic achievement, prestigious jobs, and wealth were universally celebrated and recognized as marks of success. The lack of those was pitifully shunned or quickly shamed as failures. With strong support, encouragement, and occasional chiding from family, teachers, peers, and scorecards, I pursued that purpose with vigor.

The pursuit was an emotional roller coaster. Celebratory milestones and fun activities punctuated blocks of struggles - feeling anxious about failures like when I agonized about my preparations before exams, interviews, or performance reviews; feeling defeated at the troughs like when I didn't land the opportunities I wanted, struggled, or made mistakes; Or feeling hollow at the peaks like when I ranked among the top ten students in the country in a national exam and realized that the elation subsided in days, or when my moves to new places for good jobs made me feel lonely or unfulfilled.

At various points, I revisited similar questions of "Why?" in different ways, sometimes pondering, reading, or discussing it obsessively for weeks. I had no satisfactory answers, but the original programming's strong pull always prevailed and kept me busy on the roller coaster.

Now, at 33, 27 years have passed since I originally posed those questions to my mom. I have achieved academic success, jobs at world-renowned companies, and sufficient wealth. Through the journey, I had also met several close friends, fallen in love and gotten married, traveled and lived around the world, experienced different cultures and schools of thought, and learned a lot about myself, people, and the world at large. I have checked off the original boxes of purpose - academic and career success by most measures.

I continue to ponder the existential question. To a large extent, I feel grateful and pleased with my life and where the winding path has led me. But the original purpose and success that I pursued are even less meaningful now than they were before. They caused avoidable despair, insecurity and focused too much on extrinsic outcomes like status and wealth, which aren't fulfilling beyond a point. Maybe they were necessary to climb up the lower rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy and maybe I had to play and win the game to get over the craving. But it’s clear to me now that they aren't defensible first-order principles or durable and satisfying answers. The original questions of - Why? Am I doing this right? What next? - remain relevant and unanswered. With a quarter-life of experiences, introspection, learning, and the luxury of checked boxes and safety nets, I have made more progress in defining an answer.

3 Foundational Truths



Truth 1. No one knows what life is about and will likely never know. We are just making it up for ourselves and others.

This is hard to internalize as nearly everyone around us, throughout our lives, act as if they know and even emphatically impose their views and righteousness on others. But the truth is we all woke up to this fascinating reality, with no memory or instructions, and we are making it up as we go. We have discovered a lot about the origins and workings of the universe. We have established some sensible and many nonsensical norms to live. But the ultimate why still eludes us. As far as we know, our lives are a tiny blip in the scale of the universe and time. We are born, we live, we die, and we are forgotten.

The closest analogy I have is that life is like an improv theatre. We are all unique actors in a very intricate set. There is no script or director. We are just winging it - playing our characters, joining or creating scenes, and reacting to what's around us. Fascinating stories and characters emerge organically over many years and generations.

This can be a bit unsettling - yes. But it is more freeing than any closed and well-defined alternative. You get to decide how you want to live in your own unique way.

As Naval puts it, “Don’t take yourself too seriously. You are just a monkey with a plan.”

Truth 2. The only things that are real to us are our own imaginations and perceptions of our experiences, and if you choose to believe, as I do for my own sanity, other living beings and their experiences too. Everything else - meritocracy, achievement, impact, religion, values, success, wealth, etc. - are all just figments of our collective imaginations. Reality is created inside our minds. 

Truth 3. Since my perceptions of experiences are the only real things, my goal is to make them as peaceful and joyful as possible.

That's it. That’s the punch line. I want to spend all my time and energy being peaceful and joyful because that's the only thing that matters. Peace and joy are going to be my scorecard in life. I want to eliminate anything that doesn't directly or indirectly help that cause. Status, wealth, career, success, relations, stuff - they are all strictly in service to peace and joy. 

Why? Because the alternative - of experiencing misery and sorrow - sucks. Most people, even the most successful ones by societal measures, experience periods of stress and sadness. An intentional pursuit of peace and joy as a priority is likely the only way to reduce those.

While I'm at it, I'll try to spread peace and joy to other living beings as well. Why? Because 1+1=3. Together, we can be a lot more peaceful and joyous. It is a lot easier when we are surrounded by it. Caring for more than just me reduces my ego, which is the root of misery. It also earns me love, company, and support, which help me keep my peace and amplify my joys.

Being Peaceful and Joyful

"Don't Worry, Be Happy." is the bumper sticker version of how to be peaceful and joyful. Its simplicity is profound because being peaceful and joyful is simply a choice you make every moment. Eckhart Tolle, author of Power of Now, famously experienced delirious joy laying on a park bench, after he had lost everything he thought was valuable but realized that his mind can make every moment joyous. Don't have to make it complex - being peaceful and joyful is an internal single-player game. 


1. Peace is simple and learnable - just accept and appreciate your experiences.

Acceptance: You can be peaceful by thinking everything is perfect exactly as it is and not wanting to change anything. In Buddhism, there’s a concept of “Tathātā” or “suchness” that highlights that things are the way they are because of their nature - you can’t deny them or their right to exist; you can simply appreciate, understand. and accept them. If you choose to, you can be like a DJ and remix them to create something new.

Whenever anyone was distraught, my grandmother used to say, “Ellam nanmai kagai”, which translates to “Everything happens for a good reason.”. I don’t know if there’s good, bad, or a grand scheme, but the point is if you don’t fight with reality you can’t change, you’ll be peaceful. So don't be angry, disappointed, upset, or greedy about anything or anyone you don't have control over - which includes what others do and everything in the past, including your own actions. These are all forms of non-acceptance - if you feed those emotions, you surrender your peace and joy to external factors. And what's the point of fretting about things you can't change? Also, try not to judge anything or anyone as good or bad. When you judge something, you create boundaries of peace and joy for yourself. Just be curious, appreciate the insight, and learn. When something annoys you, ask yourself if that’s worth you losing the peace.

Basics: A lot of peace is biological and simple to maintain. Take care of your basic needs - health, nutrition, sleep, sun, shelter, free time, a few loving relations, and some safety net for emergencies or poor health. If you are healthy and have loving relations, then you can get everything else at any point. Beyond the basics, keep your expectations, desires, and envies as low as possible - these are all contracts to deny yourself peace. When you control or eliminate your desires, you are free.

Integrity and poise for what you can control: You maintain peace when your actions match your principles and intentions. First, you need to develop clarity on principles. Be accepting, calm, and generous. Be optimistic, curious, fascinated, kind, fair, and generous towards others and yourself. Making tough decisions can be overwhelming and stressful. Understand your criteria, find a few options, and pick one that works. If the options aren’t good, even after creative exploration, accept the reality. If the options seem close, then maybe it doesn't matter what you choose. If you don’t know how to decide, then consult with a few mentors. Don't dwell and once you decide, make your peace with it. 

If you are looking for one playbook for peace, the Buddhist 8 Fold Path nails it (book link). I recommend reading, pondering, and practicing one path every month. Most spiritual or self-help works are just modern remixes of the Buddha's advice (No surprise that the Buddha is still a top influencer after many hundred years.). I also recommend Stephen Covey’s “Principle-centered” approach that inculcates a single-player, low volatility, growth mindset.



2. Pursuit of joy is an art with multiple paths. Love what you experience and aim to do more of the experiences you love.

You can choose to be a peaceful monk in the forest. But what's the point of living if you aren't enjoying the experience and the fascinating world? It's like being in a video game parlor and refusing to play any games because you may lose and get upset. Find and practice your peace so that you can boldly experience joys. While the path to peace is somewhat fixed and ancient, the path to joy is always evolving and open-ended.

Appreciation: We get joys in several ways - from beauty, curiosity, appreciation, thrills, understanding, amusement, generosity, connection, love, achievement, surprise, creation, discovery, variety, etc. Kids get a lot of joy from being present in the moment, appreciating the littlest things, and being playful. And their joy is infectious, which is one reason why having kids is the most joyful experience for most people. As Jerry Seinfeld says, "You can be passionate about anything. Pay attention, don't let life go by you. Fall in love with the back of your cereal box." Just smiling like an idiot a few times a day, dancing on my commute, or walking outside in nature does wonders for me. So there are simple ways to be joyful.

Curiosities, games, and adventure: Think of what you’d do if you are anonymous and free - do more of that. Most people enjoy good times with friends and family, celebrating occasions, pursuing thrilling or challenging passions and curiosities, experiencing art, food, places, and cultures. A healthy balance and joys from multiple sources - loving relations, hobbies, relaxation, profession, responsibilities, chores, etc. - is important for maintaining peace and joy. Most pursuits aren’t always gratifying and devoid of annoyances. You need to enjoy the process and be okay with rough patches - the rewards are only momentary.

Avoid stupid games: Be deliberate about the games you choose to play. Don’t get sucked into stupid games like status, politics, extraordinary wealth, or addictions that compromise your judgment or reduce your freedom. Don't try to pursue more than one or two complex games, and don't get too obsessed; always be aware that it’s a game. 

3. Both peace and joy are simple and can be instantly realized. But they need constant deliberate practice to sustain. Develop daily rituals to maintain your peace and joy.

Why is that? Our brain, evolutionary programming, other living things, society, and environment are constantly upsetting them. Not because they want to - it's just a side effect of them desperately trying to survive and delay an inevitable death by just a little bit and to reproduce for god knows what. We are trapped in a web of desires and in a state of constant need, and among other people in the same situation. As Naval says, “The enemy of peace of mind is expectations drilled into us.”

The pursuit of joy also tends to upset your peace. Some of these pursuits can make you upset because of their nature, addiction, conflicts with other people, hedonic adaptation, or how you are going about them.

Sometimes upset: I fully expect that my life isn't going to be all peace and joy - there are going to be upsets, sorrow, and disappointment. You and others will do things that'll disturb peace and joy, but hey, this is the first time we have all lived life. Don't dwell and regret - learn and move on. Be kind, forgive, learn, focus on what's in your control, and reset any funk with music, movement, a break, or something else. "Mostly peaceful, often joyful, and sometimes upset" is what I realistically expect, and that helps me more easily accept and bounce back from the troughs.

Regular reset: One of the most effective rituals that I practice is daily and weekly check-ins where I remind myself of everything in this post, my goals, reflect on how things are going, drop harmful attitudes and pursuits that aren't working, learn new knowledge, or review past learnings, and set intentions for the future. You can throw meditation into the mix too. If there's only one thing you take away from this blog post, it should be this ritual as it can eventually fix everything else.  Schedule a recurring calendar event and maintain a running document. Another important factor is to be around people who have a similar mindset - otherwise, it is easy to get programmed by the games of other people.

Specific and Actionable Plan

Jerry Seinfeld said in a recent interview, "Our brains are like toddlers. You need to tell them exactly what, how, and when to do something."

In the sections above, I have laid the foundation of purpose, a high-level framework, and tactics. These are necessary but not sufficient. Without the foundation of meaning and values to derive from, specific goals and plans feel arbitrary and optional. Without concrete goals, plans, practices, and rituals, nothing happens. You don't have to create the plan all at once. Start small, keep learning, and evolving it over your lifetime.

Some high-level tips: take a few days every 6 months to reflect and plan, pick very few meaningful goals, think big and long-term, make it very specific and actionable short-term, have a clear cue/trigger - habit stacking is good, make it intrinsically fun or tie it to a reward - don't rely on will power, focus on inputs and not outputs, design for failure and missed days, reflect, learn and course-correct often.

Here are some examples of specific plans from my 2021 list to help you create yours.
  1. Daily morning and weekly ritual to reflect on my peace, joy, and this plan and system; to smile, be fascinated, grateful, and then to plan the day and week. This is my most important practice, as this is how I stay clear-headed and course-correct.
  2. Daily morning exercise - I’ll alternate between running/cardio, yoga, and lifting weights. I don’t care how much I do every day. If I don’t do it in the mornings, I’ll do it sometime before going to bed. This is a keystone practice - it will naturally make me eat healthier, drink water, be more clear-headed and energetic. This practice will keep me clear-headed, healthy, and energetic, which is core to my peace and joy.
  3. Continue writing one blog post a week or more and tweeting my thoughts as they happen. Spruce it up with better writing, visuals, and interview videos. Aim to write one book or course on PMing or life. Share it with family and others for feedback, discussion, and social connection. This brings me peace and joy and helps me learn and share my learning.
  4. Aim to make every interaction with others principled, fair, kind, fun, and joyous. Act thoughtfully, with authenticity and integrity. Avoid negative thoughts, talk, actions, and influences. As Stephen Covey put it, aim for trust, win-win, and synergy. But don’t be naive - be firm and selective about who you choose to develop relations with. Donate monthly to those who need it and stand up for fairness.
  5. Create with personal projects - 1-2 apps - and with my team at my job. Be curious, bold, innovative, and thoughtful; but move fast and get traction. Be a leader who brings the best out of the team. This is important because creation brings me joy and takes care of my basics and finances. In the near future, maybe these will merge into one!
  6. Learn about psychology, business, philosophy, science, writing, creating, coaching through books and courses. This will help me understand and appreciate the world more and hone my craft of creating and living well.
  7. Plan one weekly date night and weekend enjoyment with framily. Outdoors, restaurants, art, museums, and such. I’ll also plan monthly trips or gatherings, whenever this COVID-19 is done. This is important for exploration and joy.
  8. Focus! Say no to any major time or energy takers that don’t fit in the list above (Do the chores and take care of framily).
What I’m still pondering about
  • When is it okay to sacrifice short-term peace and joy, for long-term peace and joy?
  • How do we balance between acceptance and "making things better"? I have heard the common trick about focusing on what's in your control. I'd also add that do it when you are genuinely curious about it.  
  • Would we have the pleasures that we enjoy today - medicine, travel, fun etc. - if everyone before us had used this framework?
Hope this helps! I wish you a life that’s mostly peaceful, often joyful, and sometimes upsetting.