On Saints, Jerks and Food Donations

This week’s book learning draws inspiration from ‘Switch’ by Dan and Chip Heath-

A group of 100 Stanford students were first identified, based on past behavior, as either charitable or uncharitable i.e. as saints or jerks.

Next, half of these students got a basic letter – bring canned food to the booth at the Tressider Plaza.

The remaining got a detailed letter with a map to the precise spot, a request for a can of beans and also asked them to pick a time when they’d be near the spot so they aren’t inconvenienced.

2 weeks later, the results studied were as follows-

For the basic letter – 8% of the saints donated. No jerks did. They were so far living up to their reputation but the saints weren’t doing much better either.

For the detailed letter – 42% of the saints donated and so did 25% of the jerks.

Isn’t this incredibly inspiring? A little bit of detail and specificity got 25% of the most uncharitable students to donate to the drive.

Bottom line – If you are hungry, you are better off relying on a jerk with a map than on a saint without one. 😀

Another illustration of ‘What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.‘ Chip and Dan Heath identify shaping the path as a key part of the change process. Eg: Setting up our gym clothes along with a glass of water next to our bed will likely increase the probability of hitting the gym.

Here’s to clearly describing the path to change this week!

The Pursuit of Happyness

It is Saturday evening. It is one of those rare times in a week when I get to spend some time on a blog post. And it’s nice to be able to begin it differently. There’s a whole bunch of topics waiting to be blogged about but I’m ignoring all of them.

I’m just enjoying the moment a little bit here. This is in contrast with how blogging is done rest of the week. On most days, it’s done in the morning after exercise and before work and on days when I don’t manage to wake up, it’s done after work in the evening. In either case, it’s not relaxation in the traditional sense as I’m either looking to head to work or end the day and go home. So, posts tend to be relatively short and to-the-point and thanks to feedback from many of you, I realize that suits you, as well. We’re all busy after all.

This, of course, wasn’t the case before the long and short form partition. I only wrote a long post when I felt like as I had a quote to account for the learning for the day. But, in truth, I haven’t ever been happier about the blog before that decision was made. It pushes me a fair bit but it’s another case where the juice feels worth the squeeze.

So, today, I thought I’d take a different approach. I started typing this with no topic in mind but I’ve gradually come to one I feel most passionate about at the moment – The Pursuit of Happyness. I also thought I’d let myself ramble a little bit. It’s been a beautiful day. I played a 90 minute football game in bright sunlight in the morning, had a nice afternoon nap and woke up in the evening and can feel the temperature has steadily been getting colder. As I write this, I’m sitting contented on Saturday evening enjoying the thought of an entire weekend to myself. And, of course, I’m away from email and work till tomorrow morning. So, I thought I’d take some time and enjoy some writing.. As a result, I expect this to be long, very long. I have a lot to say, haha ;-).

And I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much I’ll enjoy writing it.

I was on a Skype call with a friend I was getting to know. I asked him questions about his background, family, his dreams and long term goals. And of course, he flipped all of those back to me.

I answered the question about my long term goals very differently from times in the past. I have ideas of what I’d like the future to look like. Some ideas are around coaching and teaching while some others involve crazier stuff like owning Manchester United (when I have a few billion in lose change, of course.. haha). Today, however, I found myself reflecting on the past year and telling him about a different approach I was taking for a little while. And I also reflected that a large part of the past 2 years has been on the pursuit of happyness.

I distinctly remember a question I asked myself two years ago – When am I happy?. It was August in 2009 – my start up adventure was over. I was now just a university student looking for a job that I would hopefully like. A whole new world. Of course, at that point, finding that job was top priority. But, really, what made me happy? I remember a few answers coming out then – staying in touch with close family and friends, reading books and sharing learnings, doing something meaningful with the time I have, playing sport, being of help to those younger than me who could benefit from a bit of mentorship and guidance (especially since I’d promised someone who had spent a lot of time with me that I’d pay it forward) and lastly, but importantly, having ‘enough‘ money. Enough is, of course, tricky. But I’ll come back to this later. Oh, and I also remember that I sought daily inspiration. (which, as I understand is normal for ‘N’ types in the Myers Briggs Types – I promise a detailed blog post on that as soon as I finish that (incredible) book)

The biggest realization, for me, then was that my happiness seemed to revolve around a clutch of small things. And as the process was naturally iterative, the next question was What can I do about this?. A few things happened over the next month – I started sending a close bunch of friends smses with daily ‘Good Morning’ quotes (SMSes were cheap on the student plan!), began writing one email 3 times a week to a very close friend and Mom (Tuesday/Thursday/Sunday Hello) where I rambled about the little things in my life, began sending these poor bunch of close friends a ‘weekly book learning’ as a way to force myself to read something of value, playing football 2-3 times a week, working with some younger friends thanks to activities I was involved in and spending quality time on weekends with friends.

Suddenly, the world seemed different. I’ve mentioned this many times before but having spent all of 3 years trying to make a venture work meant that I had attached all my self worth to it. That’s why calling it off was incredibly hard and the period after that was harder. That period was an intense time as we went through the ‘2nd year’ of being a serious start up and realized things wouldn’t work out. And it wasn’t for lack of effort. We had all learnt lessons for life and it was time for us to pick the pieces and move on and find our own different paths.

I vividly remember my happiness levels slowly go up. It was the 1st semester – I wasn’t regular in most of these things but slowly, they became habitual. ‘Good morning’ quotes started showing up here and at that time, solved a major problem as I wasn’t disciplined enough to blog a learning every day. I remember the ‘Hello’ emails happening without trouble but the rest was a struggle, including football. There’s something about being a university student. Even though we have lots of time, there always seems like there is none of it.

The next phase was understanding how I could make this regular and habitual. I realize this also a function of the ‘J’ type. And as I’d read a very inspiring book that spoke about finding coaches and making little systems, I began experimenting with that. Here again, as in many many points in life, I had a mentor leading the charge and showing the way. I have learnt SO much from people older and wiser who have taken time to help me. I always promise to ‘pay it forward’ but I sometimes wonder if I will ever have the kind of impact they’ve had on my life and thinking. And that was the beginning of a points system where I tried accomplishing a certain bunch of things every day and I lost a dollar for every point I missed (big money as a student) to a close friend, who was my ‘coach’. I used to meet him every sunday discussing my plans for the next week, performance for the last week etc.

Those days used to be a constant wrench. A real struggle. I didn’t have that kind of discipline. 30 minutes of book reading every day was unthinkable. I learnt a lot. Slowly, I began to settle into that and actually began habitually doing the little things that made me happy. I could feel the difference. My relationship with my Mom and close friend became so much deeper (I felt the difference when I was back home), my younger friends added an incredible amount of joy in my life, my curiosity was being stoked by all the great I was reading, I was beginning to feel inspired by the quotes and learnings and my own attitude was slowly becoming worthy of this blog’s philosophy. I also got lucky – I found work I would enjoy at a place that seemed perfect for me and things began looking up.

Soon though, university was over. I remember the next phase being that of the GMAT but I also remember continuing to do these little things. Happyness. I was beginning to feel it.

And then, of course, work life began. This was a tough transition again. I was doing all these little things – how could I keep them up with a full time job? I began learning to say No to a few things. My discipline systems ensured accountability and soon, I was feeling settled. Then, the travel phase began and I began trying to wonder if I could keep up this energy in spite of constant changes of location. I learnt that we can do anything we want as long as we ask ourselves the right questions and stay true to ourselves. Over time, this list has increased to counting blessings, reading the news, playing games on Lumosity :), sleeping 8 hours, writing to more and more friends regularly and so on – every bit bringing with it more learnings..

Thus, the past year has meant a lot more of these little little realizations. A few things about life never change – there are ALWAYS ups and downs. It’s gotten to a point where I’ve started laughing at unexpected downs because I’ve half expected something funny to happen right after a really cool up. The challenges also never stop but that doesn’t mean it’s an excuse for me to do any less. I’ve been amazed at the human capacity to ‘do’. The more I do, it seems like the more I can do. And the harder I work, it seems like the luckier I get. No hard work has ever gone waste. Because, over time, the dots connect. Always.

Of course, there have been tons of mistakes on the way – many many Mea Culpa moments in every little project. And I’ve also learnt that with more growth comes responsibility. This blog has been proof. A recent incident comes to mind when I pissed someone close to me off unintentionally thanks to something I said here. It felt bad. Really bad. But then, you live and you learn. Failure makes you humble. Attempts at stuff don’t come without failure of course. Reminds me of a football league I signed up for with a bunch of friends 2 months ago here. We are so out of depth that we concede 10 goals a game(!). It was very demoralizing at first but I’m learning to be a good loser. In fact, I’m learning more from the football experiences thanks to failure after failure after failure.

Along with all of this, I can feel a real thirst to understand myself and how I fit in. That’s why the excitement about Myers Briggs and personality types. I remember this quote that ‘life is such that you can get out of it knowing more about others around you than yourself’. I’ve realized that I’m only accepting of people and situations around me when I accept myself. I find myself hungry to understand how we work, why we work they way we do and that hunger has led to me devouring books. A quest to stay hungry, stay foolish..

I’m beginning to realize many of the basic ways of the world thanks to these experiences and books that escaped me in the past. I find myself more respectful of tradition and admiring the little things because I’ve found them contributing more to my happiness than anything else. Of course, money matters. Here, I’ve found the $75,000 to happiness most useful as a goal.

I’ve realized the importance of letting go, in the little things. A laugh, for example, in a sticky discussion or situation goes a long way in smoothing things over. I’ve greatly reduced trying to win discussions with sarcastic/’smart’ comments.. because you never really win. That’s incredibly hard for a heady competitive person to understand especially when you love debate and competition to stir up some emotion and adrenaline.

I’ve also begun to accept (slowly) natural cycles of productivity and energy. Some days you are the pigeon, and some you are the statue. Also seeing time and time again that everything that happens happen for the good. Learning to laugh at them more and probably, most importantly, laugh at myself a lot more. Trying to speak slower, smile more.. all the little things. And trying to keep my child-like excitable self while not being childish.

Learning to ‘let go’ has been a tough tough battle. Given ever changing schedules and travel plans, I used to fret endlessly about my holidays, trips back to Singapore etc at this time last year. Now, I’ve switched off from these worries that are beyond my control. I realize they more or less tend to work out. And if they don’t – so what? The fact that I have such choices means I have it really good. There’s no reason to complain..

And, at this point, I’m loving this stage and process. A lot of what’s going on now is character building. And I believe it’ll have tremendous impact in the years to come – if not as somebody who makes a difference in the world, atleast somebody who makes a difference to my kids and people I come in contact with. I’m not clear what lies ahead but I trust it’ll come to me when I’m ready. Life is an incredible teacher. And the teacher can teach only when the student is ready. And I’ve realized life doesn’t do free advice.

I joke with a friend that, as a kid, I was close to ADHD. Always trying many things and improving breadth without necessarily going down in depth. That has changed with time. I realize I’m beginning to see the deeper meaning behind the philosophy of this blog. When this journey began, this blog was almost a diary where I document learnings. I was too scared of criticism so I blogged under the acronym of ‘Every Day I Get Better’. Over time, I’ve learnt to accept both ends of the stick and learn to laugh at the low points and at myself. That’s not come easy. It’s amazing how we naturally focus on the negative because, along with the mistakes and low points, have also come so many words of encouragement from those who read this. It never fails to inspire me. I’ve begun to realize that learning every day is way of looking at, and living life. And, as a result, a large part of the past year has been a quest to be worthy of the blog in many ways by focusing on the upside instead of all the things that went wrong.

That, really is, the story of the journey over the past couple of years. It’s been an incredible journey filled with learnings from people, books, experiences, highs, lows and failures thanks to the best teacher of them all – life. I’ve dug deep in this one and I realize I’ve been writing for an hour now. But, what an hour it has been.. this is another one of those little things that makes me happy.

The Pursuit of Happyness – it really is a journey, a pursuit defined not by answers, by questions. And an amazing one at that because every positive act we do as a result of being happy has a tremendous ripple effect around the world. The Butterfly Effect. Amen to that.

Isn’t that amazing? I find myself smiling as I’m writing this. And it’s nice to be sure that it’s probably going to make you smile as you read this as well. 🙂

Smiling thus, I will call it a day. There’s a beautiful few hours of Saturday evening to be enjoyed. And as always, there’s tons to be thankful about and so much of life to enjoy. It’s amazing how good we have it – just to have working vision and hearing to be able to take the world in.

A big part of all these learnings has been the responsibility that comes with the good. But I’m hopeful that will happen. And I’m hopeful it’ll all be worth it. As Steve Jobs would say..

‘..and we’ve all chosen to do this with our lives. So it better be damn good. It better be worth it.’

It will. I hope. I believe.

Accounting For Every Penny (With a Bonus)

Thanks to a gift from a close friend, I’m now listening to ‘An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth’ by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. I had attempted to read it a few years ago as we have a hard copy at home but I couldn’t get through it. Getting through the audio has been an absolutely pleasure.

M.K.Gandhi has had massive impact on the history of India – both positive and negative. While I was a student, I realize I looked at the negatives a shade too much and this book has been a nice reminder of how much there is to learn from the man. And I’m sure there are more learnings to come as I make progress in my reading.

This post is inspired by a line in the book I was very inspired by. This was during Gandhi’s years as a student in England. He says (paraphrased/roughly) ‘I always accounted for every penny that came in and went out. This is a habit I would encourage all youth to develop. It is this habit that enabled me to handle public funds with relative ease and has stood me in good stead all through my life.’ 


Members of this blog’s community have seen me struggle through the journey over the years. I was living on borrowed cash after being bankrupt in university when I started blogging. And then, there was progress over the next year to a tight life style until I was sure I had sufficient control over my finances (and had paid off my debts). And then, after a year or so of living well below my means, the next objective was to track all my expenses. Precise tracking was a real struggle and I’ve finally solved that problem thanks to the Envelopes app on my phone. And, since May, I’ve been able to start living with budgets. (I’m admittedly lax about getting on the wrong side of my budget now though as I have sufficient confidence in my ability to live well below my means but that’s only after 2 years of having done so)

I maintain all of this on a Google Spreadsheet. I’m aware of many great apps that help automate this but I’ve resisted them simply because I like to keep control of the process.

This journey has taken me a good 4 years. Call me a slow learner if you will but it’s felt like a great accomplishment even if it’s taken that along. The juice feels worth the squeeze.

Gandhi’s advice though, pushed me a step further. As I was working on my end-of-month finances today, I wanted to have a clear understanding of my cash flow in addition to my balances, savings and the like. And I worked on my Google Doc to fully understand just that. The end result was an additional sheet which helped me understand my cash flow, averages of how much I spent – essentially every thing I need to understand and account for every penny I spend.

I believe in the tremendous power of the habit. I daresay the whole world needs this. One needs to look no further than the financial crisis to realize the potential impact of every one of us living below our means. Simply put, we need to get into the habit of making every penny count.

So, as a bonus, I thought I’d share with you a template that might help you on your ‘Account for every Penny’ journey. Please find it on the Google Spreadsheet http://bit.ly/aladaccountstemplate.

2 things to note  here –

– This is exactly the sheet I use myself, with dummy numbers. So, they may not make sense across sheets (they will, when you put original numbers in).

– This sheet is just version 1. There is a lot of functionality that can be added, of course (linking numbers between sheets, charts graphs etc). I thought I’d try and keep it as simple as I can. I’ll let the Excel Geeks go crazy with adding additional stuff. 🙂

 I’d appreciate hearing from you on anything you feel is missing. And, of course, I look forward to any questions you might have.

I hope you find it useful. 

Venga Boys

A close friend just started a new email feature called ‘You know it’s going to be a great day when..’ this week. As a result, I get an email and a fun song in my inbox before I wake up.

This has proved to be VERY energizing first thing in the morning as I have relaxed my email checking rule to check out the song of the day. And it was very effective in getting me up for exercise on Monday and Tuesday. (Maybe I should add it to my Elephant-Rider applications)

Today’s song turned out to be a special one. It was ‘We like to Party’ by Venga Boys. And this is a very very special childhood song.

It took me back to many get togethers I’ve been part of with my parents. Thanks to child friendly rules in most cases, I was generally part of the singing and dancing that went with them. I was a pathetic dancer. As a result, it was really nice to be dancing with a very encouraging group of adults who ensured we all danced for the sake of dancing. I’ve since then come to love get togethers every once a while with close friends where we shake a leg to popular music. And of course, my bad dancing doesn’t stop me now either.

All these memories came flooding back. And I was reminded of many good times that culminated in my love and appreciation for singing and dancing.

I was also reminded of a nice line in one of Tony Buzan’s book that said (very roughly) – ‘We are all natural singers, dancers and artists. In fact, we did all of this naturally as kids. It’s just that one person who came by and told us we were bad that stopped us. And we haven’t bothered to change that belief ever since.’ 

And probably, most importantly, it reminded me of a simpler time. 🙂

PS: There are a bunch of cool Vengaboys songs if you haven’t every heard them. Up and Down, To Brazil, Boom Boom Boom, Shalalala, Uncle John from Jamaica are all songs I loved!

I also realized now why my parents were very amused when I sung Boom Boom Boom Boom, I want you in my room.. in public. 

Pecking Order

In the 1920s, Norwegian Biologist Throlief Schjelderup Ebbe observed a group of hens thrown together and given some food.

After an initial bout of anarchy and fighting, the hierarchy among the hens is established. Every hen knew where it stood in the chain and the hens then ate the food only when the one above them in the hierarchy had finished. And if there is ever a dispute the higher hen would peck the other hen – giving rise to pecking order.

I just reviewed a truly fascinating book by Will Durant called the ‘The Lessons of History’. Ever since reading the book and understanding Durant’s point of view, I’ve begun to respect hierarchy a  lot. It seems to be the natural order of things. And it manifests itself in everything.

For example, corporate ‘culture’ is a term that is used a lot these days. And, in my humble opinion, corporate ‘culture’ is really a manifestation of hierarchy.

The boring places are those that are extremely hierarchical and bureaucratic while the fun places to work are those places which don’t reinforce the existing hierarchy. But, let’s not forget – in every place, the hierarchy exists. It must exist. There is always the fall guy i.e. the big boss. 😉 And there is no point pretending it doesn’t exist either. That just ends up frustrating everyone.

Aside from hierarchy, which is how we establish the natural pecking order, there are also other factors that influence it. In some culture, it’s extrinsic stuff like having expensive cars, in others by having intense Blackberry conversations on Sunday and demonstrating that you don’t have a life and in some others, by the quality of your family life and how your kids are doing.

In any case, pecking order does exist everywhere. And being young and, as a result, bottom of the food chain, I’ve learnt it is best to respect it and work with it than work against it. Experience is an incredible thing and only time can teach us that. And if we are surrounded by great people, then we are given opportunities to ‘do our thing’ anyway. Of course, we’ll have to earn those stripes. But, it’s a fair expectation.

The key, I’ve realized, is to remind ourselves to fit in first, and then stand out. Not always easy when you are young. But vital. 

Managing Time vs Managing Myself

I was reflecting on the post on my recent trip being Short, But Meaningful and I realized that I’m finally begin to learn and understand the difference between managing time and managing myself.

Managing time appeals to the ‘manager’ within.
Managing myself appeals to the ‘leader’ within.

Managing time, hence, focuses on optimization (eg: Scheduling back to back meetings!).
Managing myself focuses on productivity (eg: ensuring I have food amidst back to back meetings).

Managing time focuses on schedule.
Managing myself focuses on productivity.

Managing time is great for short term i.e. fighting battles (crazy deadline).
Managing myself is great for long term i.e. fighting wars (life!).

Managing time appeals to the elephant (quick wins)
Managing myself appeals to the rider (long term)

Managing time looks to say yes and schedules items into my calendar.
Managing myself looks to say no and strikes things off.

Managing time doesn’t care about bigger priorities.
Managing myself cares about whether I care.

I realized this as I realized that in my earlier short trips, I managed time – pretty well. But failed to manage myself and even ended up falling sick once and that is NOT fun on a vacation.

There is no doubt we need both to function well but I realize it’s vital we make sure we are driven by the leader and not the manager i.e. the leader to schedule and the manager to optimize to get things done instead of the manager scheduling.

I find that to be the difference between being busy and being productive. Also, when we understand elephants and riders, we realize why ‘Managing Time’ triumphs by default.

And given how we are constantly educated about the importance of a good manager (thanks to calendars, meeting invites, conventional time management and the stress on time), I daresay we need a bit of leadership.

Not to lead others. Just to lead ourselves.

Joeri van Geelen: Interview III – RealAcad Mondays

This week on RealAcad Mondays, we have another guest contribution thanks to Youssef.Youssef is a RealAcader from the 2nd Stanford camp this year. Youssef has already run a speed-chess competition venture in Morocco and even had the honor of playing a game with famous Russian Grandmaster Anatoly Karpov.Youssef is greatly inspired by Joeri – Joeri is a 24 year old clean-tech entrepreneur in China. Joeri and Youssef first met in France at a regional event of the CEMS prestigious Master. Joeri has a varied range of experiences at Siemens Wind Power, the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs. He has completed his Master in International Management from the Rotterdam School of Management and from NHH (Norway) as parts as his CEMS degree.


1. What inspires/drives/motivates you?


Challenges motivate and drive me. I always look for new personal learning and growth opportunities, since they encourage me to go the extra mile.
My entrepreneurial mindset usually drags me into new and creative avenues that present uncertain and complex situations, yet inspiring and exciting at the same time

2. Looking back, was there a defying moment/experience in your life?

Here, I will refer to my first study abroad period in Nottingham, UK. For the first time I started living entirely independently of my peers at home and enriched my life by thinking across borders and cultural boundaries.

The experience shaped me to become the person I am today, and has opened my mind to anything undiscovered. Basically, I thrive in an international atmosphere since it presents a rich and diverse chemistry, bearing most potential for added value in many ways. The study abroad experience has thus given me the international edge that has had a long-term impact on all decisions I make, and has made me a more ‘all-round’ person.

3. What advice would you give to future young leaders?
Recently, I found exactly the industry and type of people I would like to surround myself with. I would advise young leaders to follow their heart before listening to their brain’s impulse.
I believe that everyone becomes most successful, according to his or her own definition, when doing what one loves and is passionate about. Why? Because it eventually makes one a more happy person, which positively enhances one’s energy level, which in turn boosts personal and societal success.

The aim going forward would be to have a nice mix of youth and experience. And it was nice to have that youthful, thought provoking and idealistic view from Joeri..

And, on personal reflection, there is definitely big room for improvement in the preparation of this feature from my side – as is evident with the lack of photo and bio. I’m still getting used to this on my schedule and need to be better prepared. I hope to do better in the coming weeks..

I’d love to hear from you guys if you have any other questions you feel we should be asking.

More on RealAcad Mondays