What to do versus who to be

A close friend emailed Hunter Thompson’s letter “On Finding Your Purpose.” I’d read this a while back but I’d forgotten about it. And, it resonated very deeply this time around. The part that resonated was his distinction between what we want to do and who we want to be. I picked out my favorite notes below.

As I said, to put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.

But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors — but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal.

Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life. But you say, “I don’t know where to look; I don’t know what to look for.”

And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know — is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.

I feel I’ve been stumbling at the fringes of this idea in my years writing here without ever explaining it with such clarity. Its beauty lies in its simplicity. The conventional approach to life is to focus on what we want to do. We, then, shape who we want to be in accordance. If we end up in a job that requires us to work 90 hours a week, so be it. We’ll give up those dreams of valuing health or family. It assumes no thought or intention.

Instead, decide who we want to be and seek to find a career that conforms. This is hard. Who knows what we want to be?

It turns out we don’t really know what we want to do either. For the most part, we just start with an unconscious hypothesis and keep moving forward. The only difference is that we seem to be following millions of others who are doing the same thing. It is easier.

And, as always, let’s not confuse easier with better.

2017 Themes

I had 3 “look back” posts in the past ten days or so that all built up to my annual review. After all that looking back, the time has now come to look forward. I don’t like new years resolutions as I’m not a fan of “goals” based thinking. Instead, I prefer thinking in terms of direction and process. So, I prefer thinking of the new year in terms of themes.

My theme for the new year is engagement. I believe engagement is the answer to the debates around managing energy versus managing time. As with most important things, it isn’t an either/or. And, I also believe engagement is a principle that a good life is anchored around. And, as with all life principles, it is very hard to consistently live it. Also, I think of engagement and consciousness (the ability to be aware and to choose) as sister concepts. They share the same core.

While engagement is the high level theme, my audit and reading pointed to 3 sub themes.

The first theme is – “Seek to understand and then to be understood” – from my holiday re-read of “The 7 Habits.” I am way too impatient and, as a result, interrupt far too much than I’d like. I’d like to do better, a lot better. This isn’t something that’s easy to measure. So, I intend to just check in with myself every day for starters as I build my instincts around this.

The second theme is health. As I grow older, the idea of being very fit grows increasingly more appealing. I haven’t done as bad a job at this so far. But, there’s plenty of room for improvement. I used Mr Money Mustache’s excellent post on “Staying fit with no gym in sight” to reflect on this and piece together my health plan. The first part of this plan is to moderate my diet better – my diet is still pretty carbohydrate heavy (I love rice!). And, having just discovered the benefits of doing a full body work out during the week, I’ll aim to keep that going through this year.

The final theme is information. Again, there are two pieces. First, I’ve been working on streamlining my information diet over the past couple of weeks. I massively cut down on my news consumption and went through a review of every source I regularly consume on Feedly. I also took a good look at my work email flow and consumption habits and have made a few changes. The idea here is to be a lot more conscious about this as I still check my email and feeds far more than I’d like. The second piece of this theme is doubling down on reading books. I have a reading list that I cannot wait to get to. And, I’d like to spend more time on deep book reading over shallower sources.

I expect to see a step change in my level of engagement/consciousness if I work through these sub themes. But, as with all good processes, the journey is sure to be filled with learning. While seeking to understand will help me improve on my interactions with others, I see my approach to health and information as crucial. The better my health and information diets, the more energy I expect to have to be engaged through the day.

Lots of work to do. Onward.

PS: Peter Koehler, a reader, has done a nice job co-creating “The New Years Reader” – to be read aloud and shared with your close friends and family. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did. I contributed a thought to it as well. The theme should look familiar to you. 🙂

“We are a by-product of our questions. Perhaps we stop asking ourselves about how we can be better/best at something this year and, instead, ask ourselves – “How can I be engaged every day? How can I make sure I am being conscious about my decisions?”

All this would take is a commitment to spend 3 minutes to ask yourselves these questions at the start of your day, every day. And, a calendar reminder to re-commit to this habit every weekend.

Wishing you more engaged, more conscious days this new year. As we live our days, so we live our lives…”

Private victories, public victories

Segmentation is one of the basic marketing tenets. If you build a product, target a segment that will love its strengths and ignore its shortcomings. Similarly, if you want to build a blog that becomes massive (assuming you aren’t someone famous already), you are better off focusing on some niche. Examples of such niches are productivity, personal finance, minimalism, health, etc. Going after learning in as broad a sense as this blog does isn’t a winning strategy. For those of you manage to stick on despite this very broad focus, I try every once a while to explain what this blog is about. An idea that will help frame this is – private victories precede public victories.

I am re-reading the 7 Habits very slowly. And, it was nice to be reminded of the logic behind Covey’s structure – focus first on private victories and, only then, will public victories follow. This is the basis of the character ethic that Covey describes. It is about bringing a certain sustainability into life and happiness by being effective. So, what does that even mean?

I’ll go back to my concentric priorities image. If we think of the world as a series of priorities – you, your people, your work and your community – private victories are focused on you, your people/relationships and parts of your work.

The principle is straight forward – you will be able to lead others only once you lead yourself. And, to lead yourself, you have to first understand how to be proactive, to think long term while focusing on what you control and learn to prioritize.

The first time I read Covey’s book, I spent all my time attempting to put the “private victories” portion in action. I had such a long way to go. However, as I read it now, I feel more comfortable with this portion of the book. I am still giving it plenty of thought but I find myself thinking about optimizing existing approaches versus building them from scratch. This process has taken 7 years. And, I’m sure it’ll be a few more years before I spend more of my time attempting to live part II.

How does this relate to this blog? I write about what I most need to learn. And, this blog is and has been shamelessly self focused over the past 8 and a half years. That will likely change with a time. But, for now, it is me teaching myself how to develop a perspective that is both effective and kind. That is why this blog is some parts happiness and other parts productivity, minimalism, some finance, health etc. It isn’t the most effective marketing strategy and is certainly not a case study in segmentation. But, I don’t intend this to be any of that.

This is about growing into character – one learning at a time, over a very long time. It is hard work. But, it is also an awesome process. As is evident in the sheer number of topics I write about, there isn’t any prescribed way to go about this process. Sure, there are a few principles that help. But, for the most part, you are on your own. It is just a journey that requires consciousness and engagement.

And, mostly, it is a journey.

PS: “For those of you manage to stick on despite this very broad focus, I try every once a while to explain what this blog is about.” – if you’ve stuck around for a while, you probably don’t need an explanation. So, you probably guessed this – this is more a reminder of the “why” for me than it is for you. Thank you for your attention. 🙂


An audit is an inspection of an organization’s processes typically conducted by a third party. I love the idea of an annual audit and I think I’ve become more conscious about the process over time. And, this year, I am thinking about the various parts of my life as I aim to commit to a few practices for the coming year.

For starters, I tend to take a concentric circle view when I think of my priorities.

This builds on a simple principle – you can’t take care of others until you take care of yourself. However, the prioritization that follows is personal. I think of my people, my work and my community (service) as the priorities that follow – in that order. So, here are some questions I’m asking myself. This isn’t an exhaustive list of the question I should be asking as I’m focused on areas I most want to improve.

How can I eat healthier?
How can I be fitter?
What is my information diet looking like? How can it be less, but better?

My people
How can I be more conscious in my relationships?

My career
How can I organize my workday better to make sure I’m tapping maximum productivity?
Post kid, how do I embrace more flexibility in terms of when I work without letting it affect my engagement at home?
How can I take the time to synthesize what is going in tech?
How can we manage our finances better?

My community/service
How do I define service?

I’ll aim to write about the results of these questions over the next few days.

What’s the point

The path we implicitly sign up for in a professional career is one with continuous movement upward. A sign of progress is having fancier possessions and fancier titles every few years. With it comes an implicit promise of bigger impact. So, every once a while, I find it helpful to ask “what’s the point?”

Most of life’s pleasures are cheap or free. Sure, it is nice to splurge on a nice vacation every once a while. And, maybe some nice additions to our home would make life more convenient. But, for most of us, we probably have all the fundamental parts of Maslow’s hierarchy in place. Earning a lot more money isn’t going to step change our happiness. It might make things easier. But, since when has easy been better?

Furthermore, we learn, time and time again, that few things matter more than the people in our lives. And, again, for most of us, we don’t presumably make friends based on someone’s title. We make friends because they’re people we appreciate, learn from and enjoy spending time with. I have met with enough fancy titled folk over the years to realize there is absolutely no correlation between someone’s career accomplishments and my appreciation for them. The folks I’ve come to love are those who don’t care about any such race. They just deeply care about everyone around them, strive to grow through the daily struggle and work hard to make an impact.

So, what’s the point? If our fundamental assumption around progress is in question, where does that leave us?

My hypothesis is that asking this question can be incredibly liberating. We are surrounded by so much noise – none of which moves the needle in our happiness and fulfillment. And, most of this noise is surrounded with obsessing about our path forward.

So, here’s where I end up – never mind the future. Just understand which direction you are heading. Look at the map, but not too much. Look behind to learn from what happened – but, not too much. Enjoy the company of those who’re around you. Look them in the eye, smile and help them grow through the journey. Help those along the way who are less fortunate. And, critically, enjoy the now yourself.

In the final analysis, it is the happiness and impact you make during the journey that will matter. They aren’t waiting at a future stop.

Do our absolute best

Much of our lives lies outside our control. People respond to this fact differently. Some like to believe they control everything while others like to believe it is all predetermined. Maybe one of those is the right view, we’ll never know. My preferred approach is to simply acknowledge that large portions of our lives lie outside our control. Once we acknowledge that, the onus is on us to also acknowledge the flip side – there are portions, occasionally significant, that are in our control. And, for those portions, we can choose to do our absolute best.

The context to which we wake up in the morning may be outside of our control. How we choose to live our day today, however, isn’t. And, by living our day well today, we can improve our context tomorrow. This can go on until our context changes again – for no apparent reason. That’s part of the unpredictability and beauty of this life. It can rain when we least expect it. What matters is that we learn to dance with it.

As I thought about the week that had passed by, I wondered if I could have done a little bit more. But, I also remembered to ask – did I do my absolute best? Did I be my absolute best?

Contentment and drive are false choices. There’s a tension between them (and many other false choices) that makes life beautiful. Asking ourselves if we did our absolute best is an example of a question that embraces both. We did the best we could as we knew it. Now, that we know better, we’ll do better.

I’ve learnt that there’s not much more we can expect from ourselves in every analysis. I’ve also learnt that there are few goals that are more worthy of aspiration. So, as I start this week, I tell myself that, at the end of it, I will reflect and ask myself – did I do my absolute best? Did I try to be the best version of myself?

I will likely have made mistakes and mis-steps this week. But, if the answers to those two questions were yes, it will have been a good week.

Behind the curtain

1: A wise friend’s friend and ex-colleague, an accomplished entrepreneur, was once in a room with one of the richest, most successful businessmen of our time (let’s call him Mr.Forbes). They were discussing a potential business initiative and Mr.Forbes seemed to be behaving somewhat difficult through the discussions. He seemed to be putting an undue amount of pressure on himself to make absolutely sure the venture would be a big success. After the meeting, this friend asked one of Mr.Forbes’ close friends and associates about the behavior. “Yes” – the friend acknowledged, “he’s just very hard on himself because he’s worried people think of him as a one trick pony.”

2: David Heinemeier Hansson, the co-founder of Basecamp, has a fantastic post in 37 Signals blog about “The day I became a millionaire.” In the post, he shares what many of us know deep in our hearts. After a certain point, money doesn’t make you any happier. Of his realization, he says –

If anything, I began to appreciate even more intently that flow and tranquility were the true sources of happiness for me all along. It was like I had pulled back the curtain on that millionaire’s dream and found, to my surprise, that most of the things on the other side were things I already had. Equal parts shock and awe, but ultimately deeply reassuring.

He adds –

I can only speak to the experience I did have. The one I do share with millions of people who have the basics taken care of, but who still yearn for the treasure perceived to be behind the curtain. For those who might contemplate giving up all manners of integrity, dignity, or even humanity to pull it back.

3: In a conversation with a couple of close friends recently, one of them pointed out that my point of view on someone’s behavior is likely because of “negative goggles.” It was a comment that made me pause and ask myself a couple of questions – “Am I aware of an unconscious bias in my judgment of the situation?”, “Am I being judgmental when it isn’t necessary?”, and “Am I giving with expectations?” It didn’t take me long to answer these questions. I cleared myself of the unconscious bias and I believed I was applying judgment only when concerned with the specific discussion. But, I did feel I’d given something in this situation with certain expectations. The nature of the situation was such that I felt myself entangled in it and I hadn’t let go. That wasn’t something I’d intended to do and the conversation helped me take a simple step that helped me resolve it.

These stories and a certain friend’s recent experiences have exposed me two truths –

1. When you don’t have your basics, i.e. shelter, food and security (or the lower ends of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), taken care of, life is a fight for survival and making ends need. This happens to us occasionally during times of adversity. In such cases, our life has little do with our sense of self. If you are the daily wage laborer who has to work 16 hours to make ends meet, you don’t have time for much reflection. Even if it might make your life better, your priorities are different – it is about earning your bread and notching up a win for the day. Similarly, if your kid is very sick, your own well being is put on hold as you care for your kid. Again, during such times, it isn’t about you.

behind the curtain, life, needs, self

2. Once you do have your basics taken care of, life, in many ways, is everything you do with your sense of self. Notice how the upper pyramids have to do with love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization. For example, to be loved, you have to be, and feel, lovable. This is what lies “behind the curtain” of most human beings you and I know.

It is this struggle that explains Mr.Forbes’ behavior. It is this struggle that David Hansson refers to. And, it is this struggle that I went through this morning. The quality of our lives has everything to do with how we feel about ourselves. It doesn’t matter how much wealth or material success we have. If we don’t feel good, life isn’t going to be good.

So, how do we feel good or love ourselves? Here, I will go back to Scott Peck’s definition of love – “The will to extend ourselves for our own or another’s spiritual growth.” Or, to put it simply, to love, we must grow. And, to grow, we must love. Growth doesn’t come easy, of course. Self-growth is a constant cycle of learning, reflection, control and awareness. It is a cycle of – self-control -> deliberate action -> reflection or self evaluation -> self knowledge -> self awareness. It is easier to not complete the loop. Self evaluation is painful. I have been working over these years to give without expectations. And, yet, when I caught myself doing so this morning, it pained me. But, ignoring it isn’t going to solve the problem. Response is. And, now that I know this happens, I can be more aware and exercise better self control next time. It is an incredible loop. But, it is hard work. You can avoid this loop for a while (for years, in case of some people), but the pain felt as you grow is nothing compared to the pain felt when you don’t.

It is always better to do the work.

As Scott Peck says –

Life is difficult.
This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

It doesn’t matter who you are. The fact that life is difficult remains unchanged. If you, like me, are blessed to be free of worries around your basics, maybe this ought to be a reminder that our life is ours alone and we make of it what we will. It is best spent when we stop wondering what is behind the curtain of other people’s lives (especially those who’re more wealthy or more successful by some measure or other) and become better at loving ourselves.

So, it all comes down to this – we’ve been dealt a hand of cards. It isn’t easy to play it right. But, choose to grow, and we have the opportunity to make it meaningful, to make it count.

It truly is a wonderful life.