Career and life lessons from a business class upgrade

I was upgraded to business class on Emirates Airlines last month for a 4 hour leg of a 17 hour journey. It was funny how I immediately found myself wishing I had been upgraded for the longer leg. Ha. Human nature. It had been a while since I traveled business on a good airline and what I observed had some interesting implications on thinking about careers and life.

To begin with, I perceived a change in behavior from the staff the moment I got my upgrade at the counter. I felt I was suddenly treated with more respect and felt special. Of course, the comforts were great – a full recline bed on which you can sleep comfortably and a table on which you can get work done without feeling squished. But, what struck me was the visible difference in the way I was treated. This disappeared the moment I stepped back into Economy for the longer leg.

The principle here is signaling. I was treated as someone with perceived higher value simply because of my accidental/serendipitous business class tag. It is powerful because we, as humans, are always categorizing people and things. And, signaling, one way or the other, determines which buckets we fall into.

So, when it comes to planning careers, my thought process and advice are really boring – work hard, get into the best school you can get into, then work hard and get good grades (or do something really cool in the risk-free zone that is school), then get into the best job you can get into, do very well and you’ll find yourself with more options over time. The reason for this boring advice is that it reduces downside. Yes, we love talking about entrepreneurs who made billions by taking crazy risks. That is largely media fueled nonsense. Most smart entrepreneurs are actually masterful de-riskers – they only take the next risk when they feel they’ve minimized chances of failures. And, as far as drop outs who made billions go, the most storied of the lot – Bill Gates, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg – dropped out of Harvard and Stanford. I daresay they would have done fine even if things hadn’t worked out at Microsoft, Google and Facebook.

Fivethirtyeight had a sobering article titled “Rich Kids Stay Rich, Poor Kids Stay Poor” presenting results from a research study on how growing up in poverty affects kids. One of the charts in the article was –

career, wealth

Most charts told a similar story – folks who grew up in wealthy families remained wealthy as adults.The article underlines just how hard social mobility is. And, if these were the results in the US (the land of opportunity), I can only imagine what similar studies would unearth elsewhere.

My hypothesis is that the principle that underlies all of this is, again, signaling. Do well early and you reduce downside for the rest of your careers. Once you’ve reduced that downside, you are well placed to take risks to increase upside. That isn’t to say your chances are low otherwise. But, it is also no coincidence that you have an absurd number of risk takers in places like the Silicon Valley. The truth is that places like the Silicon Valley both place a premium on failure and encourage risk taking once you’ve had a stint at a successful tech firm. So, in some ways, you’re probably only increasing your career capital. Sure, you will always be able to point to many who “made it” without following this principle. But, I could say with a good degree of confidence that the many are a small proportion of the “many others” who fell by the wayside without a Fortune cover story.

The article and data also goes to show how fortunate you are if you won the genetic lottery and were born into the right family. If you are in those top percentiles, maybe this data ought to be a wake up call to stop complaining about all the things that go wrong and to use all that privilege you have to leave the world better than you found it.

A deep life

Cal Newport’s new book “Deep Work” is just out as of this week. I love Cal’s work and downloaded it the morning it came out on Audible and am looking forward to getting through it in the next two weeks.

deep work,

I don’t expect the book’s insights to surprise me – Cal’s thought process generally resonates with my philosophy and he also shares his thought process via his excellent blog. (My framework for doing work that matters is – focus x intensity x hard work – and the book focuses on the intensity portion.)

That said, I am excited about the book because I expect him to bring together all this learning, help condense it into a thesis and also help me think through actions to increase the percentage of time I spend in deep work mode. More depth = more mindfulness after all.

So, I am looking forward to obsessing about “deep work” in the next 2 weeks. After all, as Cal nicely puts it, “a deep life is a good life.”

Here’s to that.

16 life principles

Over the past weeks, I’ve been thinking of “principles” – ideas serves as fundamental truths. So, I decided to attempt to boil all my life related learning into 10 principles or ideas. While I couldn’t manage to boil them all down to 10 (maybe that’ll happen in another 20 years :)), here is my list of 16 –

1. There are 2 forces that shape our lives – our circumstances and our decisions. Our circumstances play a massive role in determining our impact on the world. If we’re blessed to have had the privilege of good circumstances (and, if you are reading this, the chances are high that that is true), we ought to treat that privilege with utmost humility and do our best to make it count.

2. We make decisions all the time and the nature of our decisions are shaped by our mindset. At any given moment, we can either choose to adopt a judging mindset (why am I so dumb? Why are they so stupid? What’s wrong with me?) or a learning mindset (what can I learn? What are my options?). The latter results in a much happier path.

3. Insecurity is the most powerful force on the planet. Our insecurities are the source of our drive, ego and any sort of desire to prove ourselves. Our ego is just our attempt at a shield that masks our insecurities. Every one of us has insecurities. The question that remains is whether we stay in the driving seat or let them drive us. Again, they could drive us to enormous wealth and power but it is very unlikely they will bring happiness.

4. Happiness is a by-product of a life where what we do is aligned with what we value and where we’ve learnt to keep perspective through life’s ups and downs. Perspective brings gratitude and that, in turn, brings happiness. Happiness, as a result, can’t be pursued and isn’t guaranteed on our birth certificate. It ensues from an approach to life that is deserving of it. And, it is also why the alignment of values, thoughts and actions are a thing of beauty.

5. If there was ever a secret to finding what we want, it is to simply strive to become deserving of it. To find a great job, be a great worker. To find great friendship, be a great friend. That is, of course, just one side of the puzzle. But, most importantly, it, “the process,” is the only part of the puzzle we control. In the long run, great processes lead to great results. All we can do, however, is give it our best shot and then let go.

6. Even with our best efforts, things (relationships, jobs, deals) may not work out, however – that’s because it still takes two hands to clap. Things work out when there is fit. Over time, we attract people and, thus, circumstances based on who we are. We demonstrate who we are by what we do. And, when we pursue relationships and engagements that fit with who we are, it is quite magical.
(A note on attracting people: in the long run, it is futile to attract people by attempting to be liked. Universal popularity is an oxymoron. All we can do is hope to be deserving of respect. Liking may follow.)

7. Fit underlines an important principle – our life is an exercise in picking people. At any point, our health, wealth, and happiness are likely to be the average of the 5 people we associate with. That is why it is vital we learn to pick people based on alignment with core values rather than other superficial traits – people who are similar on superficial traits will never challenge our thinking. Picking people requires us to continually hone our people judgment. And, once we get good at picking people, we have to then get good at keeping them – that requires character.

8. If there is one word that best describes people of character, it is, in my opinion, integrity. Integrity comes from the word integer – which means whole. To be whole as a human being requires us to be consistent – in our words and actions. Character, at the end of the day, comes down to one thing – our ability to make and keep commitments to ourselves and others. The integrative nature of character illustrates why dividing life into buckets such as work, personal, social, etc., is futile. How we approach one thing is how we approach everything.

9. It isn’t enough to make and keep commitments, though. Over time, we have to learn to pick the right commitments. Our ability to do that while keeping focused on our priorities is what defines our productivity. When we take actions that move us toward our priorities, we are productive. The rest is just activity. To be consistently productive, we need to combine focus (consistent prioritization or your “strategy”), intensity (what we commonly call focus or “tactics”) and hard work (execution). Good strategy, as a result, is simply making the best possible decision by being aware of the trade-offs involved.

10. If we do manage to do all of this, we become worthy leaders – of ourselves. Do more and we become worthy of leading other people. Leadership is simply caring more than the next person. And, leadership matters because great things are achieved by groups of people – teams. Learning to lead and manage teams, as a result, is as high value a skill as they come.

11. To be able to lead, i.e., care for the people around us, we must demonstrate ability to care for ourselves. We must sleep well, eat well, exercise well and nourish our minds with books and ideas. All of these help us maintain our willpower reserves, which, in turn, help us make good decisions. It is easy to lose track of these priorities in the daily grind. That’s why we need great habits.

12. Habits are life’s infrastructure. The better our habits, the easier it is to be effective. Again, the better our habits, the more we have access to our limited supply of willpower for the tough decisions that matter. Willpower matter so much because self-control is single highest determinant of the quality of our life.
Habits are built by developing a systems driven mindset that ignores short term goals. A 10 pound weight loss diet is a goal, exercising 3 times a week is a system.

13. Systems can only be developed with a willingness to embrace experimentation. Building habits that last the trials of time are hard. It requires us to test various approaches and, eventually, arrive at something that works for us. Failure is an essential part of experimentation. And, experimentation requires us to internalize the idea that “this might not work.”

14. Confidence is built on the idea of “this might not work” as it requires us to shun the easy, safe path. Confidence isn’t built on the belief that everything will work. It is built on the understanding that things will likely not work out and that will be just fine. Confidence requires an acceptance of this truth, the truth. As a result, the first true sign of confidence is vulnerability.

15. Vulnerability is difficult because it requires us to be comfortable with our fallibility. We are all, by default, a bundle of contradictions. That’s because every one of our strengths mirrors a weakness that can derail us. It is only with self-awareness can we understand this, accept this, and proceed to build a meaningful life. This building process requires us to constantly hone our self-control muscles because building a meaningful life requires us to consistently postpone immediate gratification and do what’s right for the long term. By definition, meaningful isn’t easy. But, it is worth it.

16. So, what does all this mean for our lives today? The best way we can bring this all together is that we must approach life as students of life. As students of life, we must take responsibility to design a life that’ll maximize our shot at leaving this place a bit better than we found it. Some days will be better than others. It is hard to tell which as we never really know if a good day is a good day. All we can do is be the best version of ourselves today, plan to be better tomorrow and ten years from now, and yet, listen to, hug, and celebrate people while we can today. We can live either nothing is a miracle or as if everything is a miracle – it is our choice.So, if we can go to bed every night knowing we gave it our best shot and being thankful for everything we have been given, we will have given ourselves and the world the most beautiful of gifts – a day well lived.

And, as we live our days, so we live our lives.


(a tag cloud of all the words in the post above courtesy – fitting that “people” takes top billing)

Doing it wrong, relentlessly

Every once a while, I am reminded of  a post from Seth Godin in 2012 – “Doing it wrong, relentlessly.”

Doing it wrong, relentlessly

According to this post by Neil Patel, I blog incorrectly–missing on at least 7 of his twelve rules.

On purpose.

I’m not writing to maximize my SEO or conversion or even my readership. I’m writing to do justice to the things I notice, to the ideas in my head and to the people who choose to read my work.

The interesting lesson: One way to work the system is to work the system. The other way is to refuse to work it.

I remember wading into the comments of the original post and had many thanking Neil for the great advice. After all, as a couple of the comments pointed out – “that’s easy for Seth to say. He has a blog with a few hundred thousand followers after all.”

I’ve reflected on this post a few times. Among the things it has taught me, two stand out.

First, we need to understand what we’re optimizing for. A few years back, I experimented spending a bit more effort publicizing these posts and carefully looking at my page views and analytics. These efforts barely lasted a week. Every aspect of my being seemed to reject it. I learned quickly that I wasn’t interested in optimizing those things. Now, of course, the results would be great to have. 🙂 I would, of course, love it if these notes resonated with many more people. But, I wasn’t ready to try and maximize it by investing time into self promotion. It just wasn’t/isn’t me. Besides, time is scarce and I’d rather spend the extra time making sure my post for the day is clear and concise.

Second, there is a huge market for easy-to-implement advice. Easy-to-implement advice often assumes certain things about what you are trying to do. Seth’s blog is not remarkable because he writes a certain way or keeps his posts to a certain length. It is remarkable because he’s written, and shared, every single day for more than two decades. That isn’t easy advice as a receiver. It is much easier to be happy with advice that says there are just 12 things you need to do every time you post.

But, as I’ve come to realize, good things are always hidden among the hard things.

what comes easy won't last long and what lasts long won't come easy, blogging, doing it wrong

There’s always something

I was preparing for an important meeting and a collection of things seemed to be falling off the rails. And, I found myself wondering what my output might have been if all the conditions had been perfect.

That’s when I thought about some of the other important presentations I’ve had to do in the past – and, you know what, there was always… something. Just looking at the last 3-4 months – I was sick with a bad throat during my final exams in my spring quarter and rushing to travel back home in my finals in the winter quarter (all student examples – sorry :-)).

There’s always something. We can dream about striking that perfect balance all we want. But, for the most part, we spend all our time in the “balancing.” The only trustworthy indicator of our performance level is our performance on a bad day.

So, if you get that opportunity to perform on your best day with perfect conditions, revel in it. It doesn’t happen often. But, when it does, it is magical.

On the other hand, if you feel most things are going wrong as you enter that important presentation, welcome to life. This is how we get made.

Ben Horowitz on adding value and not following your passion

As I’ve written here, I don’t generally watch videos of talks as I think they’re largely a waste of time. However, Ben Horowitz is an exception. Every bit of content I’ve read or watched from him has been incredibly high quality. His blog is fantastic and his book, The Hard Thing about Hard Things, is the closest I’ve seen a book come to an entrepreneur’s bible. So, I did what a fan would and jumped on watching this 16 minute video during breakfast yesterday as I just expected it to be really good. And, it was.

These are my three lessons from his talk.

1. Think for yourself because you add value to the world when you bring to life a belief that no one believes to be true. This was the story of Brian Chesky at AirBnB. He believed that we would rent a mattress in our home to strangers. While most people thought this was absurd as you could be housing a serial killer, he did 2 things. First, he ran an experiment at home and it turned out to be just fine. Next, he dug into why hotel chains exist. He soon realized that hotel chains are a fairly recent invention. In the old days, people stayed at inns. However, these inns had too much variability as you could have some very bad experiences at some inns. He realized that, with the internet, information and reviews could make this transparent and enable people to choose well. It is that insight that’s led to a company valued over a billion dollars.

2. Don’t follow your passion. You don’t know what you are passionate about. And, besides, passions change. Start with what you are good at – you’ll get to passion. (More on this thanks to Cal Newport’s excellent book on the subject here)

3. A period of great opportunities. Yes, there’s global warming, terrorism and many bad things happening all over the world. But, there’s also the following facts (a few of the many he cited) –
– the number of people in extreme poverty today is the lowest it has ever been and one-fifth of what it was in 1900
– child labor is in steep decline and fell 1/3rd between 2011 and 2012
– expenditure of food as a % of income fallen in half since 1960
– Life expectancy has increased and we have grown taller (a measure of nutrition) oin the last 100 years
– Worldwide battlefield deaths are down, violent crime and global supply of nuclear weapons, also, are down
– In 2014, carbon emissions were flat for the first time in the last decade

There are still issues but you have technology available to you as a tool for change. But, if you contribute and think for yourself, you will be the generation that unlocks human potential.

Fantastic, as always. Thanks Ben.

The bigger accident superstition

I have a little superstition that someone (I think it might be my mom) once passed on to me. I was told that every time something bad happens, it is a gift because it is a sign that something much worse has been averted.

So, when I damaged my computer keyboard 2 weeks ago by spilling water all over it, my immediate reaction was to thank the heavens that it was only my keyboard. According to my bigger accident belief, it was a small accident that was far better than something worse, i.e, spending $200 to replace my keyboard vs. having to replace my entire laptop.

This little belief goes a long way in easing many a painful situation by simply transforming it. While I naturally think about what needs to be done to fix it, the pain of a situation is immediately replaced by a sense of relief that it wasn’t any worse. That sense of relief is accompanied by a third person’s perspective – I realize very quickly that most of my problems are simply first world problems. They may be painful but, in the big scheme of things, all is well.

And, when you learn to see misfortunes as temporary and, thanks to this weird little belief, even positive, I have found that you appreciate the bumps and bends in the road. They’re just a sign that all is well.

As they say, a bend in the road isn’t an end in the road… unless you fail to take a turn.

PS: Thanks mom (or whoever that good Samaritan was) for sharing that idea.