2019 has been one of the most complicated and frustrating years of my life. I’ve found the complications and frustrations highly rewarding, albeit emotionally draining. 2019 has forced me to question some of my most fundamental beliefs and values, things I’ve taken for granted as true or good throughout my life.
This is my 3rd annual Codex Vitae and this year I will write about:
- Superpowers acquired
- Other things learned/noticed
- Things I did well
- Things I failed at
- Things I developed a different perspective about
- People, Books, and Resources that enriched my life for the better
- Things I will not do in the next decade
- A short review of the 2010s
1. Superpowers acquired
1. Taming the Trolls:
No one’s ever really ready for a troll — Eoin Colfer
Stay cool is the netiquette rule if flamed. Responding is for a fool — David Chiles
I’ve had to deal with trolls & bullies on multiple fronts this year. As someone who is naturally pugnacious and welcomes conflict as a healthy human need, I don’t take too kindly to being threatened. I usually clinically cut the cord and walk away or respond in kind. But this year I found myself in uncharted territory.
Professional, personal, and karmic debts have to be settled. Oversights in communication & record-keeping, misalignment of expectations, unconscious incompetence, all come home to roost. I was in some way responsible for the situations I found myself in.
2019 gave me the opportunity as well as the need to channel my inner Chris Voss, Marshall Rosenberg, and Mohandas Gandhi in their full glory. Through extremely uncomfortable conversations, sometimes by repeating what was said, sometimes by asking ‘How do I do that?’, sometimes by acknowledging and expressing unmet needs, and sometimes by simply not reacting, I steadfastly managed to blunt most of the damage the bullies sought to inflict.
Engaging with trolls is the real-life equivalent of bearing the burden of the One Ring on the journey to Mordor. It leaves you wounded and pushes you one step closer to the darkness of cynicism with every encounter; even though you may thrive and keep getting better at taming them. It helps if you have a fellowship to guide you through the journey. I’m grateful for mine.
2. Tactical Empathy:
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. — Atticus Finch
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. — F. Scott Fitzgerald
I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.” — Charlie Munger
While disagreeing vehemently and pursuing the exact opposite viewpoint, the ability to see clearly why the viewpoint makes rational sense to another person is a superpower.
We must pursue this line of thought and action is not just to get to what seems fair and true north. This approach helps shape the understanding of fair and true north. It created the opportunity to frame an outcome as win-win that otherwise may have felt like lose-lose.
This is a superpower because it needs one to put aside one’s ego for a bit; be victorious over oneself; then come back from the out of body experience and do what needs to be done.
The only other thing that comes close to this in the physical world, is Discipline. Discipline is the victory of your mind over your body; Tactical Empathy is the victory of your mind over your mind.
3. Finding treasures in everything:
It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye. — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
My 4-year-old daughter re-initiated me into the wondrous world of viewing things invisible to the eye earlier in the year when we went treasure hunting in the rains — Looking at snails and earthworms through the cardboard tube of a toilet paper roll.
We even mistook a slightly far away placed pile of dog poo for a nugget of gold.
It reminded me of the poem — Uses of Sorrow.
Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift. — Mary Oliver
While I’ve generally been a proponent of ‘Whatever happens, happens for the best’, 2019 was the year when I genuinely felt wired differently; when I went chasing for opportunity in disaster; when I internalized The Obstacle is the Way doctrine.
My Twitter bio used to read — Embrace your serendipities. This year I changed it to Embrace your serendipities and zemblanities.
Both are gifts.
2. Other things learned/noticed
1. Agency & Ownership:
I’ve been exposed to the concepts of Agency and Ownership for the better part of this decade. Separately.
Agency is one’s power to affect reality to one’s will. When one is told that something is impossible, is it the end of the conversation, or is the trigger to a new conversation in one’s mind about what one can do to make it possible?
Ownership is doing everything necessary to exercise and translate one’s agency in reality.
In isolation, Agency helps one see and create possibilities, and Ownership helps one get things done. When combined, these traits create effective leadership (Figuring out what needs to be done and then getting it done).
Once you start grasping Agency and Ownership, the world changes around you; in a way or more it starts bending to your will.
This articulation of Agency and Ownership is important also for those who grasp and practice them intuitively. It helps immensely in spreading these competencies; especially when seeking to level up our teams.
Whenever someone on one’s team is struggling at something or stagnating, it is usually because of a lack of one or both of these traits. Helping them build their Agency and Ownership in the universe can help them, you, your organization, and mankind at large tremendously.
2. Make the Ask:
Early on in my career, I was bad at making asks clearly and directly. Maybe it was conditioning (always be a giver, not a taker), fear (of rejection), worry (will the other person get offended), or other things. When one is bad at making asks directly and clearly, one experiences it as — ‘The other person / the world doesn’t get me.’ ‘I do so much and there isn’t any appreciation for it.’ ‘The other person or the world is not fair to me.’
The reality is that the other person or the world has no idea what one is going through or what one wants, and hence cannot help one without a clear ask.
This is as much applicable to investor relations as it is to domestic partnerships.
The ability to make a clear, concise, direct ask is a superpower
3. The inverse of Hanlon’s Razor:
Hanlon’s Razor states that — One should never attribute to malice, that which can be sufficiently explained by stupidity, ignorance, or incompetence. I’ve found myself and others increasingly weaponize Hanlon’s Razor to justify or hide some of our shortcomings. For example — It is very easy to deflect and attribute any criticism to the other person not knowing (being ignorant of) my realities. So while one is not attributing it to malice, one is not doing anything to genuinely address the underlying issue either. And also taking the moral high ground. This behavior is even more insidious than not practicing Hanlon’s Razor.
So I’m going to add an addendum to Hanlon’s Razor.
One should never attribute to malice, that which can be sufficiently explained by stupidity, ignorance, or incompetence.
One should never attribute to Hanlon’s Razor that which can be sufficiently explained by one’s own shortcomings.
4. Span of Collaboration:
Span of Collaboration must exist as a concept; the way Span of Control exists as a management concept. Essentially principles for collaboration — Factors that affect it, is there a Dunbar number equivalent, does it change based on the nature of the collaboration at hand, optimal levels of Communication, Consensus, and Conflict for collaboration to be effective? If anyone knows of a good treatise or any literature on the subject, I would love to see that. I want to research and write about this time and bandwidth permitting. (See how I completely gave up my Agency and Ownership in the last sentence there?)
5. Successive Iterations:
We studied Numerical Analysis methods in Engineering. There were Direct (Gaussian Elimination, QR decomposition, et al) as well as Iterative methods (Newton Raphson, Bisection, Jacobian iteration, et al) to find roots of continuous functions. While direct methods gave precise answers in a finite number of steps, the iterative methods made successive approximations to reach an acceptable solution with a small error function.
As engineers who build complex software, we have to build precise, zero-defect systems. As people who work with other people, and have to deal with messy, gooey emotions, we have to iterate and approximate to an ideal state which may be unique for every individual who we work with. But very often, we treat people as precise, zero-defect systems and interact in binary states. Either she/he gets it or doesn’t, whereas we should be looking at it as a spectrum.
The best way of getting there is through successive iterations. eg: Encourage (and appreciate) any movement in the desired direction, don’t be tough till / wait for the end state.
This approach has helped me achieve things that have frustrated me in the past (like being disciplined about exercising), appreciate better those who work with me, and develop a mindset that given time, patience, and movement in the right direction it will be possible to achieve any goal.
I learned to play the ukulele this year. Can play a basic octave and the 4 chords, but that is enough to be able to sing lots of songs to.
3. Things I did well this year
This was probably the only 2019 goal that I succeeded at. I was a much more present and hands-on father this year. More importantly, my 4YO has become a young precocious lady who I am very proud of. I chronicle my journey as a father at https://levelupsam.blogspot.com in case anyone is more interested in this.
2019 was all about tough negotiations and triaging. Yours truly did pretty decently well. Our platform team delivered an incredible 100+ releases while launching new products, the India team quintupled in size, the Autonomous team started testing our driverless vehicles on public roads among other things. We will end 2019 at least 2X or more vs. 2018 on almost every business metric that matters. Despite a few setbacks, it has been satisfying to see Ridecell grow the way it has in 2019 and I’m extremely grateful to the teams who make it happen day in and day out.
3. Driving :
I finally got a left-hand drive driving license this year after 3 failed driving tests. And trust me, it took a village to get me past the finish line. I also drove the family everywhere including Yosemite. This was one of my seemingly insignificant but big wins of the year.
4. Open Mic:
I performed (sang) at my first open mic night thanks to Atman pulling a ‘Are you Chicken?’ on me. It was fun. I rocked.
5. Deadlifts & Exercising:
I discovered deadlifts this year and can safely say that despite still being on the heavier side of things, 2019 is the strongest and healthiest I’ve been this past decade. I’ve also been more on the right side of exercising this year than on the wrong. Deadlifts have helped me tremendously with my backache and I intend to do more than 2,500 with my 52.5 lbs dumbbell in 2020. Similarly, I intend to do more than 10,000 pushups in 2020.
6. Other things:
I got published in CIO magazine this year, was one of the 18 global finalists at the FIA Smart Cities Global Startup Contest, and recorded my first couple of podcasts (yet to be published) this year.
4. Things I failed at
1. Being a good nephew and cousin:
My aunt passed away this year. I didn’t realize how bad her health was until the end. I didn’t make it to her final rites or meet my cousin (her only son) either for about 6 months after her passing. My aunt was one of the many amazing women who had raised me, and my cousin is the only brother I had for the first 10 years of my life.
That I wasn’t there for my aunt or my cousin when they needed me the most, gnaws at me, and will probably gnaw at me for the rest of my life. I feel like a terrible nephew and cousin.
2. Every 2019 goal other than fatherhood:
I didn’t write, create, or manage my health enough. On writing and creating I’ve fared much worse than my most pessimistic expectations. I’ve been good with exercising in the second half of the year but my eating and sleeping habits need significant improvement.
5. Things I have developed a new perspective about
1. Articulation of Planning and Goal Setting:
If you are reading this, you’ve likely heard of Simon Sinek and Start with Why. The problem is that while we know this, we seldom implement it.
Much of what is called strategic planning and goal setting articulates the What (Have) and the How (Do). Once the Vision is set, the Why (Be) is not often thought of. Unless there is a shake-up of a fortunate or unfortunate kind, reviews, planning, and goal setting tend to be an iterative process that is a continuation of what we’ve done in the past without much consideration for the Why.
We do this because we are creatures of habit. Our habits have helped us get to where we are in life. The reptilian survival-focused part of our brain likes the routine and feeling of certainty and security that continuity brings.
This Codex Vitae is an example of that approach of thinking.
But, as human beings or as corporate organizations, we are not built for stasis. Stasis leads to death. Our body of knowledge, our abilities — both physical and mental, our environments, and our motivations change at regular intervals. Our Why changes more often than we think it does. To ignore or disabuse it is a waste of potential energy and a precursor to stasis.
We must hence articulate and weave into planning the Why (Be) just as much as the What and the How if not more.
A meaningful part of life or organization must change fundamentally every period; that change must be articulated well; the articulation must stem from the Why (Be) before delving in the What (Have) and the How (Do).
2. Safe Spaces:
We’re running out of safe spaces.
With every additional responsibility, with every increment in your sphere of influence, your safe-space surface area keeps reducing; you have to be more careful about what you say, what you do, how it will be perceived, how it will be weaponized against you and whatever it is you represent.
I also used to be tacitly okay with the idea that this is the collateral damage one has to suffer for all the other good things that life gives.
I’ve changed my mind about this. Everyone must have the right to express themselves without the fear of it being weaponized against themselves or whoever they represent. Any attempt to stifle this right must be resisted and fought back against. The more accommodating one is about this, the more freedom of expression will be curbed by trolls who cannot digest political incorrectness. And such trolls exist in all spheres of life across political spectrums.
So now, the antifragile lashing out of President Trump or the stoic silence of Prime Minister Modi makes so much more sense. Both are managing trolls in the manner they know best.
We’re running out of Safe Spaces. And we must bring them back. We must be able to speak our minds; without having to be standup comedians or being labeled for speaking our minds.
3. Being right about anything:
We all grow up with a moral compass. About what is right, what is wrong. Everyone has a unique compass. And as we go through life, the compass evolves with us. There are some things on it that are absolutely black or white and some things that are on the greyscale. True North and Magnetic North to stay with the metaphor.
Honesty good, Dishonesty bad; Happiness good, Grief bad; Growth good, Stagnation bad; Peace good, War bad. These are simplistic and have multiple exceptions or edge cases where they may not be true.
But there are things where it is well nigh inconceivable to think of an alternative course of action as being correct. Even for those, we should think of alternative possibilities.
For example, my parents will always have my best interest at heart / I will have my child’s best interest at heart and hence have the right advice/know the right course of action.
We must consider the opposite viewpoint, understand the context, figure out motives before we take it for granted as true.
6. People, Books, and Resources that enriched my life for the better
I have a debt of gratitude to settle with Neil Gaiman. Neil has been an invisible hand in my life for over 10 years now. A Neil Gaiman quote, book, tweet, or course has unfailingly presented itself to me without my asking, whenever I’ve needed one; be it a painful heartbreak or be it a light moment of inspiration or be it a wretched writer’s block. For me, Neil is the Djinn of his October tale from A Calendar of Tales.
One of the big perks of my work is random collisions with incredibly cool people.
This year I had the dumb fortune of telling President Felipe Calderon of Mexico that I cannot share the financials of my company with him. He was gracious to pose for a photo with me even after that.
I also had the opportunity to show Jean Todt how our shared mobility software and electric scooters work. As someone who cheered for him and Michael Schumacher during every F1 race in the early 2000s, this was a big fanboy moment for me.
I also had the good fortune of meeting some amazing founders. A couple of things I’ve found common among them is how calm they are and how willing they are to help.
Tammy Sanders — Ridecell’s Director of Learning & Development is a joy to work with. I wish everyone the good fortune of working with professionals like Tammy.
I’ve drastically cut down on the number of books I read over the past two years.
I’ve also noticed that my share of books related to biology and medicine is going up over the past two years. Stiff: The curious life of human cadavers, Lifespan, and Deep Medicine were the best human body related books I read in 2019.
Last, Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Result was the best work of fiction that I read this year.
- Mirra Chair: This is a great ergonomic chair that has helped me immensely with my backache. Pretty darn expensive, so bought a used one; pretty darn expensive, even after that, but considering how much time one spends sitting, it seems worth the expense.
- Height adjustable desk: Same reason for purchase. This desk is awesome because it is almost half the price of similar height-adjustable desks and gets the job done amazingly well.
- Aerophone Go: I stopped playing the Saxophone around 15 years ago because I was terrible and the instrument was way too loud for the liking of my apartment complex. Being able to play the Sax again with the output being sent to earphones and anyone else not being bothered with the noise has been the most exhilarating experience of the year for me. I can now play the Sax at 2 in the night, something I had never dreamed of.
- Thera Gun / Muscle massager Gun: When one starts lifting weights and does deadlifts, stretching and keeping the muscles limber is very important. These things pack a mean punch and pulverize a muscle deep and nice to keep it from getting stiff. There are different makes and models of this device. You should figure what works best for you. The noisy ones are cheaper than the silent ones.
- Masterclass: This is one company I wish I had started. The lessons, although not very hands-on or technical in nature, have an amazing production value and the folks teaching the classes are the best at what they do. Masterclass was running a BOGO offer, perfect for learning couples.
7. Things I will not do in the next decade
This year, I thought that an inversion based approach is a better way of articulating what is important to me. Not sure if it will work the way I want it to.
But before I talk about these things, I want to be clear that these are things I’ve been working on for some time now, in some cases months, in some cases years. This is about making these things part of the lifestyle.
Anyone planning to adopt any resolutions or disown any behaviors on December 31st or Jan 1st is likely to fail, but with 365 days of practice, experimentation, some wins, and some setbacks, one may be able to succeed the year after.
As I said, successive iterations, small approximations.
1. Eat Sugar:
I have an incredibly sweet tooth and am bad at controlling my sugar intake. But sugar is definitely in the same league as tobacco and we should all minimize our intake of sugar. There are many other alternatives — Stevia, Splenda, Erythritol to name a few for those like me who must indulge their sweet tooth.
The key things that work when I’ve successfully avoided sugar are 1. managing my environment to avoid access to sugar & sugar-rich products and 2. making sure I sleep enough and balance work. The desperation to eat something sweet is highest when the brain is functioning in a depleted state.
2. Let my exercise routine falter:
Small steps, one pushup, one deadlift at a time help stay on the wagon wheel. The plan is to do over 10,000 pushups and 2,500 deadlifts in 2020.
3. Neglect my creative pursuits:
I plan to write anywhere between 12 to 52 short stories in 2020. 12 is the base case for 1 every month. 52 is for 1 every week if something magical happens. I will keep you posted on the progress. The more important goal is to stretch the mind and develop the writing muscle once again.
4. Read any Non-Fiction (2020 only):
The 2010s gave me lots of worldly wisdom, knowledge, and skill. In return, they took away my creativity. I’m going to change that in 2020. I plan to read only fiction and live in the worlds of the likes of P.G. Wodehouse and Neil Gaiman this coming year.
8. Review of my 2010s
Other than losing two members of my immediate family (90-year-old grandfather in 2010, and 59-year-old aunt in 2019), and a painful heartbreak at the beginning of the decade, the 2010s have been really kind to me and my family.
Got married to a beautiful girl, became a father to an incredibly precocious 4 year old, started businesses and companies, traveled the world, moved across countries, earned some money and hopefully a lot more goodwill, learned more than I ever imagined I could, kept many friendships made prior to the 2010s intact — some in fact much deeper and stronger now, discovered some of my power to affect the universe, and cultivated a very healthy optimism and ambition for myself and the world at large.
On the flip side, I have a chronic backache (fortunately it keeps me motivated to exercise regularly and stay in good shape), weigh 20 pounds more than I would like, and have lost 10 years of creative pursuit — didn’t focus on writing or making music at all.
I would rate my 2010s a solid 7.5/10.
I look forward to what lies ahead for humankind and me in the coming year and decade; with the same awe, wonder, and optimism that has helped me through the 2000s and 2010s.