NYC

Glimpse of NYC in the first week of COVID-19 shutdown

I went for a long walk outside today (March 21, 2020). The city was dead – it really was dystopian. The usual bustle, laughter and air of happiness signalling the beginning of a weekend was replaced by somber grim faces of the few people who stepped outside their houses to battle the stuffiness that comes with staying indoors. The smell of the wind wasn’t one of sweat, food, dust, and occasional coolness, that comes with the onset of Spring on a beautiful Saturday March morning in NYC. The wind smelled of disease, frustration, sickness, and occasionally even death. The cause was COVID-19.

I planned on walking for half an hour and then getting home to write a book I’ve been working on. However, the rare quietness outside on the streets, along with listening to Sam Harris talk about the illusory self put me in a meditative state of mind, and my legs carried me to Central Park. I felt light, and was aware of my body sensations. I was reminded of my meditation camp in Delaware, where I did a 10-day silent sit in June 2019. I thought of how wonderful it would be to live in a city or area where I could walk out and find solace in nature, where my thoughts could be clear, where I could feel calm on my walks. I thought once again of leaving New York City, or at least the area in which I currently live. I loved the serenity of walking through a quiet road, although I wished for more happiness to be injected into the environment.

I found some happiness in Central Park. Dog-walkers, joggers, cyclists, babies, couples, birds, and pink trees. It struck me how happy the birds seemed to be; they were flying in a freer-er manner amidst fewer humans in the park. Unfazed by the suffering of humans worldwide, the trees swayed and displayed the full glow of their pink and yellow flowers. The sun’s radiation pierced through my sun and I thought of how sad it is be trapped indoors. Humans are deeply social and crave freedom. Both of these values are being taken away from us at a time like this. But humans are also very adaptable, and we will fight through this. We will overcome this, and emerge stronger. 

Philosophy

On Death and the Shortness of Life

My father passed away in 2012. I have never gone on record to say this. In fact, a lot of my close friends who did not know me at that period in my life may not actually know about this. I never bring it up, and even if someone asks about my parents, I just say that they live in India (I live in NYC), and that is the end of the conversation. In reality, it took me 7 years to fully accept it, and now I am less hesitant to talk about it.

My father’s death has had the single biggest impact on my life so far. Seeing death so close to me made me realize the shortness of life, and pushed me to enhance my life in the ways I want to live it. In some ways, it made me more awake and alive to chart the path I want to tread on. It made me realize the urgency with which I should be crafting my life my way. It’s easy to lose this intensity as life goes on, but as soon as I look at my Dad’s picture on my window sill, I am reminded of my purpose again. Even so, it’s difficult to put into practice many times.

The reason I’m prompted to write this post is because I just heard the news of my uncle’s death. I couldn’t stop crying for a bit, but then I felt a strong urge to write this to remind myself and others of the brevity of life. While I’m writing this as a means to cope with the news, I also want to tell people (including myself) that death can come anytime, so please live your life with a sense of urgency. Live it with some purpose. Don’t let your life be hollow. I don’t have well-written thoughts on how to do it, so I’m going to quote the best source (Robert Greene) that I read from time to time on this subject.

“When we unconsciously disconnect ourselves from the awareness of death, we forge a particular relationship to time – one that is rather loose and distended. We come to imagine that we always have more time than is the reality. We must think of our mortality as a kind of continual deadline. We must stop fooling ourselves: we could die tomorrow, and even if we live for another eighty years, it is but a drop in the ocean of the vastness of time, and it passes always more quickly than we imagine. We have to awaken to this reality and make it a continual meditation.

Let the awareness of the shortness of life clarify our daily actions. We have goals to reach, projects to get done, relationships to improve. This could be our last such project, our last battle on Earth, given the uncertainties of life, and we must commit completely to what we do. With this continual awareness we can see what really matters, how petty squabbles and side pursuits are irritating distractions. We want that sense of fulfillment that comes from getting things done. We want to lose the ego in that feeling of flow, in which our minds are at one with what we are working on.

In the end, think of this philosophy in the following terms: Since the beginning of human consciousness, our awareness of death has terrified us. This terror has shaped our beliefs, our religion, our institutions, and so much of our behavior in ways we cannot see or understand. We humans have become slaves to our fears and our evasions.

When we turn this around, becoming more aware of our mortality, we experience a taste of true freedom. We no longer feel the need to restrict what we think and do, in order to make life predictable. We can be more daring without feeling afraid of the consequences. We can cut loose from all the illusions and addictions that we employ to numb our anxiety. We can commit fully to our work, to our relationships, to all our actions. And once we experience some of this freedom, we will want to explore further and expand our possibilities as far as time will allow us.”

There are not too many people who read my blog and this was penned down rather quickly, but I will be glad if this message makes even a few people live their lives with more vigor, energy and fearlessness.

Global Problems, NYC

New York Diaries (Harassment on the Streets)

Note: The below is a true story that occurred near Times Square just ~1.5 weeks ago. I write this for one main reason: I was both confused and shocked that no one stopped to help the women in distress. We were in one of the most crowded parts of New York City, and everyone was either a bystander or just walked past as if nothing happened. In retrospect, I think I should have called 911 much earlier instead of waiting for things to stabilize. Lesson learned for next time.

–xx–

The noise on the streets drowned the howling of the woman in front of me. She was dressed in all black, a true New Yorker ready to roll in high spirits on a Thursday night. Her high-waisted jeans were a tight fit for her round hips which surely drew some lustful eyeballs. A black leather jacket and a tiny black purse slung over her shoulder gave her a look of boldness and femininity at the same time, and the contrasting styles further added to her attraction.

Striding along in my New Yorker pace, I clearly heard the wailing this time around. A burly unshaven man about 5 inches taller than the woman pulled her once neatly braided hair so hard, that I nearly jumped up and screamed. His fashion sense was as deplorable as hers was admirable. His khakhis were only half tucked into what looked like rugged snow boots, and his mismatched over-sized jacket hung loose on his broad shoulders.

“Leave her alone!” came the bellowing fierce voice of another woman, who desperately tried to not reveal the fear lacing her tone. She was a stout bulky woman, with a squished nose that almost seemed to sink into her face. Her short braided locks swung in the air as she leapt forward to yank her friend from the grips of this man.

“You come with me. Don’t go home with this man,” she pleaded to her friend. And right the next moment, she turned her full body towards the man and trying to stand tall so as to not look like a joke in front of him, she stared him right in the eyes, and with a stern but also begging note to her voice, she said, “You bother her once more and I’mma call the police on you.”

Jeeringly, the man calmly stood his ground without eliciting any emotion or removing his gaze from her eyes. The stout lady seemed unsettled, but she had to look brave if she even stood a remote chance of saving her friend. Continuing to stare at her face, he snatched her phone from her hand, and flung it onto the streets. Taken aback, she only managed to let out a hopeless scream.

“Try calling them cops now,” he mocked, and grabbing the victim lady by the shoulder, he jostled her forward to indicate that they should get moving. At this point, another lanky man with a cap covering his head, and sweatpants that hung too low on his waist, walked up to the friend in an attempt to provide support, but proved to be quite useless. He knew the other three and seemed to belong to the group, but had been merely standing on the sidelines laughing and watching the drama unfold before his eyes. He laughed and mumbled to himself, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do!” almost as if he was consoling himself for being such a coward.

The phone incident zapped me out of my trance. I stood frozen on the sidelines and watched in horror as this incident unraveled before me. I felt helpless and unsure of what to do. Should I jump in? Let me give it another minute and see if the situation stabilizes. Maybe it’s just a small thing and they will all be fine the next moment. But it seems more serious than that! Hold on, why isn’t anyone else stopping by to help? Am I crazy for standing here and watching and even contemplating to offer help? Surely someone else must care too, right? We are right next to Times Square, and several people have passed by, but no one seems to bat an eyelid. Maybe this is just how things are in New York. But you shouldn’t be this way. Go help her! This internal monologue raced through my head.

A passerby retrieved the stout lady’s phone and she raced forward to catch up to the man and her friend. I scurried along by her side and asked, “Can I help please?”

“No, thank you, we are good” she responded with a faint smile.

How were they good?! How can I help? What am I supposed to do? I looked around and noticed shopkeepers standing by their glass doors watching the scenes as if it were a TV show. Is this a common occurrence such that these locals seem unflinched? Am I making a big deal of this? Should I just forget about this and go home? I can’t just stand here – I have to get going with my life. This last thought is probably what most of the passerbys’ thought of as they strutted along. No one wanted to get their hands dirty in what seemed like a messy domestic abuse situation. No one has the time to help a stranger. What an absurd thought even!

No, I can’t just leave these helpless women to be beaten up.

I went up to the lanky friend and almost pleaded him to help. “You know them. Please intervene. He can’t treat them this way. Go help. Please!”

He tilted his head back and laughed uncomfortably. “I only came to drink with them and have a good time. I don’t know what’s happening. Haha. I don’t know what to do.” And he continued to laugh probably hoping it would somehow cover his balls of cotton. (pardon the language)

“Aaaaah!” The lady in black was on the ground and in clear distress. Her face wreaked of defeat. The man looked down at her and he was furious this time. I swear he could have killed her. “You want to go with her? Then go! Don’t come back to me, in that case.”

“Nooo. I’ll come with you” she managed to let out faintly through her mourning. Her friend was by her side by now; lifting her off the ground with one hand and shoving the man with the other, she was a true hero. “Yes, leave this rotten man and come with me” she told her friend and she dialed a number on her phone. But the man was too quick once again and her phone went hurling out in the middle of the street. He threw it so hard that the crowd finally took notice and there was an inkling of a commotion. The man dragged the sobbing lady and they walked ahead, with the friend right behind them.

I paced forward to help, and noticed another girl who looked like she was in her early thirties, doing the same thing. She was smart enough to be watching the incident from inside a storefront, unlike me who stood right in the middle of this scene and faced the dangers of also being attacked by this whimsical man. My friend later told me I should have been more careful.

The other girl and I both looked at each other and halted at the intersection. She was dialing 911 and pressed the green call button. I looked at her encouragingly. At that moment, I took a right and walked towards my apartment. My heart was pounding and I was still shaking as I entered the comforts of my building.

Mental Models

Seeing vs. Making Reality

The most challenging part about being an experienced investor is uncovering your biases about how an industry or a company should work. In other words, the challenge is to be able to see reality objectively and for what it is and not what you want it to be. I refer to “experienced” investors in particular because experience makes you more susceptible to projecting your previous biases and mental models around how things should be, instead of objectively evaluating how things actually are. (Side note: This is true of life in general. Experience is both a boon and a curse – it allows you to learn from the past, but it also takes away the freshness and novelty of a beginner’s mind.)

For example, building financial models based on how you think the company should work might be the part that trips investors. You project financial models based on what industry benchmarks are, where you think the company can be more efficient, and what your thoughts around growth are. But in the midst of all of this, you may fail to see reality for what it is. You may fail to understand the actual reasons behind a company’s performance and that the growth trajectory may not be the one that you hold in your head. As such, you will end up making poor investment decisions and being intellectually dishonest.
Great investors are able to see reality for what it is. They are able to think and invest in an objective manner.

On the other hand, being an entrepreneur means making the reality you want. It requires a balance of dreaming and being realistic at the same time. Entrepreneurs hold dreams of the reality they want, and then go out there and make that reality come true. So, how do they make this “reality come true”? Ironically enough, creating your own reality requires embracing reality. (Now I’m sure I’ve confused you, so let me explain.)

I’m not saying that successful entrepreneurs are realistic. In fact, some of the greatest entrepreneurs probably think in the most “unrealistic” way (i.e. Steve Jobs). But I do think that they are very objective about what it takes to accomplish their seemingly unrealistic dreams. In other words, they dream unrealistically, but accomplish realistically. 

To sum it up, I think the difference between an investor vs. an entrepreneur’s frame of mind may be that one (investor) sees reality whereas the other (entrepreneur) makes reality.

This brings me to the point that the common thread between great investors and entrepreneurs is objectivity. And I believe this translates to all areas of life. One of the keys to greatness lies in training yourself to do everything in an objective manner. Again, it does not mean not killing your craziest dreams and fantasies – it means being realistic about what it takes to achieve those dreams and then going out there and doing it!

Societal musings

1984 and Brave New World Revisited

In the foreword to Neil Postman’s highly relevant and rigorously constructed tome Amusing Ourselves to Death, Adam Postman argues that it’s not the Orwellian prophecy, but the Huxleyian prophecy that rang true. He writes, “Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore their technologies that undo their capacities to think.”

While this is largely true, I argue that both prophecies have come true. To see this, we need to recognize “Big Brother” in the context of the modern world. In the age of capitalism where the government has failed to solve the problems plaguing society, large corporations (mostly tech firms) have stepped in to fill the void. Much like the government, these tech firms promise consumers an easier life with minimal friction. Tech behemoths such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple have come to occupy the role of Big Brother in Orwell’s world and often times deprive us of our “autonomy, maturity and history.” By hijacking our attention spans and brain space, they have struck at the epicenter of all reason and deprived us of our “capacities to think.”

But it’s not just external oppression. People too have come to love these technologies that numb their minds, thereby validating Huxley’s prophecy.

In other words, the “oppression” and “technologies” that Huxley refers to is modern day “Big Brother” or the “externally imposed oppression” as posited by Orwell.

“We have indeed been overcome by an externally imposed oppression by being slaves to our technologies but alas we have come to love their oppression in this age of no reason.” (Thomas Paine)