I happily embraced the surprising fall weather on the fifth day of this month as I stepped out of my house without any stockings. My morning entailed reading the last chapter of Hiking with Nietzsche, entitled “Become Who You Are.” As I began my hike towards my workplace, my thoughts naturally gravitated towards what it means to “just be” and to embrace existence. Why is it that Buddha’s philosophies keep making that eternal return? Or should we call them eternal constant?
As I trudged down the street, I habitually pulled out my phone to listen to a podcast. But my thoughts wandered to Cal Newport’s ideas on solitude and I knew I wasn’t listening to Ezra Klein’s serious conversation with Ralph Nader. Perhaps listening to a lighter conversation would help and so I switched to another podcast.
After less than 2 minutes, I yanked my earphones out of my ears, took my hands out of my jacket pocket and just decided to walk a confident steady stride. I observed almost every person I crossed, my mind trying to decipher their thoughts in that 5 second glance. I can count on one hand the number of people who were not staring at their phone screens or plugged in. And I passed by a lot of people as I walked across one of the busiest roads and busiest times of the day in the Big Apple. It was 8:40am in Midtown during office rush.
Even the ones who were not plugged in or having a moment with their phones seemed frazzled and anxious. Two people from that entire walk made eye contact with me and even those were momentary awkward glances.
With a serene grave expression on my face, I observed and walked in my happy pace. I was not trying to be “productive” for 20 minutes of my walking. And yet, this walk will make me more productive for 6 hours.
Beaming at the security guard, I entered the towering 9 West office building and stepped into the elevator with four others. Three were on their phones. One looked terribly anxious and another feigned a confident expression. There was one other woman who did not pull out her phone and I could sense that her thoughts echoed mine (at least a bit) as she watched the others. However, she too gave into moments of weakness. Not knowing what to do, she stared at the slowly ticking floor numbers as the elevator did not match China’s high-speed ones, and twirled her hair while looking into elevator mirror. Don’t we all love admiring ourselves?
I stepped out of the elevator to step in within myself.
Recommended book: Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are by John Kaag
Recommended article: https://www.gq.com/story/cal-newport-digital-minimalism
“How do you get time to think?” A good friend of mine asked me this question a few nights ago after I rattled off some of my thoughts on the use of technology, social media and short attention spans. His question made me revisit Aldous Huxley’s genius 1930’s creation where Huxley predicted the future. He wrote about reading and thinking becoming alien concepts in the future. That future is now the present.
Constantly disturbed by our smartphones, we have eroded our abilities to focus deeply and pay attention. Hard problems take time and patience to solve and we cannot be reflective analytic problem solvers in this culture of distraction. We are so attached to our screens that we fail to observe the world around us. A flourishing society that can come together and solve the most important problems of the world is reliant on deep work, empathy and human connections. These are slowly degrading and we must make an effort to revive it.
I’m not saying that I am the deepest thinker or have great self-control when it comes to the use of technology. However, I am making a conscious effort to improve on these fronts. In that respect, here are some small actions that help me think more and focus better:
- Create habits and routines so you don’t have to exert too much mental power into planning your day and your mind can be free to wander
- Work in chunks and blocks of time and do not multi-task
- Do not check your phone while working. Better still, keep it away from you
- Reduce time on social media
- Actively carve out time to think. Go on walks
- Meditate (still working on this one)
- Be observant
The hope is that we can be clear thinkers in this world full of noise.
Recommended book: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
Recommended blog post: Mental Models and Thinking Better by Shane Parrish
If you have any suggestions to share or want to talk about this, I would love to hear your thoughts / critiques – so please drop me a note.
When one of your favorite authors mentions a book that influenced his / her thinking, you have to pick it up to understand the root source behind the books that impacted you. A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is one of the books that influenced Yuval Noah Harrari, bestselling author of Sapiens and Homo Deus.
Even though I finished reading this 1930’s dystopian novel about a month ago and have been mulling over in my thoughts about the book, I haven’t quite been sure of how to express them in writing. But here is an attempt at it.
One particular word from the book stuck with me; it’s called Soma.
The book describes a New World into the future where almost everyone is happy. There are no blood relationships, only sex. People just work the amount they have to based on the “status” they were assigned at the time of birth. Babies are conditioned in test-tubes at the time of birth and that defines their lives. There is no concept of the American Dream. Everyone lives a happy and content life. And if for some reason, something upsets you, there is an easy fix and that is Soma. Soma is a happy drug. It’s a pill that you just pop in and you become satisfied again.
“Now – such is progress – no leisure from pleasure, not a moment to sit down and think.” And if ever by some unlucky chance your happy state of mind is distracted, “there is always soma, delicious soma, half a gramme for a half-holiday, a gramme for a weekend, two grammes for a trip to the gorgeous East…”
The concept of Soma really disturbed me, and I immediately started thinking about analogies to Soma in today’s world. Does alcohol serve the purpose of Soma for many of us? Is juul the new Soma? And, what’s the next quick-fix drug we are going to use because we can’t confront our unhappy / confused state of mind? Have a lot of us also forgotten how to think because we are constantly distracted by social media, the next great vacation to plan and long hours at work?
I tried to argue with myself that Soma could also be the simple pleasures of life such as enjoying a good meal with a loved one, exercising, reading, or even some good wine and beer with old friends. Aren’t those happiness pills too? If so, there may be nothing wrong with Soma.
But then I realized that Aldous Huxley is referring to Soma as a drug that intentionally blocks our ability to think clearly and gives us a false sense of happiness when we are under the influence of that drug. The point being that a lot of us are afraid to confront our discontented state of mind and so we look towards Soma to make us feel “happy” and forget our worries. But it’s unlikely that you will find true happiness unless you are willing to confront your struggles. It’s not about finding quick and easy solutions. It’s about facing those challenges and coming out stronger. It’s about enjoying the roller-coaster ride (ups and downs) of life.
Are we presently living in this Brave New World that Aldous Huxley conceived of more than 80 years ago? Pick up the book. It will make you think.
Recommended Book: A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
I visited Japan after graduation and like Tim Urban (one of my favorite bloggers), I too failed to figure it out. Even though I stayed with a local friend in Japan for a few days and traveled alone, which forced me to interact with the local people, I found it very difficult to even begin to understand the Japanese culture. Nonetheless, I fell in love with the place (despite only being able to eat white rice on a vegetarian diet) and I came back and started reading some of their very thought-provoking philosophies. I’ll begin with Ikigai.
Ikigai is a concept to improve work and life. It’s about finding happiness in everyday life, such that the sum of small joys adds up to a more meaningful life. It is essentially the convergence of four primary elements:
- What you love (your passion)
- What the world needs (your mission)
- What you are good at (your vocation)
- What you can get paid for (your profession)
Of course not everyone has figured out what these four elements even mean for us (I’m still on the journey), but it’s a great lens and framework to use. It’s about “Purpose in Action.” Find your purpose. Take action.
If you have discovered your Ikigai or are still exploring like me, I would love to hear your stories – drop me a note! Till then, enjoy these pictures of my friends and me at a teenage photo studio in Tokyo!
More to come on Ikigai once I’ve read the book: Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Hector Garcia
Jeff Bezos is currently the richest man on Earth. In hindsight, it’s easy to think that Amazon was bound to be a success with the boom in technology and internet. However, the Amazon story is quite remarkable and Bezos went through his fair share of struggles before this giant empire got established. After the initial madness and motto of “Get Big Fast”, Bezos decided to deploy a “Get the House in Order” philosophy and never shied away from thinking longer-term. He knew that great businesses fail because they are reluctant to embrace promising new markets that might undermine their traditional businesses and that do not appear to satisfy their short-term growth requirements. So, Bezos always kept an eye on the future and thus the Kindle and Amazon Web Services (the fastest growing and the most profitable segment) were born.
One of my most favorite Jeff theories is “the regret minimization framework”, which he came up with when he was switching from his lucrative job at D.E. Shaw to potentially starting Amazon.
“When you are in the thick of things, you can get confused by small stuff. I knew when I was eighty that I would never, for example, think about why I walked away from my 1994 Wall Street bonus right in the middle of the year at the worst possible time. That kind of thing just isn’t something you worry about when you’re eighty years old. At the same time, I knew that I might sincerely regret not having participated in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a revolutionizing event. When I thought about it that way, it was incredibly easy to make the decision.” – Jeff Bezos
Bezos’ point is that when you start thinking about the longer-term consequences, the small everyday confusions begin to disappear.
Even in the worst of times, Bezos did not give up this attitude. During the dot-com bubble burst, Amazon stock dropped from $57 to $33, shedding almost half its value. Bezos scrawled “I am not my stock price” on the whiteboard in his office and instructed everyone to ignore the mounting pessimism. “You don’t feel thirty percent smarter when the stock goes up by thirty percent so when the stock goes down you shouldn’t feel thirty percent dumber,” he said at an all-hands meeting. He quoted Ben Graham, “In the short term, the stock market is a voting machine. In the long run, it’s a weighing machine that measures a company’s true value. If Amazon stayed focused on the customer, the company would be fine.”
I’ll end with some of Jeff Bezos’ main tenets:
- Customer obsession
- Be patient
- Invent your way out of boxes
- Invent your way into the future
- Operational excellence so you can find defects at the root and fix them
Recommended book: The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone
Recommended Podcast: The Investors Podcast: Learning from Jeff Bezos
You have the most power when you have been battered and it seems like there is no way to crawl back up. It sounds counter-intuitive, but when you have been beaten to the ground, you find new found energy and creative solutions to slowly come back up. It’s a “nothing to lose” and “nothing to be afraid of” mentality. You have the most power because you fear less. After all, what’s the worst that can happen when you have already encountered failures and terrible situations? You can gladly step into the Underdog Club and unleash your force.
Why are there are so many dyslexic entrepreneurs? Take the likes of Richard Branson, Daymond John and countless others. Growing up, these people were subjects of humiliation. They realized that they would have to take more risk in life to prove themselves. They didn’t fear anything because after all, they had nothing to lose. So, why not take the leap? The risk could only result in upside. Failure had empowered them. (Read Gary Cohn’s story).
Similarly, a disproportionate number of successful and famous people witnessed the death of at least one parent before the age of 20. When you realize that death can be so sudden and imminent and when you have seen terrible times such as losing a loved one, it makes it harder for you to be afraid of much else in life. Really, what is the worst that can happen? This fearless attitude allows them to take more risks and create memories.
Hey, when face to face with all our fears
Learned our lessons through the tears
Made memories we knew would never fade
-Avicci, The Nights
Failures empower you. Failures give you a new sense of power. Failures make you fearless. The next time you fail at something, don’t chide yourself for it. Ask yourself, what is my new strength?
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. If you have stories of when you were empowered through failing, I would love to hear them – please do comment.
Recommended book: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell