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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.

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)

Philosophy, Societal musings

Man’s Stages of Philosophy Formation

Shakespeare wrote about the acts of man during different stages of life. What about the process of formation of man’s philosophy during these stages? Here is my attempt at answering this question. (Disclosure: I am using the word man to reference homo sapiens)

Stage 1: Philosophy Imitation

  1. When we are children, we don’t have our own philosophy. We tend to adopt the world views of our parents and that of the different environments and people we are exposed to.
  2. During adolescence and through the time of our schooling, we imitate the cool peers and that’s who we want to be.
  3. As we grow older and enter the work force, we try to imitate and adopt the same philosophy of our career role models.
    1. It is during this stage that a lot of us perhaps face our first philosophy conflict
    2. We are exposed to this vast world in front of us. Post school, there is lack of structure and no real defined path. This, along with our past experiences with philosophy imitation, makes it difficult for us to know which philosophy to follow. We try to draw from past experiences but they may not be so relevant anymore. We imitate the ones above us (i.e. leaders at work) but now that we have some history with different philosophies, their philosophies may not resonate with us.

Stage 2: Philosophy Crisis and Search Process

  1. This is when we have a philosophy crisis and we begin a philosophy search process, if we are the type that thinks deeply and cares enough to figure themselves out (A lot of people don’t go on this search and follow the imitation game).
  2. This search could be a long, tedious and painful process. It requires deep thinking, reflection, drawing from memory and truly understanding yourself. It begins with testing different philosophies to see which one fits you best.

Stage 3: Crafting your own Philosophy

  1. After a painful search and testing process, things slowly begin to fall in place and this is the launch of the third stage.
  2. You now have a better understanding of yourself and have a draft of your own philosophy.
  3. This stage also involves testing your draft philosophy in different situations, adapting, modifying and challenging your draft philosophy.
  4. As you go through this process, you will begin to form a concrete version of your unique philosophy.

Philosophy imitation -> Philosophy conflict -> Philosophy search -> Draft of own philosophy -> Philosophy testing, modifying, adapting (constant process) -> Concrete version of unique philosophy 

Now, another problem begins. We have formed a more final version of our philosophy. Every time we encounter someone who has a different philosophy (worldview), we automatically feel more distant from this person and throw this person out of our circle. This may be fine, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the other person is wrong. In fact your goals may be the same (or similar), but your approach (philosophy) to getting there and viewing the world may be different. It’s these people who share different philosophies who start to become strangers. This is why we hang out with people who are like us. This is why it becomes harder to change our minds as we grow older — we have formed a concrete version of our philosophy and we cement it further by hanging out with people like us.

Have your own philosophy but be open to interacting with those who have different ones and see where they come from. Be open to perhaps modifying your philosophy. We stop this modification process as we get older but it’s important to be nimble and at the same time not forget yourself.

Education, Global Problems, India

Could a Liberal Arts Education be the Solution to India’s Problems?

With a wave of political and societal changes engulfing India, a combination of factors could usher in a golden era of growth in the country. India’s demographic advantage and growing enterprise culture favor its rise. However, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, President of the Center for Policy Research in India, argues that “whether India takes full advantage of these propitious conditions will depend upon the policy choices it makes.” In describing the Indian electorate, P. Mehta aptly points out that “the impact of policies on well-being is judged less by aggregate future expectations of the impact.” Could this narrow focus on the present spell the very doom for India despite favorable conditions? Could a growth in liberal arts education enable India to look beyond the present and save the country from the perils of climate change and job displacement due to automation?

While climate change and automation are not problems unique to India, they will disproportionately impact India. If this massive population is to save itself, it must become liberally educated.

David Wallace-Well’s book The Uninhabitable Earth notes that climate change will hit India the hardest. India’s equatorial position and large river system schedule the country to receive ~29% of the economic suffering. Not only will people be dying due to heat stroke, but they will also lose their farming jobs as sea levels rise. India is still largely an agricultural society; lacking the technological skills needed to survive in the modern economy, farmers will be entering poverty in drones.

As the exuberance around the startup India campaign launched by Prime Minister Modi wanes, numbers reveal that funding for startups is still lacking. 90% of Indian startups fail in the first 5 years due to lack of creativity beyond emulating business models from the United States. Moreover, ~30% of the country’s population is employed in low-skilled IT services jobs which mostly serve companies in the United States. Now, with cost pressure faced by U.S. firms and Artificial Intelligence (AI) replacing mundane call-center duties, Indian IT workers are no longer in high demand. As of 2017, the World Bank estimated that ~69% of India’s workforce is threatened by automation.

Is India’s population destined to fail? How can education provide workers with the creativity and high skills needed to help the country flourish? India’s current education system focuses on rote learning and memorization, but with these challenges at its doorstep, Indian students need to learn critical thinking skills and develop knowledge in the social sciences. Author Yuval Harrari argues that in the age of AI, creative jobs will be impacted last. India should develop its non-existent creative services fields.

A liberal arts education equips students with reasoning capabilities. It is imperative that future leaders have a good grasp of history, politics and social sciences and develop empathy and judgement to combat the issues plaguing India. Universities such as Ashoka and Flame are pioneers in bringing this education to India’s masses and more such institutions could not only save India from destruction but could also help it achieve dominance in global affairs.

With the proliferation of the Internet and the rise in over-the-top (OTT) in India, the country needs to pick up Neil Postman’s book The End of Education to be aware of the benefits of reading and critical thinking. The burgeoning middle class needs to channel its money towards a liberal arts education for their children.

The sole focus on technical skills will “shackle it (Indian mind) to the technicalities with which it has become so familiar, and disable it from taking enlarged and comprehensive views even of topics falling within its compass.” (George Sharswood)

Recommended Book: The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School by Neil Postman

Fiction, Global Problems

Taliban Brainwashing Children

The officer dragged Khaled into a tent. The unwelcome grim faces of the tent inmates afforded him a mere glance before going back to the dreariness of their minds. Terrified, Khaled found a corner to huddle up.

“Welcome to the dark world, my son,” exclaimed the man sitting next to him. Afraid to break any protocols, Khaled decided it was best to befriend silence. In any case, his shivering body wouldn’t allow him to speak coherently, or for that matter, speak at all.

The man questioned Khaled, “So, where are you from?”

“Ka-Kabul,” Khaled managed to meekly respond. It was only then that the dryness of his mouth became apparent to him. Perhaps risking his life, he asked the man, “Can I get some water?”

The man shook with laughter, which only drove Khaled to cower even more. “Son, this is not your home,” he responded curtly.

Weary and on the brink of fainting, Khaled wasn’t quite sure when sleep drew him in. “Will I ever see my mother again? Who are these people around me? Can I play? Where could Hassan be? Where am I even? Stop! Try to sleep! No more questions, Khaled.”

—-x—-

The bright light of the torch shone on Khaled’s face. The officer’s face stared down at him. “Wake up, it’s time for your first lesson.”

Terrified and afraid of being beaten up, Khaled sat upright in an instant. The ground beneath his feet seemed to be shaking as he stepped outside the tent and onto the barren terrains outside. No, it wasn’t the ground, it was his legs that quivered as he drew upon his last resources of energy to quietly follow the officer. His mind felt like a blank slate — he was too delirious to construct any thoughts at all.

—-x—-

The officer and Khaled entered a small cement house where Khaled was joined by a group of 20 boys, who reminded him of his classmates back home. Three middle-aged men in white overalls marched into the room and motioned for the group of 10-12 year old boys to sit down on the floor. Abdas, second in command to Kharoof, the leader of the Taliwat group, began addressing the boys.

“Children, it is time for you to rejoice. God has chosen you as the lucky ones to carry out his tasks on Earth. You are God’s disciples and God has entrusted us to show you the path to reach him.”

For the group of 20 boys, the following 6 months were marked by a strict regimen of waking up at the crack of dawn, reading the Koran for hours, and engaging in rigorous physical training. Three times a week, Kharoof would come and address the children, “God wants you to go out there and kill those souls who don’t abide by the principles set forth in the holy book. In the process you will sacrifice your lives as well, but it is to fulfill the wishes of God. For those of you who carry out his noble tasks in a dutiful manner, God will have sweet rewards for you in Heaven — delicious feasts, princesses, and endless joy and merrymaking. Now, which of you is a fool to not desire such an afterlife?”

No hand would be raised. The children had come to exalt Kharoof as God’s messenger whose words signified pure and untainted truth.

—-xx—-

Khaled woke up even before dawn; today was not like the other days. After nearly an entire year of schooling, it was time for him to join some of his former classmates in Heaven. Wearing his finest white kurta, he braced himself for the task ahead of him, and met Abdas and Kharoof outside the mosque. The three of them silently walked in and practiced Namaaz (prayer to God). After, Kharoof placed his hands on Khaled’s shoulders, looked him straight in the eyes and with a pleased tone underlying his words, he exclaimed in a deep voice, “You know what you have to do. God is waiting for you. He will be proud.”

Khaled took his place in the back seat of the truck that transported him to Baluchistan, an area in Pakistan. It was 12:15pm by the time he reached the bustling city center thronging with people meandering around the shops, restaurants, and food carts. The fiery sensation in his belly got aggravated as he pressed the button in his right hand.

—-x—-

Breaking News: “20 killed and several injured as bomb goes off in City Center district of Baluchistan. Police reported to investigate. Taliwat suspected behind attack.”

Khaled lay in a pool of blood. With his last remaining breaths, he looked around the chaos he had caused. His gaze rested on the dead face lying near him — he was staring right into his Babajaan’s (father’s) lifeless eyes. A final thought crossed his head, “What have I done? Perhaps this is not what God wanted from me.”

Father and son lay dead next to each other.

—-x—-

Author’s Note: This is a fictional story that talks about the problem of the Taliban grooming children suicide bombers and brainwashing young minds. You can help raise awareness around this grave issue by sharing the story. If you have further ideas, I would love to hear from you.

Further Reading:

How the Taliban groom child suicide bombers

Afghanistan is trying to save its child bombers

Afghanistan: Taliban Child Soldier Recruitment Surges

Ted Talks:

Inside a School for Suicide Bombers

How Cults rewire the brain

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.

Societal musings

Biased Impressions and Energy Management

A work colleague mentioned “This bank presentation has the page numbers wrong on the table of contents. They can’t even do the little things right, can I trust them on the content?”

This is the typical way people judge other people’s work. For example, if your formatting does not look right, they may assume your work is wrong and start analyzing your work with a negative bias attached to their impressions. If you do not speak in a polished way, they will not pay attention to your content. If you are not dressed for the role, they will assume you are not the correct person for it.

But let’s analyze such behavior from the opposite lens.

Perhaps because you focus a lot on the difficult and important things that actually matter, you have no energy left to care about the mundane boring tasks such as getting page numbers correct? What if, because I have spent so much time and mental energy on the rationale of the points I want to articulate that I didn’t get a chance to think about the best ways to present my content? Something like this is pretty noticeable in a lot of smart people who spend so much time on the difficult work, that they don’t bother to care about their appearance. 

The other day a friend asked me this question, “Why am I good at tasks considered to be difficult and so bad at tasks that are considered easy?” It’s likely that my friend has no energy left to care for these easy tasks, which require less mental focus, and hence makes it easy to get distracted. After focusing on activities that require thinking, it is indeed boring to dedicate even a few minutes to menial tasks that don’t require much thinking.

So if you notice that someone got the little things wrong, might the content / underlying substance actually be very impressive? This hypothesis may or may not hold true, but all I’m saying is that forming your impressions based on the superficial matter is not correct. I do think presentation matters a lot, and it cannot be ignored completely at the expense of stellar content. It’s just not the first and only thing that matters. It should always (or in most situations) come after content / underlying work / underlying character.