Welcome to the bubble space!
If you’re reading this, you survived 2020!! 🎉
Now, I KNOW… maybe, you’re one of those young’uns that was born after 2020 and doesn’t know what all the fuss was about. Or maybe, in 5 years, no one will really remember the craziness of this year.
Personally though, I think both cases would be a shame. In my life, I’ve learned a lot this year (ESPECIALLY from difficult times). And I don’t want to forget it.
That’s why I created this webpage… I call it the bubble space! The bubble space is a safe space 😁. There’s not too much going on. Just some links on the right, a music switch on the bottom, and some bubbly dots in the background.
But this bubble space is where I want to take you on a journey. Where are we going? We’re going through the lessons I’ve learned, as concisely as possible. Everything I’ve put here is a lesson that’s kept coming back to help me over and over again
Now, I don’t want to tell you how to live your life. In fact, pretend I’m writing to myself when I say ‘you’ should do something. But I hope you might find some of these lessons helpful too 🤗 If you’re ready for the first mini-lesson, start by clicking one of those pink section links!
The Universe Doesn’t Owe You Anything
This is a little saying that I’ve been repeating to myself a lot this year.
Did I fail after writing scholarship applications for months, tracking every deadline, and making a resume that I KNOW is better than everyone else’s? The universe doesn’t owe me anything. 👀 Did I go out of my way to volunteer at a community centre and set up ideas for new programs, just to have no one show up? The universe doesn’t owe me anything. 👀 Did I spend night after night dreaming about the perfect relationship, spend day after day being the best version of myself, and yet still get rejected? The universe doesn’t owe me anything. 👀
So many of our thoughts are just planning for the future and reminiscing about the past.
Yet, we can only ever live in the present. Why waste the present trying to control what’s outside of your control? YES, it is so unbelievably unfair.😢 But the universe is going about its own way, on its own time. It aligns a little with my time, a little with your time, and a little with someone else’s time. But it still works on its own time. And that’s the way things should be. Then, everyone can have a little bit of what they want.
But most of the time, I won’t get what I want. Reminding myself that I can't control the universe helped me to get over my disappointment more quickly. I’d tell myself:
Good or bad, this too shall pass.
And then, I can move on to the next opportunity! And though the universe doesn’t owe me anything, it eventually does gift me with success 😤
Don’t look to look. Look to see
This thought came to me one winter afternoon. I was out for a run and the sun was reflecting brightly off the snow. And in a sudden moment, the sunlight reflected off of the snow on some tree branches and hit my eyes. And when I looked, I was shocked by such a brilliant, intense reflection. It was like for the first time in a VERY long time, I remarked how beautiful this sight was. 😊
This experience made me think about how I’d go on this run every afternoon, on the same route with the same sights. I’d look at the same things, but I usually didn’t SEE. Amidst my whirlwind of thoughts, I would be wrapped up in myself. I’d be too busy with my thoughts to observe the beauty around me. And as a consequence, I’d go through another day looking at everything around me, yet seeing nothing except what was within me. 😕
There really is beauty out there if you so choose to believe it. Stop looking to look. Start looking to see. Ask yourself, “Is this moment not complete? Right now, do I really need to plan something for the future or reminisce about the past for this moment to be complete?” I bet you’ll see something beautiful if you do :-)
Choose the Happy Option
In grade 10, I met my favourite math teacher ever. He had this one tiny saying he taught me:
“There’s the right way… and then there’s the long way.”
Little did I know he wasn’t just talking about math. In school, we’re always looking for the one right answer. What my math teacher helped me realise was that there wasn’t always one right answer. Sometimes, there could be many answers and you just have to choose what’s most convenient.
For example, ask a friend to tell you what your face looks like. Let’s say they look at you from 50m away in the middle of a crowd. They’d just see a blob and maybe a few colours. Then, they stand in front of you 1m away. They can tell you about your eyes and nose and cheeks and so on. Then, they grab a microscope and look at your cells from 10^-6 m away. They can tell you about your cells and their shape and so on. Well, are any of those perspectives incorrect??? No. Your face does look like that, just at different distances. You just have to choose whichever perspective is most useful at the time. (For example, you probably don’t want your friend to tell you about your cells when you ask them how you look 🙃).
You’d be surprised at how many times this year, I thought very serious and very real situations were just like that. Even for scientific research! I could just choose which perspective to look at the situation from. And that’s not a bad thing. In math, choosing a different perspective can allow you to solve a problem more easily. In life, it can allow you to be more happy! I’ll give you an example I learned from stoicism.
One night, I was laying down for bed and my back was aching. I felt like complaining: “Ughh… this didn’t use to happen when I was a kid! Why did I have to become a teenager??” But then, I remembered this idea from the stoic, William B. Irvine. When I’m 60, I’m probably going to have a lot more hurting than just my back. I’ll look back wistfully at my teenage years, just like I now look back at my childhood.
“These days right NOW... these are the good old days I’ll look back on.”
So what if I could tap into that wishful thinking ahead of time? What if I could be so glad that only my back is hurting right now, just like I will be when I’m 60? Well… I can be! I can choose the painful option or I can choose the happy option.
And trust me, it’s a lot more fun to choose the happy option! So whenever you have the power to choose, choose the happy option 😊
Be the Architect of your Life
One major lesson I learned early in 2020 is that I’m just too lost in the ups and downs of life. I learned this from one of my top 5 worst moments of 2020 - when a teammate I was working with for a major project left my team. This made me feel lost, disappointed, and frustrated. But, I was lucky to have a mentor to support me at the time. He told me this:
Instead of being caught up in the emotions, take a step back and look at this from an architect’s point of view.
Ie. From a birds’ eye view. Seeing not just where you painfully are, but also where you came from and where you’re going. This helped me realise the secret value of this discomfort! If I could figure out what exactly made me feel so negative, I could figure out what’s important to me and how to better defend that in the future.
Ie. figuring out WHY I was unhappy helped me realise my values.
And now, I know that my values are helpfulness, reliability, and resourcefulness (IN that order, thank you very much 😉)! People search for their values their entire lives! But what it took for me to finally understand them was the perspective of an architect: realising on a high level that you need to compare good with bad to figure out what makes good things good.
Another benefit from reflecting on this team disaster as an architect was getting closer to the root of the problem. I don’t think my teammate left or I reacted so strongly to this because we’re stupid or weak. I actually don’t think people have weaknesses.
I think people have natural tendencies, which are strengths in some contexts and weaknesses in others.
And I know that difference sounds pedantic, but this REALLY changes how we try to address our so-called ‘weaknesses’. If I have helpfulness as my strength and vulnerability as my weakness, then I can just be more helpful and less vulnerable. Problem solved!
But what I think happened during this situation is that I have a natural tendency to be helpful. And when a team is operating well, this is fine. But when things go wrong, I blame myself for not being helpful enough. So what actually needs to happen is that I need to learn which environments my natural tendencies harm me in; be aware that my default behaviour won’t be helpful in those situations; and finally get closer to environments where my natural tendencies are strengths.
This way of thinking has helped me finally make sense of REALLY distressing personal dilemmas this year. I hope you can also step back to think like an architect when it counts!
The Monkey With a Plan
Naval Ravikant has this saying:
“Don't take yourself so seriously. You're just a monkey with a plan.”
I like to tell myself this whenever I’m getting in my own way. Your high school English class put it best: any character always has two fundamental conflicts. Them vs. the world and them vs. themself. I think the latter is MUCH more important in my life. Over 85% of my conflicts are really just me vs. myself problems.
For example, I realised this year that I am my own harshest critic. When I’m late for a call once, the other person will be mad at me for a few days. I’ll keep reminding myself about that for months. If someone thinks my work is pointless, they’ll tell me once and stop working with me. I’ll bring up that doubt again and again every night I leave work. It’s almost like WE are the villains holding ourselves in chains. And the path to freedom for me has been to take things a little more light-heartedly. As Naval Ravikant puts it, we are just monkeys after all.
This perspective also gives me more humility regarding my thoughts and actions. As Ray Dalio taught me last year, we know nothing compared to what we need to know. But on top of this, we also have the EXACT same issues with making good decisions as humans throughout time! We didn’t magically turn into these hyper-rational individuals in our hyper-rational societies in just a few generations.
Still, if you told me this two year ago, I wouldn’t believe you. What changed my mind was making consistently more and more tough decisions (and inevitably being wrong). I think that in school (where I have clearly defined answers), I was too confident in my abilities. In the real world, you have uncertainty, biases, and incentives that muddle up things in all sorts of ways. 😵 That’s how I realised how prone I was to biases!
If you find you’re always right, you’re not making hard enough decisions.
And when I started to pursue hard decisions, something funny happened. The harder I chased an outcome, the less likely I was to make good decisions. That was just SO unfair!! 😢 I wanted to be ambitious and grow. Why were things not working??? What I think is happening is this thing that’s been happening to humans throughout much of documented literature.
Our desires make us blind to reality.
You can read the story of Cain and Abel in the bible and learn about Cain’s overpowering greed. You can read Shakespeare’s Hamlet to see his quest for revenge leading to ruin. You can observe Fitzgerald’s Gatsby seeking his own demise from his unconditional love. As long as we have had humans, we have had desire. As long as we have had desire, we have had biases.
And you are NOT free from that. Every one of us will be pursuing countless desires throughout life. This year, I learned to fear that. To fear making the same biased decisions made by the first humans looking upwards to their dreams. Because I’d rather fear my limitations and avoid excessive confidence than have excessive confidence and avoid my limitations. I hope all these ideas keep me humble enough to recognise that eventually, all my plans will go wrong, just like any other monkey’s. 😔
Me --> We
When I was young, I dreamed of being the next brilliant scientist. The Prince Charming. The hero that saves Gotham. 🦸♂️ But those daydreams were just fantasies that made my ego happy without having substance.
In reality, ANY meaningful thing you work on will be a team effort.
Look around you. Everything from furniture to laws to massive skyscrapers were made by humans working together. Even the Einsteins of the world relied on Grossmanns to help them. In such a world, with such a history, it is ESSENTIAL to learn to work with others. The most powerful people in the world are the ones who’ve united others behind their cause. If there’s one skill I could choose to be amazing at, this would be one of my first options.
This is so important, I gave it its own section. But how do I go from me to we? The next section has some rapidfire lessons I’ve learned about that.
The Pursuit of Positivity
I think positivity is an overused term that people don’t appreciate anymore. But when it comes to successful relationships, I found this term to be laying in the background of many lessons. From positive-sum relationships to being positive around others, here are a few things I learned:
Don’t sum to 0.
Zero-sum games erode positivity (because math 🙃). For example, I can focus on a promotion I didn’t get at work. But we live in a time with more types of jobs than EVER before. With so many options, one person succeeding doesn’t hold me back. But because of strong emotions like jealousy or frustration, I manipulate the evidence to make 2+2 add to 0.
When I realised this, I started to actively CHASE positive-sum relationships. It’s IMPORTANT for me to let people know that I’m trying to help them grow (and that I’d also love their advice on how I can grow). I hope more people can live in these positive-sum environments. And I think it starts by just honestly letting others know you’re not trying to sum to 0 🥰️
Positivity is a lens, not a mask.
Then, came the hard part. How do I actually make relationships more positive-sum? I learned that my default behaviour was just to smile more, compliment more, and be more cheerful around others. But when I wasn’t around others, that happiness would disappear. And I just couldn’t accept that positivity was something that you only do for others. 🤔
Instead, I thought about what made ME feel positive. It was when I was feeling fundamentally human emotions like hope, gratitude, belonging, etc. For me, it was like positivity let me see those emotions more clearly both around myself AND others. Instead of being like a mask I put on for others, positivity became a lens for me to better see what makes me happy!
The world’s doors are open when you’re young.
Now, I was openly letting people know I cared about positive-sum relationships and I was feeling positive without feeling like I was faking it. This made some very unexpected things happen in my relationships. For the first time in my teenage melodrama years, I felt like people wanted to be around me!! 😂
Friends would tell me that they felt comfortable being vulnerable with me. I would meet adults through my work that were excited to mentor me! I could even start opportunities like deciding that I’d just start interviewing the world’s smartest scientists… and the scientists said yes! Even amidst lockdowns during COVID-19, I was having calls with researchers from California, Australia, Greece, Norway, Mexico, and beyond. This is what made me finally realise that the world’s doors are open to you when you’re young! For anyone who’s young, I know it’s an emotional time. But I think that there are more opportunities that’ll come our way than we can sometimes imagine.
I’m glad I could wrap up 2020 realising that some parts of the world are friendlier than I think! I know that learning about the underappreciated value of positivity will come back to help for the rest of my life. In good situations and bad.
Like I said at the beginning, pretend like I’m talking to myself. This is definitely a lesson that’s more so for people like me. What I’ve realised is that I REALLY don't like insincerity (both in myself and others). 😠 For some people, it’s fine to get to the deadline and goals in any way possible. For me, it’s fine, so long as I’m not being insincere (ie. not being honest about what I’m prioritising). That’s why I don’t like ‘hacking’.
Hacking is a concept that’s hard to define. Paul Graham tried to define it here. But regardless of definition, I KNOW when I’m hacking:
- When I’m trying hard to win a competition, but I know the results don’t matter in real life.
- When I don’t like someone, but I say I’ll work with them just once to get the job done.
- When I don’t understand something myself, but I just pretend I do because someone with authority said it.
Sometimes in life, I simply have such a strong incentive to hack that I can’t resist. That doesn’t mean that I have to like doing it. For example, no one in my school classes cares about learning. Not even the teachers. They care about getting good grades. And ‘learning’ is a pretty inefficient way to get good grades. Especially when you can just search up past exams online and know exactly what questions will be on the next test. People do this so much that there’s an entirely legal industry that makes profit on this. So who are you to say that it’s not okay?
Well, I am Madhav. And I say it’s not okay. 🙃
I don’t like hacking bad tests at school. I like learning. So I am the LITERALLY THE ONLY person in my high school classes asking questions. And I’ll ask at least 10 questions a day. And I’m the only person engaging in my classes consistently, instead of just cramming for tests (#ByeByeAllNighters #ByeByeHackerCulture). Why? Because I know I grow more from working at 70% capacity for 3 weeks than at 105% capacity for 3 days. And personally, growth excites me more than test results.
Exhilarating and disappointing is better to me than safe and boring.
That’s why I care about sincere, consistent work on something I care about. At the end of the day, I might be slower than others, get fewer results than others, and waste my time on lost causes. But I accept those downsides. So wherever I can choose to, I’d rather live sincerely than hack. Maybe that resonates with some of you too 🤗
Relearning > Learning
Recently, I’ve been thinking about ‘learning.’ Usually, I spend as little time thinking about it as possible. That’s because most of my experiences with ‘learning’ have been memorising things at school I’ll never need again in life. 😭 But this year, I’ve been around more people in the ‘adult world’ who stop to think about HOW to learn. And the most insightful model that I've heard about on this is from Shane Parrish:
Experience → Reflection → Abstraction → Action. Repeat.
Basically, you have an experience, reflect on it, and get a useful feeling / saying / whatever that reminds you about the learning. Ex. Me saying, “The universe doesn’t owe you anything.” That changes how you act, leads to new experiences, and the cycle repeats. The most insightful part of this is that you NEED to have experiences to learn effectively.
Kids like me are always being fed abstractions from textbooks, from the media, etc. But without the experiences, we don’t have the emotions / intuition that REALLY make a lesson valuable. That’s why it’s so important for us to JUST DO PROJECTS. Even if you fail, you end up with new experiences that you can reflect on and learn from. 😊 Most adults I know don’t do this. I don’t know if that’s for the better or worse 🤷♂️
On top of this, whether you’re a kid or adult, relearning is where you get the MOST knowledge. An entrepreneur told me about how each of her ventures taught her the value of talking to customers again. You always think you know something. Then you explore another aspect and get a deeper understanding. And NOW you actually know it… until the process repeats again 🙃
Experiences are like a tree instead of a mine.
You don’t just extract knowledge now. You can come back again and get new insight too. So spend less time on self-help books and more time digging up that old memory again 😉
Step Up or Step Down
My economics teacher has this saying:
If you’re not stepping up, you’re stepping down.
The wisdom of this saying is that it’s binary. There is NO standing around! If you don’t believe me, think about it for yourself. If you’re not consistently training a skill, do you slowly lose it over time? When you don’t talk to a person in a really long time, does it feel like you just can’t connect in quite the same way as before? In my life, I’ve noticed these things are true more often than not. My life is like trying to climb an escalator that’s going down. 😕
So I’d better start learning how to climb faster!!
I need to optimise my life so growth becomes the default.
But how do you go about doing that?? I think there are two parts: seeking out opportunities for growth and limiting the harmful effects of not growing. First, you have to learn to choose the path of growth. YES, it’s inconvenient. 😖 But what works for me is finding little sayings to get myself to choose the right option:
- Get 1% better every day instead of 10% better for just one day. (James Clear)
- Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life. (Jerzy Gregorek)
- Jump in, think later. (Nadim Nasser)
- Regret hurts more than failure. (Me 🙃)
Maybe that doesn’t work for you. But FIGURE OUT what works for you! I’ve found that most of my problems are me getting in my own way. So it’s valuable to stop being your own problem. THEN, you can start figuring out how to limit the harmful (and inevitable) effects of not growing. You just CANNOT retrain every skill all the time. There will be some skills that decay.
But I think the skill of learning skills decays slower than most.
I’ve noticed that when I get good at figuring things out, I’m able to better retrain the skills that have decayed. I think it comes down to better knowing the mistakes you made before and knowing that there are solutions out there to fix those mistakes (even if you don’t remember the solutions right now 😂). For me, that’s been true whether I’m fixing bugs in code or stagnant relationships.
At the end of the day, there’ll be frustrating moments where you feel weak. Try to get yourself to be happy (useful tips earlier 😉) and JUST KEEP CLIMBING the escalator of life :-)
Write the Chemistry Report
Sometimes in life, you will find painful paths you’ve never travelled.
Sometimes in life, you’ll have to make sacrifices that leave your dreams unravelled.
Sometimes in life, you’ll encounter sights you wish no one else would have to see.
Sometimes in life, you’ll have to do chemistry. 😂
Now, I don’t like to complain. I think chemistry is an interesting and useful discipline. But I severely dislike the way it’s taught in high schools (memorise facts you don’t care about and don’t ask questions while you’re at it 👿). But on the upside, chemistry has taught me how to deal with unpleasant things that I have to get over with. The biggest thing I tell myself when I have a chemistry report laying in front of me that I don’t want to work on is:
Amazing or horrible, it won’t do itself.
This really helps me move to the last stage of grief (acceptance) a little more quickly. I can acknowledge that my hard problem is hard, but it’s also MINE. No one else can fix it for me. This is just as true for writing a chemistry report as it is for dealing with heartbreak…
When this doesn’t work for me, the next thing I tell myself is that things could always be worse. YES, I KNOW it’s cliché.
But if the cliché sayings are so obvious, why aren’t you already acting on them?
I think cliché sayings have useful wisdom if we can get around them being boring because they’re overused. To do that, I often try to associate a unique action of my own with the cliché. For example, let’s say I’m tired of school and want to uniquely remind myself that things could be worse. My unique action for that is to remember all the documentaries I’ve seen of kids around the world that would LOVE to be in school right now. 😕 It reminds me to be grateful for the problem of boring schoolwork instead of the problem of not being able to go to school because your family’s chocolate farm in Côte D’Ivoire had a bad harvest and you can’t afford the fees.
The last (but MOST important) thing I’ll do is to figure out how I can take ownership over the work. I noticed this after COVID-19 shut down schools. I’d have to do the same work at home as at school, BUT I could do it at my own pace. This was important, because when my curiosity wanted me to explore a specific concept, I’d allow myself to go on deep dives. 🤓 When I just did NOT care about a boring concept, I’d speed through it as quickly as possible. By making my learning my own (ie. taking ownership of it), I enjoyed it so much more! In general:
Employees see their work as a task. Owners see their work as an opportunity.
This does NOT just apply to school! This is one of THE most important lessons anyone can learn!! I’ve talked to 10+ CEOs this year about their priorities. And one thing they ALL care about is working with people who take ownership. In every community I’m part of, the most successful people are the ones who take ownership over their work (no matter whether they actually are an owner or not). So stop CHOOSING to treat your work as a task. Explore the hidden opportunities in even the most boring of jobs. 🦸♂️ And write that darn chemistry report!!
Real Paper ≠ Real Life
Throughout 2020, the two things I’ve been doing most of are working and sleeping. I don’t have too much control over the latter. But when it comes to working, I’ve had a lot of growth and a lot of challenges. Especially being young, the biggest challenge has been when my work should go right on paper, but reality has another idea. 😭
Because of this mismatch between my plans on paper and their outcomes in reality, I’ve learned quite a few painful (but insightful) lessons. The biggest one has changed what I think makes for successful work:
What you work on > who you work with > how hard you work (Naval Ravikant)
This is very counter-intuitive. When you’re young and ambitious especially. You don’t get much choice in what you work on or who you work with, so you optimise how hard you work. And yeah, working harder helps you. But this year especially, I’ve been realising just how immensely difficult it is to make a meaningful change in the world. When I try to get the world to change, I learn that people hate downside, dislike change, and can tolerate missed opportunities. To get around that, you have to figure out what needs changing, get people to help you do it (because any meaningful action will be a team effort), and THEN work hard to implement well. But why does it have to be in that order?
Take this example. Let’s say you’re one of the world’s greatest mathematicians. So, you decide to roll up your sleeves, work hard, and become an accountant. Well, 50 years later, you’ve worked hard all your life to be a great accountant! But could you have done something that uses your mathematical talents more? Yes. You could’ve gotten together all the other math geniuses around you to start your own accounting firm. You could’ve grown it over the decades and gift the world with even more math genius! But could you have done something more still? Yes. Maybe the best place to apply math isn’t accounting. Maybe, you could even discover entirely new fields of math with all your genius if you worked in computer science! Do you see how you can work hard and not discover all your potential? Do you see how you can work hard and with the right people and not discover all your potential? That’s why you have to work on the right things, then work with the right people, and then work hard.
After realising that, the question was: “Well, how do I work on the right things???” The biggest thing that’s helped me is actually figuring out what I want!
You can’t get what you want until you KNOW what you want.
Think about it. You can get lots of things in life. But if you don’t know what you want, none of the things you get can be what you want! I’m not trying to be pedantic here. This is very real. SO many people don’t actually know what their goals are. And I added some questions in the next section for you to check if you know your goals well enough.
But what’s the downside of just going with the flow? Even if you have to work on the right things, maybe you can just try working on different things until you figure out what you want? Well, here’s the problem: when you don’t know what you want, every mediocre opportunity seems equally great. That’s how you spend the rest of your life working for others instead of following your own dreams. I learned this when attending a college prep webinar that was SO incredibly boring. I didn’t want to learn how to hack the school system! I wanted to learn how to have a better future. And I was naive for thinking someone else could help me do that instead of sitting down to REALLY ask myself how to do that. 😢
I know these realisations can be painful. For many people, work just takes up more and more of our lives. And it’s hard to accept when we’re doing it wrong and make a change. If you’re feeling brave though, I would encourage you to reflect on the questions in the next section. I hope they help you make your own life better (because you have the MOST power to) 🤗
Recommended Resources & Reflections
You can’t get what you want when you don’t KNOW what you want.
This section exists to help you with that. And I don’t want to waste your time. If I’ve included a resource or reflection here, I can’t even tell you how MANY times I’ve come back to it.
These are LITERALLY my favourite videos on the Internet.
I love them so much, I put a transcript in the toggle so that I can look back on these videos in case some dum dum decides to take the videos off of the Internet.
On the importance of wasted time
My experience is with people that we're probably running at about 51% of our capacity. I mean you can think about this yourselves. I often ask undergraduates: “How many hours a day do you waste, or how many hours a week do you waste?”
And the classic answer is something like 4 to 6 hours a day. You know, inefficient studying, watching things on YouTube that not only do you not want to watch, that you don't even care about, that make you feel horrible about watching after you're done. That's probably four hours right there.
That's 20-25 hours a week. It's a hundred hours a month. That's two and a half full work weeks. It's half a year of work weeks per year. And if your time is worth $20 an hour, which is a radical underestimate - it's probably more like $50 if you think about it in terms of deferred wages.... If you're wasting 20 hours a week, you're wasting $50,000 a year.
And you are doing that right now, and because you're young wasting $50,000 is a way bigger catastrophe than it would be for me to waste it because I'm not going to last nearly as long, and so if your life isn't everything it could be, you could ask yourself: “Well, what would happen if you just stopped wasting the opportunities that are in front of you?”
You'd be who knows how much more efficient? Ten times more efficient? 20 times more efficient? That's the Pareto distribution. You have no idea how efficient efficient people get. It's off the charts!
On the importance of communicating effectively
Best thing you can do is teach people to write, because there's no difference between that and thinking. And one of the things that just blows me away about universities is that no one ever tells students why they should write something!
It's like you have to do this assignment. Well, why are you writing? Well, you need the grade??? It's like no… you need to learn to think. Because thinking makes you act effectively in the world, thinking makes you win the battles you undertake and those could be battles for good things!
If you can think and speak and write you are absolutely deadly. Nothing can get in your way. So that's why you learn to write... I can't believe that people aren't just told that!
It's the most powerful weapon you can possibly provide someone with and I mean I know lots of people who have been staggeringly successful and watched them throughout my life. I mean those people you don't want to have an argument with them. They'll just slash you into pieces and then not in a malevolent way. It's like if you're going to make your point and they're going to make their point, you better have your points organized because otherwise you're going to look like AND BE an absolute idiot. You are not going to get anywhere.
And if you can formulate your arguments coherently and make a presentation, if you can speak to people, if you can lay out a proposal… God, people give you money, they give you opportunities, you have influence.
On the importance of schedules
Make a schedule and stick to it. Okay. So what's the rule with the schedule? It's not a bloody prison! That's the first thing that people do wrong. They say, “Well, I don't like to have to follow a schedule.”
It's like, “Well, what kind of schedule are you setting up?”
“Well, I have to do this, then I have to do this, then I have to do this, you know. And then I just go play video games because who wants to do all these things that I have to do?”
Wrong! Set the schedule up so that you have the day you want! That's the trick. It's like, “Okay, I've got tomorrow. If I was going to set it up so it was the best possible day I could have… practically speaking... what would it look like?”
Well, then you schedule that. And obviously there's a bit of responsibility that's good to go along with that. Because if you have any sense, one of the things that you're going to insist upon is that at the end of the day, you're not in worse shape than you were at the beginning of the day, right?
Because that's a stupid day! If you have a bunch of those in a row, you just dig, you know... you dig yourself a hole and then you bury yourself. And it's like sorry, that's just not a good strategy. It's a bad strategy.
So maybe, 20% of your day has to be responsibility and obligation. Or maybe, it's more than that depending on how far behind you are. But even that you can ask yourself: “Okay… well, I've got these responsibilities. I have to schedule these things in. What's the right ratio of responsibility to reward?
And you can ask yourself that just like you'd negotiate with someone who is working for you. It's like, “Okay, you’ve got to work tomorrow. Okay? So I want you to work tomorrow.”
And you might say “Okay. Well, what are you going to do for me that makes it likely that I'll work for you?”
Well, you could ask yourself that. You know, maybe you do an hour of responsibility and then you play a video game for 15 minutes. I don't know, whatever turns your crank man, but you know… You have to negotiate with yourself and not tyrannize yourself like you're negotiating with someone that you care for, that you would like to be productive and have a good life.
And that's how you make the schedule. And then you look at the day and you think, “Well, if I had that day, that would be good.”
Great! You know and you- you're useless and horrible, so you'll probably only hit it with about seventy percent accuracy but that beats the hell out of zero! Right? And if you hit it even with fifty percent accuracy... another rule is well, aim for fifty one percent the next week or 50 and a half percent for God's sake! Because you're going to hit that position where things start to loop back positively and spiral you upward.
On the importance of personal responsibility in a society
And if we all got our act together collectively and stop making things worse... Because that's another thing people do all the time! Not only do they not do what they should to make things better, they actively attempt to make things worse! Because they're spiteful or resentful or arrogant or deceitful or homicidal or genocidal or all of those things all bundled together in an absolutely pathological package.
If people stopped really really trying just to make things worse, we have no idea how much better they would get just because of that.
So there's this weird dynamic that's part of the existential system of ideas between human vulnerability social judgment. Both of which are major causes of suffering and the failure of individuals to adopt the responsibility that they know they should adopt.
It isn't merely that your fate depends on whether or not you get your act together and to what degree you decide that you're going to live out your own genuine being. It isn't only your fate. It's the fate of everyone that you're networked with!
And so, you know you think well, there's nine billion, seven billion people in the world... We're going to peak at about nine billion, by the way and then it'll decline rapidly... but seven billion people in the world and who are you? You're just one little dust mite among that seven billion and so it really doesn't matter what you do or don't do.
But that's simply not the case! It's the wrong model because you're at the center of a network. You're a node in a network! Of course, that's even more true now that we have social media. You'll know a thousand people, at least, over the course of your life and they'll know a thousand people each. And that puts you one person away from a million and two persons away from a billion!
So that's how you're connected and the things you do, they're like dropping stones in a pond. The ripples move outward and they affect things in ways that you can't fully comprehend. And it means that the things that you do and that you don't do are far more important than you think!
And so if you act this way, of course the terror of realizing that is that it actually starts to matter what you do! And you might say well that's better than living a meaningless existence. It's better for it to matter... But I mean if you really asked yourself would you be so sure? If you had the choice: “I can live with no responsibility whatsoever! The price I pay is that nothing matters. Or I can reverse it and everything matters, but I have to take the responsibility that's associated with that.”
It's not so obvious to me that people would take the meaningful path. Now you say well nihilists suffer dreadfully because there's no meaning in their life and they still suffer, yeah. But the advantage is they have no responsibility. So that's the payoff and I actually think that's the motivation to say, “Well, I can't help being nihilistic. All my belief systems have collapsed!”
It's like yeah, maybe. Or maybe you've just allowed them to collapse because it's a hell of a lot easier than acting them out. And the price you pay is a meaningless suffering. but you can always whine about that and people will feel sorry for you. And you have the option of taking the pathway of the martyr, so that's a pretty good deal all things considered.
Especially when the alternative is to bear your burden properly and to live forthrightly in the world. Well what Solzhenitsyn figured out and so many people in the twentieth century (it's not just him even though he's the best example) is that if you live a pathological life you pathologize your society and if enough people do that, then it's hell!
Really! Really... and you can read the Gulag Archipelago if you have the fortitude to do that and you'll see exactly what hell is like. And then you can decide if that's a place you'd like to visit. Or even more importantly, if it's a place you'd like to visit and take all your family and friends... because that's what happened in the 20th century.
On the importance of routines
No one can live without a routine, you just... Forget that, if you guys don't have a routine, I would recommend like you get one going because you cannot be mentally healthy without a routine!
You need to pick a time to get up. Whatever time you want. But pick one and stick to it! Because otherwise you disregulate your circadian rhythms and they regulate your mood.
On the importance of self-control
Plan a life you'd like to have. And you do that partly by referring to social norms. that's more or less rescuing your father from the belly of the whale. The other way you do that is by having a little conversation with yourself, as if you don't really know who you are.
Because you know what you're like. You won't do what you're told. You won't do what you tell yourself to do! You must have noticed that... It's like you're a bad employee and a worse boss and both of those work, you know, for you.
You don't know what you want to do and then when you tell yourself what to do, you don't do it anyway. So you should fire yourself and find someone else… but you know what my point is. You have to understand that you're not your own servant so to speak. You're someone that you have to negotiate with.
And you're someone that you want to present the opportunity of having a good life to and that's hard for people because they don't like themselves very much.
So, you know, they're always like cracking the whip and then procrastinating and cracking the whip and then procrastinating. It's like god, it's so boring and such a pathetic way of spending your time. I think what you have to do (and this is part of humility) is you have to look around you within your sphere of influence… like the direct sphere of influence and fix the things that announce themselves as in need of repair.
But one of the main reasons that people don't get what they want is because they don't actually figure out what it is. And the probability that you're going to get what would be good for you, let's say...
Which would even be better than what you want, right? Because you know, you might be wrong about what you want, easily, but maybe you could get what would really be good for you. Well, why don't you?
Well, because you don't try.
You don't think, “Okay, here's what I would like if I could have it.” And I don't mean in a way that you manipulate the world to force it to deliver you goods for status or something like that. That isn't what I mean. I mean something like...
Imagine that you were taking care of yourself like you were someone you actually cared for and then you thought, “Okay, I'm caring for this person. I would like things to go as well for them as possible. What would their life have to be like in order for that to be the case?”
Well people don't do that. They don't sit down and think alright, you know, let's figure it out! You've got a life. It's hard, obviously. It's like three years from now you can have what you need. You've got to be careful about it. You can't have everything. You can have what would be good for you, but you have to figure out what it is and then you have to aim at it.
Well, my experience with people has been: if they figure out what it is that would be good for them… And then they aim at it... Then they get it. And it's strange because… it's not quite that simple because, you know, you may formulate an idea about what would be good for you. And then you take ten steps towards that and you find out that your formulation was a bit off and so you have to reformulate. your goal, you know. So you're kind of going like this [gestures to show a zigzag] as you move towards the goal.
But a huge part of the reason that people fail is because they don't ever set up the criteria for success. And since success is a very narrow line and very unlikely, the probability that you're going to stumble on it randomly is zero!
So there's a proposition here and the proposition is if you actually want something, you can have it. Now the question then would be: “Well, what do you mean by actually want?”
And the answer is that you reorient your life... in every possible way… to make the probability that that will occur... as certain as possible! And that's a sacrificial idea, right? It's like you don't get everything, obviously. But maybe you can have what you need and maybe all you have to do to get it is ask.
But asking isn't a whim or today's wish. It's like you have to be deadly serious about it. You have to think, “Okay, like I'm taking stock of myself. And if I was going to live properly in the world… And I was going to set myself up such that being would justify itself in my estimation (and I don't mean as a harsh judge) exactly what is it that I would aim at?”
Sit on your bed one day and ask yourself, “What remarkably stupid things am I doing on a regular basis to absolutely screw up my life?”
And if you actually ask that question (But you have to want to know the answer, right? Because that's actually what asking the question means. It doesn't mean just mouthing the words. It means you have to decide that you want to know) you'll figure that out so fast it'll make your hair curl.
What to do when your passion runs out
If your life is anything like mine, there’s going to be a time in it when you decide to do a thing. And at first, you’ll love the thing. It’s an amazing thing! The greatness of the thing is so inspiring... it fills your tank so much, that you’ll hit the ground running for weeks, even months! And during that time you’ll never even question its greatness.
But then, maybe a couple of the things that made the idea so great feel a little less great now. Maybe some of the initial fuel that was fueling you runs out... Maybe the world changes in TOTALLY UNNECESSARY and ridiculously annoying ways that make you feel less enthusiastic about it!!!!
And then you have to decide (maybe even once you’re three quarters of the way through the project) whether you want to keep going. Like you’re still doing it... the default state is to keep doing it! So it’s hard to stop. But it seems at this point a little onerous. Like you’re not that excited about it anymore. Maybe you’ll say, ok let’s just stop...
Or maybe you’ll say, “I don’t care if this isn’t fun anymore. I decided to do a thing and I am ding dong gonna do it!!!” And that’s not like good… that’s not stick-to-it-iveness, that’s not perseverance. It’s just stubbornness.
It’s simply saying, “WORLD I DON’T CARE IF YOU DON’T WANT ME TO DO THIS, I DON’T CARE IF NOBODY LIKES THIS, I DON’T CARE IF IT’S NOT A GOOD IDEA ANYMORE!!!! I SAID I WAS GOING TO DO THIS THING AND YOU CAN BURN. DOWN. AROUND ME. BUT I AM GOING TO KEEP HIKING UP THIS HILL!!!! EVEN THOUGH IT’S HOT, EVEN THOUGH I DON’T LIKE IT, EVEN THOUGH I DON’T KNOW WHY I STARTED IN THE FIRST PLACE OR WHAT I’M GONNA SEE WHEN I GET UP THERE!!!!”
But THEN, even when you’re being driven by pure stubbornness. And not any kind of relentless fortitude, not the hustle that everyone says you need these days. But just because you said you were going to do it. Then, maybe you find something! You find something new, something interesting! Something inspiring! You learn something about yourself! Even if you should have given up long ago, you find some insight, or the world changes again and the idea becomes good!
But then you’ll be like, “SEE! I did it! I was relentless! I stuck with it and it was worth it! I knew it, even though everyone told me to quit!” Except it wasn’t your genius, it wasn’t your relentlessness, it was just that you were stubborn and you got lucky! Because it’s just as likely (maybe even more so) that the sprint you started out on (but that the world screamed to you, day after day, week after week, isn’t really working) is only going to get more sticky and laborious as time goes on.
And then the people who are watching you publicly subject yourself to this foolhardy task will shake their heads and say, “What are they doing? WHAT ARE THEY DOING???” And the only response that you have (the only honest response anyway) is: “I SAID I WAS GOING TO DO IT! I started doing the thing, and I can’t stop! And once I have done it, AT LEAST I WILL HAVE DONE IT!!”
And that will be something.
It'll be something.
What’s the right thing to do in a situation like that? Don’t come to me because my answer is do it! JUST DO IT!!!! And just keep going until you’re done as long as there is an end date, as long as it’s in sight, keep going! Even if it makes no sense! Even if you don’t really like it anymore, you never know what you’re gonna learn out there. You never know what you’re gonna see. At the end... at least you will have done it!
Other resources on how to live better lives
- Naval Ravikant's Almanac
- David Whyte's poetry. His TED talk is just the tip of the iceberg.
- The Waking Up App
- Strategies for Success - John Spence
- Impact Theory Interview - Sadhguru
Important questions you should know the answer to
- What are the situations that consistently frustrate you? Why?
- This will tell you what you value.
- What are the situations where you’ve consistently made stupid decisions in the past?
- Next time you’re in that situation, write down the way you made that decision to see what’s going wrong over time.
- What do you think would make your life successful?
- People often want to have some of the following: happiness, health, fame, money, relationships, security, freedom, knowledge, curiosity, etc.
- What would your day-to-day life look like if you could achieve those things that make for a successful life?
- Literally, DESCRIBE the day's events from the beginning of the day right to the end.
- [For students more so] - what type of career is part of that perfect day-to-day? What type of university gets you to that career? And what type of network, activities, and knowledge do you need to get into that university?
- What are you afraid of? What’s the consequence of each of your fears? What’s the consequence of each of those consequences?
- Keep writing down a chain of consequences for each fear until you figure out how your fears are holding you back.
- What is a REALISTIC/likely worst-case scenario for your life? Is it really that bad?
- P.S. For MOST people in the developed world, not having a house, a car, etc. isn’t all that likely.
- What could you do to prevent that REALISTIC worst case scenario from happening?
- What do you really want in the next X year(s)? What do you really not want in the next X year(s)?
- Think about everything from your career to your relationships to what you own to how you feel and so on.
- What are the things you could learn to just have an UNFAIR advantage over everyone else pursuing these same goals?
- Ex. If 99% of singers know how to sing well, but only 1% of singers know how to market their songs well, the 1% have an unfair advantage.
- What should you keep doing, do more of, do less of, or stop doing to get to your goals?
- Go through each point individually.
- And when you have these goals, figure out how to act on them in the short run! Ex. Plan to take on 2 of these goals in the next few weeks.
- What are the 3-5 areas of work that take up most of your time in an average day? Who are the 3-5 people that you spend the most amount of time with?
- How beneficial are these types of work and these people to you?
- What are the 5 things that most consistently make you happy? How often do you get to do them these days?
- You can ask the same question for what makes you unhappy.
Very Wise Quotes
As you can tell from the past sections, I really like short sayings. I think words are powerful because they can remind you of experiences (which encapsulate your real wisdom). It’s hard for everyone to interpret things the same because different words will remind them of different experiences with different emotions. But these words sparked a lot of important insight in my life this year. Maybe they also remind you of important experiences in yours 😊
"Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others." - Sam Harris
Yes, you can point out exceptions. But I think the point here is that it’s important to respect and develop our minds so that we can better achieve our goals. The two biggest ways I’ve learned to do this in 2020 are meditation and learning frameworks.
Meditation isn’t something I can point you in a specific direction for. I don’t fully understand it yet. But what I will say is this. By trying styles of meditation including Stoic, Kensho, Metta, and Headless meditation, I’ve encountered some VERY specific benefits:
- Learning to create a sense of happiness through gratitude
- Learning to create a sense of happiness through belonging
- Learning to listen more presently and compassionately. (Trust me, people NOTICE and tell me)
If you’re curious to try, I couldn’t recommend the Waking Up App enough 😮
Then, I’ve heard a lot of people market the value of ‘frameworks’ without saying what they actually are. I’m not about to be one of them :-)
Framework: A simple, repeatable way to make decisions or take actions more effectively / efficiently.
There are SO many amazing frameworks out there for you to learn, whether you’re trying to live, program software, start a business, and more.
- If you’re interested in problem-solving, start with Wikipedia.
- If you’re interested in coding, start with Youtube.
- If you’re interested in entrepreneurship, start with Atlassian.
- If you’re interested in life, start with Farnam Street.
I fundamentally believe that a world with people who know how to better use their minds (not just rationally, but in every aspect) would be a better world to live in. I sincerely hope you also contribute towards that version of a better world in your own life 🤗
“The purpose of life is finding the largest burden that you can bear and bearing it.” - Jordan Peterson
I’m a lot more wary about ‘the purpose of life’ now than I used to be before. I think it varies quite a lot from person to person. Personally, I understand why I was attracted to this quote in 2020. But I also know I wouldn’t want my mother to take on the largest burden possible. I’d want to ease her burden. That’s why I think it’s strange for me to universally say this is true.
“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.” - The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
This makes me feel very thoughtful and quiet. Just like above, I think it’s hard to find a universal purpose of life. But whenever I REALLY think about these words, they make me stop and realise something new. 🤔
“People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” - Simon Sinek
Yes, I think you can point out exceptions. But the major message is that you need to be VERY clear about having the right intentions in what you do. This year, I’ve unlocked SO many opportunities from just honestly trying to be nice. Ex. Interviewing researchers out of genuine curiosity for my podcast. Ex. Working with nonprofits because I genuinely hope to make an impact with my work.
Sometimes, I failed at being sincere and had to resort to hacking. But when I succeeded, I succeeded beyond my wildest expectations! 😊
“Not all success is due to hard work, and not all poverty is due to laziness. Keep this in mind when judging people, including yourself.” - Morgan Housel
It’s honestly very hard for me to keep this in mind for myself. It’s like I can forgive others, but I can’t forgive myself. 😢 I consistently underestimate the role of chance in others’ success and in my failures. I’m trying to get myself to see that, but it’s a work in progress. In the meantime, I’m trying to embrace an attitude of uncertainty regarding what I do and don’t know. I think the path of humility is a better path for humanity 🧠
“Humility is by definition a starting point—and it sends you off on a journey from there. The arrogance of certainty is both a starting point and an ending point—no journeys needed.” - Tim Urban
How conveniently placed based on the last quote. 😁 As I said, I very much agree. But the question is how do you embrace this in your life? Two suggestions:
- Challenge yourself to say, “I don’t know” more in a day. Even when you DO know! Just get used to saying that. For people like me it can be uncomfortable. But after you train how to say, “I don’t know” and get comfortable with it, then start seeking opportunities to not know :-) Not knowing implies possibilities. Certainty implies closure. Personally, I think possibilities are more fun to explore than closure 😉
- ASK DUMB QUESTIONS!!! I’m stuck in classes all day where the people have turned into memorisation robots that never ask questions! Then, those kids grow up to be adults who never ask questions. Don’t live like that. You won’t learn as quickly. And if you won’t take it from me, take it from someone who’s interviewed the most successful people in the world.
“We are always in a process of becoming and nothing is fixed.” - Bruce Lee
To the Daoists, the most powerful element is not a diamond, but water. If you put an obstacle in front of water, it’ll go around it. If it can’t go around it, it’ll go under it. If it can’t go under it, it’ll go over it. If it can’t go over it, it’ll build up until it can. If you put water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. If you put water in a glass, it becomes the glass. If you put water in a teacup, it BECOMES the teacup. Over time, water erodes the most resilient cliff faces of hard rock to mere grains of sand. Flow like water. Never stay stagnant. Constantly move under new horizons. Survive.
It’s certainly been quite a journey this year, I know.
It was full of challenges that we didn’t expect, that we didn’t want, and that we didn’t deserve. 😕
But the message I want to leave off with is that even amidst all the darkness, there is an opportunity to grow. I’ve gotten stronger from this year. I’ve gotten more used to pain. And that’s good because there’s a lot of pain that I’ll encounter in my life.
So many times this year, I’ve thought about how I spent all of my childhood wishing I could be a big kid and do more. And all of my teenage years wishing I could be a child and not have to worry about things. 😶 Well, one day, I’ll be in an even worse situation and look back at 2020, wishing I could be here again.
So why leave myself negative thoughts to look back on? Every few months this year, I experienced stress that I wasn’t prepared to deal with. But every single time, I got through it. I survived. I think that’s a very fundamental human quality.
It never ceases to amaze me just how much more we’re able (though not always willing) to endure.
So that’s my last message to you. I’d like you to thank you for reading this far. 🙏 And I’d also like to thank 2020. I hope one day the future version of me reads this again. And that he has this to say to the current me: “This year was the start of a LOT of growth that you wouldn’t even believe. I’m better off today because of it. Thank you for holding on.”
Inspired by Nicky Case's "The Evolution of Trust". Music: "Bleu" by Komiku (CC0).