Sunday, May 28, 2017

Finding Your Purpose, Mark Zuckerberg’s Commencement Speech

For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend watching Mark Zuckerberg’s commencement speech:

I love this speech- it is in equal parts funny, touching and full of relevant messages and takes, especially for our generation.

He touched upon the idea of finding purpose. It just so happens that this last week, I have been thinking about my purpose in life.

Have I found it yet? That’s a difficult one to answer. The answer also depends on the way you look at the question. But I’ll just say no, for now.

Am I doing things which will help me find it? … This is the more important one to answer.

But then again, is purpose this fixed entity? Like a golden key of some sort. That once you find it you hold on to it for the rest of your life, and keep pursuing it relentlessly. And that pursuit will lead to a life of fulfillment and the happiness that comes with it?

When Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook from his Harvard dorm room, his purpose was to connect the Harvard community. As Facebook grew, that evolved into connecting all colleges, and eventually the world. Today, Zuckerberg is driven to giving everyone a voice, and his traveling across the US to personally hear some of those voices.

Purpose keeps evolving. When I was in high school, I started a theatre club, which was, for me, one of the most meaningful experiences of high school. I was driven by my purpose to share my love and knowledge of theatre with other students in my school and get them excited about it. This last year, when I organized the first ever TEDx conference at my school, my purpose was to spread new ideas on campus, to inspire and intellectually stimulate the student community.

Based on the examples I gave, you might think that to fulfill your purpose you need to start something of your own- either a club, a company or a new initiative on campus. I used to believe this as well. I thought that unless I started my own company, I would never experience the fulfillment that comes with having a purpose and working for it. But that is not true at all, especially in today’s world.

While starting your own project or company is amazing and you should do it, not everyone can. You can find your purpose working for somebody else, or being a part of someone else’s project as well.
“If you don’t build your dream someone will hire you to help build theirs.” I know we have all heard this quote. While I completely agree, there is a caveat here: Sometimes the other person has similar dreams as yours, and if they’re asking you to join them, maybe you should.

Last summer, I interned at this company and I was able to find my purpose there. When I accepted their offer, I had no idea what exactly the company did. But this was a good company, it was in NYC, the role was good, so I took it. When I started working, they did a good job of communicating the company’s vision and mission to us interns. And I was lucky in that the mission deeply resonated with me. I could very vividly see how my work would create a positive impact on the users of the product. That, more than anything else, is what motivated me to rise out of bed every morning and get to work.

As Mark Zuckerberg said,
‘Purpose is that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are needed, that we have something better ahead to work for. Purpose is what creates true happiness.’

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‘You’ll Never Be Rich Since You’re Obviously Smart’…

I recently came across an article, titled, ‘This is why class valedictorians don’t become millionaires’.

Wait a minute, didn’t I always want to be a valedictorian? Isn’t that what my parents told me?- go to school, get good grades, that’s how you’ll be successful. 

Disclaimer: Though I did pretty well, I have not been a valedictorian either in college or in high school. But I always wanted to be. In high school, it was because I thought that the better my grades, the better my chances of getting into an ivy league college. In college, the better my grades, the better job I’d get, or the better grad school I’d get. In both cases though, I’d end up getting involved in various non-academic endeavors, which was perhaps one of the reasons I didn’t end up being a valedictorian.

Regardless, it was something I did want for myself. 

Turns out, class valedictorians do become reasonably successful in their respective careers, as one may expect. But, according to this article, research has shown that they do not, in fact, end up becoming billionaires or changing the world.
It seems that the traits that set one up for exceptional success in high school and college — “self-discipline, conscientiousness and the ability to comply with rules” — are not the same traits that lead individuals to start disruptive companies or make shocking breakthroughs.
Meanwhile, lots of mediocre students thrive outside a scholastic environment. A survey of over 700 American millionaires found that their average college GPA was 2.9. “College grades,” Barker writes, “aren’t any more predictive of subsequent life success than rolling dice.”
“School has very clear rules,” Barker says, “but life doesn’t. Life is messy.”
Naval Ravikant, the co-founder of AngelList, had something to say about this article, which I found rather interesting:

To be honest, this scares me a little. With admitted pomposity, I will say that I think I’m smart. A bit of a personal revelation: I happen to have landed an internship at this really big tech company which is supposedly really hard to get. But, I’m doing something which I’m not particularly excited by, or passionate about. I know there are other things I can do which I may found more exciting and meaningful. But hey, it’s a big company, it’s not all that bad, the perks are great, the work is challenging and stimulating, the pay is great… wait a minute, is this what he means by ‘just good enough’?…

I’ll end this here. I don’t have all the answers. But I do know that there will come times when I’ll have to make tough decisions which will impact the direction my life will take. And I’ll be thinking about this quote when I do. 

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Sunday, May 21, 2017

On Curiosity, Adding Value and Exceeding Expectations...

I finished my second internship at WeightWatchers two days ago. It was an amazing experience. I learnt a lot- about my industry, product management, and about work in general. I wanted to share some of that with you today. I promise I’ll try to not be preachy.

Number one: Go above and beyond what is expected of you

This is actually the reason I got this internship in the first place. When I was an Engineering Intern at WeightWatchers last summer, I ended up doing a significant amount of work which was not expected, required or even part of my job…

I started reading about the industry the company was in, looking at what competitors were doing, and even dropped in suggestions to the Product Managers on how they could possibly improve the app. I didn’t know whether or not they would take them, but I just wanted to help, and show my enthusiasm for the product. As the weeks progressed and I learnt more about what was going on in the industry, I came upon an idea which I believed could improve user growth and engagement. I researched the idea and created a presentation to illustrate the potential of this project. Again, no one had asked me to, nor was it part of my job.

I then reached out to a few people in the company who I thought could be instrumental in taking this forward- including the CPO and a Senior Product Manager I worked with — and tried to sell the idea to them. I was lucky that people of such high level in the company were open and willing to set up a meeting with an intern like me (even though sometimes it took more than a week to get a time on their calendar). The Product Manager then referred me to the Director of Product- I showed my presentation to him, and he was impressed. He then asked me to refine the concept further and do some more research. I did. We met and discussed the concept further over the course of the last three weeks of my internship.

At the time, I had no expectation or desire to get another internship with this company. I just wanted to learn about Product Management and I was genuinely excited about the idea I was working on. 
As it turns out, on my last day as an intern last summer, the Director of Product offered me another internship, to come work for him in Product Management for a semester. I would be working directly under one of the most influential and instrumental Product persons in the entire company. I was elated with joy and euphoria. The funny thing is, I had neither expected nor consciously worked towards getting this. It just happened. 

Well, no, it didn’t ‘just happen’. All that work I did apart from my regular job- that’s what I led to it. 
With the risk of sounding pompous, I will add that what I did beyond my job got me noticed for being someone who takes initiative — if you can succeed in doing that, that’s half the battle won. The other half is your ability and hard work. 
Do your job well, the best you can. But also try to deliver more than what is expected from you. Go above and beyond what you are assigned. This is something I’ve learnt from my father, and it has served me well in all my endeavors.

Two: Stay Curious

About your work. About other people’s work. About your industry. About the way things are done.
One benefit of being a beginner in any field is that you’re not used to working a certain way. And so, at least for me, a lot of questions came to mind as to why things were done the way they were, why a particular approach was taken over another… others were ‘what if’ questions..what if we took another approach instead of this one?’ … and I didn’t hesitate to ask my questions. A lot of the times, I got convincing answers. At other times, my questions to my boss turned into useful ideas, with my boss saying: ‘Yeah, we never thought about that. Let’s try it.’
The other upside to asking questions is simply the learning that you get from it. It’s an obvious fact that the more questions you ask, the more answers you’ll get and the more you’ll learn about the field. Even when the answers aren’t there, or are perhaps not as straightforward, thinking about those questions will help you grow. I know it did for me.

Three: Focus on Adding Value

To the company/product/person/people that you’re working for.
Truth be told, this isn’t something I learnt directly from the internship. I learnt it from my good friend, Sar, who approaches life with the mindset of helping people, with the simple question: how can I help or add value to the people around me… Inspired by him, I have begun to apply this mindset in my own life. 

This attitude proved to be immensely valuable in my internship. During the last week or so of my internship, my boss told me that we’d have to defer the project I had been working on for at least a few months because the engineers and designers were busy working on other projects which had been in the backlog for a while. He then offered that I shadow him for the remaining days of the internship- which means I get to go to a couple of meetings with him everyday. For the rest of the time though, I was free since my project had been deferred and I there was nothing more I could have done on it until the engineers started working on it. So I found myself with three days left for my internship to end and nothing to do apart from attending a few meetings. I could be reading random articles on the internet sitting in office using the Macbook that they gave me and getting paid for it. I had a legit excuse now. I’m sure my boss would have been more than fine with it. 
But I chose to not do that. It just didn’t feel right. Not so much because I’d be getting paid for those hours in which I did my own work, but simply because it didn’t make sense. As trite as it may sound, I seek to live a life of meaning. And sitting in the office doing random personal stuff is not meaningful. What is meaningful is adding value to the people around me. That’s precisely what I tried to do. 

I messaged a couple of my co-workers, telling them that my work for my boss is pretty much done, and if they need any help at all, I’d be happy to do so. Meanwhile, in the meetings in which I shadowed my boss, I made it a point to note down the items that were being discussed. I later did my own research and ideation on them, all with the purpose of giving suggestions and ideas that could potentially help the project that was being discussed. I knew I was only an intern who didn’t even know the ins and outs of the projects that were being discussed in those meetings, but I thought that if out of my ten suggestions, even one was implemented, then I would have added some value. And that’s what I was there for. 
That’s what we are all here for. To add value to the world. 
After the first meeting, all of the ideas I gave to my boss were ones which either he had already considered or they weren’t feasible for some reason. But, my boss liked a few of the ideas that I gave after the second meeting about a high priority project which was under development. He then ended up giving me all the relevant project documentation and told me to make an exhaustive report consisting of suggestions and ideas for improvement. This turned out to be a really fun, rewarding exercise for me, providing me with valuable insight about a specific domain of Product Management. Two days later, when I showed him my report, he seriously considered some of the ideas I had written down. Win-win. 

I had not set out to get an assignment like this. I hadn’t set out with any motive of personal gain. My thinking was simple- I am here to make meaning, and I will do so by trying my best to add value. 

1. Go beyond expectations
2. Stay Curious
3. Add Value

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Saturday, May 6, 2017

Musings on Rain

I can hear the church-bells as I sit here, on ‘top of the world’. I don’t come here a lot, this magnificent balcony of Rush Rhees, punctuated with pillars which assert their majesty. The weather is perfect: too cold for shorts, yet too warm for a jacket. The grass has turned into happier shades of green as if to express gratitude to the clouds.
Rain isn’t typically associated with joy or pleasant weather here in the West. I have to say though, that after having lived here for the last three years, I am not surprised at all that rain is associated with gloom. Here in Rochester we see only around 60 sunsets a year. The winters are long and the sun shines only once in a blue moon, but when it does, students ditch the library to sit outside and soak in the sunshine. I myself have come to appreciate the sun a lot more since I have come here.

But where I grew up, rain is welcomed with nothing less than celebratory joy. After months of searing heat, the rain brings the much needed cool. It waters our crops, on which depends the livelihood of the countless people engaged in farming. Rain is also associated with romance, and is a typical backdrop of romantic scenes in TV soaps and movies.

For urban-dwellers like myself, the fun of rain is sitting inside and enjoying a cup of hot teai and ‘pakoras’ (a fried Indian snack), which, at any other time of the year, wouldn’t be as pleasant, given the heat. And of course, me being quirky, adventurous type, I also like to go out, get wet in the rain, and experience the pure delight of having those heavenly diadems pierce my skin. The traffic on the roads slows down. The sounds of the roaring engines and the honking combined with the pelting and the pitter-patter of the rain makes for an interesting medley, one which I have begun to enjoy. As I make my way in between the puddles, invariably, I do end up stepping into one and getting my ankles wet. My mother warned me about this. I didn’t care to listen. It’s okay. The pleasure of being out in the rain is so worth it, after all.

For me, rain still has the same effect as it did back at home. It’s an almost infallible source for creative inspiration. I had written this around 7 years ago, and it is as true as it was back then.

pitter patter, pitter-patter
the sound touches my heart
inspires me to continue my literary art
mighty and influential is the rain
I am wasted by the latter
Haunted and captivated
I stand here motionless and still
Watching them fall
These pretty pearls of nature
As they descend to the ground

It is also the perfect antidote for a bad day..
[Last stanza of a poem I wrote 6 monsoons ago]

It was a bad day, truth be told
Yet, now I feel rather sedated
With the window open, out I glance
And the breeze kisses my hair,
The uncanny aura of romance.


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Friday, April 14, 2017

Lessons from 'The Art of War' By Sun Tzu

This week I finished re-reading The Art of War by Sun Tzu. This really short book is such a goldmine of lessons which can be applied in day-to-day life especially in leadership, politics and business. Let’s take a closer look at some of the lessons Uncle Tzu had for us.  

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Don't Think. Just Do It.

Found this excerpt from a journal entry I wrote a few months ago and thought I'd share it here:

There are some people, who just think so much about what they want to do, and, as a result, don't actually end up doing it. I am sure you know at least one person like that. Well, I am, or at least was, until now, one of those people.

When you have goals, when you have deadlines to meet and when there's a lot of workload, you have no time to think about it, you just have to go out there and do it. That's typically the case in school or college or when you have a demanding job. But what about those periods in between- when school has just got over, or you have summer break, or you're just out of college and still figuring out what to do, or you've just quit your job and are looking for a change. In these times, life is completely in your control. No one is there to tell you what to do, you have full freedom to choose how you spend your time. Sounds awesome, doesn't it? Most of us dream of living such a life. But when the time comes, if you're wired like I am, you might just lose yourself, only because of this one word- "THINK".  

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Books I Read in 2016

I love to read. Back in middle school and high school, I used to finish at least 2 to 3 books every month, even more during the holidays. In the last two years, my reading habit has deteriorated as far as books go. Sure, I have begun to read a lot more articles than I used to earlier. But books are books, and in my opinion offer a more edifying reading experience than articles- be it the pleasure of reading fiction or the insight and depth that you gain by spending 300 pages on one idea as opposed to a thousand word article on the same subject.
Here, I have given the (rather short) list of books I read this past year, including brief personal comments and occasional links to my posts on the books.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

My Three Favorite TED Talks

Ken Robinson- Schools Kill Creativity

Julian Treasure- How to Speak So People Will Listen

Amy Cuddy- Power of Body Language

1) Ken Robinson- Schools Kill Creativity

Education is a topic that has always been close to my heart. I was lucky enough to go to a school which experimented a lot with the way students were taught and with what they were taught, in order to try and improve the system. I always had strong reactions and opinions about the way we were taught in various classes and about the way the system was set up, which was not without some fundamental flaws, in my opinion.