Book: Bird by Bird Some Instructions on Writing and Life

If you love writing, but get stuck at not knowing how to write better, this book is for you. It’s a light-toned therapy session that consists of practical lessons on how to write better. I found it reassuring to learn about the struggles that even great writers faced. It was equally reassuring to know that writing is tough, but if you keep at it, eventually you’ll get something out of it.

The book can get dull as it drags on, if you are not that interested in the author’s personal anecdotes. The main take-aways for me include:

  • Just sit your ass down and force yourself to write. It’ll come
  • First drafts are always horrible, for everyone. Just let it all out at first
  • Little by little, just write. Or in the author’s father’s words: “bird by bird”!

Below are few great quotes from the book:

E.L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. “You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard

“Do it every day for a while”, my father kept saying. “Do it as you would do scales on the piano. Do it by prearrangement with yourself. Do it as a debt of honor. And make a commitment to finishing things”

Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do – the actual act of writing – turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said. ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird’.”

One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, “It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do—you can either type or kill yourself.”

This blog is my “tea ceremony”. I don’t know what I would get out of it. I just enjoy it.

Bonus: Below are the four blogs that inspire me to write as often as I can

 

Book: The Messy Middle

The Messy Middle is a new book written by the founder of Behance, a networking platform for designers. He is now the Chief Product Officer at Adobe. The book reflects his bootstrapping years at Behance and great lessons on businesses, career and entrepreneurship. Even if you are not an entrepreneur (I am not), this book has some insights on how tough it is to be one and fantastic lessons on how to advance your career. The book may get a bit mundane as it progresses, but the good thing is that many small chapters aren’t related to one another and you can skip forward or move backward at will. No need to read it in order. Below are a few of my favorite passages:

On self-awareness

Self-awareness starts with the realization that when you’re at a peak or in a valley, you’re not your greatest self. Self-awareness means dispelling your sense of superiority and the myths that people believe about you.

Ultimately, self-awareness is about preserving sound judgement and keeping relatable and realistic. However big your project or ambition, your journey is nothing more than a sequence of decisions: You’re probably many decisions away from success, but always one decision away from failure. Clarity matters. The more aware you are of yourself and your surroundings, the more data you have to inform your decisions, and the more competitive you will be

On authenticity

Nobody remembers or is inspired by anything that fits in

I do the work I do because I have to. I can’t help it. I was born this way – I can’t be false to any man. I know what the current trends and moods are, but I can’t concern myself with them. I also can’t force myself (as many do) to make work that fits within the going commercial style. Trends change and I believe that is why my work is still relevant today, because I am the only one making work like mine.

The idea of being born “weird” means you have a gift – like being born a star athlete. It would a sin to deny my gift. My “weird” is powerful. It stands out. I know that it attracts some individuals and clients, and repels others. I have to be cool with that. I am not for everyone – just the sexy people. Like you.

And as American artist Sol LeWitt once advised, “Learn to say ‘fuck you’ to the world once in a while”. Do your thing.

On doing the hard work

There’s a reason so few people do hard work beyond their job description: It’s hard work. You run the risk of extending energy or falling behind in other pars of your life, but these are the costs of playing at the frontier and having the opportunity to lead something new. You’re either a cog in the system or a designer of new and better systems. Of course, if you aspire to transform your industry and leave a valuable mark in your world, you’ll challenge every system you find yourself confined by. When you see something wrong, take the initiative to fix it.

When you find yourself frustrated or critical, channel that energy into persistent creation. If it’s not your job, pursue it anyway. Do research, run tests, or draft white papers and presentations to prove your position, even if it’s on your own time. It’ll give you a sense of satisfaction that no amount of preordained tasks will.

A shared trait among entrepreneurs and innovators within big companies is defying prescribed roles. The future is drafted by people doing work they don’t have to do. You need to be one of those people and hire them, too. There is too much wonder and talking and too little doing. So don’t talk: do

On how difficult it is to stay positive when dealing with hardships of entrepreneurship. I am not an entrepreneur, but it’s something I feel relatable, as I believe many do.

When I think back to those lost years, I recall a constant somber loneliness, a suffering from the feeling that nobody else could relate. The struggle was further compounded by the optimism I had to exude to my team and potential customers and partners. My hope had to be minded deep beneath the surface of fear and reality. The juxtaposition of the intensity of a start-up and feeling invisible and despondent was soul crushing. Staying positive was exhausting, and there were times when I felt depressed.

Without a steady stream of rewards, you will feel empty. You must supplement this void with manufactured optimism. You will have to endure anonymity and a persistent state of frustration. You’ll have to generate a unique and intrinsic sense of belief in yourself as you manage the blows to your plan and ego.

 

Ecstasy after toiling

My background is mostly in marketing. It can get very subjective. What looks beautiful to you may not to others. Some copy that may sound appealing to you may not to others.

Coding is different. Either your code works the way you want it to or it has bugs or malfunctions. Unfortunately, coding is hard for me. Without a technical background, anything related to programming such as installing software, setting environment, missing a comma or colon and getting the code to work is hard for me. But at the same time, whenever I get some code to work as intended, I am overwhelmed by a burst of joy. A heavy dose of pride and fulfillment. Ecstasy after toiling.

In 2017, a few friends and I participated in an M&A case competition in Nebraska. We had to work long hours every day for 2 weeks for each round (there were two rounds). On top of our daily life and schoolwork. Only after we advanced in the 1st round were we allowed to go the other round. I remember in the first round, we put a lot of effort in our case and presentation. Every comma, dot, word or even the order of annotations were looked over. We finished our proposal at 2:30am, 6 hours away from the deadline after a marathon weekend. After we pressed the “send” button, the feelings were indescribably awesome. Full of pride and fulfillment. Whether we would win didn’t matter at the time at all. Ecstasy after toiling.

In the second round, we dropped the ball. We didn’t have the same level of effort and intensity. The day we submitted the 2nd proposal, nobody felt good. We actually fought between us because I didn’t feel the others put in enough effort.

We are often told to be patient. Things worth having take time. Or something along that line they usually say. The potential ecstasy at the end of the tunnel may give each of us the motivation to try harder and again the next day. But for sure the road is hard.

Indifference

I was told by one professor at school that I was conscientious. I used to think that it was a good thing. A compliment. I am not sure I do now.

Naval Ravikant was right when he said that indifference was freedom. Indifference meant that you did whatever you wanted without caring too much what others thought. To what was outside of your control.

I tend to care. Too much and unnecessarily. I care about how others perceive my actions, my statement, my emails, my work, my look and so on. I give too much attention to whether others will think the next thing coming from me is stupid. To whether I am acting as an idiot even though they likely don’t care that much. To my aesthetically challenged look.

I know what to do now to improve myself and my life. A lot of work ahead to train myself to be indifferent or more indifferent. It’s one of the reasons why I have this blog. Besides practicing writing and giving back what I have learned, this medium is one way I think I can train to be more indifferent. I used to have lots of edits and entries I wrote but deleted out of fear that I would sound stupid. I probably still sound stupid. But I don’t do edits much any more. I just write it down and hit the “publish” button. It feels more liberating. And I have gained more confidence.

Naval is right. “Indifference is freedom”.

Naval Ravikant’s take on death

Naval Ravikant is one of those people that I love to listen to. He is the CEO of Angelist and a deep thinker with remarkable insights. Below is one of the most significant lessons I learned from him. All credit is to Naval and Tim Ferriss for interviewing him.

I think a lot of the struggle we have in life comes from a deep, deep fear of death. It can take form in many ways. One can be that we want to write the great American novel. We want to achieve something in this world. We want to build something. We want to build a great piece of technology, or we want to start an amazing business, or we want to run for office and make a difference. A lot of this comes from this fear that we’re going to die, so we have to build something that lasts beyond us.

Obviously, the obsession that parents have with their children. A lot of that is warranted biological love, but some of that is also the quest for immortality. Even some of the beliefs of some of the more outlandish parts of religion I think fall into that. I don’t have the quest for immortality anymore. I think I came to this fundamental conclusion. I thought about it a lot. The universe has been around for a long time, and the universe is a very, very large place. If you’ll study even the smallest bit of science, for all practical purposes we are nothing. We are ameba. We are bacteria to the universe. We’re basically monkeys on a small rock orbiting a small backwards star in a huge galaxy, which is in an absolutely staggeringly gigantic universe, which itself may be part of a gigantic multiverse. This universe has been around probably for 10 billion years or more, and will be around for tens of billions of years afterwards. Your existence, my existence is just infinitesimal. It’s like a firefly blinking once in the night.

We’re not really here that long, and we don’t really matter that much. Nothing that we do lasts. Eventually, you will fade. Your works will fade. Your children will fade. Your thoughts will fade. These planets will fade. This sun will fade. It will all be gone. There are entire civilizations which we remember now with one or two words. Sumerian. Mayan. Do you know any Sumerians or Mayans? Do you hold any of them in high regard or esteem? Have they outlived their natural lifespan somehow? No. I think we’re just here for an extremely short period of time. From here, you can choose to believe in an afterlife or not. If you really do believe in an afterlife, then that should give you comfort and make you realize that maybe everything that goes on in this life is not that consequential. On the other hand, if you don’t believe in an afterlife, you should also come to a similar conclusion. You should realize that this is such a short and precious life that it’s really important that you don’t spend it being unhappy. There’s no excuse for spending most of your life in misery. You’ve only got 70 years out of the 50 billion or so that the universe is going to be around. Whatever your natural state is, it’s probably not this. This is your living state. Your dead state is true over a much longer time frame. When I think about the world that way, I realize it’s just kind of a game.

Which is not to say that you go to a dark place, and you start acting unethically and immorally. Quite the contrary, you realize just how precious life is and how it’s important to make sure that you enjoy yourself, you sleep well at night, you’re a good moral person, you’re generally happy, you take care of other people, you help out, but you can’t take it too seriously. You can’t get hung up over it. You can’t make yourself miserable and unhappy over it. You just have a very short period of time here on this earth. Nothing you do is going to matter that much in the long run. Don’t take yourself so seriously. That just kind of helps make everything else work.

I felt fortunate to come across this one and a half years ago. It was instrumental to the change in my perspective in life and a lot of what I do. Hopefully, you’ll find something of value from him.

 

Peter Thiel’s interview

I was listening to this interview with Peter Thiel while in the gym yesterday (Yes, I like to listen to podcasts, interviews and John Oliver while sweating it out! Weirdo me). There are two points that stood out for me.

A bit of context, Peter Thiel was the founder of Paypal and recruited what would be known as the Paypal Mafia, a group of individuals who would found successful startups. Peter is known for being a wildly successful entrepreneur, investor and contrarian thinker who challenges assumptions and established thinking.

He didn’t think Facebook would be that big

Peter was one of the first investors in Facebook when the company was at $5 million valuation. He said in the interview (around minute 7:20) that he didn’t think it would be as big as it eventually became. It would be worth his investment if Facebook just dominated the college student market. We all know how it turned out.

I sometimes beat myself up a little bit for not seeing far ahead in terms of companies that I analyzed or missed. But if the great Warren Buffett missed Amazon, Google and for many years, Apple (he is now one of the biggest shareholders of Apple) and if Peter Thiel couldn’t figure out Facebook’s eventual great future, then I guess it’s OK for any of us to be…human.

First meeting with Mark Zuckerberg

Peter Thiel talked about the first meeting with Mark around minute 4:20. He recalled that Mark went to the meeting with Sean Parker and Sean did most of the talking. Having watched a few of Mark’s interviews and speeches, he doesn’t appear to me as an exceptional salesman. Yet, people often claim that if you don’t have sales skill, you can’t be an entrepreneur. While it may be true in most cases, it’s not definitive. Mark and Facebook still getting the money without doing most of the talking was the proof of that.

Point is that I increasingly believe that every advice is contextual. Most of the time, there is barely one-size-fits-all or hard-and-fast advice. What works for one person may not work for others. One piece of advice is like a tool in your arsenal. One tool cannot do everything. It serves only a specific purpose in a certain set of scenarios. Constant learning gathers many tools at your disposal and learning what tool to use in a scenario is probably what makes a person succeed.

Compounding Effect

Even though there are still 12 days or something left in September, it is the busiest month so far in this little project’s history. It is mainly due to my commitment to write more. The target is 100 posts by the end of the year and even though I don’t write every day (try to), I do as often as I can.

It’s nice to see some appreciate what I have to say, but the biggest benefit is that the more I write, the more I want to write. Before, it took quite an effort for me to sit down, have an agenda, start writing, edit, have a friend edit again for me and decide whether I should publish the piece or not. But mostly it was due to my lack of commitment to do it often. Nowadays, it became significantly easier for me to finish an entry. The compounding effect starts to show some impact on my personal progress as well as on the number of interactions with this blog.

I am not the first to notice it, but apparently compounding effect is the secret. Put some effort in something every day and let it compound. Study, career, side projects, writing, love, friendship, gym. Anything can be greater when compounded. The hard part is to avoid distractions, make it a routine and be patient. It’s exceedingly difficult. But like someone wise said: difficult choices, easy life. Easy choices, difficult life.

 

A podcast worth listening to

I enjoy listening to episodes in the Knowledge Project by Shane Parrish. There are a lot of interesting and helpful lessons from conversations between Shane and his guests. The one episode I love the most is here, between the host and Naval Ravikant. I have listened to this episode for at least 5 times simply because it is so good.

Naval talked about a wide range of topics. The following points stood out the most to me:

  • The importance of reading and how to read books
  • The importance of habits
  • Happiness & anger
  • The meaning of life

It is a two-hour conversation. A bit long but definitely worth your time. If you look for something to listen to in your car, in the gym or just to have a peaceful time at a coffee shop, I’d highly recommend it. After that, his conversation with Tim Ferriss is a good follow-up.

Have a good weekend ahead!