Prioritize health, time for yourself – lessons from a 94 year old

Observations on living well, dying without regrets from a 94 year old.
Last week, my 75 year old father met his cousin J after 20+ years and asked him for lessons on living life well. He shared his insights and regrets with him. 
the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…
– Spock 
or one.
Captain Kirk
We have been taught to prioritize our needs below the needs of our family or colleagues. Usually, individuals cannot find the right balance and outweigh their own needs over the others. 
Recharge yourself
You must’ve have skipped a walk through the neighborhood, time at the gym over taking that call with the client. When was the last time, you said no to a customer call because you had an appointment with yourself at the gym? Likely never!
His advice – find the right balance, prioritize your health, give time to yourself. Recharge yourself so that you can help others better. 

A marriage needs effort even if you are 70 – lessons from a 94 year old

Observations on living well, dying without regrets from a 94 year old.
Last week, my 75 year old father met his cousin J after 20+ years and asked him for lessons on living life well. He shared his insights and regrets with him. 
My wife died 25 years ago and I wish that in her final years, I had focused on making my relations better… 
– J
J was 69 years old when she passed away and he had a life time with his wife, Yet, for J, it is still 25 years from her death. His relationship with his wife wasn’t bad. But, he wishes that he had put in more effort in making his wife’s final years joyful. Their egos got in their way.
For most humans, life is long. It is unfair that they have to carry the burden of regrets through a massive chunk of time.
This insight is poignant.
One has to continue working on ones relationship with their significant other. Drop your ego and focus on making their lives joyful so that you have happy memories to look back to and not regrets. The lesson applies to other individuals in the family too.
You don’t want to pass on with the the thought “If only I had treated them better”.


Finding mentors – 6 tips to a younger me

Life as an entrepreneur is exciting because it throws new challenges your way. In the last week, a new challenge popped up on my radar that requires stretching way outside my comfort zone. Handling this challenge requires velvet gloves.

Though, the interwebs have an article for every situation, they fell short in a complicated situations such as the one I was facing. We needed advice to walk through this challenge –  a veritable grizzled Gandalf to guide our journey through middle earth.

The question in front of us was – where do we find this wizard? And on such a short notice.

Image result for lord of the rings gandalf

Flashback to Harpreet – 20 years ago

Early in my career, I had very few mentors. I was keen about signing some up but with little success. Actually, replace “keen” with “obsessed” – my asian heritage which deeply values experience and “elders” had a big part to play in this obsession.

I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong.

Over the years, I have stumbled and lucked into finding excellent mentors. The set of tips in this blog are what I wish I knew 20 years ago.

1 Formal mentorship programs are a crutch: ignore them

Sun Microsystems (my first company in the US) had a formal mentorship program and paired people up with mentors. I was enamored with the program. I was ecstatic when I signed up my role model but the mentorship never achieved lift-off.

The program was a big dud for me.

In hindsight, the reason that program failed was that a number mentors were “nudged” by their boss’ to mentor people as part of their growth plan. Thus, the relationship was forced to begin with.

Too often, the mentors in bigger companies are looking at these programs to forward their careers. Good mentors are not in it for themselves – they genuinely love helping people.

So get out of the crutch of corporate mentorship programs. If you do have such a program, interview the mentor thoroughly to understand their motivations and sign up with them only if your interests align.

2 A good corpus of work is a necessity: start producing work

If you haven’t put in the work, don’t bother. You need good quality and a reasonable quantity of work to get someone interested in mentoring you. If you don’t have a corpus of work and you are focused on networking –  stop networking and start producing.

3 Be interested in the mentors work: read up on their work

A good overlap of work is not a necessity but helps. It’s like dating someone who has similar interests to you – realizing that the date has put in enough work to understand your likes and dislikes. Understanding the mentors work and common interest creates the foundations for the relationship. Please don’t fake this! (Don’t stalk – this is where the dating analogy falls down here)

4 Imitation is flattery: steal liberally from mentors

You don’t need a formal relationship to learn from someone else.

Pay attention to the mentor: What are they doing well?  What do they read? What are they writing? What exemplary behaviors do they exhibit?

Build a checklist of items that they do well. Build a list of things that they are reading, writing and people they are following.

Once you have these lists, steal the items that make the most sense. Don’t steal or copy their work – make them their own, provide your color. Austin Kleon has written a book called “Steal like an artist” on this core idea – highly recommend reading it.

This realization that I don’t need a formal relationship with my mentor was an aha moment in my career.

I was in the organization of a charismatic leader who was loved by everyone. People stuck around with him through thick and thin. I admired him.

What made him tick?

I observed him in public setting, in meetings, in town-halls and in 1:1 conversations.

I realized that the core principles supporting his leadership were genuine concern for every member in the organization (not just his team), optimism and an unshakeable belief in himself and his team.

I started by copying his optimism, gradually building the muscle for the other items. These principles have really helped me over the years.

His principles became the core principles for my leadership style.

5 Your next mentor is around the corner: pay attention to everyone around you

If you don’t need a formal relation then you can learn from anyone and everyone has something to teach you.

X imbibes new knowledge at lightning speed – how does he do that? Y’s team is always happy – seems like deep 1:1s are a key to her success – steal it.

Pay attention, there is a lot to learn from your colleagues, your family and friends.

6 Pay it forward: You are a Gandalf to someone

For every mentor that you need help from, there is an individual that you can help out.

Be always open – return the phone call and listen. If you cannot help this person, find someone who can help them. 

So that’s it those are the tips that have really helped me.

Back to present day: did I find my Gandalf?

In the span of 48 hours, I had called 4 stalwarts in my industry. Each jumped on a call, we ended up with a framework for a solution to the problem and we are executing on the approach.

I didn’t find one Gandalf but have multiple wizards from multiple realms that I can lean on.

Truly blessed.

Startup life – bite size working

Working in an early stage startup is invigorating because of the diversity of challenges that one tackles through the day. The number of challenges and never ending task list that come along can be potentially overwhelming and unlike a bigger company there aren’t enough hands on the deck to throw the work to.

I now force myself to take smaller bites than what I was accustomed to. Putting less on my plate than I normally did enables me to have those smaller bites.

I think of work as a buffet wherein I can go back for seconds at any point in time or skip through to the desserts. However, if I fill my plate up to begin with, it is likely that I am going to miss the dessert.

I adopted this method in the last month or so. Work became so much more fun – once I got past the mental block of “I am not doing nearly enough”. The main reason of greater enjoyment is that I got results faster and each of the results comes along with a dopamine hit of accomplishment (huffington post on dopamine).


Manage focus with Pomodoro Technique

I have long believed and now I know that is backed by research that multi-tasking doesn’t quite work. When you switch context to check that beep from your phone, it takes your brain about 15–20 minutes to come back into the flow state. A surprising research in the last month showed that a phone kept upside down on your desk has a detrimental impact on your productivity.

That said, it is extremely hard to manage your focus when you are sitting in an open office space, with the web right in front of you, emails shouting for attention and time and again I find that I am lost.

I use the Pomodoro technique to manage my focus when I find that I am off the beaten track. I was surprised to hear that a colleague hadn’t heard about the technique. So here goes…

The name Pomodoro, is based on kitchen timers in Italy. The timers looked like tomatos and you twist them to start a 25 minute block.

The technique itself is very easy. Whenever, you want to focus, you start the timer and focus on 1 task for 25 minutes. Once you reach the 25 minutes time frame, take a 5 minute break and start again. Run through four pomodoro’s and take a 10 minute break.

To be candid, I have never been able to run through 4 pomodoro’s back-to-back but getting to 2–3 improves productivity significantly.

Another iteration on the technique is that your daily plan should include a certain number of pomodoro’s that work for you. For example an 8–10 pomodoro day would be an extremely productive day. In this case, you drop your checklists, find slots to make progress and get through items in those focus blocks.

From a tooling perspective, timer on your phone works easily. There are a number of Chrome extensions that keep track of your pomodoro on the web.

Prem Narula – lessons from a life well lived

About 3 months back, when I heard that Prem uncle passed away in his sleep, I broke down and cried. I cried like I haven’t in a long time. His passing away has left a huge hole that can never be filled.

I was 18 when I had my last substantial interaction with him. I must have met him about 3-4 times since I left Mumbai in 1992 and 26 years later, he (and his wife) still remains one of my favourite human beings. For that matter, his parents were fantastic human beings too.

I got thinking in the last month or so – In a fast moving world, filled with short interactions — why do I miss him? Why was he special? What are the lessons that I can bring in my life and hopefully in yours too from him? What made him an extra-ordinary human being?

He wasn’t my teacher, relative but a neighbour who became much more.

Prem uncle and Sangeeta aunty, lived in our apartment complex were in their 30s when we met them. Presumably, I saw him at his peak — financial and health wise. He had a fantastic business going, the confidence that comes along with having made it and made it very fast. As a 16 year old, going down his career path was something that I seriously considered.

Then, it came crashing down — he had to go through two heart valve replacement surgeries, one anticipated (and I think triggered by chain smoking) and another one because the first valve was defective. Followed by a paralytic attack. Between these three events, he suffered a betrayal by his business partner who pounced on the opportunity to take over the business and drove him out. All of this in a span of 2 years :-(. Having recently suffered a betrayal myself, I can truly empathise the pain and the hurt that he had to go through.

The financial success then wasn’t what made him extra-ordinary. It isn’t his material success in the world that mattered to me. The people who hung around him who craved the reflection of his material success evaporated very quickly.

Here are the lessons that I learnt from him:

As I got thinking, I realised, the reason I loved him, or my sister loved and now his son and nephews and nieces loved him was because of unconditional love and acceptance that he radiated towards us . I truly have never seen any other human as generous as he(and aunty) was in sharing his love. And when he accepted you in his life — he truly well accepted you for all the good and the bad.

When he interacted with you, you were truly the centre of his attention. There were no half measures in terms of looking at others. This was important for a 15 year old kid — a human/an elder paying complete attention to me and acknowledging my viewpoints.

Bringing joy and fun in every interaction with friends and family. Be it the nightly carrom sessions or the hours of Nintendo games or forcing me to play Antakshari (an Indian singing game). The focus was truly to enjoy life and bring joy to everyone involved. To this date, when I miss him, I reach out to my Nintendo and play it. Consequently, I never play antakshari because it reminds me too much of him and wonderful time gone by that can never be recaptured.

Playfulness in relationships. I loved how he brought play in relationships. Minor irreverence perhaps — not the right word  perhaps gentle ribbing are the right words. A minor playful drama with his wife, father and mother pretending to hide his smoking habit while it was out there in the open. Jumping in the car to go get paan in the middle of the night or for that matter getting me to sit on the hood of the Jeep and drive in the beach. It was all great fun.

That’s really it! Living a well lived life doesn’t need trappings of success, huge amounts of money or too many accomplishments.

Looking back at his life and seeing how well I embody those lessons. I find that I fall woefully short. Life today has become too serious, attention fragmented by devices perhaps a small bit of playfulness is what I embody from his life. His passing away has been a wake up call for me to refactor my life to the qualities that I admired in him and admire in others.

It is worth repeating that a life well lived doesn’t need trappings of success, huge amounts of money, too many accomplishments, status but what it needs is unconditional love, joy, fun, playfulness.

Prem uncle – you will be forever missed but you will continue in our hearts. Thank you for all the fun times and the love and congratulations on a fantastic life and life well lived!

Prem uncle, Sangeeta aunty and their son – late 1990s


Show me the money framework for improving decision making skills

PC: Michel Curi

2017 was the year I agonised over buying a Tesla Model X. I ran through all the reasons I needed it — beautiful, gorgeous, drives fantastic, best technology and green. I just couldn’t come to a conclusion, because the price was a serious consideration. The problem at hand was that the reasons I wanted to buy it were intangibles.

That brings us to a key component in decision making — what do you do when you are facing a decision and there are numerous intangibles at hand? Paraphrasing Lord Kelvin, the famous British physicist, “The challenge of intangibles — when you can measure something and express something in numbers, you know what you are speaking about. If you cannot speak about it in numbers, then the knowledge is meager and you have scarcely advanced the state of science.”

As I looked around in other areas of my life, I saw that there were a number of other decisions that I couldn’t make progress on. They were also stuck because of intangibles. Some good examples that come to mind in the life of a product manager are: the value of open source software, when your product is driven by OSS; the value of adoption of open source software; what does virality mean for success of a product — how much should we be investing in virality; how to choose between competing features to make the most impact for the organization. I could talk to these decisions very well, had anecdotal evidence and experts backing those decisions…but they fundamentally were intangibles.

I have always been fascinated by literature on decision making and find that most recommendations range from “Just do it” to mind-numbing, if-then-else analysis. Douglas Hubbard presents a scientific, probability-based framework to reduce uncertainty through your decision making progress.

Paraphrasing Hubbard, “Decisions fundamentally are about a choice in the path ahead where decision makers have imperfect information. This lack of information causes uncertainty. Measurement is a type of choice among others to reduce this uncertainty. For any decision, you can typically measure a large combination of things, but you can never achieve perfect certainty.”

Thus, the right way to think about decisions is that a decision is a decision because one cannot articulate the right value of each of the choices ahead. The way to reduce the uncertainty, then, is to measure the things that reduce that uncertainty, knowing fully well that you cannot — and should not — measure everything that informs the decision, because too much information causes information overload. The key part of measurement is to assign an economic value to the measurement. Let’s say, you as a decision maker are looking to improve delivery of value from the organization. Measuring productivity of employees could be a type of measurement, and instead of measuring how much time an employee spends on each of the activities, quantify the business value of each of the areas she spends most of her hours on. Thus, if you get the employee to spend more time on activities that drive more business value, you can get more productivity from the system.

So how does one proceed, so that one isn’t stuck at the end of a spectrum that has “just do it” as the starting point and “analysis paralysis” as the ending point?

The ladder of better decision making starts by stepping back and questioning the decision. Check if you are asking the right question. Most hard problems in life and business can be solved by asking the right questions. If you are indeed asking the right question, then do the following (Hubbard calls it Applied Information Economics; with some color from my past readings on this topic).

  1. Define the decision. If the decision isn’t informing a significant bet, don’t measure anything. If the decision is easily reversible, just make a decision and move on.
  2. Determine what you know about the decision. Identify the key informational vectors that inform you more about the decision (hours working, vs hours spent on the most impactful activity).
  3. Compute the value of additional information (if none, go to step 5). Additional information is the information that you need to drill down into and measure.
  4. Measure where information value is high (return to steps 2 and 3). High information value implies tying some sort of economic benefit to it (improving productivity implied measuring and identifying most impactful hours). This really is the key to better decision making — tying some sort of economic value to your intangibles.
  5. Make a decision and act on it (return to step 1 and repeat as each action creates new decisions).

Typically, as you do steps 3, 4 and 5, you will find that each decision opens a cascade of micro-decisions that may have their own measurements to help build the case for the overarching decisions that you will rinse and repeat on.

So how did this framework help me?

  • I made the call on the Tesla before I read the book and was pleasantly surprised that my mental model roughly followed the framework. I put an economic value on each of the subjective axis, compared with the cost of the vehicle and came up short. I passed over the Tesla for a Lexus RX 350, knowing full well that I will evaluate my decision in the year ahead and these values may change — c’est la vie.
  • On the “business value” delivered by my team, I have instituted a “business value pointing” system offered by a tool called Aha. The vectors that constitute the business point are subjective. That is okay, because the scores on the vectors are informed by the expertise that my team has built up so far. We are drilling down on step 3 right now.
  • On understanding the “value of adoption of OSS” or “virality of a product” — I am on a journey and am hoping to find the right measurements to taking the decisions from “expert-led” to a state of science.

What decision frameworks work for you? Let me know in the comments section, below.

– Article heavily influenced by How to Measure Everything, by Douglas Hubbard.

Weekly newsletter #3 – 4 leadership principles to live by


I am in Maui this week and spent 2 days learning the theory on scuba diving only to discover that I failed and hated it. A blog coming next week about it. Meanwhile, here are the 9 things that I thought were worth sharing this week. Enjoy!

  1. [Leadership|Startup] My article on 4 key principles to become a good leader .
  2. [Life] Enjoy Tony Farhkry’s article about trusting the journey life is taking one on.
  3. [Work Life Balance]  Are you a workaholic?
  4. [Eye Candy]  Maui no words necessary!
  5. [Ear Candy]  Maui sound necessary!
  6. [Inspiration|Leadership] Simon Sinek’s “Start with the why” is seminal work – Ted talk and my book notes here
  7. [Health] Stu runs 1000+ miles without carbs. Read the exec summary from my book notes.
  8. [Picture] A billion caret diamond in Vatnajokull glacier in Iceland – one of mine :-).
  9. [Meditation] How to effortlessly move into meditation or fall asleep ;-).

Thanks for reading this newsletter, if you liked it forward it to a friend or tweet me some love. Past issues here.

– Harpreet