In a long bus ride, I read How I braved Anu Aunty and made a million-dollar company and I loved the book. The stories in the book are especially familiar to those who have faced the ire of family and sometimes friends at wanting to do a startup.

Anu Aunty Book

In the midst of the book, there is a passionate explanation by Varun Agarwal of why his idea of alumni T-shirts and alumni hoodies are important to people:

… The strangest thing was that my long-forgotten cupboard kept yielding one memory after another. I ran into a lot of my stuff from school that had got lost in the decade gone by. I started thinking of all those wonderful days. And that is when it hit me. That is what Alma Mater was about! It was about bringing those good ol’ days back. It was about taking you down that memory lane that leads to the wonderful times of school and college.

 

… We didn’t have Facebook then but we did have ICQ. One line none of us from that ‘era’ can ever forget is ‘ASL (age/sex/location) please,’ when meeting someone new on ICQ.  We had atrociously funny-sounding email ids – therockrulez@hotmail.com, dude_am@indya.com and the like and even funnier names in the ‘chat rooms.’ You couldn’t Google but had to go to altavista.com or approach Mr Jeeves for any queries and clarifications.

 

You still had to call a girl on her landline and muster all the courage to ask for her. The only place you could hang out at was Wimpy’s or McD and one still stayed away from the solitary Coffee Day on Brigade Road. Galaxy was where all the movies played and one had to stand in a long queue to buy tickets for Mission Impossible 2.

 

TV still played The Wonder Years and The Crystal Maze and the world seemed far smarter minus the Saas-Bahu soaps and the reality shows.

 

You could still find the time to read a book in the evenings  and play cricket in your ‘gully’ on Sundays. ‘Canada Dry’ was the only source to get high and sweet, candy cigarettes were puffed at most of the times.

 

VSNL ensured porn still loaded one byte at a time and VCDs were all the rage. Hulk Hogan was perpetually rank one on all the ‘Trump Cards’ and Cameron Diaz from The Mask was in every puberty-hitting youngters’ dreams. The only operating system we knew of was Windows 98.

 

Anyone with a printer was treated with respect and the World Book Encyclopedia was the only source of information for projects. Hero Pen was the original Chinese nib was still preferred over the brash new ‘Pilot’ pen.

 

Azharuddin was still our captain and Jadeja and Robin Singh were our pinch hitters. Venkatesh Prasad was the only one with the balls to mess with the Pakis and we still lost all the test matches.

 

And I definitely cannot miss out wearing a ‘colour’ dress to school on your birthday and distributing Eclairs to everyone.

 

I could go on and on. but I guess you get the drift.

 

As I cleaned my room, I ran into my long forgotten collection of Tinkle. Gosh, how I used to love those comics.

 

I guess some of us might hate to admit it now but everyone of us have read a Tinkle at some point or the other in our childhood. Even though it would be really un-cool to talk about ‘Suppandi’ now, he was the coolest character we knew in junior school. Before there was cartoon network, before Swat Cats took over, there was Uncle Scrooge on Doordarshan and there was Tinkle.

 

… I guess Tinkle comics have long been forgotten but they will always remain with us in our memories and will always remind us of times when things were simpler, when Bangalore was greener, when one would get up at 7a.m. on Sundays to catch Talespin on DD, when Phantom cigarettes ruled and chakra was more than just wheels. When we wouldn’t worry about deadlines, meetings, Facebook and everything else that our lives have become today. We would only worry about when the next Tinkle comic would be out. Sadly, Uncle Pai, the creator of the series passed away recently. RIP Uncle Pai and thanks for the memories. We owe you way more than one.

 

So, you see, Alma Mater was not just about starting another company. It was about starting a whole new subculture. Of making you feel like you were in school or college again – that wonderfully delicious feeling.

Reading those words flooded my mind with wonderful memories – I could have written those words! I could relate to almost every single word – right from ICQ to funny-sounding email IDs to Wimpy’s to The Crystal Maze to gully cricket to candy cigarettes to Cameron Diaz in The Mask to Windows 98 to World Book to Venkatesh Prasad to Eclairs to Tinkle to Talespin. Phew!

Thank you, Varun Agrawal, for the nostalgia as well as a wonderfully written hilarious story on entrepreneurial struggle vs. Indian family culture. I especially love the way his bargaining skills with the auto rickshaw walla improved as he went further down his entrepreneurial journey!

Go read the book, it’s a perfect Sunday read.

Update: Based on the book’s recommendation, I watched Dead Poets Society, 1989 movie feat. Robin Williams as a teacher, and absolutely loved it – Carpe Diem!

Cal Newport So Good book cover

Last weekend, I read Cal Newport’s latest book – “So Good They Can’t Ignore  You” and was very happy that I read it – it was just the sort of book that helps a person who is a few years into his/her career and is beginning to question many things about his/her own career. Of course, the book is relevant to people in all stages of their career, but I think people who are in this stage are more likely to grok what the book is talking about.

The book starts off by destroying the “passion hypothesis” which states that you “should find work that you love”. The book aptly demonstrates why that is a wrong premise and that loving what you do comes AFTER you’re good at it. He emphasizes:

Compelling (i.e. inspiring) careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.

This is where Cal starts talking about career capital:

Basic economic theory tell us that if you want something that’s both rare and valuable, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return – this is Supply and Demand 101. It follows that if you want a great job, you need something of great value to offer in return.

Acquiring career capital requires the craftsman mindset which is about working day in and day out on getting better at your craft. Achieving flow is a good thing, but something equally important is deliberate practice, i.e. intensive work aimed at stretching yourself at your craft:

Geoff Colvin wrote: Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands… Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it “deliberate”, as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.

Cal goes on to explain:

If you show up and do what you’re told, you will reach an “acceptable level” of ability before plateauing. The good news about deliberate practice is that it will push you past this plateau and into a realm where you have little competition. The bad news is that the reason so few people accomplish this feat is exactly because of the trait Colvin warned us about: Deliberate practice is often the opposite of enjoyable.

 

I like the term “stretch” for describing what deliberate practice feels like, as it matches my own experience with the activity. When I’m learning a new mathematical technique – a classic case of deliberate practice – the uncomfortable sensation in my head is best approximated as a physical strain, as if my neurons are physically re-forming into new configurations. As any mathematician will admit, this stretching feels much different than applying a technique you’ve already mastered, which can be quite enjoyable. But this stretching, as any mathematician would also admit, is the precondition to getting better.

 

This is what you should experience in your own pursuit of “good”. If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level.”

 

Pushing past what’s comfortable, however, is only one part of the deliberate-practice story; the other part is embracing honest feedback – even if destroys what you thought was good.

I had a big a-ha moment as I read this passage:

  • I used to “stretch” myself regularly long ago when I used to read many computer science papers and I was constantly trying out new technology, these days I’m just stuck when it comes to reading papers, for example, Out of the Tar Pit and On Lisp papers have been on my reading list for a long time and perhaps I’ve been avoiding it exactly because it is not an enjoyable activity if your mind is being stretched.
  • When people say I’m “not learning anything new”, it is because there is no deliberate practice in their lives. We are more comfortable doing what we already know rather than learning something new which will possibly makes our work simpler and better. This is the “simple vs. easy” that Rich Hickey (obligatory mention) talks about.
  • This is what Leo Babauta is referring to in the Habit of Starting: “You are comfortable with what you’re doing (reading online, probably), and the habit is less comfortable (it’s too hard). We cling to the comfortable.”
  • Open source programmers tend to be better programmers because of the feedback they get from people they collaborate with – who are people who care about their craft, and not the type of colleagues or managers whose sole goal is to mark a task as done without attention to how it has been implemented.
  • This is what Chad Fowler talked about in the Passionate Programmer book : “Practicing may include learning more about your programming environment (APIs, libraries, methodologies, etc.), sight reading (reading new pieces of open source code to improve your ability to read and understand code), improvisation (introduce new constraints in small projects to improve your thinking abilities) and so on.”
  • I’ve been kicking myself that I know all these concepts but have not yet been able to put it into practice. There’s always hope that I’ll start chanting the mantra “deliberate practice” everyday for an hour or two.

The point is that “hard work” is not the answer, “hard work deliberately intended to improve your craft” is the answer.

And what do you do after you keep acquiring career capital? You invest it on yourself in a few ways such as acquiring more control:

At this point, Lulu’s skills were so valuable that finding clients was no problem. More importantly, working as a contractor also gave her extreme flexibility in how she did her work. She would travel for three or four weeks at a time when she felt like getting away. “If the weather was nice on a Friday,” she told me, “I would just take the day off to go flying” (she obtained her pilot’s license around this time). When she started work and when she ended her days were up to her. “A lot of these days I would take a niece or nephew and have fun. I went to the children’s museum and zoo probably more than anybody else in the city,” she recalls. “They couldn’t stop me from doing these things, as I was just a contractor.”

This story sounds familiar because I started freelancing with some of the same mindset – at that stage of my career after having worked at Yahoo!, Adobe, my own startup (creating a product) and Infibeam (in the hot area of ecommerce), I had acquired enough career capital that I was getting good job offers but I wanted to experience freedom of cutting down the miscellaneous corporate activities and focus purely on coding and that is what my life has been about – that was how I was able to work out of Goa in a road trip.

Of course, that career capital is not going to last forever. That is where I need to work even harder and start acquiring more career capital.

If control is not what you’re seeking, there is another thing that you could invest in : a mission:

A mission is a unifying focus for your career. It’s more general than a specific job and can span multiple positions. It provides an answer to the question, What should I do with my life? Missions are powerful because they focus your energy toward a useful goal, and this in turn maximizes your impact on the world – a crucial factor in loving what you do. People who feel like their careers truly matter are more satisfied with their working lives, and they’re also more resistant to the strain of hard work.

How do you get to finding a mission? That’s where you need significant career capital to be at the cutting-edge of your work:

The examples of joint discoveries in scientific breakthroughs [where multiple people make the same scientific discoveries around the same time] surprised me, but it would not have surprised the science writer Steve Johnson. In his engaging 2010 book, “Where Good Ideas Come From”, Johnson explains that such multiples are frequent in the history of science. Consider the discovery of sunspots in 1611: As Johnson notes, four scientists, from four different countries, all identified the phenomenon during that same year. The first electrical battery? Invented twice in the mid-eighteenth century. Oxygen? Isolated independently in 1772 and 1774. In one study cited by Johnson, researchers from Columbia University found just shy of 150 different examples of prominent scientific breakthroughs made by multiple researchers at near the same time.

 

Big ideas, Johnson explained, are almost always discovered in the “adjacent possible“. We take the ideas that we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape, he explained. The next big ideas in any field are found right beyond the current cutting edge, in the adjacent space that contains the possible new combinations of existing ideas. The reason important discoveries often happen multiple times, therefore, is that they only become possible once they enter the adjacent possible, at which point anyone surveying this space – that is, those who are the current cutting edge – will notice the same innovations waiting to happen.

 

Scientific breakthroughs, as we just learned, require that you first get to the cutting edge of your field. Only then can you see the adjacent possible beyond, the space where innovative ideas are almost always discovered. A good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough – it’s an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible of your field.

When you reach the cutting edge of your field, you start seeing the new possibilities combining old and new ideas, and that’s where innovative new ideas come and that’s where your mission is found.

For example, using “big data” to make breakthroughs in understanding of genes requires someone to have observed the “big data” phenomenon and applying them to medical field and that becomes their mission in advancing that science. Of course, all this doesn’t apply only to science, it can apply to any field, whether it is material fabrics in fashion industry or new kinds of crowdsourcing for philanthropy or innovation (think Kiva, Kickstarter, Quirky). For example, why did Zynga come up with the idea of social games on top of Facebook? Because they were at the cutting edge when they saw Facebook rise and wanted to take advantage of it in games and they knew how to do that. And so on.

I think I should stop here because I have quoted enough from the book and don’t want to be sued by the publisher or anything like that. There is a lot more interesting concepts and learnings from the book. I recommend that you go buy and read it!

The world around me is very unsettling. First, we have the incompetence of the governments of the day, and then the startling realities highlighted by Satyamev Jayate show, even if it is not the whole truth, and so on. And these strange behavior of man to hurt and not help starts from his kindred and extends to the society around him/her. Very depressing.

Coincidentally, I chanced upon Devdutt Pattanaik‘s book Jaya : An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata in a Crossword outlet. I couldn’t stop reading it, so I bought it, and continued reading at home. And I was thoroughly engrossed by it.

What is not incredible is the number of stories, characters or the breadth of it. What is incredible is that it seems that every situation that I can come across or have heard of could be generalized into one of the situations already talked about in the stories of the Mahabharata and you can relate to it!

The most important lesson reinforced was that life is meaningless (there is no grand plan), our greatest challenge is leading a “normal life with values” and to be human to each other. Think about that for a minute. Think about how it applies to every minor situation in every minute in the office and at home or on a bigger scale at the level of states and nations. If only we could be a little more human towards each other and lead a “normal” pleasant life. Why is it that we are all screwed up in so many little ways? Whether it is lack of trust or lack of intimacy or lack of friends or lack of self-confidence or lack of support or lack of pleasantries or lack of humanity… so on.

While I did not find the answer to it in the Mahabharata, I did come to the stark realization that this has been the way for generations and has been so since the age of the Mahabharata. So I should take heart in it and figure out what are the age-old approaches to overcoming this hassled life.

Coincidentally, this has been part of my initiative to “read older”, I’m trying to cut down on reading “newer tweets” and instead read “older books” and “older papers”, etc. So far, it’s been working out well, but that is a perpetual battle of focus. There is far more wisdom and far more to learn in older stuff than the newer stuff which tends to be mostly regurgitations.

Many of my realizations or understandings in the book came about because of the ‘interpretations’ by Devdutt after each story. Those interpretations put the stories in context – there is the usual intended “moral of the story”, but there is also cultural, political and religious explanations and sometimes simply how stories were changed to possibly cover up or make a story suitable for hearing by subsequent generations.

1 Descendants

For example, it is believed that man and woman are reborn as their grandchildren or any of their descendants – this probably explains the female foeticide issue on why men want boys and not girls, and that tendency has gone to an extreme in the last couple of generations. On the same note, it probably explains why rearing children is considered such an important part of life for our previous generations even though the current generation (including me) consider it as just another phase of life. In fact, in one of the stories, Bhishma is considered to have sinned because he decided to not get married because of his step-mother’s wishes that there be no other heirs to the kingdom! So many beliefs and fervour can be attributed to a simple age-old concept which has been twisted and extended by generations.

2 Dharma

When Subramaniam Swamy says “we are fighters.For fighters for dharma there is always hope.” after the recent Presidential election, he is probably referring to is this quote by Krishna regarding Dharma:

Humans alone of all living creatures can reject the law of the jungle and create a code of conduct based on empathy and directed at discovering the meaning of life. This is dharma.

To live in dharma is to live without fear. To live in dharma is to act in love. To live in dharma is to have others as a reference point, not oneself.

Function therefore in this war not like that insecure dog that barks to dominate and whines when dominated, but like that secure cow, that provides milk freely and follows the music of the divine.

Do you fight this war to break the stranglehold of jungle law in human society, Arjuna? If not, you do not practise karma yoga.

As an aside, you also get to know why the cow is considered sacred.

In another instance, I have started to differentiate when a person is in anger and says things that I should not pay attention to whereas when they are genuinely upset with something I did or didn’t do:

Dhritarashtra expresses it by crushing the iron effigy of Bhima while Gandhari expresses it by burning Yudhistira’s toe with a glance.

Once expressed, rage dissipates and reason returns.

One is advised in many parts of India to eat sugar when agry, just like Gandhari did, so as not to end up cursing the Pandavas.

3 Trust

This relates to the point of the importance of trust:

The reason for telling these stories was to calm the angry brothers and to tell them that sometimes things are not what they seem. Arjuna should not assume that words spoken during stressful situations were real. His brother was just angry and did not mean to insult him or his bow. One should have faith in one’s friends and family and not let one harsh word break the bond of trust.

4 Attachment

One has to forgo attachments to fight for dharma:

The Pandavas have to fight father (Bhishma), teacher (Drona), brother (Karna) and uncle (Shalya) to defeat the Kauravas. They have to break free from all attachments that bind them.

I’m not sure I really understand this, but I think it suggests that we should fight for dharma, even against our own. Just like how Indians fought against Indian soldiers who were serving the British. And how there will soon be another fight by IAC against the government, even if the IAC itself is becoming disillusioned.

5 Outgrowing the beast within

The real difference between Pandavas and Kauravas is:

It is simplistic to imagine that the Pandavas are good and the Kauravas are bad and so Krishna sides with the former.

Pandavas are willing to change; they want to outgrow the beast within them.

The process of change is difficult – the Pandavas have to suffer exile, kill loved ones and lose their children, in the process of gaining wisdom.

The Kauravas cling to their kingdom like dogs clinging to a bone. They refuse to change. Hence, they die without learning anything.

Krishna is the teacher. But the onus of learning rests with the students.

6 Destruction and Living

Yudhistira is so upset about the destruction and loss of life during the war that he is unwilling to be crowned king and he is given a lesson the point of life:

The eldest Pandava had lost all interest in kingship. “I am a murderer,” he cried. “My hands are soaked with the blood of my family. When I sit on a pile of corpses, how can I drink the cup of success? What is the point of it all?”

Vidura spoke solemnly to his nephew, “Everybody dies – some suddenly, some slowly, some painfully, some peacefully. No one can escape death. The point is to make the most of life – enjoy it, celebrate it, learn from it, make sense of it, share it with fellow human beings – so that when death finally comes, it will not be such a terrible thing.”

A Charvaka, one who does not believe in the existence of anything spiritual or metaphysical, shouted from the city square, “Yes, Yudhishtira, life has no point at all. So enjoy every moment for there is no tomorrow, no life after death, no soul, no fate, no bondage, no liberation, no God. Be a king if it makes you happy; don’t be a king if it does not. Pleasure alone is the purpose of life.”

None of this pacified Yudhishtira. He paced the palace corridors all day and lay awake on his bed at night, haunted by the wail of widows and orphans. No one understood his pain. “Perhaps I must become a hermit. Find serenity in the forest.”

(Remember that forest is also a metaphor for the darkness and the wilderness of the mind. Conquering the forest and being at peace there means enlightening the mind.)

It was then that Krishna spoke, “Yes, Yudhishtira, you can renounce the world and become a hermit and achieve peace, but what about the rest of the world? Will you abandon them?” Yudhishtira did not know what to say. Krishna continued, “A hermit seeks meaning for himself but only a king can create a world that enables everyone to find meaning. Choose kingship, Yudhishtira not out of obligation but out of empathy for humanity.”

“Why me?” asked Yudhishtira.

“Who better than you? You, who gambled away your kingdom, can empathize with the imperfections of man. You, who silently suffered thirteen years of exile, know the power of repentance and forgiveness. You, who saw Duryodhana reject every offer of peace, know the power of the ego and the horror of adharma. You, who had to lie to kill your own teacher, know the complexities of dharma. Only you, son of Kunti, have the power to establish a world where the head is balanced with the heart, wealth with wisdom, and discipline with compassion. Come, Yudhishtira, with your brothers by your side, be Vishnu on earth.”

Yudhishtira needed no more persuasion. He realized what it meant to be king. He agreed to wear the crown.

In the presence of all elders, he was made to sit on the ancient seat reserved for the leader of the Kuru clan. Milk was poured on him and water. He was given first a conch-shell trumpet, then a lotus flower, then a mace and finally the royal bow.

The priests said “Like Vishnu, blow the trumpet and make sure the world knows your law. Reward those who follow it with the lotus of prosperity and discipline those who don’t with a swing of your mace. And always stay balanced – neither too tight nor too loose – like the bow.”

Interpretation: The coronation ceremony in ancient times paralleled the ceremony in which a stone statue was transformed into a deity in temples. The ceremony was aimed to bring about a shift in consciousness. Just as it enabled a stone to become divine and solve the problems of devotees, it enabled an ordinary man to think like God – more about his subjects and less about himself.

Interpretation: Dharma is not about winning. It is about empathy and growth. Yudhishtira knows the pain of losing a child. He can empathize with his enemy rather than gloat on their defeat. In empathy, there is wisdom.

On a similar note, Bhisma, on his deathbed, tells Yudhishtira:

Bhisma told Yudhishtira, “Life is like a river. You can struggle to change its course but ultimately it will go its own way. Bathe in it, drink it, be refreshed by it, share it with everyone, but never fight it, never be swept away by its flow, and never get attached to it. Observe it. Learn from it.”

On the note of us over-reaching what is given to us by Mother Earth and of course the greed, corruption and scams, there is this story:

Bhishma told Yudhishtira about human society. Humans, unlike animals, were blessed with imagination.

They could foresee the future, and take actions to secure it. Often attempts to secure the future leads to hoarding; need gave way to greed. With greed came exploitation.

King Vena plundered the earth to such a degree that the earth, tired of being so abused, ran away in the form of a cow.

The sages then had Vena killed. Vena’s son, Prithu, pursued the earth-cow crying. “If you don’t feed them, my subjects will die.”

The earth-cow retorted angrily, “Your subjects squeeze my udders until they are sore. They break my back with their ambition.”

Prithu then promised that he would establish a code of conduct based on empathy, rather than exploitation, which would ensure the survival of humanity.

“This code of conduct will be called dharma,” said Prithu.

By this code, the earth became a cow while kings became the earth’s cowherds ensuring there was always enough milk for humans as well as cow’s calves.

7 Four parts of life

The dharma-shastras divide life into four parts.

The first, brahmacharya, prepares one for the world.

The second, grihastha, is the time to enjoy the pleasures and powers of the world.

The third, vanaprastha, is the time to retire from the world passing on all wealth to the children and all knowledge to the grandchildren.

The fourth, sanyasa, is the time to renounce all things worldly.

The characters in the Mahabharata from Pratipa to Dhritarashtra retire from society and renounce the world after completing their worldly duties.

Thus only the young are allowed to enjoy the fruits of the earth, while the old contemplate on it.

This lesson should be imbibed by political leaders.

8 Wisdom is always a work in progress

Despite learning from Krishna the value of outgrowing the beast within man, the Pandavas cling to their grudges after the war, like dogs clinging to bones.

No lesson is permanent.

Wisdom thus is always work in progress.

Interestingly, the Mahabharata lays a greater emphasis on karma than on the “blessings” of God:

Krishna’s family does not escape Gandhari’s curse.

Thus even God surrenders to the law of karma.

By making man the master of his own destiny and the creator of his own desires, God makes man ultimately responsible for the life he leads and the choices he makes.

God does not interfere with fate; he simply helps man cope with it.

9 Life is an endless turmoil

Emphasis mine:

Arjuna decided to take the few survivors (of Dwaraka) with him to Hastina-puri.

But the misfortunes continued. On the way, they were attacked by barbarians who abducted many of the women and children. Arjuna raised his Gandiva and tried to protect them but was outnumbered.

The great Gandiva which could destroy hundreds of warriors with a single arrow now seemed powerless. Arjuna realized that he was no more the archer he used to be. His purpose on earth and that of Gandiva had been served.

Overwhelmed by his helplessness before the rising tide of fate, humbled before the raging storm of circumstances, Arjuna fell to his knees and began to cry uncontrollably.

When the tears dried up, it dawned on him that Gandhari’s curse, which had destroyed Dwaraka and its people, had its roots in the war at Kuru-kshetra.

And the war would not have happened if they had simply restrained themselves and not wagered their kingdom in a game of dice.

/Arjuna realized, that in a way, he was responsible for the fall of Dwaraka. This was the great web of karma that connects all creatures in a single fabric. He begged for forgiveness for his part in the sorrows of all mankind./

/In response, the clouds began to rumble and in a flash of lightning, Arjuna saw a vision: a gurgling, happy child sucking its butter-smeared big toe as it lay on a Banyan leaf cradled by the deadly waves that were destroying Dwaraka./

In the midst of destruction, this was a symbol of renewal and hope.

/Arjuna finally understood the message given to him by God. Life would continue, with joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies rising and falling like the waves of the sea./

It was up to him to respond wisely, enjoy simple pleasures unshaken by the inevitable endless turmoil of the world.

He took the surviving Yadavas and gave them a home in Mathura, where in due course, Vajranabhi, son of Aniruddha, grandson of Pradyumna, great grandson of Krishna, would rise as a great king.

10 Kauravas in Swarga and Pandavas in hell

As soon as Yudhishtira stepped into heaven, he saw the hundred Kauravas, Duryodhana and Dusshasana included, standing beside the Devas looking radiant and blissful. They too spread out their arms to welcome Yudhishtira.

Yudhishtira recoiled in disgust. “How did these warmongers reach Amravati?” he asked angrily.

The Devas replied, “They were killed on the holy land of Kuru-kshetra. That has purified them of all misdeeds and earned them the right to enter Amravati. Surely, if heaven is good enough for your dog, it is good enough for your cousins.”

The explanation did not satisfy Yudhishtira. “And my brothers? And my wife? What about them? Where are they? Are they here too?” he asked.

“They are not here,” replied the Devas placidly, refusing to pay any attention to Yudhishtira’s rising rage.

“In another place,” said the Devas, taking no notice of Yudhishtira’s impatience.

“Take me to them,” said Yudhishtira, determined to get to the bottom of this.

“Certainly,” said the Devas who led Yudhishtira out of Swarga, down from the sky, along the slopes of Mandara, through a crevice deep under the earth to a realm that was dark and gloomy and miserable.

There, Yudhishtira heard cries of pain and suffering. It was everything Amravati was not.

He realized it was Naraka, the realm of misery.

“My brothers are here?” cried Yudhishtira in disbelief.

In response, he heard the moans of his brothers, including Karna. “Yes, we are here,” they said in unison.

Bhima, Yudhishtira knew, was paying for his gluttony. Arjuna for his envy, Nakula for his insensitivity, Sahadeva for his smugness and Draupadi for her partiality.

But Karna? Why him? Had his elder brother not suffered enough in life?

“Karna promised Kunti to spare four of her five sons despite knowing that Duryodhana relied on him to kill all five Pandavas.

He is paying for breaking his friend’s trust,” clarified the Devas rather matter-of-factly.

Yudhishtira felt everyone’s pain and started to weep.

“Shall we go back to Amravati now?” asked the Devas.

“No, no. Please don’t go,” Yudhishtira heard his brothers cry. “Your presence comforts us.”

“Well? Shall we leave?” asked the Devas impatiently.

“Please stay,” Yudhishtira heard Draupadi plead. She sounded so lost and tired and anxious and afraid.

Yudhishtira could not bring himself to move. Tears welled up in his eyes. How could he return to Swarga and leave his family here?

He took a decision. “No. I will not leave Naraka. I will stay here with my wife and my brothers. I will suffer with them. I refuse to enter Amravati without them.”

The Devas laughed. Rising up in the air, glowing like fire flies, they said, “Oh, but we thought you had renounced everything?”

“What do you mean?” asked Yudhishtira, suddenly uncomfortable.

“Did you not renounce all worldly ties when you entered Swarga? Wherefrom then, comes this attachment? You are as attached as to your hatred as a dog is attached to its master.”

Yudhishtira argued, “How can Amravati open its gates to the Kauravas, those murderers, and not to my family which has always followed the path of righteous conduct? Even Krishna fought against the Kauravas!”

“Do you feel we are taking sides, Yudhishtira?” asked the Devas.

“Yes,” snapped Yudhishtira, looking at the dark misery all around him. Surely, his family who had established dharma on earth did not deserve this. This was so unfair.

“You have given up your kingdom and your clothes, son of Dharma, but not your hatred. You killed the Kauravas in Kuru-kshetra and ruled their kingdom for thirty-six years! Still you have not forgiven them. You, who turned your back on your brothers on your way to Amravati, recalled them the instant you saw the Kauravas in heaven. This display of love is nothing but a reaction, retaliation. You cling to your anger, Yudhishtira. You still distinguish between friend and foe. You refuse to let go and move on. How then do you hope to truly attain heaven?”

Suddenly, a vision unfolded before Yudhishtira. The Virat-swarup of Krishna. “Behold within God,” a voice boomed, “all that exists. Everything. Everyone. Draupadi and Gandhari. The Pandavas and the Kauravas. All possibilities. The killers and the killed.”

At that moment, Yudhishtira realized he was not the great man who he thought he was. He had not really overcome his prejudices. Only when there is undiluted compassion for everyone, even our worst enemies, is ego truly conquered. Realization humbled Yudhishtira. He fell to the ground and began to weep.

Led by the Devas, Yudhishtira then took a dip in the Ganga and rose enlightened, purified and refreshed and truly liberated, with the sincere desire to forgive and accept the Kauravas. There was no more hatred. No more ‘them’ and ‘us’. No more ‘better’ and ‘worse’. There was only love. Everyone was one.

“Jaya!” shouted Indra. “Jaya!” shouted the Devas. “Jaya!” shouted the Rishis. For Yudhishtira had won the ultimate victory, victory over himself. No he would ascend to a heaven higher than Swarga. Now he would ascend to Vaikuntha, the abode of God.

Interpretation: The epic ends not with the victory of the Pandavas over the Kauravas but with Yudhishtira’s triumph over himself. This is the spiritual victory or Jaya. This is the ultimate aim of the great epic.

Interpretation: Unlike Biblical traditions, Hindus have more than one heaven. There is Swarga and Vaikuntha. Swarga is the paradise of Indra where all desires are fulfilled. Vaikuntha is God’s heaven where one is free of all desires.

11 Janamejaya asks where is the victory

‘Why then do you call this tale “Jaya”? There is no real victory.’

‘There are two kinds of victory this world,’ said the storyteller-sage Vaisampayana. ‘Vijaya and Jaya’.

Vijaya is material victory, where there is a loser.

Jaya is spiritual victory, where there are no losers.

In Kuru-kshetra there was Vijaya but not Jaya.

But when Yudhishtira overcame his rage and forgave the Kauravas unconditionally, there was Jaya.

This is the true ending of my tale, hence the title.’

‘What was the insight that eluded my forefathers?’ asked Janamejaya.

‘That conflict comes from rage, rage comes from fear, and fear comes from lack of faith.

That lack of faith which corrupted the Kauravas continued to lurk in the minds of the Pandavas.

It had to be purged.’

The image of Krishna, serving as Arjuna’s charioteer, singing the song of wisdom before the war, flashed through Janamejaya’s mind.

‘If you have faith in me, and in the karmic balance sheet of merit and demerit, then you will have no insecurity,’ he heard Krishna say.

The lotus of wisdom bloomed in Janamejaya’s mind. ‘I too have no faith,’ he admitted.

‘That is why I am angry with the serpents and frightened of them.

That is why I delude myself with arguments of justice and vengeance.

You are right, Astika, this snake sacrifice of mine is not dharma.’

Astika smiled, and Vaisampayana bowed his head in satisfaction: the king had finally inherited the wisdom of his forefathers.

An expression of peace descended up on Janamejaya, the son of Parikshit, the grandson of Abhimanyu, the great grandson of Arjuna.

He finally took his decision.

‘Shanti,’ he said.

‘Shanti,’ he said again.

‘Shanti,’ he repeated a third time.

Shanti, peace.

This was the king’s call to end the Sarpa Sattra.

Astika burst into tears.

Janamejaya had overpowered his fear and abandoned his rage.

No more serpents would be killed.

‘Shanti, shanti, shanti,’ he had said.

Not peace in the outer world.

That could not happen as long as man felt insecure.

This was a cry for inner peace.

Let us all have faith.

Let us all be at peace – with ourselves, our worlds, and all the rest there is.

Shanti. Shanti. Shanti.

Interpretation: The Mahabharata is not as much concerned with the war as it is with the root of conflict. Conflict is the result of greed exhibited by Duryodhana, and outrage exhibited by Yudhishtira. Both greed and outrage stem from insecurity; insecurity is the result of a poor understanding of, and a lack of faith in, one’s true nature and the the true nature of the world around us. The Veda says that as long as we do not accept life for what it is, as long as we try to control and change things, there will always be conflict. Conflict ends when we realize that beyond tangible material reality, there is intangible spiritual reality.

Interpretation: A Bengali folktale informs us that Janamejaya asked Vyasa why he was not able to convince his ancestors from not going to war. Vyasa replied that excited people never listen to such logic.

Interpretation: All Hindu rituals end with the chant ‘Shanti, shanti, shanti’ because the quest for peace is the ultimate goal of all existence. The peace is not external but internal. It is not about making the world a peaceful place; it is about us being at peace with the world.

12 The Idea called Dharma

The fear of death makes animals fight for their survival. Might becomes right as only the fit survive. With strength and cunning territories are established and pecking orders enforced. Thus, the law of the jungle comes into being. Animals have no choice but to subscribe to it. Humans, however, can choose to accept, exploit or reject this law.

Thanks to our larger brain, we can imagine and create a world where we can look beyond ourselves, include others, and make everyone feel wanted and safe. We can, if we wish to, establish a society where the mighty care for the meek, and where resources ar emade available to help even the unfit thrive. This is dharma.

Unfortunately, imagination can also amplify fear, and make us so territorial that we withhold resources, exploit the weak and eat even when well-fed. This is adharma. If dharma enables us to outgrow the beast in us, then adharma makes us worse than animals. If dharma takes us towards divinity, then adharma fuels the demonic.

The Kauravas are stubbornly territorial before the war. The Pandavas struggle to be generous after the war. Adharma is thus an eternal temptation, while dharma is an endless work in progress that validates our humanity.

13 Ultimate aim of spiritual practice

Vyasa says all creatures kill themselves eventually because of merits lost and demerits earned.

By logic therefore, one who earns no demerit cannot die.

Such a person can potentially rise up to paradise without dying.

In other words, he becomes immortal.

That is the ultimate aim of all spiritual practice.

That is the aim of Yudhishtira.

14 Narendra Modi quotes Vivekananda

“Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy – by one, or more, or all of these – and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.” – Swami Vivekananda, From Raja Yoga

I was struggling with focus in the past week, and I needed a refresher of the basics. So I was looking for reading a new book that I haven’t read before, and luckily there was a free one – the Focus Manifesto by Leo Babauta of ZenHabits.com fame.

The whole book boils down to few things for me:

  • Shut down or shut out all distractions, including email, twitter, phones, internet access, noise from outside, etc.
  • Start with one thing that is important today and do only that, which is called the MIT (Most Important Task for today)
  • Follow the Pomodoro technique, at least in concept – focus in a mindful manner in intense periods with short breaks in between

Nice and simple. And very hard to do. But it was surprisingly easy to do today after I read the book last night and today morning and was strongly reminded about the basics. Sometimes, all you need is to step back and revise the basics.

In particular, I am intrigued by the “Disconnect and Connect Working Routine”:

Consider a routine such as the following:

  1. Disconnect for a day (or two). No Internet connection — perhaps no computer at all if using your computer is too much of a temptation to connect. Use an actual paper notepad and pen, writing and brainstorming and making pages of notes or sketches. Make phone calls instead of connecting via email or IM. Meet with people in real life, and get outside. Get a ton of important work done. No mobile devices except for actual phone calls.
  2. Then connect for a day (or two). Take all the notes and work you did during your disconnect, and type them up and email them and post them online and so forth. Answer emails and get other routine tasks done, and then prepare for your next day of disconnect.
  3. Repeat. You can vary the number of days you’re disconnected or connected, finding the balance that works for you.

While some may feel this will limit the work they can do, I think it’ll actually do the opposite: you’ll get more done, or at least more important tasks done, because you won’t be distracted.

You’ll also find it a calming change from the always-connected. It’s a peaceful routine.

What I find interesting is a “mostly offline” mindset as opposed to a “mostly online” mindset I had – I (mostly) used to switch off WiFi for the first two hours of the day. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I was more productive in Goa where I had severe Internet connectivity issues. Hmmm.

I’ve been reading Coders at Work on and off, and it is a good read for coders who want to learn how coders, who they admire, think and approach programming.

Two favorite nuggets of mine so far are from JWZ and Brad Fitzpatrick who are definitely two of my programming heroes:

About taking things apart

Seibel:

Is there a key skill programmers must have?

Zawinski:

Well, curiosity – taking things apart. Wanting to know what’s going on under the hood. I think that’s really the basis of it. Without that I don’t think you get very far. That’s your primary way of acquiring knowledge. Taking something apart and looking at it is how you learn to build your own. At least for me. I’ve ready very few books about computers. My experience has been digging through source code or reference manuals. I’ve got a goal and, alright, to do this I need to know what this thing does and what this thing does. And I’ll just sort of random-walk through that until I find where I’m going.

How to improve oneself

Seibel:

Do you have any advice for self-taught programmers?

Fitzpatrick:

Always try to do something a little harder, that’s outside your reach. Read code. I heard this a lot, but it didn’t really sink in until later. There were a number of years when I wrote a lot of code and never read anyone else’s. Then I get on the Internet and there’s all this open source code I could contribute to but I was just scared shitless that if it wasn’t my code and the whole design wasn’t in my head, that I couldn’t dive in and understand it.

Then, I was sending in patches to Gaim, the GTK instant-messenger thing, and I was digging around that code and I just saw the whole design. Just seeing parts of it, I understood. I realized, after looking at other people’s code, that it wasn’t that I memorized all my own code; I was starting to see patterns. I would see their code and I was like, “Oh, OK. I understand the structure that they’re going with.”

Then I really enjoyed reading code, because whenever I didn’t understand some pattern, I was like, “Wait, why the fuck did they do it like this?” and I would look around more, and I’d be like, “Wow, that is a really clever way to do this. I see how that pays off.” I would’ve done that earlier but I was afraid to do it because I was thinking that if it wasn’t my code, I wouldn’t understand it.

I read the "Start-up Nation" book last week. This book was so engrossing that I read it within 2 days, keeping aside everything else.

After reading this book, I started seeing the patterns about Israel being high tech hotspot, for example consider just two pieces of news in the last 3-4 days: Apple buying Anobit, an Israeli company, for $500 million as well as building a research center in Israel and Cornell won the bid to build a university in New York city… in collaboration with Technion university of Israel.

What is important

This book taught me the importance and inter-play of:

  • Entrepreneurism
  • Venture capital
  • Being committed to own business and country at same time
  • When people are pushed for survival, only then do they show the zeal for entrepreneurism and trade – otherwise nation becomes lazy
  • Size of country does matter
  • Government policies
  • Immigration
  • Technology as future growth
  • Multiple fields learning
  • Defense Forces
  • Liberalization and freedom of speech

To highlight in a bit more detail, I have picked a few quotes and insights from each chapter:

0. Introduction

  • Story of Shimon Peres and Shai Agassi pitching Better Place to auto manufacturers – Better Place is re-thinking electric vehicles by making fuel stations swap out your battery with a charged one instead of pumping petrol or diesel into the car, highly ambitious, executed first in Israel, now in China, etc.

1. Persistence

  • Story of "Fraud Sciences" company pitching to Paypal to use their fraud detection service – Paypal ended up buying them so that the competition doesn’t get them – idea came from founders who were soldiers in the Israeli army hunting down terrorists – they found hunting frauds easier.
  • Chutzpah
  • Israeli attitude and informality flow also from a cultural tolerance for what some Israelis call "constructive failure" or "intelligent failures." Most local investors believe that without tolerating a large number of failures, it is impossible to achieve true innovation. In the Israeli military, there is a tendency to treat all performance – both successful and unsuccessful – in training and simulations, and sometimes even in battle, as value-neutral. So long as the risk was taken intelligently, and not recklessly, there is something to be learned.
  • Story of how Intel’s chip design vision changed purely because of doggedness of the Israeli Intel office to convince higher-ups and how that eventually saved the company

2. Battlefield Entrepreneurs

  • As usual in the Israeli military, the tactical innovation came from bottom up – from individual tank commanders and their officers. It probably never occurred to these soldiers that they should ask their higher-ups to solve the problem, or that they might not have the authority to act on their own. Nor did they see anything strange in their taking responsibility for inventing, adopting, and disseminating new tactics in real time, on the fly. Yet what these soldiers were doing was strange. If they had been working in a multinational company…
  • Company commander is also the lowest rank that must take responsibility for a territory. As Farhi puts it, "If a terrorist infiltrates that area, there’s a company commander whose name is on it. Tell me how many twenty-three-year-olds elsewhere in the world live with that kind of pressure… How many of their peers in their junior colleges have been tested in such a way? How do you train and mature a twenty-year-old to shoulder such responsibility?
  • In the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), there are even extremely unconventional ways to challenge senior officers. "I was in Israeli army units where we threw out the officers," Oren told us, "where people just got together and voted them out. I witnessed this twice personally. I actually liked the guy, but I was outvoted. They voted out a colonel." When we asked Oren in disbelief how this worked, he explained, "You go and say, ‘We don’t want you. You’re not good.’ I mean, everyone’s ona first-name basis… You go to the person above him and say, ‘That guy’s got to go.’… It’s much more performance-oriented than it is about rank.

3. The People of The Book

  • Almost every Israeli trekker in Bolivia is likely to come through El Lobo (restaurant), but not just to get food that tastes like it’s from home, to speak Hebrew, and to meet other Israelis. They know they will find something else there, something even more valuable: the Book. Though spoken of in singular, the Book is not one book but an amorphous and evolving collection of journals, dispersed throughout some of the most remote locations in the world. Each journal is a handwritten "Bible" of advice from one traveler to another. And while the Book is no longer exclusively Israeli, its authors and readers tend to be from Israel.
  • Israeli wanderlust is not only about seeing the world; its sources are deeper… there is another psychological factor at work – a reaction to the physical and diplomatic isolation. Until recently, Israelis could not travel to a single neighbouring country…
  • For the same reason, it was natural for Israelis to embrace the Internet, software, computer, and telecommunications arenas. In these industries, borders, distances, and shipping costs are practically irrelevant. As Israeli venture capitalist Orna Berry told us, "High-tech telecommunications became a national sport to help us defend against the claustrophobia that is life in a small country surrounded by enemies." … "Today, Israeli companies are firmly integrated into the economies of China, India, and Latin America. Because, as Orna Berry says, telecommunications became an early priority for Israel, every major telephone company in China relies on Israeli telecom equipment and software…

(more…)

Every once in a while I get an email like this:

Sir, I am a beginner to python and programming. I started with the C++
and found it hard so one day via google I found your perfect tutorial
“A byte of Python”. I read the whole tutorial in one day because it is
so interesting and helpful. Sir, I have created the script to backup
files from directory as you mentioned. Please see the script once and
tell me if I have chances in programming career. Sir I am final B.tech
student and I love programming. But I was rejected by every company
during campus placement because of my poor communication skills and
due to this my confidence level is very low. Sir I have also created a
web based application using PHP, MySQL and Kannel on Debian based
server for intra-college communication. Sir, I am regular reader of
your blog and I respect what you are doing to help freshers like me.
Sir I would like to know if you have any advice for me.

And like this:

I want to thank you about this great book ;-). I am a 20-years-old
student in computer science from Bulgaria and i found this book very
interesting and helpful. I’ve been programming in python for half a
month. I had little experience in C from the university and I wanted
to learn a high level language with simple syntax like Python and then
learn C++ and start writing useful programs. I send you a solution of
the problem in the end of the book that is just a demo version. Can
you give me a hint what i got to improve to make the address book
program better and give me the source code of your solution? I really
want to become a programmer so any advices especially from a man with
your knowledge would be highly appreciated! Thanks.

For a long time, I used to scratch my head for every such email because I really didn’t know what advice I have to offer. I did end up writing How Fresh Graduates Can Grow which a lot of students have liked.

In the past couple of years, I have started replying with just one line – I ask them to read The Passionate Programmer: Creating a Remarkable Career in Software Development by Chad Fowler. I happily  recommend this book knowing that if they actually do read and apply the principles in this book, they can’t go wrong.

I had read this book in its first edition when it was called My Job Went to India and I read it again when the renamed second edition came out.

The title of the book is self-explanatory but what makes the book special from other regular career books is that it is geared specifically to the art of software programming as well as explaining networking and many soft concepts/human aspects in a for-geeks “53 recipes” style.

Some of my favorite recipes/lessons are:

4. Be the worst

Legendary jazz guitarist Pat Metheny has a stock piece of advice for
young musicians, which is “Always be the worst guy in every band
you’re in.” Being the worst guy in the band means always playing with
people who are better than you.

Being the worst guy/gal on the team has the same effect as being the
worst guy in the band. You find that you’re unexplainably smarter.
You even speak and write more intelligently. Your code and designs get
more elegant, and you find that you’re able to solve hard problems
with increasingly creative solutions.

6. Don’t listen to your parents

I remember talking to a friend about potentially moving out of this
company, and he said, “Is it your destiny to work at $bigcompany for
the rest of your life?”
Hell no it wasn’t!_ So, I quickly found
another job and left.

This movement marked the clear beginning of a nonlinear jump in my
success in the software industry. I saw new domains, I worked on
harder problems, and I was rewarded more heavily than ever before. It
was scary at times, but when I decided to be less fear-driven and
conservative in my career choice, the shape and tone of my career – my
life – changed for the better.

15. Practice, practice, practice

When you practice music, it shouldn’t sound good. If you always
sound good during practice sessions, it means you’re not stretching
your limits. That’s what practice is for. The same is true in sports.
Athletes push themselves to the limit during workouts so they can
expand those limits for real performances. They let the ugliness
happen behind closed doors – not when they’re actually working.

Our industry tends to practice on the job. Can you imagine a
professional musician getting onstage and replicating the gibberish
from my university’s practice rooms? It wouldn’t be tolerated.
Musicians are paid to perform in public – not to practice. As an
industry, we need to make time for practice.

Practicing may include learning more about your programming
environment (APIs, libraries, methodologies, etc.), sight reading
(reading new pieces of open source code to improve your ability to
read and understand code), improvisation (introduce new constraints in
small projects to improve your thinking abilities) and so on.
[paraphrased]

32. Say it, Do it, Show it

You should start communicating your plans to your management. The best
time to start communicating the plans is after you have executed at
least one cycle of the plan. And – this is an important point – start
doing it before they ask you to do it. No manager in his or her right
mind would be unhappy to receive a succinct weekly e-mail from an
employee stating what was accomplished in the past week and what they
plan to do in the next. Receiving this kind of regular message
unsolicited is a manager’s dream.

Start by communicating week by week. When you’ve gotten comfortable
with this process, start working in your thirty, sixty, and
ninety-day plans. On the longer views, stick to high-level, impactful
progress you plan to make on projects or systems you maintain. Always
state these long-term plans as proposals to your manager, and ask for
feedback.

The most critical factor to keep in mind with everything that goes
onto a plan is that it should always be accounted for later. Every
item must be either visibly completed, delayed, removed, or replaced.
No items should go unaccounted for. If items show up on a plan and are
never mentioned again, people will stop trusting your plans, and the
plans and you will counteract the effectiveness of planning. Even if
the outcome is bad, you should communicate it as such. We all make
mistakes. The way to differentiate yourself is to address your
mistakes or inabilities publicly and ask for help resolving them.
Consistently tracing tasks on a plan will create the deserved
impression that no important work is getting lost in the mix.

43. Making the Hang

Speaking for myself (and extrapolating from there), the most serious
barrier between us mortals and the people we admire is our own fear.
Associating with smart, well-connected people who can teach you things
or help you find work is possibly the best way to improve yourself,
but a lot of us are afraid to try. Being part of a tight-knit
professional community is how musicians, artists, and other
craftspeople have stayed strong and evolved their respective artforms
for years. The gurus are the supernodes in the social and professional
network. All it takes to make the connection is a little less
humility.

Of course, you don’t want to just randomly start babbling at these
people. You’ll obviously want to seek out the ones with which you have
something in common. Perhaps you read an article that someone wrote
that was influential. You could show them work you’ve done as a result
and get their input. Or, maybe you’ve created a software interface to
a system that someone created. That’s a great and legitimate way to
make the connection with someone.

44. Already Obsolete

You have to start by realizing that even if you’re on the bleeding
edge of today’s wave, you’re already probably behind on the next one.
Timing being everything, start thinking ahead with your study. What
will be possible in two years that isn’t possible now? What if disk
space were so cheap it was practically free? What if processors were
two times faster? What would we not have to worry about optimizing
for? How might these advances change what’s going to hit?

Yes, it’s a bit of a gamble. But, it’s a game that you will
definitely lose if you don’t play. The worst case is that you’ve
learned something enriching that isn’t directly applicable to your job
in two years. So, you’re still better off looking ahead and taking a
gamble like this. The best case is that you remain ahead of the curve
and can continue to be an expert in leading-edge technologies.

Looking ahead and being explicit about your skill development can mean
the difference between being blind or visionary.

P.S. This lesson was the reason why I started admiring DHH even more after seeing he is not afraid to include CoffeeScript and SCSS in Rails 3.1

51. Avoid Waterfall Career Planning

The important thing to realize is that change is not only possible in
your career but necessary. As a software developer, you would never
want to pour yourself into developing something your client doesn’t
want. Agile methodologies help prevent you from doing so. The same is
true of your career. Set big goals, but make constant corrections
along the way. Learn from the experience, and change the goals as you
go. Ultimately, a happy customer is what we all want (especially when,
as we plan our careers, we are our own customers) – not a completed
requirement.

I probably put more excerpts from the book here than I should, but I wanted to drive home the point on some of the non-obvious-but-critical points that the book raises that every software developer should ponder about.

Go buy the book / ebook now!

Update: Also see Top 5 Developer Skills That Will Get You Hired or Promoted

  1. Have a list of things to do.
  2. Pick one thing to work on. Start clock.
  3. When tired, stop clock. Take a break.

It worked because of two reasons:

  1. Observing yourself led to the Hawthorne Effect
  2. Time spent per day was a quantifiable measure of productivity.

Simple.

It worked quite well for more than six months, but it just fizzled out for me. I couldn’t explain why at that time.

In retrospect, I think it was because of a few problems:

  1. It did not solve procrastination. When I knew it was a big task, I would just delay getting started because I had put pressure on myself to not pause the clock early once it was started.
  2. It did not help me stay focused for long. I would lose enthusiasm every few days because I would feel drained.
  3. It was easy to lose track that I was doing time tracking! For example, I would be focusing on an action item, and when something urgent came up, I would just switch to that and would have forgotten about the running clock.
  4. After a few months, it was not satisfactory enough to just look at a number at the end of the day and say “I’ve been productive today.” It just wasn’t doing the trick any more.
  5. If a task was big and could not get completed that day, I would often feel demotivated and frustrated rather than happy about having put effort on the task.

Many people had commented on that article suggesting that I try out the Pomodoro technique. After six months, I did visit that website, but reading “Work in units of 25 minutes, with 5 minutes break in-between” did not stir up my enthusiasm. Same goes for reading the official book.

Then I happened to notice on the Pragmatic Programmers website that they had a book out on the same topic called “Pomodoro Technique Illustrated” by Staffan Nöteberg.

Pomodoro Technique Illustrated book

I have a high degree of trust in the quality of the PragProg books, so I blindly bought the ebook, downloaded and read it. It turned out to be one of the best books I have ever read.

There are plenty of reasons why I loved the book, and having written a couple of books myself, I wish I could write a book like this one – it has a fabulous approach of one page per topic which forced the author to be concise yet insightful, it is backed by extensive research as indicated by the references to other books in the footnotes, it has an engaging experience via the usage of sketches which presents the topic at hand in a fun spunky manner, and generally speaking, I really liked it’s whole “no fluff, just stuff” approach to topics.

And I have not even mentioned the content of the book itself. The second chapter “Context” alone is worth reading this book for. It explains a lot of the psychology on why the Pomodoro technique is designed the way it is. It was a powerful motivator for me to try out the technique and consequently experience the benefits.

First, let’s explain the name “Pomodoro”, it’s the Italian word for “tomato.” This name was used because Francesco Cirillo, the creator of this technique, used his kitchen timer which was in the shape of a tomato.

Now back to the book… let’s take what’s wrong with the simple ‘time tracking’ approach mentioned at the start of this article and add a few extra steps that the Pomodoro technique has and show how it provides benefits.

The first problem with simple time tracking is fizzling out of energy because of pressure on oneself to work for long uninterrupted hours. Our lizard brain just cannot keep doing that for long, so you split time into units of 25 minutes with breaks:

  1. Have list of things to do (the “Activity Inventory” sheet).
  2. Pick one to work on. Start clock.
  3. Stop after 25 minutes (one pomodoro). Relax your body and mind, for 5 minutes (break).
  4. After 4 pomodori, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes.

As Staffan notes in the book (Page 56):

During your breaks, you’re not allowed to think about the previous Pomodoro or about the next Pomodoro. Don’t make important phone calls or start writing important emails. Your brain needs to absorb the last 25 minutes of challenging thinking.

If your stress system is never neutralized by mental recreation, you’ll notice a number of symptoms. The thinking system in the brain stem is affected, as well as the senses of the limbic system and in the end your biological rhythms. For example, your sleep might be affected.

At chronic stress levels, the capacity of your working memory and your ability to concentrate will fall. The joy of working will be transformed into anxiety – inspiration is altered to irritation.

This rhythm of 25 minute units leads to a sustainable pace (Page 74):

Sustainable Pace

Overview and control are the opposite of flow and deep creative-thinking processes. You can’t see the big picture and focus on details at the same time. Your focus will benefit from a process where you minimize the points where you have to sort and allocate priorities. But you need to do both. And you also need recreation time on a regular basis in order to absorb and recharge. So, you have three mental states to switch between. You alternate between them, but what triggers the mental state change?

I use three hats: the recreation hat, which is a jester’s hat; the working hat, which transforms me into the lion who is 100 percent focused on hunting the antelope; and the strategy hat, which makes me feel like a king when I’m sorting and deciding what to do during the next work iteration.

I come to work wearing the recreation hat. I put on the strategy hat and choose what activity to focus on. Then I put on the work hat, wind up the clock, and begin to focus. The clock rings after 25 minutes, which reminds me to put on the recreation hat. After a short break, I put on the strategy hat, and so on.

This timebox schedule that interleaves to focus, to prioritize, and to rest gives me a sustainable pace.

The second problem is that this a bit too lax in that there is no race to finish something, there is no goals. So let’s start every day with a subset of the todo list and make a commitment to oneself to finish that subset on that day with the caveat that it is okay if we don’t accomplish it:

  1. Have list of things to do (the “Activity Inventory” sheet).
  2. Consult your priorities and make a list on what to work on today (the “To Do Today” sheet)
  3. Pick an activity from the To Do Today sheet to work on. Start clock.
  4. Stop after 25 minutes (one pomodoro). Relax your body and mind for 5 minutes (break).
  5. After 4 pomodori, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes.

As Staffan says in the book (Page 51):

Pomodoro to do today sheet

Distinguishing between the Activity Inventory (a traditional to-do list) and the To Do Today (an extracted commitment) is a compulsory strategy for doing the right thing, getting started now, and putting optimum effort into your work. It gives you clear goals and personal control.

The third problem is that there is frustration when a task is not finished on a given day because the task is so big. So we break down how long the task will take and focus on that as well as finishing the task:

  1. Have list of things to do (the “Activity Inventory” sheet) plus number of pomodori you estimate for each task.
  2. Consult your priorities and make a list on what to work on today (the “To Do Today” sheet)
  3. Pick an activity from the To Do Today sheet to work on. Start clock.
  4. Stop after 25 minutes (one pomodoro). Mark one pomodoro completed for the task on the To Do Today sheet. Relax your body and mind for 5 minutes (break).
  5. After 4 pomodori, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes.

This gives the physical pleasure of marking a X on successful completion of a pomodoro. This also means it can help measure our progress on whether we are on track to finish the task in the estimated number of pomodori.

As Staffan says (Page 95):

Planning based on estimates makes your commitment for the day more realistic, and as a result, your motivation will improve. Recording the number of completed Pomodoro every day gives you a good understanding of your Pomodoro velocity.

So far so good, but how do I know whether I’m improving myself day over day? Now we shall add tracking to the technique:

  1. Have list of things to do (the “Activity Inventory” sheet) plus number of pomodori you estimate for each task.
  2. Consult your priorities and make a list on what to work on today (the “To Do Today” sheet)
  3. Pick an activity from the To Do Today sheet to work on. Start clock. Mark every internal interruption with an apostrophe next to the task name and mark every external interruption with a dash.
  4. Stop after 25 minutes (one pomodoro). Mark one pomodoro completed for the task on the To Do Today sheet. Relax your body and mind for 5 minutes (break).
  5. After 4 pomodori, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes.
  6. At the end of each day, note down statistics that you are interested in w.r.t. your performance for today in the Records sheet.

Of course, this tracking only works if you make sure that each pomodoro is atomic (Page 61):

Never switch activities in the middle of a Pomodoro. If you finish an activity halfway through a Pomodoro, spend the rest of the time over-learning. For example, if I finish early, I review what I have done, I repeat what I have learned, I see whether I can enhance my work, or I note new conclusions on paper—until the kitchen timer rings.

So, you’re not allowed to impulsively switch activities in the middle of a Pomodoro. In fact, just having the option to switch in the middle is a recurring disturbance. You can’t just stop in the middle of a Pomodoro and take a break either. Then you will lose the rhythm. And since the stopped Pomodoro was shorter, it will not be compatible – in terms of tracking – with other Pomodori.

Examples of statistics include basic things like number of pomodori you committed to at the start of day versus the actual number of pomodori spent.

It can go as comprehensive as you wish, for example take interruptions we tracked during each pomodoro – we can track the average number of internal interruptions (your mind wanders) per pomodoro, the average number of external interruptions (somebody at work asks you something or you get a call) per pomodoro, what time of the day you get most interruptions, how long into each pomodoro you get your first distraction, and so on.

Pomodoro interruptions tracking

The point is to keep it simple and measurable. And something that motivates you to be productive each day. You should have a little ceremony but not too much otherwise it becomes self-defeating.

There is a LOT more to this than meets the eye and this is where Staffan’s book makes a difference. I would highly recommend reading this book. I’m making a mental note to myself to make this book one of the most important books that I will make my kids read and practice when they are in school. It is a valuable life survival tool that I feel they must learn at an early age (the next generation is going to be even more competitive!).

The best part is that I can fit GTD and Pomodoro techniques together. I remember reading a comment somewhere which said “GTD helps you answer what to do. Pomodoro helps you answer how to do it.”

Last, but not the least, the important thing to keep in mind is that Pomodoro technique forces you to adopt good habits. In more technical terms, “conditioned reflexes are key.” The act of marking X against an action, the act of crossing an action item when it is done, the act of making your brain instantly focused at the start of a Pomodoro (as well as the ticking sound of the clock, if you’re inclined), etc. they all help you adopt good habits. And I personally believe that good habits are the secret behind most successful people.

As Staffan says in the book (Page 48):

First prioritizing and then focusing on the most important activity will make you feel safe and sound. Otherwise, your focus will constantly be disturbed by questions like “Am I really doing the most important thing now?” At the start of my day, for instance, I first look at the whole backlog and pick the most important activity. Then I stick to it for a short timebox, before I reevaluate whether it’s still the most important one. In my mind I replace “I must finish” with “Where can I start?” and I replace “This project is so big and important” with “I can take one small step.”

Without the Pomodoro technique, figuring out how to start each workday can be hard. You might feel like you have a billion things and you can’t possibly do everything simultaneously. So, you never really start, and suddenly it’s lunch time.

Pomodoro itinerary

On a related note, there are variants to this technique, they can be called Kanban or they can be called GTCD but I hope you get the gist of why this technique works.

If you’re looking for tools, I would suggest these two:

  • For Linux and Windows – Focus Booster app
  • For Mac – The Pomodoro tray item – I like this one because it uses the Mac’s built-in voice feature to make announcements of the start and end of a Pomodoro.

Just in case you were curious, I revised the book this time in 5 pomodori, and wrote this blog post in 5 pomodori :-)

So what are you waiting for, go read the book now! And do write in about how the Pomodoro technique has helped you.

Update : “We believe what we want to believe, so it’s better to get data” — B J Fogg in an interview with Ramit Sethi – I guess this is the most succinct answer to when people ask me why use the Pomodoro technique :-)

I recently read the book The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande – a respected surgeon, noted author, MacArthur fellow, New Yorker staff writer, and a professor at Harvard Medical School.

The premise of the entire book is the author’s dive into the concept of a checklist and how they have dramatically improved the efficiency and reliability of professionals in the medical profession, the aeronautical industry, the architecture industry and even the venture capital industry.

So what is a checklist? It is the minimum set of critical steps for any task to be achieved.

Why are they useful? Because checklists protect against many kinds of dangers. For example:

  1. “Faulty memory and distraction are a particular danger in what engineers call all-or-none processes – if you miss just one key thing, you might as well not have made the effort at all (whether it is buying ingredients for a cake or preparing an airplane for takeoff).”
  2. “People can lull themselves into skipping steps even when they remember them. Especially in busy and stressed workplaces (such as hospitals). In complex processes, certain steps don’t always matter, may be it affects only 1 out of 50 times. But when it does, it can be catastrophic.”

One of my favorite passages in the book is as follows (it’s a longer excerpt than I would have liked, but all the parts were really important, so please read the whole passage to understand what’s going on):

Checklists remind us of the minimum necessary steps and make them explicit. They not only offer the possibility of verification but also instill a kind of discipline of higher performance. Which is precisely what happened with vital signs – thought it was not doctors who deserved the credit.

The routine recording of the four vital signs did not become the norm in Western hospitals until the 1960s, when nurses embraced the idea. They designed their patient charts and forms to include the signs, especially creating a checklist for themselves.

With all the things nurses had to do for their patients over the course of a day or night – dispense their medications, dress their wounds, troubleshoot problems – the “vitals chart” provided a way of ensuring that every six hours, or more often when nurses judged necessary, they didn’t forget to check their patient’s pulse, blood pressure, temperature and respiration and assess exactly how the patient was doing.

In most hospitals, nurses have since added a fifth vital sign: pain, as rated by patients on a scale of one to ten. And nurses have developed yet further such bedside innovations – for example, medication timing charts and brief written care plans for every patient. No one calls these checklists but, really, that’s what they are. They have been welcomed by nursing but haven’t quite carried over into doctoring.

Charts and checlists, that’s nursing stuff — boring stuff. They are nothing that we doctors, withour extra years of training and specialization, would ever need or use.

In 2001, though, a critical care specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital named Peter Pronovost decided to give a doctor checklist a try. He didn’t attempt to make the checklist encompass everything ICU teams might need to do in a day. He designed it to tackle just one of their hundreds of potential tasks, the one that nearly killed Anthony DeFilippo: central line infections.

On a sheet of plain paper, he plotted out the steps to take in order to avoid infections when putting in a central line. Doctors are supposed to (1) wash their hands with soap, (2) clean the patient’s skin with chlorhexidine antiseptic, (3) put sterile drapes over the entire patient, (4) wear a mask, hat, sterile gown, and gloves, and (5) put a sterile dressing over the insertion site once the line is in. Check, check, check, check, check. These steps are no-brainers; they have been known and taught for years. So it seemed silly to make a checklist for something so obvious. Still, Pronovost asked the nurses in his ICU to observe the doctors for a month as they put lines into patients and record how often they carried out each step. In more than a third of patients, they skipped at least one.

The next month, he and his team persuaded the Johns Hopkins Hospital administration to authorize nurses to stop doctors if they saw them skipping a step on the checklist; nurses were also to ask the doctors each day whether any lines ought to be removed, so as not to leave them in longer than necessary. This was revolutionary. Nurses have always had their ways of nudging a doctor into doing the right thing, ranging from the gentle reminder (“Um, did you forget to put on your mask, doctor?”) to more forceful methods (I’ve had a nurse bodycheck me when she thought I hadn’t put enough drapes on a patient). But many nurses aren’t sure whether this is their place or whether a given measure is worth a confrontation. (Does it really matter whether a patient’s legs are draped for a line going into the chest?”) The new rule made it clear: if doctors didn’t follow every step, the nurses would have backup from the administration to intervene.

For a year afterward, Pronovost and his colleagues monitored what happened. The results were so dramatic that they weren’t sure whether to believe them: the ten-day line-infection rate went from 11 percent to zero. So they followed patients for fifteen more months. Only two line infections occurred during the entire period. They calculated that, in this one hospital, the checklist had prevented forty-three infections and eight deaths and saved two million dollars in costs.

If that, my friends, does not explain the power of a simple checklist, I don’t know what can.

And yet, despite these results, people were reluctant to adopt checklists. In fact, I know you are dismissing the idea right now. Try writing down 5 reasons why checklists are stupid and won’t work for you. Now write 5 reasons why it will work. Think over it. I bet most people find the 5 reasons against checklists, easier to write, but will be convinced about it after writing the 5 reasons for it.

(more…)

A while back, I released a side-project called http://isbn.net.in – a simple tool for comparing book prices in India. I received lots of feedback, suggestions and praise. I have updated it with fixes for the bugs reported and implemented most of the suggestions.

It was interesting to see people writing blog posts and linking to the corresponding book page on isbn.net.in as a “canonical page” about the book. I hadn’t thought of that.

Feedback

Lots of bug reports, suggestions and praise came via email, such as from Onkar:

“Nice idea with simple implementation. I am sure this will make my father happy. Thanks for your work. :-)”

And as expected, Twitterers were most vocal about it:

@saurabh says: isbn.net.in is awesome #recommended #ftw #awesomeness

@kranium256 says: isbn.net.in is actually quite bloody awesome!

@kr0y says: For all those who love to order books online, this site can really help you get a good deal http://isbn.net.in/

@abhinittiwari says: Awesome book price comparision engine! http://isbn.net.in/

@vineetmundhra says: A wonderful tool for comparing book prices in India http://isbn.net.in

@l0nwlf says: http://isbn.net.in -> a pretty neat site to compare prices of book

@yarooruvann says: http://isbn.net.in/ very good tool to compare book prices in India

@jasdeep says: isbn.net.in is awesome, thank you @swaroopch

@tan1337 says: Awesome!

And some of the blog comments were heartening to note as well, especially this one:

Chandan V says: I was searching for a book from past 1 week and was unable to find it. Thanks to you, finally I was able get my book at flipkart. It was like, I thought I’ll not get that book any where in Bangalore and I open my google reader to see your link. Bingo, I have placed an order and eagerly looking forward for the delivery. Thanks a ton. You do not know how much it meant for me to have that book.

Note that last sentence. That is the stuff that creators love! :)

Search by title

The biggest feedback was: “Getting ISBN numbers is a little difficult for everyone. Consider taking a book title as your input and searching prices based on that directly.”

I understand the motivation behind this. But unfortunately, this was what I was exactly trying to avoid! I do not want to build a search engine! That is a non-trivial task, as I’m sure you can imagine.

My idea was to piggyback on top of people who are already doing that well. For example, Flipkart and Infibeam are supposed to have the most titles for the Indian market. So my idea was this: Why not use those search engines which are being constantly updated and tweaked by those companies to search for the books, and then use the bookmarklet + isbn.net.in to compare the actual prices. I actually don’t want you to use isbn.net.in as the starting point.

If you still want to search by book title, then head on over to the new Google Product Search for India. The reasons why you would use isbn.net.in over Google Product Search, is that isbn.net.in is comprehensive, accurate, has latest prices (as much as possible), and helps you decide whether to buy the book using the full description and Amazon rating.

Fixes and Updates

Regarding the fixes and updates based on your suggestions, here is the list:

  1. Fixed error on multiple pages such as http://isbn.net.in/8190453025 (via @sudhiru) and http://isbn.net.in/0074637762 (via email from Abhinav Sood)
  2. Fixing fetching of prices from a1books, thanks to bug report from Amit Sharma
  3. Added link to Google Product Search for India, because of many queries to allow search by title.
  4. Added CoralHub.com to the list of online book stores that is searched.
  5. Linked to iglooo.in and bookase.com in the about page under the list of similar projects.
  6. Added a “generic grep” to make the bookmarklet try a little harder for sites that is not known in its default list – IIRC, this was a suggestion by @talonx
  7. Bookmarklet now works with Amazon pages, but for this, you will need to take the bookmarklet again from http://isbn.net.in frontpage
  8. Added Kindle prices.

Favorite New Feature

My favorite new feature is Kindle ebook prices because, sometimes, buying the Kindle edition is cheaper than getting the paper book. That’s what I did with Seth Godin’s new book.

Further suggestions and feedback are welcome.