Working for a Living

We were meant to work for a living…not a life. Yet, billions of us spend more than a third of each day, in places we don’t want to be, doing work we don’t want to do. Is there an escape? In June of 2002, I chanced upon an essay by email. It came into my life out of the blue, but seemed to echo every thing I wanted to say on the subject. It provided me with hope…and encouragement…giving me a clarity I wished I had had earlier in life…

We were meant to work for a living…not a life. Yet, billions of us spend more than a third of each day, in places we don’t want to be, doing work we don’t want to do.

In the name of a “fast-track corporate career” or some such thing, we spend most of our lives buried in work…the kind we don’t even enjoy…earning more money than we can spend…and still wanting more !! Many spend their whole lives chasing a dream that’s not really their own, all the while, harbouring desires to do something entirely different.

In June of 2002, I chanced upon an essay by email. It came into my life out of the blue, but seemed to echo every thing I wanted to say on the subject. It provided me with hope…and encouragement…giving me a clarity I wished I had had earlier in life. I reproduce parts of it here for your benefit…

On Work, Kent Nerburn :

I often hear people say, “I have to find myself.” What they really mean is, I have to make myself.” Life is an endlessly creative experience, and we are making ourselves every moment by every decision we make.

That is why the work you choose for yourself is so crucial to your sense of value and well-being. No matter how much you might believe that your work is nothing more than what you do to make money, your work makes you who you are, because it is where you put your time.

This happens to anyone who takes a job. Even if you hate a job and keep a distance from it, you are defining yourself in opposition to the job by resisting it. By giving the job your time, you are giving it your consciousness. And it will, in turn, fill your life with the reality that it presents.

Many people ignore this fact. They choose a profession because it seems exciting, or because they can make a lot of money, or because it has some prestige in their minds. They commit themselves to their work, but slowly find themselves feeling restless and empty. The time they have to spend on their work begins to hang heavy on their hands, and soon they feel constricted and trapped.

They join the legions of humanity who Thoreau said lead lives of quiet desperation – unfulfilled, unhappy and uncertain of what to do. Yet the lure of financial security and the fear of the unknown keep them from acting to change their lives, and their best energies are spend creating justifications for staying where they are or inventing activities outside of work that they hope will provide them with a sense of meaning. But these efforts can never be totally successful. We are what we do, and the more we do it, the more we become it. The only way out is to change our lives or to change our expectations for our lives. And if we lower our expectations we are killing our dreams, and a man without dreams is already half dead.

You must never forget that to those who hire you, your labor is a commodity. You are paid because you provide a service that is useful. If the service you provide is no longer needed, it doesn’t matter how honorable, how diligent, how committed you have been in your work. If what you can contribute is no longer needed, you are no longer needed and you will be let go. Even if you’ve committed your life to the job, you are, at heart, a part of the commercial exchange, and you are valuable only so long as you are a significant contributor to that commercial exchange. It is nothing personal; it’s just the nature of economic transaction.

I once had a professor who dreamed of being a concert pianist. Fearing the possibility of failure, he went into academics where the work was secure and the money was predictable. One day, when I was talking to him about my unhappiness in my graduate studies, he walked over and sat down at his piano. He played a beautiful glisando and then, abruptly, stopped. “Do what is in your heart,” he said. “I really only wanted to be a concert pianist. Now I spend every day wondering how good I might have been.” Don’t let this be your epitaph at the end of your working life. Find out what it is that burns in your heart and do it. Choose a vocation, not a job, and you will be at peace. Take a job instead of finding a vocation, and eventually you will find yourself saying, “I’ve only got thirteen more years to retirement,” or “I spend every day wondering how good I might have been.”

We all owe ourselves better than that.

Desperately Seeking a Memex !

In spite of years of advances in the field of personal computing, no one has bothered to come up with a better way to search-and-retrieve the data we store on our machines. To my surprise, I discovered that the exact same problem was stated way back in 1945 ! Is there a solution?

Every day, a significant amount of my time is spent working on a computer. And, of all the things we use PCs for, storing and retrieving data still forms a critical component of our work, no matter what the nature of work actually is. What amazes me is that, in spite of years of advances in the field of personal computing, no one has bothered to come up with a better way to search-and-retrieve the data we store on our machines !

When you think about it, human beings don’t think in terms of categories and sub-categories. Instead, each thought triggers another one associated with it. That’s the foundation of how we remember every thing we do and are able to recall it at will. But a typical File Management software (like Windows Explorer) confines us to an un-natural way of processing data, requiring us to store every thing with specific filenames in specific locations. The result : When you want something, you can’t always remember where you put it.

To my surprise, I discovered that the exact same problem was stated way back in 1945 ! Vannevar Bush, in an article published in the Atlantic Monthly, spoke of how the growing volume of scientific work is going to need a better of way of storing and retrieving information.

According to Bush :

Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path.

Of course, at that time, the PC wasn’t invented and Bush envisaged a mechanical machine – something he called a “Memex” – complete with levers and motors, that would hopefully solve the problem. Unfortunately, in spite of processor power (and storage needs) increasing in leaps and bounds, very little progress has been made in this area even today.

I can no longer comprehend a life without Search Engines like Google, and I am pretty sure the “Internet” would not have happened if it weren’t for these indexing utilities to help us sift through the tons and tons of data poured out on the web every day. The information overload we experience on an individual level is not very different in nature…

May be the answer is a personal search engine for our personal computers… a Google-like alternative that would search the entire “database” of files and folders so that we wouldn’t *have* to remember where we put things in the first place ! But such a system would not be able to re-create paths that we followed to record (or search for) specific topics of information.

What is needed is a more flexible way of doing this : A system that allows us to store multiple links to all the data that is stored in one giant location. This data can be either created by us, or sourced from elsewhere as we scoop it along our search on the Internet. We could then look up the same file in many different ways by searching on key words that were included at the time of storage.

Such a system would also allow us to “bind” disparate scraps of information whether they exist as Word documents, Excel sheets, Powerpoint presentations, simple Text files or URLs to websites on the Internet. It will also allow us to look up that “trace” at a future point in time, and recall every thing we did to get there, making it truly meaningful and human-friendly. Wouldn’t it be great if this were possible?

In the meanwhile, I’m going crazy trying to look for that proposal we’d sent to the client last year… Was it in the Pursuits directory or the Proposals one? May be it was in the Clients directory…

I hope some body invents the Memex soon !

David v Goliath

Through most of my working years, I have been associated with small- to medium-sized firms. I have tried the large-enterprise route too. And come to the realization that the two represent two very different personalities. Neither route is more right or wrong. But the probability of success with any one approach will depend strongly on the kind of person *you* are. Over the next several posts, I will try and highlight some my learnings on this subject to give you a better idea of what the two routes involve…

Through most of my working years, I have been associated with small- to medium-sized firms, believing that they would offer me a much richer experience and allow me to hone my skills in many different areas. The trade-off is, of course, the kind of exposure that a large enterprise provides, with its systems & processes and scale of operations and its ability to build “stable”, well-charted, careers.

I have tried the large-enterprise route too. And come to the realization that the two represent two very different personalities. Neither route is more right or wrong. But the probability of success with any one approach will depend strongly on the kind of person *you* are.

Entrepreneurship is not for every one. It’s a different kind of world that you get into. And it’s better to understand it somewhat, before you take the crucial step.

Dan Bricklin summed it up best when he explained the difference between the Davids and Goliaths of the working world :

In big business, when you need to cross a river, you simply design a bridge, build it, and march right across.

But in a small venture, you must climb the rocks. You don’t know where each step will take you, but you do know the general direction you are moving in. If you make a mistake, you get wet. If your calculations are wrong, you have to inch your way back to safety and find a different route.

And, as you jump from rock to slippery rock, you have to *like* the feeling.

Until the next post on this subject, read this excellent series on Entrepreneurship by Rajesh Jain to know more.

Have you been Googled?

The Boston Globe Online wrote a story in Feb 2003 of how the world’s most preferred search engine – Google – is changing what we can find out about one another…The first tool truly to make sense of the white noise that is the Internet, Google has become essential research for everyone…But somewhere along the path toward changing our daily lives, Google changed our concept of time as well. It has helped make our past – or oddly refracted shards of it – present and permanent.

The Boston Globe Online wrote a story in Feb 2003 of how the world’s most preferred search engine – Google – is changing what we can find out about one another.

Excerpt from the cover story :

Michael is a clean-cut 34-year-old working in a professional job at a Boston medical school. You’d never know he did time for burglary and is a former drug addict. Well, actually, you would if you Googled him… The search, Google proudly notes, takes just a 10th of a second…

Michael has never hidden from his past, and in his 20s, he even wrote for a few specialized publications about his brief stint behind bars as a 17-year-old. He was happy to share his exploits with that sliver of the population genuinely interested in the issues of incarceration. But Michael never saw Google coming…

The first tool truly to make sense of the white noise that is the Internet, Google has become essential research for everyone…But somewhere along the path toward changing our daily lives, Google changed our concept of time as well. It has helped make our past – or oddly refracted shards of it – present and permanent. That’s a radical notion for a medium usually defined by its ability to constantly update itself.

In fact, a search on Google for “google big brother” will also throw up a few links to pages dedicated towards unearthing the other unethical issues affecting the search engine.

While no one can deny the role Google has played in making our now-connected lives easier, thanks to an amazingly accurate and efficient search facility, I think the article does raise some very valid concerns about the role of Technology and the limits it should follow.

After all, we all have something in our pasts that we wish we could have done differently, don’t we? 😉

Tolerate Genius

Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. Isn’t it time we made it just a little bit easier for geniuses to do their job? Isn’t it time we Tolerate Genius?

I passed by a postcards-counter in a restaurant recently, and one particular card caught my eye:

“Tolerate Genius”, David Ogilvy.

Think about it. How many of us actually do?

Albert Einstein once said, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” If we examine our own experiences, we are more likely to find that a reality. And that’s what a genius faces each day. Opposition. Violent opposition. In spirit, in thought, and in acceptance. Yet, if we look back in history, we would not have moved beyond the Stone Age if it weren’t for unconventional thought. We would spend the rest of our lives in the belief that the Earth is flat and we are at the centre of the Universe. No discoveries to be made. No inventions. No nothing.

Isn’t it time we made it just a little bit easier for geniuses to do their job? Isn’t it time we Tolerate Genius?

Why Nerds Are Unpopular

You may not have been a “nerd” in your school days and you may think you don’t need to read about them now. But this essay is much more than that. It will give you a perspective on the importance of education in life, the role that parents and institutions have in it.

Mark Twain once remarked : “Never let your schooling interfere with your education.” And I am sure that all of us, at some time or another, have agreed that truer words were never spoken. I, for one, have always felt that the things that really ought to be taught in our schools and colleges are not even dealt with superficially. When do we teach our kids communication skills or the importance of relationships in life? When do we teach them to follow their calling and find their own path? How long before we tell them that “memorizing meaningless facts” is not the key to success? How long before they can even define what “success” is on their own terms?

We continue to go through life, putting our children through a system that does not work, and then blame society and the government for all that is wrong in the world. When, in fact, the fault lies with us – with our actions and our inactions.

Paul Graham recently wrote an article called Why Nerds Are Unpopular. In this insightful essay, he describes the various causes that make some kids nerds and about the “degeneration of society”. But in doing so, he also makes same very pertinent observations about how things came to be the way they are now, and what can be done to change that.

According to Graham :

Officially the purpose of schools is to teach kids. In fact their primary purpose is to keep kids all locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done. And I have no problem with this: in a specialized industrial society, it would be a disaster to have kids running around loose.

What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren’t told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates. Kids are sent off to spend six years memorizing meaningless facts in a world ruled by a caste of giants who run after an oblong brown ball, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And if they balk at this surreal cocktail, they’re called misfits.

…Those who suffer most by this are the kids who would be the happiest if the school’s purpose were really what it’s claimed to be.

Read this article. You may not have been a “nerd” in your school days and you may think you don’t need to read about them now. But this essay is much more than that. It will give you a perspective on the importance of education in life, the role that parents and institutions have in it.

It will tell you how you can make a difference…

A Perfect World

I have often wondered about a peculiar question : Is “ideal” necessarily “impractical” ?I know there is no such thing as the perfect world. And I am not aiming for one. But I sincerely believe that the world would be so much better a place if we aimed for the sky and not landed the stars, but didn’t fall on the ground either…

I have often wondered about a peculiar question :

Is “ideal” necessarily “impractical” ?

There was a time in life when we as a community used to call something ideal when we had to aspire to achieve it, and when it was deemed as worth achieving. But every day that goes by, I get the feeling that we now pass off something as “ideal” only when we wish to consider it as “impractical” – and not even try to achieve it ! And that is a scary thought…

It does not augur well for our future, that our society regards most of what is ideal as impractical. It lowers the bar on most things in life worth fighting for. And every thing we have today, we owe to people striving towards a higher goal. Not settling for that which came easily to them.

But today, we don’t even try for it. We just dismiss it off as “too ideal”. And with that goes most things worth achieving. And that is a scary thought. Because, intentionally or not, we will pass on these values to our children. And our children’s children. And in doing so, we will set in motion a downward spiral, resulting in the death of values as we know it.

I know someone of you will think : Naa, this guy’s just paranoid. But think about it. What happens when we see small instances of wrong-doing in our own lives and disregard it as “a way of life”? What happens when we hear of a business practice that seems unfair on the face of it, but convince ourselves that it is, after all, a business and must make profits to survive? What happens when we face issues that affect the entire world, but are no one’s responsibility? What do we do about global warming, environmental pollution, a bureaucratic government, corrupt politicians, the population explosion, and disappearing rainforests?

And the problems don’t even need to be so big. We face difficult situations all the time. We are forever at the crossroads of deciding which path to take – the right one or the easy one. And yet all of us, almost always, take the easy way out. Sure, we justify it by telling ourselves : “Life is hard enough as it is, and I don’t need to take on additional troubles.” Some of us even rationalise it by saying : Life has been hard to me, and I deserve this much of wrong-doing ! Still others convince themselves by saying : “This is not a one-man task and I will not get the support of others on it. So let me not even try.” So where does it all end? If it all, it does…

I say we give the other path a try. For once, let us try and do something, because it is simply worth doing. Let us at least give it a shot, and then say : I tried, but it didn’t work. Let us at least try to achieve the ideal… We just might achieve it !

I know there is no such thing as the perfect world. And I am not aiming for one. But I sincerely believe that the world would be so much better a place if we aimed for the sky and not landed the stars, but didn’t fall on the ground either…

Book of Questions

I have a little book called the “Book of Questions”. It has nothing but questions in it ; No answers, just questions. Each question is meant to make you think about your life and your approach to it. One specific question from that book has done a lot to the way I look at life.

I have a little book called the “Book of Questions”. It has nothing but questions in it ; No answers, just questions. Each question is meant to make you think about your life and your approach to it. Some of them are pretty thought-provoking. One specific question from that book has done a lot to the way I look at life. It goes like this…

“If you had just the end of the day before you die, and from now until then, you could not even say one thing to any one, what would you regret most not saying? And why haven’t you told them yet?”

Think about it. We always live as if life will go on forever, each of us fully aware of the fact that death will come without warning. Yet, the secret to a good life is to live each day like it will be your last. That way, instead of putting off for tomorrow, we will do / say it today ! If each of us did that, wouldn’t the world be a far better place?

What would YOU regret most not saying? And why haven’t you told them yet?

Sigmoid Curve

Have you ever wondered when is the right time to launch something new? When is it right to change tracks? When is it a good time to take a leap of faith into an unknown future? Should you not wait till you reap the rewards of the efforts you have put in? If these questions have bothered you endlessly, a little tool called the “Sigmoid Curve” might help.

Have you ever wondered when is the right time to launch something new? When is it right to change tracks? When is it a good time to take a leap of faith into an unknown future? Should you not wait till you reap the rewards of the efforts you have put in?

If these questions have bothered you endlessly, a little tool called the “Sigmoid Curve” might help. I owe this one to Charles Handy, a wise old British economist and author, who wrote about it in his book the Age of Paradox. (See this article for an interesting perspective. And click PDF for a one-page note on the concept.)

According to Handy, the best time to start a new “curve” is before you reach the peak of your existing one ! That way, you will be starting something new when you still have the resources, and the spirit, to take it to new heights. In contrast, most people think of doing something new only when they have reached the bottom of what they are presently involved in.

Though, I must also point out that Handy’s recommendation is easier said than done. There are several difficulties that come up in its implementation. For one, it is very difficult to determine where one is on the sigmoid curve. Another big problem is that it is against conventional thinking, and you are most likely going to face resistance from your peers and those around you, making it difficult for you to stick to your plan. I mean, why would any sane person want to give it all up when the peak is yet to be reached ?! But that’s precisely what the model suggests.

(If you think about it, that’s kinda like what Sting did when he broke from The Police at the peak of their career. Sting once said in an interview that he left Police when they were touring all over, and were on the top of the charts for several weeks in a row. What else was there to achieve?!)

Why am I writing all this? Because my life till date has been kinda like a lot of sigmoid curves ! I have always believed in constantly learning…evolving…growing… And this concept has helped. In all honesty, it was more good fortune than well-planned strategy that led me to where I am now. But this concept has helped.

If this write up helps you in even a small way, it would have achieved its purpose.

So, go ahead. Carpe Diem. And, may the force be with you !

Emergic Freedom

Emergic.com … The basic premise is that of using low-end (but perfectly useable) computers, bundled with open-source (and hence, resource-friendly) software based on Linux, to enable cheap access to millions of people all over the world. That means, the dream of an internet-enabled PC in every hospital room, in every hotel room, in every school and college.. can soon become a reality !

The “Emergic Blog“is what inspired me to start a blog of my own. The most interesting thing about it was that the people behind it, headed by Rajesh Jain, were actually trying to use available technology in radical ways to essentially improve the quality of life!

Now, I have been a strong proponent of Linux for a long time. Always believed that there was bound to be an alternative to paying big bucks for continual upgrades of hardware (as in Intel) that is meant to run the continually-upgraded versions of software (as in Microsoft) that basically doesn’t work very well (as in crashes, errors, security bugs, virus problems, etc. etc. etc.).

I have also been a big believer in Internet technologies, and have a lot of faith in its power to bring information…communication abilities…empowerment…to the common man. But the fact is that most modern technology is out of bounds for 90% of the world population, simply because it is too expensive.

Well, it looks like there is finally a way out … The basic premise is that of using low-end (but perfectly useable) computers, bundled with open-source (and hence, resource-friendly) software based on Linux, to enable cheap access to millions of people all over the world. That means, the dream of an internet-enabled PC in every hospital room, in every hotel room, in every school and college.. can soon become a reality !

I know the path ahead for Emergic is far more difficult than it seems. And I wish them all the best in their endeavour. If they succeed, we all will.

See The Emergic Website for more details… And, join the revolution !!!