Books

Best Books I Read in 2017

Every year, I spend a lot of time on choosing the books I want to read. I find my recommendations from a variety of sources - reading lists, Reddit, friends, popular culture, and mentions in books. And this end of year list is something I do to point out the brightest ones from a sea of innumerable beautiful stars. Let's jump right into it.

1. Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie

The first thought that came to my mind when I finished reading this book was, “What do I do with my life now?” It left me feeling like I have now read everything that I would ever want to read and nothing that I pick again is going to match its level. This is an incredible book, a masterpiece. Of course you don’t need me to say this about the sole recipient of The Best of the Booker award. I had never read a Rushdie before so I did not know what I was getting into. And his imagination and the richness of characters totally blew me away.

People adept at their craft are sometimes called magicians out of respect. In Rushdie’s case, this is a veritable truth and not just in a metaphorical sense. I never imagined that language and words could be used in this way; I was spell bound. Midnight's Children ranks right up there with the best books I have ever read. And I would urge you vehemently to make this your next book to read.

2. Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind - Yuval Noah Harari

Over the past few years, I have dramatically reduced my internet reading. Instead, I like to read books which offer in depth material on a certain topic. Knowledge empowers the mind to make informed choices. And with Sapiens, I found answers to a lot of questions which plague me as an individual and also as a member of our society.

When I picked this book, I imagined that I’d learn a lot about mankind’s history from the prehistoric times up to today. But it did a lot more than inform me - it changed my worldview. Instead of passive knowledge, I received active wisdom. It helped me look at the world around me and things that I care about in a different light. And I couldn’t help but recommend this to every person I met. 

3. A Farewell To Arms - Ernest Hemingway

If you read a Hemingway, and it doesn’t feature in your Best-Of list, you probably didn’t read it right. He is one of my favorite authors and from whose writing style I try to take a lot. A Farewell of Arms is an intense World War 1 story and one of his best works. I want to leave you with the most famous quote from this book:

“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

4. The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupéry

It might come across as a children’s book. But it is much more than that. The best lessons are the ones which nudge you in the right direction from where you can travel on your own. And not the ones where you are pushed onto and you are not sure what you are supposed to do now. This book comes under the former category. Apart from the charming story and the illustrations, the author himself is quite a character. Its a cute, lovable, simple, deep book all at the same time. Read this with your partner or read it with your kids, and share laughter, happiness and timeless wisdom. 

Other Notable Mentions:

I read a few Agatha Christies which never disappoint. Also read a couple of books from The Song of Ice and Fire series - I only wish I had experienced them before watching the TV show first. Non-fiction works like Deep Work, Predictably Irrational, Song Machine and As a Man Thinketh were interesting reads as well. 

I hope you do get around to reading some of these. If you like these recommendations, check out the rest of my reading list here.

Lists from previous years:

Notes from Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Here's an exercise: Count the number of times you are interrupted while reading this article. And when I say interruptions, I mean all of these things and more:

  • A colleague coming over for a quick question
  • A ting on your phone
  • New email notification on the corner of your screen
  • The sudden craving for a quick cup of coffee
  • Opening up a new tab and doing internet wandering

These interruptions may seem harmless, but they have a significant impact on the quality of our work, productivity and consequently on our life. The book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport explores this idea extensively using solid research.

Some of the concepts in the book should be intuitive knowledge to us. But I've found that when such knowledge is backed by scientific studies, it becomes much more likely to be adopted in real life. (Like the benefits of meditation and why I started doing it after reading about its very real benefits).

This post covers my notes and highlights from the book. Passages from the book are in italics.


WHAT IS DEEP WORK

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

If we look back in the past, we’ll find that deep work was ubiquitous in influential people. For example:

Mark Twain wrote much of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in a shed on the property of the Quarry Farm in New York, where he was spending the summer. Twain’s study was so isolated from the main house that his family took to blowing a horn to attract his attention.

This is not an isolated example. The book Daily Rituals by Mason Currey is full of such stories of important historical figures who owe their success to commitment to deep work.

Newport says that our behavior - ‘our’ as in most knowledge workers - is in sharp contrast to this. And he ascribes the reason to network tools and the proliferation of shallow work.

Shallow Work: Non Cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

If we look at our usual work day, a lot of the deep work is replaced by the shallow alternative - like the constant sending and receiving e-mail messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction.

Larger efforts that would be well served by deep thinking, such as forming a new business strategy or writing an important grant application, get fragmented into distracted dashes that produce muted quality.

WHY DEEP WORK

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
Our work culture’s shift toward the shallow is exposing a massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth.

This opportunity will become more apparent in the coming years when the artificial intelligent tools will take over more of our shallow (and some deep) tasks.

The real rewards are reserved not for those who are comfortable using Facebook (a shallow task, easily replicated), but instead for those who are comfortable building the innovative distributed systems that run the service (a decidedly deep task, hard to replicate).

Assuming that you agree with the deep work hypothesis, we'll need two core abilities for thriving in the new economy: 

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
  2. Theability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

And this is where Deep Work will come handy.

 

1. DEEP WORK HELPS YOU QUICKLY LEARN HARD THINGS

To understand this, we'll get into the science of focus. I found it to be the most fascinating part of the book. A few things to learn:

Myelin: It is a layer of fatty tissue that grows around neurons. It acts like an insulator that allows the cells to fire faster and cleaner.

What are Skills? Skills, intellectual or physical, eventually are a function of our brain circuits. When we focus intensely on a specific skill, we essentially force the relevant circuit to fire repeatedly in isolation.

And this is how the two are connected:

The new science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. To be great at something is to be well myelinated.

By focusing intensely on the task at hand (or in other words, by using a specific circuit repeatedly), we trigger cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons—effectively cementing the skill. Instead, if we are distracted, we fire too many circuits simultaneously to be able to isolate the group of neurons we want to strengthen. It follows that - 

To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.

 

2. DEEP WORK IS RARE

A few examples of why in today’s work culture deep work is rare:

  1. Open floor offices - My last job was in at a very cool company with good perks, flexible vacation policy and an open floor office. But, that last bit was problematic. Ringing phones, laughter, discussions - all these traveled farther in an open layout. I had to find a meeting room just to be able to focus and do some deep work.

  2. IM in offices - ‘Coffee?’ ‘Smoke?’ ‘Yo what’s up?’ Simple questions which take not just your attention but also your time - The office instant messenger problem.

  3. Social Media presence - The effects of the attention sinks that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al are has been well documented. This problem is more pronounced in the case of creators who not only have to do their deep creative work but also engage in the shallow work of keeping their social media updated since they also use it as a channel of promotion.

These cause a problem which you might have heard before:

Attention Residue - When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task.
It implies that the common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance. It might seem harmless to take a quick glance at your inbox every ten minutes or so. But that quick check introduces a new target for your attention. The attention residue left by such unresolved switches dampens your performance.

 

3. DEEP WORK IS MEANINGFUL

Here's something perhaps you can relate to:

It can be hard to define exactly what a given knowledge worker does and how it differs from another: On our worst days, it can seem that all knowledge work boils down to the same exhausting roil of e-mails and PowerPoint, with only the charts used in the slides differentiating one career from another.

At my work, some days would be spent in meetings with little output. Other times I would use my busyness as a proxy for productivity. It brewed dissatisfaction and a lack of purpose.

Newport quotes Winifred Gallagher, a scientific researcher in the field of focus:

There’s a gravity and sense of importance inherent in deep work. Gallagher’s theory predicts that if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance.

By contrast, shallow work begets discontentment.

Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging. To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction. Whether you’re a writer, marketer, consultant, or lawyer: Your work is craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your professional life.
A deep life is a good life, any way you look at it.

 

4. DEEP WORK HELPS YOU PRODUCE AT AN ELITE LEVEL

Consider this equation:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Newport gives example of a prolific professor who often isolates himself without distraction on a single research task. During these periods, which can last up to three or four days, he’ll often put an out-of-office auto-responder on his e-mail so correspondents will know not to expect a response.

If you believe this formula, then Grant’s habits make sense: By maximizing his intensity when he works, he maximizes the results he produces per unit of time spent working.

This idea of working smarter, not harder has been explored in multiple other books and articles. And it seems to make a lot of sense.


The second half of the book is used to lay down the Rules and the Techniques by which we can attain deep work in our life. To give you a short summary of those techniques is just not possible because there's too much information to be compressed in a succinct form.

The aim of this post was to introduce you to the concept of Deep Work, to show the solid foundation behind it and how profound of an impact it can have in our lives. I hope it has served its purpose.

I'd highly recommend you to read the book. You'll get a stronger understanding and hopefully you implement some of those rules in your life. I’ll leave you with one last advice from the book, which I feel is the simplest to implement and probably the most powerful.

 

RITUALIZE

The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.
Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
Without structure, you’ll have to mentally litigate again and again what you should and should not be doing during these sessions and keep trying to assess whether you’re working sufficiently hard. These are unnecessary drains on your willpower reserves.

“Men of genius themselves were great only by bringing all their power to bear on the point on which they had decided to show their full measure.”

-Antonin Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life


Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed the post, share it with someone who might find it useful. Leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.

If you want to read more on the topic of focus, here's something I wrote: A Romantic's Guide to Finding Focus

To get email updates of new posts, leave your email address here:

Searching for The Sublime in Mundane - Notes from The Book of Tea

"LET US DREAM OF EVANESCENCE, AND LINGER IN THE BEAUTIFUL FOOLISHNESS OF THINGS."

One of the most important books that I read last year was The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakuro. It talks about much more than just the art of making tea - aesthetics, simplicity and the transcendence found in the seemingly simple rituals of a craft (in this case, tea-making). It is a manual on living a deliberate life, in the depths where the sublime reveals itself to us.

The wisdom in these pages dwarfs the other important aspect of this book - the efficiency of words. At only 160 pages, this short read punches well above its weight. There are no wasted sentences, no time expended in citing shallow stories. It is a study in depth, and living immersed in your craft. I also featured this in my Best books I read in 2016 list.

Here are my notes and highlights from it. Lines from the book are in italics.

 

On the greatness of little things:

Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others.

This here seems like the crux of Teaism. Most of our life is spent in doing the mundane- sleeping, eating, cooking, washing clothes, etc. The moments of extreme pleasure - sex, travel, sports, dancing - form a minority of our time every day. So, in order to maximise the happiness from our lives, it makes sense to enjoy the mundane as much as we cherish the bursts of extreme pleasure.

The mundane holds equal importance with the spiritual. In the great relation of things, there was no distinction of small and great, an atom possessing equal possibilities with the universe. 

The whole ideal of Teaism is a result of this Zen conception of greatness in the smallest incidents of life.

 

On What makes gooD tea:

The best quality of the leaves must have "creases like the leathern boot of Tartar horsemen, curl like the dewlap of a mighty bullock, unfold like a mist rising out of a ravine, gleam like a lake touched by a zephyr, and be wet and soft like fine earth newly swept by rain."

By using such vivid images to describe good leaves, the author has attached a romance to a seemingly simple morning ritual of making tea. This is a constant theme in the book. In fact, I wrote about this in my post A Romantic's Guide to Finding Focus.

Lotung, a Tang poet, wrote: "The first cup moistens my lips and throat, the second cup breaks my loneliness, the third cup searches my barren entrail but to find therein some five thousand volumes of odd ideographs. The fourth cup raises a slight perspiration,--all the wrong of life passes away through my pores. At the fifth cup I am purified; the sixth cup calls me to the realms of the immortals. The seventh cup--ah, but I could take no more! I only feel the breath of cool wind that rises in my sleeves. Where is Horaisan? Let me ride on this sweet breeze and waft away thither."
Wangyucheng eulogised tea as "flooding his soul like a direct appeal, that its delicate bitterness reminded him of the aftertaste of a good counsel."

If we replace drinking tea with any of our daily tasks, say cleaning, and imagine it being described by a great writer, it will transform from a mere chore to a event to experience in all its glory. While we are at cleaning, let's see what the book says about it.

 

On What Cleanliness Means:

One of the first requisites of a tea-master is the knowledge of how to sweep, clean, and wash, for there is an art in cleaning and dusting. A piece of antique metal work must not be attacked with the unscrupulous zeal of the Dutch housewife. Dripping water from a flower vase need not be wiped away, for it may be suggestive of dew and coolness. 

I have no idea why the reference of the Dutch housewife is here. But what attracted my interest was the the attention to small details.

The next quote is about the garden path. It is one of the parts that makes a Tea House.

There is a story of Rikiu which well illustrates the ideas of cleanliness entertained by the tea-masters. Rikiu was watching his son Shoan as he swept and watered the garden path. "Not clean enough," said Rikiu, when Shoan had finished his task, and bade him try again. After a weary hour the son turned to Rikiu: "Father, there is nothing more to be done. The steps have been washed for the third time, the stone lanterns and the trees are well sprinkled with water, moss and lichens are shining with a fresh verdure; not a twig, not a leaf have I left on the ground." "Young fool," chided the tea-master, "that is not the way a garden path should be swept." Saying this, Rikiu stepped into the garden, shook a tree and scattered over the garden gold and crimson leaves, scraps of the brocade of autumn! What Rikiu demanded was not cleanliness alone, but the beautiful and the natural also.

 

ON GREAT ART:

The book explains what great art means by explaining  the metaphor of Vacuum. It claims that only in vacuum lay the truly essential. For example, the reality of a room was in the vacant space enclosed by the roof and the walls, not in the roof and walls themselves. Likewise, the usefulness of a water pitcher was the emptiness that it contained, and not in the shape or material of the pitcher. 

In art the importance of the same principle is illustrated by the value of suggestion. In leaving something unsaid the beholder is given a chance to complete the idea and thus a great masterpiece irresistibly rivets your attention until you seem to become actually a part of it. A vacuum is there for you to enter and fill up the full measure of your aesthetic emotion.

There is a wonderful story about a harp made from exquisite wood. All the harpists in Japan tried to play their songs on it but no one succeeded. It would not produce good music as everyone had hoped. Finally, the hero of the story Peiwoh, a celebrated harpist comes along and plays songs of the trees, the forests, the river - basically everything that the harp might have seen when it was a tree. 

"Sire," he replied, "others have failed because they sang but of themselves. I left the harp to choose its theme, and knew not truly whether the harp had been Peiwoh or Peiwoh were the harp."

It connects with the concept of vacuum: 

One who could make of himself a vacuum into which others might freely enter would become master of all situations. The whole can always dominate the part.

In the olden times, the Samurais of Japan, much like most of Japan at that time held art in high regard. So, often if the samurais were given a job to do, they often sought art instead of money as a form payment for their efforts.

A single masterpiece can teach us more than any number of the mediocre products of a given period or school.

 

SOME APHORISMS:

We are wicked because we are frightfully self-conscious. We nurse a conscience because we are afraid to tell the truth to others; we take refuge in pride because we are afraid to tell the truth to ourselves. How can one be serious with the world when the world itself is so ridiculous!
Why do men and women like to advertise themselves so much? Is it not but an instinct derived from the days of slavery?
The Sung allegory of the Three Vinegar Tasters explains admirably the trend of the three doctrines. Sakyamuni, Confucius, and Laotse once stood before a jar of vinegar--the emblem of life--and each dipped in his finger to taste the brew. The matter-of-fact Confucius found it sour, the Buddha called it bitter, and Laotse pronounced it sweet.

Taoism accepts the mundane as it is. And unlike the Confucians or the Buddhists, tries to find beauty in our world of woe and worry.


The beauty of words in this book is baffling. I sincerely wish that you get a chance to read it. Teaism had taught many things to the Japanese at that time - about culture, art, and living a meaningful life, most of which is still relevant to us. I hope you find it useful. And if you've read it already, leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Want more such book reviews and recommendations? Add in your email address below to get my newsletter. Mails go out at most once a fortnight.

Best Books I Read in 2016

Every year, I spend ample time on selecting the books to read. I find my recommendations from a variety of sources - reading lists, Reddit, friends, popular culture, and other books. And this end of year list is something I do to point out the brightest ones from a sea of innumerable beautiful stars. Let's jump right into it.

 

1. The Call Of The Wild - Jack London

I read it in a single bus ride from Dharmashala to Delhi. And every time I am looking for a new book to read, my thoughts go back to reading this book again. It's that good. It is not a complicated story but the writing style and the narrative evoked strong emotions in me. Sometimes, I see myself in Buck, the dog who is the main character. At other times, I see myself in his owners. I don't want to reveal more, go ahead and find it out for yourself. Thank me later.

2. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M. Pirsig

This was my fourth attempt to read this book. While in the first two attempts, I barely managed to move past a few pages, in the third one I read till about 100 pages and then stopped. The blame for not being able to finish it earlier rests solely on the immaturity of my ability to grasp the meaning and perhaps a lack of focus. It has got nothing to do with the quality of the book.

Quality - that is what this book is, and is about. I associate myself very closely to it - the writer's questions are the ones I seek, his fears are what haunt me in tense moments at night. I am a big fan of rational thought process, and thoroughly enjoyed the writer's journey to find the ghost of rationality. If you do decide to read this, take your time, don't rush and let every new concept sink in.

 3. The Book of Tea - Kakuzo Okakura

It is more like a very long essay than a book.  The art of making tea and the philosophy of life derived from it (Teaism) has left me deeply enamored. On its face value, you might assume that the author has written about the ways of making tea, its history, and its effect on Japanese culture. All that is there along with much more. The metaphors used can be applied to our daily life and provide a simple way to live in harmony with the nature that is around and inside of us. This book taught me a lot more about life in subtle ways than any other book could directly.

4. The Silent Cry - Kenzaburo Oe

If you are looking for a simple story to read, don't pick this book. Oe's stories, much like human behaviors are layered and multi-dimensional. They reveal to us the depth of emotions which we may or may not express to each other but harbor inside ourselves. So, in a way, Oe's books are a mirror to our deepest, darkest feelings. This is the second time that Oe's work has featured in my end of year best-of list. And honestly, I feel that it doesn't matter what the specifics of the book are, if it's an Oe, it'll find its way on such lists.

5. Catch-22 - Joseph Heller

There are few books which make me laugh out loud. There are fewer which invoke pathos. And the books which can do both are even rarer. Catch-22 falls in the third kind. Each character brings something different to the story - humor, despair, innocence, vitality, absurdity, lunacy. The sum of all these parts lends a fascinating quality to the whole. As much as this is a great book to read, it is also a brilliant education in how to write a good story.

Currently Reading - When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi. I am half-way through this and I suspect it will find its way into my best of list soon.

I hope you do get around to reading some of these. If you like these recommendations, check out the rest of my reading list here.

Lists from previous years:
Best of 2015
Best of 2014
Best of 2013

Economics of a Self-Published Pay What You Want eBook - A Philosophical Study

Last year, I self-published an ebook on the lessons I learnt while running a startup. There were two main motives in writing that book:

  • I wanted to record the lessons I learnt for posterity
  • I hoped to help people learn from my success and failures

I chose to self-publish the book because I enjoy the idea of independence and self-sufficiency. It helped me develop skills like working on a big project under a self-imposed deadline. I also used my freshly learnt designing skills to create the book cover. Overall, it was a great personal growth experience.

The book's minimum price was set as 0, but you could choose to Pay What You Want (PWYW). Money was never my primary concern and I believed that keeping it PWYW would make it accessible to more people. 

Below you'll find some interesting data from the sales and the key insights I derive from them. Please note that my book was available on Amazon Kindle Store as well at a fixed price of INR 190. The numbers below do not take that into account.


1. Overall Sales

  • Total Downloads - 269 (INR 8413)
  • Paid - 34, Free - 235
  • Avg. Sale Value (paid only) - INR 247
  • Avg. Sale Value (all) - INR 31

Key Insights

  • 13% of the people who downloaded the book, chose to pay for it. If we are to go by The Pareto Principle (20-80 rule), this is to be expected. Although, it could be argued that in creative industries, the ratio of people who pay is much lesser.
  • The avg. sale value (paid only) is quite high. If I were to set a fixed price for the book, I would have set it much lower.

2. Downloads as a function of time

Click on the image to view an enlarged version

Key Insights

  • The two public announcements drove the most amount of paid sales
  • Free Downloads were a constant occurrence (probably driven by word of mouth and randomness)
  • Most downloads happened in a burst together. These could be attributed to the promotional activities I undertook - like publishing a sample chapter in a digital magazine
  • Pre-Orders accounted for only 18% of total downloads but 44% of the total revenue

3. Frequency of Sale Values

 

Key Insights

  • Minimum and Maximum amounts paid - INR 10 and INR 1001
  • Most common amount paid - INR 100
  • Interesting amounts - INR 101, 501, 1001 (I guess people chose this amount thinking that they are paying for a good cause)

What would be THE optimum price to MAXIMIZE revenue?

If I were to go back in the past, and instead of giving it away for PWYW, I wanted to assign a price to it, what should that number have been to maximise profit?

I'll save you the number crunching, this is what I derived from the data:

  • Best Price - INR 200
  • 2nd Best Price (if I go higher) - INR 300
  • 2nd Best Price (if I go lower) - INR 99

And of course, I'd make less money in either of these cases than what I did with PWYW. The assumption carried here is that anyone who is buying for say INR x, would also buy the book for INR x-y, where both x and y are positive numbers.


Philosophical MUSINGS ON PWYW

There used to be a hep cafe near where I lived. Although, in all honesty, it was less of a cafe and more of a place where people came to hang out, meet new people and discuss ideas. Among its regulars, it was the hub of cultural activities - poetry jam sessions, movie nights, book readings, gay pride events. It didn't serve much food - Tea and maybe some Momos.

There was no specified price to the items you bought. You could pay whatever you wanted. The cafe was surviving solely on the generosity of its patrons. Sadly, it shut down. It needed to raise a certain amount of money to pay the annual rent, but it could not.

The point of this story is that PWYW is a romantic idea which should work perfectly in an ideal world where we pay for a certain experience in proportion to the amount of value we stand to gain from it. 

An Ideal Transaction: Amount we are ready to pay for an experience/commodity ∝ Value we gain from it

Unfortunately, that is not always the case. We often pay more for a disproportionately low value experience and become miserly for high value products. But, why do we do this when clearly it's a suboptimal strategy to live a high quality life? 

The answer I believe is our unconscious biases:

1. Overvaluing a tangible commodity for its superficial nature - Think expensive clothing, eating out at that new fancy restaurant, or the shiny new gadget. I do not mean to discount the immediate value of any of those things. Nor do I mean to suggest that we buy only cheap stuff. Heck, I love a nice fancy meal once in a while myself. But, like on a hedonic treadmill, the more we engage in them, the lesser pleasure we derive each time. So having coffee in a good cafe once a fortnight gives more value than a daily visit.

Furthermore, the value given by products of this nature is often fleeting. Often, our perceived expected value of the experience is less than the actual value. (Example: The movie 'Deadpool'. I am going to go out on a limb and say that I derived more pleasure from the expectation of the awesomeness of the movie than the final product itself). 

Expected Value (EV) > Actual Value (AV) 

This is in part due to the subtle FOMO (fear of missing out) induced by peer pressure we face when everyone around is talking about it. The perceived value automatically becomes much higher than the AV.

 

2. Undervaluing an intangible benefit/experience - Think a good book, a music album which you'd play over and over again, software, a functional yet expensive piece of household accessory that is going to make your life exponentially better (an ergonomic chair, a standing desk, etc.) We forget that, in the long run, the value we get from these things is so much more than the cost we put into it. The over and over usage of their functionalities pays itself off and then some. In these cases:

EV < AV

I speculate that the reason we harbor biases against paying for such cases could be due to our latent (or in some cases, pronounced) desire to feel validated for our choices. We don't get that validation from buying an original copy of a software or a better chair for our back or buying an album. No one commends an item for its functional superiority, it is quite often the decorative qualities that attract attention. In fact, you could even be ridiculed for overspending or paying for something that could be pirated for free. But, if we recognize that this particular item is going to inspire us to be a better version of ourselves, the issue of cost would become much smaller.

Secondly, maybe the constant desire of novelty via external stimuli causes us to spend our budgets on EV>AV cases. So, we still torrent stuff which we could have acquired in an overarching package (e.g. at Netflix, Apple Music, Kindle Unlimited), costing less than one decent meal in a restaurant. But, we fail to understand that this is an insatiable desire - there will always be a new pub to try.

Coming back to PWYW, there are some positives of the concept. The freedom to choose how much you think something is worth makes your product accessible to so many more people. Think all those bands whose music we pirated and would now happily pay for one of their concerts. The question then becomes, how to make a living out of it.

With PWYW, there are always 3 categories of people:

  • Free loaders / hoarders - It is a gross generalization on my part, but most of these folks who don't pay are much less likely to actually consume your art. At my last company, Musicfellas, there were customers who downloaded only the albums which were PWYW for 0 bucks. I seriously doubt if any of them ever got played.
  • The Nice Guys - They are driven by a righteous sense of how an interaction with an artist in the modern world should look like. They pay an average amount and feel content with supporting the artists. You could expect them to listen/read/watch your work with a decent level of interest.
  • The 1000 True Fans - Below is a quote straight from the article linked here. These are the people who will be the highest payers and your most generous patrons. They will write back to you giving detailed, insightful feedback on your work.
A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.

So, the answer to making a living out of PWYW format could be to build and engage with this community of 1000 true fans. I would love to hear success stories around you which hold true to this rule.


Philosophical musings on Self-Publishing

The numbers for my book, as you can see, aren't great. Even though people liked the book, the number of people to whom it has reached is quite less. I could ascertain a few possible reasons:

  1. My book was crappy
  2. My marketing strategy was crappy
  3. Both of the above
  4. Both the book and marketing strategy were average
  5. This is the nature of self-publishing

I am confident enough to discount #1 and thus #3. There was praise from my friends and strangers alike. But, that is not what convinced me. There were two instances which gave me confidence in my work. Both times, after a few rounds of drinks, a friend grabbed my kindle to check out the book, and they put it down only after finishing it.

I am pretty sure #2 was the major reason. Although I don't completely discount #4. The major motivation behind writing the book was to push myself to complete a big project. Promoting it wasn't much of a priority. I did do something about it but it was executed half assedly. 

On #5, this is a reality but with a caveat. Most of the success stories of today who have made self-publishing work for themselves have one thing in common. They all ventured into independence and self-publishing with already having their 1000 true fans(think Nine Inch Nails, Amanda Palmer). This is not to say that artists with virgin fan bases do not exist. But, intuitively, I would say they are a minority among the self-publishing success stories. I would love to be proven wrong, so hit me up with examples.

This is a genuine problem with self-publishing a piece of art. I saw this happening with our artists at Musicfellas and now first hand myself. Some of those musicians had really good music but just couldn’t let many people know about them. A possible way could be to, if possible, launch yourself with a major publishing house/art gallery/music label etc. In this vast mass of new content everyday, it has become a monstrous task to get yourself known - more so because artists cringe at the thought of self promotion. The seasoned biggies can take the burden of promotion off of your shoulders. And later, if you crave for independence, you could break away after a hit under your belt and take your fans with you.


End Notes

If you ask me whether I would choose self publishing again, I would probably say that not this time but maybe the next. Where PWYW is concerned, I haven't lost faith in that. As a consumer, I support creators on Kickstarter and Patreon where they allow me to choose my contribution amount. Not only do I get a high quality product, I also feel good about myself having made a small change in a creator's life - a win-win for both parties. I would highly recommend you to try it.

When I was read the final version of this post, I felt that it could come across as self-righteous to some. If that's the case, I assure you it was not my intention. It's just that this topic excites me a lot and I sometimes overdo myself. In any case, I would love to hear what you have to say on this. Leave a comment below or drop me an email at mj {at} mayankja.in

Enjoyed the post? Please consider sharing. And if you are not on the mailing list yet, leave your email address on the right. Mails go out at most once a fortnight.

 

Further Reading

  1. A Primer on Minimalism
  2. What Makes Us a Pirate
  3. The Art of Showing Your Creativity

Notes from Elon Musk's Biography

For an extended period of time late last year, I was obsessed with Elon Musk. I consider him my modern day hero. I have mentioned him before in my essay How to Live Life

Through his story, I wanted to understand, what drives the high achievers to take incredible personal risks and have the drive and intelligence to see them through to the end. So, I picked up Musk's biography Elon Musk : How The Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping Our Future by Ashlee Vance. It offers a unique perspective inside one of the most brilliant minds of our generation. 

The following are my highlights from the book and my notes on the basis of all that I have read and watched about Musk. His story gives me inspiration and some important lessons. I hope you find it useful too.

 

NOTES AND HIGHLIGHTS

(Lines from the book are in italics)

 

His most fundamental philosophy:

“When thinking, go down to the fundamentals of a problem, instead of deciphering it via analogy.”

This right here is to me Musk’s most endearing trait - his hyper rationality. By going down to the most basic entity of a problem, whether it is business or personal, we can find a better solution. I cannot stress this enough. Take this for example:

Acronyms Seriously Suck - Musk wrote a long email to his employees urging them not to use acronyms for common technical terms. This is to ensure that any new joinee doesn't have a problem in catching up with things. Because when people discuss things in acronyms, you don't want to be the one who looks dumb and asks to be explained the meaning. It seems trivial to mention this in a company-wide email but highlights his uncompromising rationality in even the most basic tasks.

Quotes from his employees:

You did what Musk asked or were prepared to burrow down into the properties of materials to explain why something could not be done. “He always said, ‘Take it down to the physics"
He would place this urgency that he expected the revenue in ten years to be ten million dollars a day and that every day we were slower to achieve our goals was a day of missing out on that money.
If you told him that you made a particular choice because ‘it was the standard way things had always been done,’ he’d kick you out of a meeting fast. He’d say, ‘I never want to hear that phrase again. What we have to do is fucking hard and half-assing things won’t be tolerated.’

And when he's building any component of his product, however big or small, he wants it to be the best:

“We have to decide what is the best sun visor in the world and then do better”

 

On building a culture:

Next is his quality of building a comradeship and responsibility among his people. These folks genuinely believe they are working on things that will alter the course of humanity (which they are). 

“Every person on that island was a fucking star, and they were always holding seminars on radios or the engine. It was such an invigorating place.”
Straubel was stalking the solar car crew, trying to talk them into building an electric car based on the lithium ion batteries. He would fly up to Palo Alto, spend the night sleeping in his plane, and then ride a bicycle to the Stanford campus to make his sales pitch while helping with their current projects.
An undergraduate, Berdichevsky volunteered to quit school, work for free, and sweep the floors at Tesla if that’s what it took to get a job.

At a time when Tesla was running out of money, and Musk had to lean on friends to try to make payroll from week to week, as he negotiated with investors, this is what happened: 

“A bunch of Tesla employees wrote checks to keep the company going,”
 

On his work ethic

His work ethic and ability to handle stress is second to none:

“Elon would come home at eleven and work some more. People didn’t always get the sacrifice he made in order to be where he was.” 
“He has the ability to work harder and endure more stress than anyone I’ve ever met”
"I’ve just never seen anything like his ability to take pain.”

And he wasn't immune to feeling dejected like normal humans:

Musk had come to Russia filled with optimism about putting on a great show for mankind and was now leaving exasperated and disappointed by human nature.

 

On his commitment:

‘I will spend my last dollar on these companies. If we have to move into Justine’s parents’ basement, we’ll do it.’
“God is our witness, come hell or high water, I am going to do it"

On the kind of people he wants to work with:

One thing that Musk holds in the highest regard is resolve, and he respects people who continue on after being told no.
What Musk would not tolerate were excuses or the lack of a clear plan of attack.
Spotting engineers who have exhibited type A personality traits over the course of their lives.
The object is to find individuals who ooze passion, can work well as part of a team, and have real-world experience bending metal.
Where a typical manager may set the deadline for the employee, Musk guides his engineers into taking ownership of their own delivery dates. “He doesn’t say, ‘You have to do this by Friday at two P.M.,’” Brogan said. “He says, ‘I need the impossible done by Friday at two P.M. Can you do it?’ Then, when you say yes, you are not working hard because he told you to. You’re working hard for yourself. It’s a distinction you can feel. You have signed up to do your own work.”
People who await guidance or detailed instructions languish. The same goes for workers who crave feedback.

And of course he is super intelligent:

People who have spent significant time with Musk will attest to his abilities to absorb incredible quantities of information with near-flawless recall.

Musk expresses empathy at a different level:

His brand of empathy is unique. He seems to feel for the human species as a whole without always wanting to consider the wants and needs of individuals.

 

Musk's endeavors are grand - on the scale of humanity and probably beyond. His efforts in all the companies together surmount anything seen ever before. Granted that he may not have started Tesla or Solar City but without his drive to get things done, they may not have reached the state they did.

I leave you with this quote, which to me is his most powerful one:

"It seemed like one should try to make the world a better place because the inverse makes no sense.”

I hope you get a chance to read the book. It is deeply inspiring and finds a place in my list of Best Books I read in 2015.

FURTHER READING

  1. Notes from How to live on 24 hours a day
  2. The Dharma Bums Book Review
  3. Siddhartha Book Review

Want more such book reviews? Add in your email address below to get my newsletter. Mails go out at most once a fortnight.

Best Books I Read in 2015

I read 20+ books this year. For some it is a lot, for others just a few. Personally, I am very happy with having read so many good books. I invest a lot of time and thought in picking them. Thus, most of what I read this year has been brilliant. Making a best-of list is hence difficult. But, I'll give it a shot.

You can also check out the lists from the last couple of years.

1. A Personal Matter (Audiobook) - Kenzaburo Oe

A few years ago, I visited the hill town Mussorie with my family. One evening, while roaming the streets after dinner, I found a thrift store selling books at throwaway prices. Among the many I bought, there was one called 'Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere' by John Nash. It is a memoir of an American who had migrated to Japan, learnt Japanese and translated many Japanese books into English. One of them is by Kenzaburo Oe. And my word, what a book it is!

A personal matter is a dark, poignant piece of art. It requires patience and lingering on the words to admire their beauty. It is a semi-autobiographical work where the protagonist deals with the birth of his mentally disabled child. In real life, Oe has a son who is under developed and forms the basis of many of his works.

I consumed it as an audiobook and found myself rewinding multiple times. Reading it would have been preferable. It is one of those books which make you wish you knew the original language to truly understand the magnificence of this work. If you are still not convinced, did I mention that Oe is also a Nobel laureate?

2. The Martian (Audiobook) - Andy Weir

Another Audiobook. I discovered this via a blog I follow (Wait But Why) much before the movie. And as most books-movies go, it is so much better than the movie version. I actually slept in the movie, literally. Even if you have seen it, I would recommend reading/listening the book. There are so many details, incidents and twists and turns that have been missed or changed in the movie. The performance on my audiobook was outstanding to help the matters.

A fun fact: This book was released iteratively in a serial format with feedback from people on the internet. On completion this was released for free only for its rights to be later bought by a publishing house. 

3. Into Thin Air - Jon Krakauer

This was the book on which the movie 'Everest' was based on. It is funny that so many of the books I pick up are later made into movies. Again, this was much before the movie was released. And unlike 'The Martian', Everest and Into Thin Air are quite comparable in their execution. However, like always, reading is much more recommended. 

4. Elon Musk : How The Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping Our Future- Ashlee Vance

This is a great insight into the life and mind of Musk who is a modern day hero for me. Musk’s most endearing trait to me is his hyper rationalism. His endeavours are grand - on the scale of humanity and probably beyond.

His efforts in all the companies together surmount anything seen ever before. Granted that he may not have started Tesla or Solar City but without his drive to get things done, they may not have reached the state they did. 

5. Boats on Land (A Collection of Short Stories)- Janice Pariat

I don't remember who recommended it. Perhaps someone in my Facebook feed. It is a collection of stories from the North East region of India. The author, Janice, has done an incredible job at weaving beautiful, dreamy stories. You know the times when you read a book and instantly want to be transported to that time and place, that is what this book did to me. 

6. Jaya - An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharats - Devdutt Patnaik

It doesn't matter if you are religious, atheist or agnostic, you have to agree that Mythology is interesting. The stories are colorful, grand and capture your imagination. Jaya did all this and more. 

7. Shatranj ke Khiladi (Hindi Edition) - Munshi Premchand
A simple short story by Munshi Premchand. I read this in Hindi and it was a delight since we don't really read much in Hindi nowadays.

8. The Art of Asking: How I learned to stop worrying and let people help - Amanda Palmer

I read this non stop on a flight with sleepy eyes but found it unputdownable. It is a brutally honest autobiographical account by Amanda Palmer. 

Other Notable mentions:

Now Reading and probably will find place in the next best-of list:

  • Atlus Shrugged
  • Man's Search for Meaning
  • Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I hope you get around to reading some of these. Would love to hear your thoughts and opinions on them. After all, what does a good book do if not incite deeply polarized discussions. 

If you like these recommendations, check out the rest of my reading list here.

Further Reading

  1. The Dharma Bums Book Review
  2. Siddhartha Book Review

 

Restart - Lessons from one startup for another

One year of writing and 2 and half years of living before that culminates into this post, as I press the launch button for my first book.

Restart - Lessons from one startup for another, an ebook, is out now. 

Available on Instamojo (Pay What You Want)
Amazon Kindle ($1.99)

I love books. As a kid, I spent most of my time at home either playing video games or reading books. Without a computer, books were my way of learning about the world around me. Early on, most of what I read were quiz books bought for 5 bucks from vendors on train journeys. It graduated to volumes of Children's Knowledge Bank which my Dad bought for me from railway platform book stalls. From my school library, I picked Famous Five, Secret Seven, Hardy Boys, Aesop's Fables and similar other short stories. Gradually, it came to reading Sherlock Holmes and George Orwell. And I have never looked back since. 

People say that once you read a lot, it becomes easier to write. I guess it is fairly true. Although, I would also say that once you start writing, it becomes easier to read. Now, when I read something, I notice patterns, usage of words and style of language which I would have otherwise overlooked. I place myself in the author's seat and think how she would have thought of this word or that. It is a more absorbed and engaging experience.

The first memory I have of writing is as a small kid when I started maintaining a dairy. As I grew up, I made poems as a leisure activity. In school, I wrote essays and participated in debates which I drafted on my own.

After all those years, Restart is my first book. In recent past, I have written haikus, poems, articles of all lengths and even some fiction. And, finishing up a whole book is one of my proudest achievements. 

But, this book is not literature. It is not a story in the regular sense of the word. There are no fancy phrases to describe a setting and no elaborate character descriptions. Instead, there is a simple, boiled down narrative of what happened at Musicfellas and what I learnt out of it. 
If you like my writing style, I'd be happy. But, it's going to change significantly as I write more fiction or even non-fiction and I hope to keep your interest alive. If you don't like it, well, it's going to change anyways. So, stick around.

The book is priced as Pay What You Want. This was a payment mode we had at Musicfellas and we were pleasantly surprised not just by the transactions but by the generosity of people as well. Thus, I am happy to use it here.

stats from Pre-Order of the book to help you decide how much to pay:

Average Price (Including the free downloads): Rs. 95
Average Price (Excluding the free downloads): Rs. 273

I hope you read the book. It is a short, crisp read (according to others). If you enjoy it, please consider sharing it with your friends, enemies, loved ones, ex-girlfriends/boyfriends and anyone else you think might find it useful. 

Please consider reviewing the book on Amazon: (Link to be updated)

This labor of love is the first book in what I hope to be many to come. Thank you for being a part of this. I hope you enjoy it. 

The Art of Showing Your Creativity - Advice by Austin Kleon

If you are a creative, take a few moments to consider the following points:

  • You believe your art should speak for itself
  • 'Marketing' and 'promotion' discomfort you
  • You want your work to be discovered by more people
  • You want your art to get the recognition you think it deserves
  • You don't think you have a thick skin to deal with the trolls which come with sharing your work online
  • You want to add value to people's lives through your work
  • While sharing your art, you fear stepping on the wrong side of the fine line between adding value and spamming

As a writer, I associate myself to a lot of the above points. And so do a lot of other creatives. Painters, musicians, photographers, designers, filmmakers travellers, entrepreneurs and many other creatives are going through the same struggle of staying relevant, having their work seen by more people and at the same time maintaining the honesty and integrity in sharing your work.

Addressing these fears and issues, is a great book Show Your Work by Austin Kleon. This is a sort of manifesto of the current times for creatives to share their work the right way. Here are some of my notes from the book with some commentary. Hope you get around to reading the book and find it as useful and relevant as I did.

Note: Excerpts from the book are in italics

 

WHY SHOULD YOU SHARE

Once we start creating, our self-doubt tells us that your work is not good enough or maybe just not relevant to the people. But, more often than not, that's not the case. We grossly underestimate the usefulness of our own work.

To someone, it may be better than you dare to think
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

When you share ideas, sometimes conversations start around it. That is your contribution in this world. Give what you have, don't be a hoarder.

Scenius - Not all of us are geniuses. But, we grow with the help of the scene around us. 

Find a scenius, pay attention to what others are sharing, and then start taking note of what they’re not sharing. Be on the lookout for voids that you can fill with your own efforts, no matter how bad they are at first.
She can share her sketches and works-in-progress, post pictures of her studio, or blog about her influences, inspiration, and tools - the thing she really cares about. By, doing this, she can really connect with the people who care about the same things as hers.

The biggest takeaway for me was the simple fact that what you find trivial might actually be very useful for someone else. 

"You can't find your voice until you use it"

Sometimes, we wait for a while to find our own voice. But, how would we find it until we've used it in different scenarios? What niche of photography would you like until you start clicking different settings? Not everyone knows for sure as to which format of design they prefer until they try their hands at them. 

Remember:

Work doesn't speak for itsef. Even the renaissance had to be found.

 

WHAT TO SHARE:

''What are you working on?' Stick to that question and you'll be good. Don't show your lunch or latte, show your work.

Before sharing anything, put it through the 'So What' Test. Would people care about what you are showing? 

Turn your flow into stock. Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content your produce that is as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time
— Robin Sloan
Sloan says the magic formula is to maintain your flow while working on your stock in the background.
Your influences are all worth sharing because they clue people in to who you are and what you do - sometimes even more than your own work.

Share your process - this is an obvious yet fantastic piece of advice. A lot of people want to know how you do what you do and it can be very helpful for them. If you are signed up to my mailing list, you would see a direct result of this in my emails. I have started sharing things that inspire me, books I read, music I find therapeutic. By doing this, I hope I can connect with people who might enjoy what I write in my posts. Remember, you don't have to ensure that everyone in the world appreciates your art. You need to find only a handful to form a tribe who supports you when you need help and celebrates your victories. 

 

HOW TO SHARE:

Build Sharing into your routine. 
Don't give in to the pressure to self-edit too much. Don't try to be hip or cool. Being open and honest about what you like is the best way to connect with people who like those things, too. 

People like to hear good stories. Learn how to speak about your work in a manner which evokes emotion. Read books by good authors and notice how they weave stories. 

The cat sat on a mat is not a story. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is a story.
— John le Carre

On Structure:

A good story can be created in the following structure: Once upon a time, there was _______. Every day, ______--. One day, ______. Because of that, _____. Because of that, ______. Until finally, ____________
There's a way to tell open -ended stories, where we acknowledge that we're snack-dab in the middle of a story, and we don't know how it all ends.
The minute you learn something, turn around and teach it to others. Share your reading lists. Point to helpful reference materials. Teach what you know. Share your trade secrets.

This is what I aim to achieve with this post.

Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you'll attract people who love that kind of stuff. You want hearts not eyeballs. 
"Compulsive avoidance of embarrassment is a form of suicide." If you spend your lfe avoiding vulnerabiliti, you and your work will never truly connect with other people. Learn to take a punch.
Don't quit your show.
You can't plan on anything; you can only go about your work, as Isak Dinesen wrote, "every day, without hope or despair." You can't count on success; you can only leave open the possibility for it, and be ready to jump on and take the ride when it comes for you.

How much of this would you be willing to use? I'd love to hear your opinions, suggestions and questions. Drop in an email or write in the comments below. 

And as Kleon says, Credit is always due, so a hat tip to BrainPickings which has been a major source of inspiration for this post's format.