This year was both quick and slow at the same time. I started my year with my thesis kickoff for my Masters. Little did I expect the pandemic and the lockdown being so profoundly influential, directly affecting each and every action of mine. Somewhere down the line, I was fatigued both mentally and physically. As my thesis involved designing for pre-schoolers, it required 10x effort to conduct design tests with them. I then got help from friends and family for moral support to bring me back into the game.
Owing to restrictions on having a physical audience for the thesis defense, I made an online Youtube premiere of my thesis — Silly Stompers: Gender accessible STEM toys for soft robotics. In a way, it was an opportunity in disguise for my parents and close friends to attend this ceremony online, which would have otherwise not been possible. I was able to finish on time.
The cherry on the cake was the iF Design Talent Award 2020 which our team was awarded for the product — Equarun, an assistive device for deafblind runners. In addition to developing this product, we got to hang out with a cool bunch of deafblind runners who almost had superhuman powers (an ability to sniff a person’s scent three rooms apart).
It almost felt like one of those Kurt Vonnegut’s storyline arcs — Of the protagonist falling short and bouncing back. We had almost failed the course.
We were all internationals coming from different backgrounds struggling to come to terms with the Delft way of doing design. It was tense. We were literally the underdogs. Working closely with deaf-blind runners tested our grit and gumption. It was a litmus test of our abilities as designers, but we kept pushing. The iF Design Talent Award 2020 came as a proud moment for us as Equarun is being put into use by the deaf and blind runners in the Netherlands. Sometimes, being an underdog comes as a blessing in disguise.
Before 2020 started, I remember scribbling somewhere on a paper napkin the goals which I wanted to accomplish this year. In some places, I failed miserably while looking at it in retrospect. And in some cases, I got more than what I had sought. But the very fact of having set those goals gave me a horizon to strive towards. The major highlight of this year was the completion of my M.Sc in Integrated Product Design at TU Delft, Netherlands on time amidst the pandemic lockdown. When it was all over, I bid goodbye to my friends, who are now my extended family back in the Netherlands. The shift in my place of residence, food, lifestyle, and habits has also shifted my thinking in a way that led me to conduct an annual review of this format. I’m deeply grateful for thinkers such as Tiago Forte, David Perell, and Anne-Laure le Cunff who have inspired me to do this. I view this as an opportunity to reflect and reset.
Linking my thinking
I started linking my thinking from the beginning of this year. Connecting my ideas on Roam Research, an online tool for connected thinking. I was able to get a high ROI from all the writing I was putting into Roam.
With all the previous tools I used such as Evernote and Notion, information was getting scattered in disjointed files and folders which didn’t make sense, difficult to even retrieve. With Roam, the information was arranged very much like how our brain organizes and resources ideas — through associations. You know somebody, who knows somebody who knows somebody. It’s a similar process, but for any information you store.
I then discovered the #roamcult and started using Twitter to follow this wonderful community buzzing with academicians, entrepreneurs, polymaths and writers. As the saying goes — You come for the product, you stay for the network. In this exploration, I noticed the concept of ‘Zettelkasten’ through Sonke Ahrens’ Smart Notes. For those hearing this term for the first time, Zettelkasten was a method adopted by a popular sociologist, Philip Luhmann whose productivity was increased to epic proportions (70 books, 400 articles) with the help of Zettelkasten.
The workflow was quite straightforward, you first start capturing your ideas and thoughts in the form of fleeting notes. As writing itself is a form of thinking, the more you start capturing your ideas, the more distilled it becomes. Fleeting notes then become evergreen notes, which are concepts highly referenced in one’s own notes. You can remix and reuse them like a recurrent jigsaw puzzle to create essays, twitter threads, or even books out of it. I’ve started using this for my notes and have never looked back ever since. Such has been the power of the Zettels. Through this technique, I started writing a newsletter from the ideas I connected. What would happen if two ideas hook up with each other? It was as if there was some Graph Bonsai movement going on over the internet where everyone was showcasing their tree of knowledge.
People from the #roamcult made all these cool graphs of their thoughts and were sharing them over the internet. That was the inspiration behind Thought Maps — a substack newsletter where I covered my viewpoints on various topics that interested me. Thought Maps now has 100+ readers. I haven't been quite consistent, and this is something I would like to improve upon next year.
Treating myself as my pet dog
In 2019, I had read Atomic Habits and was interested to create better systems for habit formation. I followed certain routines consistently for a month, but then it dwindled and died a quick death. That’s when I realized the power of accountability partners. This could be better summarised by rule number two of Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life: Treat yourself like someone you are helping. This rule made a lot of sense and struck a resonant chord. You are more inclined to take better care of your pet dog than your own self. It’s a form of altruism that doesn’t make sense. And I could see more and more examples of the same. For example, I would be more persistent in asking my dad to take his pills, whereas I would not take care of my health as much.
Trying to get back to following proper habits and setting up systems, I got myself an accountability partner for running. Jordan Peterson’s rule number 2 worked like a gem. I was making sure that my accountability partner completed the workouts which also made sure that I completed my running reps. After the success of this method, I also included another accountability partner on a Notion dashboard to whom I mentioned my major goals every week on personal, health and professional levels.
There is something about social accountability that works wonders. After all, we humans are mere social animals. We can take the person out of the herd, but not the herd mentality out of the person. So to make some habits stick, I started widely expressing my current systems. Hey I am going for running. Hey, I am doing meditation. I didn't want to encounter them next time without having practiced running.
And that peer pressure forced me into some healthy habits. Even this whole aspect of writing an annual review is a form of being compliant about one’s goals by making it public to the crowd. Hey, you were planning to do X, what happened?
Discovering the kind internet
Five years back I was active on Twitter and then I quit. The toxicity of information was taking a toll on me. And the amount of outrage constantly peddled all over such social networks. At some point, it didn’t make sense to read the news on a minute-by-minute basis. It was as if you were drinking water from a hosepipe which made me quit Twitter.
I returned to Twitter with a new lens. In many ways, social media was similar to junk food. As knowledge workers, our information diet becomes very important and it becomes important to cut down the fast-food consumption of social media. I followed a more Tim-Ferrisian approach of ‘Intellectual Keto’ — where I aggressively eliminated major sources of information from news outlets.
I unfollowed Washington Post, Times of India, New York Times etc, and instead embraced celebrity thinkers such as David Perell, Tyler Cowen, Morgan Housel etc. In my personal version of Twitter 2.0 after these quick hacks, I found this side of Twitter to be more kinder and valuable. I started DM’ing people whose views I found interesting and they were replying back to me. The internet suddenly started appearing kinder and kinder.
The formula was simple — Give. Give. Give. Ask.
The friends I made on Twitter were pretty different from the friends I made in real life. It was based on the ‘resonance’ of ideas and thoughts. Which made the connection even more magical. Scouting such [[Celebrity Thinkers]], I was able to build relationships with them to get them on my podcast — Shake Up The World. I was playing the long term game with long term people and I loved the process of doing so.
The pandemic got a couple of us founders together. We were looking at ways in which we could create a positive change as product designers. And after various rounds of research talking to doctors, frontline workers, and other hospital staff, we realized the crucial pain points facing the hospitals in terms of HAI — Hospital Acquired Infections. Most of us are afraid to enter hospitals because we are thinking that it might lead to cross-contamination with other pathogens. This paranoia has got heightened because of the pandemic, and elevators in these hospitals are emerging as a hotspot for COVID transmission.
With the backing of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s COVID India grant, we developed UVfy, an AI-based elevator sterilizer device. In the spirit of a ‘crisis entrepreneur’, we started our company to bring this product to the market, amidst the pandemic.
We went on to develop the product further, iterate, and make various versions to test with, and pilot in various hospitals, and even get medical approval in a short span all amidst lockdown. We are really proud of what we have achieved so far and have been currently installing them in various hospitals across the south of India providing safety for all the passengers reducing the risk of HAIs.
Hardware startups are hard. And hardware startups are even harder in such situations, and we are truly proud to have gone this far. On reflection, this explains the importance of how much the vision of the company pushes our boundaries in such situations. That good design could truly be socially transformative.
Building in Public
2020 was also the time where there has been an explosion of the creators economy and scrolling Twitter gives you a front-seat ticket to all this live-action. The rise of — Building in Public.
The creators were documenting their work, and creating leverage online by building in public. Many business influencers and concerned entrepreneurs are now surfing on this trend. The value of Building in Public just compounds over time as we keep sharing content that excites us.
This was also when I encountered Jack Butcher’s Visualise Value course which was looking into this question — How do you divorce time and money? How do you build something which can be built once, and sold twice?
As Naval Ravikant points out, code and media are permissionless leverage. Software and media that works for you while you sleep.
With this as the premise, I proceeded to make my first online digital product on Gumroad. I sold my brain online for free. A curated collection of book notes from 150+ books which I sold for free just to see how it develops. What surprised me was when someone paid a generous tip for a free product, that too. It was as if they were cheering me up for the product and its value. 10$ might not seem such a big amount, but earning your first dollar on the internet stirs an internal creative revolution of what’s possible.
The thirst for creating online and making more such products that could potentially divorce time and money has only increased. 2020 has also been the year when I launched the Shake Up The World Podcast which has slowly climbed to 1000+ downloads over a short span within this year. I plan to have more interesting guests on this podcast, understand their world view, and learn from these conversations on utopian futures on various themes such as education, women’s rights, deep tech, and so on.
For a while, we leveraged the power of design to create products, services, and even something in between. Nowadays we are using design to even make more resilient societies and make countries more peaceful. Why not look inwards then? If this is the scope of design, why can’t we use it to design our own thoughts?
In this startup journey of mine, I have noticed the requirement of effective decision making. Decisions that could make or break a company.
Decisions can be better executed with frameworks and templates that could aid such testing times. A pros-and-cons list is one example of a framework to evaluate which option to choose. Should it be Option A or Option B? But this could get slightly complex as you undertake difficult entrepreneurial decisions such as — Have we achieved a product-market fit? When should we scale the company? How to craft an effective presentation for client X?
These are open-ended complex circuitous problems and there are no right or wrong answers. But certainly, a framework for structuring information could help us process our thoughts better. There could be a certain order to this chaos. As designers, we are constantly dealing with the ‘fuzzy front end’ of innovation’. My role would be to adopt and realign various methods that we normally use for arriving at complex decisions on a more meta-level — That of designing our thoughts and get better clarity for a foggy mind.
Reality is pretty fuzzy and foggy.
As I have been journaling my thoughts for a while now, I am looking forward to leveraging the specific knowledge I gain from this startup hustle and grind to build a digital product for better decision making. Building in public is also pretty encouraging as you get tweets such as these to boost your accountability.
I came from an electronics engineering background after proceeding towards setting up an educational non-profit. After which, I designed socially impactful products based on a fair share of experiences through my Masters in Product Design. I then founded a healthcare startup in India with three of my close friends. In this tryst, I have dabbled with more industrial design, some non-profit management, and a bit of electronics engineering, social service/volunteering, etc. This has raised the question of where exactly do I fit in.
Reading Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World made me rethink this aspect of my career. I reflected on my ability to thrive in a relatively unknown environment. “Where the rules of the game were incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns, and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both.”
I was all over the place. And that’s exactly what I was. That was my strength. I felt that specialization could work for insects. The world we lived in was very much hyper-specialized with hyper-specialized problems, but at least I don’t fit in like a square peg in this round hole. In fact, Atul Gawande points out how doctors joke about left ear surgeons. “we have to check to make sure that they don’t exist”. I wanted my knowledge to span a substantial number of subjects. Craving for more breadth over depth. After deeper introspection, I found this Venn-diagram which somehow encapsulated my longing for breadth with depth. Innovation is not just about making things desirable (design), but it’s also about making them feasible (engineering) and viable (management).
Good innovation essentially lies in the intersection of this cute trifecta. The right mix of design, business, and engineering. Picture courtesy: MIT Integrated Design and Management courseWhat was difficult though was to define oneself and see where I fit in. I was trying to find my niche when my niche ended up finding me — That of a hybrid designer who thrived in a complex and circuitous environment filled with detours and cul-de-sacs. In any such ‘wicked learning environments’, I found myself doing adequately well. This identity was later reinforced when I started compiling all my works on my website which included — podcasts, newsletters, essays, visual media, products, etc.
Eternal Recurrence of Being
With a rising demand for UVfy, we hired two new recruits for our company. After several rounds of posting job applications on Linkedin, we realized how difficult it was to find the right candidate.
That was when we decided that it would be so much better if we hired those whom we had already worked with and have seen the proof of work. What better bet than our own community managers of d.Hive maker space from the village of Lobhi? This stirred a lot of internal thoughts. Would they deliver in such a fuzzy environment? Although their communication skills were not up to the mark as much, we decided to give it a shot.
From the very first day they joined, we realized that we had made a good move. The developments were quite unique.
We were hiring talents from villages, and that too as an early-stage startup. Quite paradoxical to the regular resume-worthy engineers from a tier-1 college with x years of experience. Not that these students from the villages were any comparison to these freshers from college in their specific expertise areas. We were looking for those with a better ‘range’.
We needed those who functioned more like sponges. Who could learn quickly, adapt, unlearn, and re-learn new things?
Here, the experience didn't matter as much. We required people who can unlearn, re-learn, and learn new things.
As I go deeper into this thesis on startups hiring from villages, I understand the deeper reason behind why it might work — motivation.
We live in an age of digital Alexandria, where every book, every piece of knowledge is just a fingertip away. The best teachers are on the internet. The best peers are from the internet. The best books are on the internet. The means of learning are abundant, only the desire to learn is scarce. Motivation might very well be an underrated quality that we look for in the employees of the 21st century.
And it is easier to find highly motivated individuals from places that are inherently marginalized, oppressed, or sidelined. These individuals are just waiting for an opportunity to express their creative potential, and they would even burn or build bridges if that’s what it takes to get an opportunity.
You could find highly resourceful motivated individuals from the villages. And all you need to give them is an opportunity. This move was a reflection of our team’s core values. 2020 made me think that even commercial startups that have to seek profit to thrive can be socially oriented in various forms — through rural empowerment or even through a socially impactful cause.
From dHive to dVerse, I realized that design for social impact has been a recurring theme throughout this journey of mine. From when I first set foot in the tribal village of Lobhi in Bhandara, to setting up an educational non-profit for children from marginalized communities, to now using AI tech for healthcare.
Things have taken different turns throughout but yet the recurrent theme has always been recurrent, intentionally or unintentionally. In Book IV of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science the concept of eternal recurrence is first mentioned as follows.
“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence — even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’
What if you run through all those highs and lows in this life over and over again? This was this little thought experiment that he proposed everyone to ponder upon. Normally we would face anguish over life with all its pain, boredom, and frustration, over and over again. Contrary to this attitude, Nietzsche explains a more life-affirming attitude, a yea-sayer who embraces amor fati (loving one’s fate).
In this spirit of a life-affirming attitude, growing dVerse Labs further would be a form of eternal recurrence for me on the personal front. Heading the growth division, I would use my previous experience in growing d.Hive Labs to impact 400+ students in two years through design education to propel this company forward. I would be spearheading the growth and strategy division in my current role, and developing technical know-how to strategise, plan and execute the operation effectively.
Reading on Repeat
“I would rather read the best 100 books over and over again until I absorb them rather than read all the books.” — @naval
Re-reading a material was an even better heuristic to evaluate a book. Normally you would only find the metric of book completion rates on popular book recommendation websites such as Goodreads. However, rereads could be a good metric.
That might be the reason why mantras work. It is repeated again and again, until it’s drilled into your brain, in a good way. I wanted to do the same, but with books.
For 2021, I am taking these three books and understanding them in depth by reading them over again —
Disciplined Entrepreneurship by Bill Aulet: Although I am not a big fan of business plans, I am a big fan of the business planning process, and this book provides comprehensive frameworks to evaluate key aspects of businesses. I would be using this as a startup manual and also helping me craft better algorithms of thought as a Thought designer.
Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz: It’s a powerful book on freeing ourselves from our self-limits and talks about strategies to develop our mental image of ourselves. I want to read this to alter negative thought patterns that have compounded over time and to be happier in my lifestyle.
Greatest Salesman in the World by OG Mandino: Mathew McConaughey in the Tim Ferris podcast mentions how reading this book first got him interested in salesmanship and Hollywood. Author Mandino has designed this specifically for being re-read. He first instructs readers to re-read Scroll I, entitled, ‘The Power of Good Habits’, three times a day for 30 days straight. Once the reader has done this they are worthy of moving onto Scroll II, where the same process should apply, and so on. If the instructions are followed correctly, the book takes 10 months to read (which I can slowly crawl and complete by the end of 2021)
Psychology of Human Misjudgement by Charlie Munger: I want to sink into the world view of Charlie Munger, the irreverent partner of Warren Buffet at Berkshire Hathaway. This lecture by Munger has worldly wisdom related to investment management and business. I feel that every day is a great day to re-read Psychology of Human Misjudgement or listen to it.
Apart from these four books of high value, I have also been re-reading an essay written by Ryan Holliday titled — One must live an interesting life.
For believe me! — the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is: to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves! Be robbers and conquerors as long as you cannot be rulers and possessors, you seekers of knowledge! — Nietzsche
I’m excited to explore the labyrinth of life with this as my guiding quote. As the saying goes, upwards and onwards.