Last week (on 3rd June 2017), I turned 30. I don’t have any bittersweet emotions about ageing and I certainly don’t feel old. In fact, I feel really good. Now I know more about the world and people than before. I have friends and family around me. Most importantly I married my best friend. So no qualms about turning 30. None at all.
But this date is semi-important to me for two reasons. One is because I recently realized that my life has been been blazing through and I haven’t been doing enough reflection on my mistakes or experiences. Sure, I used to (and still do) think about questions such as what is money, what philosophy is about and why freedom is important. But I haven’t reflected enough on my own life experiences and mistakes. I thought reflecting on my 20s will be a good start.
The second reason why this date is semi-important is because nine years ago when I was 21, I had published a post called 30 by 30 – it contained 30 things that I asked myself to achieve by the time I turn 30. Yes, I know that the wisdom of making decade long lists when I was in early 20s (raging with emotions and energy of all types) made sense then, but now the list looks a bit, teeny-weeny pretentious.
Still, a promise to my past self is a promise and here’s the scorecard on my 30 by 30 list (which I wrote in 2008).
1. Learn to play Electric Guitar and start my own Rock band
Sorry 21-year-old-Paras, this did not happen. I understand why you would write this. Like most teenagers and people in their early 20s, you liked classic rock. No, wait, you loved rock. So naturally you wanted to imitate what you admired. You tried one or two times but you gave up.
But I assure you that even though you couldn’t learn to play the guitar, your love for music did not fade away. In fact, there was a phase when you were 27 or so and fell in love with electronic dance music. That’s when you visited Tomorrowland and decided to give creating EDM a shot. Of course, you were adept at computers so making electronic music would have been easy for you. With this confidence, you blazed ahead, downloaded Ableton Live and produced some distinctly terrible songs. (However, not every thing went to waste. The side benefit of all this was that you learned about music theory and know why guitar sounds differently than drums, what chords are and how EDM is same pattern repeated in all the songs)
2. Write a novel on my philosophy of life (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance style)
This was a partial success, 21-yo-Paras. Of course, you did not have a fully formed philosophy of life in your 20s. In fact, even to this date you have some big gaps before you can claim to have a well rounded philosophy of life. However, what worked for you was your blog. It gave you a platform to publish answers to some big questions (+ rants sprinkled in between). I’m glad you never stopped thinking and writing and I can assure you that I will carry the baton in your 30s.
What you also did was to get yourself involved with a self constructed image of a nihilist. That image stayed for a very long time you and only recently you stopped calling yourself that (you even removed it from your twitter bio – oh, the horrors of NOT calling yourself nihilist. What will the world think? Guess what, nobody cared!) I guess when you were 26 or something, you started having weird doubts about life (why live at all), work (why should one work), business (why grow a business). Looking back, 21-yo-Paras, it is clear now that you were probably suffering from an existential crisis or had undiagnosed clinical depression (but who would have told you that, depression is a dirty word, no?). In the depths of that angst, what made it worse was that love your life (your future wife) was not reciprocating your interest in her. Of course, your big ego couldn’t take it and you broke down. I think as a self-defense, you ended up writing a rambling 100 page story, pouring all your angst in those pages. You even sent it to a few publishers who rejected it calling it a rant (which it is).
That rant didn’t make you a published author but, hey, it was something. It at least made you come to terms with the fact that the universe is uncaring, that life isn’t always fair and that sometimes odds will be stacked against you.
3. Start a startup incubator (Ycombinator style)
Didn’t happen at all, 21-yo-Paras. You did invest in a couple of startups, but clearly that doesn’t count. I think every time an investment oppurtunity came your way, you couldn’t find enough time to evaluate it. You also felt more strongly about your time investment than money, so you made things simple and invested your money mostly in mutual funds. I think you rightly concluded that angel or early stage investment is a full time job in itself.
4. Start my own (successful) startup
Alright, this one is what you should be most proud of, young Paras. I remember you always had an entrepreneurial drive in your teens (your first “startup” was started when you were 14), so in some sense a startup was inevitable in your 20s. You should be happy that your efforts today give employment to 160+ people, satisfaction to 5000+ customers and lay the foundation for creating a truly world-class tech company to emerge from India.
I recall that there were several (thankfully, non-fatal) mistakes along the way. If I tell you about them you will be as confused as I am today. Why did you almost sell the company in its 3rd year? What would you have done with the money that you couldn’t do today? Why did even think of shifting your base to US, raising money from VCs and playing the playbook that hundreds of other companies use? Didn’t you know that successful bootstrapping is rare and that you had something special which could have been easily lost? And also why did you ONLY start reading business books when you were 28? Didn’t you realize that having no mentors, no investors and no formal business education meant you were mostly relying on your intuition to run the show?
21 year old Paras, if there were a real time machine and I could send a message to you, I would first tell you how incredibly proud I am for creating this beautiful thing called Wingify. I can’t stress enough how lucky I feel working with people I like where everyone realizes the massive oppurtunity that we have in our hands. Then I would assure you that I will take good care of what you started. While you were busy running a company, you would not have understood it completely, you were learning about how world works and how humans think. You used to think that capitalism is bad, but I know that it’s nothing but a reward for creating progress for someone. Yes, the world still has poverty and it’s unfortunate but getting rid of capitalism could only make things worse.
5. Go to the moon (I know it sounds crazy!)
Yes, your guess was right: it was crazy and it didn’t happen. I’m still hoping to be able to visit the moon or Mars or even beyond in my lifetime. (As a distant proxy, you did invest in Team Indus who are the only Indian team participating in Lunar X prize – given to first privately funded mission to land a rover on the moon).
6. Earn Rs 100 crore (I know this sounds naive!)
You built a Rs. 100 crore company without raising any external funding. So that’s something, right?
7. Read thoroughly The Road to Reality
I’m not sure why you singled out a single book but if I recall this book derives most of the modern physics starting from simple arithmetics. You read many books on science and math, but not this one.
I’m still onboard with your idea of being able to derive knowledge, rather than simply remembering facts or theories. Maybe in my 30s, I’ll come back to this book. Works?
8. Publish a paper in Science or Nature
No you didn’t publish anything in any scientific journal in your 20s. I’m sure this would disappoint you, but frankly building a company took most of your time. Vague fragments of a theory did emerge in your mind where you saw similarities in evolution of technology, internet and business and its correlates in evolution of life on earth. (And that economy is inevitable and its future directions somewhat predictable). All these are still vague and probably many of the core assumptions false. You still have a lot of thinking to do, but remember that as a CEO, you’re incredibly well placed to think and write about business, competition and capitalism. I assure you, 21-yo-Paras, I will revisit this.
What you missed in your 20s was participating in is the incredible advance that has happened in AI: deep neural networks. I know you were always interested in neural networks (when you wrote your first one fifteen years go in Visual Basic 6.0). I’m pretty sure that had you chosen an academic life for yourself or had Wingify not succeeded, you would have jumped into the DNN bandwagon.
Another game-changing idea that you stumbled upon when you were 25 was bitcoin and blockchain. I remember that your friends had bought some bitcoins and you had dismissed the entire thing as a fad without understanding or thinking critically what it was (and what its future could be). Boy, you were arrogant. But I have digested all of that and made into a life lesson for future. Now I try to either reserve my opinion or ensure sure I think hard, learn from history and see an emerging trend from all angles before dismissing anything as a fad. (25-yo-Paras, how did you forget that all big changes start small?)
9. Reduce India’s poverty by at least 10%
Really? Did you even have a plan or did you just write it because you felt strong emotions about it. With your permission, 21-yo-Paras, I’m using non-achievement of this goal as a life-lesson: if you must set ambitious goals, have an incremental, realistic plan to achieve it. (And if it’s a wish, call it as a wish not a goal). Goals should be accompanied with a plan. Sure, you cannot always think of things that can make plan hit roadblocks but having no plan is simply foolish.
But I wouldn’t rebuke you too much 21-yo-Paras because even until last year you were in a habit of confusing wishes with goals. Like when you wished to be able to make a successful consumer product without thinking through how it could be done, without researching how people in the past have done it, or what special insight or skill or experience you have that nobody else has. You took a bet that you could afford to lose, but it was an avoidable bet. I guess your 30-yo-Paras is still learning but he’s learned the lesson for thinking a lot more of how to achieve a goal.
What could have helped you is a deep understanding of your cognitive biases such as confirmation bias (where you didn’t think how things could go wrong, you concentrated only on how they can go right), availability bias (where you only thought about your skill and experience, and not about others who have been attempting to achieve similar goals and failing) and jumping to solution (where you won’t spend enough time discussing and revealing nuances of the problem).
At least now you know that your confidence stemmed from your abilities and biases. I will try in your 30s to be as much as possible to be aware of biases and have a realistic assessment of plans. Send me luck!
I think biggest lesson that I could teleport to you would be to expose yourself to biggest reasons why something wouldn’t work rather than only concentrating on why it would work. And with the clarity on why it wouldn’t work, take an informed call. After taking that call, learn from others to make a rough plan to help you figure things along the way. Remember: chance favours a prepared mind.
But then I think as 21-year-old, this could have dissuaded you from doing anything worthwhile at all. Perhaps this advice you would not even have listened to (and rightly so).
10. Produce something creatively viral
11. Travel backpacking across Western Europe
Partially done. Did a road trip in Montenegro in Oct 2011; Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Italy in 2012.
12. Make a truly creative Artificial Intelligence program that can learn and perhaps pass the Turing Test
Like I told you before, you were busy having fun and building Wingify. You have a surface level understanding of recurrent networks (which seems like the best candidate to make a chatbot) And a year back, you did train a deep neural network to recognize your handwriting and you fantasized about getting a desktop computer with GPUs to power more DNN experiments. But that’s about it. This level of knowledge is machine learning 101 these days.
13. Make a short-and-slick movie that earns more than what it takes to produce it
Nope, didn’t happen.
14. Sponsor my parents’ world trip (I really really would want to do this)
Another reason to be proud, 21-yo-Paras. Your parents have been to more countries than you have been to. You did it! Your parents are happy hopping countries.
15. Learn a foreign language (preferably Spanish)
Shame! I remember you went to a trial class once to learn Spanish and the entire class (including the teacher) made fun of you when you told them you want to learn Spanish because you find it romantic. But no even in your 30s, you don’t know any Spanish words beyond Hola and Puta (thanks Narcos!).
16. Live for a year or so in Silicon Valley (doing an MBA/MS at Stanford perhaps?)
Not for a year, but you were there for a couple of weeks and realized you miss India. Everything seemed so perfect in the valley that you felt uncomfortable. What was there to change? What was there to improve? India seemed like a place you could make real difference because there’s so much to fix and I’m glad you made that choice.
17. Read entire Calvin and Hobbess collection
Soon after writing this 30 by 30 list, right out of college after getting a job, 21-yo-Paras, you bought Calvin and Hobbess collection from your first month’s salary. That’s how much you loved Calvin.
18. Do Skydiving and Bungee Jumping
No skydiving, yes bungee jumping. (But apart from that many times you got yourself involved in situations where you were convinced your chances of survival were slim. Do you recall the time your raft got overturned and you drifted in the water for a while before getting rescued? What about the time when that crazy paragliding instructor in Turkey almost swept you away along with the wind? And what about first time Scuba where you were convinced you gonna die for sure?)
19. Spend a year or so at MIT AI Lab
21-yo-old, I told you, you were having fun and building a company. No academics for you!
20. Buy a (small) country (it is not impossible)
Did I mention overconfidence in this post already?
21. Read all the popular books on Philosophy, Psychology, AI, Sociology, and Cosmology
You read tons and tons of books. So chill.
22. (My secret wish) Spend sometime somewhere without spending a penny from my own pocket
When you were writing your 30 by 30 list, did you realize the irony of writing a wish on a blog and calling it secret? If you wanted it to be a secret, should I tell if that happened in your 20s or not? 🙂
23. Produce a truly breath taking theory (in the leagues of Theory of Evolution, Relativity and Gravity
Short answer: no. Long answer: see point 8 above.
24. Travel to at least 30 different countries
Technically the count is 24 countries, 21-yo-Paras and frankly I don’t see the point of counting countries anymore. Thanks to your (and my) wife, I learnt that what’s important is soaking in a culture and place rather than sprinting from country to country just to make the count go up. Quality matters, 21-yo-Paras, not quantity.
25. Being featured in a good business magazine
26. Being admired by businessmen, scientists and students (cough cough)
Vagueness-alert. I can twist all evidence to support the assertion or negate it. And why did you want to be admired? Remember: admiration is an outcome of doing good work.
27. Learn to draw better cartoons
28. Read and understand the history of philosophy
Yep, you read a couple of books on this subject.
29. Read and learn about world’s religions and mythology
You quickly realized you were not interested in learning about religions. You found cosmology and mysteries of universe way more interesting.
30. Make a 40 by 40 list
Ok, I’ll bite: there’s no 40 by 40 list in my head right now and I’m not even sure if it’s a good idea. You must have thought that your 21-year-old worldview will stay constant throughout your life and by the time you turn 30, you will be jumping all around trying to think of 40 things you want to achieve by 40.
Sorry to kill your buzz, 21-yo-Paras, but the 30-yo-Paras has changed. I think you would understand the change if I pointed out that a constant, unchanging worldview will be boring. (“Boring“, yeah, how you love/hate that word).
The 30 year old Paras is not seeking admiration or fame. He’s seeking clarity on his worldviews and thinking patterns. Rather than daydreaming about building biggest rocket in the world, he wants to be be awake and take a stock of his skills, interests and available resources and conclude he’s better suited at saving free speech, while admiring Elon Musk build rockets. Rather than trying to change the world through one big theory or one grand action, he is trying to choose how to take a thousand little, deliberate steps impact towards making world a better place.
21 year old Paras, you had gumption and bravado to make world domination plans. Your 30 year old self has quiet, confident determination to make a definitive difference in the world by choosing a few areas and doubling down on what he does best (and letting others do what they do best).
PS: Future reminder to my 40 year old self. Come back and revisit this post. What did you do in your 30s for improving others’ lives? There are many, many ways to cause progress in the world. You could donate, you can create jobs, you can create products and technologies, you can train people, you can write, you can give inspiring speeches, you can enable others. But you cannot do all. You must choose methods that make you come alive and the ones which you have a unique oppurtunity to succeed. But whatever you do, make sure you do it without making it feel like an obligation. Remember: making world a better place is not a job. If it feels like that, you need to continue exploring until you hit upon something that makes you feel alive. When you get bored, restart the search. Let your curiosity never die. Actions matter. And the biggest mysteries of universe are yet to be solved.