The road to nowhere

Its just mid-April and I have already (re)started and abandoned at least 4 projects. I decided that I would seriously diet for the first time in my life because surely it must be easier to avoid those darned almond cookies in the first place instead of having to workout 20 minutes just to burn one off — well, that lasted about 2 days. I decided to resurrect that embroidery project I picked up in India a decade ago — gave it a good 2 hours and called it a day. ~70% done is surely better than ~65% done, its time will come. I started working on a children’s book but after shooting down the first three ideas myself, I decided to wait till Vik is a little older so he can be my focus group for helping work on the *right* idea. I decided (and publicly announced) that I’d write every week and then flaked every week for the last 9 weeks (coincidentally the same number of weeks I have been back at work, but let’s not dwell on that or the many drafts saved on my Medium profile that you will never see). This note will at least take care of reviving that last project, so there is that.

All in all, I seem to be abandoning a ton of things over the last couple of years. And since I recently resolved to do more of the things I enjoy and feel fulfilled by (in the spirit of being a happier person and bringing good energy to raising my young son), this high rate of abandonment really started bothering me. Reading, writing, singing, playing the keyboard… these things used to make me so happy, why wasn’t I able to stick with these? I kept starting to write but abandoned the short story if the initial outline wasn’t “complete” i.e., I didn’t already know in my head how the story would start and end with interesting key characters and plot twists already planned out. I kept starting to play the keyboard but couldn’t decide on a song that suited my voice well enough and was famous enough recently that I could count on the final video (because, social media!) getting enough positive feedback. I kept trying to “do more stats/ML” but often abandoned the problem candidates I had in mind because there was something else that was more pressing or had a quicker path to impact. The common theme painstakingly revealed itself. In trying to find the shortest (and surest) path to “a measurable goal”, I was often ending up in a state of emotional and intellectual inertia — not moving at all. Even worse, I feel a constant need to do something useful, to check items off a never-ending list of useful things to do. So much so, that sometimes, doing my son’s laundry and organizing his closet for the third time takes precedence over just spending time with him and enjoying his precious smiles. In optimizing for usefulness towards a concrete goal, I was failing to take into consideration two important things: the plain joy that some activities provide in the here and now that can make up the basis for a happy life over time, and the learning value of experiences that might not be direct steps towards a goal but still move me forward (take writing this very note as an example).

These are by-products of a strategy that serves me very well at work and has been reinforced over time— the ability (and willingness) to regularly evaluate my scope and abandon low-impact things or pivot quickly to changing priorities enables me to maximize my overall throughput and my team’s. I always push for us to start with to-do lists, ghost decks/analyses, clear outlines of hypotheses, mocks of dashes and almost end-to-end schema designs of what we want to build. We work on Terabytes of data for a living, so starting with an end in mind serves me really well in finding actionable things, but its less obvious what I have possibly missed out on by not taking the meandering path every once in a while — exploring that interesting data point, thinking through that alternate philosophy on auctions, adding those five additional dimensions to the analysis, trying a different modeling technique.

The picture of what I might be missing out on is starker in life outside work — I would love to only ever publish best-sellers if I am completely honest about it. As a result, I have only ever finished one novel (and never shown it to anyone) and have a second in the works that is fun to write but regularly fazes me in how far it is from greatness —I have been writing this since I was twenty and its still far from done, but not for lack of time or ideas. In wanting to be a best-selling novelist, I have published NOTHING, while other stronger and braver souls put their written words out into the world and continue to grow towards that same end-goal.

And so a couple of things strike me. In looking back at life so far, it is the absolute volume that matters — memories, experiences, accomplishments — not the rate at which my efforts translated to these. And yet it is the rate I constantly optimize for. Not just that, in all my prioritization rubric, as I get older and more stretched for time, I find myself overemphasizing the end-outcome (size of prize and probability of success) and failing to consider the near-term joy and/or learning I might derive from taking a slightly less direct (and less sure) route to it. As a new mother looking to better contain my working life and still grow my career, I will no doubt still be looking to heavily prioritize at work, but I do plan to more consciously make time for exploration while putting in place mechanisms to keep this exploration smart — some of these I have already started doing ad hoc (e.g., an ongoing impact list for the half for my team that if I don’t update every week with something fairly meaty, I know we have some course correction to do), others I hope to figure out over time with the help of the amazing folks I get to work with — in keeping with the theme of the problem itself, I have no set path for how I will get to the answers here, except that I will continue to try things, reflect and seek feedback each week.

As I have grown older, by the same tendency to prioritize for impact and because society at large reinforces work being such a large part of our identity, I find the work bucket has gained share of time and mind at the cost of personal interests (and more often than I would like to admit, life and family itself). In what is an interesting case of catch-22, I think I am looking to get to a state where I am comfortable exploring the many meandering life paths to happiness, but I need to first accept that the path to this state is itself unclear and likely a long, meandering one. No clear to-do lists here. And that’s ok.

As my first steps, I think I will congratulate myself on being ready to hit Publish on this note, play peekaboo with my son and then re-read one of my favorite books instead of conquering a new must-read bestseller. Then, who knows :) “When someone seeks,” said Siddhartha, “then it easily happens that his eyes see only the thing that he seeks, and he is able to find nothing, to take in nothing because he always thinks only about the thing he is seeking, because he has one goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal.”

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