2023 Letter to Investors

2023 Letter to Investors
Photo by Hugöl Hälpingston / Unsplash

I wrote my first annual letter in 2020. Since then, the raison d'être of every letter has evolved. So have I. In the past, I bucketed life into segments and put progress into numbers. But soon I realized that a year is too ductile to be constrained in externally-defined parameters. 

A year is what one defines it to be, not how it should be. Should is not independent thinking.

So this letter is different from the previous ones in that it is many things. First, it’s an exercise in independent thinking. It’s an attempt to hold myself accountable to you (the reader). It’s a note of gratitude to you (the investor). If you’re reading this, chances are you have invested moments of your life in me. It’s a tool to reflect, plan, and share my lessons and milestones of 2023. It is a progress report, to help refine clarity of thought and action. 

The year gone by was wholesome and fulfilling. 

I got into Harvard and Stanford, started two talk shows, interviewed 10+ business leaders, helped close a three-year project, and traveled. I wrote better, wrote more, improved my calisthenic abilities, and got my first tailored suit. I met with the President, PM, politicians, bollywood, sports, and industry folks. I aced the GMAT, built a flywheel network, and had laser-like high-precision focus on what mattered to me. 

Two things mattered most: getting into business school and helping close my project at work. 

I won’t talk about the latter, but the former was hard. 

As an ‘Indian male with a tech background’, I was part of the most-oversubscribed and competitive applicant pool. This made business school harder and more elusive than it already was. But what got me through was laser focus and ruthless execution. I asked myself the equivalent of ‘Will it make the boat go faster?’ question. And if the answer to ‘Will it help me get into business school’ was yes, I did that act. If not, I didn’t. 

Timing and luck are underrated. I broke my nose on June 1st, which was the best time it could’ve happened. I say this for two reasons: First, by then, I was almost done helping close the multi-year project at work, and two, I got some mandatory rest that gave me enough time to prepare for the GMAT. 

Mentorship is necessary. I was fortunate to have a lot of support on my business school journey. From friends, family, tutors, and mentors. Writing applications and preparing for GMAT was hard, lonely, and sad. But it became possible because of the guidance and support I got from mentors. Nobody has been able to achieve anything meaningful without the help of others. I was fortunate to have gotten that. And I will not forget it. Thank you, if you’ve been part of my business school journey – This would not have been possible without you. 

Self-talk is important. Self-doubt is natural, but you need to actively wrestle with it. I took the GMAT thrice; I had already taken the GRE twice; I had (unsuccessfully) applied to two business schools in 2022. So working (again) toward this outcome was emotionally taxing. What if I didn’t make it? What if my time’s ROI went to nought? But conviction and determined self-talk were my antidotes to these drab questions. 

It’s not about ‘positive thinking’ or ‘growth mindset’; it’s about execution. To set sights on a goal, and to execute. To be naked in your ambition. To go at it, with all the will you have. 

“If you can fill the unforgiving minute… With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run…”

2023 was a distance run. 

Launching things is hard; scaling them is harder. While ETCircle and BSchoolBackstage are purpose-driven talk shows, they’re not “startups” in the traditional sense; they’re new projects. But launching these was difficult. It taught me the importance of clarity of thought, the value of execution, and the nitty-gritty of on-ground dynamics. Indeed, amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics

Health was a key priority, especially after I broke my nose and was asked not to work out. Finally, after months, I resumed calisthenics, sprints, and Yoga. But health is different from fitness. I got fit by working out, but got healthier by eating well. We underestimate the importance of the right food, but things compound. And we undervalue what compounds. Your health builds up on what you are today. 

To get fitness right, I worked with coaches for calisthenics, swimming, and tennis. To get food right, I read more about nutrition and tried the 2-week Ultrahuman patch, thanks to Kunal Shah’s recommendation. To get sleep right, I implemented some basic recommendations by Matthew Walker.

Getting things right is an iterative process. To get business school right, I visited 8 business schools over 12 days, of which I spent 4 in boston. I met with Deans, professors, students, and researched the business education landscape in painful detail. I developed a body of tacit knowledge (and confidence), which I leveraged in my essays and interviews. This would not have been possible had I not invested weeks – if not months – in researching business schools. 

Funnily, I planned to apply to the top 8 business schools (M7s + Yale), but after visiting each, I applied to only two: Harvard and Stanford. This tells me something about goal-selection. What you choose to work on is apriori more important than how hard you work. Had I not spent those 12 days traveling from city to city, I would’ve invested excessive time in applying to all the schools, which would have reduced my shot of getting into Harvard and Stanford. 

Ironically, I felt I overshot my goal. I flew to Boston for my interview, when I could’ve easily taken it on Zoom. Ultimately, I chose Stanford over Harvard. Perhaps there was no need to fly down to Boston; I don’t know. But what I do know is that if you’re a ruthless executor, it’s always better to know what matters more to you, in advance. (Why I chose Stanford over Harvard is a different story, which I’ll cover later, but I wish I’d known that in advance.)

A member in the family got married this year. This was a wholesome time, as most Indian weddings are. We danced, forged new relationships, and met new people. Hosting dos, friends, and going to small soirees was fulfilling. But what was most-gratifying was to have spent high-quality time with others. 

I didn’t read much. In hindsight, I feel that reading was a luxury good. I started a book (the name of which I forget), but didn’t finish it. In fact, I started many books, but finished none. Priorities and actions took over. I consumed TV and movies in my pastime, but none left an indelible mark on me. This is perhaps reflective of passive viewing, an ill I shouldn’t have. 

Travel was wholesome, but more so, solo travel. I visited Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, New Haven, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi. Each city spoke differently to me

“A city speaks to you mostly by accident — in things you see through windows, in conversations you overhear. It's not something you have to seek out, but something you can't turn off.”

New York pushed me to get richer, while Philadelphia and Boston inspired me to get smarter. Chicago drove me to get fuller (of experiences and riches), while New Haven asked me to get sterner. Dubai and Abu Dhabi asked me if I really wanted the high-life. I don’t know. But I do know that where you live matters more than you think it does. 

2023 was also self-revelatory. The more things you do, the more you learn about yourself. I learned that I was a better executor at a few things than a lot more. I did less in 2023, but did them better. I also learned that emotional drivers are stronger forcing functions than professional ones. Which is why they say “Follow your heart”, because the heart paves the way for the mind. I dedicated myself to two things: business school and the work project, and performed well in both… But I was able to do so because of my emotional drivers, not professional ambitions. 

The one thing I need to have, though, is specific knowledge in a few domains. I’m fortunate to have had a broad technical background and a holistic business background, but domain-level knowledge is critical. There are many things I know I don’t know, which I plan to cover in 2024. But what’s different this time is I’m not agitated about the things I don’t know. And that is important for a variety of reasons, most important of which is that a gyroscope is not a compass. 

A gyroscope is a spinning top that can tilt in any direction but stays upright no matter how you move it around. It has its own sense of up, down, left, right. It works because it resists changes in its direction as it spins. 

A compass is a tool that always points north because it aligns itself with the Earth's magnetic field. No matter where you are, the compass needle points in the direction of the Earth's magnetic north.

A compass helps you navigate externally; a gyroscope helps you orient internally.

2023 was the year I oriented internally: I overturned on my internal criteria and created my own coordinate system in which I benchmarked my performance. You may argue that some of the things are not worth pursuing, but it’s not the thing that matters; it’s the pursuit. 

For happiness is in pursuit.

As I close 2023, I thank you, my investors. I thank you for your time, energy, and support as I continue my journey hereon.