Earlier, I wrote about the idea of writing to your shareholders. This year, I’d suggest you do it as well. This weekend, I set 12 hours aside and completed my annual review by writing a letter to my shareholders. I listed down my concrete projects, wins, losses, things I need to work on, and stuff I am excited to learn about.
It was a cathartic exercise and it felt pretty good — I also felt that my internal CAGR was a solid 35%. Now, of course, you can say that this letter is ‘fictional’, but the point of the letter is not to write it and let things be… It’s a bit deeper.
Writing this letter holds you accountable to yourself, more than anyone else. It forces you to think deeply about the year gone by. It helps you prioritize things for 2021. And above all, by ‘putting yourself out there’ to your shareholders, it facilitates you with an objective mindset. I have put down my letter below, and have also linked it here. I hope you enjoy it.
Onward to a bright new year…
For many years, Warren Buffett has been writing an annual letter to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
This idea of a ‘letter to the shareholders’ resonated with me. Writing such a letter forces you to evaluate your performance objectively. It holds one to high standards. It builds accountability.
This year, instead of doing an ‘annual review’, I am writing a letter to my ‘shareholders.’ The shareholders are my mentors, family, and friends, who have invested their time in me. Please consider this as a progress update report.
2020 Letter To Shareowners
This year, I finished 10 core projects; ran 450 miles; lost 25 pounds; read 3 books; wrote 45 weekly essays, 57 strategy posts, 13 daily posts; recorded 54 videos; read 5 long-form articles; recorded 52 podcasts; and graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Computer Science.
As COVID dramatically escalated, I managed to be consistent, show-up, and adapt to the week-by-week changing dynamics of work, studies, and life.
We overestimate what we can do in a day and underestimate what we can do in a year. Reflecting on 2020, it sure feels like I have done a lot, but it was far from what I experienced at the beginning of the year. Let's take a look.
The first case of COVID-19 in the US was in January. I did not realize the potential impact of COVID until February. It seemed unlikely that colleges would turn to remote education to limit COVID’s spread. On March 10, though, Chancellor of UC Berkeley messaged the community (see here). Below is the relevant excerpt:
Beginning Tuesday, March 10, we will be suspending most in-person classes and will be offering ALL lecture courses (including discussion sections), seminar instruction and examination through alternative modalities (e.g., Zoom, course capture, etc.) through Spring Break.... These changes are effective starting Tuesday, March 10, and will remain in place through Spring Break, which ends March 29.
Since my mentor was in the Bay Area, it seemed rational to visit him. COVID was spreading fast. On March 11, I visited him, to assist him with corporate work and learn. I assumed I'll be back in Berkeley by March 29. This was when restrictions were supposed to end.
Soon, the 3-week restrictions extended to the rest of the semester. The planned trip to Bali with friends was cancelled. College had abruptly ended on an uneventful note. Online education had begun in full swing. Since I was working, I had to manage work and studies, a tricky balance especially with technical courses like Neural Networks, Machine Learning, and Linguistic Science.
During this period, I created a database of the latest research on COVID (see here). In it, I summarized research papers and shared actionable advice. Many found this project useful and shared it with friends and family. I don't have accurate data, but given the feedback, I estimate 1,000 unique page views.
Before moving on with Q2 and my projects, I want to share the main highlight with you. This came in Q3.
Graduating a Year Early
I am proud to have graduated 9 months before the expected graduation date (ie May 2021.) This was helpful because I was able to make up for 2 gap years from 2015 to 2017. By graduating in 3 years, I was now at the stage of entering a 4-year institution in 2016. Yet, this was not easy, especially after a stressful semester in the Spring.
This is how it came about to be.
In June, I was fortunate to learn that classes I needed to graduate were being offered over the summer session. I registered for 3 technical courses: Artificial Intelligence, Data Science, and Circuits.
It's worth noting that it’s bad advice to opt for 3 'technical' courses in a 4-month semester. Technical courses make it difficult to perform and learn effectively. But I had opted for 3 courses in a 2-month semester. This meant double the speed, double the workload.
Unfortunately, due to work and obligations, I cut corners and did not achieve depth in these courses. I plan to supercharge my learning in 2021, for which, I have specific next-steps in the 2021 action plan.
Moving on with Q2...
High-Leverage, High-Impact Work
Of course, I cannot share the details of work here. The projects at work are confidential. So, I can share generic lessons.
Q2 was a mix of work and academics, as I struck the balance between switching contexts. I gained specific knowledge in law, negotiation, thinking, business writing, strategy, psychology, and note-taking. I took accountability for my actions. I went the extra mile to perform beyond the call of 'duty', and contributed to high-impact work projects.
You might ask, "Is this 'specific knowledge' valuable?" This is a valid question. Let me explain. 'Specific knowledge' is the knowledge that you cannot be trained for. There is no formula or a cookie-cutter approach to learning the above disciplines and apply them, in the moment. For example, if you go to university to learn 'negotiation', chances are you will learn the principles of negotiation. But principles of negotiation don't govern the nuances of negotiation. And because nuances are different in every context, negotiation, as an applicable skill, cannot be taught.
Fortunately, I have learned specific knowledge which is not replaceable. I am lucky, invariably lucky, to be in this position. And to perform as I do at work, one will need the high trust of others, high accountability, and high effort, all of which are rare to find, together.
The main mistake in Q2 was a lack of focus on academics. I wasn't fully involved with studies. This was partly because of work, and partly because 'online school' did not connect with my learning style. That said, I still managed to score well.
Q3 was also defined by the stress of work and studies. The part about which I'm proud, though, is this: Despite academic stress, I had managed to run long distances, stay lean, eat healthily, and lift weights. I will talk more about fitness below, but onto the specific projects.
I started YouTube on Dec 2, 2019, after I watched a few YouTubers and got inspired by how easy it was to make videos. And because no one I knew was doing it, I wanted to do it all the more. The videos have been about productivity, note-taking, life lessons, books, insights, entertainment, tools, and efficiency tips.
Since December 2019, here is how I have performed.
- The videos have got 25K unique views.
- People have watched these videos for 1,500 hours.
- I have 900 likes and 500 subscribers.
- Most of the viewers were from the US, followed by India, UK, Canada, and Germany, in that order.
People have thanked, reached out to, and have connected with me. I have been able to connect with thinkers and entrepreneurs like David Perell and Salman Ansari. The journey has been rewarding, and I am grateful.
Going forward, however, I will be pausing this project. This means I am foregoing the possibility of making 'passive income', 2 years down the line. There are two reasons for this decision.
First, the time cost of making videos has increased, as time spent has decreased. The first 30 videos cost 5 hours per video, on average. The last 20 videos have cost 2 hours per video, on average. However, because I have increased the value I ascribe to time, making videos does not have a high IRR anymore.
Second, I may not enjoy it in future. Assume I have a million subscribers. On average, then, in one year, I will be making $200K in passive income through videos. And that is if I'm making, say, 2 videos a week. While $200K is still a good amount, it is a low-leverage ROI. Besides, I also wouldn’t enjoy making '2 videos a week' for the money.
In summary, the decision is to not continue making 1 or 2 videos a week, and instead make videos at leisure. Besides, I have made 50+ videos in 52 weeks, which is enough proof of being consistent. I'm glad to learn about this quality within me, even though it comes at a monetary cost.
I started the podcast Half A Thought with the first episode on Dec 31, 2019. Ali and I have exchanged thoughts on books, communication, arts, relationships, creativity, productivity, and storytelling. We have had guests from California State Senator Scott Wiener to D2C-expert Nik Sharma. Our interactions with these guests have been enriching. Chances are, I may have Patricia Mou on the show in February 2021.
The podcast has helped me nurture relationships with friends. More than a business, the podcast is a fun-and-productive hobby which helps me creatively interact with friends. This value-proposition is rewarding.
The podcast takes 45 minutes per week. This is a valuable long-term investment with non-linear payoffs. So far, here is how I have performed:
- The show has received 2300 downloads, after publishing 52 episodes (Note: This is without any marketing efforts.)
- In total, Ali and I have collectively recorded 2000+ minutes on the podcast.
- 50% of listeners are iPhone users.
- 40% of listeners use Spotify. The rest 60% use Apple, Google, Overcast and other players.
- Our audience is in 29 countries, on every continent. Most of the listeners are in the US, followed by UK, Canada, India, Germany, Portugal, South Africa, Belgium, Russia, and the Netherlands, in that order.
It's worth noting that the podcast may be cash-flow positive soon, because I was invited to teach on Listenable, an audio learning platform. My course was on The Principles of Productivity.
Finally, since the podcast has a low time cost, I will continue recording podcasts in future.
Having written 100+ creative posts with business notes, my writing skills have improved. While this improvement is intangible, the increase in subscribers quantifies it. I have 100+ subscribers to my weekly newsletter Weekly Insights. (The other newsletter Daily Insights is a few days old and will need consistent effort to grow.)
This year, Paul Graham’s essay Write Like You Talk has shaped my writing, along with Venkatesh Rao's style (as in this Quora post), David Perell's pieces, and Seth Godin's simplicity. I view writing as an important skill because it is a force multiplier. If you can write well, you can think, understand, and communicate well, all of which are critical skills.
In 2021, I will be deliberate with my writing and will go beyond writing about self-improvement to more concrete topics. While I started this through First Drafts in October this year, I still have a long way to go. I will develop thinking skills, big-picture skills, as well as the ability to predict a company's strategy. (These skills are important for my goals in 2021.)
The Second Brain
2020 will be a landmark year. I was 3x more productive as I was in 2019 and am glad to have concretely built a 'second-brain' system with useful software tools. I am now an avid Roam Research, Notion, Superhuman, Bear, Audible, Instapaper, and Anki user. Roam, more than Notion, is my primary go-to tool. All other apps and services are complements to Roam.
These services allow me to effectively manage information overload, read effectively, and invest in my long-term future self, because I don't have to worry about how to store, retrieve, or access knowledge... Instead, I can focus on doing high-leverage knowledge work and let tools take care of 'back-end'.
Building a 'Personal Knowledge Management' (PKM) system was hard. Yet, I am fortunate to have picked up key principles of note-taking, productivity, and PKM workflows from a few folks, who deserve a special address:
- Tiago Forte for the PARA system,
- Ali Abdaal for actionable videos,
- David Perell for note-taking and writing,
- Andy Matuschak for note-taking, and
- Conor White-Sullivan for 'networked thought.'
Now, I take effective, impactful, and meaningful notes. I have a trusted system to store notes for future use. I can engineer serendipity. I can rely on these tools to resurface the right information at the right time. While this does not have an immediate "impact", note that knowledge only compounds.
That I have a reliable system — one that works for me — is a big step for any knowledge worker. A few articles and books that inspired the note-taking, productivity, and knowledge stacks:
Other Creative Endeavors
I read 5 high-impact long-form articles that really transformed my thinking: They are:
- You And Your Research (see video here)
- How To Understand Things (see article here)
- Augmenting Long-Term Memory (see how I use Anki here)
- Calendar. Not to-do lists (I have put this to use in my schedule.)
- Andy Matuschak's Evergreen Notes (I have made 'evergreen notes' in Roam.)
A few podcasts that were particularly influential in helping me develop my thought process:
- Derek Sivers Podcast with Shane Parrish
- Venkatesh Rao Podcast with Shane Parrish
- Ben Thompson Podcast with Shane Parrish
I was fortunate to learn from Tiago Forte's Building A Second Brain course, and I've put my course notes here. This was an incredibly valuable course because it sowed the seeds for concretizing and actually building the 'second brain', which is another project itself.
Some things didn't go as well during the year.
I tried building an email client with the grand vision of competing with Superhuman. I started this project, after some friends inspired me to ‘build’. Not only did this project fail, but I also converted to becoming a Superhuman user. I will have invested 100 hours in this project, but the lessons I learned are worth the time cost.
One of my 2020 goals was to write a book, but as days passed, this goal seemed increasingly hard. Besides, I didn't know what to write about. I also realized that writing a book requires deep expertise and mastery over the subject area — it's not as easy as it sounds.
At work, I tried to implement a 'hyperlocal newsletter' but after writing, research, collaboration, and market evidence, I decided to retire the idea. Another reason why this project failed was that, I didn't have an accurate conception of (a) the problem I was solving, and (b) what larger strategy this solution fit into.
The lessons I've learned from these failed projects is, simply, the need for prioritization. Most of these projects failed because either (a) I didn't have clarity on what problem I was solving, or (b) I was doing these projects for the sake of doing them, without having thought them out myself.
2020 gave me some valuable life experiences, both positive and negative. I'm sharing the key ones below:
- TEDx Berkeley 2020 (February),
- Hikes in Wunderlich County Park and Stanford Dish (March - October),
- Access to fresh air in California, which allowed me to run more efficiently (March - October),
- Watching Hamilton on video, and listening to the playlist on loop (June - August),
- Consistency with playing the guitar (September - December),
- Access to daily spiritual practice sessions (September - December), and
- Watching TV Shows (Home on AppleTV, Morning Show on AppleTV, Suits, Silicon Valley etc).
In Q1, the strategy was to lift weights and bulk. Due to this, I had intentionally gained 20 pounds. However, when I didn't see effective results with this strategy, I resorted to hypertrophy-specific training (HST) in Q2 and Q3. The idea was to perform multi-joint compound exercises with sustained resistance, to atrophy muscles.
While this seemed logical (and I was hopeful), the program didn't quite help me come into the right body frame. It was a step-up from my 'bulking-and-cutting' strategy, but something was amiss — after all, I wasn't entirely lean, muscular, and fit. Starting Q2, I began running. I started off with slow runs and maintained my heart rate at 65% of the max capacity (ie ~135), to enable fat burning.
During 'fat-burn running', I switched from a carb-heavy diet to a high-fat, low-carb diet. This period was hard because I was not used to a grueling fitness routine and a paleo diet. Of course, I erred and gave into my carb-urges. When this routine began to tire me, I reverted to my old diet and fitness plan.
In Q3, I increased the intensity of my runs. On average, I ran 15 - 20 miles a week, with a focus on improving pace. The PR for the year has been 7:18 per mile. (In 2021, I intend to run a sub-5-minute mile.) This routine helped lose weight, however, the risk of injury increased due to running on asphalt.
After a few minor injuries, I started taking physical therapy sessions. The physical therapist showed me how I lacked strength in several important muscle groups. I learned the importance of training these basic muscles, if I am to run a sub-5-minute mile, injury-free.
In Q4, I changed this approach completely. I stopped running, stopped lifting, and started at the basics. I moved from focusing on being 'bulked-up' to becoming a slim, lean, flexible, and strong athlete. To this effect, I have worked on key muscle groups, activating the right stabilizer muscles, and getting the basics right.
In wanting to lift more or getting bulky, we forget to activate muscles that matter. Now, workouts are only 35 minutes long. I'm not using weights. I'm doing simple exercises. And yet, I am more exhausted than ever. Above all, though, my diet is now high on protein and fat, low on carbs, which is an effective lifestyle shift.
Finally, COVID has made us realize that, the most important aspect of life is relationships. Even though 2020 uneventfully paused college friendships, I’ve intentionally kept in touch with a few friends. I’ve also become more intentional in my relationships with family, mentors, and friends.
One way I've become more intentional is to schedule 'catch-up' calls in advance. We're all busy and often don't have the bandwidth for things that compound over time. (We're too focused on what's immediately available.) Because relationships compound, it's important to have catch-up calls scheduled.
I’m proud to have sustained deep, meaningful relationships with a few key individuals in life. Going forward, I plan to cultivate these relationships.
I am grateful for my mentors’, family's, and friends’ efforts in having shaped 2020 so brilliantly for me. I also recognize that it’s a privilege to achieve such milestones. I am lucky — rather, gloriously lucky — to have a support structure that’s allowed me to do these things. One more thing: I am thankful for my mentor’s constant support, guidance, and lessons, without which, the year will not have gone well.
In summary, I’d say my 'Internal CAGR' (ie how I subjectively felt I grew this year) was 35%. And with the whole knowledge I have gained in 2020, I am confident to say that your investment will grow by a greater margin in 2021. It's day 1, once again.
PS: I hope you enjoy the poem The Great Realization, that defines 2020 so well.
This story starts before then in a world I once would dwell.
It was a world of waste and wonder, of poverty and plenty,
Back before we understood why hindsight’s 2020
You see, the people came up with companies to trade across all lands
But they swelled and got much bigger than we ever could have planned
We always had our wants, but now, it got so quick
You could have anything you dreamed of, in a day and with a click
We noticed families had stopped talking, that’s not to say they never spoke
But the meaning must have melted and the work life balance broke
And the children’s eyes grew squarer and every toddler had a phone
They filtered out the imperfections, but amidst the noise, they felt alone.
And every day the skies grew thicker, ‘till you couldn’t see the stars,
So, we flew in planes to find them, while down below we filled our cars.
We drove around all day in circles, we’d forgotten how to run
We swapped the grass for tarmac, shrunk the parks ‘till there were none
We filled the sea with plastic because our waste was never capped
Until, each day when you went fishing, you’d pull them out already wrapped
And while we drank and smoked and gambled, our leaders taught us why
It’s best to not upset the lobbies, more convenient to die
But then in 2020, a new virus came our way,
The governments reacted and told us all to hide away
But while we were all hidden, amidst the fear and all the while,
The people dusted off their instincts, they remembered how to smile
They started clapping to say thank you and calling up their mums
And while the car keys gathered dust, they would look forward to their runs
And with the skies less full of voyagers, the earth began to breathe
And the beaches bore new wildlife that scuttled off into the seas
Some people started dancing, some were singing, some were baking
We’d grown so used to bad news, but some good news was in the making
And so when we found the cure and were allowed to go outside
We all preferred the world we found to the one we’d left behind
Old habits became extinct and they made way for the new
And every simple act of kindness was now given its due”
“But why did it take us so long to bring the people back together?”
“Well, sometimes you’ve got to get sick, my boy, before you start feeling better
Now, lie down and dream of tomorrow and all the things that we can do
And who knows, if you dream hard enough, maybe some of them will come true
We now call it The Great Realisation and yes, since then, there have been many
But that’s the story of how it started and why hindsight’s 2020.