Friday, April 22, 2016

Principles


So I've been reading Ray Dalio's Principles. I haven't completed it yet but it's a very interesting book.

For the uninitiated, Ray Dalio founded the world's biggest hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, with more than $100 billion in assets and one of the most crazy-successful investment firms in the world. His fund has also been accused of being something of a cult. And one of the main reasons for this is his life and management principles, that he's put into a book (aptly called 'Principles') and is required reading for anyone trying to work at the firm.

Google it. It's wacko. But also strangely fascinating, and almost inspirational. This dude must've been smoking some high-quality shit.

Anyway, there's a ton of principles in there, and his rationale behind them all. But the central premise is this: pursue the truth unrelentingly, suspend your ego, be exceptionally direct and critical of yourself and others, strive for constant and relentless self-improvement through knowing your weaknesses and improving upon them. Yeah, sounds like a fun place to work.

But anyway, once you get over the initial WTF... then it gets interesting.

These aren't just management principles. They aren't just investment principles. They're fundamental life principles - at least for Ray. There's a lot of other stuff in there too, and I don't know I agree with all of them, and they've been vehemently disputed by many others, but anyway... let's cast that aside for now. I'm more interested in the 'Suspend your ego' principle.

So I got thinking... what if I applied it to a different scenario? A life situation.

Imagine this: two people meet up for a drink. They've been friends and colleagues. They respect each other, have crossed paths with each other at work, never worked so closely together to be considered buddies, but that's probably more from luck and circumstance that any lack of interest or inclination. So generally they have a pretty warm opinion of the other person, based on their limited time working together. Most of our colleagues at work probably fall into this camp.

Now let's say they meet up after many months (or years) when they've both moved on to other jobs. It starts out innocently enough... a catch up over drinks, they shoot the shit, chit-chat about old, forgotten office gossip... Meanwhile it's a dimly-lit bar, thumping music, lots of drunk, crazy kids.

And then they're thinking.. hey you know what, this one, he/she's not so bad... she's actually pretty cool. So they loosen up a little bit more, grab a few more beers, laugh a little louder, sit a little closer.. their emboldenment in direct proportion to blood-alcohol levels. The chemistry is palpable. He leans in closer, she lets him. He puts his arm around her waist, she moves in. All the signs are positive... and then he kisses her. Major mistake.

Did I mention they're both married to other people? Ok, that's critical to the story.

Alright, so... that's where our story ends (or begins). Say this happened. What do you think happens next?

Ok so here's what I think most people would do (and I almost wish I could draw a little flowchart... oh wait, I think blogger's gotten less shit in the years I've been away. I think I will draw a little FC!)

Anyway, these are the options.


So you panic a little bit. And then you either shut it down and never-speak-of-it-again (It's beer, we were drunk, shit happens... move on dude) , or get all cut up about it and agonize over it. Now when you agonize, the best way to reach closure is to find something to blame. That someone is either you, if you're the type who internalizes (I'm a total shit, I don't deserve to be married to my wonderful wife / husband) or the other person (He was totally out of line / She was asking for it, egging me on).

In both these scenarios (deny or agonize), you never actually think about what really happened. Not objectively at any rate. Trying to discover why something happened is probably not something you'd want to do... and you don't want to do it, because it's painful to think about.

Yet, it happened, and as humans we want to move on from unpleasant things. So you either
1) Deny it (it wasn't me, it's the beer, it could've happened to anyone, I don't need to change)
2) Try to protect your ego (she came onto me / he's a real dog)
3) Totally give in to your emotions and wallow in self-pity (I'm a bad husband wife, I knew this would happen, I don't deserve happiness).

#3 sounds strange. Why do we beat ourselves up? Aren't we pre-disposed toward self-preservation? Well, my theory is that we rip into ourselves because often it makes us feel like we're achieving something... even if all we're doing in beating ourselves up, it makes us feel in control of the situation.

Now let's say we cast aside ego and emotions for a while. If we were a detached, third-party.... or some alien being observing this purely out of anthropological reasons, how would he see it?

Probably something like this.



(I must say I'm a little pleased with myself with all this flowchart business)

Guy meets up with girl in bar. They have a little too much to drink. They're having a good time, all the signs are positive, he pulls her in for the kiss. Major mistake.

So far those are the facts. Now let's come to the judgements -- all the should, musts and oughts.

Here's the tricky part: what is this invisible line that he just crossed? Where do you draw it? At kissing? At knee or waist touching? At leaning in over-close? At witty banter? At fucking?

The truth is there isn't a line. We just kind of make it up as we go along.

A lot of what happened in this situation arose from primal, subconscious emotion-based motives. We're programmed to want to impress other people. We're programmed to walk to please other people. We're programmed to seek validation.... it makes us feel desired, and that's a heady feeling.

Take the girl. There's fundamentally two sides of her in conflict here. There's the side that's practical and grounded and sorted in her life priorities. There's the side that's impulsive, a little bit devil-may-care, and rebelling against the safe, even-keeled temperament of her boring other-self.

(Sidenote: Everyone's probably got different sides of themselves that surface at different times or with different people. So what's the side that gets stronger? Easy. The one you feed.)

Anyway. Back to the story: so here's a woman in conflict with herself, her impulsive side fighting against her boring self and getting stronger under the influence of alcohol... till the situation escalates to a point where it jolts her sensible side out of its exiled corner, and brings it full-fledged to the fore.

Great, so we've analysed the situation. What does this have to do with Principles?

Glad you asked :P

First, if we suspend our ego, it's a good way for us to confront coldly and objectively, situations that have happened in the past and see them for what they are. It also prevents us from running away from them (because we're afraid of what we might find), or trying to make sense of it in a way that preserves our ego (it's all his fault!), or giving us the illusion of control (I'm a shitty wife, I will berate and punish myself, if I feel sufficiently shitty about this whole thing, then I feel like I've done penance for my crime, and I can move on). All these usual tactics (deny or agonize) is our ego and emotions hijacking the thinking part of our selves.

Second, and probably more importantly, as far as life principles go 'Suspend your ego' is probably as good, or much better in fact, than a value like 'Be faithful to your partner' or 'Always be good'.

Why? Because whereas core values like 'always be...' and 'never do...' impose rules upon us and tells us what we should do or must do or ought to do,  'suspend your ego' merely asks you to look at yourself without anger, without defensiveness, without judgement... and then learn from the situation, fix what needs to be fixed, and move on. It is almost, ironically, close to self-compassion.

So there you go. My take on a hedge fund's management principles applied to life.

When the time comes would I actually be able to apply this tho? Or will I be reduced to a ball of raw emotion? I don't know... I'll have to go through it and see if I'm able to suspend my ego at the very moment when I want to cling to it the most. It would mean that I make myself the opposite of vulnerable... that I make myself almost ego-free.

And that would be a brave, new world indeed.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A whole year


I just realized I've gone a whole year without blogging. This is both somewhat heartening... and somewhat sad.

Many years ago I started this blog, and not a lot of people know this, but this was mainly a blog for myself and it arose out of a need. It was meant to be sort of like an online journal. Something to write in, reflect on, untangle thoughts... maybe share with a few close friends... but mainly for myself. 

The anonymity of the web made that possible. 

I could have a blog, tag it to an email, put up some cryptic photos and posts... but mainly some ramblings of a confused mind... and no one really cared. Now with linkedin and amazon and google and FB and all these other sites pulling togethers bits and pieces of your online-offline identity and making it one big house party that you can never leave, it feels like a luxury to have been able to get away with posting random stuff on the internets with some secretive(ish) little blog somewhere. 

Anyway, I digress. 

So, about that somewhat sad comment... It's sad because I haven't blogged in a year. I've been posting other stuff on other places. I've been FBing and LinkedIning and whatever else we do these days (except instagram... cuz I'm old :P). But those are posts for an audience, and thus, distinctly different from a blog. By now everyone has probably seen the 'wait but why' post on reality vs expectations, and how our carefully-constructed image of ourselves and curated experiences from our lives suitable for sharing, does basically nothing but drive a big, fat, spike of cortisol and envy into each other. If you haven't read that post, google it and read it cause it's great. 

Wait... who am I talking to? 

Literally no one is reading this. Sigh. You're a ghost, and now I'm recommending articles to a ghost. 

Anyway. 

Point is, I agonize over what pictures to put up, how my statuses sound, what impression I'm creating. And even when I don't agonize.... I at least care. Even if it's just an itty-bitty-bit. 

Not so here. 

I don't care. And so sentences can go haywire. Grammar can be ignored. Even basic normal beginning-middle-end constructs can be thrown out the window. 

Because in the end... it doesn't matter. It's for an audience of one: me. And so by virtue of that, it morphs into a kind of extension of my brain... a friend and confidante, an inner voice, a place of comfort and solace that I can slip into and commune with myself. It is the quintessential safe space. 

Ok, so now you're sold on why this blog is such a little gem. 

So why is it heartening that I haven't blogged in a year?

The year when I started blogging, I was going through a rough time. Looking back, I now recognize that I was severely, clinically depressed. I felt like my life had no purpose, no meaning. The days morphed into the next with no incident. The very act of getting up from bed felt pointless. Just why? After all its the same thing every day, day after day, and then you die. 

I recall days when I would wake up crying... because I realize I'm still here.  

In those darkest moments... I found comfort and solace in a blog. It didn't actually start out with that purpose; one day, I just realized that I have so much time on my hands, and I'm not really doing anything, and it's frikking boring as hell not to mention bloody anxious to see everyone else racing past me, while I'm stuck in a dead-end situation, economically dependent on (at least one) very insecure, controlling and abusive primary-caretaker figure. 

So I started to write. 

And at first it was rubbish... things I saw in my day, songs I heard, stuff that I dreamt of. And then, little by little, stories began to take form. Real stories and imagined ones. Articles took shape. The blog posts suddenly started having a definite beginning-middle-end. And it was exhilarating! 

I would come in everyday and look forward to whatever it is that I wanted to write that day. Many times I didn't know what it would be. Sometimes I wouldn't even know till I started writing the first line.... and then the story kind of wrote itself. 

It felt cathartic because it was cathartic. The act of writing, of giving meaning to greyness, was healing. 

So it's heartening... because I no longer need the crutch. 

Fast forward maybe 8-9 years, and here I am. 

I wake up pretty much with a to-do list in my brain. Sometimes I groan because its drudgery. And sometimes I'm up and already my brain is going a hundred miles an hour, and I'm frantically sticking my arm out of the shower to make a note in my phone before the thought evaporates. 

But most days I just get on with it. Gym. Work. Life. Whatever. The things we do to fill up the spaces. 

And so in all the doing-ness and busy-ness... life took on a certain rhythm of its own. There's an anxiety that comes with being in charge of your own life and finding your own purpose... especially if you're not working for some large, established company, or playing a society-approved role that you find fulfilling... but that anxiety is nothing compared to the sheer bleakness of staring into a future that's no future at all. All this doing and running and being may be pointless... but it's gotten a certain momentum now, and the momentum carries you through the days. 

And so it was... till today. 

Nothing happened today actually. There are good days and bad days. Productive days and the-universe-is-against-me days. Today was a frustrating day. A day of trying and doing and waiting, and in the end I end up with a to-do list that's exactly what I started out with. 

But then something happened. 

I got sufficiently frustrated and anxious enough to take a walk. Literally just take a walk around my block. Looked at squirrels and dogs being walked on their lease. Noticed trees that were in bloom. Found it even refreshing, the heavy cloud that falls upon the evenings of a hot day. 

And then a feeling overcame me, my old forgotten friend, a feeling as comforting as the silence shared with an old friend. And I realized what it was that I had been missing.... solitude. 

In the last 7 years my life has drastically changed. Yes, I got out of my depression, found little joys in life that turned into bigger joys. A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, and all that kind of thing. But basically, serendipitously, I stumbled into a life that was everything that I wished for in my darkest days: a place where I fit in, a job that gave me purpose, a companion whom I loved. 

A reason to wake up. 

I would never turn back time. 

And yet, till today, I didn't fully realize just how much this new life did nudge out vestiges of my former life. It took away the darkness and the loneliness of course.... but with it also went the solitude; that sweet, comforting feeling of being well and truly happy as a clam with yourself. 

Jobs are demanding, marriage can be hard, and sometimes even merely existing seems to take up so.. much... work! What with all the FBing and twittering and keeping-up-with-the-joneses. Add to that, a teething puppy to take care of, and your day is just about filled to the brim taking care of other people and their needs (and I suppose, your need to please them). 

It's strange, and fitting I suppose, that it almost took a crisis to nudge me back into my former state. 

Ah yes, the crisis... but that's a story for another day :) 

And we shall have time for them all, all these stories... for this is just the beginning, once again. 

It's good to be back.