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A Year of Doing This
Wisdom Letter #52 | Looking Back
Hello and Welcome to The Wisdom Project — your weekly dose of human curated wisdom in a world full of algorithmic noise. This is Wisdom Letter 52.
We are 1 year old today.
This project has been a labor of love for us, one of those rare kind of activities that is a reward in itself, where the journey is the destination, and any fruits borne from the process are an added bonus.
There have been plenty of hits and misses along the way, plenty of lessons and insights, plenty of moments to be proud of, as well as to cringe over.
It takes a certain kind of crazy to spend hours and hours every week, on a side project that very few people actually “get” the point of. And to do this for 52 weeks in a row. Phew.
If someone would have told me sometime last year, that today I would be writing a weekly newsletter for the 52nd time in a row, I would have said — “give me break, I have better things to do in life!”
But as we have discovered over the past 1 year, there are actually very few things in life we consider better than doing what we are doing right now.
Today on The Wisdom Project, instead of looking outwards, we look inwards.
We take a look back at this roller coaster of a year gone by and see what we have learned from this all-consuming endeavor of ours.
So open your hearts and Read On.
And yes, there is some advice at the end.
The “Why” question
“Why the hell are we doing this anyway?” — 1:35 AM
“Do you see any point of it at all?” — 12:24 AM
“We are doing the right thing, right?” — 2:53 AM
We have been asked a version of the “why are you doing this?” question plenty of times by our friends, relatives, family members, and most of all, by each other.
Almost every weekend, as the Saturday night draws to a close, after dinner, after a round of board games or card games with our family, we tuck in our 5 year old son into bed, put him to sleep, and fire up our laptops.
The time is usually around 10:30-11:00 PM.
We start the process of giving a few “final touches” to our Sunday morning post. It usually involves doing some minor editing and creating a few illustrations.
But often this spirals into a complete or partial re-write of the post because the “message is just not getting across”. And we end up making multiple iterations of illustrations because none of the prospective images seem to “click” with the message we are trying to deliver.
Essentially, its another few hours gone without us realizing.
And just as we are happy with the final fruit of our efforts, and about to hit the publish button with droopy eyes and dizzy heads, is when the most existential questions shoot up in our minds.
Usually one of us asks the “why” question, and the other one just wants to go to sleep.
“This is no time to be having this conversation.”
“No, but this is important, are we just wasting our time like this, what is the point of this, does anyone even read what we write, does anyone even care?”
And the answer that does come out of this small irritating discussion is often on the lines of —
“We are not doing this for anyone else, we are doing this for us”
“Wasn’t it fun reading about this topic this week, wasn’t it so cool to write down these insights”
“It matters to you, it matters to me, and that is all that matters at the end of the day”
“Ya, the day better end now”
Hit publish— schedule post for 8 AM IST.
“Phew, thank God its done, Good Night indeed!”
Google Photos has this feature, where it reminds you of your photos from the same date last year, and the year before that and so on. You can visualize yourself age over years, losing or gaining weight over the years, changing hair styles, body shapes, facial features. Its a beautiful thing — to be able to look at yourself grow over time like that.
As we look back at the archives of this site, as we scroll down, click a random link and open a post, read some bits here and there. Look at the recommendations and the commentary on them. Sometimes we feel proud, sometimes we cringe at what we had written, but every time we smile at what we just read.
This project has become an archive of our mental state over time. Our thoughts and opinions, ideas that excited us and made us nervous, the choice of topics, what we wrote at what point in time, the context of the world around us, all these tiny details wrapped up in thought capsules from times gone by.
As we look back, we can see our minds grow over this period.
I know the value of this archive is only going to increase gradually with time. But even today, with just one year gone, especially because so much has happened in this past year, both personally as well as globally, this piece of internet real estate will always be priceless for us.
And that is why we do it.
A long, convoluted, and I guess, still incomplete answer to the eternal question.
No, we have no monetization plans, no affiliate links, no ads, no sponsorships, and no subscriptions.
As I said earlier, the journey is the destination.
This is what I Tweeted a while back —
That pretty much sums it up in less than 280 characters.
If tomorrow, all blogging and newsletter platforms suddenly die and stop working, we would still be doing this on MS Word and MS paint.
This is for us, not for you.
If this project helps even one person, that’s an added bonus that we are grateful for and we take it with humility.
And when someone praises us for what we wrote, it sure gives us a nice dopamine shot. We want dopamine, that’s what all of us are addicted to these days right? But that’s not why we do it, there are easier ways to get dopamine, this is not one of them.
Consumption Vs Creation Vs Curation
I had always had a love for reading, right from my school days.
But often times I had called myself a “voracious reader” without actually reading as much as I used to. You know you want to sound smart, but haven’t had the time to read up a lot, so in random discussions you cop out and say you love reading.
This is not about pretending in front of other people, this is worse than that, this is about pretending to yourself.
You can’t rid yourself of the mental image that you hold about yourself.
I had that about reading for a long time. I still have that about cooking, but Aditi puts me in my place.
A few years ago I realized and admitted to myself, that this whole “I read a lot” thing was just for vanity and I actually wasn’t indulging in my favorite hobby anymore.
Life was going fast— job, career, family, marriage, kid.
Amidst the blitzkrieg of life, I had somewhere lost my childhood passion. I needed to go back, I needed to relive it, I needed to read again.
And so I did.
But now, I just didn’t read books, the world had changed a lot since I was in school. The world now had the internet. So I read blogs, articles, tweets. I listened to podcasts, to audiobooks. I read books on the Kindle device, on the kindle app, and as usual in paperback.
For close to two years I stuffed myself with the best content available on the internet. And occasionally I would recommend some stuff to Aditi and she would consume it and she would love it as well. I was her personal curator, hand picked recommendations of the best of the best stuff only.
But I was getting full of it.
Just as, to stay physically fit you need to maintain a balance of what you eat and how much you work out, to stay mentally fit you need to maintain a balance of consumption and creation of intellectual content.
I realized that if I didn’t create, then what I consumed would not stick and I wouldn’t learn anything from it. So I had to create something, anything. But not sure what.
We had many discussions around the topics that we read about, and we contemplated a lot on what we could build that would add value to the world. One constant insight that we had was that with the power of the internet, the ability to create had become very cheap.
So we could easily setup a blog and do whatever we wanted with it, within a few minutes.
The other side of this coin, is obviously the fact that when creation is so cheap, there is abundance of it.
We were not the first ones with an urge to create something. In fact, I would say we were quite late to the whole ‘internet-creator’ party.
So we realized that there is this flood of content on the web. And a lot of it is great, but a lot of it is mediocre, and plenty of it is downright crap.
And we saw people engaging with mediocre and crap content because the awesome content couldn’t get to them.
And that’s because all their sources of content were flooded with sophisticated attentions harvesting algorithms. Algorithms who knew how to grab eye balls without delivering value. Algorithms that were making consumption very cheap.
You had to pay nothing(neither in time, nor in money) to just take out your phone and skim through hundreds of tweets in a day without actually learning anything, and not even be entertained a lot. It would just leave you tired and outraged.
So on the one had creation was cheap, and the other hand consumption was cheap.
The insight that kicked off this project was that good quality curation would provide value in a world where creation and consumption was so cheap. We could sit between the creators and the consumers and hand pick the best of the best. Something which I had been doing for Aditi for a while now.
The task would be to dive deep into the rough seas of the internet and come out with pearls of wisdom. Pearls that will help anyone reading become healthy wealthy and wise. And most of all, pearls that will help us the most, just in the process of looking for them.
So just on a whim, randomly one evening I setup a Substack account and sent out the intro post and the first post to a set of friends. It was just supposed to be a set of links that I had really liked and I thought our friends would like as well.
That’s how we started, if you go back and read Wisdom Letter 1 or the intro post, that was the basic idea. We liked it, our friends liked it, so it was on.
Now, we were sending out a bunch of links every week to our small audience of close friends.
Within a couple of weeks, we realized the problem with our posts.
There was no common theme running through our recommendations. There was no story, no narrative. And without some context, its very difficult for us humans to learn anything useful.
Think back to your favorite childhood teachers. The best teachers were the ones who could weave stories around their subjects, because they knew that’s how we learn the best.
So we shifted to a format where we tried to build a narrative through the post and a common thread going across all our recommendations. We fumbled a lot with the storytelling part of it and are still learning the ropes. We have a long way to go in this area.
But we had a framework now to write every week, and we loved it. The right constraints can become superpowers.
Humans have a “critical thinking” problem.
Critical thinking is basically objectively analyzing a topic or an issue from all sides, collecting data, and forming well rounded opinions on matters of importance.
Some would say, that is thinking.
If that is not what you do with your mind then you’re not thinking, you’re just acting on impulse, getting nudged around by random external events.
As we wrote week after week on various topics, we realized that a lot many people don’t think deeply. They don’t practice critical thinking. We dived deep into topics and tried to bring out the complexity and nuance around the topics. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.
But in the process, we stumbled upon this idea that people needed to practice critical thinking, they weren’t.
But we were not trying to tell them what they should think about a particular topic, rather how they should go about thinking about every topic.
For us, ‘Wisdom’ is an umbrella term to describe a general framework of thinking better and thinking critically about any and everything under and over the Sun.
And even though every week the topic we write about is different, but the theme that runs through every post is quite similar. Our regular readers would have noticed that.
This approach has broadened our minds and perspectives on multiple issues and ideas.
While we have tended to stay away from the news cycle, we haven’t shied away from taking up controversial topics and opinions when it mattered. And we have had to pay the price for it as well.
In fact that is the only time we have lost readers, otherwise its been a slow but steady growth in readership.
When we first talked about the caste problem in India, in our republic day special, we lost 2 or 3 readers. And then when we talked about the Black Lives Matter movement, we lost another couple of readers. Maybe our opinions aren’t palatable for some of our readers, but we will exercise our right to freedom of expression. And they can exercise their right to unsubscribe.
Now lets quickly go through some highlights of the year gone by.
Already said this, we are the biggest beneficiaries of this project. Its part archival, part self improvement for us. And we love doing it.
There is a structure to our content consumption now. We don’t randomly scroll through feeds, we usually have topics in mind and we go out onto the internet and read about those topics. We save a lot of time like that.
People recommend awesome stuff to us! Yay! That’s an unexpected bonus, we get so many recommendations from our friends about brilliant blogs, videos, podcasts and books
Our writing has gotten better. Somewhat. By sheer repetition, our writing muscle has strengthened and it shows over 52 posts, but its nowhere close where we want it to be.
We have deeper discussions with people on topics we write about. So plenty of times after a post we would get a comment from a friend and then we would have a deeper conversation with them about the topic. This is a great way to engage with some of our favorite people. We want more of that.
We get many short praise comments like “Hey, this is great” , “very well written”, “this is a brilliant read”. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate every bit of praise we get, but we want a longer conversation, we want to talk a lot more with the people who matter to us, we couldn’t do it as much as we wanted, and in the coming year we are going to fix that.
Many of our assumptions about topics were broken. Topics that we thought people will like, and topics we thought we would like. There were many posts we thought were great at the time, but in hindsight, they just don’t add as much value.
We ventured into Podcasts. But it was too much effort without enough value. Neither for us, nor for our listeners. So we stopped doing them. We will pick them up again in a new light, a new approach maybe.
Our writing needs to get better. We realize that we ramble on for longer than necessary, some people like it, some people don’t. But we would do well to be more succinct in our writing. I mean, you don’t make lists where each item is a 4 line paragraph :( There should be a simpler way to do this, to say this.
The first step is the hardest, things get easier after that. In the initial few weeks we used to panic over how are we going to get the post done. But over time, as we have gotten use to it, it has become increasingly easier.
Writing is Thinking. As we write we are able to make sense of our own thoughts a lot better. We throw away a lot of what we write because its not impactful to the reader, but it does help in clearing our minds a lot.
Constraints are Superpowers. Constraints can be limiting, but explored well enough they can become extremely useful. We built artificial constraints in this project, with a newsletter format, 4 to 5 recommendation rule, an intro to set the context, a quote to end the post with. When setting them up, they sounded painful to do week in week out. But they have become such a powerful framework for us to think through. Its amazing.
Perfect is the enemy of Good. Every week, we publish something, and every week if we waited for our posts to be “just perfect”, then we wouldn’t have written more than 5 posts in the year. The Silicon Valley idea of failing fast is awesome for iterative improvement. So we know our mistakes, and we still hit publish every week, getting a little bit better than last time. Always good, always better than last week, but never perfect.
Embrace the Craziness. Its weird that someone would care so much about reading, or writing, or creating or consuming or curating. But we do. I mean, “normal” people don’t think like that, right? I know, they don’t. And that’s what put me off doing something like this for quite some time. But embracing the things that make me “abnormal”, have given me tremendous joy and fulfillment over the last year. And that is what matters at the end, right? So I say, embrace whatever makes you “abnormal”, it will lead you down strange but beautiful paths.
Embrace Your Craziness, We’re here
Hey, if you have any weird ideas that you want to take off the ground, we are here for help. We have gotten good at getting things done in the process of this project. So we are glad to help you out in any way we can.
As I said, the first step is the hardest, once you kick things off, they will get easier and you will get better. So if you want help with brainstorming a bunch of ideas, or starting out with the execution on something, or any other way we can help, just hit reply to any of our mails, or get in touch on WhatsApp. We’re here.
And if you need some inspiration, here’s a quote from Steve Jobs that we find most inspiring:
Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers.
The round pegs, in square holes. The ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can quote them, disagree with them, vilify for glorify them. The only thing you can’t do is ignore them.
Because they change things, they push the human race forward.
And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.
Because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.
For some more inspiration, watch his famous Stanford commencement speech
Now, time for some advice. Not for you, for us.
If you have read this far then you have quite a good attention span. Congratulations.
We ask users for feedback, and we ask friends for advice. We consider our readers our friends. Some of you, we are very close to, and others we want to get more close to.
So we ask for your advice. As we embark on the 2nd year of doing this, we want your opinion on what you think we are doing right or wrong. How we can add more value to you as well as to ourselves.
So please, take out some time, think through stuff, and fill this small form for us, its just 3 questions. I wont say it wont take long, how long it take depends on you, it can take 3o secs or 30 mins. I hope it take 30 minutes :)
Just fill it out for us.
Thank you for reading.
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Aditi & Ayush