Rohan Bansal

10 Lessons I Learned in 2019

March 1, 2020

"Pausing on a ridgeline that leads to a fertile valley, I look back at the desert one last time. It waits there in the distance, patient, eternal, the graveyard of armies. But not me. I turn my back on it, but carry its lessons with me." - "Lysander" in the novel Dark Age by Pierce Brown

2019 was a big year for me. I finished up my last semester of college (and subsequently graduated), spent time in multiple countries and started my first, real tech job. Needless to say, I learned a lot along the way. Because I strongly espouse the benefits of careful reflection, these are some of the most important lessons I learned last year that continue to guide me.

How to properly read a book

Earlier this year, I came across a suite of related articles on Farnam Street that explained how to read a book properly. Generally, my rule was that unless it's a textbook, I would just read it start-to-finish and then promptly forget about it a few months later. But I was tired of forgetting what I read for two reasons:

  1. It weakened the knowledge base I could refer back to
  2. Frankly, it made me sound dumber in conversations when I was able to only loosely recall bits of a book

I started taking active notes while reading. I also wrote summaries after finishing a book (without referring back to the book; like a form of active recall) as well as reflections. I kept a log of all quotes I highlighted while reading and put them into my spaced repetition software Anki so I could remember important facts and numbers. It added considerable time to each book, but it was worth it. By abandoning the notion that I had to read N number of books in a given time frame and focusing instead on reading quality, I was afforded the ability to be vastly more intimate with each book. I can now really sit with the material, challenge it and build up my own supportive arguments and rebuttals around the various premises the book tries to make. Most people take good reading hygiene for granted. After experimenting with this new style, I can safely say that to do so is a mistake. I genuinely believe that understanding books at a deeper level through a careful reading process shapes you far more than traditional speed reading.

Others may be to blame, but only you are responsible

Without a doubt, this one is the single most important lesson I learned this year. Early in January, I was reading The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson. In it, he described the (then) novel concept that other people may be to blame for your problems, but only you are responsible for those problems. For example, we often blame our parents if we feel we're not outgoing enough or not smart enough because they didn't instill those values in us when we were younger; or we blame our ex-significant other for our fear of commitment after they hurt us.

And it's true; they may be to blame. But your entitlement gets in the way when, by extension, you believe they're responsible for your issues. When described this way, it reshaped how I thought about personal responsibility. We all have things we may not like about ourselves, but this book helped me realize that the onus is completely on us when it comes to actually doing something about it.

Seek discomfort, and learn to enjoy it

I noticed something that bothered me this year: I often found myself bored when doing certain things that didn't use to make me as bored. For example, when I was young, I could read a good fiction book start to finish in a day (weird flex?). Now, sometimes I'll be watching TV and still feel the need to glance at my phone. It slowly dawned on me that this kind of behavior was indicative of a much larger problem: my brain had been reconditioned to not only seek out, but require much greater amounts of dopamine to thrive. Reading may produce the same amount of dopamine it did for me back then, but my brain now wants, and in fact expects the amount generated by watching TV while simultaneously checking my phone, an amount I imagine is multiples higher. But why does it have to be this way? Is it possible to go back to the old days where I was happy and content with "lo-fi" activities like reading, and not need to seek out floods of dopamine? I think the answer is yes.

I began by experimenting on my egregiously long commute of 1 and a half hours from San Francisco down to South Bay. I stopped listening to music, I deleted the HBO GO and Netflix apps off my phones, and I didn't let myself send any texts or begin any conversations. I pulled out my black-and-white Kindle Paperwhite instead and just read during this time instead. It was hard at first; around the 30 minute mark, I would begin to yawn and feel an itch to check my phone. But it got better. 45 minutes, an hour, one hour and 15 minutes... and then before I knew it, I could consistently read dense, non-fiction books while being engaged with the material for the entire ride.

This philosophy has an extension that posits that it is fun to stick with things that seem hard in the moment but good in retrospect. Consider this to be Tim Peck's "Type 2 Fun". The lesson is to do more things that seemingly have positive aspects even if they don't generate an immediate dopamine hit.

Ruthlessly seek out and destroy sources of decision fatigue

I often spend too much time reading Amazon reviews, watching YouTube videos and ultimately building up a detailed and comprehensive body of knowledge about the entirety of an industry before doing something as simple as buying a bag of protein powder. All this research that goes into small decisions isn't inherently a bad thing; it usually leads to me getting a better product. However, the price I'm paying is that I'm drawing from a finite pool of decision making I can do in one day, and wasting it on something that doesn't radically change my life. At the end of a day, it's a lesson in prioritization. I'm finding that it's simply not worth my time or energy to consume decision making powers on things that don't contribute directly to my endgame.

Religiously schedule every last minute of your day

Earlier this year, my biggest problem in life was software engineering (SWE) recruiting. For the unacquainted, SWE recruiting is a fairly rigorous process that demands many hours of focused, intense preparation. I was reading through a success story by Haseeb Qureshi, and one paragraph stuck out to me in particular:

"And finally, structure the hell out of your learning. Make a schedule. Know exactly when you’re going to be working on this stuff, when you’re going to take breaks, when you’re going to go to lunch, etc. Build flexibility into your schedule, but have clear goals for how many hours a day you’ll spend studying." - Haseeb Qureshi

Around a similar time I came across this Thomas Frank video about Elon Musk's time management method describing a concept I hadn't heard of: timeboxing. I subsequently read about timeboxing in Cal Newport's Deep Work and I was sold; I wanted to start scheduling every minute of my day. It was hard at first, but as I got more practice with it, I fell in love with the method. I think it goes back to my decision fatigue point earlier. When a day is scheduled for you (even if by your own hand), you no longer have to fret about what to do during each minute, you have the blueprints right in front of you. It sounds rigid, perhaps even constricting... and it is to an extent. There's a certain joy that comes in complete freedom, but I find that timeboxing is like a Type 2 sort of fun; it's not appealing to be doing and following in the moment but it's cathartic when you look back at all you accomplished at the end of a day because of it.

Disclaimer: I am currently building Victoria, a software tool to help with timeboxing.

Say "No" to rumination

I remember an incident in high school where I was doing some pre-calculus homework. I was stuck on a particularly thorny problem, and began to zone out. When my mom returned from doing some groceries an hour later, I was still staring off into the distance, my textbook on the same page she had left me at. Losing myself in the deep recesses of my mind is something I've been known to be prone to. While one could spin up an argument about how one can link seemingly abstract and isolated concepts or be more creative while engaging in rumination, I've found that at the end of the day, for most professions, rumination results in a net deficit of productivity. It naturally follows that the lesson is then one of mindfulness. As rumination begins to take a hold over my thoughts, I've been working on recognizing it, then stopping it.

Life is endless optimization

I had this strange health issue at work towards the end of last year. As soon as I would get to work and turn on my monitor, a heavy fatigue would spread behind my eyes. It made work difficult and I would have done anything to stop it. I poured hours into research, invested hundreds of dollars into special blue-light filtering glasses, changed my sleep schedule, cut dairy out of my diet completely, and tried a hundred other things that didn't solve the issue. Eventually, my doctor asked me when the last time I got my glasses updated was. I had been wearing them to work every day because my contacts would often dry out when staring at bright monitors for long stretches of time. I answered "well I'm pretty sure a couple months back, around the time I updated my contact lenses." When I went home, I double checked my receipts and sure enough, I had gotten an updated glasses prescription but had never gotten around to replacing the lenses themselves (I know, this wasn't the smartest 😅). Because I had been using them in such close quarters, I hadn't noticed how weak they were, but it was doing serious damage to my eyes behind the scenes.

I later spoke to my mom about the whole process, complaining about how I wasted time trying so many different things. I said "life seems like it's comprised of endless optimization," to which she replied "That's right, enjoy the ride." And as I reflected more on her words, I saw the deeper wisdom embedded within. I never actually disliked the process of finding out what was wrong. It was almost, in a weird way, fun to A/B test all these things in a bid to get an answer on the table. The lesson is that endless optimization is perhaps an inevitable part of life, so it is infinitely more beneficial to frame it as an intended feature rather than a bug.

The "Fast" Principle

In December, I flew back home to New York to spend some time with my family during the holidays. Back home, I would observe my dad flitting around the house, taking the car out to do chores, and otherwise just getting shit done. And it got me thinking... he's always been like that. Ever since I was little, I would often see him just being "fast". He spent the bare number of minutes required for the tasks that didn't matter, allotting him a seemingly endless pool of time he could draw from to do the things he truly loved. Take something as simple and innocuous as a morning routine. What takes me 30-40 minutes start to finish takes him no more than 5. And just like that, he has 25+ minutes to do something that actually furthers his ambitions.

I find that this is one of those concepts that's deceptive. It seems easy and trivial to put into practice, but it's more difficult than it lets on. Personally, I often fall into comfortable patterns that unfortunately demand large swathes of my time but aren't required by any means. For example, I often take my sweet time on administrative tasks that don't align with my real goals for the day or waste time on guilty pleasures like long showers.

And as I spent more time thinking about this principle of "fastness" my dad swears by, I wondered just how much time he's saved by optimizing for the stuff that actually matters and having a getting shit done type of attitude about the things that don't. I imagine it's a lot. Regardless, it's something I plan to be more cognizant of in 2020 so that as I indulge in time-sucking activities that aren't bringing me to my endgame, I can mindfully say "nope, not now" and just get it done instead.

Find, then refine your software stack

I spent a lot of time this year thinking about productivity and peak performance. I would look up countless articles by those I followed and watched many a YouTube video to ultimately arrive at the conclusion that all the people I looked up to had a set of software products they consistently used to assist with their productivity. During the summer, I began a (never-ending #LifeIsEndlessOptimization) process to find my software stack. Here's what I settled on:

I'll likely write a more in-depth article about this later, but the main takeaway was that software can truly, truly help you be more productivity, so it's worth investing time into finding the stack that's right for you.

Spend lavishly on that that brings you joy (and not on that that doesn't)

My family is of Indian origin, and I think I speak for many Indian-Americans when I say that I grew up with a protective, almost religious view of money. I think that's why the "We have food at home" meme particularly resonated with me. Money was something to be freely gained but rarely used.

I've been fortunate and privileged enough to not have to pay for my own place until I graduated and moved out to the Bay Area for my first job. And as I settled into the apartment I was paying for with my own money, I found that abiding by this principle of frugality I grew up with felt extremely limiting. Around this time, I was listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast with guest Ramit Sethi, author of a book titled I Will Teach You to be Rich. One of the concepts he harps on is "living your rich life"; in other words, building up your finances to be able to spend on the things that bring you joy. I quickly embraced this Marie Kondo-esque philosophy and as I went about making purchases for my new apartment, I asked myself: "Is this something I would love to have a nice version of?" The answer was a resounding "yes" for the things I spend most of my day interacting with, like my desk, chair, computer monitor, peripherals and bed.

So yes, some friends look at me like I'm crazy for having an ultra-wide 38 inch monitor that cost $1k, but I haven't regretted it in the slightest since I made the purchase. To them, the concept of a monitor bringing them $1k-worth of happiness and joy is a foreign concept... and that's completely okay; everyone has their things that make them tick. The lesson is to not be afraid to cough up some more dough for perceived large happiness gains.

In conclusion

There are a few more lessons I learned that didn't make the cut, such as:

...but they either deserve their own post or weren't influential enough.

All in all, it was a great year and I'm excited to see what lessons 2020 brings!

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