Project Thirty – Closure

Today is the last day of my twenties. Which means Project Thirty has come to an end. I had a long list of things to do, and as the more perceptive of you would have expected from me, most of them are undone. Nevertheless, it has been a mostly positive year, and I’m glad I gave myself the year off in an attempt to find what I want to do.

The biggest positive of the last one year was that my mental illnesses (anxiety, depression, ADHD) got diagnosed and started getting treated. Yes I’m on drugs, and face severe withdrawal symptoms if I don’t take my antidepressant for a few days, but the difference these drugs have made to my life is astounding. I feel young again. I feel intelligent again. I have more purpose in life, and am back at the cocky confidence levels I last saw in 2005. I suddenly feel there’s so much for me to do, and for the first time ever, have started enjoying what I’m doing for money.

Which brings me to professional life. I decided to give myself a year to become a freelancer. I must admit I got one lucky break (one long-term reader of this blog was looking for a data science consultant for his company and I grabbed the opportunity), but I grabbed it. My improved mental state meant that I was motivated enough to do a good job of the pilot project I did for that company, and I have managed to extract what I think is a reasonable compensation for my consulting services.

There are other exciting opportunities on the horizon on the professional front, too. I’ve started teaching at Takshashila and am quite liking it (I hope my students are, too). There is so much opportunity staring at me right now that the biggest problem for me is one of prioritization rather than looking for opportunity.

There has been both progression and regression on the “extra curricular activities” front. Thanks to demands of my consulting assignment, I haven’t been getting time to practice the violin and abruptly discontinued classes two months ago. I did one awesome and rejuvenating bike trip across Rajasthan back in February but wasn’t able to follow that up even with weekend trips. I wanted to start on adventure sports but that remained a non-starter. I started preparing for a half-marathon and gave up in a month. I took a sports club membership, tried to teach myself swimming again, but have been irregular.

Personal life again has been mixed. Increasing excitement about work means less time for the family, and have been finding it hard to balance the time requirements. I seem to be putting on weight again, and now look closer to the monstrosity I was four years ago rather than the fit guy I was two years ago at the time of my wedding. I blame my expanding waistline and neckline on my travel, but that is not an excuse and I need to find an exciting way to get fit soon.

For perhaps the first time in several years my car didn’t take a knock that year, but I had two motorcycling accidents (one major and one minor) this year. The former led to the first ever broken bone in my body (the fifth metacarpal) thanks to which I don’t have a prominent fourth knuckle on my right hand. The latter led to major damages to my laptop.

My “studs and fighters” book still remains unwritten, and not a word has been added to its manuscript in the last one year. I was hoping to capstone my Project Thirty by organizing the first ever “NED Talks” but I seem to have bitten off much more than I can chew in terms of work, so that has again been postponed.

So let me take this opportunity to define my Project Thirty One. I want at least two published books by the end of the year. I want to do at least one major motorcycling trip. I need to find partners/employees and expand my consulting business. I want to travel a lot more – at least five weekend trips over the next 12 months. I want to become fit, to the size I was at the time of my wedding. Hopefully I can get weaned off anti-depressants. And I hope to resume music lessons, and start jamming. Ok let me not promise myself too much.

And I have a five-year plan too. By the time I’m thirty five, I want to have written a book on the economic history of India. Ambitious, I know. Especially for an NED Fellow like me.

Wine buying

Today, for the first time ever, I went out to buy wine, and in hindsight (I’m writing it having finished half of half the bottle) I think I did a pretty good job.

I had gone to this “Not just wine and cheese” store in Jayanagar hoping to pick up some real good wine to go with our cooking experiments for the evening (we’re making pizza and pasta). Having had really bad experiences with Indian wines (Nine Hills, Grover’s, Sula), I gave them a wide berth and moved over to the international section. The selection wasn’t particularly vast, and interestingly as soon as I moved over to the international section, one of the shopkeepers came over to assist me.

He first showed me a 2009 wine from France, when i asked him to show something older. For a slightly higher price, he pulled out a 2006 wine from France. The pricing seemed suspicious to me. A six year old wine from France, one of the more sought after wine-producing countries, for just Rs. 1600 (inclusive of 110% tax, so the duty free dollar price comes to around $15)? May not be very good wine, I reasoned, and now I decided to let go of all details on production date, etc. and simply asked the shopkeeper to recommend to me a good bottle.

Maybe it was the fact that I had quickly moved over to the international section, or that I was talking about year of bottling, but the shopkeeper assumed I was a rather serious buyer, and enthusiastically recommended to me a few bottles. Now, picking wines is tougher than picking whiskeys (where it’s easy to have favourite brands. Mine, if you would ask, is Talisker). Each country has several estates, the year of bottling, weather in the country in various years and several other factors go into determining how good a bottle is. Also, there’s inverse pricing, where you perceive more expensive wines to be better. So one has to look upon raw economics skills in order to judge wine bottles and pick something that is likely to be good.

What particularly interested me was a bottle of 2010 wine from Chile. Now, at Rs. 1300, it seemed rather highly priced for its vintage (given that France 2006 went for 1600). And then, I realized that Chile is a rather unfashionable wine producer, since most people tend to prefer European wines, and that being in the temperate weather zone, it is capable of producing good wines.

The shopkeeper mentioned that the particular bottle had been procured after a customer had specifically asked for it, and that it was made of superior quality grapes. Now, given that it was a wine of recent vintage and from an unfashionable producer, that it cost almost as much as a much older wine from a much older vintage told me something. That it was likely to be good.

It’s about two hours since I got home, and the bottle is half empty. The wine has been absolutely fabulous, and I hope this is the beginning of a great wine-buying career.

Managing self

When I look back at my early career (high school and early part of college), and wonder how I was so successful back then, I think it was primarily because back then I was pretty good at managing myself. Even at that early (!! ) age, I had a good idea of what I was good at, and was able to either take paths that were aligned to my strengths, or outsource cleverly, in order to do a good job of things.

For example, back when I was in 12th standard, I was “Maths Association President” in my school, and was in charge of organizing the Maths section of the school exhibition. The first thing I realized then was that while I was technically good, I sucked at managing people, and the first person I recruited was someone who I got along well with, and who I thought was an excellent people manager. I think together we managed to do a pretty terrific job.

Another example was when I was preparing to get into IIM. I recognized that CAT was something I was inherently good at, but wasn’t sure of my ability to do well in interviews. So I decided to prepare hard for CAT (though I thought I didn’t really need it), so as to maximize my performance there and render the interview irrelevant. Thinking back about my IIMB interview, I’m surprised they let me in at all, and I guess that was because of my CAT maximization only.

There were several other such occasions. Like when I decided not to prepare for JEE at all in my 11th standard in order to “conserve myself” for the push in 12th. Or when I spent a week doing nothing after my 12th boards, so that I could time my “big JEE push” such that I peaked at the right time. Or when I decided not to care about grades in courses that I loathed (as long as I passed, of course) so that I could spend more time and enjoy the courses I liked. In short, I loved being my own boss.

5 years of work in 4 different places has been largely unsatisfactory, as the more perceptive of you might have inferred from my posts. The biggest challenge so far has been in motivating myself to do something that I don’t just care about, only because I’m being paid a salary. And thinking more about it, it might be because I never really grasped the full import of what I was signing for every time I signed for a job. And I must admit there were times I lied, though not consciously. I tried to convince people I was good at getting things done (something I absolutely suck at). I told them I’m a decent programmer (I’m an excellent programmer but a lousy software engineer). And so forth.

In essence I realize ¬†that over the last five to six years I’ve failed miserably at managing myself. At getting myself into things that I enjoyed, at taking routes that I enjoy rather than one professed by someone else, at doing what I really want to do rather than what someone else wants me to do, and so forth. Essentially, by mortgaging my time to someone else, in exchange for a salary four times, I’ve actually lost the right to manage myself. And for someone with unusual skills and weaknesses (as I think I am), it is no surprise that things haven’t gone too well at all.

I do hope I can make a career in a way that I don’t mortgage my time in entirety to someone else. To be able to work, and be paid for it, but to do things my way. In other words, I don’t want to take up a full time job. To paraphrase a line I read in an extract of Aman Sethi’s A Free Man¬†I need to recognize that I need my azaadi also, and shouldn’t give it up for kamaai.

The Impact of Wall Street on Grad School

I don’t need to be an insider to tell you that Wall Street employs lots of PhDs. PhDs of various denominations, but mostly those with backgrounds in Math, Physics and Engineering are employed by various Wall Street firms by the thousand. I don’t think too many of them exactly work on the kind of stuff that they were doing in grad school, but certain general skills that they pick up and hone through their multiple years in grad school are found extremely useful by banks.

So while scores of older scientists and economists and policymakers lament the “loss” of so many bright minds to science, has anyone at all considered the reverse possibility? Of the impact that Wall Street has had on grad schools in the US?

One thing you need to face is that there are not a lot of academic jobs going around. The number of people finishing with PhDs each year is far more than the number of academic jobs that open up each year. I’m mostly talking about “assistant professor” kind of jobs here, and assuming that becoming a post-doc just delays your entry into the job market rather than removing you from the market altogether.

In certain fields such as engineering, there are plenty of jobs in the industry for PhDs who don’t get academic jobs, for whatever reason. Given this, it is “cheaper” to do a PhD in these subjects, since it is very likely that you will end up with a “good job”. Hence, there is more incentive to do a PhD in subjects like this, and universities usually never have a problem in finding suitable candidates for their PhD programs. However, there is no such cushion in the pure sciences (math/physics). There are few “industry employers” who take on the slack after all the academic positions have been filled up. And that is where Wall Street steps in.

The presence of Wall street jobs offers a good backstop to potential Math and Physics PhD candidates. If they aren’t able to do the research that they so cherish, they needn’t despair since there exists a career path which will enable them to make lots of money. And knowing the existence of this career option means more people will be willing to take the risk of doing a PhD in these subjects (since the worst case isn’t so bad now). Which in turn enhances the candidate pool available to grad schools.

So even if you were to believe that complex derivatives are financial “weapons of mass destruction”, there is reason for them to exist, to encourage the financial sector to pick up PhDs. For if PhDs were kept out of these jobs, it is real academic research in “real subjects” such as the pure sciences that will suffer. By picking up PhDs in large numbers, the financial sector is making its own little contribution to research in pure sciences.

The Switch

Cafe Coffee Day is among the most unromantic places to go on a first date, or so they say. But then you need to understand that the venue can do only so much when it comes to creating the right “atmosphere” for the date. So if you think you are yourselves capable enough of doing a good job of creating a good “atmosphere”, you don’t need to bother about trivialties such as how “romantic” a place is or how good it is in creating “atmosphere” and just pick a place that makes practical sense.

There has been so much of One Day International cricket of late that it is difficult to keep track of various series and tournaments. One tournament that similarly got lost, mostly because the ultimate result was unremarkable (Australia won yet again) was the Champions Trophy, which happened (I think) in South Africa. I don’t remember much of the tournament; I don’t think I watched much of it. All I remember was that there was a game where India played Australia, and that Australia batted first.

Seating arrangement plays an important factor on a first date. Optimal seating arrangement ensures the optimal arrangement of eye contact. Sitting beside each other means you need to put too much effort to establish eye contact, and that is way too much energy. Sitting opposite each other can lead to overexposure – if things aren’t going that well, it’s tough to keep looking into each other’s eyes and that can lead ot awkward moments. It might be interesting to do some academic research in this matter but my hunch is that for a first date a ninety-degree seating arrangement is optimal.

For a few months now I have been on a diet. It has not been without results – my weight has come down by almost a fourth in the last six months. I haven’t done anything drastic, just a set of simple principles. And one of them is “no sugar in coffee”. I’ve given up on tea altogether since I can’t have it without sugar. When you are on a date, however, it is not nice to show off that you are on a diet, especially if you are a guy. it doesn’t give a good picture. So a good strategy is to order something like espresso, which you can claim tastes best without sugar!

I think it was an appeal for LBW that triggered it, but I’m not sure. I do remember, however, that it was a strong appeal that was turned down, but I don’t remember the nature of dismissal. Ashish Nehra was bowling if I’m not wrong. I have no clue who was batting. Maybe it was Haddin, or was it Paine who was opening in that tournament? Not that it matters.

Onlookers might have thought that the move was choreographed given how well we executed it. I don’t even remember their being too much eye contact as it happened. I don’t remember there being any conversation about it as it happened. All I remember is that one moment I was being distracted by Ashish Nehra’s appeal, and the next I was sitting with my back to the TV, comfortably settled where she had been settled a moment earlier, with her having taken my original place.

And I remember that our coffees had also exchanged places along with us!

Discrete and continuous jobs

Earlier today, while contributing to a spectacular discussion about ambition on a mailing list that I’m part of, I realized that my CV basically translates to spectacular performance in entrance exams and certain other competitive exams, and not much otherwise. This made me think of the concept of a “discrete job” – where you are evaluated based on work that you do at certain discrete points in time, as opposed to a continuous job where you are evaluated based on all the work that you do all the time.

A good example of a discrete job is that of a sportsman. Yes, a sportsman needs to work hard all the time and train well and all that, but the point is that his performance is essentially evaluated based on his performance on the day of the game. His performance on these “big days” matter significantly more than his performance on non-match days. So you can have people like Ledley King who are unable to train (because of weak knees) but are still highly valued because they can play a damn good game when it matters.

In fact any performing artist does a “discrete” job. If you are an actor, you need to do well on the day of your play, and off-days during non-performing days can be easily forgiven. Similarly for a musician and so forth.

Now the advantage of a “discrete” job is that you can conserve your energies for the big occasion. You can afford the occasional slip-up during non-performing days but as long as you do a good job on the performing days you are fine. On the other hand, if you are in a continuous job, off-days cost so much more, and you will need to divide your energies across each day.

If you are of the types that builds up a frenzy and thulps for short period of time and then goes back to “sleep” (I think I fall under this category), doing a continuous job is extremely difficult. The only way that it can be managed is through aggregation – never giving close deadlines so that you can compensate for the off-day by having a high-work day somewhere close to it. But not every job allows you the luxury of aggregation, so problem are there.

Now, my challenge is to find a discrete job in the kind of stuff that I want to do (broadly quant analysis). And maybe give that a shot. So far I’ve been mostly involved in continuous jobs, and am clearly not doing very well in that. And given my track record in important examinaitons, it is likely I’ll do better in a discrete job. Now to find one of those..