Are You Doing Something Useful?

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Friday, 8.48pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful. – Margaret J. Wheatley

I sometimes wonder what the point of it all is – why do we do what we do, do we need to do anything at all and would it make a difference if we did anything else?

There’s a lot I don’t know about the world and it often feels like others know a lot more about what works and what doesn’t work. For example, what is it about economics and policy that means people can make big decisions that affect the lives of millions of others? How do they know that what they’re doing is right?

Well, it turns out that they don’t know. This paper points to literature arguing that all interventions based on policy are kind of experimental – the results aren’t known in advance so you have to try it out and see what happens. Now, this is interesting and can be generalised to argue that almost any intervention is an experiment if you don’t know how it’s going to turn out – and which pretty much makes every human thing we do a study into what might happen.

What this means practically is that your attempt at generating a business strategy is an experiment and, for that matter, your attempt to do something with your life is also an experiment. Maybe you’re doing what you’re doing because of a number of things that chanced to happen and if the dice had rolled a different number you might be somewhere else, and might be better off or worse off – you just can’t tell.

Now, you might argue, not everything is an experiment. If you work hard and stick to it you’ll get your just rewards. Then again, just reading that don’t you find yourself disbelieving it a little? Yes you can work hard – but that doesn’t mean you’ll get rewarded necessarily – that also comes down to luck. How lucky are you at choosing your sector, your role, your contribution? How lucky were you that someone saw what you did? Chance plays a bigger role in everything than we might like to admit.

Then again, while the future is uncertain the past is sort of known. One might think that you know the past precisely – but while you know what happened your interpretation of the past is what matters – how you see what’s happened to you and the way you feel it’s affected you. For example, I had a number of experiences that I was irritated by, didn’t like, was annoyed at. Then, when I studied the area a bit more and was introduced to models that helped explain what was going on I found myself looking at things very differently. If you understand why something happens then you seem to be able to deal with the feelings better because you know that it wasn’t your fault or their fault but that it was just the way things were.

So, what connection does this have to being useful. I suppose it’s this. Life is an experiment – one that you’re running all the time, every day. You’re making decisions and looking to see how they turn out. But it’s also not entirely about experiments and waiting. Once you’ve run at least a few experiments you should start to theorise – start to predict what’s going to happen.

For example, when I started this post I didn’t really feel like I had much to write. I wasn’t sure how useful what I wrote was to anyone – including myself. But I could predict that if I just started writing, started doing the routine that I’ve been doing for four years things would work out, the words would appear – almost by magic drawn out keyboard press by keyboard press. And there was a chance I’d find them useful.

When it comes down to it, you are where you are. And there are good reasons for why you are there. But you have to find them – and you do that by reflecting, by looking and seeing and feeling and thinking. And if you don’t know why you feel the way you do – it helps to find some theory, a few models that help get you started. If you’re not happy with your career, for example, I’d start with this one.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Do You Have Anything To Say?

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Thursday, 7.43pm

Sheffield, U.K.

In an effort to create a culture within my classroom where students feel safe sharing the intimacies of their own silences, I have four core principles posted on the board that sits in the front of my class, which every student signs at the beginning of the year: read critically, write consciously, speak clearly, tell your truth. – Clint Smith

I’ve been musing about this idea that people’s voices need to be heard – that you have to get a diverse set of views and input from people to make the right kind of difference.

In that case, do you think your voice matters. Do you think you get heard? Or are the voices that speak the loudest the ones that get the attention? Or is it the ones that are lucky? What creates the mix that we listen to?

The fact is that we have a limited rate of information transfer – we can only take in so much and have to divide our attention between the things we deem most important. I, for example, will either read or watch a programme I like and that’s the source of the material that I learn or enjoy any given day. That’s a quiet way of doing things. I write – about whatever is on my mind – but I don’t expect write it for a reader. What I’m doing is making thinking visible to myself, to start with.

I learned recently that what we think of as “thinking” is really an inner conversation, a dialogue we have with ourselves. Try this – think of a concept. If it’s a thing – like a pink elephant – you’ll have an image come to mind. If it’s “thinking” – like thinking back to how your day went – don’t you find yourself talking it out in your head – verbalising it?

This ability to verbalise, then, is at the heart of the thinking process and it’s also the way we get what we think across to everyone else. That’s obvious, you say – that’s what talk is all about – but how many of us think one thing with words in our head and say something completely different with the words that come out? Do you find yourself as fluent in actual speech as you are with the thoughts that always circulate in your head?

I think this matters because increasingly what we need in the world is the truth – the straightforward, no-nonsense stating of things as they are. But, of course, there isn’t one version of the truth – there is instead the straightforward, no-nonsense stating of your point of view. Which someone else might disagree with.

So, what are you left with?

Well, if you don’t put your point of view across you’re letting the ones that are willing to say what they think be the only ones that are heard. Fortunately, I suppose, there is no shortage of people on every side of any issue who want to get up and speak. And there are people who don’t want to speak but will do it because someone has to do it – and there is no one else but them.

Now, here’s the thing. Just because some people do it one way doesn’t mean you have to do that as well. Some people are brilliant on video. Some people like writing. Some make cartoons. What you have to find is the way you like to speak – and then you’ll find that saying your thing is easier to do. But, of course, people have to find your work.

For example, I was thinking about a bird name from decades ago – a bulbul is a songbird that I used to see in the forests around me growing up. But Bulbul is also a cartoonist with a style and a voice and a point of view that I discovered by accident but will read with interest.

The good news for us is that if you do want to say something it’s easier than ever to do so. The bad news, of course, is that no one might be around to listen. But that isn’t why you’re doing it anyway, is it?

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How Would You Look At Investing In 2021?

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Wednesday, 7.44pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The stock market is a giant distraction from the business of investing. – John C. Bogle

If you’re a Deliveroo customer you probably got an email about their IPO. And that got me thinking about investing once again – something I haven’t written about in a while.

I read an article by John Kay recently that argued that the function of stock markets has gone for a place where companies raised money to do business to a place where business founders go to make money for themselves. And that’s because fewer and fewer businesses need outside money to operate. Now, that’s probably not entirely true but the high growth tech stocks that we all see have perhaps created that reputation.

So, should I invest in something like Deliveroo’s IPO? The argument is that they’re creating a platform, something that’s going to be around for a while. Just Eat, its rival’s value has increased by something like 6 times since its IPO. Growth and revenue are what matter.

When it doubt it makes good sense to read Warren Buffett. In his 2020 letter he reminds us that fishing in a pool of mediocre businesses is not a good idea. When you have competition over poor quality you get vastly inflated prices – and the way to deal with that is to manufacture poor quality businesses of your own that you then unload to get the money you need to buy the other businesses you want.

The thing you have to realise is that everyone loves magic – promoters like pulling the crowds in and charging for tickets, the public likes stories and the chance of winning the lottery and illusions about money can go on for a very long time. And, of course, we’ve now established a precedent that you can get away with almost anything as long as the market increases but if it crashes you’ll get helped out by taxpayers. To modify that old adage, when you own a stock it’s your problem. When a group of large players manufacture a stock it’s the taxpayer’s problem.

So, how do you invest your money?

Well, the starting point is to make sure it’s in the market – and a low cost tracker is the way to manage the bulk of the stuff you have. Check – that’s that done.

If you want to invest what’s left in individual businesses pick ones that have a durable competitive advantage, capable management with character and buy at a sensible price. Buffett reminds us that in business there are no points for “degree of difficulty”. If it looks like it’s too much work it’s probably not going to work.

What will work is being patient and letting time work for you. And reducing expenses – that’s the biggest problem for most people, not picking winners but stopping your pocket from being picked by helpers.

So, what should you invest in this year? Bitcoin? Tesla?

Whatever it is, it should probably be something in America.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

When Do You Think You Can No Longer Carry The Load?

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Tuesday, 7.55pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. – Samuel Ullman

I’ve been wondering for a bit about transitions – what happens at various stages of your career. Is it a gradual slide into irrelevance or is it a cliff edge? Do you get better as you get older or do you become that person that has outstayed their welcome. Is it possible that we get too old to be useful?

Hopefully, the answer to such questions is no, but we should still ask them. And perhaps the starting point, if you’re wondering about this issue, is to ask yourself what value looks like. What do you do that has value or that creates value?

In business, that comes down to two things – according to Peter Drucker. You need to focus on marketing and innovation. These are the two things that add value. Everything else adds costs.

I think Drucker’s quote, while sensible, is perhaps off the mark in today’s world. A better one to keep in mind comes from Ycombinator’s startup advice, which is that the two things you should do at an early stage company is write code and talk to users. I think you might say that’s the same thing Drucker said – but I think marketing and talking to users are different in the image they conjure up about what the task is that you’re doing. You can have someone do the marketing for you – but you have to go out and talk to customers if you want to build something that’s going to be useful for them. And it’s not just for early stage companies – great companies do it as well.

What does this mean in terms of an age-stage process. Perhaps when you’re young you have more time to code and perhaps when you’re older you’re a little better at talking to customers. Or perhaps you’re young and amazing and can do both those things. Whatever stage you’re at, though, if you’re doing at least these two things – then you’re probably in a good position because you’re creating value.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why The Point Of View You Take Matters

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Monday, 7.09pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The greatest tragedy for any human being is going through their entire lives believing the only perspective that matters is their own. – Doug Baldwin

We’ve been watching the program “The Bold Type”. I relate to almost nothing in there but it’s about publishing and writing and that’s cool but it’s also about people’s voices and that’s interesting.

There’s this idea that everyone’s point of view matters and it’s important to get the voices of marginalised people heard alongside the mainstream ones that tend to dominate the conversation. The mainstream tends to think that because it’s everywhere it’s also right. And then you have the counterpoint that the mainstream, is oppressive because it’s so dominant – nothing gets through it without being filtered through its requirements.

Anyway, what this comes down to is problematic – because logically there is no “right” way to look at these issues. Logically, might can be right and equality can be right – it all depends on the system of logic you use and the way in which you interpret things. Or that’s what I’m led to believe from reading “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”, which argues that your morality is often a matter of convenience.

Is this helping – probably not.

Let’s talk frames instead.

Lynda Barry talks about starting your drawing with a frame. Everything inside the frame matters. Everything outside doesn’t. Your story takes place inside the frame – except when you lean against the frame or break through it. There are always exceptions to rules.

A frame is still a good place to start. Try and understand the frame through which someone else sees something and you start to understand what they’re interpreting from what they see. If you have a point of view and I have a point of view and we’re both looking the same way then we must be looking at the same view. The only thing that’s different is how we interpret what we’re seeing. And that’s the importance of the frame. It’s the frame that makes you a conservative interpreter or a liberal one. The frame is it.

The simplest way to make a difference to you and others is recognise the existence of a frame and its relationship with the reality in front of you.

Don’t let your frame become you – it’s a tool to help you think and not the way you think. The more frames you have the better you will be – as a thinker and as a person.

Cheers,

Karthik

Where You Should Start When You Want To Make A Difference

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Sunday, 8.51pm

Sheffield, U.K

Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership. – Colin Powell

A short one today – inspired by a comment on LinkedIn.

I don’t know how you good you are at cleaning the house. It’s something that has to be done and quite frankly, I’d rather someone else did it. But – since we have to do it every once in a while I’ve had to get used to the idea.

I’ve always found stairs fiddly and difficult. The vacuum cleaner doesn’t sit right on the stairs and the hose isn’t quite right and it’s all a bit of an effort. Until I discovered that the place to start was at the top. If you begin at the top of the stairs and work down everything seems to go much more easily. It makes more sense with a broom, I suppose, as you sweep down and out.

Now, the original comment had to do with leadership. If you want to change things, the poster argued, you need to spend less time on the shop floor and more time with the leadership. After all, you can do all the change you want where the work is happening but unless the leadership buy in or accept the big changes, things will probably fail to improve.

And this make sense, doesn’t it? Leaders are the ones with the power to change the system. People lower down the hierarchy can do things to change how they work but they are still constrained by how the system they operate in functions.

This is one reason why things that work at an individual level very rarely also work at a group level. You can, for example, set a goal and go for it, work as hard as you can and do everything to get there. As a group, things get more complicated quickly. What’s the goal, is it the same for everyone, are we all pulling our weight and why are the rewards unequal? All these issues mean that when you go from one person to many people the way you approach things has to change.

At a larger scale individuals can affect very little – unless they are in a position where they can make decisions that result in big changes. And so, thinking about the fact that it’s easier to start at the top of the stairs just reminds us that it’s always easier to start at the top of the hierarchy.

If you want to make a difference, begin at the top.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Does It Mean To Grow A Business These Days?

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Saturday, 9.05pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his egocentredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. – Ernst F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered

What we see has a huge influence on our view of the world – the news, the stories, the myths – all of them create a picture of the way the world works. But what if it’s all wrong? What if the truth is hidden from us – because there’s no profit in making it visible?

Let me explain by starting with Dr Michael Gregor’s books. He’s written How not to die and How not to diet – possibly the most densely researched packed collection of books into nutrition that you could read. His basic thesis is simple – a plant based diet is good for you. You can lose weight on low-fat and low-sugar diets but it tends to come back when you eat normal food – where normal for modern humans means ultraprocessed products.

Now, food is big business. But there’s no profit in selling you the food that’s proven to keep you healthy. The money is in the made up, the creations that blend sugar and fat and salt to send your palate into overdrive. So you don’t see adverts for ginger or apples – but you do see them for fast food and cereals. You’d think from what you see that such food will make you happy – but after that rush of taste what’s left other than regret, served with a side of fat.

There’s very little money to be made in stuff that’s worth doing sometimes. Take YouTube content, for example. I’ve seen some content that’s on DIY film gear, which is interesting and probably usable for most of us – but that doesn’t seem to attract all that much traffic. Then there are the videos that demonstrate hyper-complex setups and cutting-edge gear. These ones do well – because there’s more money to be made in the higher-end products. I think we know that reuse and recycling and repurposing is good – but we’re also seduced easily by the expensive stuff.

Now, I know it’s not as simple as that because if you can make amazing content about recycling you’ll probably get views. The point I’m heading towards is that you don’t know whether the point of something is to sell you product or if the point of something is to help you get better. And some people will argue that it’s the same thing but the money from the product has a way of skewing good intentions. Money corrupts too.

Then again, I haven’t met that many people who do things for money. Those kinds of people you can spot a mile away and they’re usually a little too eager to get you into something, a little too desperate, and I think you’re smart enough to notice and avoid them. Most people want to do something well, developing their own ability and contributing something to society. The rewards really come from what they do.

So, what that means if you want to grow your business is that you need to ask yourself how you help people. If you help a few people and make a small difference, you’ll make a small return. If you help a few people and make a large difference, you’ll make a larger return. If you help many people, you’ll often make the largest return.

It turns out then that the formula for growth is simple.

Go out and help.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why You Can’t Wait For Someone Else To Sort Out Your Life For You

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Thursday, 7.54pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Long-term, we must begin to build our internal strengths. It isn’t just skills like computer technology. It’s the old-fashioned basics of self-reliance, self-motivation, self-reinforcement, self-discipline, self-command. – Steven Pressfield

I’ll be up front with you, I’m a little tired. So tired that I didn’t realise that my previous post was my 1,000th. A nice round number, a little bit of a milestone that should be a cause for celebration. Then again, I have a cultural background that doesn’t really go in for celebrations. But we don’t go in for misery either. It’s more the Kipling lines, “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same;”

I was listening to a very experienced person talk about what they would suggest younger people do – and it really didn’t come down to waiting for someone else to sort out your life for you. If you expect your politicians or your employers or the state to make life better, you’ll be waiting a long time. You need to get off your behind and sort yourself out. And that comes down to learning – training yourself, getting up to speed in the skills that are needed for the world of now. It’s not even really about tomorrow or the day after. Most of the stuff we learned is obsolete – we can’t even use it to cope with the world around us today.

I think of myself as fairly technical but my kids run rings around me when it comes to mobile technology and the games they play on there. Part of me is grumpy and doesn’t really want to learn what this is all about. And part of me hopes that what I know will be relevant when they grow up so that I will still know something. But the chances of that are slim. On the other hand, the technology might change but people will remain the same. If you can understand them and work with them, you’ll have a chance of still being relevant.

Now, to address the question in the picture above – I drew it before I’d realised that I got to the 1,000 post mark – but it’s still relevant. Why spend that time, do all that writing when one could be doing anything else? I’m sure you could think of many more interesting alternatives to sitting at a desk and tapping away at keys. The answer to that is I enjoy doing this. I enjoy learning and writing and reflecting and I write because it’s one way to get these ideas out of my head and into a form that helps me see them for myself. I’m sometimes asked what’s the point, or how you could monetize this. The practice, however, has no point and doesn’t need to make any money. It only needs me to want to do it.

That said, the practice has value for me. How do I know that, you ask? This is an academic question I’m going to have to face in the years to come. How do you know a method works – that something you do has value? It may have intrinsic value – you might enjoy doing it and think that you’re doing it well but how do you really know? The academic answer is that you get feedback – you ask people. But of course, people can’t always be trusted so you analyse what they do and try and get insights from that. You can do a lot of study to see if people value what you do.

Or you can look at the money.

Here’s the thing with an academic definition of value – it’s probably not worth the paper it’s written on. Human beings have figured out how to exchange things of value a while back and they did it my attaching a price to it. As Buffett writes, the price is what you pay. Value is what you get.

This is not a particularly appealing thought but it’s a hard one to ignore. You should do things because you want to. Well – legal things anyway. But if what you do has value a byproduct is that it will also create wealth. But it’s a byproduct, a side effect and you shouldn’t take it seriously because once you start thinking of what you do as a job it will probably take away much of the fun of doing it.

Anyway – to end with the main point from that experienced person again. Keep learning. That’s valuable.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why You Must Make Technology Your Friend?

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Wednesday, 9.55pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency. – Bill Gates

I’ve always been a little puzzled by the kind of people who want to know everything before they can make a decision. The ones who collect tons of data and try and analyse everything, working out all the stuff you could possibly work out.

What usually happens is that the person doing all this work then has to show it to someone else who doesn’t think that way – and who then makes a decision based on what their gut is telling them. It’s rare that you find anyone actually listening to the analysts.

The pandemic is a rare situation where you can probably see an A/B test taking place across the world. In general, the reaction of people is to ignore, then reluctantly accept, then overreact and look for someone to blame, and then start to do something, and say it was all part of a plan all along. Many countries listened to their scientists, some didn’t. Some had draconian policies, some didn’t.

The quote by Bill Gates is about automation, but it’s really about more than that these days. It’s about the application of knowledge. The challenges we face now are less about machinery and more about how people work with machines and it’s not that clear how you can do this well.

For example, anyone trying to sell a software solution will talk about how it will do everything. Or, more often, how it will help you to do something. Take images, for example. Once upon a time you needed a graphic designer to create attractive templates. Now, you can make things that look pretty good in minutes. Or you can stitch video together and create a clip that explains a particular point. And this is a good thing.

In the relentless quest to make things easier to use, however, we end up often making things that aren’t worth using. But that’s ok as well, isn’t it? We now access information almost exclusively through recommendation algorithms. When was the last time you found something without searching for it? The algorithms do the job of matching us with the “best” stuff out there, helping us avoid the ever-increasing pile of everything else. At the same time some good stuff probably gets missed because it’s not the kind of thing that’s pushed up to the surface by the algorithms.

An article by John Kay in Prospect Magazine makes the argument that business as we knew it is no longer relevant. In the past you had to raise lots of money to do something – build a railroad, start a factory. The big businesses of now, however, don’t need money. They need brains. And technology – mostly computing tech. Stock markets have stopped being a way to raise money for a business and become a way to release money for founders. The number of listed firms you can invest in has been dropping, and the options are increasingly moving towards private ownership – which could actually be a good thing allowing companies to engage in long-term thinking without the burden of quarterly disclosures to a feverish and excitable investor population.

You don’t need much analysis to come to the conclusion that if you want to be recommended you have to be liked – and that’s something that humans do. But you’re probably liked for what you do – and that’s a result of how you use technology. Master the art of technology and the art of being human and you’re probably in a good place for a while.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Cope With The Good Times

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Tuesday, 9.27pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I’d rather do less work than do bad work. – Sobhita Dhulipala

Every once in a while I get to the point where there is too much on, it feels like there are quite a lot of things to do and deliver. And when this happens it’s worth remembering that not everything matters. As Robert Fulghum sort of said, “If it’s not worth doing, it’s not worth doing well.”

You can have too much of a good thing. Overtrading is a thing, where you bring in so much business that you go bust. If everyone wants what you want it can kill your business. Tim Ferriss writes about how he’s careful who he recommends because if he finds someone who sells something good and talks about it on his podcast, his millions of followers try and buy it as well and crash the company’s website as a result.

If you do a great job at work your reward will, most likely, be more work. It’s the same with most things. When you watch people in films they’re driven, competitive, trying to be the best they can be, working all the hours they have. And that looks good but it’s a bad strategy. Research into the way the brain works tells us that you’re better off doing something for half an hour and then waiting a day before trying again than doing it all day, pushing yourself to get better. It’s when you sleep that your brain processes learning and helps strengthen the neural patterns associated with what you’re trying to do or the skill you’re trying to develop.

Okay, now if you’re busy what’s the best way to deal with all the things on your list? This is where the book Algorithms to live by has some suggestions – and it depends on what you’re trying to achieve.

Let’s say you have a list of tasks and you just want to get them done. Well, in that case order is irrelevant. Just do them one after the other until they’re all done.

Now, what if you want to do the biggest number of things – tick off a bunch quickly? Then you order them by the amount of time they take – shortest to longest and blast through them. If you want to get them done so that they’re not late, then do them in order of due date.

An interesting problem comes up when you want to have the least number of people shouting at you. In that case, you start by ordering by the due date and if one task is going to be late you drop that one if you can’t get help and move on to the next. That one task might be very late but the rest will be on time.

If you’ve had a late parcel during the pandemic this is probably why. Bad weather and staffing issues have probably cause a delay. Should the post office deliver delayed packages first and then do the rest or just get on with the newest? Someone told me about the phrase “toss it over the pile” – which is what probably happened. The ones that are late were already late, but if they were delivered first then everyone else’s parcels would be delayed. It’s better to have a small group of furious customers than have the entire population irritated by constant late deliveries. Wouldn’t you make the same choice?

Now, when you’ve scheduled everything and still are struggling, what you have left is the option to do less – to reduce scope. If you normally do ten things can you get away with two? What is essential and can you deliver just that, leaving the rest for later or, even better, never?

When it comes to life the best tasks to do are the ones you don’t have. If you don’t have clutter in your office you don’t have to tidy it away. If you don’t have “stuff” everywhere you don’t need space to put it or have a struggle finding it. The problem many of us have is not one of scarcity but one of abundance. We have too much to deal with. And the way to happiness is to have less and do less – but do it better.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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