“The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.” – Carl Jung.
Sometimes, I feel honored to live with these genius contemporaries. Sometimes, I feel low thinking about what I did with it. I can feel those giant shoulders around me which raised and shaped my world views. I do not know if it is a tribute, but surely it helps me to know myself.
The biology of influence
From childhood, I used to look up to my father, an unconventional writer in Malayalam, KP Nirmal Kumar, whose mind I feel is a constant intellectual festival, even now. I can feel the celebration of intricate thoughts going on inside him. Even on mundane evenings, he read Carl Sagan and OV Vijayan and transported himself to distant places beyond space and time. The evening tea which my mother served disrupted it. We discuss cosmos and neighborhood politics in the same breath. And wonder what is happening with a surreal sense of detachment. On the terrace, we sit in silence staring at the deep starry sky, and depart the scene with a sense of moodiness, as if we were leaving our eternal home. Such philosophical ruminations were daily affairs. Anything we see was subjected to such intense investigations not to mention some household memes which we used as a code to remind those findings.
Sarcasm was an art in itself, even though it is not good social manners. We used it as a weapon for dissent, a form of violence in itself. People, ideas, events were part of those conversations. Looking back, I feel it offered psychological relief to the unnoticed socially shy people. As a writer, he used sarcasm and black humor in his stories to rip apart untruths in people. It was a kind of rebellion with no arms and ammunition, but with words and combinations of words. He mixed and matched contexts to bring surprising elements to the situations. Being boring was a crime for his characters.
Growing up, I knew that he is a different individual and has his own world. And that world is so vast. One of those days when the power went off in the evenings at our village home, it sometimes never came until the next morning, we discussed many things with no pressure of looking each other in the eyes. I asked him, “what is writing for you?”, after a pause, he said, “take a needle and prick on the pages of the book, small drops of blood will come out.” It is for him a cathartic process. An immensely human thing is the true expression of oneself. After I got into my consulting career and an entrepreneurial journey, I realized that most of the people around me were covering up their original expressions and becoming participants of social untruths. During long travels, these became clearer to me.
I started writing what is going inside me in the form of tweets and micro-blogs for almost 4 years. That led to the book called ‘Between Genes and Memes’. A philosophical trailer of what is happening in this world. A DJ remix of deep reflections in a condensed format meant for people with an attention span like the duration of an Instagram story.
The neuroscience of vocabulary
A giant oval face with a wide brilliant smile on the book cover. An instant-like which later became a life-long admiration. At the age of 21, I read the book called Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins and got fascinated by the new set of turbocharged vocabulary he created to build hope in the readers. Those days, after graduating from a mediocre college and being stuck in a village home, I was uncertain about what to do and was looking for some motivation to get a new life. Tony has this amazing pitch. He talks about his humble beginnings and takes us to the rocketship of irrational hope. That was all that I wanted. And I got it. That was the first time I heard about the neuroscience behind our vocabulary and even now I use that habitually while writing emails to persuade tough people. The energy behind each word and the intended effect on the other made me feel excited about its immense possibilities.
I feel those initial ideas shaped me as a competitive speaker. The fundamental principles remain the same. And that reiterates the idea that it is important to meet amazing people during your ‘shaping up’ years. When I meet young people, instead of having normal politically correct conversations, I try to disrupt the status quo thinking, and that helps many people to come out of their own long-held biases in life. And for that, we need to use nudges which work well.
He always with his deep bold voice utters these words, “Live with passion.”
The anatomy of risk-taking
In my mid-twenties, I met Porinju Veliyath, a super charming fund manager, a sharp self-made man who went to Mumbai from a small village in Kerala and found a space for himself in utterly competitive equity markets and came back to Kerala to set up his portfolio management company meant for ultra-wealthy individuals.
He had this unassuming and self-assured kind of demeanor with a strong sense of unpredictable humor which made all the difference. We got along well and started a venture into human resources along with other co-founders. The way he looks at life with an animal spirit instilled a race of wild enthusiasm in me. I did things with an annoying sense of confidence even at the risk of epic failures. Those days taught me the importance of positioning myself in an unapologetic way to hold strongly to those thrilling inner beliefs. I almost believed that life is non-linear and random events can give me a strange chance to be wildly successful. He went on to become the super-hero of value investing in India and even made a million followers on Twitter.
During one of the visits to his farmhouse, he said that the best thing we can give someone who wants to grow is to give the best environment and not cheap advice. He taught me that what matters most is to be brutally right rather than to be just nice.
In my mid-thirties, I was consuming too much content by the best people in the world giving an uncompromising sense of conviction of what I think and talk about. Doing was far from it. I blamed myself for not doing 99% of what I talked about. I started writing actively since then to put my thoughts into some shape. I used writing as my second brain. Write about things I read and watch to make sense out of it. It was more like a ‘clarity exercise’. As Seneca said, as you teach you to learn. I believe, as we write, we think better.
Twitter is an amazing place to follow what people think in real-time. It brought out their competitive best as humans love instant gratification. How a world can be brought to a two eighty character tweet is a task in itself. ‘Brevity with clarity’ demand from Twitter made people forcefully rewrite several times before it gives the intended meaning with the right dose and impact.
I met Naval Ravikant, the founder of Angel.co, and have been following him since then. He writes about complex things with utter meditative clarity and almost took many to a zone where we feel that the perspective is no more to be debated. It is like someone who understands the world giving us ‘intelligent insights’ without us taking the effort to understand it painstakingly. Later, I realized that the best insights come from our own unique experiences, self-discovery, and internalizing of those learnings.
He can say a huge insight in very few words like “The modern devil is cheap dopamine.”
Naval’s tweets made me think deeper about things we took for granted. When tiny things turned out to be significant. He helps me think better about a world that is fast changing. He talks about blockchains to mental models. From governments to evolutionary psychology. With no verbosity. But laser-sharp precision. I consider him the best philosopher. His podcasts reduce my FOMO and assure me that I’m doing ok.
The evolutionary instincts
Never before human evolution was a topic of high interest for me. So far the view was from inside the forest. We were illusioned and intimidated by the woods and the strange sounds. Reading Yuval Noah Harari or Robert Sapolsky (though they are totally different genres) is like watching a forest with a drone camera and then zooming in on the subject. We know exactly how it appears and where it comes from. The route and path are clear. They trace modern things to prehistoric evolutionary evidence and behaviors. That gave me the roller coaster intellectual ride of decoding all those things around me, giving me a sense of control of comprehending it far deeper than others.
Be it food, sex, power, money, tribe, religion, beliefs, authorities, future technology, narratives, or emotions – Yuval Harari gives explanations that surprise people and yet are scientifically and rationally compelling.
He will surprise you with profound observations as crisp as “Biology enables, Culture forbids.”
He extracts wisdom with his deep Vipassana meditation and combines it with his knowledge of history and science to build a clear narrative of how things turned out to be like how we see today. The stream of logic and narratives are entertaining, and it offers a whole lot of new thinking streams for modern humans including me.
Your worldview is your world
These giants are not telling what things in the world are. They are compelling me to think, helping me to construct mental models which hold me up in moments of insane ambiguity.
These giants give me a sense of security. To navigate a world that is brutally indifferent to you and to what you think or do.
They are my renewable powerhouses of fuel to drive a long way.
This is originally published in a London-based magazine, Palm Leaf, in October 2020.