Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 in Review

I wanted to take a few minutes to summarize my year for a few reasons:
  • it was a pretty eventful year that I don’t want to forget
  • many people have asked me about it
  • most importantly, I’d love to reconnect with people I haven’t been in touch with, and meet like-minded people. So if something in here resonates with you, get in touch!
Here's the summary version:

We got off to a wonderful start with the birth of a baby boy in January. Needless to say, he has been a big part of our days and, more importantly, our nights since then. My wife’s family came to spend time with us after the baby was born, and my sister very sweetly came and spent three weeks of her vacation helping us survive.

I quit my job as a software engineer at google in May with only a fuzzy idea of what I was going to do next. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We send my daughter to a co-op preschool, where parents are required to work one day a week with the kids in addition to a parents-only class about once a week. My wife had been doing that the past few years, but I took over as work parent for 6 months from January to June. It was an amazing experience to see her interacting with her friends and learning and growing over time. I also developed tremendous empathy for primary caregivers (mostly moms) and had my own tiny experience of parenting trauma.

Two recent obsessions of mine came together this year also. I’ve been following the Tiny House movement from afar - enamored by the idea of choosing to live simply. I’ve spoken to several friends who report a sense of freedom and lightness that comes with discarding possessions. Separately, ever since I was a kid, I wanted to go on an RV trip. About four years ago I almost bought a VW westy but decided against it for various reasons. Well in March we rented one for a weekend. It was meant to be a father-daughter trip but my wife was feeling up to it even though our son was just 8 weeks old. Before we got to the campsite, she told me that she was falling in love with it. So two days after getting back from the trip, I bought one. I love the VW more than other campers because of how small, yet how efficient and spacious it is. It isn’t much bigger than a regular minivan yet it has two double beds, a two-burner stove, a fridge, and plenty of storage. And of course, it is such an iconic vehicle.

We started hearing from so many friends and neighbors that they had amazing memories of taking trips in a VW west when they were young. One memory they all had in common was going to visit a mechanic on every trip they took. Being not at all good with stuff like that, I decided to sign up for an auto mechanic class at our local community college. It’s a class I’d been eyeing for a while, and it was the best $235 I’ve ever spent on my education. I’m definitely not capable of fixing a car after one quarter of classes, but I felt much more able to at least diagnose things to the first order, and ask marginally more intelligent questions of a mechanic. I ended up having to change a set of belts at the campground on one of our shorter test-camping trips so I’d call it a success.

While getting to know our van, I spent a lot of time going to various parks and vista's near our house and either meditating, or studying Digital Signal Processing and brushing up on Linear Algebra on Khan Academy (just one of those things).

My last official week working at google was spent traveling to London to teach a mindfulness class - Search Inside Yourself - to other googlers. Teaching mindfulness has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It was total happenstance that I got to combine a personal passion/practice with a job. And to think that I’d get flown to Dublin, London and Tokyo the past few years to share that passion with my coworkers - what a rush!

Because of how much fun I’d had teaching mindfulness over the past few years, I wanted to explore the “crazy” idea of turning it into a career. Over the summer I got a chance to teach the same content at a few other companies. I was apprehensive for various reasons. At google I’d always been “just a coworker sharing my passion”. If I was now “the expert” coming in to teach this content, would I have to pretend to be something I wasn’t? Would it feel as authentic? I went it to each teaching arrangement with the same introduction being very honest about who I was and, more importantly, who I wasn’t. I was happy to see that what I had to say was well received, I was able to make a positive impact, and received outstanding reviews at the end of each course. I taught in Grand Rapids, MI, Duluth, MN, and Miami, FL - not places I’d ever imagined I’d be teaching mindfulness.

I also did a lot of writing. I did a lot of journaling over the months (I’d highly recommend investing in a fountain pen - I was amazed at how much fun it was to write with), and also started writing up thoughts on mindfulness at Of the many things I learnt, I have a stronger conviction that “how” I live my life is so much more important, and so much more difficult to change, than “what” I do. I hypothesized that, 40 years from now, I’d look back and wish for a life focussed on health, character, community, and service. I wasn’t successful making regular exercise a part of my life, though I tried hard during the beginning of the year. The taught me a bit about learning how to live.

July was spent “on the road” in our VW westy. We spent about 10 days driving up from Palo Alto to Seattle, a week in Seattle, and the rest driving east to Pullman, WA (where my wife grew up) and then back home via central Oregon. In general we’d planned it as 4 nights of camping followed by 2 nights in a hotel. What an amazing trip! I’d planned our packing list for months - refining it each time we did a practice camping trip. Eventually, I had every single piece of clothing and kitchen and pantry item written down and assigned to a particular spot in the camper. Having a place for each item was crucial to staying organized on a long trip. Kudos to my wife for agreeing to do this with a 4.5 yr old and a 6 month old, AND for doing it on our 10th anniversary. We got honked at a lot that week.

It was an exhausting trip. Both the kids behaved exceedingly well and yet, it was very tiring. But my did we see some amazing places. We fell in love with Oregon, and I realized how much I missed seeing snow capped mountains. We came back excited to be home, and enriched by the month. We’ve done more camping trips this year than we’ve done in the last eight years of living in the bay area. We’ve gotten rid of a lot of things at home in an effort to live more simply.

August and September were family months - my dad visited August, and we had a string of family visitors until the end of September.

My wife and I also hosted a small storytelling series  at our house - where a neighbor volunteered to tell indian folk stories to a bunch of kids in our neighborhood.

That’s when I finally started to feel an itch to start thinking about “work”. While I loved teaching mindfulness and I’ll continue to do more of it (i might be flying down under in April to teach there) I’m not 100% convinced that it’s the right time in my life to make that my career. I love the freedom that comes from it not being my primary source of income - I get to treat each engagement like an act of service, without worrying about the next teaching gig. As a side effect of my writing, a few friends and acquaintances have reached out to me, and I’ve been teaching mindfulness over What’sApp! - how crazy is that? I send a new guided meditation every time they tell me that they’ve done practicing the previous one for 5-7 days. No revenue model needed or wanted - just lots of love and a little bit of service.

After finally deciding to become a citizen earlier this year, I quickly got a chance to fulfill my civic duty as a juror. It was a fascinating experience. Listening to potential jurors being interviewed in a Palo Alto court was humbling. Everyone there was so accomplished; a dean from Stanford, an old woman who said she was retired and then just added as a side note that she had worked on life support systems for early NASA missions, successful entrepreneurs, physicists, the list went on. The case was a criminal case against someone who had been driving after a few drinks and had killed someone. So the selection process involved answering questions about personal experience with alcohol. It was also troubling to hear that there wasn’t a single person who wasn’t personally affected or didn’t have a friend or relative who was affected by alcohol. What a toll that drug takes on our society.

In August a ludicrous question had come to mind; “what would it take to provide banking services to a billion people?” It wasn’t really a question about technology or marketing or regulation, but a more fundamental observation about the business of banking. Banking relies on two business models - interest spread and transaction fees. Both of those are weighed against the lower income. To a bank, $100K in one account is better than $10K in 10 accounts. I am convinced that there exists a business model in which the customers are the asset/lever, not the assets under management. This spawned a few month exploration understanding the regulatory environment around banking, talking to the homeless, to retail bankers, private equity bankers, angels and venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and anyone else who would listen - about the absolutely crazy idea of starting or buying a bank and then building a business based on radical transparency, generosity, and technology. There’s something there, but the lynchpin still eludes me so I’m putting the idea on ice for the moment.

A much less crazy idea spun out of this exploration, and it’s one I’m currently exploring. In our ever-more cashless society, it’s extremely difficult for kids to understand the value of money. Schools and some apps teach financial literacy through games or simulations, and some products exist to help kids get used to a cashless world (via a debit card), but there’s no product that guides kids and teaches them about money as they’re actually using it. A few of us are working towards a prototype that should result in kids leaving home with a solid credit history, experience using plastic, and responsible habits when given access to credit.

Phew. Would love to (re)connect with you so drop me a note.

And finally, Happy New Year! May you fill your 2016 with compassion, wisdom, and gratitude.


Thanos said...

Great review of what looks like a great year!
Happy 2016 to the Bhanoo's :)

WanderMom said...

What an excellent year! Thrilled you had a good experience with your VW + kudos for taking that a trip with such young kids.
If you ever want to chat with other travel-junkie parents, you know where to find me :)

sudha said...

A very inspiring read. Thanks for sharing.

Seung said...

Good to hear you indeed had an amazing year, my friend. :)

Yunshen Guo said...

Your Vipassana upload on YouTube led me to your blog. I just did my first Vipassana course. I like some of the ideas on what you have been doing in your life, from reading your 2015 Review post. Your post has certainly inspired me. I am interested to look more into the concepts of the Tiny House Movement. Thank You.