Contemplations on work

Ashutosh Priyadarshy author headshot

Ashutosh Priyadarshy, CEO @ Sunsama
December 4, 2020

I recently spoke with Louis — he had just discovered Sunsama and was curious how my personal philosophical or religious background shaped my ideas on work.

I struggled to unravel that question, but it got me thinking about my upbringing. I grew up in a home where a spiritual or religious add-on was available for every activity, no matter how small or secular. I learned a short prayer to contemplate before going to school, eating a meal, going to bed, or even opening up a blank notebook for the first time. Once I was old enough to decide for myself, I chose to continue these practices. I found them to be an unobtrusive and reliable mechanism for broadening my perspective and reinforcing my values.

As I re-examined these practices, I realized this custom of contemplating a few words was absent from my work day. If my daily work was a vehicle through which my life could flourish, and not just a chore, why shouldn't I also consider my values throughout the work day?

And if I could build my own set of contemplations for the workday that could prime my perspective and reinforce my values, what would they say? It's not a new idea, I've mentioned before the words that Paul Graham puts at the top of this todo list:

Don't ignore your dreams; don't work too much; say what you think; cultivate friendships; be happy.

I've shared my list of contemplations for a few common activities below. I enjoyed the process of putting together this list — it made work feel a little more human.

Starting the workday

When I start my day, I'm faced with deciding what to work on from an ever-expanding list of possibilities. I've condensed YC's Essential Advice into a desktop wallpaper that I see each day:

Stay alive. Talk to users. Write code. Make something people want.

It's practical, actionable, and easy to remember. When I evaluate all the things I could do each day, it helps me choose what's meaningful and what's not.

Starting a block of creative work

One of the ironies of a creative effort (like building an app) succeeding is that the volume of routine and non-creative work becomes more and more demanding. I've found I need more discipline than ever before to turn off emails and other notifications.

When distraction seeps in, Mary Oliver's words instill a sacredness for the concentration creative work deserves:

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. — Of Power and Time by Mary Oliver

I find it easier to turn off and turn away from distractions when I feel a reverence for creativity and concentration.

Checking social media

Social media is an essential but treacherous part of my job. It's easy to open Twitter to answer a customer's question only to slip into outrage about unrelated conversations. If you need a scathing rebuke to mind your own business, Marcus Aurelius always delivers:

He who ignores what his neighbor is saying or doing or thinking, and cares only that his own actions should be just and godly, is greatly the gainer in time and ease. A good man does not spy around for the black spots in others, but presses unswervingly on towards his mark. — Meditations 4:18

People will think, say, and do a lot of things. I'm better off if I can just focus on my own actions.

Reviewing metrics

The hardest part about a startup psychologically is that there's no buffer between you and the value you create for customers. As a result, it's easy for your self-worth to become inextricably tied to your metrics and your emotions to their trajectory.

My face contorts and my breath quickens whenever I open up a revenue dashboard, even if I know the results are good. The emotional valence of this moment is so overpowering, I've captured two quotes that help order my thinking:

One who remains unattached under all conditions, and is neither delighted by good fortune nor dejected by tribulation, he is a sage with perfect knowledge. — Bhagavad Gita 2:57

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same...Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it. — If by Rudyard Kipling

It's a reminder that human life flourishes, not through success or failure, but in how we face those ups and downs.

Addressing critical feedback

I get feedback from customers, teammates, investors, friends and even family members. It ranges from "I don't like the color of that button" to "Your company should change its focus." The challenge is to take it seriously without taking it personally. Marcus Aurelius relentlessly searches for actionable truth without consideration for who it comes from and how it's delivered:

If anyone can show me, and prove to me, that I am wrong in thought or deed, I will gladly change. I seek the truth, which never yet hurt anybody. It is only persistence in self-delusion and ignorance which does harm. — Meditations 6:21

Ending the week

I used to feel that my time off from work must be spent in a maximally impressive and restorative way — by spending time in the forests, hiking along the ocean, or visiting impressive places. I've felt freed of that compulsion ever since Marcus Aurelius reminded me that repose is found within:

Men seek for seclusion in the wilderness, by the seashore, or in the mountains - a dream you have cherished only too fondly yourself. But such fancies are wholly unworthy of a philosopher, since at any moment you choose you can retire within yourself. Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul. — Meditations 4:3

Making your own Bible

I will leave you with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who urges us to create our own personal collection of contemplations:

“Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.”

Over time, constant repetition and reminder of these "words and sentences" shape how we think, what we aspire to, and who we become.