Four months later

May 7, 2009

Four months ago, I wrote a list of promises to myself for this year in an attempt to lead a more balanced life.  While it is hard to believe that over a third of the year is behind us, this is a good time to evaluate those promises.

Keeping promise #1 was generally very easy for me since eating healthy comes to me naturally.  I’ve also found that I automatically and unconsciously adjust my food intake based on my level of activity.

Promise #2 was a challenge while working long hours in an office setting.  Now that I’m free from that environment and the weather is improving, I plan to exercise for at least 30 minutes daily, whether that involves yoga, cardio (skipping and rowing being my favourites) or weights.

Reading and learning were the main objectives of promise #3, and while I have been reading and learning daily, I think it is now time to be more systematic in focussing on certain areas of learning.  For the next five years, I will focus my reading on applied mathematics, software design, and entrepreneurship.  I also intend to read a few short stories with the goal of learning to write good stories of my own.

As is evident from the four-month gap between the previous article and this one, promise #4 has been difficult to keep and is certainly an area where I should improve.  I am now expanding the definition of ‘writing’ to include programming (writing code) but would still like to engage in creative writing and reflection at least twice a week.

Promise #5 was deliberately broad in order to accommodate any art form within my daily schedule.  While I have been practicing the guitar, I could certainly be spending more time painting.  Perhaps painting most rooms of the house in March/April left me with less time and motivation for the more artistic kind of painting.

Socialization, the goal of promise #6, has not been difficult over the past few months, and in fact, I have been able to meet many new people who are working toward similar goals as I.  Even then, it may be a good idea to set aside a little time each week for deliberate and positive socialization, which will be particularly helpful once I head back to school and need to take a break from coursework.

The final promise to myself, promise #7, was to meditate and relax regularly to manage stress.  I have been able to relax quite a bit thus far in the year, so this promise has largely been kept.  Going forward I plan to combine meditation with yoga.

All in all, I have made a good effort at keeping promises made to myself, but there is still much room for improvement and creativity.  My strategy going forward is to take baby steps toward my goals everyday.  I plan to track progress on a weekly basis to give myself a better idea of which goals are being achieved and where more work is needed.

Promises to myself

January 2, 2009

Three months ago, I would not have imagined that my post in September would be the last one of the year, but here I am writing again in 2009. The beginning of a new year is often when people decide to make resolutions that they intend to keep for the duration of the year. I have generally preferred writing down short and long term goals when necessary instead of being captive to the Gregorian calendar. 

In 2008, however, I allowed work to take over my life from about mid-October to the end of December. Consequently I have decided to make a few promises to myself in order to maintain better work-life balance in 2009 and future years.

Besides my commitments at work, I will make sure that I take the time to do the following each day:

  1. Eat well (healthy food, frequently)
  2. Exercise and spend time outdoors
  3. Read and learn something new
  4. Write and reflect
  5. Practice an art (most likely play the guitar or paint)
  6. Socialize (preferably in person than via phone or internet)
  7. Meditate and relax

 Incorporating all seven items into each day seems challenging to me at the moment, but I would much rather promise myself substantial change and gradually develop the habits necessary to achieve it than aim for something trivial and ineffective.

What I would do differently

September 27, 2008

“Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.” -Sydney Harris

Suddenly I have realized that it has been over a year since graduation. In fact, I started working full-time exactly one year and one month ago. The class of 2008 convocated this past summer and a whole new batch of students is already well into the fall term.

A few months ago, the father of one of my brother’s friends called me from Toronto. After all the expected queries regarding majors, courses, residence, meal plans, and the co-op process, he asked me a question that caught me off guard: “If you were in my son’s shoes, applying to university programs in your final year of high school with four to five years of undergraduate studies ahead of you, what would you do differently?”

While one cannot go back in time to change the past, hindsight and introspection into one’s past can provide insight and guidance for the present and the future. For this reason, hypothetical and backward-looking questions can still have real value in decision making for the present and the future.

Seemingly bad decisions can roughly be classified into two types: those that seem unsound in hindsight and those that were already unsound at the time they were made. Decisions can only be made by evaluating the information available at the time of deciding, so those decisions that seem unsound in hindsight should not be considered to have been bad decisions at all.

What would I do differently if I were to repeat my undergraduate education? When decisions are put in proper context, I realize that I did not make too many bad ones. I chose to study a subject I enjoy and focussed on academics in my first year, which helped me finance my education through scholarships and obtain interviews for co-op jobs that interested me. I was active in groups and causes that I cared about, such as Amnesty International, the Math Students’ Society (MathSoc), Orientation Week, math tutoring, and residence life at WCRI. I had enough time to make new friends and keep in touch with old ones. I stayed healthy and avoided the so-called “frosh 15” by a wide margin. Through Campus Recreation, I learned salsa dancing, continued my martial arts training from high school, and became a better swimmer.

Even then, I think I could have derived some benefit from knowing how much or how little certain things mattered. If I could go back in time, I would perhaps pick a different major, take more courses outside my faculty, and spend more time working on my long term goals and pursuing my passions.

If I could redo my undergraduate career, I am happy to say that of all schools and programs available, I would still choose to pursue a degree in math at the University of Waterloo. I may pick a different major such as computer science, operations research or combinatorics and optimization instead of actuarial science, but even this is far from certain, because I would then have a different set of career opportunities available to me. I would not get the exposure to the financial services industry that led to my current line of work. Still, the idea of going to university without spending so many hours studying for professional exams seems quite appealing in hindsight.

Besides picking a different major, I would also try and take more courses outside the Faculty of Mathematics. As much as I relished my math courses, electives definitely helped me round out my education. I would take courses in psychology, languages, geography, and especially the multidisciplinary course in multimedia design of learning materials, ARTS 303.

Looking beyond academics, I would distill my myriad interests into four or five major passions and focus my time and energy on them. I feel like I may have spread myself too thin by being indecisive and pursuing too many hobbies and interests. I should have perhaps focussed on swimming, salsa dancing, cooking, and exploring the outdoors.

Today I feel as though hiking is an excellent way to combat stress and reunite with nature, whereas the other four interests are all useful social or life skills.

All in all, I am quite happy with my five years of university life and co-op terms. As a result, the list of things I would do similarly is much longer than the list of things I would do differently if I were to start my undergraduate career today.

Where I’d rather be right now

August 18, 2008

Growing up in a number of different places has given me a pluralistic and tolerant perspective on life. At the same time, I feel like it has deprived me of a strong single cultural and national identity, giving me instead a multicultural and multinational identity and encouraging me to be a global citizen.

I was born in Thane, India (a suburb of Bombay) but I have only spent a total of about three years of my life there. My family moved to Bahrain when I was a few days old. I completed most of my elementary schooling in Bahrain and the rest in India. I was also in Atlanta for about six months while my father completed his MBA there. Then we moved back to Bahrain for a few years before moving to Canada after I completed grade 6. My family has been in Mississauga since then. While I was at Waterloo I did one of my co-op terms in Chicago. After graduation I decided to join my firm’s New York office, simply because it is the largest in North America and the second-largest in the world after London. I figured it would make it easier to get to know people early on in my career. I was on a project in Mexico City for just over three months, but requested to be kept on local projects after that to make good use of my time in New York. I didn’t see the point in paying rent in NYC if I was going to be overseas.

What is more interesting than the number of places I have lived in is the way in which my perspective on the various places has changed over time. Early in my childhood I generally preferred Bahrain to India. India of the late 1980’s and early ’90’s was a very different place than today’s India. Infrastructure was weaker, the economy was strictly regulated with import tariffs, and there were fewer career and educational opportunities for citizens. I did not greatly enjoy my brief stay in Atlanta, still preferring life in Bahrain.

Things changed significantly after moving to Canada in 1996. It did not take me long to realize that Canada and the US were two very different countries. After the initial culture shock resulting from attending a school with a Canadian curriculum, I managed to settle in quite well. In middle school and high school my friends would often ask me which country I preferred out of all the countries I had lived in. I would tell them I preferred Canada, an answer that would often surprise them. They did not realize how many amenities they took for granted. I highly valueed access to libraries, parks, community centres, and public transportation because I had previously lived in countries that lacked such conveniences.

During my undergraduate career at the University of Waterloo, I completed a co-op term in Chicago. I liked the city very much, even though I was there from January to April in what is arguably the worst season of the year in the city, and I had to spend a substantial amount of time studying for an actuarial exam. One of the reasons I liked the city is that I was there with about ten other co-op students and we would often get together on weekends to explore the city. A more important reason is that I saw parallels between Chicago and Toronto. Some of the neighbourhoods in the two cities can be directly mapped to each other, such as Halsted Street in Chicago and Danforth Avenue in Toronto, or Devon Street in Chicago and Gerrard Street in Toronto. In fact, Toronto’s Taste of the Danforth Greek Festival is based on a similar older tradition in Chicago. Chicago’s geography is more favourable than Toronto’s. The presence of large parks and the Chicago River in the downtown area give the city a very pleasant atmosphere in spring and summer.

After graduation I decided to join a consulting firm in New York City. Initially I did not enjoy life in the city. NYC is too big, busy, crowded, and confusing for someone new to it. It reminded me of Bombay (now Mumbai) another city that I have never particularly liked. NYC can sometimes also have a very superficial atmosphere, perhaps due to its being a centre of finance and fashion. Living on Wall Street did not improve the situation for me. Every morning I would fight a crowd of bankers to reach the subway station at Wall Street and Broadway to catch the train to work, trying hard to prevent literally stepping on toes or falling on other passengers when the train lurched forward. The garbage bags strewn along all major ‘famous’ places such as Wall Street and Times Square only caused my impression of the city to deteriorate further. There were also reports of rats on subway stations, but fortunately I did not see any at that time. All in all, I found NYC to be overhyped and quite expensive given the quality of the city.

In November 2007, I was posted on a project in Mexico City. The city, which we simply called ‘Mexico’ or Mexico DF (Distrito Federal), is not like any other city I have ever lived in or visited. The city itself is on a high plateau (~ 7,400 ft.) surrounded by even higher suburbs and mountains. My project was in the suburb of Santa Fe to the west of the city at an altitude of about 8,000 ft. Despite the hectic pace and long hours on the project, the city provided a unique cultural experience. Its architecture has been influenced by Native American, Spanish, and French cultures. Paseo de la Reforma, one of the arterial routes in the city, is modelled on the famous Champs Elysees in Paris. While my stay in Mexico was stimulating and interesting, the stress made me finally start to see NYC as a home and refuge on some weekends.

After I returned from Mexico, I started to explore NYC and found that it really did have something for everyone. Winter was turning to spring and parks were opening up. Although I did not make it to Central Park until July, I enjoyed strolling around Battery Park, Bryant Park, and Washington Square Park. I also enjoyed some of the museums and art galleries, particularly the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). I realized that the Financial District is not just about business and money, but has some interesting historical buildings and landmarks as well as great restaurants. I discovered the city’s nightlife and found that it had some interesting clubs and lounges with a wide variety of music. Over the past several months I have gone from hating the city to tolerating it to loving it. Nonetheless, I cannot see myself living in New York for more than a year or two.

Of all the places I have lived in so far, Toronto is still my favourite and the city I can most easily think of as home. Oddly enough, it is also possibly the city about which I know the least, since my family is in Mississauga and not Toronto. For now I am happy to explore new cities and work overseas, being particularly interested in emerging markets in Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In a few years, however, I can see myself moving back to live and work in the GTA. It provides the right balance of business, culture, fun, and family life. Many of my friends are still in the Toronto area. In the long run, I may want to move to a place that has easy access to mountains, an ocean, or ideally both. But for now, I must prepare for yet another busy morning in New York’s Financial District.

Drive vs. Passion

June 11, 2008

Contemporary corporate culture often seems to favour people who show exceptional drive in their careers.1 How does one distinguish between drive and passion?

Randy Komisar, a practicing Zen Buddhist and author of The Monk and the Riddle, explains the difference between passion and drive in simple terms. According to Komisar, passion pulls you forward and creates energy, whereas drive consumes energy by requiring you to push yourself forward.

Given the above distinction, one would certainly seem to prefer a passionate life to a life that is driven. Passionate people are fully engaged in their pursuits. They relish whatever they do, so that although they work hard, they are seldom exhausted. Yet many people choose to be drive themselves hard, to grind their gears until they push themselves (and often others) over the cliff of burn out.

Unlike drive, which implies a one-track mind, it is possible for one to balance multiple passions. Thinking of my life over the next decade and beyond, I would like to be in a position to balance commitments to family, work, hobbies, and service to my community.

Passion particularly matters at work, considering that people spend one-half to three-fourths (and sometimes more) of their waking hours working. I am incredibly fortunate at present to be doing work that I find fulfilling and challenging, work that allows me to learn and grow professionally each day.

During most weeks I manage to balance work and personal life; weekends allow me time to write, watch a film, explore the city, or hit the hiking trails. Nonetheless, questioning my lifestyle and asking myself whether I am finding meaning and engaging my passions serves as an insightful daily meditation.


  1. The word career is derived from the French word for racecourse. The word vocation comes from the Latin word vocatio for call.

The South Indian Monkey Trap

June 4, 2008

Monkeys are a menace in many parts of India.1 The South Indian monkey trap is a simple device for capturing a monkey. It consists of a coconut hollowed out from one end and chained to a stake in the ground. Some sweet rice is placed inside the coconut. The hole in the coconut is big enough for a monkey to put its hand in and grab the rice, but too small for it to remove its fist with the sweet rice.

Robert Pirsig used the South Indian monkey trap to illustrate the concept of value rigidity in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Curiously, there is no physical barrier preventing a monkey from escaping this trap; there is only a mental barrier. Monkeys have been known to grab the rice and try to withdraw their fists in vain until their captors arrive. Monkeys’ inability to reevaluate rice in the context of the trap costs them their freedom.

People too have their own ‘sweet rice’ that prevents them from achieving true freedom. They find their thoughts and actions constrained by mental barriers of their own creation. Such imaginary constraints often lead to poor decisions.

To achieve freedom, then, we must recognize our mental barriers, be fully aware of value rigidity that may creep into our thought process, and consciously choose our values, thoughts, words, and actions everyday.2


  1. This does not necessarily represent my personal opinion of monkeys.
  2. The title of this blog refers to the Klein bottle, a surface with no distinct ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. A genie inhabiting such a ‘bottle’ would be a free spirit, which is something I aspire to become through introspection and conscious choice.

The Strange Loop of Art

June 1, 2008

“Ars longa, vita brevis, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile” – Hippocrates

(“Life is short, the craft long, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgment difficult.”)

Drawing Hands - M. C. Escher
Drawing Hands by M.C. Escher

Does an artist create art or does art create an artist? Ever since I asked myself the question a few years ago, the answer has seemed to be “both simultaneously.” As an artist practices her art over time, the art reciprocates by refining her skills and influencing her aesthetic judgment. Gradually the painter’s hands become one with the paintbrush, the flute becomes an extension of the flautist’s lips, and the harpist’s fingers meld with the strings of the harp. As surely as a sculptor carves, chisels and sands a block of marble into an elegant sculpture, the marble shapes his raw talent into informed perspective and nuanced judgment.

Almost every aspect of life can be approached as an art at an abstract level. Any field that requires acquisition and refinement of skills over time can be considered an art, whether music, writing, mathematics, sports, human relationships, research, engineering, skilled trades, or the visual arts. By being creative and developing innovative variations over time, one can bring an artistic flair to otherwise mundane tasks such as cooking, driving, yard work, and grocery shopping.

Research in psychology has shown that it takes at least ten years to develop expertise in any area of practice. Moreover, experts tend to approach their discipline differently than amateurs in the field, applying more intuition and spending less time on basic analysis. Any endeavour worth pursuing requires dedication, keen focus, patience and perseverance. While the art takes a lifelong commitment from the artist, it rewards her with an intuitive grasp and mastery that allows her to practice it with rare finesse and sophistication.

Life can be seen as a process of learning and practicing a wide array of arts. While attaining mastery may be the end goal in each art, experience gained along the journey is to be savoured. It allows us to develop as human beings and is, after all, what makes life unpredictable and exciting.