Three years ago, I quit my cushy job at Google to pursue a meaningful life.
For me, that means rich experiences, deep relationships and leaving a mark on the world. Since my traditional 9-5 wasn’t giving that to me, I had to forge my own path.
I didn’t have a plan for how to make a living, but I had conviction in one idea: build a foundation of healthy habits and everything else will follow.
It’s Not Working
For the first two years, I followed this principle religiously. I picked up every “productivity hack” under the sun: meditation, cold showers, weightlifting, etc.
Yet, I was barely closing in on my goal. I hadn’t built a business that would allow me to live the life I desired.
Doubt slowly began to creep in. I wondered if my focus on the foundation was hindering my progress instead of accelerating it.
As a test, I allowed the habits to naturally die. I went from meditating 2 hours a day to 0. I returned to hot showers. I stopped keeping a tracker/planner.
Surprisingly, nothing changed for the worse. If anything, I had more time to focus on my business.
This left me with a whirlwind of emotions.
Confused: did the habits ever actually help? I was fully bought in before, but now I’m not so sure. I guess I have to accept that I’ll never really know.
Frustrated: did I waste all that time? Perhaps. There’s no point in dwelling on it, though. I’m not going to get that time back. The best I can do is ensure it doesn’t happen going forward.
Unsettled: these habits had become a part of my identity. When they fizzled out, it left a gaping hole. Who was I without them?
Embarrassed: I had been shouting my “brilliant” plan from the rooftops and espousing the benefits to anyone who would listen. Now I had to deal with the shame of being publicly wrong.
Above all, I felt directionless. This was my only plan: get the basics right first and then “everything else will follow”. If the second part doesn’t happen, where do I go from here?
This year, I finally found the answer. When I saw that my approach wasn’t working, I had a breakthrough. I was looking at the problem from the wrong direction: with left-to-right thinking and a scarcity mindset.
Instead, I needed to adopt right-to-left thinking and an abundance mindset. That meant putting all the wood behind a single arrow: achieving financial independence.
Let me explain.
Right To Left
I had a mentor who always encouraged us to “think right to left”.
Most people think sequentially: left to right. They start by figuring out where they are and then map out a series of steps to get to their goal. The problem is that this leads to tunnel vision. You’re so preoccupied with taking the next step that you lose sight of the goal.
This was the trap I fell into. I overoptimized my healthy habits and forgot why I was doing them in the first place.
The idea was that once I had a solid foundation, “everything else will follow”. Spoiler alert: it didn’t.
At some point, the habits stopped serving their purpose. Yet, I kept at it. Though it was a means to an end, I treated it as an end in itself. I let myself get stuck at step 1, when I should have aimed directly for step 2: financial independence.
This was just another form of perfectionitis. I got caught up in preparation instead of execution. I figured these habits would be useful to manage the ups and downs of entrepreneurship. It was a catch 22, though. My focus on them prevented me from growing a business to a point where I needed them.
When I thought back to my past, it wasn’t the first time I made this mistake.
From a young age, I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. Yet, I joined Google straight out of college. My justification: I would build a nest egg and see the inner workings of a successful company.
I also knew that coding wasn’t my calling. Yet, I became a software engineer. My justification: a strong technical foundation would make me a better product manager or founder.
In hindsight, those weren’t the wisest long-term decisions. I overstayed by many years. But I see how I ended up here. Each action in isolation was simply the safe and “logical” next step, e.g joining Big Tech after studying computer science. Cumulatively, though, they sucked me into a more indirect path.
That’s what left to right is: repeatedly choosing the “best” option that’s right in front of you. Locally optimal, globally suboptimal.
Right to left is the opposite. It’s when you start with your destination and work backwards. It acts as a compass for when you deviate from your goal. This allows you to remove yourself from the present situation and focus on the big picture: am I moving in the right direction?
If I was thinking right to left, I could’ve cut my losses sooner. I would have chased my goal of entrepreneurship directly, instead of joining Google or adopting those healthy habits.
Sure, I wouldn’t have had the same financial security, work experience or foundation. I would, however, have the time to hone the very skill I was interested in developing in the first place.
Lesson: Go straight for the thing. Don’t get caught up in preparation and lose sight of the goal.
Before this year, I was operating from a scarcity mindset.
I used to think conservatively. My goal was to earn just enough to move to a small town and live a simple life with my family, while being in complete control of my time. If I earned more, fantastic.
I thought I was being wise. If money doesn’t buy happiness, why chase the bells and whistles of an extravagant life? Other than freedom, I didn’t need much to be content.
But this wasn’t my wisdom talking. It was coming from a place of fear. I was afraid to dream big and desire more. I didn’t want to announce my goals and fall short publicly.
If I don’t set a lofty goal, I can’t fail. I was hiding behind this. If I told everyone, including myself, that “I want to make millions”, I would have to suffer the embarrassment if I didn’t.
This changed when I did an exercise: making a vision board. I challenged myself to be open and listen to my subconscious desires. I was surprised by what I chose to include: private jets, vacation homes and courtside seats.
I almost felt guilty for having these goals. I think of myself as a minimalist and it seemed like a narrative violation. Isn’t it wrong to desire such excess?Was I secretly materialistic?
No, I concluded. They each represent genuine values: novel experiences and freedom of time and place. I want to be able to do anything, anywhere, anytime. That’s a valid dream.
Even if it’s ambitious, we all have a right to imagine the life we want to live. How else will you manifest it?
I was reminded of an old quote from Will Smith that always stuck with me.
If you can’t dream, you can’t make it.
So this year, I started to work with an abundance mindset - I have enough and everything I deserve will come to me. It changed everything.
For example, I let myself take bigger swings in business. I paused work on a profitable but stagnating product (Habit Gym) to partner with friends on two new ventures in large, growing industries. I don’t fret about the small things, like who’s working more or how much I’m leaving on the table with Habit Gym. Instead, I focus on what we can build together.
It’s scary, but freeing. I liken it to doing a trust fall with the universe. You have to cultivate a sense of security to let go and trust that good things will happen. Once you have it, everything works out.
This isn’t just woo-woo. If you’re too busy sticking to the script, you don’t even notice the opportunities that fall at your feet. An abundance mindset means having your eyes and ears open to receive them and always being ready to respond. It keeps you agile.
Lesson: Don’t be afraid to dream. Trust the process. Everything will work out.
Goal: Build a sustainable business.
Outcome: I didn’t yet, but I have a firm footing due to my abundance mindset.
The mindset shift played a big role in my business strategy this year.
I incorporated right to left thinking by orienting everything around a single objective: financial independence. If a healthy habit didn’t serve that goal, I dropped it. You can even see the reprioritization in my retrospectives: ventures used to be the last section and now they’re first.
As a result of an abundance mindset, I changed my approach to building businesses.
I abandoned projects when there wasn’t strong traction. For example, I paused development on Habit Gym despite it being profitable. It just didn’t have product market fit. Letting go after 2 years wasn’t easy. I was taking the risk of watching my only revenue dry up and being left with nothing. I also didn’t have another idea to fall back on. Still, I decided to move on. I had faith that something better would come along. I simply needed to create the space for it.
I took on co-founders. This meant giving up ownership in exchange for a slice of a bigger pie. Habit Gym taught me that you can’t build something huge on your own. “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
I also pursued businesses in large, growing industries. Their total addressable market is significant.
In general, I don’t have my sights on lean FIRE anymore. I’m daring to aim higher.
These were my sub-goals from last year:
- Habit Gym: experiment with different engines of growth, e.g paid ads, partnerships, viral growth.
- Diversify with other businesses.
- Reinvest all my earnings to accelerate growth.
I had limited traction with the various growth channels for Habit Gym. I struggled to add more paying subscribers to the ones I currently had. This made me doubt how many people would truly be willing to pay. It was a vitamin, not a painkiller. Even though they found it helpful, they didn’t know how to value it. Plus, there was no urgency to buy.
For my next ventures, I was determined to focus on painkillers. If you can help someone make money or save money, the sale is easy. There’s no question about willingness to pay when the return on investment is obvious.
I also decided that I wasn’t going to do it alone this time. Habit Gym wore me down as a solo founder. It was too much to handle every aspect of the business myself. If I partner with someone, I could diversify across multiple bets.
There were other reasons, too.
Running an online business alone was isolating. I missed the camaraderie of building something together, especially with close friends. The collaboration is energizing.
I also craved real customer interaction. Growing up, I saw the relationships that my dad has with his customers. They’re his dearest friends to this day. Like him, I wanted work to feel like play.
The accountability of a co-founder doesn’t hurt, either. You can’t stall for too long. You have to keep moving the ball forward. Plus, it’s helpful to have a sounding board. You can talk through nuanced decisions together and resolve them quickly.
I applied these lessons to my new ventures. After I paused Habit Gym, I diversified by starting two new companies. Both of them have co-founders and are B2B: they help businesses make or save money.
It’s still early, but there are promising signs of progress. Overall, the path to a viable business is much more clear than with Habit Gym. I’m optimistic about this approach. Even if the specific ideas don’t materialize, I have a framework that I can replicate.
I was also more diligent about reinvesting my earnings. I spent more so I could (in)validate ideas quicker. This has already paid dividends. My velocity is improving. It still isn’t where it needs to be, though.
I’m slowly beginning to realize the value of time. When I first quit, I had a lot of it. Fast forward to three years later and I’m still not close to financial independence. Now it feels like time is running out. This state of limbo is holding up the rest of my life. I need to act with urgency.
To force myself to take it more seriously, I’m giving myself an ultimatum: if I can’t live off my ventures by the end of this year, I will take a paid position to make up the remainder.
- Sell painkillers, not vitamins. Help people make money or save money. The ROI should be obvious.
- Don’t do it alone. I work better alongside people. Plus, you can get more done.
- Time is precious. It’s the only non-renewable resource. Act with urgency.
Goal for next year: Make enough to live off my ventures.
Goal: Continue to nurture my existing relationships. Don’t let them decay while being heads down.
Outcome: I did well, though I could still improve with my parents.
I made an effort to visit or speak to my close friends regularly. I still feel connected to them.
The exception is the few people that have recently gotten married. Though we haven’t lost touch entirely, communication has become rare. It makes me sad to realize this is somewhat permanent. Even if it picks back up after they get settled into their new life, it’ll never return to the previous baseline. Things won’t ever be quite the same.
This makes me nostalgic (and grateful) for all the time we had together before everyone started pairing up. It also creates urgency to maximize this time before we all start having kids. That’s right around the corner and everything is going to change much more rapidly from then on. At that point, we’ll be looking back to this period in our lives and thinking how free we were. Might as well minimize that regret.
Like last year, I fell short on spending quality time with my parents. We take it for granted because we live together. We get pockets of time throughout the day, but didn’t carve out any dedicated time to just be in each other’s presence or go on trips. Since I likely won’t be living with them for much longer, I want to make special memories with them this year. This is a unique period in our lives and I finally sense the urgency to take advantage of it.
Lesson: Life only gets busier. Cherish the special moments that you have with your loved ones. You won’t get that stage of life back.
Goal for next year: Continue to nurture existing relationships. Make special memories with family.
Goal: Be more selective with my experiences. They should provide enjoyment without distracting me from my long-term goals.
Outcome: I was more discerning with how I spent my time.
I’m happy with my discipline on this front. I was able to focus on myself and work for the greater portion of this year.
At the same time, I still took a few trips to explore and meet my loved ones. I don’t regret this, especially with the realization that this is the only period in my life that I’ll be this free. I should take the time to have these experiences before it’s too late, but also make sure that it’s not counterproductive. So far, I’m doing well.
Goal for next year: Take part in experiences while keeping focus on work.
Goal: Scale it even further. Reach an audience of 1m people through my work.
Outcome: I deprioritized this.
This was the goal I grappled with the most this year. I chose to value making a living over impact.
I already tried the virtuous route with Habit Gym. It didn’t work. We were the only accountability platform that wasn’t incentivized for you to fail. We donated 100% of penalties to charity, while our competitors made money from them. Users voted with their dollar and chose them. It turns out that ideals didn’t matter as much as I thought.
I figured I should do the same. Instead of being guided by abstract principles, I’ll just let the market decide what ideas are worth pursuing. After all, money is a proxy for value.
I know I’ll eventually gravitate towards a mission-driven project, but it can wait. My favorite podcast has a saying: “your first nut can be anything, the second is where you change the world”.
That describes my updated strategy: achieve financial independence first, have impact later. The former is the priority. Without it, I won’t be able to craft the life that I’ve always dreamt about.
- Financial independence is the priority. Without it, you don’t have anything else.
- Money is a proxy for value. The market decides what’s valuable. Users vote with their dollar.
These were my goals from last year:
- Publish with regularity.
- Focus on improving quality and reducing time taken.
- Actively experiment with techniques to optimize the writing process.
- Build around a coherent theme.
Outcome: I decided to only publish monthly retrospectives. They are incredibly valuable, but I need to do them faster.
I published weekly for the first half of the year. Then, I stopped. I realized it wasn’t contributing to my goal of achieving financial independence. So I dropped it in order to stay focused.
I maintained the monthly reflections because they are profoundly helpful. They’re my scheduled reminder to zoom out and course-correct. Without them, I’d be absorbed in everyday minutiae and lose sight of the big picture.
It’s the same for these annual reflections. I get a chance to pause, process all the events of the year and learn from them. It often surfaces subconscious emotions or realizations that I wasn’t even aware of. Then, I’m able to inspect them up close and dissect them. This helps me understand myself better and make sense of my behavior patterns. You can’t fix what you don’t know.
My gravest concern is how long the retrospectives take. I’m comfortable with the sit-down writing time, but not how many days it takes to do it. For an essay that takes 10 hours of real writing, a week can pass before I finish. The main culprit is writer’s block. I procrastinate by doing busy work or wasting time entirely. It’s almost never important work.
This is just unacceptable. There’s no other way to put it. I can’t afford to spend 25% of my working month on a reflection. I need to be moving the needle on my primary goal: financial independence.
I’ve also missed some reflections. While I’m inclined to beat myself up over it, I know that’s not a good idea. I don’t want to force it just because I committed. Ultimately, I have to keep the purpose in mind: to help me on my journey to financial independence. If that time is better spent on work for whatever reason (traveling, time-sensitive goals, sickness, etc), I should do that.
Lesson: It’s ok to miss on your habits. You don’t have to be religious about them. Keep the goal in mind.
Goal for next year: Complete the retrospectives in a smaller timespan. Write for at least 4 hours a day when there’s an essay due.
Goal: Get the right things done.
Outcome: I successfully prioritized, but execution is still lacking.
These were my sub-goals from last year:
- Get disciplined about prioritization through rigorous timeboxing, batching and sequencing.
- Maximize focused work hours by eliminating distractions and developing a more consistent sleep schedule.
- Work 7 hours a day according to plan.
I was great at moving the biggest levers. As a result, I made more progress this year than the others. It may not be externally visible, but I’m happy with the trajectory of my businesses. I’m moving much faster than before and invalidating quickly. I guess that’s easy when you spend 2 years on a product that didn’t really hit PMF, right?
I had limited focused hours of work throughout the day. I got caught up in distractions and afternoon naps.
Though naps aren’t objectively my biggest problem, they had the most impact. They made me feel useless, even more than going on YouTube during the day. I suspect it’s because even people in offices waste time on the Internet. But no one naps. When I do, it just reminds me that I don’t have a real job and might be throwing my life away. That’s my biggest fear.
I want to overcome it this year. I mentioned last year that this feels like a regret in the making. I only have a limited window to achieve financial independence and I can’t waste it. I need to give it my 100%. I can feel the clock ticking and I’m not going to be happy when it runs out. This is especially true if I have to look back and realize that I just spent that time procrastinating and napping. It just goes against how I view myself.
The thought of being left behind by my peers makes this worse. The 9-5ers are building a nest egg and upgrading their lifestyle. The entrepreneurs have traction and are on a success path. I would hate to be the one that didn’t achieve either because of my poor work ethic.
I know you’re not supposed to compare, but I simply expected better of myself. It’s about time I live up to that self-image.
- Move the big levers. 20% of the work has 80% of the impact.
- Embody your self-image. Act like the person you believe you are.
Goal for next year: No more distractions. Sleep consistently early and eliminate naps.
Health + Happiness
Goal: Land on a set of foundational habits.
Outcome: I maintained a consistent routine with exercise and diet. I stopped meditating (intentionally). I wasn’t able to get my sleep on track.
These were my sub-goals from last year:
- Go/no go decision on Vipassana.
- Add fruits, vegetables and pre/probiotics to my standard meal plan.
- Exercise 3x/week. Get back to weight training when healthy; substitute it for another form if injured.
- Maintain a consistent sleep schedule - 8 hours of high-quality sleep and wake up at 6am.
- Experiment with ways to avoid post-lunch sluggishness, including walks, standing work sessions and contained naps.
- Set hard rules for when intoxicants are allowed (maybe never).
- No screen time before/after sleeping.
- Publish monthly retrospectives. Free-form journal every week. Maintain weekly and daily habit trackers.
This was the year I stopped meditating. It marks the end of a long journey (for now). I’m grateful for all it’s given me. It left me with a steady state of tranquility and positive changes to my personality. However, I found that these benefits didn’t diminish even after the habit subsided. Since it’s not evidently serving me, I decided to stop. I can always pick it up again if I sense a need in the future. Until then, I get back 1-2 hours a day.
As I recovered from my shoulder injury, I returned to my workout and nutrition routine. I was more consistent with this than anything else in my life and it showed. It yielded excellent results, both physically and mentally. I’m proud of my new body composition. Plus, it was a great stress-reducer. This quickly made it one of my favorite hobbies - I always look forward to my lifting sessions. I plan on keeping it going this year.
I didn’t get into a rhythm with sleeping on time. The biggest culprits were late night screen usage, either due to calls or just wasting time. I saw incremental progress from last year, but I want to wake up even earlier. The morning hours are the most productive and I’d love to use them. This goes hand in hand with the number of work sessions I can get in a day.
I continued to struggle with post-lunch sluggishness. I found some techniques to address it, but I wasn’t diligent about actually using them. This time around, I have to be more disciplined. I can’t waste another year.
I engaged more with intoxicants than I would’ve liked. This is still significantly less than average, but I don’t want to waste even half a day because I’m groggy from poor sleep the night before. Going forward, I’ll abstain if it’s going to affect my sleep.
I didn’t journal every week. I stopped my habit trackers partway through. I realized that the monthly retrospectives were doing their job. The rest is just extra. I only need to focus on moving the needle on a single goal: achieving financial independence.
Goals for next year:
- Maintain exercise and nutrition habits.
- Abstain from intoxicants if it will affect sleep.
- (Sleep goals already captured in effectiveness)
Do I want to keep doing this?
Yes, but I feel like my time is coming to an end. This year is make or break. Though I won’t be forced to stop, I’m at risk of getting caught in a holding pattern. Too many other aspects of my life are waiting on this to get sorted. At this stage, they take priority.
So, I’m going to give it another shot this year. If I can’t achieve financial independence myself, I plan on earning from external sources to make up for the rest and unblock myself.
Let’s get it!
This post took 1350 minutes to write. Why I’m telling you this.
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P.S: You can find more of my thoughts on Twitter @_suketk.