Personal

Who are you?

Photo by Jyotirmoy Gupta on Unsplash

Every August, US filmmakers rush to make the Sundance Film Festival deadline. And in early December, Sundance announces its lineup. The day before, everyone is equal—all aspiring filmmakers. But the moment Sundance announces, the wheat is separated from the chaff. There are those who will have a film that “premiered at Sundance,” and… there are the other mere mortals. Both groups will now be treated differently as expectations start to diverge.

While companies are less of a lemming-like march to the cliff than film festival applicants, similar rules apply. After a company goes down in flames, or after you get fired, the same thing happens. The very next day, there’s a sense that you’re a different person.

In both cases, I see a similar pattern: people define themselves (and each other) in terms of their successes and failures. But both success and failure are transient and ephemeral. They can both be taken away, forgotten, or overcome. Successes and failures aren’t who you are.

Perhaps, instead of letting successes and failures define you, define yourself according to something no one can take away, something you cannot lose.

If you can lose your job, you are not your job or your job title. If you can lose company, you are not your company. If you always need permission to create or make a film, you are not a creator or filmmaker.

A couple of years ago, someone asked me if I would view myself as a failure if I failed at my job as a venture investor. My answer was yes. I explained that my job is a huge part of who I am, and if I fail at it, yes, I would be a failure.

Since that conversation, I’ve come to a more nuanced view of the world. I wouldn’t say to a founder, “If your company fails, you are a failure.” Quite the opposite. You are not your company, and regardless of whether you took it public or closed it down, you are separate from the entity that is your company.

So, if not by those ephemeral things, how can you define yourself?

  • Instead of defining yourself according to your job description, you can think about characteristics like persistence, compassion, and thoughtfulness.
  • Instead of defining yourself according to successes and failures, you can look at the chances you choose to take. There are second chances, there are third chances—but they only exist if you don’t give up on yourself, and if you actually take them.
  • Instead of defining yourself according to your ego, you can think of yourself as someone who’s always learning.
  • External validation is the bane of humanity. Fuck external validation.

Despite the transience, we let success and failure have such a huge impact on us. Depending on how we deal with it, they can change our life trajectories. But these things still aren’t who we are. Who you are is the amalgam of personal characteristics that make you up. It’s what you learn from success and failure. It’s how you deal with it, and what you go on to do with it. That’s what no one can take away from you, and that’s what makes you who you are.

Being Wrong

Photo by Andrej Lišakov on Unsplash

At some point in 2002, while I was still relatively new to eBay, I found myself sitting in a room with the exec staff discussing something strategic. Many of the details of the meeting are now blurry, but one little event is still crystal clear in my mind. People were talking, discussing options with opinions flying around, and I said something. I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember the reaction to it. 

One of the senior leaders—a lovely, but brutally honest and blunt man—said, “That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard.”

There was a pause in the conversation. My heart stopped. And then the conversation continued, while I sat there, stunned. 

I felt in my bones that I must speak again, in this meeting, to get over that comment, to move on and retain the confidence that I can contribute.  I practically forced myself to speak again. Sort of like falling off a horse and getting back on. 

I can guarantee you that the only person who remembers that moment now, 18 years later, is me. It’s actually a moment I’ve thought about several times as one of the key learning moments in my life. 

The reality is that we will all be wrong sometimes, or at the very least, perceived to be wrong. It’s the price of speaking, the price of thinking, the price of writing. So what should we do? Never speak, think, or write unless we are certain we are right? That would erase your voice from the conversation. 

I wrote a post last week about Quibi, and I purposely made a bold statement about how innovative this new film platform is. The innovation is not just the short-form content (or chapters) that Quibi uses; it is creating an interaction between the form factor of the screen (the phone) with the content for the first time in cinema. 

Many (most?) people disagree. Some even wrote to me privately to tell me why I was wrong. I love the engagement. 

Am I sure that Quibi will succeed? Absolutely not. But I am glad they are trying something fresh, new, and innovative, and I certainly hope they will succeed because I love the bold approach. I’ve been watching chapters for the past two nights and it’s a slick user experience. 

As investors, we need to be both right and contrarian to make a return for our LPs. We will often be wrong, too, because the path to success for any company is filled with so many near-death experiences along a very winding road. But we can’t be afraid to make an investment.

Similarly, we can’t be afraid to talk or write. I will be right sometimes. I will be wrong sometimes. What matters to me is the thinking and the engagement. And I prefer to have a hopeful and optimistic view of the world, where I am rooting for success rather than failure. 

Speak up. Claim your seat at the table. So what if you are wrong sometimes? We are all wrong sometimes. Shake it off and move on. I promise you that you are the only one who will remember that moment (even days later). Ultimately, your voice matters. Don’t erase yourself.

What I’m Doing as I Try Not to Panic

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

All you can do right now is focus on the things you can control. 

Most of the world is in lock down, which is crucial to keep vulnerable people safe. Anxiety is through the roof. The natural state is to allow the “issue” to take up 95% of your brain and to fully embrace a state of panic. I’ve definitely had moments of this in the past few days. 

But, I’ve had to reel myself back and think about the other times I’ve dealt with high levels of anxiety — 9/11, parental illness and loss, a cancer diagnosis. The key, each time, to my keeping my sanity has been to focus a majority of my brain on the things I can control. 

To do that, I structure the shit out of it. Our work lives and our home lives have a structure, rhythm, and flow. I am trying to continue that while being trapped in one location. 

Spero Ventures has been WFH since March 3rd. We cancelled an event that was scheduled for that day and encouraged people to stay safe.

While we are working from home and all of our “meetings” are on video, everything else is the same. 

  • We are still investing. We closed on an investment today.
  • We are still looking for new investments. We are meeting founders on Zoom.
  • We are still doing regular calls with our portfolio and focusing on how to get through this time.
  • We are even doing our events. They just happen to be on Zoom. Later this week, we will announce a Zoom call for anyone who is interested in or building a community around our Product-Led Community thesis. Follow me on Twitter to hear about the announcement. 

Personally, I am:  

  • Keeping to my regular working schedule. Doing all meetings at my desk at home instead of my desk at work or at founder offices.
  • Making sure the kids have structure for their online learning — no PJs all day!
  • Making sure I meditate. I’ve been using Core several times a day – here are the results of my mediation from this morning
  • Doing PT for my knee (ski accident, ugh) 
  • Working on things that get me into the flow state – this is awesome because the anxiety is not front and center when this happens.

One upside to having four people locked in the house is that I don’t have to uber my kids anywhere. That is free time that I can use to re-engage with things that give me joy.

My plan is to upgrade the internals of my old (2008) Mac Pro, set up a central photo database, and start editing again. I’m going to try to get Final Cut Pro X up and running and recut a film I made in 2012 that may be festival worthy. 

Even writing this made me realize there is a lot that I can control. My hope is that focusing on this gets me through the next few weeks and months.

I will leave you with this perspective-setting paragraph from Rebecca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell:

In some of the disasters of the 20th century—the big northeastern blackouts in 1965 and 2003, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area, 2005’s Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast—the loss of electrical power meant that the light pollution blotting out the night sky vanished. In these disaster-struck cities, people suddenly found themselves under the canopy of stars still visible in small and remote places. On the warm night of August 15, 2003, the Milky Way could be seen in New York City, a heavenly realm long lost to view until the blackout that hit the northeast late that afternoon. You can think of the current social order as something akin to this artificial light: another kind of power that fails in disaster. In its place appears a reversion to improvised, collaborative, cooperative and local society. However beautiful the stars of a suddenly visible night sky, few nowadays could find their way by them, but the constellations of solidarity, altruism and improvisation are within most of us and reappear at these times. People know what to do in a disaster. The loss of power, the disaster in the modern sense, is an affliction, but the reappearance of these old heavens is its opposite. This is the paradise entered through hell.

What we leave behind

Photo credit: My Father

Like many fathers, mine had a list of aphorisms he’d repeat. One of his favorites was “You come with nothing and you go with nothing.” 

Last year, I got the middle of the night phone call every immigrant fears. It was too late to say goodbye. Landing in Chennai, coming home, and seeing him, so alone and still, the memory of his words resonated strongly. 

This week, I’m in India again to mark the first anniversary of my father’s passing. One of the unavoidable side effects of this trip is being forced to think about life and purpose.

My father will be remembered for starting a company that focused on innovation and excellence, establishing environmental and worker safety standards much ahead of its time. More importantly, he’ll be remembered by employees for recognizing their contribution as vital to the organization. When the company was awarded the Deming Prize, my father took top management and union leaders to Japan so they could all accept the prize together. 

He’ll be remembered for his creativity and love for tinkering, creating a go-kart from scratch while a student at IIT, Madras. And for taking apart the Nano, one of India’s new generation of small cars, slicing through the body and putting it back together to make it even smaller (and fully functional). More importantly, people will remember his infectious joy at solving a challenge he set for himself, his curiosity, his unwillingness to give up, and, despite his deep appreciation for the effort that created the ideal car for the country, his delight at having bettered something hundreds of engineers had worked on.

He’ll be remembered for his obsession with photography. For the incredible images that captured the scale and devotion of religious festivals of Madurai (as in the photo above),  and the detailed and intricate ones that captured the delicate beauty of flowers. More importantly, he will be remembered by the people he taught to be photographers and by the people he impacted with his photography. 

In a world where leaders are criticized for putting profit above all else, he will be remembered for how he lived with complete integrity. 

My Father

What we leave behind are not just the things we create, but the enduring impact of how we do our work and pursue our passions.

It’s something I have thought a lot about this past year and that I will continue to think about in the years to come.

My father took nothing with him. But between the coming and the going, he left a lot behind. 

Facing fears

 

So I biked down a steep country road (and hit a car). I sledded down an icy hill (and hit a tree). I don’t remember my parents freaking out; they seemed to understand that mishaps were part of childhood. I got a few stitches, and kept biking and sledding. Misadventures meant that I should try again. With each triumph over fear and physical adversity, I gained confidence.

Source: Why Do We Teach Girls That It’s Cute to Be Scared? – The New York Times

This is important for all kids. Grateful that my mother let me do anything I wanted – I climbed trees and fell, rode a moped and crashed into a wall, biked, swam, ran barefoot, played soccer with the boys, and broke many, many bones.

Like the author, my mother supported me. Unlike the author, her mother supported her. A line of outliers.

Designing your path -

Designing your path

When I was in my late twenties, I was convinced that I was on the right path, and one that I would be on for a long time. I was working in Silicon Valley, and while the hours were long, I was having a lot of fun.

But then life happened, I moved to New York and dreams I had suppressed were brought to the fore. Since I was a young child, I had wanted to be a photographer. So, I decided to go on an adventure and become a filmmaker. And what an adventure it’s been. I’ve never worked harder and never been happier.

My dear friend and former colleague, Avid Larizadeh, wrote an article in Forbes about inspiring women to design their own paths.

It has become clear that we need to do more to shine a light on the ambitious, successful women who dream big and achieve their personal and professional goals while staying true to themselves.

She, very kindly, cites me as one of the examples.

Shripriya Mahesh is an incredible woman: A wife, a mother, an award-winning filmmaker and a successful Silicon Valley executive. She owes all of it to her passion, openness and determination. When I first started at eBay, she was assigned to me as my mentor and then became my boss and my friend. I’m now lucky enough to be godmother to her twins, so I know first hand how open, passionate and strong she is. Shri leads by example: She taught me how to create solutions for any problem and above all, that you can pursue your passion at any stage. She reinvented herself as a filmmaker after 15 successful years in technology while having twins and supporting her parents who were struggling with illnesses. Shri has now found a way to fulfil both passions by leading the product launch for a startup and working on her first feature. She proves that it is possible to handle any personal and professional challenge with determination and positive energy.

You can’t co-opt someone else’s path. You are unique, what makes you happy is unique. Figuring out your path is not easy, but it is worth it. For me, the path was much more circuitous than I would have imagined, but also more fulfilling that I could have imagined.

I love film. I love tech. I want to find a way to do both. Can I? I don’t know, but I am certainly going to try.

Each (of the women) is very unique in her path and identity, however they all share a few very important traits: They are passionate, positive, hard working, confident and most importantly, they are constantly learning and teaching. They promote others and are great leaders with loyal followers. And if you ask each and every one of them, they will tell you that they are no better than you. If they can design their own paths and stay true to themselves, you can, too

 

Live With Bliss -

Live With Bliss

MS Subbulakshmi was one of the greatest carnatic singers of all time.

On
October 23, 1966, she sang Maithreem Bhajata at the United Nations in New York City.

My grandparents were in the audience.

My mother used to sing the song to me as a child and I loved it for its musicality. When I learned the meaning, I loved it even more.

The key message, of the song is “Sreyo Bhooyaath Sakala Janaanaam” which translates to “Let all the people live with bliss”.

And that is my wish for 2014.

With friendship please serve,

And conquer all the hearts,

Please think that others are like you,

Please forsake war for ever,

Please forsake competition forever,

Please forsake force to get someone else’s property,

For mother earth yields all our desires,

And God our father is most merciful,

Restrain, donate and be kind,

To all the people of this world,

Let all the people live with bliss,

Let all the people live with bliss,

Let all the people live with bliss.

Photo credit and all rights owned by: Raghu Rai
Source of the translated lyrics: Wikipedia

Consolidating the blogs -

Consolidating the blogs

I started this blog my personal blog, Almost As Good As Chocolate1, on September 29, 2006. There were busy moments and there were large lulls. Over time though, with Twitter and Tumblr, with work and life, I ended up posting here2 less and less.

I am, however, posting on the Tatvam blog and on Tumblr. Given that it’s been a year since I’ve posted here3, it is time to consolidate, to simplify.

All of this content will move to my Tatvam blog4 where I will continue blogging about film, but now, also about things that interest me and about technology. Every post that was written originally on this blog will be tagged with the “Almost As Good As Chocolate” category. And you will not need to update anything – the RSS feed and the emails will still work as I will update them on the back end.

Over the next few weeks, as I transition, there *may* be a few glitches. Thank you in advance for understanding.

I’ve met some great friends through this blog5 – I look forward to seeing you on Tatvam.

Update: I realize this post gets a bit confusing when it’s viewed, post-migration on the Tatvam blog. Just to be clear, it was the last post on my personal blog. All the posts were then migrated. Now it lives here on Tatvam. Clear? Good.


  1. It used to live at http://shripriya.com/blog, which now redirects to my Tatvam site 

  2. see point 1 

  3. see point 1 

  4. it has now moved and you are reading it on Tatvam 

  5. see point 1