Why I took my birthday off Facebook.

Why I took my birthday off Facebook.

“Many Happy Returns of the day. Happy Onam.” I type into the comment box of the birthday girl. Sometimes I replace Onam with Easter or something equally inane. Mostly, nobody reads the comment. Sometimes someone may like it. Rarely is it commented upon – even though I may have wished you Happy Moharram on your birthday. If I had 100+ repetitive, predictable comments on my timeline, I would ignore them too. Or mechanically like them. There’s probably an app for that.

So now when Facebook reminds me that it is XYZ’s birthday and “I should help them celebrate by wishing them” I don’t. The “wish people on facebook” has gone beyond farcical into the territory of satire.

More people communicating through Facebook makes Facebook richer. Not me. So I refuse to be a tool to be used by Facebook. Honestly, I don’t care to wish that colleague from the dark ages or the girl-I-met-once-on-vacation a happy birthday. And I really don’t care if they wish me. To me Facebook is a convenient way to keep-in-touch with people far away. Facebook calls it a friendship. I don’t. To check that reality, try borrowing large sums of money from each of your “friends”. That should be fun!

So I changed the privacy settings for my own birthday and made it invisible on Facebook. Yes, you can do that.

Nobody wished me on Facebook this year, and you know what? I feel great.

So how did I celebrate my birthday? What did I do?

I celebrated my birthday by doing the things I enjoy. I’ve wanted to explore the walking path from our home to a village named Lveshal. It is a IMG_20181209_13094740 km round trip by car. On my birthday, my-favourite-person-in-the-world and I packed a little day-pack and we ventured out to find the walking trail. We got lost, discovered a waterfall, had tea and oranges in the forest, then we found a road on which we walked for 4 km. We came across one vehicle in those 4 km and finally reached Lveshal. There we had chai-samosa, got directions to the actual trail and then hiked back on it along a stream. Along the way we also saw some beautiful birds, and found a gorgeous tail-feather almost 12 inches long. The 13k hike took us five hours, so after coming home I took a well-deserved nap. While I slept my-favourite-person-in-the-world – who was equally tired after the walk – baked me a cake. My kids gave me a birthday card which they had made by sticking beads on paper. Good luck buying those – and the feeling which comes with it – in a store. After dark we lit a wood-fire in the bukhari and I cut in the cake to loud singing by the kids. Then we had Chinese food for dinner.

It was my most wonderful birthday ever.

With social media we land up maintaining hundreds of superficial relationships instead of focusing on a few important ones. Instead of doing deep, we go wide. But I would take a few deep relationships over a thousand shallow ones.

If after reading this blog you immediately open up facebook to wish me a belated birthday, you really didn’t get it, did you?

P.s. This doesn’t fit with the article, but wanted to share anyway. I didn’t get a single gift, for which I am grateful. I already have way too much stuff, and way to little space to keep it. I don’t need another bobble-head or another mug with my name on it. The one thing hard to find where we live is decent beer. Everything else, either I already have or I don’t need.

Village mein Start-up?

Village mein Start-up?

Pankaj addressed the 100 students in the hall at the ITI, a vocational training institute in Tandi village.

“How many people want to start their own business?”

Only 3 hands went up. The ITI teacher told them “Listen to me, you schmucks. After trying for a job for many years you will then look to start your own business. You should do it right now with their help.” (suitably translated from Hindi)

The teacher was referring to Udhyam’s offer to help aspiring entrepreneurs with financing and mentorship. Udhyam means enterprise in Hindi.  And this Udhyam is an organization that works in the villages to promote entrepreneurship.

The biggest challenge in villages here is poverty. People grow up with financial uncertainty and are vulnerable to things like weather and disease. Their dream is the highly coveted government job with its predictable, high income. Practically all boys want to be soldiers and all girls teachers. To even try for these jobs one needs to have completed school education, and often a lot more.

25% of boys and 20% of girls still do not complete school in Uttarakhand (source website here  ) and college Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) stands at a mere 32%. That means a large proportion of the youth are ineligible for the jobs. Even for those eligible, the competition is extremely tough. Most of the youth land up picking small jobs around here, and many of the young men head to the city.

Seeing all this, Udhyam is working to encourage the youth to get into entrepreneurship.

Udhyam poster 2
Posters like this one, and another featuring Jeevan (cover picture) dotted our landscape. Lalita & Jeevan are both successful entrepreneurs from last year. 

They started with a small pilot last year with just eight businesses financed and mentored. This year the target is to help 40 businesses with cheap loans and also offer mentoring to the ones that need it.

The idea is simple and the impact will be significant, but pulling it off is no easy task. The awesome Udhyam team visited 255 villages, put up 2000 posters, held 70 village meetings, and after all that received 499 calls. All that has been sifted down to 59 shortlisted candidades after the first round of the screening. The first round of screening interviews was on October 28-29 and I was lucky to be invited to be part of the interview panel screening the applicants.

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Udhyam selection Panel meeting

I requested permission for my 11 year old son,  A. Mahajan, to also participate. We are home-schooling him and I could not imagine a better forum to channel his inner entrepreneur. Many interesting dilemmas came up. Should we fund the guy wanting to start a DJ business (given that he will probably blow the neighbourhoods peace to bits?). What about the restauranteur who allows surreptitious drinking? And the goat farmer who will allow free grazing in the forest (which is terrible for the ecology) and may ask his school age kids to graze goats instead of having them attend school? And should women be encouraged even if their business plans seemed iffy?

Some of these were too heavy for Anhad, but I have given below his take on the experience (his English assignment).

But before we go there, I wanted to talk a little about the force behind this movement. Pankaj Wadhwa is an amazing guy. To call him dynamic and high-energy is like calling a cat nimble. He’s a classic example of people who Uncity and bring much benefit and good to the area. His first enterprise was started in 2008 to help rural producers sell their products, and currently supports some 18 NGOs. You may have seen shops named Himjoli if you’ve travelled around Uttarakhand. That’s his baby. And Udhyam is his most recent initiative. Pankaj is more action less talk, so predictably Udhyam doesn’t have a website yet.  And while Himjoli has a website (https://himjoli.org/ ), I was unable to find his name on the site.

Shark Tank* of the village

By A. Mahajan, 11 years

I had lots of fun yesterday and day before yesterday (the 29th and the 28th of October 2018). I liked it because we/I got to interview some interesting people like the photographer and the person who wanted to open/upgrade his Dhaba (which he called his “restaurant”).We also got to see how much money they wanted and how they would spend it and how they would pay it back plus how much risk there is in their businesses and how much can you trust them. I really liked it. It was lots of fun, at least the first day. The first day was in a KMVN in Bhimtal. The KMVN was definitely not the best – not great rooms, food was OK, but the view was great. At least the bathrooms were clean. The first day we had 9 interviews out of that 2 people dropped out, but 7 people did show up. And here were their ideas- mushroom farming, photographer, beauty parlor, clothing shop, herbal tea shop, knitting group and a music & arts school. After all the interviews all of us as in the selection panel met and discussed a little then everybody went home except for us and a few others. Anurag uncle was one of them, and we stayed back at the KMVN and partied – here is what we did. We got chicken pastas and Oreo shakes and ate our dinner while watching Netflix and then we slept. Next morning, we got up early washed up, packed and left, we had breakfast on the way then we went to Almora and did the rest of the interviews. This time we met 6 people and here were their ideas – 2 shop keepers, a restaurant, a tailor, a furniture shop and a cattle farm. And then again after the interviews we (the panel) met and discussed about the interviews chatted about people who we weren’t sure about and after all that we said our goodbyes and left for home.

Here are some of the reasons for rejection: if the applicant doesn’t need the money, capability of returning the money, bad business ideas, serving alcohol without a permit, etc.

And here are some reasons for acceptance: creating employment, benefiting the society, low risk profile, people whose business idea needed the money etc.

_____

*Shark Tank is an American TV series where entrepreneurs make their presentations to a panel of investors. Details here .

Moonrise Barbeque

Moonrise Barbeque

“There is no love greater than the love of food”

(Quote from Britannia Cafe, Ballard estate, Mumbai)

We had just come off a hectic six week spell of guests and visitors. Then suddenly, there was calm. The last guests checked out*. R’s school went on break.

“A” decided on celebrating the quiet with a “Family day” so we cuddled, played board games and badminton, and generally spent the whole day together. “A” improvised a pretty fancy lunch from leftovers, and gave each of us a “review sheet”. Vandita and R gave him 5 stars + so he complained about unfair parenting when I gave his lunch “only” 4.5 stars.

I also had my own surprise planned for that evening. I intended to grill some chicken for the kids. Fresh chicken isn’t readily available around here, so I called the meat shop in Bhowali (30 km away)  and asked him to hand over 1 kg of chicken to the bus that comes up everyday. 3 hours later we met the bus at it’s usual time, but the driver said no one had given him any chicken. A call to Bhowali confirmed that our supplier had forgotten.

The backup was to check at our big neighbourhood grocer Kapil store – locally referred to as the WalMart. His deep-freezer can be unreliable, so I was delighted that he actually had some frozen chicken available. We proceeded to thaw and marinate the chicken. The grill I have is an ancient Weber from my days in the US, carried back from Chicago only because I was entitled to half a container as part of my transfer to India.

So we lit some coal in the grill and sat out in the balcony. It was windy and getting the fire going was a struggle. Both the kids were willing volunteers helping me with everything. We were out of matches so R repeatedly lit the candle from the gas. A went and found some dry kindling, and so on. (The purist in me refuses to use kerosene or other flammables.) The fire finally caught. We played Uno sitting on a durree on the balcony as we waited for the coals to turn red. The air was nippy and soon blankets were brought out and we sat together snuggled in blankets playing uno under the dim balcony light.

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Moonrise Barbeque

My amateur attempts at grilling meant a delayed dinner. But soon an almost full moon rose over the ridge of the local reserve forest, and things went from beautiful to surreal. A simple dinner of grilled chicken and bread was eaten with much relish as we watched the moon wink it’s way in and out of the clouds. It was another lovely evening.

 

It made me remember the time I served in the city, and all the opportunities we had lost. I don’t remember ever having seen a moonrise, or ever having spent an entire day as a family on an activity list made by the kids.

I was glad to be here, even if a few years late. It made me think about the price we pay for our dreams. Made me wonder about the tradeoff between money & happiness, and the habits we find so hard to break. It also reminded me of a beautiful Lao Tzu quote.

“If you don’t change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”

I’m glad I did.

_________

* The place referred to here is quietplace.in , a specialty home stay run by the author in the Indian Himalayas.

Quiet Place? Really?

Quiet Place? Really?

Everything happened in Nanoseconds. The dog took off after the rooster. The rooster ran flapping its wings, squawking a frantic SOS. Human voices cried out “Po! Leave it!”. For a dog named after a Panda, she moved fast. Things ended without any loss of life, although the rooster has developed a nervous tic and needs counseling. But my psychologist wife insists that Cognitive Behavior Therapy doesn’t work on poultry.

The above is one of many true incidents at our new place. The place which will be the new home for the erstwhile homeless Himalayan Writing Retreat. The same place we were trying to name, and for which many of you had voted. Thank you for taking the time. The votes helped.

In the vote count, “Centreself” topped the list with “Thought Orchard” & “Quiet Place”a very close second. They are lovely names. We realized that they are also very serious, and we’re not. Neither is the place we’re creating. We are serious about giving people a great experience, but we don’t do heavy. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. Maybe that’s why the sole award this blog has won was for humour.

Our place, like us, is full of quirks. Our location is a windy, picturesque ridge where our chickens walk on two feet but our wifi limps. Our loving dogs frequently try to reduce our workload by eating our hens. My US licensed, doctoral degree holding psychologist wife sometimes gets paid in vegetables and fruits by the locals for her services.

We all have our quirks. They make us unusual and different. Quirky is best defined as “Weird in a good way.” The quirk can be anything. A need to wear a fedora hat & leather boots – and nothing else – on a beach. The need to know the names of all the birds you see. The urge to wrap the selfie stick around the neck of the person using it. The desire to stop in the middle of things and write down an idea or thought because you might use it later.

It’s all weird in a good way. So we nearly settled on Quirky Ridge for the name.

But then we realized that while “Quirky Ridge” may make people curious, it may not  inspire them to stay with us. We needed a more appealing name – something that goes with the sagacity associated with the mountains. A name that would reflect the physical beauty and calm that mostly prevails at our place. A name that tells guests how perfect our place is for the writer or artist seeking inspiration. A name that appeals to the frantic city dweller looking for stillness.

I wanted a name that slips from the mind and easily sticks to the tongue. Strike that out. I mean I wanted a name that sticks in the mind and easily slips off the tongue.

So after much gut-wrenching debate, we’ve settled for quietplace. You can check out our website at www.quietplace.in .

We plan to train our dog. And if the rooster keeps up it’s racket, we may have to eat it. Very quietly.

Moving to Kumaon? Is your bladder big enough?

Moving to Kumaon? Is your bladder big enough?

For anyone thinking of moving to Kumaon, here’s a checklist.

  1. Grow your bladder.
  2. Replace your laptop with a paper notebook
  3. Be your own garbagemanperson
  4. Start thinking about Caste
  5. Be Zen.

If you think this list is strange, read on.

1. Grow your bladder.

No, not your gall bladder. The other one. You see Kumaon is water deficient. And flush tanks are the biggest enemies of water. The summer months are a severe struggle unless you are one of the lucky few with a natural spring on your land. And even those can dry up in the summer. During those days (such as right now) we often pee collectively as a family. That way we flush just once and conserve water. All our pretty flowering plants are a write off – watering plants is a luxury. Lets not even discuss bathing. If you want to be in the mountains, and not have water problems, choose Kangra Valley in Himachal. It offers everything Kumaon does + water.

2. Don’t be laptop dependent.

The power here can fail often. Mostly for a few hours but it can also stretch to days. The last time we had a long outage, my inverter also packed up. I called the inverter company, and they said they cannot send someone such a long way. So I lugged my inverter to Haldwani (a mere 3 hour drive) to have it fixed. When it was done I brought it back & plugged it in again. One month later – exactly when the repair warranty ended, we had a power surge. It blew the inverter again, along with the power adapter for both our laptops, and myriad other electrical gadgets. The first draft of this post was written on paper.

3. Be your own Garbageperson.

You maybe a dirtbag, but at least you will be politically correct.  Nobody will come to collect your Garbage here. The Economic Times  said they would. That was two years and one day ago. That is गंदा  propaगंदा. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/nainital-to-launch-solid-waste-management-system-for-rural-areas/articleshow/47397029.cms

Getting rid of your garbage is your problem. The more aware residents separate their trash. The organic waste is composted or fed to cows / hens. The non-perishable and recyclable stuff has to be taken down to the recycling centre in Haldwani (which nobody is sure actually works). Many people just burn everything. Those of us with an ecological bone try and dispose of their trash responsibly. The last time I drove to Delhi my car was loaded with full trashbags. I heard another fun story about when the local city migrants had tried to hire someone with a pickup truck to collect all the trash and deliver it to Haldwani. After some weeks they realized that he would take the trash and simply chuck it all down the hillside a few miles away. Right now the very gallant Vikram Maira of Sitla Estate is offering free trash delivery to the recycling plant in Haldwani for all residents who dump it in a pre-appointed spot. We all love that he is doing it, but the fact remains that we are responsible for our own garbage – as we should be. Don’t expect to outsource that.

4. Start thinking about Caste.

Caste is something I have never thought about. When I talk to a person I am never curious about what caste they are, and I dont care. Same for religion. To me they are humans, and that’s that. But here, in the village, our medieval caste system is alive and well. I don’t practice it, but I cannot be unaware of it. Over three years I have developed a certain sensitivity to it.

For example, when we moved into our house, we held a puja for the benefit of the villagers. We were told that some of our staff should not be in the kitchen, as otherwise many of the guests will not eat the prasad. Since the puje was for the benefit of the villagers, we complied.

But now we continue to have some people work on our land, and they still refuse to drink tea made by one of our staff members. Consequently, they often go without tea.  The same crap about women having their periods not entering the kitchen etc. continues to be widely practiced. You get the idea.

5. Be Zen.

The city is all about instant gratification. Dominos will deliver in 30 minutes or its free. Why wait in line? Book your tickets online. And Swiggy and Amazon are all about delivering faster and faster. The village is the exact opposite. Hardly anything is available instantly. The only things readily available are what is available at Kapil’s store, our neighborhood Walmart. God bless Kapil.

You don’t get it. Let me give you an example.

Lets say it is peak summer and you want to eat good Mangoes. Here is how the process goes. Q1 : Is it available at Kapil store? No. Then Q2: Is it available in Nathuakhan (6 km) or Bhatelia (15 km)? Possibly, but cant say for sure. Quality and freshness will be big questions. Call someone in Bhatelia. They say that Mangoes are available but they look dehydrated and  undernourished. They may get better after dipping in ORS overnight. Not good. Then Q3: Will good mangoes be available in Bhowali / Haldwani? Yes. So then you ask around to find out if anyone is going there, and ask them to get a few kilos. If not, then you plan a day trip to the Mandi (3 hours one way) and buy Mangoes for the next 2 weeks. This process applies to everything you may want. Except for many things that are not available in Haldwani, you may have to go further – to Delhi.

So be ready to build some character. Delay gratification.

 

 

Help us name this place

Help us name this place

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Snow and blue sky

We are making our Himalayan home into a hub for personal growth. We’re crowd-sourcing the name. Imagine a serene place where people will come to learn and grow. An inspiring learning space, this will be a future home to many types of Himalayan Retreats ranging from mindfulness to astronomy to writing.  Among other things, we will host a writing residency.

The Himalayas are a great place to connect with yourself. Dr. Vandita Dubey, a published author & US licensed psychologist, will lead the “Inner-You” programs. She currently offers residential and phone/skype therapy for individuals and couples (www.vanditadubey.com).  If you want to strengthen your relationship or want to use writing as a form of self-development, you could do it here.

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Serenity

Before picking a name, you need a full flavour of the place.

To reach here you have to walk the last 150 odd yards on a village path from the road. Someone carries your bags and shows you the way. You amble along a small ridge. To your left, a forest slopes down, covered in Rhododendron, Pine, Oak and much else. To your right are terraced farms covered in fruit trees. A few more steps and you reach our home. The grounds are sprinkled with some guest rooms. The place has a great view. Great turns into magnificent on a clear day, when you can see a span of snow-capped peaks stretching from Garhwal to Kumaon to Nepal. (For those familiar, it includes Chaukhamba, Trishul, Nanda Devi, Panchachuli before reaching Nepal.)

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The sprouting rooms

Your room is a cozy space with lots of light & windows, two beds, and writing desks. You wash up, drink tea, and go exploring. You walk past fruit trees and the house to emerge onto a ridge with a 270 degree view. Stone benches and tables dot the grounds. Sitting there, you could shoot pictures or watch birds or read or write. But a voice in your head says, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.”

Vegetables grow in a garden patch irrigated by recycled water. Lemons and their fragrance hang from overloaded trees. You may hear bees buzzing around blossoms which will soon become fruits. Clucking chickens punctuate the melodious birdsong. Two playful non-pedigree dogs chase away a cat trying to turn a freshly hatched chick into lunch. The fresh honey you have for breakfast tastes particularly good. You learn it’s from bees bred on the farm.

You realize you are in the company of the birds and the bees. You ask for learning of a different kind. Your request is, sadly, denied.

That evening you sit at what would be a “sunset point” in any tourist town. The sunset makes you wonder how all colors could come from only three. Later that evening you eat your dinner while watching the Himalayan moon rise over the black ink of the forest reserve next door. The next morning you may choose to wake up to the crowing of the rooster and witness a sunrise no photograph could ever capture. You feel inspired without leaving your warm quilt.

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An inadequate photo of the dawn

Later in the morning – after a hot breakfast – you start your activity in a small group of less than 10 people. Except the bird-watchers or the astronomers, who may may follow a very different schedule.

Both Vandita and I believe in giving back to this community we are a part of.  We are committing 5% of our revenue to local NGOs. We vet them, and know many personally. Instead of paying us the full charges, guests are free to donate 5% of our charges directly to the NGO’s we recommend, and pay us only 95 %. Our first beneficiary is the Chirag school, about which I had written in https://uncityblog.wordpress.com/2018/01/31/a-joyous-unafraid-childhood-and-the-school-that-allows-it/ .

Now, to the name. Our shortlisted names are:

  1. The Himalayan Hangout
  2. Centreself
  3. The quiet place
  4. The creative farm
  5. The quiet space
  6. Up There
  7. Thought Orchard

So, which of these names do you like best? Please reply by commenting with the name you prefer.  If another compelling name comes to mind, feel free to share it. Once all votes are in, we’ll put out a post with the winning name.

Note : All pictures in this post were taken by us from/of our home.

You can’t eat the view

You can’t eat the view

I just filed my taxes. My income has fallen. In corporate jargon, we have sustainability issues. I live in a Himalayan village. Everything around is incredibly beautiful. Most people who come through envy our life. But I cannot eat the view. I also cannot use it to pay for my kids’ education.

That’s okay because I am the eternal optimist who believes that things will get better. But the tax return did make me think about the trade-off between money and happiness. As I pondered, I came across a diagram for work, money and happiness. It hit home. I have created this version of it.

venn

Most of it is pretty clear. The “Dreaming” box means you may have a passion for something, and money can be made from it, but you’re no good at it. My ability with music is a great example. I’ve joined guitar classes six times and still can’t play. I’ll never make it to the rock-n-roll hall of fame.

But the boxes here are not an end state. The box you’re in now is a starting point. You could be very happy in your box. If not, move. It’s the difference between “As is” and “To be”. (Apologies for the corporate jargon. To my credit, I did replace “monetize” with “make it pay” in the picture below). The goal is to alter the box we are in. The quest is for the “JOY” box – that ideal combination of Passion, Excellence & Money.  We wont discuss how much money. Let’s just say its personal and move on.

Venn action

Let me take a few examples from my own life. I was in the “rich but stressed” box. I could sound passionate about a revenue target, but I was faking it. You cannot fake your way into a passion. I was lying to my boss, my team, and myself. So I walked away.

I found myself in the ”Happy but poor” box.  I now pursue various passions / projects to seek out joy.

  1. Writing. It doesn’t pay. My first book did well but earned peanuts. This blog has earned nothing except the indiblogger award for humour. The award is also inedible. So I hope my next book sells more and I can make peanuts2 from it. The fact is, I write because it’s fun. Even if I earn nothing. Happy but poor.
  2. The Himalayan Writing Retreat (THWR). I am working hard to grow THWR. It is one way of trying to make writing pay. I love teaching, and I know the retreats are good because the participants love them (on facebook we’re rated 5/5). But the problem is marketing – I have to improve that. I’m working on it right now. I can’t eat the view but it does help me sell and monetize (uff). Once that happens, I will reach the joy box.
  3.  Professional Speaking. This is something I really enjoy. It can pay as well. My initial talks were terrible. I am working hard and getting better. This 4-minute talk is amongst my better ones. I hope to start earning from it now. I expect my next book to boost that. So Professional Speaking is the “dreaming” box where I am trying to excel.
  4. The Himalayan X retreat. We are creating a yet-to-be-named learning destination around our home in the Himalayas. This is a place where people will come to learn. And grow. The rooms and learning spaces will be the future home of many thing writing. We hope to offer writing residencies, and various other writing related programs such as script-writing. We may also do other things on the side like bird-watching & photography. This is emerging from the dreaming box right now.  We have to built it and now it has the potential to give us joy.
  5. Cheesemaking is a big one. My partner Nitin Dayalu and I have recently started producing cheese  locally. Nitin also walked away from the “Rich & Stressed” box around the same time as me. His wisdom came earlier in life. The cheese we make is organic – from the awesome milk we get here. Nitin is deeply passionate about this, and it is his baby. He can – and has – run this business on his own. I am passionate about entrepreneurship, and this start-up really gets me going. I am a handy sounding board for him. For us the goal is to make the project pay enough that we can live by it. And we want to add to the local community in a meaningful way. Again, we are in “happy but poor”, looking for Joy.

Our branding, of course, has a cheekiness which some of you may expect by now.

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One person I definitely know who is in the “Joy” box is Sumit Bansal. He quit IBM to become a full-time blogger on MS Excel. He excels at blogging (hee hee). He is passionate about his work and makes good money from it.  We are jointly hosting the Himalayan Blogging Retreat on April 18-22 (details here).

In all the examples above, the goal is beyond mere wealth. Because we are passionate about what we do, we hope to find joy. We may not excel at every aspect of our work, but we’re getting better. As I strive for Joy, it is surprising how much fun the striving itself is. That effort to make something new and beautiful where nothing existed is enriching. And much more satisfying than my last “job”.

So what box are you in? And what will give you joy? Feel free to share your comments.