A Semester at the Library
This winter, I decided to take a creative sabbatical with a focus on reading and writing. “A Semester at the Library” as I call it, inspired by Ray Bradbury’s advice to “graduate from the library”.
Many have asked me why I am doing this? What will I be doing? And what do I hope to get out of it? This is meant to answer those questions, both for others, as well as myself.
This was a tough decision but I’m happy I made it.
And here’s why I did.
I’m a Third Year Computer Engineering student at the University of Waterloo. At Waterloo, internships—co-op as we call it—play a big role in my program. We alternate between school and co-op every semester, completing a total of six internships by the time we graduate. I’m due for 2 more internships in Fall 2020, and Fall 2021.
Reading and writing compound
Compound interest is the 8th wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it; he who doesn’t, pays it. - Albert Einstein
Would you rather have a penny that doubles each day for a month or $1 million?
Our teacher asked my class this question back in grade school. The majority of us, me included, instantly went for the $1 million. But when we did the math, we realized 1 penny doubled each day for 30 days, turns into $5,368,709.12. More than five times greater than the other option.
Compound interest is how wealth is made. Playing this game takes patience, but if you consistently put in the work, your returns become magnitudes larger than your inputs. Look for exponential curves everywhere. So many things we do have a linear input-output relationship. Why do things linearly? Why not do things that are exponential?
Reading is an activity that compounds. The more I read, the more I realize I don’t know. The more I don’t know, the more I want to learn. The more I learn, the more informed I become. So the cycle repeats. Especially when supplemented with experience, books are like real life cheat codes. Whether I’m building a product, interning at a company, or learning how to write, I can find the best books, I can learn from history’s greats, and apply it instantly, transforming that information into my own experience.
Now, I’m betting on writing. David Perell explains why writing compounds:
[Writing] is the best way to learn faster, build your resume, and find peers and collaborators who can create job and business opportunities for you.
Content builds on itself. It multiplies and compounds.
Day and night, your content searches the world for people and opportunities. Projects, mentors, speaking gigs, job offers, pitches, investment opportunities, interview requests, podcast appearances, and invitations to special events.It all starts with sharing ideas online.
The potential impact of my writing
The power of words should not be underestimated. They are powerful because words spread ideas, and ideas change the world. This rings true today as the internet enables anyone to be a writer and share their writing to the world at the click of a button. Before, writing was bottlenecked by the printing press and limited channels of distribution. Now, we all have the distribution of a media company at our fingertips. Night and day, tomorrow and ten years from now, our stories, our lessons, our experiences, will still be there for anyone that chooses to listen.
There are many ideas that I want to write about that don’t currently exist. If I don’t write them, who will? Many of the things I’ve learned come from the generosity of others sharing what they know; I want to pay it forward. And writing online is a way of me sharing what I learned not just to a small few, but with everyone.
Playing positive-sum games
You’re playing the game according to somebody else’s rules, and you can’t win until you understand the rules and step out of that particular game, which is not, after all, worth playing. - James Baldwin, A Rap on Race
Realizing that life is about choosing which games to play was a revelation for me. Naturally, the next question is, which games do I want to play? 
A zero-sum game is an interaction in which one player’s gain equals the other player’s loss; if I win you lose. An example is the NBA, there are 30 teams competing for one championship. You can’t share the championship with another team, thus, there can only be one winner. Using a pie as an analogy, if I want a piece of the pie I have to take it from someone else.
On the other hand, a positive-sum game is an interaction in which the gains of all players are net positive; we all win. An example is the development of new technologies and tools. These new items create value or make current processes more efficient, in turn benefitting both the creator and the community. Positive sum games are inherently creative, there’s no competition only cooperation, and everyone wins. To use the pie analogy again, instead of taking someone else’s piece, we are growing a bigger pie.
Internships, especially competing for internships, is a zero-sum game. If I get that Facebook internship, that means someone else doesn’t get it . When given the choice, why play a game that only benefits myself? Why not play a game that benefits others as well?
The “Semester at the Library” idea, is a positive-sum game. I’m not competing with anyone else. I’m not taking from others. Rather, I’ll be creating something brand new that would not exist otherwise for the benefit of myself and others.
Doing what I love
Trust thyself. Thy heart vibrates to that iron string. - Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance
If I could spend 4 month doing anything, what would I do?
I often ask myself this question as a thought experiment and for awhile I’d say, reading and writing. I often find myself doing one or the other in whatever free time I have. I love both activities and they have given me so much.
Then why not take a semester off to do just that?
This idea scared me. But over the years I’ve learned to use this fear as a compass. All the most worthwhile decisions I’ve made scared me at the beginning .
When will I ever get the opportunity to do this again? Why not do something I love? Why not now?
For me, the choice was clear. I needed to do this, above all, for myself.
What will I be doing?
Now that I’ve decided to do this, what exactly is “a Semester at the Library?”
I’ll be writing every day on my blog and occasionally writing long form essays.
I’ll be reading far and wide. From the classics, to books on history, art, science fiction, technology and more.
Learning projects are a way of exploring my interests and deliberately improving my skills. These learning projects are meant to be a self study curriculum with a few deliverables to apply my knowledge.
I’ll keep track of all my learning projects here.
Leaving room for serendipity
Productivity and structure are important for getting things done, however, leaving room for serendipity is just as important. Serendipity is the magic that happens from spontaneity and openness. This semester I get the chance to keep my schedule open. No meetings, no commitments, none of that. Maybe I want to ride a bus going nowhere in particular, go on a journey, or visit the planetarium. Whatever it may be, I’ll have the freedom and flexibility to do so.
The Great Leap
The Italians have a wonderful phrase, ‘Salto Mortale’, the dangerous leap, the leap into the void. The fear we get in the pit of our stomach before we commit, fear that it’s not going to work out. It’s too soon. I am not ready. And so we wait… - Seth Godin, Akimbo Season 1 Ep 1
This was no easy decision. The opportunity and financial costs of this are non-trivial. The feeling of self doubt is pre-eminent. I can’t think of anyone who has done this before and I don’t even know how it will turn out. However, this is the risk that comes with any creative journey. For me, this is a personal decision as much as a professional one.
So no more waiting, it’s time to take that leap.
If you’re interested in keeping up with my journey, I’ll be sending weekly updates on my newsletter.
Addendum: What Does Success Look Like?
For any professional experience, I define success along the following categories:
- Professional Growth
- Personal Growth
- Impact of Work
At the end of the term, I’ll be reflecting on the 4 categories above, as well as the OKRs and questions below. Get it first by subscribing to my newsletter.
Objectives and Key Results
These are leading metrics that will determine the impact of those 4 categories above. I’ll be checking on these weekly.
Setting OKRs for Winter 2020 (January 1st-April 30th).
Objective 1: I want to become a better writer.
- KR1: Did I publish 1 blog everyday?
- KR2: Did I write 8 Essays by the end of the term?
Objective 2: I want to focus on learning what matters.
- KR1: Did I read 30 books by the end of the term?
- KR2: Complete Learning Project 1: Learning the craft of writing
- KR3: Complete Learning Project 2 (TBD)
Objective 3: I want to share my work with others.
- KR1: 100,000+ Page views by the end of the term
- KR2: 100 Email subscribers by the end of the term
- Do I know what I’ll be doing for Fall 2020?
- Do I have a better understanding of where I want to focus my career?
 This is the study of game theory. Other types of games include: nonzero-sum, negative-sum, constant-sum, and variable-sum games.
 Zero sum games aren’t inherently bad, sometimes they can be a good thing. For example, zero-sum games force competition over a scarce resource and as a result, each player works to improve themselves.
 I used Tim Ferriss’ Fear Setting exercise to help me decide whether to do this or not.
Thanks to Rishi Dhanaraj, Rahman Qureshi, and Aditya Sharma for reading drafts of this. Finally, thanks to my parents for supporting me on this project.