Playbook of Champions

August 30, 2020

Be crazy, imagine a different world but keep your health and playfulness. I didn’t know how to do it but now I have compiled this playbook of champions for other crazy dreamers.

Entrepreneurs being a bit delusional about reality is a well-known fact. With that delusion comes a feeling of loneliness. And the effects of loneliness on mental health are very real. I experienced this brutal phase and have now decided to share the advice I relied on to rebuild my health and my perspective. Be crazy, imagine a different world but keep your health and playfulness. I didn’t know how to do it but now I have compiled this playbook of champions for other crazy dreamers.

After I had finished releasing “For Here or to Go?” on Netflix; the final milestone of an 8-year journey I felt completely empty inside. Devoid of inspiration, energy and even hope.

I was living through the 80/20 rule. The last 20% of the journey takes 80% of the effort. After overcoming a relentless barrage of challenges for 5 years in getting the film made, I was left with the very real possibility of the film never being released to the public. Many films meet this fate of remaining unreleased, in fact over 90% of independent films never get released. The greatest wound the world can inflict upon any artist is by ignoring their work.  It took every ounce of energy, creativity and grit I could muster to get my film out. 

Even after a stellar 5-week theatrical run where we outsold some of the mainstream films of the week, there just wasn’t enough awareness to get it out on a global platform. 

IMDB set the release date for 2015 based on when it was released in festival. This would make it even harder to convince distributors on its “freshness”. I finally released in AMC’s in the U.S in 2017. After countless attempts, the theatrical release eventually helped a (somewhat) global release on Netflix happen (Netflix controls the regions it launches in). But, there was a high degree of regret and remorse I suffered through- the time me and my team had spent, the complete lack of institutional support for the film despite the story addressing a social issue that many care for and the price we were paid for the efforts. I felt betrayed and that I had let down everyone who had supported me. Both the film and I felt like we were abandoned orphans. 

Many well-intended words of advice came my way ranging from “you did great” to “move on”. But none addressed the emptiness I was feeling. Then one day, as I was heading back home from a local promotional event,  I met a stranger in my building lobby who asked me as if I was doing OK in a very concerned tone. I realized in that moment that my inner emptiness and exhaustion was becoming apparent to others. That stranger became one of my very close friends and after some coaxing, I went to go see a doctor.

I was diagnosed with major depression and had to dig really deep to get my life and thinking back in order. I took a three-month break from work to spend time with my parents in India. My parents and I had deep conversations about my childhood, my family’s history and their respective childhoods. There were tough realizations.

Through all this psychological wading, I decided to just focus on activities that bring me joy and go back to some of the teachings my grandfather had shared with me that talk about life fundamentals. It led me to other books and thinkers I had admired in the past- I was now reading them in a totally new light. 

Here I share my top takeaways from some of the wisest advise on how to operate in life. All these gems are timeless which I didn’t either pay attention to or comprehend when I was first introduced to them. 

This is about how to survive and emerge unscathed mentally through the inevitable tough times that come with being deeply involved with something or someone. This is the playbook of champions.

1. Dharma and Karma, The Bhagavad Gita

Dharma has many interpretations; for me it means to abide by the law of nature. Everything in the universe arises and falls. You are a mere speck in this vast cosmos. Act in accordance with this fact and when you do you automatically see the divine in everything and everyone.  This causes you to lead to a highly moral and ethical life that’s helpful to others.

Karma means deed or duty. It is not sufficient to have the realization of dharma, it is equally important to take the right action. But more importantly after having taken the action not to worry about the gains or the result of it.

“Karmanye vardhi karsuot ma faleshu kadachan”

Which means do the deed and do not worry about the result. This is told to Arjun by Shri Krishna on the battlefield of Kuruskshetra when Arjun is in a dilemma of whether he should be killing his own guru and family members. 

This advice has caused me to look at my situation from nature’s perspective. And that whatever I’m going through is natural. With this perspective, I was able to focus on just the required actions- the ones that are right and under my control (most of Stoicism is based on this thought). 

Watch Sadhguru explain the concept of Swadharma or “Way of the self”.  We are governed by the “law of the physical” in which collisions, clashes and damage are inevitable.

Pair this with Sadhguru explaining Lord Krishna’s insights on Dharma. In this he describes all the archetypes of situations and people I experienced. It urged me to think beyond my own pained situation.

“When you cause a situation it is very important to experience what is happening to everybody because of that situation”

2. Life is suffering, Life is a gift, Gautama The Buddha

Previously I never understood how suffering could be a gift. Upon further reading on the Buddha’s teachings and the practice of Vipassana meditation I realized the true meaning of “life is a gift”. While life is full of pain and misery at every moment, it is also a golden opportunity to choose the right path and achieve eternal peace by becoming an inseparable part of the universe. This requires a complete dissolution of the “I” or the ego. Utilize the gift of this life to dissolve your ego and break the cycle of constant suffering- you are neither your body, nor your mind. 

I wrote about my experience with Vipassana meditation  

3. Keep your critics/enemies close, Sant Kabir

Sant Kabir’s verses were some of my favorites in middle school. As I was feeling betrayed, criticised and shunned by the world this one verse stood out to me in how to deal with all the criticism and rejections

“Nindak niyare rakhiye aangan kuti chhawaye, Bin sabun pani bina nirmal karat subhaye.”

This means keep your critics and enemies very close to you, if possible even make them your neighbors. They will help you to keep your nature clean without any soap or water. Your critics and opponents provide the best insights on what you lack and how to improve. This leads to true open-mindedness.

This led to another shift in my mindset- take the opportunity to fully learn your opponents point-of-view to strengthen or clarify your own point-of view.

Peter Thiel puts the same concept this way -

“If you try to find the strongest and most compelling reasons for your opponents stand, it allows you to improve your side of the argument or even discover flaws in your own reasoning.” 

5. Notes to yourself, Marcus Aurelieus

Marcus Aurelieus’s stoic masterpiece “Meditations” has several gems. These are the four tenets of stoicism-  act based on practical wisdom, practice moderation or temperance, demonstrate courage and stand up for justice. Stoicism is about controlling the self/mind instead of controlling the externalities. This Ted-Ed video explains the four tenets in more details. My biggest takeaway was the fact that Aurelieus wrote down his thoughts for himself, not for public consumption.  Writing to yourself is a fantastic way of reflecting and developing skills in the four tenets of stoicism I mentioned above.

I have been maintaining a diary since. My notes to self are simply recording my stream of consciousness thoughts. Very similar to Julia Cameron’s morning pages from “The Artists way”. I do it right after my morning meditation and it allows me to put down all my distractions and fears into writing. I’ve felt this practice has unlocked my creativity, allowed me to not get bogged down with day-day distractions or long term fears.

6. Perceptions matter most, Nicolo Machiavell

For endeavors that have public outcomes, Machiavelli stresses on perception management and image creation. Since I ended up making a film which is a publically available artifact, there is much work that needs to be done as a leader to manage perceptions. There are artists, distributors, marketers, community leaders and audiences to manage. And they all act based on how they perceive you more than the actual work.  

While Machiavelli’s advice is for conquerors and can lead to a lot of violence, the principles are clearly applicable in business settings- namely swift, ruthless action when taking over a territory and ensuring you are loved by your followers and perceived as fair. Machiavelli’s advice is to prioritize fear over admiration as a leader. This is counter to every modern day advice on leadership. But it makes a lot of sense. The logic is that you can’t please everyone all the time and attempting to do so will distract you from the actual job of leading. Admiration comes automatically if you manage perceptions. Fear is necessary to maintain checks and balances. 

A lot of my problems stemmed from being an extremely hesitant leader. Given my visa situation, I was never confident of taking on the reins and fully committed. While I struggled with this fact the entire time I was working on the film this book taught me a lot about perception management. A lot of my problems arise because I did a poor job of managing perceptions or was just trying to win someone else’s approval. Winning approvals without suffering or harming yourself psychologically is a true skill and it all boils down to managing perceptions.

The Prince is required reading in leadership for me. Or you can also listen to R.Shaw’s audible course on Machiavellian mindset for leadership.

7. Kindness and acceptance, Alain De Botton

De Botton is one of my favorite contemporary philosophers. I highly recommend his school of life youtube channel

We all have our flaws and some degree of brokenness within us. De Botton urges us to willingly accept these flaws not just in ourselves but also in others. This takes a lot of practice in my experience but is really good advice. Kindness in every moment with yourself and with people you have to deal with has huge benefits. In common parlance- “Go easy on yourself”. 

The most important takeaway for me was that kindness and acceptance is an internal feeling without which you can’t truly extend it to others. All the diary writing and meditation has helped with acknowledging inner flaws and to be kind to myself every moment.

It also reminded me of this quote I had come across at the top of Coen Brothers film “A Serious Man”- 

“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you”

De Botton released a wonderful video summarizing the eight rules of life that I highly recommend

8. First take responsibility for your own self, Jordan Peterson

This one’s such a powerful reminder and pair’s very well with De Botton’s message. Because my film’s topic had a social cause, I had become obsessed with the cause. My time was spent convincing  powerful people that had built full-time careers fighting for this cause of the value of my film to their cause. As a result, I lost perspective of what mattered most- the film and my reasons to make it.  

Convincing and winning approvals has its place but it must not come at the cost of one’s own health and creation. It has pushed me into being very focussed on finding collaborators that agree with my worldview instead of a “spray and pray” approach to networking. Being efficient at networking and finding your audience is critical. I’m still building up my systems to do so but Dr Peterson’s advise really made me ruthlessly eliminate all distractions

Taking care of your own self and being responsible for your own well-being before all else is fundamental to a lot of Dr Peterson’s arguments. Check out this epic interview about taking responsibility for your own life

“All of us have it very hard at some times in our lives. What’s the alternative for that? You take responsibility for yourself and struggle uphill because the alternative makes everything worse”

I recommend watching Dr Peterson’s lectures - he focuses on the basic aspects of life with a scientific mind and clear, passionate words. 

9. Be an evidence driven, rational contrarian, Christopher Hitchens

One of my favorite books by Hitchens is “Letters to a young contrarian”. In the book, one line stood out to me- 

“That which can be stated without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence”

It was evidence I had used to create the film- number of people affected by the topic, people reading my blog, national level press coverage, known experts talking about legal immigration et al. But did all that evidence merit a full-length feature film?

Here’s where the rational contrarian part kicks in. If persuasion was the stumbling block according to the experts then data alone wasn’t sufficient- it has to be married with emotional storytelling. That was my hypothesis all along.

This type of thinking had served me well throughout my school years but Hitchen’s provided me with a much more sophisticated framework to think through all the wild, creative ideas that run amuck in my head.

I also realized how the claims of an unproven, first time filmmaker may sound to a professional film distributor. There’s absolutely no evidence to go by to gauge how the film will perform. I had no tools to convince distributors to take a contrarian bet on my film. The route to Netflix was my own contrarian bet for that outcome.

In Hitchen’s words- 

“You didn’t have to wonder what anyone else’s opinion was...that you take the risk of believing that if you are the only person who thinks what he thinks, that still might mean you are right”

Watch Hitchen’s talking about “Letters to a young contrarian” in this 7-part interview. “Letters to a young contrarian” is my go to gift for young people.

10. Systemize and abstract your decisions into principles you live by, Ray Dalio

Ray Dalio’s Principles is a must-read if you want to skill-up in being pragmatic, a superior decision maker that is in tune with reality. It contains several gems such as the formula for making progress:

Pain + Reflection = Progress

It is a formula I’m following by writing this essay. 

There are other brilliant takeaways such as the five-step framework for accomplishing big things (Goals, Problems, Diagnosis, Design, Execution), awareness of the two-selves (lower, emotional self and higher rational self), the concept of believability, how to discover reality with radical open-mindedness and several others. 

There is an astounding story in radical open-mindedness where he diagnosed the truth of his own medical condition by purposefully engaging three highly believable medical experts that had differing opinions.

Dalio emphasizes on self-awareness by observing your own decision making patterns and then optimizing them over time. These patterns can then be further abstracted into certain principles you live by thereby creating a quick reference when faced with similar situations in life.

Since reading the book, I’ve used the accompanying app to create my own principles. I have reflected on the pains, recorded my decisions and now have a much clearer understanding of how I react in various situations.

Watch Dalio’s “ultra-mini” series on Principles if you don’t have time for the b

11. Relentless focus on things that won’t change, Jeff Bezos

As I moved from writing to production to distribution and marketing of the film I realized the players and the rules kept changing. In order to move to the next step I had to learn, experiment, fail and then proceed, many times with sub-optimal outcomes. This process of failing over a very long period of time can take a very big psychological toll. Obviously it is far from ideal and very painful. One month you are learning how to edit and score a film, the next month you are trying to run a marketing campaign, the next you are dealing with distributors in the U.S, the press in India, then the theatre was endless. I was constantly shifting and adapting my communication based on the next outcome I wanted. It was exhausting- how many times can you re-frame, re-position and change based on what the other party desires? 

I came across this Jeff Bezos interview in which he talks about flipping the question and focussing on “what’s not going to change?” for long-term success. 

“The big ideas should be obvious. These big ideas will remain stable in time.”

I have taken this to heart- its way more efficient to figure out what’s not changing and relentlessly focus on optimizing those invariants. It attracts people that resonate with what you’ve created and filters out those who are not interested, saving you a ton of time in the process.

With, Jeff Bezos says that people will always want a variety of things, faster and cheaper. Those three aspects are the basis of literally all innovation at Amazon. With a film, people always care for the story, the star, ratings and easy access. I had the story and that’s what I focussed on selling after watching this.

12. Keep moving onto the next thing, Robert De Niro

Robert Di Nero’s graduation speech at Tisch should be listened to by every aspiring artist or creator. It is funny, raw, inspiring and very real. He doesn’t hold back one bit.

Rejection is reality. Move on to what’s “Next”. 

It has definitely changed my mindset on filmmaking and art in general. Essentially no art has any real value. All art has is assigned value- its only “good” because some people say its “good”. Unlike business, science or politics, art is not necessary for human existence. It may make life worth living but it is certainly not essential to sustain life. 

As a result, art will always be luxury- it comes very much after fundamental needs of society are met. Given that context, it only makes sense that most art will get rejected. Further, there can be no greater foolishness than an artist without humility. 

These are words I’ll always keep in mind while I’m pouring my heart out into my next idea.

13. Avoid competition, Peter Thiel

Opinion is divided on this enigmatic libertarian billionaire. He makes some salient observations in his brilliant book “Zero to One”. The biggest one is to work in or work on things that others aren’t paying attention to. In short, avoid competition.

I have used this strategy in picking the topic for the film. It’s an angle of immigration that no filmmaker has focussed on before. There are millions who have problems articulating the quality of life issues they face because of the situation. If I wanted to make a feature film that was shown in theaters without going through film school, making a series of shorts, assisting other filmmakers etc the only way I could do it was to work on a topic no one else would pay attention to. There’s no attempt to be authentic, shocking, unique etc- it all just naturally follows because of the choice of topic. And it works.

I recommend this summary of Zero To One if you don’t have the time to read the book itself. 

14. Ignore everybody, Hugh McLeod

The title says it all. I came across this gem of a book through Seth’s blog.

This book was inspirational in starting the journey. I was surprised that it was also helpful in the middle and after the journey. Remaining authentic and true to your feelings as an artist is very difficult. While entrepreneurs have data to go by, artists only have their world view and its expression. Ignoring is a key skill because making art is a highly irrational act.

Sample gems like this-

“The more unique your idea is, the harder it will be for people to give you good advice. Ignore everybody.” 


“The best way to get approval is to not need it.”

I recommend James Clear’s summary of it.  If you want to be in the business of expressing your unique worldview through art or any other creative endeavor, I recommend you get a copy for reference .

15. “Stay hungry, stay foolish”, Steve Jobs

Perhaps the most well-known entrepreneurial advice of our times. Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech is legendary.

It told me exactly what I needed to be reinforced. That this journey was tough and maybe the next ones will be tougher. The way to get through them is to not let the challenges get the better of your vision and your curiosities

Four honorable mentions that were also extremely helpful to get through this time period and prepare me for the next adventure.

Patrick O’Shaughnessy’s “Growth without goals”

A fantastic reminder to not get tied down by goals and metrics. The only way to remain playful is to just follow your curiosities

“Accomplishments are a trap. Success is about building a set of daily practices, it is about growth without goals.  Continuous, habitual practice(s) trumps achievement-based success.”

David Foster Wallace’s “This is water” speech

A speech about remaining present. Planning for the future is good but living in the present is the most important thing you can do. Too often I’d get caught up in an imaginary future and its predicaments completely losing out on what was right in front of me. 

This speech should be used as anannual refresher 

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”

Tim Ferris’ Harnessing Entrepreneurial Manic-Depression

This curve by Cameron Herold, perfectly reflected my feelings and journey. I use this article as a reminder of where I’m in the journey and what are the pitfalls I’m likely to face.

“This cycle repeats itself. Enjoy the ride instead of fighting it.”

Jim Carrey’s commencement speech

This speech is electric. The wisdom and the purity of this energy are undeniable. Jim Carrey is a consummate artist.

Sample this

“Your need for acceptance can make you invisible in this world.”

And this- 

“My soul is not contained within the limits of my body. My body is contained within the limitlessness of my soul”

And this-

“Your job is not to figure out how it’s going to happen for you, but to open the door in your head and when the door opens in real life, just walk through it. “

This is part 3 of my series of reflection articles on my filmmaking journey with "For Here or To Go?". Read Part-1 and Part-2

Photo by Christoph Deinet on Unsplash

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