I'm Surya

I ran for Congress, was on reality TV, was once a brand manager, and have worked at various startups. I just finished my book. I'm active on Twitter. Full bio here.

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What’re your expectations?

Steve Jobs was in this zone when he talked about dogma in his wondrous Stanford speech:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

I thought of expectation as I read about stereotype threat in this (fascinating) article about a school exploring whether racism can be “un-taught.” Our expectations for ourselves and other’s assumptions- their expectations of us- are such interesting, invisible, and powerful forces. I believe they quietly determine much of our lives. Almost the invisible puppet strings of a long life; the dots we only connect looking backward.

“Expectations” are complicated. Whose expectations? Ours? Others? If you don’t internalize, don’t notice, or just don’t give a shit about others expectations of you, do they even matter?

I remember many expectations: From family, kids I grew up with, and others in my orbit. Most importantly, I can, years after, see how they all resolved so insidiously and powerfully into the expectations I would form for myself.

I believe if we’re not careful our expectations wander off into the wilderness of our brain and return as the dogma that dictates our lives. The unspoken trappings of a life we never truly wanted. Accepting the more prestigious position instead of the more intriguing opportunity. Striving for a trophy spouse that validates our sense of worth instead of a kindred connection. Moving up into the house, cars, and vacations of your peers. Accepting a value system instead of consciously choosing one. It’s keeping up with the Jonses, writ large and internal.

What is choice, anyway? If I’m just this amalgamation of memories and experiences that form my unique perspective on the world, isn’t that just the dataset that trained my decision-making algorithm? Is that the me “choosing”?

I started this letter weeks ago and now have no idea why I started on this topic. Maybe it’s born of an existential longing to understand my current situation.

After the recent sale of my company, I’ve been asked “What’s next?” a lot. I guess it’s a nice logical point of transition to some next big thing. I’m asked by strangers and loved ones, alike.  My answer came quick and some variation of: No plan. I’m going to see how it goes. The one day, too many, I wake up unhappy, I’ll make a move. Until then I’m sated and committed to growing in the soil. I often say the right things to superficial questions because I both hate small talk (effective answers don’t prolong it) and because I’m a practiced bullshitter. But I was a bit startled when I realized I totally meant it this time. Then I wondered if some folks asked because of their expectations of me.

Having done so much random stuff, were they wondering if something exciting… something big, maybe even important was next? I’m not really sure. It’s a subtle, self-inflicted pressure I’ve felt before. The creeping notion in the back of my brain wondering if I’ve hemmed myself in by a limited view of the future and of possibility. It yearns to not suffer from a failure of imagination (or courage) and pushes me to be bolder, more ambitious, to realize some untapped potential within. For now, that voice is quiet and maybe held at bay. It’s been replaced by an internalized expectation both simple, yet powerful: I should be happy each day, however that looks to me.

For now I accept this as a reasonable, acceptable, and (maybe even) wise expectation.


little aliens

Growing up, I was always aware of how different my parents were from everyone else’s. It’s not just that we ate different food at home, that they dressed differently, or even just that they had accents. It was all of it; this feeling that they could never understand me. I now recognize this as the universal and quintessential trait of adolescence, and not unique to having immigrant parents. Every kid feels this way.

There’s more to it, though. I first saw it expressed by Jhumpa Lahiri. She captured this sense of what makes growing up the children of immigrants so different: Parents’ fear that they’ve made a terrible mistake leaving their homeland and that their children will pay the price. There’s a sense of being lost in time — as much as they come from a different country— they more importantly, came from a different time. It wasn’t just living in India that my parents were thinking of when they evaluated my behavior, it was of living in an India of 30 years ago. It’s a yardstick frozen in time and vulnerable to the same malleability that afflicts all memories.

All of this adds up. It’s why, at a certain point, I realized that my brother and I probably seemed like little aliens to my parents. They grew up in small villages in India spanning the 1940’s-60’s. As relatively spoiled kids growing up in the 1980’s-90’s in America, we were pretty far afield. I won’t list out what differed in our relative experiences, because it’s probably everything. We were their little alien offspring.

I recognize that this cycle will repeat. While I’ll have the shared experience of an American childhood with my kids, there will be a huge difference. My youth was so marked by scarcity and my parents’ fear of not attaining upward mobility for their kids. There weren’t really vacations, we didn’t go out for meals, no new cars, clothes were out-of-fashion and ill-fitting, braces that came too late, and all the other dressings of the working class. As important, I always felt the ominous cloud of worry — that our position was precarious, that something worse was lurking — and it still lingers with me. While the expenses of my lifestyle are basically unfathomable to my parents, it’s also well below what I could spend. It’s the mark of upbringing.

My (imaginary) kids will grow up without this cloud of worry. They won’t suffer from without and they won’t be working class. It was such a defining part of my growing up, that I imagine in someways it’ll be hard for me to relate to them. Going further, back then I resented those other kids. My (still imaginary) kids will be those kids. As a kid I felt marked as an outsider due to my ethnicity, my parents being different than everyone else’s, and by our working class lifestyle. While my (still totally imaginary) kids will probably look different than other kids, that’s much less of a big deal in today’s post-racial America (ha!), and their parents will be culturally and economically similar to their peers. They won’t want. They won’t be outsiders. They’ll be little aliens to me.

In fact, I’ve seen this already. I have three cousins who I consider far more siblings than cousins. In my role as baby of the family, everyone’s much older. All married, there are 7 kids in this next generation. The eldest offspring off to college next year. As I’ve watched their whole gaggle of kids over the past decade+, I’ve always been struck at how stunningly different their adolescence is from mine. Aliens, indeed.

Originally sent via my weekly-ish newsletter



Have you ever kept a journal?

I’ve got 15ish years with various incarnations. My first was a LiveJournal created in the dying light of the 90’s. It birthed a few friendships/pen-pals and lasted a few years before I nuked it. I don’t remember what I posted, but I’m confident it was properly self-absorbed, poorly written, and vapid.

I concluded that the public nature of LiveJournal was a problem and decided to kick it Doogie Howser style. Using the “.LOG” function in Microsoft Notepad, for four+ years I memorialized my histrionic thoughts. Buried at the bottom of a box at my parents, in the rubble of all my x-country moves, is a CD-R w/the files. It’s been 7ish years since I’ve seen them and I’m incredibly curious of what I’ve written. One thing I know is in there: weeks and weeks of entries about the first girl to break my heart (umm…kind of mortified to read those). Next week when I head back for Christmas, I’ll poke around and see if I can find those files. Because, after all, there’s nothing like reading something, only to find the author utterly foolish, petulant, and unsympathetic.

I have terrible handwriting. Still, I was carried away by the romantic idea of journaling in a moleskin. Over the course of a decade I’ve nearly finished filling two editions. Some weeks feature multiple entries, while other periods have gaps of multiple seasons or even just a single entry for a year. Some of my most painful memories are in those books. The writing so visceral, it feels like blood on a page. When I’m nostalgic and foolish enough to look back, I might only get to read a sentence or two before I have to put it away.

Since June I’ve been using a journal for the Mac & iPhone called DayOne. I adore it and have been writing almost daily. This has been my most regular period of journaling since summer of ’02.

My journaling has totally been worth it. It’s how I make sense of the jumbles of feelings in my mess of a head. It’s how I call bullshit on my self. I like to think that I’ve evolved so much. That, over the years, I’m so much more sophisticated, smarter, and world-ready. Yet wading back into the journals always dispels this idea. So much repeats: tone, sentiment, struggles, joys. I don’t like to think of myself as predictable, but the truth is on the page. Often in really shitty handwriting.

Note: This was the first note I sent out to my email list in 2014. Subscribe here.


creativity, inc

Great passage from our latest company book club selection, Creativity, Inc:

Hindsight is not 20-20. Not even close. Our view of the past, in fact, is hardly clearer than our view of the future. While we know more about a past event than a future one, our understanding of the factors that shaped it is severely limited. Not only that, because we think we see what happened clearly— hindsight being 20-20 and all— we often aren’t open to knowing more. “We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it— and stop there,” as Mark Twain once said, “lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again— and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.” The cat’s hindsight, in other words, distorts her view. The past should be our teacher, not our master.


stimulus withdrawal.

A few days ago I decided that I’d start 2014 with a pretty simple change: To seek less stimulus. I wrote a blog post and a status update sharing my impending Facebook absence. I sent an email at work to no longer expect immediate email responses. The changes ended up being:

  • No more Facebook.
  • Conditions allowing, moving to limited windows of checking & responding to emails.
  • Limiting  Twitter + daily consumption of news, RSS, etc  to a couple of slugs a day.

Why? Listed in order from most tangible to the most abstracted:

1) Productivity – I’ve chosen to give up these things so that I can be more productive. I feel like I can use time better, specifically towards more directed tasks and projects. I’ve ended every year not accomplishing as much as I had hoped and with a vague notion that I’d left “opportunity on the table.”

2) Stillness – Reducing noise. Constantly checking email, twitter, facebook, espn, techcrunch, et al, did satisfy my curiosity and staved off boredom. But I was never allowing my mind to sit still. Instead I was constantly feeding it stimuli, which caused to to feel constantly “on the go.” At one point I might have considered that a feature. Today that’s very much a bug.

3) Substance – Finally, as explained in my previous post, I did this because I have a number of doubts as to the “realness” of my virtual relationships. Going further, I wonder if rather than being accretive to my life, if they actually hinder the progress I’m trying to make in being a better, happier human.

Since the new year, I’ve read a few blog posts from others trying something similar. Clearly these feelings go beyond me. I don’t think I’m doing anything complicated. I’m just trying to increase the signal-to-noise ratio of my everyday using the most basic of concepts: focus. I’m trying to stay focused on being present in the moment. It’s an ancient and probably overused phrase. My only resolution was to focus more on whatever I chose to experience that day. That partially manifests itself in that above list.

Making this change obviously comes with a cost. After all, nothing’s free. I’ll see many less news stories, pieces of market data, internet memes, and all the rest, making me less well-informed. I’ve always thought my consumption of all this information was a key strength. That my creativity was fueled by connecting the frameworks of all these disparate topics. Yet I think this is tradeoff is worth it. What I’ll gain from thinking more deeply on fewer projects, by being more present in each of my daily experiences, and having more whitespace, will result in its own kind of knowledge, creativity, and happiness. I guess we’ll see.


The past is just a story we tell ourselves.

Prodded by the overwhelmingly good reviews, I saw Her last night. The most positive reviews called it was the best movie of 2013. The concept of a human falling in love with a smarter version of Siri sounded kind of ridiculous. But since writer-director Spike Jonze is uber-talented and the trailer looked good, I went.

It’s actually not a movie about the future or technology. It’s a classic story about being human: Relationships, connection, loneliness, struggling with life, and, most obviously, love. It’s funny, beautifully shot, features terrific acting + pacing, and works off a great screenplay. Loved it.

There’s a particular line in the movie that I was really struck by:

The past is just a story we tell ourselves.

(after some googling, I’ve discovered that Chuck Palahniuk, among others have served up some variation of this insight for years).

Like all things, there’s great variation here. Some people are better than others at not being pre-occupied by their past and letting their today and tomorrow become derailed by it. I am not one of the better people. Anyway, I loved this line because it distilled the truth that the past isn’t merely a set of facts or past events that is black and white. We imbue the past with the weight of story. Like a wound in our mouth, we then incessantly tongue that story  – feeling its texture, its shape, its pain, wondering if it’s still there…if it’s still the same. We don’t realize it’s a story. We accept the past as fact — it already happened…it had implications…of course it is what it was — when the past is actually a concoction of fact and emotion. The past is merely facts, like you and I are merely atoms and molecules.

It felt so welcoming. To hear the line, was to ease into a warm, freeing embrace. I walked out of the theater mesmerized by it.

I’m looking forward to more people seeing it so I can discuss.



I gave up Facebook for the first few months of 2012. Cold-turkey stopped reading my feed + posting. In the lead-up to my summer of traveling, I got back on the Facebook-train and probably posted too frequently. Since then I’ve settled into a steady routine of trying my best to “like” pictures of friends’ children , important events, etc. I basically stopped posting, though. I found it hard to untangle my motivations.

I feel like I have reached a point of being paralyzed by self-consciousness: Why am I posting this? Who am I trying to impress? Why do I want/need people to “like” it?

I’ve loved and hated Facebook. I’ve hated the distraction of it. I’ve loved the quick hit of seeing a familiar face. I’ve hated that twinge of jealousy that might strike from a random post. I’ve loved feeling a bit more connected to distant family + friends.

Tonight at 11:59 PM, I’ll start 2014 on another open-ended Facebook break. I will miss the cute photos of my friends’ kids and such. I will definitely miss those “in-between” moments and stories.

I wonder, though, if this might be a healthy thing for me. Maybe Facebook is like aspartame or saccharine. It feels sort of like a connection to the people I care about. Sort of like Diet Coke tastes sweet-ish. But without being lulled into this (false?) sense of connection, might I be more likely to try and create real connection? To send an actual substantive email? To make a phone call? To physically be present with the person? Is Facebook like the empty calories that just make me feel like I’ve eaten something filling and nutritious?

Like everyone else, I have hopes for 2014. I’ll use this arbitrary point as a reset for all the little ways I’d like my life to be different and that I think can be a better human. No big changes or promises for me. Instead, a handful of little tweaks, dropping Facebook among them.

Goodbye for now, Facebook friends.


Drone Wars: Amazon’s First Strike

Last night on 60 Minutes, Jeff Bezos unveiled Amazon’s plans for 30-minute drone delivery.

I’m guessing my reaction of “woah…COOL!” wasn’t uncommon. It feels totally in sync with how I imagine ‘the future.’

After watching the segment, I asked myself the obvious question: Why announce now? Tech companies (and Amazon, surely) are notoriously secretive, so why this public relations splash? I have a theory:

Winning hearts and minds. The segment obviously succeeded in capturing the attention and imagination of the public. I awoke this morning to a ton of news coverage about Amazon Drones and last night my social media streams were flooded with techies and non who were astounded at how cool this was.

This was Amazon’s Opening Strike in the Drone Wars. Why Drone Wars?

  • Delivery companies are surely not thrilled. This threatens to disintermediate them from a large chunk of business and drive down costs on the remaining.
  • Delivery employees/unions will also see this as a big threat. Both unions and companies will likely lobby the FCC, FAA, public, etc to slow this down a ton.
  • Government administrations have never been pioneers and typically need to be pulled into the future.

Bezos+Amazon needed to own the narrative here. They nailed it. It’s all awe and delight right now. Left unsaid for now are the implications of a future where there is a constant stream of drones flying over us. With the kerfuffle over NSA domestic warrantless spying, is this the natural next step in data collection? Is that a delivery Drone or an NSA drone made to look like an Amazon Drone? Is that drone following me…I feel like it’s been there all day? Dear Abby, I was changing this AM and then I saw a Drone out the window…could it have taken photos? Or at least, that’s what privacy advocates will ask.

Amazon succeeded in painting a picture of the technology that captured the imagination and covetous desires of consumers. That was crucial. If stories leaked out about Amazon’s drones and the meme spread among those who don’t want to see it come to pass (above), the public’s initial exposure could have been safety and privacy concerns instead.

The opening gambit in Amazon’s drone wars was last night. Amazon 1, their various enemies 0.

PS – Think it’s a happy coincidence that everyone is talking about Amazon on Cyber-Monday? Cue Jeff Bezos laughing maniacally in the background.


Healthy campaign; Sick government.

I just finished reading Double Down: Game Change 2012. It’s a tick-tock of the last presidential election.  As you might expect from someone who ran for Congress (and is a geek), I’m fascinated by the behind-the-scenes stuff. (Yes, recommended for those w/a similar mindset.)

One of the sharpest points in the book was just how finely-tuned the Obama campaign was, both in 2008, and, again, in 2012.  On strategy, on tactics, on adjustments, and discipline they were off the charts.

I found this spectacular performance particularly grating when placed up against the actual Obama administration’s execution. The most current, and glaring, demonstration of which is the disastrous rollout of the Accountable Care Act (aka ACA, aka Obamacare).

The failure goes much deeper than simple procedural errors or stupid technical decisions. The botched implementation is a reminder and reinforcement of everyone’s worst belief: that the government is incapable of executing, and left to its own devices, will screw up pretty much everything. The central “argument” among the most vocal critics of health reform was that the government getting more involved would just make things worse.  Hmm.

The book makes what’s plainly obvious, all the more glaring: the Obama election had a life-or-death accountability attached to the planning and executing of the election campaigns. In the implementation of a program that touches all Americans and has consequences measured in the trillions? Not so much.

The practice of politics is a true market exercise, giving us ugly, painful to experience campaigns and sometimes it creates ruthlessly efficient machines like the Obama campaign. The knock on government execution is exactly that – there is no accountability, no market forces, no stimulus leading to course correction. The rollout of ACA apparently embodies this.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

Health reform was a mess from the beginning. It started with Republican intransigence, leaving Democrats to moderate the legislation themselves. There was the fundamental focus on the political palatable instead of an intellectually honest dedication to addressing the fundamental issues of the existing system. Then there was the standard opposition-driven hysteria abetted by a generally clueless public, and the “required” back-room deals which weighed down the legislation further. Now, after surviving a Supreme Court challenge,  triggering one of the biggest wave elections in 100 years (which I was knocked on my ass by as a candidate), and all other theatrics, here we are: The crowning indignity. The public launch basically coudn’t have gone worse.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

The president and his administration, I hope, are ashamed. And, look, I’m not saying the bill is doomed: Not saying that we won’t bend the cost-curve long-term and end up with a more humane system. But since it only gets more complicated from here, why should we believe that this screwup was the aberration and not the sign of things to come?

It’s my belief that government is going to have an even more critical role in the not-so-distant future. Unfortunately, the general vapidness of political conduct and current execution of complicated policy, like the ACA, only shows how ill-prepared we are as a nation.

Forget China. We have the met the enemy and he is us.


RIP Alex Calderwood

About 18 months ago I was in the “green room” for the Charlie Rose show. I was in NYC working on a friend’s book launch. While he was out there taping with Charlie, I was backstage with the famous folks who were about to be interviewed, including James Fallows.

After a few minutes of excitedly chatting with James, I noticed a guy sitting alone, off to the side. He had a mop of curly hair and a quiet, unassuming presence.  I went over and introduced myself.

Turned out that unassuming guy, Alex Calderwood, had started the world-famous ACE hotel chain. He had been at a party w/Charlie and had mentioned it’d be cool to see the show being taped/sit in the green room. Charlie Rose, apparently, being great, made it reality.

We talked for a good 3o minutes. About how he started Rudy’s, the ACE, other projects. We talked about my run for Congress, working in tech, being on The Apprentice, and other randomness. It was a great easy, natural conversation. We exchanged cards.

I just searched my gMail and saw that we had seven emails chains since. He was looking at some potential deals in San Francisco, I was in town, and so we were able to get together for a drink (I had a drink. He apparently had given up alcohol some years earlier). Afterwards, he introduced me to someone who was doing cool things in education reform, so I could help, etc. We met up a second time, when he had me join a business dinner with a wealthy Asian investor, just because. Both times he was a positive, inquisitive, and awesome presence.

In the course of our few conversations, my love of tea and interest in possibly turning that passion into a business came up. This past summer, I got a ping from Alex because he remembered that and wanted to see if I was interested in working together on a tea store in a location he had, etc. My heart wasn’t in it then — I wanted to go back into tech — and so nothing came of it.

I sent Alex a quick note in July when I was in NYC interviewing for my current job. It was my first note to him that I didn’t get a response on. We obviously didn’t connect. As I’ve passed by or been at the ACE since, I kept meaning to drop Alex a quick note letting him know I was here, so we could catch up.

30m ago, while feeding my Twitter addiction, I saw the tweet pop up “Sad news: Alex Calderwood, the founder/owner of the Ace Hotel has passed away at the age of 45 according to the Ace Hotel blog.”

I’m not exactly in shock – I mean, I barely knew him – but I am sad and really, really thrown. I’ve been lucky enough to not have to deal with a lot of death (yet). Less than a handful of times in my life. That hangs over me a bit: it’s coming. Death visits us all. Death is the reminder of the impermanence of all things, most notably, our lives.

I might not get tomorrow. Next week. You  might not either. Act accordingly.

Live your life. Treat others as you will wish, in retrospect, that you had. Act accordingly.

To Alex, wherever you are: I’m really glad I got to meet you. I hope you’re in a better place, at peace.