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How to Find Your Magic: Ideas From Our Interviews With Abdullah Al-Rezwan, Amir Salihefendic, and AHM Modasser Billah

We publish collections of our interviews from time to time. Over the past several years, we’ve interviewed several hundred exceptional people from different walks of life. Almost all of these conversations have some insights that can be transformational. We publish these collections to help our readers find interesting conversations in one place so that they can learn more effectively.

However, I’m doing something different this time. Rather than sharing a new compilation, I have put together highlights from a few of my favorite interviews from this year. These are some of the best interviews we have published over the past years. 

I often go back to these interviews for inspiration and their timeless ideas on life and work. Most of our interviews are long-form and deal with timeless topics. These three interviews, published in the first few months of 2023, are some bright additions to that constellation. 

I only share select highlights from these interviews. I have hyperlinked multiple times and you can go to the full interview if you want to. The first section of the highlights comes from my conversation with Abdullah Al-Rezwan, Founder of MBI Deep Dives. Abdullah is a Bangladeshi-born US-based business analyst and entrepreneur. In the interview, we explore a long list of fascinating topics. The highlights include our discussion about doing good work, success, and personal growth. 

The second set of highlights comes from my conversation with Amir Salihefendic. Amir is the founder of the highly regarded global remote company Doist, the company behind hugely popular work management apps Doist and Twist. As you read Amir’s story, you’ll see Amir has seen the world and has not only an inspiring story but also offers beautiful insights about entrepreneurship, work, and life. 

The final set of highlights comes from my conversation with AHM Modasser Billah. Modasser works as a Senior Backend Developer at Doist. As you go through his interview, it is hard to miss his unique insights about life and work. 

Abdullah, Amir, and Modasser are exceptional people and have exceptional insights to share. I hope you enjoy these highlights. 

Abdullah Al-Rezwan on making peace with failure and the secret of good work 

Ruhul Kader: It is hard to overstate the importance of having a high tolerance for failure in life. I think it is at the heart of any meaningful work. Your childhood experiences certainly played a role in developing this mindset in you, but is there anything else in how you have built this tolerance for failure? As you said, you put this in-depth analysis of public companies out there, and it’s always a possibility that you might be wrong. To do your work, you have to accept that possibility at the very beginning. How did you come to make peace with the possibility that you may fail?

Abdullah Al-Rezwan: My philosophy is simple. I want to take my work seriously. But I don't want to take myself seriously. I approach my work with utmost seriousness. I work with diligence. But I don't want to take myself too seriously. Of course, I can fail. There are a lot of brilliant investors who failed before me. There will be a lot more after me. I'm viscerally aware that it is a possibility. 

I think of it this way. A lot of kids in Bangladesh play cricket. They're swinging their bats or trying to bowl fast in their backyard. If you go to these kids and say, hey, you know what, there is no possibility that you will be playing for Bangladesh Cricket Team. Of course, you will be right. Almost none of them will play for Bangladesh in 20 years. But it is also a possibility that a few of them will make it. Either way, you can’t know it unless you try. 

I approach investing from a similar perspective. It is a possibility that I may fail. Statistically speaking, it is likely that I will fail. But one of my friends told me once that statisticians are not good entrepreneurs. If you operate by statistics, you're never going to start a business. Why would you? You're likely to fail. But I don’t see it like that. I want to give my best and see what happens. If I come out fine and become a successful investor, it'll be so much fun. And if I'm not, I have to make sure that I don’t completely self-destruct myself and my family. There needs to be some tweaking. But even if a lot of things turned out to be not as what I expected or hoped, that's still fine. I still gave it a shot. 

We all are dealing with a problem called N = 1. N is the number of lives we have. What's the point of not giving a shot just because of the fear of failure? 

I want to do my best work but I don't want to take myself, the person, too seriously. If you worry all the time, oh my god, I'm gonna be so embarrassed because I'm down so much this year or whatever, it is a terrible way to operate. Because who cares if you're down or up? I know a lot of people who are down even more than I am. How many minutes do I spend thinking about their failures? People just don't think about you. In our heads, we are the protagonist of our life. We are the center of attention. And that’s the case for every other person. They are busy with themselves. You have your problems. I have my problems. I'm not spending time thinking about other people and what they're doing wrong or whatever. If you want to try something, you can't take yourself too seriously.

Ruhul Kader: Lessons from your journey so far.

Abdullah Al-Rezwan: I started MBI Deep Dives when I was in a very difficult situation. I would’ve never started anything on my own unless I found myself in that situation. That's why I feel like, even if you are in a dire situation, try to listen to whatever the world is trying to tell you. I'd be pretty happy working for a fund and getting paid every month. That was my dream before coming to Cornell — to work for a buy-side fund. Over the last two years, the biggest thing for me is the amount of joy I have from my work. I don't look forward to weekends, vacations, or anything like that. I don’t feel like I need to go somewhere to recharge. I am recharged. I have enormous joy in working on my own thing. I didn’t have this understanding when I was starting this thing. I couldn't possibly know that you could have something like that. 

The other lesson is that you gain conviction over time. I didn't know that this is what I should do when I started this. I was okay with failure. I was okay with this not turning out to be anything. Over time, however, I have gained more conviction. I have gained more confidence that this is what I should do and put my energy behind it. 

Ruhul Kader: Advice for young people. 

Abdullah Al-Rezwan: I've been kind of saying this the whole time. Follow your interest, whatever that is. You don't have to be a computer scientist or analyst or you don't have to work at a hedge fund. Just follow your damn interests even if it's completely inconsequential or sounds dumb or niche. Follow whatever you're interested in and participate on the internet in that particular interest. Find other people who are interested in that same thing and be part of that community. 

It's so much easier to get good at something that you're interested in. Because you will naturally spend a lot more time with the things that you are interested in and you will get better. 

Most people should try their luck on the internet. I'm not saying you will make it. As I said, the internet has power law distribution. By definition, most people will not have a positive outcome, but you should try. Because you wouldn't know unless you try. I think over the next 20-30 years, the internet will become a dominant source of people's livelihood. Everything is becoming digital. The tide is not going to change. More and more people will make money on the internet. 

My own family, both my brother and me, earn our livelihood with the help of the internet. I didn't know that I could be an independent research analyst three years ago. I would never think such a thing is possible for me. That's why it's important to keep your eyes open and pay attention to what's going on. 

That's the simple advice: follow your interests. Most of you have all the resources you need. You can listen to any famous investor and entrepreneur. If you want to learn about business there are so many resources out there. How many people in Bangladesh understand Amazon? Very few. But you can study Amazon in-depth if you want to. These are listed companies. You can find a lot of useful resources on these companies on the internet. If you're trying to build a great business, it's probably helpful to know how other great businesses such as Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, etc. have been built. Those stories are out there. You can listen to podcasts or read. 

Again, you have to be interested. Nobody can convince you to be interested in a particular thing that you are not interested in. That's why it is important to find and then follow something that you're interested in. Spend some time. Find a community or niche on the internet and participate. 

Amir Salihefendic on the value of hardships and entrepreneurial success 

Ruhul Kader: That's beautifully put. You make this interesting observation that people used to work hard before, and now we have become somewhat soft. A lot of people are calling it ‘the comfort crisis’. Today, if you need food, you just push a couple of buttons and you have your food right in front of your door. You mentioned hardships are necessary. It makes us resilient and strong. Even if you have all the convenience, life will throw different challenges at you. You will have sickness, you will lose your loved ones around you, those kinds of things. But when you become too comfortable, it can be challenging to deal with the difficulties of life. Technological advancements have played a role in all these changes, which is good on the one hand, and on the other hand, it has fundamentally changed how society and we operate as individuals and see the world. How do you see all these cultural changes? How do we navigate this new world? 

Amir Salihefendic: Something has worked for me. I think there's a way to resolve this. I don't think struggling is a good strategy. I don't hope we go back to struggling, because it's just an awful way to live, it's not a very pleasant way to live. If you're in constant struggle and don't know if you're going to be able to put bread on the table, that isn't good. Even if it makes you resilient then I don't think it's positive. 

Something that can kind of replace this is having an ambition, having a bigger goal in life, which then kind of becomes your driver. The willingness to grow pushes you to work hard and focus and stuff like that. I think that could be a much better life motivator than struggle. For me, in my early childhood, the struggle was the driver and it was a powerful motivator. Over the years, I kind of chased that ambition. I also think that's also pretty good for people. 

Ambition could be something that can drive us forward. For instance, if you're a tech worker, and you have a good salary, and a good job, you may try to find a bigger goal because I think it makes life much more interesting. 

The critical point is not being complacent in anything. This goes for companies, teams, or societies as well. Once you become complacent, once you become satisfied with the status quo, you can count it as a signal for your downturn. 

In tech, we have had a boom for many years now. Money was floating around, salaries getting higher and higher, and you could work less and less. I don't think this helped to create a good structure. Right now, we are probably going through a period of resetting to the baseline, where some of this free money will be removed and things will get to a baseline. You can see this going around in Silicon Valley where hundreds of thousands of layoffs are happening. A huge reset going on. The same thing with the VCs. VCs are investing a lot less. The stock markets are kind of crashing. The crypto markets are crashing. We’re going through a huge reset right now. I think this will force companies, people, etc. to operate differently. 

When I say work hard I don't mean that you need to work all the time and only work. Rather I think you should be focused and driven and be careful about complacency. I think we have a completely complacent environment that was created over the years that is now going through a correction. 

Ruhul Kader: Would you like to talk a bit about your first entrepreneurship projects, and then track that trajectory to Todoist? When did you start your first project?

Amir Salihefendic: When I was a student, I created a lot of side projects that I hacked around during the night. I would just create stuff and launch them. Some of these projects did well such as the spell-checking service that I already mentioned. I also created a CMS system for content management and various scripts and a ton of other projects. Some of these projects were not even commercial. It was just, okay, I'm hacking this, I'm going to share it with everyone. 

While some of them worked such as the spell-checking service which was a commercial success, many of these projects were mostly passion projects. I would say my first real success came from the spell-checking service, creating it and scaling it, and then selling it. 

If there's something that people can take from this, especially young people who are reading this, I think you need to be a creator. In the early days, what you need to do is just experiment, create and become better at your craft. 

If you want to build a business, you need to have some kind of skill. Or, at least, find a co-founder who has some tech skills and can build things. That is the leverage that you can use — building things, launching them, and iterating. That has at least been my experience and what I would recommend doing. If you don’t do that, it's hard to become better at this. You need to start at some point, then you need to iterate towards something better and better. That's one aspect of this. 

The other aspect is that you need to grow constantly. To this day, I spend a lot of time just learning and growing as a person. You need to have a learning mindset. The stuff that I learn, I’m not always looking for utility. Some of it can be useful in the future and some of it may never be useful. Just having curiosity and a learning mindset can take you a long way. 

For instance, I'm now trying to become better at financial aspects. I'm listening to podcasts such as The invest like the best. I didn’t have this hobby a few years back. But right now, they're interesting, and maybe in a few years, some of the knowledge that I'd build will become super useful for me. 

A lot of times the purpose isn't to create something super successful or learn something useful. In the beginning, when I started, the stuff that I learned was mostly related to new products, engineering, and business model, but whatever it is you just need to have the spark and absorb the knowledge. That's the most important tip I have for someone who is just starting.  

The other aspect is that a lot of people expect overnight success. They expect that they would learn something and then take over the world. But the truth is that you have to be good to compete globally. If you want to become a top athlete you need to train hard. Things won't be based on luck. The same thing applies to achieving success on your project. Of course, you may win a lottery ticket, but I would not put my bet on that. 

Ruhul Kader: You have a distinct philosophy about work, which is well documented on the internet. How have your thoughts and philosophy about work changed over these years? As you mentioned, you used to work super hard in the early days of Doist. There was little balance. You had to survive and you probably had a certain view about work. For example, your approach to meetings is as less number of meetings the best. That's one way of looking at it. Then and again, some people propose that you have to work 100 hours a week. That's a different extreme of things. Over the years, how have your thoughts about work and founding companies evolved and changed? Since Doist as a company is about work, you see a lot of different kinds of people use your product to manage their work life. What are your thoughts on seeing all these different things and how do you see work today? 

Amir Salihefendic: I would like to note that I'm still very hard-working. Whenever I’m working, I focus hard. I don't work a lot. I'm not 100 hours per week type. Because if I actually thought it was the most efficient way to work, I would probably do that. I just don't think it's the most efficient way. 

My philosophy of work is more like a top athlete than a factory worker. With a lot of our work, what really matters is creativity. It's about being inspired and having a fresh mind. Your ability to think clearly is much more critical than the amount of time you're going to spend on something. For me, that's one aspect. 

The other aspect is kind of the intensity aspect and aspects like stamina, and being able to do this for a long time. On Todoist, I've been working for 15 years now. In the tech sector, most founders have never worked on something for so long. I'm willing to spend the rest of my life on this. That is an aspect for which I try to optimize. I try to optimize for the long term — how can I sustain this for the next 30 years? These are the two aspects of that. 

The other aspects are thinking from first principles and trying to challenge the status quo. For instance, moving more into asynchronous work, more writing than talking in meetings, etc. These are also tools you can use to become more productive. 

For me, intensity is important. I need to work with intensity. But I also think about sustainability — being able to do something at a certain level for a long time without burning out. Those are the elements I optimize towards.

AHM Modasser Billah on navigating hardships and how to build a career 

Ruhul Kader: We touched upon briefly the challenges and tribulations you went through. You lost your father early in life and then you went through your physical challenges, these are the things that we don't have any control over. But it's common for all people. Would you like to briefly talk about your experience and your views on trials and tribulations we go through in life? 

AHM Modasser Billah: It's a difficult question for me because I've never really looked at it that way. I was going through it. I didn't look back on it a lot. I was approaching it as a came. It helped that I didn't have a lot of expectations from my career, or professional ambitions, in the first place. So I wasn't disappointed or something. It turned out well for me. I didn't like the experience of my first job. Every day I was commuting to my work and thinking, is this what I want to do for the rest of my life? In fact, I was dreaming about that room I had on my rooftop, where I work now, maybe I can set up an office there and work from there. And eventually, that did happen. I'm grateful for that. 

In terms of managing adversity, my approach has always been not to give it too much significance. Hardships are a part of life. To be honest, we are the privileged class in Bangladesh. So I shouldn't be complaining too much. I just wanted to keep doing the right thing and look for innovative ways, how I can get out of it or get to a better position. I don't think I can offer a lot of meaningful insight here. As they say, it is what it is. 

I see this a lot in our culture that people blame everything outside their control. These things happen. But it doesn't help your growth when you are blaming everyone else. There will always be things going against you, but you can try to do things that help you and give you a sense of control and a sense that things are improving and that you can improve. That's what matters. In the end, it's not in your hands. You do your part and pray.

Ruhul Kader: What are some of the biggest lessons from your journey so far?  

AHM Modasser Billah: I think life, in general, has changed and become more superficial. Be it social media or approaching life, the basic lessons are lost more and more. I see adults not knowing what to do, and how to approach things. Even the people who are relatively responsible are not learning skills that matter for life, for example, how to handle your finances, and so on. I think people are generally losing their ability to think. 

I have lost a lot of my reading habits. I think social media takes away a lot of time from us, the time that we could have spent reading. Because of the practice from an early age, I think I was a better reader before and this is something that's getting lost. 

The biggest lesson I have learned is that most things that matter in life are not glamorous. Especially in a country like ours, you need to have something that Farnam Street calls an “inner scorecard”. I need to know what I'm doing. I need to have a decision process so that when people are talking about my choices, or it didn't turn out the way I wanted it to be, I can look back, and review how I came to the decision, and I can be okay with it. It didn't go as planned, but I'm okay with it. 

I think people now tend to question themselves a lot and are less focused and determined to figure things out. So I would say that's one of the biggest things that you should have your inner scorecard of how to see life and make decisions and not be influenced by what others are doing or talking about. Because it's again quoting from Farnam Street that if you're reading what everyone else is reading, you'd be thinking what everyone else is thinking and in complex adaptive systems, it doesn't work.

Ruhul Kader: For people who are in their 20s or starting their careers, what advice would you give?

AHM Modasser Billah: First, do not look for shiny new things, or glamorous things. Those may look like achievements, but they're not. The basic things like family, responsibility, and getting your life in order, these things don't look great, but they feel great. That's the first thing. 

Second, I think we need to look at the world differently because it's a complex and adaptive system. If you look at the trend, the generation before our fathers, came from agricultural backgrounds, and then they studied, and most of those who studied went into government jobs and things like that. And a lot of people in our generation are still trying to imitate that. But that's not where the advantage lies in our generation. The analogy of adaptive systems is that: you see there is heavy traffic on the road. You try to avoid it and take a different road.  But everyone else is also opting for the alternative route now. Eventually, that road also gets clogged. It means the most effective path is always changing. 

You need to be on the lookout for what's on its way up. Not something that's at the peak because something that is on the peak is going to come down sooner than you are going to reach there. You see that, for example, with subject choices in universities. This has happened with electrical engineering. Electrical was the first choice when we were getting into BUET but by the time we graduated, CSE slots ran out first as CS jobs were paying more. Because the software was taking over the world. This is something I think people need to look out for. Don't just follow what worked before, because it's constantly changing. We need to adapt.

Photo by Fabrizio Conti on Unsplash

Originally published on 10 April 2023. Updated on 28 September 2023

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2022 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at ruhul@futurestartup.com

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