Master & Slave Moralities

Something from Nietzsche’s “The Genealogy of Morals” that hasn’t left my mind since I first read it. It explains a lot about the world we live in now, and the state of the human race. (#1, #2)

In any population, you are going to have a group of people who are more talented / gifted / intelligent than average. Let’s call them The Strong. You are also going to have a group of people who are less talented / gifted / intelligent than average. Let’s call them The Weak.

The Strong will naturally accrue the power in society for no other reason than they are more capable and talented than the others.

Because The Strong won their greater power and influence through outsmarting or outperforming others, they will come to adopt ethical beliefs that justify their position: that might makes right, that they are entitled to their privileged position, that they earned what is theirs. Nietzsche calls this “Master Morality.”

Because The Weak lost their power and influence by being outsmarted and outperformed, they will come to adopt ethical beliefs that justify their position: that people deserve aid and charity, that one should give away one’s possessions to the less fortunate, that you should live for others and not yourself. Nietzsche calls this “Slave Morality.”

Master/Slave Moralities have been in a kind of tension in every society for all of recorded history. Many political/social conflicts are side effects of the struggle between Master and Slave Moralities.

Nietzsche believed that the ideas of guilt, punishment and a “bad conscience” are all culturally constructed and used by The Weak to chip away at the dominance and power of The Strong. He also believed that Slave Morality is just as capable of corrupting and oppressing a society as Master Morality. He used Christianity as his primary example of this.

Nietzsche believed that Slave Morality stifled man’s greatest characteristics: creativity, innovation, ambition, and even happiness itself.

High Agency

Who do you want to go to war with?

Over the last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to have hired, worked side by side with and interviewed lot of very smart people. I’ve also had the chance to interact with a lot of very smart folks online and offline and learn from them. After all of that, if there’s one thing I look for, before any other trait (especially the obvious ones), it’s something that’s called a “High Agency” mindset.

It’s a concept which is not very popular and has never really been spoken or written about cohesively in a single post – and hence I’m taking a shot at it. All credit to Eric Weinstein for articulating this, Ryan Holiday and George Mack for expanding on it.

PS: I also tend to be a bit lazy and whenever I’ve been asked for feedback, it tends to revolve around this one point only, so I’m writing this blog post also so that I can just redirect to this. PS: If you have issues with war mode analogies and startups, keep them to yourself. I really don’t care.

What is the High Agency mindset?

When you’re told that something is impossible, is that the end of the conversation, or does that start a second dialogue in your mind, how to get around whoever it is that’s just told you that you can’t do something?

High Agency is a sense that the story given to you by other people about what you can/cannot do is just that – a story. And that you have control over the story.

High Agency person looks to bend reality to their will. They either find a way, or they make a way. Low agency person accepts the story that is given to them. They never question it. They are passive. They outsource all of their decision making to other people.

People articulate High Agency behavior in different ways.

Paul Graham – Relentlessly Resourcefulsays he can describe a good startup founder in two words – “relentlessly resourceful” (high agency) He says the opposite of this is “hapless” (low agency).

Jeff Bezos – Third World Prison – has a framework for identifying high agency friends/romantic partners. Answer this question: “If you was stuck in a third world prison and had to call one person to try and bust you out of there – who would you call?”

Keith Rabois – Barrels vs Ammunitionidentifies high agency in employees through a mental model called “Barrels vs Ammunition”.

Peter Thiel – 10 Years in 6 Monthshas a question to help bring out high agency thinking. “How can you achieve your 10 year goal in 6 months?”

Steve Jobs – Change Reality“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

Life is too short to spend it with Low Agency people

When you’re working on extremely ambitious problems, you really want to be surrounded by people who’re high agency. They give you energy. They figure shit out. They bend reality. They win.

Raw intellectual horsepower, hard work and other things are hygiene. High agency behaviour is what the ultimate differentiator is. It will help you learn much faster, grow much faster and eventually make a huge impact, either in some job you’re doing, or even if you start your own company some day.

In a lot of instances, when I’m introspecting myself or when I’m giving feedback to my directs on why certain things can’t be done, I use one line a lot – “The world is unfair. Deal with it. The market doesn’t care. Figure it out.” The best people, those with a high agency mindset, inherently understand this. And those are the only kind of people that you’ll want to work with.

Going Beyond “Make Something People Want”

Going Beyond “Make Something People Want”

In the opening lecture “Challenge of the Future” of his Stanford class, Peter Thiel argues the fundamental challenge of a startup is to simultaneously answer three questions correctly:


  • For the startup, the answer to what is valuable? drives the market.
  • For the investor, size of the opportunity or the investment potential.
  • For the customer, the problem solved.

The answer to what is missing? drives the idea for the startup, product for the investor, and solution for the customer.

Finally, the answer to what can I do? or rather, what can we do? drives team, execution and satisfaction respectively:

Let’s enrich this framework.

Paul Graham claims the fundamental challenge in a technology startup is to Make Something People Want. This is a thoughtful, simple, intention-revealing and specific action statement. It tells founders to do something. It is also incomplete (likely for brevity), because it lacks uncertainty and tension that comes from constraints. The challenge for the typical startup is to make something people want with very little time and money.

Make Something is about the team executing on an idea to solve a problem by building a product:

The methods to make something are fairly well understood: deliver a simple solution early, iterate fast. I will write about the agile/lean topics later.

Part of what People Want is about a simple solution to an overlooked problem that actually needs to be solved.

Startup-worthy problem seems to be

  • hard+schleppy+unsexy (therefore, overlooked)
  • and frequent+urgent (therefore, needs to be solved).

The solution for the startup-worthy problem is demanded by the market:

“Focus on the problem” approach, however, seems less than exhaustive. People seem to want other things than solutions to problems (pinterest, instagram)

People Want >> Make Something

Knowing what people want is harder than making something. Why? I can think of three reasons:

1. Understanding what people want is hard for the typical startup founder (harder if product targets enterprise). Customers don’t say what they want or don’t want directly. A twenty-something, somewhat introverted CS major guy did not yet acquire a wide enough range of human experience and emotional maturity to penetrate what isn’t being said.

2. Accepting what people don’t want is hard for the typical startup founder. Customers say what they don’t want. Founders ignore and rationalize the feedback. Founders confuse stubbornness with persistence, their ideas/product with their identity, or both.

3. Understanding what people want is hard. The real reason is probably a combination of all three. I will explore the last one.

Let’s start with the people. They are customers.

Customers form the startup’s market, and demand the product.

  • people ≠ persons
  • people = customers

A customer is defined by a pattern of demand, as an instance of customers.

  • customer ≠ a person
  • customer = persona
  • customer = a demand pattern that reached critical mass

Now we can tie it back to market:

  • demand = public spread of a private want
  • market = a private want shared by a critical mass

Notice we are circling around the want. The central complexity is cracking the want.

  • want = lack of something desirable and/or essential
  • want = a need component + a desire component

For needs, I will use Steven Reiss’ framework of 16 common needs deeply rooted in human nature:

Ordering and grouping reveals three clusters:

About Person

  • Eating
  • Physical Activity
  • Independence
  • Honor
  • Tranquility
  • Romance (includes beauty and aesthetics)

About Things

  • Curiosity
  • Saving (collecting/accumulating things of value)
  • Order (organizing, structuring things)

About Other People

  • Family
  • Social contact
  • Acceptance
  • Status
  • Power
  • Idealism
  • Vengeance

That’s the need component.

Now, let’s focus on the desire component. It seems to have three distinct parts:

  • 1. A seeking drive that is neutral, independent of the object of desire (you desire something feverishly, then go on and desire something else the same way)
  • 2. A learned, mimicked and virally spreading part (you want that? I want it too)
  • 3. An addictive, self-reinforcing reward part tied to intrinsic feeling combinations (facebook: wonder + lust = voyeurism, vitality + self-importance + lust = narcissism)

Putting it together, and reordering:

  • want = need + desire
  • want = 16 needs + addictive reward + mimetic/viral desire + neutral seeking drive

The question what is valuable? is from customer’s viewpoint in relation to themselves.

The answer is a story: underlying psychological drivers, the needs, cause people to share a private want. This want defines the demand and drives the potential market for your startup, and the investment potential for your angel/VC.

Sometimes customers are aware of an obstacle, manifested as a problem. If you want to make something they want, you better root for them. Therefore, their problem becomes your enemy, and defines your marketing personality.

The answer to what is missing? is defined from customer’ point in relation to what else is there. The other stuff drives what we learn to desire. The underlying psychological driver for the answer is the desire.

The underlying psychological challenge for the startup is to do ordinary things under extraordinary situations: courage.

Finally, let’s add the fourth dimension, the psyche, to the Peter Thiel + Paul Graham framework:

Enough theory. Let’s predict:

  • To make something people want notice hard+schleppy+unsexy+frequent+urgent problems, and publicly spreading private wants that are about to hit a critical mass.
  • For publicly spreading private wants, notice combinations of 16 core need (status, power and curiosity) that
    • yield an addictive reward (acceptance of + instant influence over masses, endless wonder) and
    • became ok to borrow from each other (twitter)
  • The more of 16 needs your product covers, the more people want it (facebook)
  • The fewer of 16 needs your product covers, the more it needs to solve a hard+schleppy+unsexy+frequent+urgent problem (dropbox)
  • The fewer of the 7 social needs about people your product covers, the more need for building viral mechanisms into product (dropbox)
  • The 3 needs about things make the product addictive (pinterest)
  • The 7 social needs about people are over-served
  • Combining under-served needs opens big markets (airbnb: independence + idealism + curiosity)
  • Vengeance (e.g. shame wrongdoing judges) is under-served

Note: This is not my creation, it’s this dude’s. But it’s a brilliant way to think about and build products. The original post doesn’t seem to be online anymore. Hence this repost.

Money as an Instrument of Change

I’ve been out of action since my last post here which was way back in 2014. There have been a lot of reasons for that which I won’t bore you with. I’m back now and will try to be more regular. I have also accumulated a lot more gyaan (and some white hair) in the last 3 years which I’d be happy to share now, because if you really have to listen to gyaan from random strangers on the interwebs, why not mine?

Starting off with the one thing which has influenced my worldview the most in the last year – it’s a talk by Chamath Palihapitiya – Money as an Instrument of Change. Until now, my primary focus has been to get to Fuck You Money – but this made me realize that that’s only the first step. The end game is primarily this – and I couldn’t have articulated it better.

2014: The Year That Was

Keeping in line with my yearly tradition (2013 and 2012), here’s my annual review of my life – where I look back on what happened, what changed and reflect on my life. I’m about a month late, but better late than never. 2014 was the 26th year of my life, and it’s probably been the best yet. It’s also been the most hectic, which explains why I haven’t been able to pen this down yet. There’s been just too much going on – on both the work and the personal front, mostly the former.


I’m still working at hike, which is now the biggest Indian mobile app. We hit 15 million users around the beginning of 2014, and 35 million users by August. We’re much bigger now, and much much bigger than any other app made in India. I’ve now completed two years here, which is one more than I originally planned for, and looks like I’m going to be here for the near future.

We’ve seen really good growth this year in all our metrics, on the back of possibly the most successful app marketing campaign this year, which catapulted us to #1 on the app stores again, and helped us achieve escape velocity to some extent. We also raised our biggest round of funding yet – $65 million from Tiger Global and BSB.

I’m working primarily on growth and product, while dabbling in a lot of other stuff. It’s been a great learning experience so far, and it’s exposed me to a lot of smart people, inside and outside the company. The aim is to become the first Indian app with more than a 100 million users soon, and bring all of India online. We’ll be making some big moves this year; watch out!


Work has been taking almost all of my attention, and life has kinda taken a backseat. Not that I’m complaining. It’s been really exciting for the most part, and I’m trying to make it even more so. I’ve grown a lot this year, in terms of learning and personal development, both at work and generally.

I ended 2014 with a 10 day long Vipassana course, which ended up giving me some perspective. Great experience, but mostly because of the time it afforded me for some deep reflection (more than the meditation – could hardly do that well because of my borderline ADHD).

Caught up on my reading this year, but still not much as I should’ve. Books have become harder to read, because of my deteriorating attention span, but I still managed around 30+ good ones mostly in marathon runs over the weekends. Also saw a ton of movies and TV shows (discovered a cool hack which allows me to view it faster without any loss in absorption – watching most of these at between 1.5 to 2X these days). Feels weird, but try it out, it works. Pushes you to focus on the movie and better than skipping parts.

My brother got married to the love of his life, and so did a lot of other friends. One thing I don’t understand is why the fuck everyone is in such a rush. Even juniors have started getting married now, and I’m pretty sure they’ve no clue what they’re doing.


I started the year with a trip to Rishikesh for a couple days. Hung out with some new friends at some Osho thingy, and tried bungee jumping. Twice. Best adrenaline rush I ever had. Need to make this a regular thing. Next up, travelled to Kashmir with some office friends, some time in March. Gulmarg, Sonmarg, Pahalgam etc. Tried my hand at skiing (the basic tourist kind – need to get better at that), but came down a 8 mile stretch in a snow cycle (much easier than skiing) instead. Had a lot of fun, first time there. Got completely swamped with work post that – lots going on on that front.

The next trip was directly in August I think. Trekked in Triund, and spent a couple days at Dharamsala. Good experience, but realized I’m growing old. Met some interesting people. Need to ramp up the exercise bit and stay in peak physical condition. Also traveled to Goa with the hike team and did whatever everyone usually does in Goa.

Following that was a work trip – flew to New York for a work related conference, and also caught up with some old college friends (almost every single one of them is in Amreeka, and working now). Good times. Next up, the trip I’d awaited most.


Flew to San Francisco, to visit some of the best startups & internet companies and meet some of the best growth and product teams in the world. Met the people who had led the growth teams at LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Paypal, Dropbox and many other startups. A very enlightening experience, for reasons I can’t reveal just yet. Finally went skydiving too in Santa Clara. That one minute of freefall was the single best one minute of my life yet. That’s about it on the travel front, made a couple more small trips around North India.

Learnings & Goals

One of the biggest things I’ve improved on is the ability to work in a team, and lead one. I’ve mostly been a solo player yet, but that’s changing. Trying to learn how to play well with others. Other than that, one of my biggest learnings in the last year has been humility. I’ve met a lot of really smart people, and that gives you a lot of perspective. On the other hand, I don’t value raw intelligence as much as I used to. Some people who I regarded highly (almost as gods), once I actually interacted with them, I’m now not at all in awe of them, even though I respect them.

Another thing I’ve come to realize again and again: time is the most valuable resource you have. No point wasting it doing things that don’t matter or with people you don’t like.

In 2015, the goal is to find a couple hobbies outside work, play more, spend more time with my family and close friends, work smarter, be more efficient, cut out more bullshit – things and people that don’t matter, read more, travel more, figure out the meaning of life, do things I’ve never done before, and just generally – live more.

To end with, these are the 5 articles I’d share with you this year. These have shaped my thinking more than anything else I’ve read.