Why I fell in love with Estonia

I am a Canadian.

More specifically, I'm an African-born Bangladeshi-Canadian who has lived/worked in over 20 different countries in the last few years. I'm also dark-skinned, have a pretty dope beard and a middle name of "Ahmed", which is relevant only because we're discussing Europe.

Somehow, some way, after 25 years I found myself in a tiny, frigid country in north-eastern Europe called Estonia. And I fell in love.

I won't go on some long-winded diatribe on why this tiny country of hilariously introverted weirdos unlocked my soul and made me a man . Instead, I'll just tell you why I freaking love this place.

1. They're beautifully weird, and weirdly beautiful

Estonia is just... strange. They've had such a turbulent history, particularly recently (nearly 10% of the population was killed in WW2, and that was just the start of an overall horrible half-century), that you'd think they lack a strong historic or cultural identity.

And yet they have one, and a strong one at that - the Estonians have an extremely unique character trait of what I would call "self-deprecating pride". They'll poke endless fun at themselves but god damnit, they're proud of their refusal to stand within 5 feet of anyone else. They're also immensely proud of their technological advances and appreciation/conservation of their nature, and revel in enjoying it's every detail (I've had friends invite me to drive 3 hours to look at a rock. A rock, dear reader.)

Oh, they also happen to be the most beautiful people on Earth. Seriously, they produce the highest number of models per capita. I'm not saying this to be superficial. Well, actually, I am. Jeez they're good looking.

2. They're extraordinarily entrepreneurial

Estonia is the 132nd smallest country in the world by land mass. Its biggest city ("metropolis") would pass for a town in most countries. And yet, it churns out the highest number of startups per capita in Europe, and has spun out some top companies including Skype, Hotmail, Transferwise, Pipedrive, Toggl, Kazaa, etc. Damn near everyone I know there is working on something. They're the pioneer of e-residency and are the most digital country on Earth. The national average for filing taxes is 3 minutes. 3 minutes. It takes me that long to email my accountant asking her why I'm broke.

What is it about this tiny country that makes it so innovative? It's hard to say - the most common local theory is that it's so cold and dark they have nothing else to do but work. Whatever it is, it's allowed them to come from rationing food 25 years ago to being one of the most digitally advanced societies on the planet.

3. Its climate is unrelenting

As a Canadian, I've experienced brutal ice storms and frigid winters. As a Bangladeshi, I've experienced stifling heat and mosquito bites more painful than flu shots. 

But Estonia, well... Estonia is something else. Have you ever walked out of the office at 3pm to complete darkness and a freezing blizzard? 

It takes character to survive an Estonian winter. Learning how to laugh and be happy while seeing the sun about twice a month takes a resolve and appreciation of the finer things. The weather really makes the Estonians - a character of humility and "pessimistic optimism" is one that only comes from centuries of being in an abusive, emotionally-distant relationship with vitamin D.

4. They're just good people

Of all the people I've met on Earth, Estonians are the ones who really make the most out of life. They enjoy spending time in nature, traveling the world, summer weeknights with their family. They're humble, despite being some of the most interesting people you've ever met. Every bar or coffee shop you walk into shows an originality I haven't seen anywhere else. They're progressive and extremely well educated (Estonia has the 2nd highest literacy rate in the world).

When I came to Estonia, I didn't know what to expect. If anything I was prepared for a negative experience (eastern Europe doesn't have the greatest record of race relations). Instead, what I found was some of the most fun & welcoming people I've ever met. The rich mix of nature (50% of the country), history (for instance, the most well-preserved medieval old town in the world) and technology, is one I haven't seen anywhere else in the world.

Ask any Estonian, and they'll say that Estonians are unfriendly & unwelcoming people. Nothing could be further from the truth. The beauty of the Estonians really is that they don't know how great they really are - they're like an adorable, homely alien race that are frustrated with themselves because god dangit if only they could be a bit nicer. Indeed, if the rest of the world were as humble and self-critical as the Estonians, maybe our planet wouldn't be on a one-way rocketship straight to hell.

Also, they do a ton of really weird shit. Like.

Wife Carrying

Getting naked and hitting each other with leaves

Swinging in circles... professionally

I spent a few years wandering trying to find my place. I never expected I'd find it here, but I'm so glad I did.

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On work ethic

My dad is the hardest worker I've ever met.

He grew up in a remote village in Bangladesh, just after the British partition. He came from one of the poorest environments in the world, in a family with no wealth and limited education as the oldest son in a family of 7. After graduating from high school, with barely $20 in his pocket, he traveled to the Soviet Union as one of a handful of international students admitted to study graduate-level Physics & Education. He spent his life as an academic and, nearly 30 years later, managed one of his proudest accomplishments: emigrating his family to Canada.

Today, the difference in opportunity my brother and I have compared to our direct cousins is astounding, even with global economic advances. I have my father to thank for that. 

Growing up, my dad used to tell me that he would study for 16 hours as a student. I always figured he was just saying that to motivate me. I've realized now that I was wrong - he really did work that hard, because he had to. Even he'd acknowledge that my brother and I have natural gifts that he's never had. Yet neither of us have come close to accomplishing any of what he did at our respective ages (25 & 33). 

The secret to his success? Hard work & sincerity.

There's been no better lesson in my life & my professional career than that. My father has always firmly believed, and echoed, that working hard & being sincere will always bring you success. Sure enough, it worked out for him. That's not to say it always works: my father has had his failures, as we all do. But on the whole, his life at net is an admirable success. 

My father never chased success. He just woke up every day with the goal to work harder and more sincerely than he did the week before. That's how you find success. It doesn't require a process, it doesn't require a framework, it doesn't require complicated productivity hacks - wake up every day and work hard, and work sincerely.

That's it.

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Stop Complicating Growth

ESS, OMTM, A3R3, OPP (yea, you know me), O2I 

Do you know every one of these terms? If the answer to that question wasn't "yes" you have failed in your career as a growth practitioner, turn in your Optimizely Macbook sticker & leave.

Not really, though. I don't know any of those terms, nor do I care to learn. I see them plastered in a lot of articles I read and, quite frankly, I don't think it's worth the mind share for me to look up what they are. 

The concept of Growth programs in tech started off at the hands of some smart marketers - one specific smart marketer, actually, Sean Ellis. Sean is a smart guy & has wicked dance moves. He was a t-shaped, analytically-focused marketer with a brilliant eye for user behaviour. I wish I could understand users half as well as he could.

Unfortunately, when he coined "Growth Hacking" and introduced it as technical marketing he created a double edged sword: on one hand, the discipline exploded in popularity. On the other hand, it met with the wrong kind of popularity.

The thing about marketing is that it has a low skill floor and a very high skill ceiling. That is to say, there's a lot of shitty marketers, but the ones that are good are really damn good. The guys at the top have always preached what growth always was: experiment-driven optimization of a product's growth mechanisms. Unfortunately, growth quickly got hijacked by the lowest common denominator and became this buzzword-infested, gimmicky mess that it's become associated with today. When you search articles on Growth, you're not greeted with statistical research or peer-reviewed case studies. Instead, you get to sift through hundreds of horrible articles written by freelance digital marketers about what email copy increased the click-through-rate of their crappy emails by +500%.

We need to take a step back and rebuild the foundations of what "Growth" is. Growth is not marketing, and you do not need to know "marketing" to be a good growth optimizer. 

Growth does not need hordes of gimmicks and dozens of obscure metrics defining it's work. Growth is the engineering process of using data to explore ways to optimize a product's growth mechanisms. That's it.

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The Happiness Equation: How to Buy Happiness

I have lived & worked in over 25 countries spanning 4 different continents, particularly in the last 2 years. I have lived in the richest countries in the world, and one of the poorest. I've been wealthy enough to eat at 5-star restaurants, and poor enough to steal food. 

These experiences have taught me valuable lessons about happiness and money. More specifically, the true utility of money in the context of happiness.

The common adage "you can't buy happiness" is wrong. It's true, some studies have shown that past a certain income threshold, you reach a point of diminishing returns of happiness. In general, past about the middle-class level, you don't typically see increases in happiness as wealth goes up. 

However, there's a reason for this: once a certain level of prosperity is achieved, people typically spend their money on things that don't add happiness.

A recent study by Harvard Business School suggests that money can buy happiness if it's used to increase your free time. The study argues, for example, that investing in cleaning services can add to your general contentment by buying you time which you can put towards things you love doing.

However, that's not the only way.

The marginal happiness utility of increased wealth depends on four things: mobility, time, stress & fulfillment.

Forgive me for being horribly contrived here, but let's distill that into a formula: MHU = M + T - S + F

An increase in wealth (and it's corresponding investments) will either increase, decrease or leave untouched each of those 4 things. To increase your happiness, the marginal happiness utility of any investment you make should always be positive. Here are a few examples.

1. You buy your first car. It increases your mobility & time a fair bit, with a slight increase in stress and no reduction in fulfillment. Your overall MHU is positive. You have "bought" happiness in the form of time and mobility to experience and do things you want.

2. You buy a new, fancy car. It doesn't increase your mobility or your time in any meaningful way. It potentially increases your stress because of maintenance. In the long run, a fancy car either doesn't increase your MHU at all or decreases it. A new, fancy car, doesn't add to your happiness.

3. You enroll yourself in an Eastern Philosophy degree at an old age. It doesn't increase your mobility, it decreases your time and increases your stress. The ultimate MHU in this case entirely depends on why you're doing the degree: if you're truly doing it because you find it fascinating and wish to learn, your MHU likely increases. 

There are obvious flaws to this theory. Mostly, it doesn't account for taking on negative MHU in the short term to incur bigger wealth which you can reinvest in long-term positive MHU (otherwise known as college). Perhaps the best strategy for happiness is a mathematical one: take stock of your decisions from the perspective of happiness added, and aim to maximize long-term returns while keeping a short-term buffer.

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