If You Can't Find What You're Looking For, Clean Up

May 7, 2019

When I was a teenager, my brother and I shared a room, and it was often messy. There would be CDs, papers, books, clothes and computer parts everywhere. Like every teenager, I would often lose something and then proceed to frantically search the room. After digging through the clutter for a while, I would start asking everyone in the house if they had seen whatever I was looking for.

Rare image of the state of our room during this search.
"If you can't find what you're looking for, clean up."

These are the words my dad would say whenever I’d give up my search and resort to asking if anyone had seen the missing items. I would always do a mental eye roll whenever he said this. Not an actual one, because if you roll your eyes at an African parent, that would be your last eye roll… ever. Afterwards, I would get back to the room and start cleaning up. Most of the time, I would find what I was searching for.

I have taken this lesson into adulthood. Whenever I start searching for something in my room, my first instinct is to clean up. When the room is in a neater state, I usually find what I'm looking for.

Existential Crisis

Back in 2014 in my early days as an investment analyst, I had a bit of an existential crisis. I had finally landed the role I worked so hard for and I was doing the type of work I had always thought I wanted to do. However, after a couple of months, I started to question whether or not I made the right career choice and whether I really wanted to be in finance for the rest of my life.

This was mostly driven by the fact that I had what I thought would be trillion-dollar app ideas every other day (to be honest, discovering TechCrunch cribs had a lot to do with it too. Those videos were kick-ass). As I mentioned in my Origins Story, I’ve always known that I would run a business at some point, even though I had no idea what type of business. But I knew the first thing I had to do was start.

Like many non-technical wantrepreneurs, I decided to learn as much as I could about tech and start-ups. I spent my evenings and weekends consuming online content, attending networking events and reading books. I also signed up for various online courses on digital marketing, coding, data science, entrepreneurship and venture capital, which, admittedly, I rarely completed.

I was all over the place and doing too much for someone who had no specific goal and a demanding full-time job. I was always burnt out and to top it all off, I never had any tangible evidence to showcase my progress as an entrepreneur. My lack of skin in the game was particularly evident when I attended networking events. People would ask me questions about what exactly I was working on and on most occasions, I couldn’t provide them with any concrete answers. All I had was this innate burning desire to learn as much as I could, but learning without application is like writing recipes and then calling yourself a cook.

It was a mess!

I was aware that this wasn’t sustainable and to make any real progress as an entrepreneur, I would have to cut back on a lot of what I was doing and focus on something. I knew exactly what I needed to do… I had to clean up.

The series

This is an introduction to a five-part blog series called Clean Up, where I’ll show you how I’ve applied this simple lesson – not only to my physical space but to all aspects of my life. I'll share the resources and strategies that helped me in the process of getting it together as I searched for my purpose. This series will break down what I did well and what I wish I could have done differently as I found myself in the world of tech start-ups.

What is cleaning up all about?

As we push ourselves out of our comfort zones, try new things and enter new territories, our lives can get messy. Humans are terrible at estimating how much time and effort things take to get done and this can lead us into a bad space.

Cleaning up is all about:

  • Taking back control, then adjusting the course if things are not going in the right direction.
  • Figuring out what's important and why it’s important, and then ensuring that what's not essential isn’t taking up the majority of your time.
  • Setting the stage to form new habits.
  • Being deliberate about your goals and the progress you wish to make.
  • Becoming conscious of your present circumstances and understanding how your choices will affect your path towards reaching your goals.

Marie Kondo, in her book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, describes effective tidying in your physical space as an activity that involves two essential actions:

  • Discarding
  • Deciding where to store things

Of the two, discarding has to come first. Ultimately, this whole process, when applied to other aspects of my life, helps to answer three key questions:

  1. What resources do I have available to me at a given time?
  2. What portion of these resources are consumed and by what?
  3. What's the opportunity cost of consumption?

“My life is a mess!”

I love mess...

What I realised early on was that no matter how messy things become, it should never make you consider your whole life as a mess. It’s tempting to do so, but all this does is overstate the issues you’re facing in one area and overshadow all the other areas where you’re actually doing well.

This can be overwhelming and can lead to procrastination when you start to feel like there isn’t much you can do to improve your current situation. Our lives are an interwoven tapestry of habits and there’s no silver bullet to fix it all. Understanding this helps us kickstart the process of troubleshooting and figuring out which parts need attention.

So, how does one get started with this process of cleaning up when you feel like everything is falling apart? Well, the first thing is to look at your life as a sum of the following essential parts:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Time management
  3. Money management
  4. Knowledge acquisition
  5. Health

In my experience, most entrepreneurs usually have at least one of the first four points figured out – and that’s what drives their initial ambition. However, over time, it’s essential to start focusing on the other parts to ensure that this ambition and drive are sustained.

I had the money management part all figured out. I've always been disciplined with money from a young age and I was able to save enough to enable me to leave my job. Luckily, I also had a sense of self-awareness. This allowed me to ask myself the tough questions and reflect on my daily experiences.

Image by @JenChibi. I know I know, just bear with me, okay.

These parts are highly interdependent: Working on one part has a compounding effect on the others. Just like when a car breaks down, you need to know where the issue is before you interact with any experts who promise you a magic fix for all your problems. The interdependence of the above five parts can increase the risk of destabilising the whole system if one part is neglected.

For example, if you lack self-awareness, you increase the chances of setting the wrong goals and making the wrong decisions. Chasing the wrong goals and making the wrong decisions can lead to financial losses. Financial losses affect your time management as you then focus most of your energy trying to ensure you don’t run out of cash. Consequently, this increase in financial pressure can take a toll on your physical and mental health.

“This idea that unless you are suffering, grinding, working every hour of every day, you’re not working hard enough … this is one of the most toxic, dangerous things in tech right now.”

- Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit

The hustle mentality has made us feel as if the easiest way to fix the issues we face is to simply do more. More hours, more coding, more courses, more networking, more, more, more! However, all the hustle in the wrong direction isn’t going to fix a broken system. Knowing when it’s time to stop and realising that it’s time to clean up is as important as the clean-up process itself.

"People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall."

- Thomas Merton

The main mistake I made when I started my journey was spending too much time hustling and trying to learn everything under the sun, instead of focusing on the most critical part of the journey – self-awareness.

I spent most of my time figuring out what I had to do instead of trying to understand why I wanted to do it. It’s essential to cultivate the skill that enables you to step outside of your ambitions and assess your situation objectively. True introspection means being brave enough to put aside the person you pretend to be and looking at who you truly are. It's a difficult task but a skill that will save you a lot of time, money and energy in your journey as an entrepreneur.

This process of understanding and having the ability to realign the self is critical for any path you choose in life. Like cleaning up in your physical space, this is not a once-off task, but a continuous process that requires you to constantly monitor and ensure that things don’t get out of hand.

In part one of this blog series, I’ll delve deeper into the topic of self-awareness. I’ll explain how I managed to go from being scatterbrained and sloppy to a place where I have a better understanding of what I want in life.


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If you would like to read more about my background, check out my
Origins Story.

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