Why do you work?

Is it for the money? If money were no object would you not work at all?

Is it for the promotion? If you don’t have a raise, a better designation and more people to manage, would you not enjoy your work?

Is it for the praise and the recognition? If people didn’t appreciate your work, would it give you no joy?

Is it for the appraisal? If you were not given targets and a rating, would you not have contributed anyway?

Is it for the competition? Are you motivated and driven to only outperform your peers?

Or do you work for the opportunity to show up, to be creative, to make a difference, to overcome challenges and to realize your own potential?

Why do you work? Is it because of external rewards or punishments? Or an internal drive for fulfillment?

Do you work because you have to, or because you get to?

Streak freeze

If you have practiced the guitar for 50 days in a row, it is very likely that you will practice on the 51st day as well.

Maintaining a streak is a great way to sustain a habit. Much like an automobile’s flywheel, a streak ensures that the wheels keep rolling. However, streaks are difficult to build, and all too easy to lose. Even if you miss a single day, a streak of 50 days is broken, and you need to start from scratch. At this point, several people lose motivation and give up.

A ‘streak freeze’ solves this problem. A streak freeze is feature on the language app Duolingo. Duolingo offers 2 streak freezes that sustain your learning streak. A streak freeze protects your streak from disappearing when a tough day keeps you from showing up to practice. Freees are also limited and take time to recharge, thereby ensuring that people don’t abuse them.

A streak freeze is a clever feature designed around a central fact. Habits don’t die if we miss a single day – it is the second, the third and the fourth miss that kill them off.

To turn ready

Before I wrote a journal, I thought that I would have days where there is nothing interesting enough to write about. Since I started journaling several years back, I am yet to find such a day.

Before I started writing this daily blog, I thought that I would run out of ideas. Several years later, I am yet to run out of ideas.

Before we make a committment, it appears as though we have nothing to contribute. But once we put ourselves on the hook, the contributions appear.

We wait until we are ready before we put our hand up. We need to flip that order – once we put our hand up, we turn ready.

Manufacturing work

All work can be divided into creation and coordination.

Creation is the process of directly transforming matter to make it something more useful or valuable. Examples include mining, manufacturing, painting, cooking and even computer programming. Some creators can thrive without coordinators, but coordinators cannot exist in the absence of creators.

Coordination also comes in different forms. To manage is to instruct creators. Management is self perpetuating, since some managers instruct other managers. When two managers provide conflicting instructions for the same task, you have company politics.

Creation is easier to measure than coordination. The value that coordination creates is often opaque and can hide behind complexity. As a company grows, its coordination workforce can increase out of proportion to its needs. And while material waste created by creators is visible, the waste generated by coordinators is invisible.

Running a business well is the art of keeping coordination to a bare minimum.

Inspiration: Bertrand Russel

Work and drudgery

I started my professional career at the Indian Space Research Organization. My role was to assemble and coordinate a satellite’s launch. As exciting as that might sound, I do not miss certain parts of it.

One such part involved my going to the office on a Saturday when another team was working on the satellite. From time to time, the team needed to have the satellite’s body rotated in its fixture, which I did by pushing a button. Anybody could have pushed that button – I was required to do it merely because it was my department’s responsibility. I often ended up wasting several hours of a holiday, while effectively working for a mere 10 minutes.

We celebrate work as being virtuous, since it engages the mind, puts food on the table, and keeps us healthy. All ancient religions extoll the virtue of doing one’s duty. Yet, drudgery is to work is sewage is to water. Work polluted by drugery dulls the mind, weakens the body and destroys the soul.

Real progress in the workplace is measured by our ability to strip out drugery from work.

You have genius

We refer to people who achieve exceptional feats as ‘genius’.

Until a couple of centuries ago, genius wasn’t a person, but rather a trait. Much like the artistic muse, it was seen as a spirit that enters a person and enables her to perform wonderful feats.¬†People weren’t genius – they had¬†genius.

Every single one of us have had a great idea, an inspired thought or have solved a trickly problem. We have all had our moment of genius. Acts of genius are accessible to all of us. The definition of genius as a trait reflects this.

The people we call geniuses aren’t the ones who are born geniuses. Through dedication and practice, they can enter a zone of exceptional performance.

Everybody is a genius sometimes. Nobody is a genius all the time.

Inspiration: Akimbo

The longest distance

Why don’t politicians give us straight answers?

Because if they do so, they open themselves to attack. Any straight answer is sure to rile up a section of people who don’t like it. Therefore, they choose to talk in long, convuluted sentences without taking a stand.

Why don’t philosophers give us straight answers?

Because philosophy explores life’s truths, and the truth is nuanced. Not always is honesty is the best policy. Not always must you look before you leap. Not always is a picture is worth a thousand words. Not always does familiarity breed contempt. Always, conditions apply.

It is rightly said that in philosophy, as in politics, the longest distance between two points is a straight line.


A man riding in the first-class cabin of a train in Spain is delighted to notice that he is riding with none other than Pablo Picasso.

He turns to Picasso and tells him ‘Senor Picasso, you are a great artist, but why is all your art, all modern art, so screwed up? Why don’t you paint reality instead of these distortions?’

Picasso then asks the man ‘So what do you think reality looks like?’

The man pulls out a picture of his wife from his wallet. ‘Here, like this. It’s my wife.’

Picasso looks at the photo and smiles. ‘Really? She’s very small. And flat, too.’

Reality is merely representation – that is why mine is different from yours. Change representation, and you change reality.

Source: Linchpin

Instruments of guilt

Carbon footprint was invented by British Petroluem to blame individual choices for climate change.

Several anti-littering campaigns were designed by plastic manufacturers to blame individual customers for the problems caused due to plastic waste.

Campaigns against cigarette butt pollution and underage smoking were sponsored by tobacco companies to shift the blame for smoking on the general public.

In all these cases, the companies that ran these campaigns ramped up production and amplified the very problems they were claiming to fight.

Whenever individuals are blamed for a systemic problem with mottos such as ‘we are all to blame’, or ‘we are in this together’, it might well be just another distraction, sponsored by the owners of that system.

Respect or fear?

People comply with laws either because they respect them, or because they fear them.

Respect is intrinsic – I might not like a law, but if I respect it, I comply with it and even protect it.

Fear is extrinsic – I follow a law because I fear the consequences of breaking it. Once these consequences disappear, so does my compliance.

Of the two, respect is more efficient, robust and decentralized. Sustaining fear requires violence, propaganda and continual effort. Fear is unstable, for it might backfire is unexpected ways. Fear also crowds out and undermines respect.

As leaders, fear is what we default to. Respect is what we must strive towards.

The shallow pond

Here’s a thought experiment.

On his way to class, John spots a little child drowning in a puddle of water. John is wearing his brand new Gucci shoes that cost $400. If he wades in to rescue the child, John is sure to ruin his shoes, and there isn’t enough time to take them off. John heads straight for his class, leaving the child to drown and die.

What is your judgement of John’s behaviour? What would you have done in his place?

Most people consider the act of letting the child drown to be reprehensible. They claim that they would have rescued the child even if it meant buying a new pair of shoes.

Now consider this real-life situation.

You receive an email from a well-reputed charity, asking for a donation of $400. Your donation would be used to save the lives of many children in a faraway country. You recognize that if you do not send this money, those children will die.

Is it acceptable for you to ignore this email? Surely, there are differences between the two situations. But is there a moral difference?

Most people end up ignoring or deleting such emails. But isn’t that absurd? Why would we rush forward to save one child, but ignore the plight of many others?

Then, isn’t donating a part of our wealth a moral responsibility rather than a magnanimous act of charity?

Source: Peter Singer’s thought experiment

Passion and reason

A can of petrol, all by itself, is a hazard. To harness its power, it needs to be safely stored within the fuel tank of an automobile.

A car without fuel is useless despite having a perfect steering logic, an efficient drivetrain, and the latest safety features.

Our passion is the fuel for our actions, and reason is essential to harness this fuel. Passion without reason is blind, and reason without passion is dead. Moving forward requires us to combine the two meaningfully.

Good drivers, bad guides

A spacecraft is fitted with numerous thrusters for navigation in outer space.

Each thruster, when fired, pushes the direction in a particular direction. By firing them in combination, the spacecraft stays in orbit and out of the path of other spacecrafts or asteroids. If merely one thruster were to dominate, the spacecraft would soon veer off-course.

A spacecraft’s thrusters are magnificent driving forces, but dangerous as guides. Our instincts are similar – they push us to act in certain ways, but each instinct seeks its own fulfillment without concern for what is good for the individual. Therefore, they need to be centrally controlled by a mindful intelligence.

Our thrusters happen to be labelled as anger, passion, greed, ambition, pain, laziness, pleasure, envy etc. Virtue is the ability to harness them to move through the right path.

From sorry to thank you

When I was working from home one day, my colleague called to ask a quick question. It was an interruption, but it didn’t break my flow.

But then, she did something that made me stop and think. Instead of saying ‘sorry for the interruption’, like I would have, she said, ‘thank you for letting me interrupt’.

The switch from ‘sorry’ to ‘thank you’ is subtle, but important. Instead of regret, we choose gratitude and connection.

From ‘sorry to keep you waiting’ to ‘thank you for waiting’.

From ‘sorry about the trouble’ to ‘thank you for your help’.

From ‘sorry for the inconvenience’ to ‘thank you for your understanding’.

We often say sorry for the lack of a better alternative. In several situations, ‘thank you’ is that better alternative.

Read also: Seth Godin’s blogpost on the topic

Not weak vs. strong

There is a difference between being strong and not being weak.

Strength is the ability to achieve something – to make things happen. To not be weak is to merely send out a signal.

Some people go to the gym, eat whey protein and build muscles, not to be strong, but to avoid appearing weak.

People burn their savings on mansions and glitzy automobiles to not to appear low-class, since appearing low-class is a form of weakness.

MBAs dons impeccable suits to avoid appearing unprofessional. But wearing a great suit doesn’t turn somebody into a professional. It is merely an advertisement.

Posting one’s ‘best’ moments on social media is done to not appear unhappy, for unhappiness is also a sign of weakness. Yet, doing so doesn’t mean that one is happy.

Strength is intrinsic. The appearance of not being weak is extrinsic. Which of the two are we really seeking?

Inpsiration: Akimbo

A nerd’s rant

The German word for nerd is ‘streber’, which literally translates to striver.

Strivers are poked fun at, more so during our teens and our early twenties, as being nerds, geeks, wannabe and other such pejoratives. Success is always welcome, but somehow, the hard work that goes into achieving this success needs to be hidden from view.

This leads to successful people hiding the effort that went into making them successful, making it seem as if success came naturally to them. On the other hand, the people who fall short are led to believe that ‘they don’t have what it takes’.

Our hypocrisy lies in the celebration of success, but the derision of the effort that goes into it. Wouldn’t it be healthier to do the opposite?

One piece flow

Say you need to mail out 20 brochures. Each brochure needs to be folded, stuffed in an envelope, sealed and stamped.

You have two ways to do this task. Either you batch process it – you fold all 20, then stuff all 20 into the envelope, seal them and stamp them. Or you take one brochure, fold it, seal it, stamp it and then move onto the next one.

Which of these two methods is more efficient?

Most people think that batch processing would be faster. However, it turns out that mailing the brochures one-by-one is substantially faster. Besides, with batch processing, if a mistake was made in one of the earlier steps, it would take a long time to rework all 20 brochures.

The key to process efficiency is to split up a big task into smaller pieces, and to work on each piece from the beginning to the end.

How would this apply to a process you work on?

Downstream blindness

In the 1960s and the 1970s, car manufacturing plants in the US would be filled with bins of fasteners.

Workers on the assembly line would then dip into this bin to find a bolt for their assembly. If the bolt didn’t fit, they would throw it to a discard pile and reach into the bin for another bolt. Even if they spotted a defective bolt, they were encouraged to find a replacement and keep the line moving.

It was important to keep the assembly line moving. Any break in flow would cost the company thousands of dollars. Therefore, it was cheaper to use tolerate imperfect fasteners in the supply chain and keep the line moving. As a result, American cars were less reliable. They broke down more often. The problem of stopping the line was visible to the plant managers, but not the quality issues that this decision caused downstream.

Japanese car manufacturers adopted a different approach. Whenever workers spotted even a minor defect, they would stop the entire assembly line, analyze it and remedy it. That way, this defect would not move downstream and affect hundreds of vehicles. Because the interruption came at a great cost, they took every measure to ensure that it didn’t happen again.

When Toyota cars hit the market in the 1960’s, their parts fit more perfectly and with fewer defecty than any other car before it. The Toyota Corolla, launched in the 1960s’, remains the world’s best selling car today.

It is expensive to break the flow of an assembly line. However, it is more expensive to let defects flow through. The second kind of cost is harder to see, but can be deadly. It ultimately drove American car manufacturers to bankruptcy.

In today’s complex world, our decisions and actions always have consequences downstream that we are likely to be blind to. When we make a compromise, what are the ways it backfire downstream?

Instant interruption

I once had a manager who apologized if he didn’t respond to an instant message within 15 minutes.

While this might seem polite and courteous, it indicated that the manager thought of a 15-minute response to an instant message to be too slow. As his team, we proceeded to respond to his messages the moment they arrived.

Focused work requires long periods of no interruption – periods that are incompatible with responding to every instant message within 15 minutes. The expectation that instant messages need to receive an instant reply destroys the focus necessary for deep work.

Perhaps we need to stop calling it ‘instant messaging’.

An ode to discomfort

To discover something new, you need to lose your way. Confusion, uncertainity and some frustration are part of the process.

To learn something new, it needs to feel effortful. Your brain and body needs to hurt from the effort. That is what forging new neural connections feels like.

To build new muscle, you need to push yourself into pain. Only when old muscle is destroyed can new, stronger muscle take its place.

A meaningful pursuit is also one that might not work. A chance for failure is built into the very kernel of whatever we consider meaningful.

In our worship of comfort and convenience, we forget the value of embracing discomfort on purpose.