Don’t ‘just do it’

We often hear people say that the most effective way to learn to ride a bicycle is to ‘just do it’ – to simply get on and start pedaling.

When I learnt to cycle as an 8 year old, a couple of my friends and I put this to the test. My friends sat me on their bicycles on top of a gentle down slope and gave me a shove. Depending on how lucky I was, I would roll down for a few meters until I crashed to the ground. Unfazed, we would repeat this process all over again.

We played out this charade for a few days, but I still couldn’t balance the bike on my own. It is interesting how as an 8-year-old I had little fear for bodily harm and my generous friends had little concern for their mangled bicycles.

One afternoon, my mother came along and changed this setup. While I rode the bicycle, she supported it from behind to ensure that I didn’t fall down. Once I started rolling forward, she would let go and only intervene when my balance faltered. Initially, she had to intervene often. With time, I was able to sustain my balance for longer stretches. At one point, she let go of the cycle without telling me. I remember how I had ridden forward only to have her run up beside me, clapping her hands with a wide smile on her face.

I remember how I made more progress in one afternoon with my mother than in several sessions with my friends. If we break down cycling into its fundamental parts, there is starting, balancing and pedaling (with turning coming later). The approach my friends had adopted required me to build all those three skills simultaneously. My mother, a school teacher, perhaps understood how they need to be broken down and taught one at a time. First, I learnt how to start the bicycle without worrying about my balance. I then learnt to pedal along and finally, when my mother let go of the cycle, I learnt how to balance as well.

The best teachers, like my mother, break down a skill into its rudiments and teach them one at a time. The best guitar teachers spend the first class teaching you how to hold your guitar. The best swimming coaches spend the first session to get you comfortable with water. The best karate masters teach you to observe your own mind and your body before you spar with opponents or break bricks with bare hands

Learning is fastest when we break a skill down into its component parts and master them one at a time. It might be tempting to plunge in with both feet and do it all, but this approach is oftentimes counterproductive.

Don’t compare them spanners with hammers

Which is the better tool – a spanner or a hammer?

We all know why this question is ridiculous. Spanners can tackle nuts and bots, while hammers deal with nails. The better tool depends on the problem you are dealing with.

Which is a better religion – Hinduism or Christianity?

Which is a better philosophy – Socialism or Capitalism?

Like spanners and hammers, religions and philosophies are tool kits designed to tackle specific societal problems. Sure, they are more like Swiss Army Knives than spanners and hammers. Nevertheless, they are relevant to help people in contexts that are linked to historical eras, geographical environments and cultural beliefs. They are tools to be invoked rather than ‘truths’ to be defended with religious armies in bygone eras or with armies of internet trolls in today’s age.

Like all tools, they can also go obsolete. Other than museums and private collectors, we have moved on from Remington typewriters.

We are all craftsmen trying to design a better world. Good craftsmen have a variety of tools in their toolkit and the knowledge to invoke the right tool in the right situation.

If the only tool you have is a hammer though, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.

Information diet

What if, instead of wholesome meals, you fed your body merely with a steady stream of junk food? How long would it be until you feel miserable?

What if, instead of wholesome information, you fed your brain with a steady stream of news, notifications and status updates? How long would it be until it affects your mental health?

Our minds are currently overstimulated and underfed.

Scrutiny and trust

Scrutiny and trust are complementary, but work best when they follow one another.

While making an important choice, such as choosing your doctor, exercise the highest levels of scrutiny. But once you have made your choice, suspend scrutiny and replace it with trust.

When our doctor prescribes a set of tablets, it is important to see the entire dosage through. Tempting as it is to stop taking those tables when we get a little better, we are better off suspending our own judgement and trusting the doctor’s.

When friendship is settled, you must trust; before friendship is formed, you must pass judgment. Those persons indeed put last first and confound their duties, who … judge a man after they have made him their friend, instead of making him their friend after they have judged him. – Seneca

How schools kill curiosity

How do plants make their own food? Photosynthesis.

How does water reach the topmost branch of a tall tree? Capillary effect.

How do plants breathe? Transpiration.

How does a frilled flower turn into a fleshy fruit? Pollination.

To stop children from asking too many questions, school feeds them with a list of superficial definitions. When a child persists, she is met with some variant of the following response:

‘Didn’t you already study in Standard 4 that plants use photosynthesis?’

Some ‘busy’ person in the past must have thought, ‘Alas! If only we could trap the wonder of the world around us into Latin words whose definitions we can have children memorize so that they stop badgering us with their stupid questions.’

Thus, primary school textbooks were born.

The trade-off between simplicity and precision

Have you encountered Wikipedia articles that are so complex that you have understood nothing about the topic you have looked up?

Here are a couple of wiki definitions I just looked up.

Immunity is the balanced state of multicellular organisms having adequate biological defenses to fight infection, disease, or other unwanted biological invasion, while having adequate tolerance to avoid allergy, and autoimmune diseases.

In probability theory, conditional probability is a measure of the probability of an event occurring given that another event has (by assumption, presumption, assertion or evidence) occurred.

I think the second definition is good, but for those terms in the brackets. Those terms add precision to the definition, but they rob it of its simplicity.

Basic education is simple rather than precise. That is why we learn the law of Gravity from a middle school Physics textbook rather than from Newton’s Principia or an academic paper.

The mark of a good teacher is one who can simplify a complex topic. To simplify (and not oversimplify) is like juicing a papaya. The idea is to lose the details but to retain the essence.

How writing fosters discipline

How many podcast episodes have you listened to? Now, how many podcast transcripts have you read instead?

How many interviews or TED talks have you watched? How many of those have you read via transcripts?

We are quicker at reading than we are at listening or watching. Yet, transcripts of communication that happened verbally do not make for good reading. They are long, dry and use too many words. Like sugarcane bagasse, their juice has all been squeezed out.

As audiences, we have higher standards for the written word than the spoken word. As writers, this pushes us to make our message clearer, our prose tighter and our thinking more disciplined.

Not all knowledge is power

Francis Bacon once said that ‘knowledge is power’. This is true in several cases, but conditions apply.

Information on things that we control can empower us.

It is useful to know if tomorrow’s weather forecast is conducive for our planned picnic. It helps to know that our car’s insurance policy runs out this year, along with the best deals for renewing it online. If you are craving for Punjabi Chole Masala (like I was last week), it is empowering to have the best recipe at hand.

Information on things we have no control over can make us feel powerless.

We have little influence over Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, the plight of our favourite football team in the Champions League and the GDP growth rate of our country from last quarter.

In the 21st century, we are inundated with knowledge and information. Yet, not all knowledge is power. Some knowledge can make you feel powerless. Ergo, choose wisely.

The age of impatience

Growing your own tomatoes in the 21st century is hard work. Sure, we have all the equipment and the information at our fingertips. It is the waiting part that is hard.

Our cherry tomato plants are doing well this year. These plants grow rapidly – it takes lesser time than one expects for the first tiny tomatoes to appear. Yet, after that, it seems to take forever for them to grow and ripen.

Tomato plants have always been this way. Farming is a patient pursuit. But patience is precisely what we lack in the 21st century. To underline this, I have already estimated the total number of tomatoes our plants will yield in this season – before even all the flowers have appeared.

Our 21st century lives are full of instant results and ‘quick wins’. Yet, we find our lives deprived of meaning. Meaningful pursuits aren’t flashes in the pan. They require steady investment of patient effort.

Since we live in an era where impatience is the crowning virtue, our biggest challenge is to choose slow results over quick ones.

There is no wrong way to meditate

To meditate is to observe, and there is no wrong way to observe.

When you meditate, your mind is either in a calm state, like the surface of a placid pond. Else, it is frequented by a variety of thoughts like ripples on the pond’s surface.

If you observe how calm your mind is, you are meditating correctly. If you observe how your mind is filled with thoughts, you are also meditating correctly.

The only way to go ‘wrong’ here is to not observe. But then, if you are not observing, you are not meditating either.

The key to ultralearning

The most efficient sources of learning are compact like the seeds of a tree.

I once had the privilege to learn from a brilliant but impetuous developer. His breadth of knowledge was only exceeded by his impatience in imparting it. Training sessions with him moved at breakneck speed. He would hook his laptop to a projector, write the code to implement something and explain it along the way without giving us a chance to do it on our own computers. Later, he would email us the code he wrote in the session.

During those sessions with the developer, I could barely keep up with what he was doing. Afterwards, I sat with his code for several hours, replicating it line by line and breaking things along the way. For every hour of instruction with him, I had to invest 5-6 hours of practice on my own.

Initially, I thought his method was inefficient – he was simply too fast and impatient to be a good teacher. But on doing this repeatedly I realized how rapidly I was learning this way. Since most of the learning happened due to my own efforts, I was also able to retain it better. While his method seemed harsh on the surface, it was perhaps the most efficient means of instruction.

To accelerate learning, don’t pick the beginner’s courses. Those are usually too slow. Instead, pick a course you can barely keep up with, but follow each hour of the course with several hours of your own practice.

First, get rid of the barriers

Right after business school, several of my classmates were employed as sales professionals in a host of multinational corporations – Unilever, Nestle, Coca Cola and the like. While all these sales roles were different, they had one thing in common – to travel to local markets and check if their products occupy prominent spots on stores shelves. Their visits ranged from little corner kiosks to the largest supermarkets in their region.

I was surprised when I heard about this. My talented peers went to a leading business school, where they had learnt about consumer behaviour, psychographic segmentation and brand marketing – concepts that are considerably more sophisticated than observing if bars of soaps or packets of biscuits were reliably stocked on shelves. What was I missing here?

Nearly a hundred years ago, the psychologist Kurt Lewin supplied the insight I had missed. Lewin understood that persuasion – changing people’s minds – was hard work. Instead, if we intended for people to behave a certain way, we ought to ask why they weren’t doing that already. In other words, ahead of investing considerable efforts in persuasion, it is more efficient to get rid of the barriers in their way.

If our brand of soap, biscuits or milk-powder is superior to the alternatives, why aren’t consumers buying it already? Perhaps the biggest reason is because our products aren’t easily accessible. Needless to say, marketing and distribution are complementary. But through decades of experience, these companies realized that it is more effective to have their cadres start off with distribution.

A small tweak in the environment can lead to a large shift in behaviour by making it easier. We all know how ineffective persuasive messages are in getting people to eat healthy. Instead, if your office cafeteria stocked healthy foods at the checkout counter, while tucking away desserts and chips, healthy eating would increase overnight.

How easy is it for people to subscribe to the change you propose? Your efforts are better invested in getting rid of obvious barriers before spending millions of monies on blockbuster advertising.

Descending down the pyramid

A Tai-Chi teacher was talking about his relationship with the martial art form to his students.

‘After learning Tai-Chi for a year, I thought I knew something about it. Two-years into learning it, I realized that I knew nothing one year earlier.’

‘4 years into learning Tai-Chi, I realized that everything I knew in two years was wrong. 8 years into learning Tai-Chi, and I had to unlearn everything I had learnt in 4 years.’

‘I have now learnt Tai-Chi for 16 years. The longer I learn the art, the more I am convinced that I know nothing about it.’

The journey towards mastery is like descending an infinite pyramid. The deeper you descend, the more you realize how much there is left to explore.

Expect wisely

I remember a time when I desperately needed to move to Germany for personal reasons.

Barely a year after I had joined a multinational consulting firm, I sought a transfer to its German practice. Yet, the odds were firmly stacked against my favour. My German wasn’t fluent. I didn’t know anybody in the German practice. Also, an official request for a transfer required a tenure of at least three years.

I worked hard to secure this transfer. I reached out to colleagues in the German practice and attended German classes on the weekends. Nevertheless, I was still plagued by a constant sense of doubt.

One evening, during an office party, I took a manager aside and told him about how I badly needed to secure the move to Germany. I asked him whether such an expectation was even realistic because I didn’t know a single colleague who had managed to pull this off. I still remember his response like it were yesterday.

‘I am sure that you will secure your transfer. I believe that it will happen soon.’

I also remember the relief I felt on listening to his words. He believed that I could make it. Despite all the work I was putting in, his words did more to allay my fears. Sure enough, a few months after this conversation I secured the transfer to Germany.

As humans, we often live up to the expectations that other people have of us. Psychologists call this the Pygmalion effect. When teachers were told that a random sample of their students are ‘intellectual bloomers’, the students’ grades improved. When a police-officer started handing out positive tickets to the youth in a Canadian town for for responsible public behaviour, youth related crime rate fell by 50%. Similarly, when you surround yourself with a bunch of cynical, nay-saying friends, you often end up subscribing to their limiting beliefs of yourself.

People rise or fall to the level of whatever other people expect of them. As leaders, it is our duty to expect wisely.

Getting to the other end

The writer, Frank Norris, once quipped – I don’t like writing, but I like having written.

The most meaningful pursuits are satisfying only in retrospect. They are usually scary, uncomfortable and unsettling in prospect.

I don’t like going for a run, but I like the feeling of having run.

I don’t like swimming across a lake, but once I do, I am filled with a sense of accomplishment.

I don’t like staring a difficult project, but once I am done, I am grateful for what it has taught me.

What starts off as hardship gradually evolves into an achievement. The key is to be done and get to the other end.

Meta as a force multiplier

Following one recipe teaches you how to prepare one dish. Learning how to cook allows you to apply the principles of cooking to all your recipes.

Reading one book gives you one book’s worth of knowledge. Learning how to read lets you get more out of every book you read.

Learning one programming language lets you access its frameworks and libraries. Learning how to program teaches you good practices that you can apply across languages.

Learning one subject well enough may earn you a degree and fetch you employment. Learning how to learn lets you master subject after subject.

Even as the internet is flooded with one-time solutions, information on meta principles are harder to find. If you look for recipes on Youtube, you will find more than a lifetime’s worth of search results. Yet, try and look for videos on food science and you are left in the lurch with mostly mediocre material.

The world is hooked onto superficial one-time answers and solutions. Digging deeper and uncovering the meta principles gives you incredible leverage over one-timers.

Keep the machine well oiled

One sure-shot means to damage a machine is to drive it too hard. Another means that is just as effective, is to not use it at all and let it gather dust.

When you don’t use a car regularly, you still ought to clean it, periodically start it up, rev up the engine and take it for a quick ride. For the automobile to remain usable and trustworthy, the engine needs to be warmed up and the parts need to be lubricated every now and then.

As artists, we know that the wellspring for our best work, the muse, is impulsive and impatient. We serve as her chauffeurs, for we know that when she is riding with us, we do our best work. When the muse shows up around the street corner, the artist ought to be ready and waiting with a car in perfect condition.

Having a regular practice ensures that your engine is warm and well oiled to go at a moments notice. Otherwise, even as you struggle to cold-start your rusty car, the muse promptly moves onto the next person who is waiting for her with a car in perfect condition.

As if it were the first time

I still remember my first day in Berlin like it were yesterday.

When I flew in, I looked over the tops of a neat little toy collection, with orderly houses in manicured streets. On landing, I remember the bus ride into the city alongside the river Spree. I remember the smell of baked goodies wafting through the subway. I remember visiting the Berlin Museum of Natural History where I saw my first brontosaurus skeleton. I remember staring in wonder as the head of this magnificent beast towered five stories higher than my own.

And yet, I have lived for more than 3 years in Berlin now, and each of those experiences have turned mundane. In fact, I remember my first ride in Berlin’s U-Bahn (subway) better than my ride from last month.

The first time we experience something leaves a lasting impression in our mind. We remember our first visit to the beach, the first time swim in the deep end, the first time we drove a car, our first taste of Vietnamese food, the first time we played table tennis and our first time in a foreign country. We remember the first time much better than our repeat encounters. Repetition limits the extent to which we engage with an experience and undermines the impression it leaves behind. But why does this happen?

Imagine you are listening to Beethoven’s Für Elise for the first time. You have no memory of this classical piece and it is free to etch one on your mind like a footprint on fresh sand. Now let us say you listen to this tune again and again. Whenever it plays, you find yourself humming along. When a tune becomes too familiar, we stop listening to it as it is played, and instead listen to its impression in our mind. At some point, you have heard it too often and it becomes boring.

Apart from boredom, repetition robs from experience through comparison. The first time we eat sushi, we don’t have a benchmark. We are likely to taste sushi with a fresh perspective. The second time we eat sushi, we automatically compare it to the first time we have eaten it – ‘This sushi is good, but not as good as the one I ate at the Japanese food festival.’ Familiarity is a double-edged sword. Even as it makes us crave for experiences we have already had, like playing a familiar song or eating a familiar dish, it exacts its price from this experience through boredom and repetition.

Yet, there is a way for us to mitigate this bare-faced robbery. Savants across fields are able to take familiar knowledge and present it to us with a new perspective. People were familiar with gravity before Isaac Newton came along, but he packaged it as a universal law that applies just as much to planetary motion as it does to our falling jaw bones when we think of its cosmic implications. Two hundred and fifty years later, Albert Einstein came along and did the same thing all over again.

As the saying goes, genius is seeing what everyone else sees and thinking what no one else has thought. Scientists and artists are in touch with their beginner’s mind. Despite their intricate familiarity with fundamental concepts, they are able to examine them as though they were seeing it for the first time. Boredom is a subjective feeling. The attitude you bring to a familiar experience separates boredom from curiosity and wonder.

Here’s a thought experiment. The next time a bird perches on your balcony or an old friend talks about their favourite topic, can you lean into those experiences as if they were happening for the first time? Through the power of your intention, can you free those experiences from the four horsemen of conditioning – familiarity, repetition, boredom and comparison?

We hear only too often to live each day as though it were our last. Instead, what if we lived each day as though it were our first?

Making clouds disappear

In the novel Illusions, the protagonist Richard is sitting in an open field with his mystical guru Donald Shimoda.

Richard is learning how to make clouds disappear using the will of his mind. After an enormous struggle, he makes a tiny wisp of a cloud disappear from the sky and turns to his teacher for approval.

Shimoda: You’re not very fast, are you?

Richard: That was my first time! I’m just beginning! Up against the impossible … well, the improbable, and all you can think to say is I’m not very fast. That was brilliant and you know it!

Shimoda: Amazing. You were so attached to it, and still it disappeared for you.

Richard: Attached! I was whacking that cloud with everything I had! Fireballs, laser beams, vacuum cleaner a block high …

Shimoda: Negative attachments, Richard. If you really want to remove a cloud from your life, you do not make a big production out of it, you just relax and remove it from your thinking. That’s all there is to it.

Attachment works like the modulus sign in mathematics. Negative attachments retain their absolute value despite their sign. That is why love and hate aren’t opposites, but two faces of the same coin.

The most effective means to make a cloud disappear is not to fight it with every muscle in your body, but to relax and remove it from our thinking.

Inspiration: Illusions