Science and belief

When you assert something to be scientific truth, you are required to bring proof to the table. Further, your results need to be reproducable by people who don’t believe in your theory.

When you state that you believe in something, you do not need to back it up by proof. Further, your results may only be available to those who share your belief.

We do science a disservice when we ask people to believe in it. Similary, we do belief a disservice by holding it to scientific standards.

Science and belief can co-exist in perfect harmony. The problem arises when we try to pass off one as the other.

The meeting tourist

A particular breed of employee is a meeting tourist.

They gravitate to meetings just as tourists are drawn to attractions in a city. Their criteria for attending a meeting isn’t how relevant it is to them, but rather who else is attending. Further, their engagement in these meetings is just as superficial as that tourist whose trip to Rome can be entirely summed up by a string of Instagram selfies.

The prevalence of meeting tourists serves as a litmus test for a company’s meritocracy. At best, they are a rare species. At worst, they occupy its most prominent positions.

Mise en place

How well you cook depends on how well your ingredients are cut.

Obviously, bad technique and blunt knives get in the way. However, even with the best knife and the best technique, another enemy lurks in your kitchen – a lit stove. If you try to cut vegetables with a lit stove at the side, you are forced to cut them hastily, lest whatever is on the stove burns. Even with the best knife and the best technique, this leads to sloppily cut ingredients.

Great chefs are aware of this pitfall – that is why, they always prep their ingredients before lighting up the stove. As with most things cullinary, they have given this practice a fancy French name – mise en place. Literally, to ‘put in place’.

The hidden reason for mediocre work is often the temptation to do everything at once.

Where are the empty pages?

In my company, we have an hour-long all-hands meeting scheduled every Friday. At this meeting, information that is relevant to the entire firm is communicated.

On some Fridays, this meeting lasts an entire hour, with a full agenda. On most Fridays, however, the meeting is much shorter. When the agenda items for that week are finished, the meeting ends. Therefore, the duration of the meeting can be anywhere between 10 min and 60 min.

Broadly, this is how daily news is supposed to work. Some days are action packed, with several events worthy of our time and attention. On most days, however, nothing newsworthy happens. Given this reality, how is it that newspapers have a fixed length? How is it that on uneventful days, they aren’t shorter?

Where are the empty pages? What are they filled up with instead? Is reading the ‘fillers’ the best use of our time?

The fortune of misattribution

There is a famous derogatory quote about the Swiss, and how their greatest accomplishment is merely inventing the cuckoo clock. Contrary to that quote, the Swiss have an illustrious list of inventions and discoveries to their credit. Also, they didn’t invent the cuckoo clock. It was invented in Southern Germany.

Misattribution is only too common. Several misquotes find their way to famous people. Inventions are falsely attributed to inventors and to nations. It is easy to pass off a cuckoo clock as a Swiss invention, because our ideas of the Swiss and cuckoo clocks are close enough to make this connection.

Our reputation precedes us, even if it isn’t true. Now that may not always be a good thing, but like the makers of Swiss cuckoo clocks, we could sometimes use that reputation to our advantage.

The swimmer’s paradox

Consider the difference between a swimmer and a person who is drowning.

It seems paradoxical that the drowning person only hastens their drowning when they flaining their limbs around and expending every ounce of energy and will. Whereas, the swimmer who treads water does so while expending minimal effort.

Effortful isn’t the same as effective.

Inspiration: Sam Harris

Familiar = trusted?

The German word ‘vertraut’ is a synonym for both ‘familiar’ and ‘trusted’.

We trust whatever is familiar to us. Conversely, we mistrust whatever is unfamiliar. Therefore, it seems efficient to have just one word for both these adjectives.

Choosing to trust merely the familiar was a principle that served us well in the past. However, we live in a world that is changing rapidly. Rapid change, by definition, exposes us to the unfamiliar. New technology, new currencies, new neighbours, new ways of working, new fields of commerce, new companies in the Forbes top 10 – all these have been thrust upon us in the last 20 years. It is little wonder that we don’t trust them.

Today, if when we choose to trusting only that which is familiar, we are condemned to a life filled with prejudice, mistrust, hatred and cynicism. A world that we will hate more every single day.

The 21st century is a good time to decouple the familiar and the trusted. Perhaps it isn’t as efficient for the German language to bundle them in a single word.

A mosquito, the morning after

It is gratifying to swat a fat, swollen mosquito.

To see the enemy in broad daylight is a sure interruption. Flying around with its full belly, the pesky creature is easy prey. We are tempted to put our entire lives on hold until we have chased the insect, taken its life and wiped the evidence clean.

What purpose does killing a mosquito serve? The damage is already done – the blood is lost, the sleep has been disturbed, and the itchy boil remains. A full mosquito won’t bite again, and its murder has no bearing at all on the mosquito population.

A mosquito the morning after merely serves as a humble reminder of how little it takes for something to drive us into a murderous rage.

An obstacle to the unrealistic

Management and software development bear an interesting relationship.

If you invest $1 million in a software project to generate $1.1 million in value, you need all the project management you can muster. You need goals, schedules, deadlines, regular check-ins, progress reports and documentation.

If you invest $1 million in a software project in return for a chance to generate $50 million in value, you are probably better off with almost no management at all. Google Earth and Wikipedia were both developed without management oversight. Almost every open source software, which collectively generate billions in revenue, also doesn’t have managers behind them.

It turns out that for software projects with small, incremental wins, management is important. But for large, innovative leaps, management can get in the way.

Management helps us stick to realisitic plans. That is a feature. But is sometimes also a bug, for it prevents us from pursuing unrealistic projects that redraw our boundaries.

The flipside to order

Let’s say that a person is extremely punctual. For 15 years, he has always been home at six-o-clock. So good was his punctuality, that the household used his arrival to set the time on their antique grandfather clock.

One day, if the time was 6:10 PM, and this person didn’t show up, his family would flip into panic mode and drown in worry. They are so used to him arriving at 6 PM, that they now fear the worst. When he does show up safe and sound, he will return to a distraught family in absolute tears – all for merely being 10 minutes late.

A person’s unwavering punctuality seems like an obvious source of strength and reliability. But it revealed to be fragile to the smallest change in plan. If the person wasn’t as punctual – say he came home at around 6 PM everday, his family wouldn’t have been concerned if he turned up at 6:15.

We often fail to account for how systems that are predictabile, orderly, and homogenous, are fragile to the smallest disruptions. Robust systems are those that have enough inherent chaos to absorb sources of disturbance without going thrown out of whack.

Inspiration: Antifragile

We budget what we value

When money is scarce we budget it.

It is normal for everybody to account for where every last drop of their money flows. Individual households track their expenses. So do departments, companies, and even countries.

Why is it that almost nobody budgets their time?

Time is just as scarce as money, if not scarcer. We all have a fixed budget everyday, that we get to carefully allocate. However, why is it that so few of us keep track of where every minute goes?

If ‘time is precious’ or ‘time is money’, why don’t budget our time?

Make no mistake

If you compared two teams of medical professionals – a high-performing team with an average team – which one would make more mistakes? Contrary to what one would expect, Amy Edmondson found in her research studies that high-performing medical teams made more errors than their lower-performing counterparts.

How can a high-performing team also be more error prone? More so in the medical field, where an error could cost a patient’s life.

The reason, it turns out, that in the high-performing teams spoke more openly about their errors. Whenever anybody spotted an error, they pointed it out and admitted it openly rather than suppress this information. This allowed the entire team to learn from it and improve. Besides, when errors are caught early, they are usually small and can be corrected quickly. Therefore, high-performing teams committed more errors only because they were more open to identifying them, admitting them and learning from them.

Even in the teams of the highest calibre, committing errors and learning from them is routine. If your excellent team is also one that claims to not make any mistakes, you need to be worried.

The real problems

The world has several burning problems that need our immediate attention

  • Climate change
  • Black lives matter
  • The rights of LGBTQ people
  • A global pandemic
  • Skyrocketing inflation
  • An economic crisis
  • Abortion rights
  • Corruption in our home country

We are led to believe that we are criminals to not take a stand on any of these issues – much like apathetic bystanders at a crime scene.

Yet, we all battle burning problems of a different kind everyday.

  • To be kind and friendly during a hard day at work
  • To eat healthy, exercise and get enough sleep
  • To learn and master a new skill
  • To start and sustain good conversations
  • To be a good listener
  • To realize our own potential

The problems in the second list don’t make it to the headlines. But these problems are the more important ones for a singular reason – we have direct agency over them. We can do something today – right in this moment – to start solving them.

The world helps those who help themselves. In turn, those who help themselves also help the world.

The ingredients for job satisfaction

When ambitious people are dissatisfied with their jobs, they usually assume that the problem is one or more of the following:

  • They aren’t paid enough
  • Their boss is incompetent, or doesn’t drive them hard enough
  • They don’t have colleagues who compete and challenge them to improve

However, the actual problem is usually that their work context doesn’t offer them the following:

  • Autonomy: the freedom to work on their own terms
  • Mastery: the means to master a craft
  • Purpose: the answer to ‘why’ they are doing what they are doing

Past a point, job satisfaction is the result of intrinsic motivation – not extrinsic factors (such as compensation). We have enough research to validate this. Yet, as we move from job to job to quench our dissatisfaction, we look for the wrong things.

Most management theory assumes that people are inherently lazy, and will work only for the right incentives and penalties. But we all know how people derive innate joy from doing creative, innovative and meaningful work. As managers, we merely need to get out of their way.

Inspiration: Daniel Pink

The Titanic’s silver lining

Everybody agrees that the sinking of the Titanic was a massive human, commercial and technological tragedy.

The ship cost $7.5 million to make ($174 million in today’s dollars). It was the biggest ship afloat on the sea – a technological marvel at its time. However, within two hours of striking an iceberg, it sank to the bottom of the Atlantic. Over 1500 people lost theirs lives and it wrenches the gut to read about their individual lives.

Despite these losses, the shipping industry and the world gained from this disaster.

The Titanic was celebrated for being the biggest ship ever made. Had the Titanic not happened, we would have built even bigger ships, and at some point, one of those ships would have resulted in an even bigger tragedy.

Since the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, it dealt a massive blow to the movement of sailing on behemoths. We humans realized that large ships weren’t ‘unskinable’ – rather that the larger the ship, the more prone it was to massive failure. In effect, the loss of 1500 people ended saving more lives by preventing future tragedies that would have been even larger.

The Titanic was fragile, but it made shipping stronger. The loss of 1500 people was a tragedy, but they saved many more. The builders of the Titanic were arrogant, but the tragedy made humanity more humble.

Inspiration: Antifragile

Trust by default

Innocent until proven guilty.

Capable until proven incapable.

Kind until proven cruel.

Good until proven evil.

A friend, until proven otherwise.

When we trust people by default, even just a little, it is often a worthy investment that returns multiplied.

Why we don’t have a global restaurant crisis

The world has seen several global banking crises – the Great Depression of 1929, the Sub-Prime Lending Crisis of 2008, and the current downturn, that is as yet an unnamed infant.

The failure of a large bank, say in the US, affects several large banks across the world, setting off a chain reaction of failures. The global economy is so centralized and tightly interconnected that a big failure sends ripples across the world.

However, we have never had a global restaurant crisis – one where restaurant businesses across the world pull the economy into a downward spiral. Sure, an economic downturn does affect restaurant businesses across the world, but the restaurants themselves won’t cause it.

Why do we have global banking crises, but not global restaurant crises?

Since each restaurant operates independently of the others, the failure of a restaurant doesn’t affect other restaurants much. Each restaurant (or chain of restaurants) are decoupled from the others, and such a system is robust to failures. In fact, the failure of a restaurant often benefits other restaurants in the neighbourhood. Further, the restuarant industry as a whole can learn from that failure and avoid the same mistakes. The failure of a restaurant doesn’t weaken the restaurant industry. Instead, such an event strengthens it.

Failing banks and restaurant teach us an important design principle. To create a robust system, you need the individual parts to fail separately. In the best designed systems, an individual failure strengthens the system as a whole.

Inspiration: Antifragile

The frequent confusion

Journalists often confuse ‘absence of evidence’ for ‘evidence of absence’.

Let’s say a scientific study of cancer treatments concludes that there isn’t sufficient evidence for a particular stem-cell intervention. When this study is published, I can already picture newspaper headlines screming out, ‘Study concludes that stem cell intervention does not cure cancer’.

The study merely said that there is absence of sufficient evidence – that more research is required. But the headline quotes it as evidence of absence.

When Covid-19 swept the world, the unpreparedness of the West (compared to East Asia) was striking. For nearly a century, pre-Covid pandemics had failed to reach the West – there was an ‘absence of evidence’ of a widespread worldwide pandemic. Sadly, this was mistaken for ‘evidence of absence’ and ended up costing millions of lives.

Let us not confuse ‘that hasn’t happened yet’ with ‘that is never going to happen’.

Inspiration: Antifragile

The turkey’s confidence

Nassim Taleb often quotes the parable of the unlucky turkey.

This turkey was nurtured for a 1000 days by a butcher. The butcher fed him everyday, kept the bird warm during the winters and cared for it. With each passing day, the turkey’s confidence of the butcher’s benevolence increased.

A 1000 days later, Thanksgiving arrived, and the turkey had a rude revision of its belief.

Yet, on the 999th evening, right before the butcher’s knife fell, was when the turkey’s confidence of his benevolence was the highest. If the turkey had an audience at the barn, he would have extolled the butcher’s virtues and convinced every farm animal as to how she was a model human being.

Pride goes before the fall, because our confidence is often the highest in the precise moment before it is absolutely shattered. The remedy is to hold even the strongest by a loose thread.

Inspiration: Antifragile

Framing a negotiation

We usually think of negotiations as two or more parties sitting around a table with a juicy orange in the center. This one orange is going to be shared among the parties. Each party’s aim is to secure the most number of slices for themselves.

Seen this way, each party’s aim is to put the other ones down, so that they can justify taking the larger share.

Yet, that orange has the potential to be planted, cared for, and yield a steady supply of oranges in the future. The negotiation could also be about saving the seeds, planting them and ensuring the right conditions for them to sprout, grow and eventually blossom.

Framed the second way, each party sees the other’s hidden potential. The atmosphere in the room turns into one of collaboration, trust and respect.

The best negotiations are the ones where all parties emerge feeling better about themselves.