A blown up thumbnail

Most of us have but one nationality, one ethnicity, one profession, one taste in music, one generation, one social status, one system of ethics and one among a several combination of factors that constitute the human experience.

We expand this tiny slice of human experience to construct our entire view of the world, like a thumbnail photo being stretched out to cover a large screen TV.

Is there any wonder, that most of what we see is hazy and pixelated? Why do we expect otherwise?

Being liked

We all try hard to be liked by other people.

We do this by making other people feel good about ourselves. We try hard to impress them, but this often fails.

The key to being liked by somebody isn’t to make them feel good about us. Instead, it is to make them feel good about themselves.

If you wish to be liked by somebody, cherish the goodness within them.

Who is winning?

In a romantic relationship between two people, if both of them aren’t winning, both of them are losing. Let that be remembered during the next argument between them.

In a transaction between an employer and an employee, if both of them aren’t winning, both of them are losing. Let that be remembered during their next salary negotiation.

In a transaction between a company and a valuable customer, if both of them aren’t winning, both of them are losing. Let that be remembered the next time the customer calls the support line.

We are surrounded by an interdependent paradigm where win-win is the only means by which anybody wins. In the long run, winning at the cost of your partner is no win at all

Stop feeling sorry for yourself

Stephen Fry once said that if he wrote a self-help book on how to be happy, it would have merely one directive: stop feeling sorry for yourself.

Life is filled with suffering, in the face of which it is easy to feel sorry for one’s self. To feel that one has been wronged, one is a victim, one has been unfairly treated, one is unlucky or that one is underappreciated. Yet, the mere act of feeling sorry for ourselves destroys every agency we have to face our suffering and make it go away.

Feeling sorry for one’s self seems like a natural response to the trials we face. Yet, the key to overcoming them is to do exactly the opposite.

One-at-a-time

Here are the directions to drive to my workplace from my house.

Take Lützowplatz and Karl-Heinrich-Ulrichs-Straße to Kurfürstenstraße
500 m

Head west on Lützowstraße toward Lützowplatz
170 m

Turn left onto Lützowplatz
170 m

Turn left onto Karl-Heinrich-Ulrichs-Straße
180 m

Continue on Kurfürstenstraße. Drive to Kurfürstendamm
3.6 km

Turn right onto Kurfürstenstraße
850 m

Turn left onto Nürnberger Straße
270 m

Turn right onto Tauentzienstraße
290 m

Continue onto Kurfürstendamm
2.0 km

Make a U-turn at Lewishamstraße
170 m

You will find my workplace will be on the right.

Presented this way, it is nearly impossible for anybody who doesn’t know Berlin to follow these directions. Yet, if the same instructions are presented one-at-a-time while driving using Google Maps, anybody can follow them.

Our to-do lists are intimidating to look at. It can be overwhelming to see everything there is to do, and this can prevent us from getting started. The key is to break these actions down and knock them out one-at-a-time

If everybody did that

‘You must keep up with the news’, they say, ‘for if everybody ignored the news, we would live in an ignorant world.’

‘You must preserve your culture’, they say, ‘for if everybody neglected that duty, your culture would die and you will drift without an identity.’

Extend this argument a little further, and you can see how it falls apart.

‘You must grow your food. For if nobody does that, then we will all go hungry.’

We don’t need to grow our food anymore because somebody else has made it their life’s purpose to do that. And by doing so, they have liberated us to find and pursue our own life’s purpose.

It pays to stop worrying about ‘everybody’ and pursue your own life’s purpose. For if you do not, nobody else will do it.

Good cheer is its own reward

Lots of mundane jobs require interaction with other people – receiving applications for a driving license, drawing blood for a blood test, manning a counter at a supermarket, checking tickets of passengers boarding an aircraft and so on.

You could perform each of those jobs without the slightest bit of cheer – without humour, a friendly remark or even a smile. You would not be penalized for doing that.

Alternatively, you could go beyond the job description and add a layer of cheer on these jobs – read out people’s names while checking the tickets, wish people a great day at the cash register and flash a friendly smile. You would not get paid extra for that extra bit of emotional labour.

Yet, that bit of cheer lifts people’s spirits, improves their mood and puts a smile on their face. Further, this cheer lifts your spirits and brightens your day. It’s a win-win.

Emotional labour isn’t fairly compensated. However, it is also a bargain.

When your intuition lets you down

What is the quickest way to empty a bottle full of water?

Our intuition tells us to overturn the bottle vertically. However, this is rather slow. The exit of the water is turbulent and creates pockets of vacuum which slows the water from leaving the bottle. A much faster way to empty the bottle is to swirl it around to create a whirlpool, such that the air and the water have their own paths into and out of the bottle.

While designing a car, where would you position the steering wheel?

Our intuition tells us to position the steering right in the middle of the vehicle, so that the driver can judge the car’s width on either side. However, this also means while overtaking, the driver is unable to see ahead of a vehicle in front without swerving into an adjacent lane. It is also more inconvenient for the driver to enter and exit the car – especially for people with disabilities.

Our intuition often lets us down because it is prone to be anchored to a proximate reason that is often simplistic.

Your commitment makes it the best

When looking for a house, how do you pick the best one?
You commit to a house, start living in it and turn it into the best house for you.

What is the best car for you to buy?
You commit to a particular car, use it, maintain it and turn it into the best car for you.

What makes somebody the best partner, parent or child?
The way people commit to a role and fulfil it turns them into the best for that role.

What makes any choice the best choice?
The ‘best’ of anything isn’t something objective to the choice itself. It is our commitment and our action that turns any choice into the best choice for us.

Inspiration: How to live

Know their name

On a casual walk around the neighbourhood, a birdwatcher is likely to spot several species of bird that other folks are blind to. Knowing the names of these birds helps them recognize and remember them. One bird’s name sets it apart from other winged creatures.

Like birds in a neighbourhood, the world is also filled with bad arguments. Books, news articles, podcasts, Youtube videos and Whatsapp forwards house them by the dozen. These bad arguments can be classified as logical fallacies in a manner similar to birds. ‘Strawman argument’, ‘slippery slope’, ‘loaded question’ and ‘appeal to emotion’ – their names can sound as exotic as bird species to the lay person.

Learning the names of birds makes you a better birdwatcher. Learning the names of logical fallacies and spotting them in the wild makes you a better critical thinker.

The initiative ask

You could offer to help a team-mate out by saying something like this:

‘I have some free time today. Anybody who needs my help can approach me.’

Alternatively, you could say:

‘Krishna, I see that you are stuck with a problem. I can help you sort it out today.’

The subtle difference here goes a really long way. We call it initiative.

Balance fun play with boring drills

Playing tennis isn’t the most efficient way to learn to play tennis.

How do you learn to play tennis if you have never played it before? You could just jump right in. Find somebody who has never played the sport and learn while you play them. Your game will be terrible and your technique will be clumsy, but you will enjoy yourself.

An alternate approach is to do drills. Playing tennis involves gripping the racket firmly, learning good playing form, footwork and correct positioning on the court. A stroke could be broken down to lobs, smashes, slices, drops and drives, both on the forehand and the backhand. Finally, there is serving – the hardest part to learn. The most efficient way to learn to play tennis is to practice each of those pieces and learn them individually before integrating them within a game.

The first approach is fun, but inefficient. The second approach is boring, but efficient.

Playing a game is an inefficient way to master it. To learn a new skill is to strike the right balance between inefficient play and efficient drills.

The unrankable

A reporter once asked the Dalai Lama what the best moment of his life was. The wise man paused, smiled, and replied, ‘This moment’.

I found this to be a beautiful answer. By picking out any particular moment as the best one, we undermine all the other moments that comprise our life, including the present moment. The Dalai Lama didn’t fall into this trap.

We are often asked about our best ___ – place we have ever been to, friend we have made, dish we have eaten, person we have worked with, relative in the family, and so on. All of those things are unrankable – the very act of ranking them robs them of essence and undermines them.

And yet, we live in a world that routinely ranks human beings, thereby undermining what it means to be human.

That which is unrankable is better left unranked.

Don’t mention it

A mattress store in LA bears a loud banner that screams out ‘HIGHEST RATED MATTRESS STORE IN CALIFORNIA’. If the store were really trustworthy, why would they need to advertise it on a banner?

I saw a person wearing a cap that said ‘Lions. Not sheep’. If he were truly a ‘lion’, why does he have to advertise it out on a cap?

The people who constantly go around saying they are smart are usually the ones that aren’t.

Certain qualities are best left unadvertised. The very act of advertising them turns them suspect.

The cost of ranking

If you asked a mother of two to pick a favourite between her children, what would her answer be?

Most mothers would refuse to answer that question. But you could force them to pick an answer. What if these children were stuck in a fire and the mother had the choice of rescuing only one among the two?

This question itself is toxic – the very act of answering it feels base. A question that forces you to rank your children erodes the meaning of parenthood. As a parent, you are better off ignoring it entirely.

One could extend this thought experiment to several other dimensions. The act of ranking one’s friends erodes friendship. The act of ranking ones vacations keeps us from enjoying each one to the fullest. The act of ranking children for adoption undermines the generous act of adoption.

We live in a world where ranking is ubiquitous. Yet, the act of ranking comes at a cost, which we don’t have to pay if we refuse to do the ranking.

What capitalism does well (and what it doesn’t)

Capitalism is fantastic at matching supply and demand. We have never invented a more efficient system of moving things around to where they are most needed.

Say you have produced 10 tonnes of wheat and wish to sell it. In a market, people who need wheat will express their willingness in terms of how much they wish to pay for it. The wheat goes to the highest bidder – for whom it is dearest – and you are happy to pocket the largest viable profit. The market enables all of this automatically with no oversight.

A centrally planned system would not nearly be efficient. Firstly the wheat would have to be collected and stored centrally. An administrator would then have to figure out where it is most needed. An economist would have to allocate the right price for the wheat, based on several interdependent factors. None of this is automatic, and until these answers are clear, both the seller and the buyer aren’t served.

Yet, we slip up when we burden capitalism with the responsibility to solve all our problems.

We cannot quantify the demand of a poor, starving person by his willingness to pay. Given that his means are limited, we need to supplement them so that he isn’t forsaken by a marketplace of wealthier buyers.

At an adoption agency, how would you like it to have children adopted by the highest bidder? Can we sell humans on the market?

An ardent capitalist’s choice of gift is always cash – currency that can be turned into any gift the buyer wants. Yet, we all know how receiving cash is almost nobody’s idea of a perfect gift.

Capitalism is a tool that is great at solving a specific problem – matching commodity supply with demand. Isn’t it absurd to think of it as a solution to all of humanity’s problems? Like a well furnished toolkit, it needs to be complemented by other tools – socialism, fairness, morals, ethics and regulation – for it to be complete.

Our mistake is often to pick out screw-driver and complain that it doesn’t work well as a hammer.

Who is in control?

It is true that

  • Tech giants have monopolized our attention and manipulated our behaviour
  • Our data is commodotized and packaged to serve ads
  • On the free internet, we are the product, not the customers

On learning this to be true, how do we respond?

One choice is to play the victim card, and blame the companies that did this.
We can call them names, shout from rooftops and demand that they be broken up.
We could brand the technology as ‘addictive’, regulate their use and let
ourselves off the hook.

The other choice is to take control. We can recognize the values that are
important in our lives and align our use of digital device with those values.
We could turn off notifications, tone down beeps, install ad-blockers, get rid
of newsfeeds and keep devices outsides our bedrooms. We can have the
technology serve us rather than the other way around.

Your choice depends upon your answer to the following question – who is in
control of your life?

Self conscious vs. Self-aware

A self-conscious person is acutely aware of the effect other people have on them. A self-aware person is aware of the effect they have on other people.

A self-conscious person is driven by expectations others have of them. A self-aware person is motivated by their own expectations, despite what other people expect of them.

To be self-conscious is outside-in – a servant to the external world. To be self-aware is inside-out – to master the inner world.

You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war

In 1897, the illustrator Frederic Remington was sent to Cuba. His mission was to capture and send pictures of locals protesting to an American newspaper.

On arriving at Cuba, he found that everything was quiet. He was bored and he cabled back to his employer, William Randolph Hearst, ‘Everything quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. Wish to return.’

In response, Hearst wrote back, ‘Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.’

Yellow journalism was a movement that started around this time. It revolved around sensationalism rather than reporting facts. Joseph Pulitzer (of Pulitzer prize fame) was one of its pioneers. Ever since, journalism has revolved more around sensation rather than truth.

Todays journalists have access to infinitely more pictures than they did back in 1897. And as long as the journalists have pictures, there will be war in their papers.