The hungry goblin inside our heads

When hiking up a steep hill, step-by-step, it can often feel like you are hardly making progress. After an hour though, if you turn back to glance at the point where you started, you are surprised by how high up you have climbed.

Each of our heads comes fitted with a goblin that feeds on our achievements. The more we achieve, the more voracious is its appetite. Despite a lifetime’s worth of achievements, the goblin leaves us feeling like an untrained hiker in the middle of a climb – exhausted, overwhelmed and helpless.

Like looking back down the hill, there is a remedy to the goblin’s machinations. Logging your achievements is a means to keep track of how far you have come. Websites, projects, artwork, journals and portfolios serve to log our accomplishments by giving them form.

Fortunately, the goblin has no access to our logs.

The two paths to the top

You wish to hike up a hill with a breathtaking view from the top. The hill offers you two alternatives.

The first route is straight up its steep side, where you are required to climb a sheer, rocky surface to get to the top. The second route lies behind the hill – its slope is gentle and more long winding. It features climbs as well as drops, but eventually leads to the top.

Let’s say that this is your first hike – you have never done something like this before. Which route do you choose?

The first route has several merits – it is efficient and gets straight to the point. Nevertheless, once we glance up the sheer face, our mind is alert to the risks of this decision – of how one slip can mean broken limbs or even death.

In many ways, the longer route appears sub-optimal. It is winding and wasteful – ‘Why are we climbing down here? Aren’t we supposed to be going up?’ Yet, we are prudent in embracing the route’s ‘inefficiency’ and the extra steps that this entails.

Climbing hilltops is what our brains have evolved to do – we can rely on our instincts to make the right decision. However, with our more abstract pursuits, like our careers for instance, we are often lured into taking the straight but perilous path to the top without considering the pitfalls that hide beneath its promise.

The key to succeeding in a world where most achievements are abstract is to train one’s brain to embrace the arduous, non-linear path that behind the hill. Much like the hike itself, the key is not just to look forward to the view from the top, but to also enjoy every step along the way.

Guard against chaos

Even the smallest typo or grammatical error can throw us off the flow of reading a book.

When we look at a large piece of cloth, our attention is automatically drawn to the tiny stain.

One common cause for procrastination is to clean or organize one’s workspace.

The most enriching moments of our lives are the ones we spend in ‘flow’ – a state of complete involvement in what we are doing. Alas, like the lone pothole on a freeway, even the slightest hint of chaos can break our state of flow.

The need for systems, order, discipline, routine and hygiene is foremost to reclaim our lives from the decay of chaos.

In the long run

In the long run, there is no right or wrong,
There are simply facts that last.

In the long run, there is no good or evil,
There are simply tendencies that last.

In the long run, there is no happiness or sadness,
There are simply emotions that last.

In the long run, there is no wisdom or foolishness,
There are simply truths that lasts.

In the long run, there is no life or death,
There are simply legacies that last.

The confidence spectrum

Consultants and academics lie at the opposite ends of the confidence spectrum.

Management consultants are supremely confident beings for they trade in the profession of marketing that confidence. Academics are supremely uncertain, for intellectual humility is a prerequisite in their chosen craft. Kartik Muralidharan summed it up beautifully when he quipped – ‘Consultants have confidence whereas academics have confidence intervals’.

Managers lies somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, for they are often the conduit between making decisions and taking them. The process of decision making involves research, analysis and number crunching. Decision taking, alternatively, involves committing to a particular course of action and and communicating it with minimal ambiguity.

The best managers are those that meld the intellectual humility of academic with the conviction of a consultant.

Inspiration: A conversation with Karthik Muralidharan

To unlearn

What does the word ‘unlearn’ mean to you?

Before we get to unlearn, we need to understand what learning means. To learn is to gather the ability to recognize a given pattern consistently and accurately. Whenever you see the symbols ‘3 + 4’ printed next to each other, a little voice inside your head whispers ‘7’. Your mind has learnt to do this.

Learning is a double edged sword, because it can liberate you from ignorance, but just as easily imprison you with knowledge. Whenever you see ‘3 + 4’ written next to each other, can you stop your brain from thinking of ‘7’? People continue to measure in feet, miles, pounds and ounces rather than switch to the metric system – their patterns won’t allow them. Heck, the layout of the ‘qwerty’ keyboard, which I use to type these words out, was designed for telegraph operators back in the 1870’s and ever since, we haven’t been able to move on.

Like a piece of clay fired in a kiln, our knowledge sets us in our ways. Once we are baked into a particular form, it is difficult for us to take another form. Knowledge is a blessing, but can just as easily be curse.

One way to free ourselves from knowledge is to forget. Rereading a suspense thriller whose plot you have is forgotten makes it exciting once again. However, while forgetting is involuntary, unlearning is deliberate.

If learning is the ability to recognize patterns, to unlearn is to free one’s self from them. Given the double-edged nature of knowledge, to unlearn is the ability to recognize a pattern, but step out of it. To unlearn is to feel emotion, but to separate one’s self from it. To unlearn is to gaze into the eyes of your lover the ten-thousandth time with the same excitement you felt the first time. To unlearn is to peer out of the balcony with a fresh pair of eyes despite living in the same house for decades.

To unlearn is the wonderful ability of the trained mind to go from a rigid piece of pottery to the flexible clay that created it.

Defining leadership

Dwight D. Eisenhower once said ‘Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.’

I love this definition because it has so many layers to it.

Bad leaders order people to do things they really don’t want to. Good leaders put in the emotional labour necessary to avoid this. Firstly, they understand the goals and the motivations of the people they work with. Secondly, they work hard to tie individual goals to that of the organization. Thirdly, they enroll people on the journey and garner their willing participation.

The one bit that I disagree with – I don’t think of leadership as an art. It is rather a craft that be trained and cultivated with practice.

Harnessing unfinished business

When he finished his writing for the day, Ernest Hemingway habitually stopped in the middle of an idea. This way, he would use this unfinished idea as a foothold to resume his writing the next morning.

Hemingway’s approach is counter-intuitive. In the grip of inspiration, he would stop himself rather than get to the end. Being able to do this requires enough confidence in one’s own ability. Besides, one ought to be in it for the long run.

This principle can be extended to several other facets where we take a long-term view.

While working on a big project, stop for the day when you are converging towards the solution to a problem. The next day, you can preserve your momentum by finishing the solution and plodding onwards.

When reading a difficult book, stop at a point where it is interesting, so that you return to it the next day.

In the grip of inspiration, it is often tempting to sprint right to the end. However, like a stretched out rubber-band, you can harness the tension of unfinished business to get off to a great start the next day.

Sketch out your day

Sketching artists often use a grid of squares to get their proportions right.

Once the sketch is made, the grid is often erased away. It is merely something that exists in transition to help the artist with the proportions of their drawing. With practice, the artist learns to draw without a grid. By then, the grid is integrated into their being.

A schedule works in a manner similar to that grid. Each hour breaks our day up into 24 uniform chunks. A schedule helps us sketch out our day. Its absence could easily skew our day out of proportion.

With practice, we learn to discard our schedule and live from hour to hour. But then, the schedule is integrated into our being.

The marvel of instruction

Back in high school, I did not appreciate my school curriculum. As a mere teenager, little did I realize that I was learning, in a span of a few years, what geniuses and stalwarts had invested lifetimes to find out.

Consider the standard high school curriculum that instructs pupils in the principles of Newtonian dynamics, Euclidean Geometry and Panini’s principles of Sanskrit Grammar. Each of those topics represents several centuries worth of learning packaged into a textbook or two. With effective instruction and enough dedication, a pupil can turn herself into a scholar in more than one of those fields within a mere decade.

Instruction is the knowledge that an expert in a field imparts top-down to a student. Our education system is often blamed for beating the curiosity out of students. But an innate sense of discovery and curiosity can go hand-in-hand with effective instruction. If a sound understanding of the first principles forms the foundation, this advanced knowledge serves as the building blocks.

To borrow a Newtonian sentiment, instruction hoists a student upwards, enabling her to stand on the shoulders of giants.

Recommended reading: A meta-analysis on the effectiveness of instruction

What problem of mine does that product solve?

Asking that question above could save your life from a ton of clutter.

A glittering product on the shelf is always marketed as a great solution. That impulse is often sufficient for people to make a purchase. However, in that moment, it helps to ask ourselves ‘what problem does that product solve’?

A shiny new blender might seem like a great addition to one’s kitchen. Besides, smoothies seem like a great addition to one’s diet. However, the question worth asking here is if you really have a problem that can be solved by smoothies.

Our brains leap toward solutions more readily than the problems they are meant to solve. The remedy is to restore the horse in front of the cart.

Art vs. Craft

What distinguishes art from craft?

We tend to think of art with an air of mystery and spontaneity. Art is created and developed, but is difficult to teach or impart. An art form usually starts off as a feeling in the artist’s mind that is given release through an artifact or a performance.

A craft is the means through which an art form turns formalized and codified. A craft has explicit rules and principles that a teacher can impart to students.

Once we understand an art form well enough, we often turn it into a craft. To be an artist is to create your own style of painting while a craftsperson studies the methods that Picasso or Monet once evolved.

Why does this distinction matter?

We often confuse art with craft. Treating art as craft can reduce it from the majestic to the mundane. Treating a craft as art is also wasteful because the practitioner is likely to lack the discipline and rigour that a craft demands.

Before you set out on a creative journey, it helps to clarify whether you seek to become an artist or a craftsperson.

The problem with shortcuts

Cheats codes in computer games are a devil’s bargain. The instant you use them, your character gains superpowers and you are happy to exploit them. However, once you finish the game, you are left feeling empty. A cheat code robs you of the accomplishment of finishing the game on your own.

Real life shortcuts are more pernicious. When a book or a course offers you a shortcut to mastering a particular skill, they often give you a cheat code to get to the end rather than invest the hours and the effort required to master fundamental principles. Sure, you may somehow get to the end. However, you often cut corners and don’t understand what you do.

Besides, you are robbed of the accomplishment that true mastery fosters.

Normalization – 2

In a previous post, I had mentioned how our brain normalizes situations we once considered difficult and helps us achieve stretch goals. However, the same tendency has another, darker facet to it.

Four years ago, US democracy was sacrosanct. When a president in power was voted out, he made way for his successor with minimal fuss. In the last couple of months, all this has changed. The current president of the US, via several outrageous remarks, has normalized an attack on US democracy. Today, a large percentage of US citizens don’t believe in a democratic institution they have upheld and respected for centuries.

When a person of authority says or does something outrageous, they normalize the sentiment they espouse. The brains of the people around them is soon to forget what it believed for decades and is quick to subscribe to a new paradigm – one that starts off sounding outrageous, but is soon normalized. Politicians have long known this tendency and use it to pander to their vote bases by continuously push the boundaries of what is acceptable to say.

Left unchecked, normalization can be misused to corrode our culture. This applies just as much to a boss making a ‘harmless’ sexist joke as it does to a politician who spews venom and hatred.

Normalization – 1

I was surprised to learn yesterday that blind people can be trained to listen to audiobooks at 5-6x speed.

Given that blind people don’t utilize their visual cortex, blind people’s brains rewire themselves to direct this excess capacity to their auditory regions. This is a tribute to the brain’s ability to adapt.

Several sighted folks train their own brains to listen to podcasts and audiobooks at 2x or faster. They do this by bumping up the speed in steps of 25% until their brains normalize comprehension at that elevated pace.

Stretch goals work because of the brain’s ability to adapt to what once felt uncomfortable and normalize it.

Note: I present a contrarian perspective in another post.

2021

Whenever an old year gives way to a new one, two sentiments stand out.

Firstly, it is a time of jailbreak. On the first of January we break out from the prisons that our lapses and our sins have confined us to in the previous year. We are given a clean slate, and whatever happened last year seems not to count as much.

Secondly, every new year’s wish is a step closer to betterment. Living structures can be only if they become. Growth and refinement isn’t merely something that we do – it is a part of who we innately are as a species.

However, this time there is more.

2020 was a year of disruption, where we cobbled together an emergency release. A few resilient members of the species worked around the clock to envision the changes and beta test them. Sure, we found several bugs and are still fixing them, but the time for testing is over.

In 2021, this new version of the world rolls into production, laden with its bugs and its features. Even as a few people among us have already taken the lead in adapting to these changes, it is now time for the rest of us to step forward, be counted and play our part.

A ‘resolution’ is so termed because it stems from a position of clarity. Given the fresh perspective that a new year and a new era presents to you, what are you going to do?

Adaptive teaching

Video games are a marvel, because they make us work hard even as they are addictive. They do this by keeping pace with the player’s skill level.

Good teaching follows the same principle. Effective learning doesn’t happen unless the pupil works hard. Perseverance isn’t easy and the teacher’s role is to enable the pupil to keep at it. Good teachers do this in a manner similar to a video game – by adapting the level of the instruction to the pupil’s skill level.

The first level is ‘Let me show you how this problem is solved.‘ The teacher starts off by giving the pupil explicit instructions to simple tasks. While starting off with a skill, even mere imitation is hard work and effortful. This keeps the student engaged while putting their anxiety to rest.

The next level is ‘Try solving this problem on your own. Here’s my solution‘. When the student is ready, the teacher nudges them to solve problems on their own. In the end, the teacher presents his own version of the solution so that students can compare and refine their efforts.

The final level is ‘These are problems worth solving‘. The teacher hands a student a list of problems that is likely to present an adequate challenge to them. The solution to these problems aren’t revealed – these problems usually don’t have a finite set of solutions.

The process of teaching is complete when students are ready to teach other students to seek and solve problems. And the cycle continues.

Suggested reading: Shu ha ri

The problematic kind of perfectionism

When an artist sketches a masterpiece, it doesn’t come out ready in the very first try. Instead, she commits a version to paper and refines it until it turns into the version.

When developer implements a solution, the first version merely works. He then rewrites it to make it more readable, useable and efficient. After several rounds of rewriting, he publishes the final version.

Perfectionism plays a double role – that of the hero and the villain. The hero pushes your work towards excellence with each iteration. The villain prevents you from getting to the intermediate stages that are imperfect.

The path to excellence isn’t linear, but rather cyclical. The good kind of perfection speeds up these cycles while the problematic kind slows them down.

Let’s call it paddling instead

Only for a tiny fraction of the time does a surfer actually ‘surf’. For the most part, surfers paddle in the water while looking for a wave to catch. The surfing legend, Laird Hamilton, once quipped that we should call it paddling instead of surfing.

Hollywood often portrays computer programmers as nerds typing furiously on their keyboard, spitting out line after line of code that executes perfectly. In reality, a large chunk of a coder’s day is spent staring at a screen, either planning out an implementation approach or or getting a particular command to run. Besides, developers read 10 times more code than they write themselves. The furious typing, like surfing a wave’s crescent, is but a tiny fraction of what one does as a computer programmer.

Management consulting is sold as a profession where you are paid by the hour to solve problems. In reality, a consultant spends countless hours scouring the internet for data, interviewing their clients and perfecting a presentation to solve a problem whose solution is often obvious and banal. The brilliant insights are few and far apart.

Stand-up comedy is more about writing than about speaking in front of a crowd. A stand-up comic spends several days writing, rewriting and polishing their material before delivering a 10-minute sketch to tickle a crowd’s ribs.

At the end of this rant, here is the bottom line:

  • Aspirants beware – how a profession is popularly portrayed is entirely different from how it is practiced.

Dreadful only in prospect

The idea of taking a cold shower is dreadful, but it is merely the first minute of the experience that is uncomfortable. Soon enough, your body gets used to the feeling of cold water splashed on its skin.

The idea of getting an injection is dreadful, but in reality, the injection doesn’t hurt as much as we imagine it does.

The idea of getting up on stage and making a speech is dreadful, but once you get past the mental barrier and utter a sentence or two, your nerves calm down and the words flow better.

Procrastination happens because we respond to the idea of something being difficult, even if its execution is easier. To persevere is to get to the other side.

The most effortful part about driving an automobile is to get the vehicle rolling from a state of rest – that is when you need the highest gear ratio. However, that doesn’t stop us from hopping into a car and driving around.

Our brain isn’t great at telling the difference between the idea of something being dreadful and how dreadful the experience itself can be. To take the leap is to start the car, switch to first gear and start rolling.