Counter-intuitive productivity

I saw this wonderful internet post that draws an important distinction, when applied to building software.

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Most teams I have worked with are on the left hand side. Yet, excellence sits squarely on the right hand side.

Fast is different in the short-term and the long-term. In the short-term, the left side is faster, and therefore, it is tempting. In the long-term, ‘doing it right’ always outperforms ‘quick and dirty’.

Don’t steal problems

A healthy sign of a well functioning team is that its team members identify problems. When somebody points out a problem, they have merely uncovered some potential to improve.

Here’s the crucial bit – a good team environment helps people solve their own problems. The person with the problem is given the time and the resources to solve whatever is bothering them. The onus on solving the problem always lies with the person who raised it.

It is tempting to solve people’s problems for them. But when a person solves their own problem, they feel empowered and are more satisfied than if somebody else hands them a solution.

When somebody has a problem, don’t steal it. Instead, help them solve it.

A 21st century superpower

Our world is changing so fast, that even with a year of professional experience, it is possible to turn into an expert within a narrow area. Therefore, every professional has something valuable to contribute their community of peers by merely sharing their work.

Why should we share our work?

  • It is easier than ever. The internet has made it so.
  • There is plenty of demand. That problem you have spent a year solving is one that several others are currently struggling with.
  • It builds your reputation. Job offers find you, rather than the other way around. And you no longer need a flimsy piece of paper to represent you.
  • You get more than you give. Your contributions attract feedback and alternatives that are often better.

Most importantly, any professional skill that we build today is based on the work of several others who went before us. To contribute to that professional community is your means to give back.

How can you give back? Through articles, presentations, portfolios, open-source contributions, wikipedia edits, mentoring. The opportunities are endless.

Contributing to your professional community is a 21st century superpower that is vastly undervalued.

The Lindy effect

All perishable things have an expiration date. They age as time passes. With some non-perishable items, the opposite is true. The longer they have been around, the longer they are likely to last into the future.

This phenomenon is called the Lindy effect, and it applies to a variety of non-perishable things.

The longer a piece of technology has been around, the longer it is likely to survive into the future. The CD-Rom has already come and gone, but the wheel is as old as civilization itself, and is likely to last as long as civilization does.

The longer a book has been in print, the longer it is expected to stay in print. Last year’s bestseller might not stay in print during the next decade. But ancient epics like the Mahabharata and Homer’s Odessy have been in print for about 3000 years, and therefore, are likely to stay in print for another 3000 years.

People are perishable, but their legacies can be non-perishable. Most of our grandparents will be forgotten along with us, but the legacies of Isaac Newton has been around for 500 years. Buddha, Krishna, Jesus and the Pharoahs of Egypt have legacies that are thousands of years old. Those legacies are likely to last thousands of years more.

If you’re betting on longevity, don’t pick the latest rage. Pick the oldest.

Lean into uncertainity

Why do traffic lights have countdowns? A countdown doesn’t make a traffic light change faster. Yet, it makes the wait more bearable.

Uncertainity makes us feel uncomfortable – that is why our simplest appliances come with user manuals and we can track the precise location of our food-delivery order on our smartphones.

However, mitigating uncertainity can come at a cost. We all work for businesses that are far more profitable than our salaries reflect. Even as this profit fluctuates, our salaries remain predictable and we pay a large premium for this predictability.

More importantly, the things that feel most meaningful are always uncertain. If a project is sure to succeed, pulling it off doesn’t seem meaningful. We derive meaning from achieving in the face of uncertainity. Even a lottery that is rigged in your favour isn’t fun anymore.

We feel uncomfortable when the solution to a problem is unknown, the path to the end is unclear or when something we are trying might not work.  May we use that discomfort as a signal to roll up our sleeves and lean in.

The truth is durable

Truth doesn’t spread quickly. Rumours do.

Ergo, we find ourselves constantly surrounded by rumours that spread like an epidemic. Sure, there is a grain of truth in this rumours, but it comes with a background noise of falsehood.

Truth doesn’t die quickly. Rumours do.

As time passes, falsehood fades away, leaving behind the kernel of truth. A monthly magazine article on a topic is likely to be more accurate than a daily newspaper report. A historical piece on an event from the last decade is truer still.The longer a piece of literature has survived, the truer it is likely to be. However, it takes several decades for certain falsehoods to lose their grip. Patience is key. 

What was news yesterday is not likely to be news today. What we know to be true from a thousand years in the past is likely to stay true a thousand years from now.

The power of thought

The happiest person in the world is merely one thought away from being misearable.

The most miserable person in the world is merely one thought away from being happy.

Thought is so powerful – a mere flicker of the mind separates ecstacy from misery. Can our minds ever find peace unless we extricate ourselves from its stranglehold?

Inspiration: Sam Harris

Fake news isn’t an internet problem

Just because some news  spreads quickly, it doesn’t mean that it’s true.

Gossip and rumours spread more quickly than the truth. Information that spreads most easily is information that is merely good at spreading quickly – news that is juicy, spicy, and piques our emotions. Truth, on the other hand, is nuanced and boring. It invariably falls behind.

Therefore, we are constantly surrounded by information that is interesting, but not true. If you care about knowing the truth, this is obviously a problem.

Has the internet caused this problem? No. The grapevine, gossip mongers, tabloids, and all manners of propaganda predate the internet. Most of them have been around ever since we invented language – our hunter gatherer ancestors often indulged in gossip. The internet has merely added rocket fuel to this problem by enabling the spread of sketchy information far and wide in the time it takes to click a button.

Fake news isn’t an internet problem – it is a human problem.

Where did all my time go?

Shopping trips to the supermarket

  • Take longer than I estimate
  • Cost me more than I estimate while shopping

The more items I buy, the more both estimations diverge from reality. It takes a little bit of time to find every new item, and every additional item makes a small dent on our bill. These times and costs add up before we know it.

Something similar happen on days when I work on too many things. I am busy the entire day, but get little useful work done.

Time flies when we’re having fun. But time also flies when we switch our attention like a prison’s search light. An hour passes quicker when 5 different tasks are packed into it. On the other hand, an hour spent doing nothing feels like much longer.

When attention is fragmented, time runs away, and stress takes its place.

Strategy is design

To design is to think about how we are going to build in line with our vision.

To strategize is to think about how we are going to execute in line with our vision.

Both strategy and design align our actions with our vision. While design deals with building something, strategy is about its execution. At their essence, they aren’t different.

What will you discard?

We organize books in a bookshelf to store them efficiently. But ultimately, we are going to run out of space on the shelf. When that happens, we stack books on top of each other or behind each other. Slowly, the bookshelf turns unusable.

This is analogous to how we manage our time. When we are busy, we plan and optimize. We box our committments into neat little time-slots on our calendar. We then maximize the efficiency of each task – through automation, economy, or by delegating them. When that isn’t enough, we resort to stacking tasks upon each other – a.k.a multi-tasking.

The best remedy for a full bookshelf is to give away some of your books. The best remedy to a busy schedule is to give up some of what what you’re already doing.

How do you think it went?

Here’s a powerful tip for giving feedback after a performance. Before you say a word, ask the performer how they thought the performance went.

People can reflect on their own performance. In most cases, they do a good job of identifying what they did well and what they wish to improve. At least, they have hints of both these aspects that you can later build upon.

Having them go first gives you a foundation to layer your own feedback on top. On listening to their answer, you can cut out duplication and alter the level of your own feedback’s detail. More importantly, self-evaluation fosters trust. Since you have heard them out with an open mind, they are more open to hearing you out.

Effective feedback requires the giver to first find out where the recipient wishes to go, and help them get there.

Here’s a 5% raise for your invaluable work

Being a boss requires you to walk a tight-rope.

One the one hand, you need to motivate employees. You need to see and communicate their potential in ways they themselves aren’t aware of. You have to believe in them and convince them of their ability to achieve great things.

On the other hand, you also need to get them to work for the least amount of money. The more money you are able to withhold from them, the better your performance is.

In effect, a boss needs to say something like this throughout the year …

‘In the last year, you have achieved wonderful things and have improved by leaps and bounds.’

…but in a salary negatition, they need to say something like:

‘For the next year, we can only give you a 5% raise. Your skills are worth only that much.’

Bosses are put in this terrible bind due to an underlying assumption – that it is an entrepreneur’s job to maximize the output of their employees while minimizing their pay. Does that assumption serve us? How about we get rid of it?

Hiding in a group

As a child, I have sung in public several times as part of a group, and never faced a problem.

And then, I signed up for a solo performance. As I sat down on the stage, I noticed myself welling up with fear. Midway through my performance, my mind blanked out on the words of the song. A few seconds of awkward silence later, I apologized to the audience and left the stage with tears in my eyes.

It is much easier to sing among a group of singers. However, such group performances are never extraordinary, for there is plenty of room for mediocrity to hide. Every member of the group only needs to be better than the worst singer. And everybody in the group thinks somebody else is the worst singer.

To sing alone is to live upto the crowd’s and your own expectation – there is no room to hide. It is frightful to sing alone. Yet, facing this fear is the key to an extraordinary performance.

‘I don’t need to negotiate my salary’

Most employees don’t negotiate their own salary. Several think think their work ought to speak for itself.

Yet, in most cases, your manager isn’t aware of all the work you do. They only receive a weekly or monthly update of your work. Besides, they keep track of several things that crowd out your contributions in their minds. Therefore, there is always a gap between what you have really achieved, and what they think you have achieved. A good salary negotiation merely aims to bridge this gap.

The real reason most people don’t negotatiate their salary is because negotiation is difficult. It requires us to have difficult conversations and face the fear of failure. Most people evade this fear by not negotiating. At the same time, however, they expect their managers to fulfil their demands. Oftentimes, this demand isn’t fulfilled and they are left frustrated.

Ask, and you shall receive. To negotiate is to ask elegantly. To not negotiate is to expect to receive something without asking for it.

It is not a camera

Have you seen those bulky photo booths at clubs and parties that print out little instant photos?

photoBooth

The first time I saw them, I didn’t understand their purpose. If I wanted a photo, I could merely snap one on my phone. Sure, the machine also prints the photo out instantly, but that doesn’t explain they are found exclusively at bars and parties.

The answer lies in the kind of photos people take using these machines. Along with these machines are various props to make the photos funny. The photos taken here are also the ones with most people exploring their goofy sides – ideally after a drink or two has loosened them up.

photobooth-people

Earlier, I had thought of these machines as cameras. I now realize that they are actually portals of goofiness with a camera attached. The printed photos serve merely to capture those goofy moments for posterity.

Something that is popular but absurd is an invitation to understand the world better.

PS: I still don’t understand why these machines are so bulky. That is, perhaps, fodder for another post.

Between a little and nothing

When we sell something for too low a price, we sell it cheap. When we give it away for free, it can turn priceless.

When a person has a little desire to have something they don’t have, they long for it a little. When a person has no desire for something, they are liberated from longing for it.

Any amount of security is always imperfect. Every secure system can be broken into, just as surely as it can be opened. That which is perfectly secure is merely that which you have no desire to guard.

Behind the small quantitative difference between a little and nothing often hides a massive qualitative difference.

Surprise and learning

The right amount of surprise is a great catalyst for learning.

Think about it. Have you learnt anything new when you were not surprised? If you are not surprised by something, you are either already familiar with it, or it doesn’t interest you enough. Either way, you haven’t learnt anything new from it.

Of course, this surprise needs to be just the right amount. Too much surprise leads to disbelief. Too little leads to boredom. That is why cliches don’t work.

To teach somebody, we need to present information to them that is surprising enough for them to be interested, but familiar enough for it to not seem absurd.

Happiness held hostage

To be happy, we often have checklists that read like this:

I will be happy when

  1. I find my dream job
  2. my life partner turns into the person I want her to be
  3. I write and publish my own novel
  4. I enjoy perfect health
  5. my children fulfil my expectations

This list is potentially endless. And much like a kidnapper’s list, if only one or two of those conditions are not fulfilled, my happiness would be murdered.

However, here’s something we need to ask ourselves more often:

Despite not having those things above, am I not happy in the moment when I

  1. hear a toddler’s playful laughter?
  2. bask in the sun on a warm day?
  3. sit beside a gurgling stream?
  4. look up at the sky and smile?
  5. take a breath of fresh air on a cold morning?
  6. finish reading a difficult book?

It is interesting how this list is endless as well.

We aren’t happy precisely because of framing happiness as a conditional state. The statment ‘I will be happy when’ holds us hostage to everything that follows it.

The key to resolve this hostage situation is to choose to be happy. Right here. Right now. Just as we are.

A trick to write better

In a study, participants were asked to write about a particular topic. One set of participants were told to write an essay. The other set were told to write an email to a friend.

Which of these two pieces of writing do you think turned out better?

It turns out that the emails were invariably better than the essays. They were more readable, more concrete, and more interesting. Ironically, if people are asked to write to a friend, they write better essays than if they were asked to write essays.

Writing is hard. Writing an email to a friend is easy. Well, those two things aren’t as different as we think they are.