Memory as the seed for learning

Back in India, I could spot at least a 100 bird species. For most of these species, I knew little about them other than how they looked.

Richard Feynman has articulated how knowing the name of something is not equivalent to knowing something. By knowing the name of energy, we do not even begin to understand energy – this mysterious, cosmic force. What, then, is the use of knowing all the names of those birds? Isn’t a bird by any other name just as beautiful?

A useful analogy here is that of a tree and a seed. A tree shelters entire ecosystems, whereas a seed is insignificant in comparison. But every large tree was once a tiny seed. Every seed has the potential to turn into a large and magnificent tree.

What we memorize can serve as a seed for further exploration. The underlying psychology is that of cognitive ease. Anything we have memorized is familiar to us, and in Daniel Kahneman’s words, “Familiarity breeds liking”. Our brain finds it easy to process familiar things. When we see a familiar word or phrase, it unconsciously makes us smile just a little. Familiar things feel good, and invite us to engage further with them. We like to chance upon people speaking our mother tongue in foreign countries, and look forward to reuniting with old friends. Similarly, our memory plants the seed for ease of cognition, which incentivizes engagement and learning.

There are several mysteries in the natural world waiting to be discovered – such as how Malabar pied hornbills can digest the deadly fruit of the poison nut tree, or how the tiny Tickell’s flowerpecker can bring down a giant tree by pollinating and propagating a deadly creeper along its trunk and branches. Of course, this knowledge is more accessible to people who know the names of these birds.

DSC02607.JPG

How to train your intuition

How does a firefighter know that a burning house is on the verge of collapse? In a game of blitz, how does a chessmaster find the most appropriate move in a fraction of a second? How does a striker on the football field find the space to dribble past three world-class defenders and beat the diving goalkeeper?

Intuition is the ability to arrive at a decision without knowing how you did it. When a fireground commander (leader of a firefighting team) approaches a situation, her decades of experience gives her patterns from hundreds of situations, both real and virtual, that she can invoke in a fraction of a second second to decide what to do. Psychological research shows us that she does this “by mentally simulating (her decision) to see if it would work in the situation they were facing.”

We train our intuition everyday, whether we know it or not. When we move to a new locality, every street turn leads us to a new place – a pharmacy, a convenience store or a subway station. With time, we can then drive to the supermarket without thinking about the route. To find our bearings is one of the oldest skills we possess. It helps us navigate lush forests as well as urban jungles. A person who is not good with routes is simply one who hasn’t trained his intuitive sense of direction.

We could take this even further. Where do the actions we do every day, every hour and every minute take us? What does reaching for our phone to check our notifications lead to? What happens when we reach for a snack and gobble it up? How does the decision to exercise for half an hour make us feel after we are done?

We could train our intuition by looking back at any of these actions and simulating where they lead us, just as the fireground commander does. Does our impulse lead us to a meaningful place? Every urge we have corresponds to a turn into a certain street or alleyway. Through introspection, could we simulate where we are headed before we are lost?

Inspiration: Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

What marketing is becoming

How do we market? Do we create a good product or service based on our beliefs and assumptions, and get the word out? Or do we listen in to our customers, understand their aspirations and give them what they need?

Conventional marketing was more of the former – to create a movie, develop a product and publicize it on hoardings, leaflets and TV advertisements. To market average products to the masses that are “normal”.

But every normal person is a weird person we do not know well enough. With the advent of the internet and digitization, we have seen a shift. We now serve niches that serve the quirkiness of every individual.  To market today is to move from the mass of normal to the niche of the specific, the quirky, the weird and the unique.

Today, everybody has a voice. Are we willing to listen?

Inspiration: This is Marketing – Seth Godin

At what pace?

A 100 m dash lives up to its name. It is a sprint – a run for your money from the gunshot to the ribbon. You simply give it your all in the 10 – 15 seconds it takes for you to get across.

As the distances gets longer, pacing is more nuanced. Even with a 400 m race, there are several pacing strategies. By the time we reach a full marathon of 42 kilometers, merely finishing the race requires good pacing. In ultra-marathons, pacing is everything. Runners employ professional pacers at those distances.

Needless to say, every increase in distance corresponds to a drop in average pace.

The speed at which we run often determines how far you go. What distances are you running in your project, career or relationship? Are you sprinting, or are you in them for the long run?

Abstaining from habits

What do you do enjoy doing regularly? Which sports do you follow? Which social media platforms do you use? Which snack do you consume often?

Several habits enrich our lives. At the same time, a habit could be gathered by chance and might bind around our legs and weigh us down. An Indian teenager may have started following a European football club to make more friends and to belong to a social circle. This pursuit could have turned into a lifelong habit without his conscious knowledge.

What if we step back for long enough? The focusing illusion tells us that the things we focus on appear more important than they really are. When we are in the midst of our habits, it may seem impossible to imagine our lives without them.

Take a break from those habits. Try going without them for a month. A long enough break hits the reset button. It helps us step back tells us whether our habits are really as important as they seem.

In periods of abstinence, illusions lose their grip to tell us what is essential to our lives.

Brushing with your weaker hand

When we get good at something, it becomes easy. As a result, we forget how hard it once was and undervalue its difficulty. What might be easy for a teacher might be difficult for a student.

Brushing our teeth is easy because we do it everyday. But just try brushing with your weaker hand. Doing so reveals the complexity behind something as easy as brushing your teeth.

Empathetic teachers do not lose touch with what it feels like to be a student.

What is most personal is most universal

The American psychologist, Carl Rogers, said what is most personal is most universal.

I do not follow sport, but I read Wright Thompson’s articles on sportspersons. I want nothing to do with British aristocracy, but I loved PG Wodehouse’s books. I have listened to most of Frederic Chopin, the 19th century Polish composer’s celebrated pieces and read several Sherlock Holmes books, set in Victorian London.

What is interesting is how little I have in common with the creators I have mentioned above or the context of their work. But perhaps, there is something deeper than this context. What all of them share in common is that their pieces are deeply personal. They dig deep enough to appeal to the human being in each one of us, making their works more universal.

Therefore, what is most personal is most universal. It is also art. Artists dig deep. They reach out to what is most personal within each one of us, making their works transcend the boundaries of time, location, culture and professional context.

Do not die for your country

The valiance of a soldier is celebrated everywhere. The brave troops of our country work hard to keep us safe. They patrol ice, and sweat in deserts to defend us. Soldiers who die on the front are given full military honour, wrapped in a flag with an eternal flame celebrating their sacrifice. What could be more valourous than dying for one’s country?

Certain illusions have a vice grip on our lives. One such illusion is the idea of a nation. Let us distinguish truth from fiction. Fiction is anything that exists on paper or in people’s minds. Truth remains even when people fail to think about it. The border between India and Pakistan is fiction – there is no real line between the folds of the Himalayas. However, the mountains, their majestic snow-capped peaks, their harsh winters and the difficulty of soldiers on their icy frontier are real. So is the danger of shells or bullets ripping across the (fictional) Gaza strip, threatening the life of terrorist, soldier and school child alike.

When a war is waged, a country does not suffer, for a country isn’t real. It is merely an anthem, a flag and a constitution – fictions written by its people. Its citizens are real. Kashmir isn’t real, whereas the people of Kashmir are. When the fictional entities, India and Pakistan, go to war, the real people of Kashmir suffer. When the USA bombs West Asia, children in Iraq and Syria lose their parents to drones. Their pain is only too real.

Nations are powerful illusions. They are stories we tell ourselves. The nations we fervently worship are mostly less than 500 years old. Their flags are but dyed pieces of cloth. However, national leaders have used these symbols to manipulate people into going to war. Napolean Bonaparte famously claimed, “A soldier will flight long and hard for a piece of coloured ribbon.”

Nations exist for a reason – convenience. As a student in middle school, it was interesting to switch from a geographical to political map. Suddenly, we had all these lines and states criss-crossing the paper in our fingers. Those lines make the world easier to administrate. They help us assign prime ministers, presidents, chief ministers, governors and mayors, all of whom invoke stories to administrate and often manipulate us. But we often bend the truth in pursuit of convenience. When people offer their lives in sacrifice, should they do it for convenience?

Inspiration: 21 Lessons for the 21st century – Yuval Noah Harari

Go with the flow

It is easier to

– Exercise in the morning if you sleep in your gym clothes
– Eat healthy without ice cream in the refrigerator
– Meditate for 10 minutes a day rather than an hour on the weekend
– Solve a math problem using pen and paper
– Get stuff done with to-do lists
– Listen to a podcast while walking to work
– Brainstorm on a call rather than on an email thread

Things are hard enough without having to swim against the flow of a river all the time.  How could you make things easier? How could you catch a wind or swim with the current?

Learning from people you disagree with

Who are the people you admire despite disagreeing with? What have you learnt from them?

One of the most prominent logical fallacies in a debate is to attack somebody personally rather than the merit of their argument. This fallacy is called ad hominem – it translates to “to the person”. Paul Graham lists ad hominem as the second type of argument in his Hierarchy of Disagreements. Let us look at a few examples of ad hominem.

File:Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement.jpg
Paul Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement – Source

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, and Peter Thiel, the serial entreprenuer, are both Donald Trump supporters. Adams is an excellent cartoonist and author. Thiel is an authority on innovation and startups. An ad hominem attack would be to reject their ideas because nothing good can come of people who support Donald Trump. Another example would be to reject a legislator’s idea for lowering taxes because she is alcoholic. While those arguments may sound legitimate, that is mostly an illusion.

The prevalence of ad hominem is due to our brain’s inherent craving for consistency in the information we receive. The “halo effect” is one other phenomenon that is brought about due to this tendency. The halo effect occurs when we take our limited impression about a person to make assumptions about their proficiency in other unrelated areas. It leads us to believe that a handsome politician is also honest or that an entrepreneur who wakes up early would be successful. Honesty has little to do with good looks and waking up at 5 AM certainly does not guarantee the success of your venture. The halo effect makes the following statement sound absurd – Adolf Hitler loved dogs and children. This is because our brains struggle to accept that a person as cruel as Hitler was capable of kindness.

Both the halo effect and ad hominem distort our understanding of truth by simplifying the world in search for consistency. Both these fallacies stem from our inability to separate ideas or qualities from the identities of the people who have them. To clump together is to simplify, while to separate is to complicate.

Making the separation, though, allows us to see the world for what it is. It makes us more objective, and less susceptible to manipulation by emotional but incorrect arguments. It also allows us learn from people we fundamentally disagree with. It liberates us to enjoy Scott Adam’s Dilbert cartoons and appreciate the lessons contained in Peter Theil’s Zero to One, while despising Donald Trump.

Inspiration:

  1. Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
  2. Paul Graham’s essay on How to Disagree

Passion vs. professionalism

One scene from a biopic on Frida Kahlo’s life caught my attention. This was Kahlo’s first meeting with her mentor and her to-be husband, Diego Riviera. Kahlo asks him for an opinion of her paintings.

Frida: I just want your serious opinion.

Diego: What do you care about my opinion? If you’re a real painter, you’ll paint because you can’t live without painting. You’ll paint till you die, okay?

Frida: I have to work to earn a living so I don’t have the time to fool around just for vanity. If I’m not good enough, I have to do something to help my parents.

The dialogue here hints at the tension between passion and professionalism. Riviera says that passionate painters paint regardless of anything else. Kahlo replies that she would rather be a professional rather than a passionate painter.

Too many people tell us to follow our passion, but not enough people tells us to become professionals. Professionalism separates hollow desire from the grind required to do difficult, yet valuable work. While passion fuels inspiration, the mark of the professional is to deliver even when there is no inspiration left. To show up, even on days that she does not feel like.

Would you rather be operated by a passionate or a professional surgeon?

Scott Adams talks about how professionalism is valued over passion. Adams previously worked as an officer who sanctioned loans. His boss, who had more than a decade of experience in the field, developed an eye for businesses that succeed. He warned Adams against giving money to the passionate customer who quit his programming job to start a fishing store. Instead, he asked him to lend to the professional who had no passion but had the analysis and the spreadsheets to back up his business case.

Passion makes for the best stories but professionalism is what separates success from fiction.

The dance between inspiration and discipline

“I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.”  – a quote often attributed to William Faulkner.

Two views exist on how to create art. The first is to do it with ruthless regularity based on a fixed schedule. The deadline is our master here. The second is to do it whenever inspiration strikes. Thereby, the muse that holds the artist’s hand takes precedence over all else.

Great art has been created both ways – Stephen King wrote 2000 words every single day, including Christmas. Miles Davis and band recorded the greatest jazz album of all time, Kind of Blue, in merely 9 hours of inspired studio time. How do we reconcile discipline with bursts of inspiration? Is there a way to harness the synergy between regular practice and sporadic inspiration?

Back when I started this blog, I had one idea which led to my first post. In that moment, I never thought that I could sustain this habit for a year, one idea per day. But once I started with a commitment to post daily, the ideas showed up, one after another.

However, the flow rate isn’t consistent. Some days I have several ideas and some ideas are better than others. Once I decided to write daily though, the inflow of ideas, on average, has always been more than one idea per day.

Therefore, our bursts of inspiration come with a frequency that matches our schedule. Inspiration and discipline need each other to blossom into creativity. Inspiration without discipline can dry up, giving way to excuses such as a writer’s block.  Discipline without inspiration turns into a meaningless ritual, like a priest who mumbles prayers without knowing their meaning.

Kindness to one’s self

Socrates said, “Be nicer than necessary to everyone you meet. Everyone is fighting some kind of battle.”

Everybody’s struggle is unique but agonizing all the same. The struggle of a poor man and a rich man are different but can be just as unbearable. The absolute magnitude of every person’s struggle is meaningless. Viktor Frankl talks about how our suffering resembles a gas. Just as a gas trapped within a bottle can spread out and occupy an entire room, our struggle takes the shape of the container that our lives lend to it. Therefore, there is great wisdom in Socrates’ advice. Our lives take different paths, but we find some unity in our struggles.

However, his advice has a corollary. If we ought to be kinder than necessary to other people, other people ought to be kinder than necessary to us in deference to our own battles. The world does not sufficiently acknowledge our own battles with its kindness.

Kindness and generosity are born of abundance and not scarcity. Being kind to other people can be depleting. Our kindness and empathy has limitations. We draw these virtues out of personal reservoirs of patience. When this reservoir is depleted, it reduces our capacity for kindness.

In order to make corrections, we ought to bring kindness to ourselves – the same kindness that we deny the world, and the world, in turn, denies us. We hear a lot about being kind to other people, but we do not hear enough about being kind to one’s own self. This isn’t an exercise in narcissism, for narcissism is born out of a feeling of inadequacy. On the other hand, being kind to ourselves enables our own generosity. Each act of kindness to ourselves trickles in to refill our reservoirs of patience.

The extent to which we can be kind to other people is determined by how much kindness we can bring to our own self.

Keeping yourself alive

Viktor Frankl said that in the space between stimulus and response lay freedom, the human power to choose. A reaction takes the place of a response in the absence of this freedom.

Non-living entities are restricted to reactions. When baking soda meets vinegar, a spurting and bubbling reaction is guaranteed. On heating sodium in air, it burns with an explosive pop. Rainfall, rivers turning murky, the melting of glaciers and the swirling of desert sands are all natural reactions.

Living organisms are capable of responses. They can take in certain inputs – stimuli, apply their intelligence and synthesize a response rather than be restricted to a reaction. While salt always dissolves in water, a goldfish could choose to swim through a hoop. Intelligence, the gatekeeper of our freedom, also lives in the space between stimulus and response. This intelligence gives us the ability to think critically – to discern a response rather than be bound to a reaction.

However, living organisms are susceptible to conditioning. Animals can be domesticated or tamed. Dogs, monkeys and even human beings can be controlled with rewards and punishments. Conditioning weakens our ability to think critically. It undermines our intelligence. A conditioned response is similar to a reaction – it is predictable, repeatable and lacks discernment. Acceptance as gospel truth takes the place of skepticism empowered by critical thinking.

In the AI era, it helps to distinguish between artificial and real intelligence. Algorithms follow conditions. Given a set of inputs, an algorithm always responds with a conditioned response. We call machine intelligence “artificial” because it isn’t truly intelligence. It is merely a likeness.

When faced with certain information, it is our intelligence that separates us from chemicals, algorithms and domestic livestock. Critical thinking sits at the essence of our aliveness. I leave you with the immortal words of a song by Queen that reminds us to keep ourselves alive:

“Keep yourself alive, yeah
Keep yourself alive
Ooh, it’ll take you all your time and money
Honey you’ll survive”

Ironing wrinkles

As we go through our day, our shirt gathers wrinkles. Similarly, each experience leaves wrinkles on our mind – the rush to work in the morning, an SUV cutting us off at an intersection or a colleague showing up 10 min late for a meeting. These experiences wrinkle the clear surface of our mind.

Just as we iron our clothes, certain activities help us free our minds of wrinkles and start fresh. We need activities that get rid of the wrinkles in our mind – a good night’s sleep, meditation, exercise or a refreshing hobby.

It helps to start our days with a crisp, freshly ironed shirt.

Books are reverse insurance

We pay regular insurance premiums to manage our risk. In case of a crisis, our insurer pays us an amount that can be much higher than our premium. When we buy a book, we pay a premium that equals its cost – say Rs. 500 or €10. If an idea from a book can shift our perspective for the better, its value surges well past what we pay for it.

Insurance is built to cap our loss. Books are built to upcap our gain.

Everybody values insurance. What if we treated books with the same importance? What if we set aside a percentage of our income to uncap our gain, just as we cap our losses?

On misty hilltops

Let’s say we scale a misty hilltop. At the hill’s peak, taking a few steps in any direction sees a drop in altitude. It feels good to climb to the highest point of a hill. There is then a temptation to hold on to it.

But perhaps the mist around the hill conceals beautiful mountains. Perhaps we are ready to scale them. But in order to scale them, we need to first descend from our hill.

We humans often mistake a local maxima for a global one. The first digital camera was worse than the most popular analog camera of its time. It was more expensive and of lesser quality. And yet, entire companies stayed on their hills long after the world had moved on. Kodak manufactured only analog cameras until it was too late.

What do we need to forsake in the short term to combat climate change? Which laws, written with the best of intentions, hold us back today? Which habit you developed last year no longer serves you?

Which hills do you still cling onto? And what could you do to clear the mist around your hill top? When it does clear, are you ready to head for the mountains beyond?

Misty Mountain.png

A hard day’s rest

Rest and performance reinforce each other to enter a virtuous cycle. A hard day of work gives us sound sleep. A night of sound sleep helps us give the best the next day.

In the short term, a sense of urgency can produce powerful illusions. Students cram the night before the examination. We need to drop everything we are doing to look at that notification or attend that phone call. Our work spills into every waking hour of our life, including weekends and vacations.

Sure, sprinting can be useful once in a while. But to make sprinting a way of life is to burn tomorrow for the sake of getting a little further today. It comes at the risk of injury and burnout.

We need to treat periods of rest – sleep, weekends and vacations with the same sanctity with which we regard our work. An additional hour of sleep every day might make the difference between climbing a hill in one week, vs. climbing a mountain in a month.

Happy holidays! I hope you have had the opportunity to rest well.

What children can teach us about friendship

It takes about 50 hours of socializing to turn an acquaintance to a casual friend, and 200 hours to turn someone into a close friend. Unless you are a 5-year-old, where somebody can be your best friend in 5 minutes. Why does this disparity exist? What can we learn from children when it comes to cultivating friendships?

Firstly, there is getting to know the other person. To know somebody is harder the older they get. With a 5-year-old, you can know a lot about her with a single question:

“What is your favourite toy?”

“What colour is your dress?”

“Which chocolate do you like?”

This is because toddlers are simple creatures. They do not the inflated sense of self that we develop as we grow older.

Secondly, the best catalyst for an honest conversation is one’s childlike curiosity. From this curiosity questions arise that make up an engaging conversation. As children, we are curious about everything – dogs, pigeons, cars, airplanes in the sky and the shapes of clouds. With time, our mind develop filters that prevent us from appreciating the mundane. Our curiosity is increasingly reserved only for the more curious, the more exciting and the more flashy.

Nevertheless, considering how flat the world is today, we are in need of new friendships more than ever before. The people who continue making meaningful friendships are the ones whose minds are free from the filters that inflate our sense of self and inhibit our childlike curiosity.

Would machines put composers out of work?

We now live during times where machines are learning to make music. Machines have mastered musical scales and can now produce tunes that are indistinguishable for a listener from pieces that are composed by human beings. Can they someday put composers out of work?

We also refer to music composers as artists and art is as more about feeling than it is about creation. Leo Tolstoy quotes:

“Art is not a handicraft, it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced.”

It isn’t really possible to play a carnatic piece perfectly without feeling what the composer felt. Indian classical music is deeply rooted in bhakti or devotion. The ornamentation and the expression of the music, therefore, ought to speak to this devotion.

This is true of several other forms of music. The blues would not be the blues if the artist did not feel the pain of a black person in Mississippi. A rendition of the Ode to Joy would be incomplete without understanding what Schiller felt as he penned down those immortal German words. Every music teacher instructs their students to feel the music they play.

While machines maybe able to stitch musical notes together, they lack the neural circuitry to feel. Therefore, they would not be able to produce art. Because art, by definition is about feelings – about emotions that belong in the human realm. Machines are good at following musical rules. But the rules aren’t an end in themselves. They are merely the skeletons over which the artist has to flesh out their composition.

Without the skeleton, a composition has no legs to stand on. But to call a machine an artist is to mistake a skeleton for a human being.