Machine talk

If you told a human being to type out the letters ‘Ain’t nobody got time for that!’ on a computer screen, they would understand and get it done in a jiffy.

If you needed a computer program to print these letters on the screen, you need to give it precise instructions. In the programming language Python, you would need to say:

print("Ain't nobody got time for that")

If you accidentally forgot the first bracket in that statement, your computer would spit out the following error message:

print"Ain't nobody got time for that")
File "", line 1
print"Ain't nobody got time for that")
SyntaxError: invalid syntax

It is now up to you to figure out what your syntax error was and how you can fix it.

Programming a computer has helped me understand how imprecise verbal communication is, and how other human beings meet us half-way to interpret and execute our vague wishes. A machine, on the other hand, is a ruthless and precise pedant.

On the flipside, programmers who talk to machines all day are prone to extending their precision outside the machine realm. Given that they instruct machines day-after-day (and on several nights), their brains end up expecting their fellow human-beings to be just as precise. This tendency feeds the stereotype of the snippy, rude and introverted programmer – one which believes that learning to communicate with humans is wasteful, given how imprecise and inefficient human communication is.

While the solo programmer in the basement could afford to be a brilliant programmer and a terrible communicator, most significant code today is written collaboratively – in coordination with customers, product managers, designers, sales reps and fellow programmers.

As career programmers, we need to master the craft of instructing machines without compromising on the art of human communication.

Inspiration: Coders

Empathy is hard

If you are from the upper caste, the caste system is less visible to you. A lower caste person is reminded of their caste everyday.

If you are from the ‘fairer’ race, racism is harder for you to perceive. A black person is reminded of their race only too often.

If you are from the dominant gender, it is harder for you to sense sexism. Women are forced to reckon with their gender more often than men are.

If you have had a happy childhood and a caring family, it is harder for you to relate to somebody who hasn’t.

If you have grown in material abundance, you are more numb to a life lived in constant scarcity.

If you are endowed with a combination of these advantages, your numbness towards those who don’t is compounded.

Empathy is hard because we have a keen aware of our headwinds, but are rather oblivious to our tailwinds.

The ritual hack

Can following a superstition help you lose weight?

Two groups of people were enlisted in a study. The first group was asked to be mindful of what they ate for five days. The second group was told to perform a pre-meal ritual. First, they had to divide the food into two symmetrical halves on their plate. Next, they tapped their food thrice with their eating utensils. They were told that performing this ritual would remind them to reduce their food consumption.

As ridiculous as the ritual sounds, it was effective! The second group consumed fewer calories for no discernable reason than having followed a ritual that appeared pointless.

Rituals are powerful, since they influence us in ways we don’t consciously realize or appreciate. What’s more? You could craft your own rituals to harness them, since they don’t need to be steeped in years of tradition and culture to be effective.

Source: Indistractable

News vs. history

What would help you better understand the beautiful animal that the tiger is – an hour long documentary or a glimpse of the beast on a safari?

For the longest time, I wished to spot a tiger in the wild with my own bare eyes. Even a fleeting glimpse of a striped body disappearing into a thicket would have satisfied this urge. Yet, in recent times, I have started asking why I wish to see a tiger with my bare eyes? How much does such an encounter further my understanding and appreciation for what a tiger is?

A documentary condenses hundreds of hours of live footage into one action packed hour of valuable information. It curates the most essential parts, layers in great commentary and furthers our understanding. In the bargain, it loses out on the scarcity of being real-time.

To follow a news-event live is to glimpse a tiger in the wild. You see it as it unfolds. Yet, this snapshot of humanity has is fleeting, and lacks depth.

A historical record is a curation of several news-events to form a coherent documentation of why things are the way they are. If you wish to understand a people, their country and their culture, reading their history is more beneficial than consuming a local stream of breaking news.

Live and real-time appeal to us because of their scarcity. But if depth is what you seek, look elsewhere.

Make it personal

Two groups of registered voters were given surveys about their voting behaviour right before an election.

The first group was asked questions that included the verb ‘to vote’. E.g. ‘How importat is it to you to vote?’ The second group was asked similar questions that included the noun ‘voter’. E.g. ‘How important is it to you to be a voter?’

Would this minor difference in wording have an effect on the voting behaviour of the participants?

Another study asked one group of people to use the words ‘I can’t’ in relation to eating unhealthy food. E.g. I can’t each much junk food. A second group was instructed to use the words ‘I don’t’ instead E.g. I don’t eat much junk food. As a reward for the study, the participants were offered either a chocolate bar or a healthier granola bar. Which group do you think picked the more virtuous option?

In both cases, the groups that picked words that reflected their identity followed through with their actions. The group that was nudged to identify themselves as voters were far likelier to vote. And a larger proportion of the group stated that they don’t indulge in junk food, picked up the granola bar on the way out.

If you wish to engage more in a certain behaviour, make it personal. Instead of stating ‘I would like to run more often’, say ‘I am going to become a runner’ instead.

Inspiration: Indistractable

Happy financial dependence

Financial independence is a hot topic today, with many young people aspiring to make a fortune early on, to stop relying on salaried employment to solve their life’s money problems. To this end, they sacrifice large chunks of their leisure, their personal lives and sometimes, their well-being.

The underlying premise behind financial independence is that working for a wage is a disutility whose shackles one must break (hence the independence). It is consistent with the view of salaried employment being a state of tyranny from which one must strive to extricate one’s self to be satisfied. It often involves either earning a large wage and channeling most of it into investments or building a business and selling it for millions. Both these paths are not pursued for their own sake, but as means to a different end – to reach the promised land of financial independence.

But what if you can achieve a state of joy and contentment today, while being employed? What if you can find a firm whose work culture is close enough to your own ideals? What if this workplace gave you enough money to solve your money problems, and enough autonomy to leave your own personal mark? And what if you looked forward to going to work on most Monday mornings? An adherent of financial independence would write off such a workplace as too-good-to-be-true. Yet, there are enough happily employed people in the world.

An alternative to financial independence is to turn your own workplace into one that is a pleasure to show up to.

Lost in time

Why is it that we don’t get lost in a new city?

Well, that is because we use addresses and maps. At one point, most cities had no addresses or maps, and it was easy to get lost. We have invested tremendous effort in organizing our cities into maps so that we don’t ever get lost again.

Yet, we run into problems on moving from the spatial to the temporal. Words such as delay, tardiness, procrastination and distraction indicate how it easier to lose one’s self in time. Unlike space, however, the world cannot organize our time using maps and addresses. Each one of us needs to do that ourselves. And yes, we do have a compass – the clock.

A schedule is our temporal map. The best part is that we get to build one ourselves.

Types of feedback

Feedback can have different degrees of granularity. Understanding this helps us seek out and provide more meaningful feedback.

We most often receive outcome feedback – on whether something went well or not. A customer leaving a five-star rating or an audience booing a speech is feedback of this kind. Outcome feedback is the coarsest kind. It has limited utility, for it only tells us whether our outcome are good or bad, without any further details.

The second type of feedback is informational feedback. This form of feedback tells us what specific aspects makes an outcome good or bad. Examples include a customer talking about how she liked the metallic finish on a laptop stand, or a member of the audience telling the speaker which part of his speech ticked them off.

The third type of feedback is corrective. Corrective feedback is fine-tuned. It not only pin-points a problem, but also tells you how to correct it. A linguist correcting the pronunciation of a word, or a designer suggesting an alternative packaging material for a product are all forms of corrective feedback. This feedback is rare. It only comes from teachers, experts and coaches.

Before you give or receive feedback, it is often helpful for the other person to know which of these three kinds you are looking for.

Inspiration: Ultralearning

Conditions don’t apply

Is happiness conditional?

We are often led to believe some version of the following statement – ‘If I am financially independent, have a loving family and a great set of friends, and enjoy physical and mental health, then I will be happy.’

In practice, when you attain everything on that list, you aren’t happy. Instead, a new list of requirements crops up. Happiness eludes us like the carrot that is dangled in front of a donkey.

Yet, if we aren’t financial stability, lack good relationships and fall sick, we are unhappy. The absence of those things leads to unhappiness. But their presence doesn’t lead to happiness. It is this riddle that our lives dance around.

Unhappiness may be conditional, but happiness isn’t.

Big talk

You and I could talk about the few topics on which we drastically differ,
Let us instead talk about the things our hearts jointly celebrate.

You and I could talk about forests, mountains and valleys in far-away lands,
Let us instead talk about the precious things in our own little gardens.

You and I could talk about worldly events that everybody else is talking about,
Let us instead talk about our own lives that nobody else talks about.

You and I could talk about the differences in opinions we harbour,
Let us instead talk about what makes us different.

You and I could talk about timely topics – the latest trend and the newest fad,
Let us instead talk about that which is timeless.

Fight phubbing

When seated at your dinner table, if somebody looks at their phone rather than engage in conversation, how would you respond?

Bad phone etiquette is disrespectful, but occurs only too often. Given our subservience to digital devices, we need to protect the little in-person exchange we still have left.

A tactful means of doing this is to tell the detractor, ‘I see that you are on your phone. Is everything okay?’. The key here is to ask politely with genuine concern – there might be an emergency after all. In most cases, the person asked will mutter an excuse and stop using the phone.

Phubbing (phone + snubbing) is a new term that is finding its way into our vocabulary. If we value the few moments where we still attend to each other, let us give phubbing the same treatment we gave public smoking.

Inspiration: Indistractable

How it’s done

Nothing destroys a magic trick more than learning how it is done. With most other things we use, learning how they are made makes them more magical.

A pencil is a marvel of engineering – like most things we use everyday. It starts off as a piece of wood that is sawed into two hexagonal slivers and split right down the middle, with a groove etched in for the lead. The lead itself is a blend of graphite and clay, baked in an oven at more than 800 degrees Celsius. The pencil then gets several coats of paints and is packaged before it hitches a ride to a stationary store near you. Seeing all of this come together is magical.

If you look deep enough, there is magic behind how anything happens.

A 21st century epidemic

‘I am always stressed, but I don’t have the time to relax.’

‘I know I need to exercise more, but I don’t have the time for it.’

‘I wish I had the time to sleep for 8 hours everyday.’

A chronic lack of time is a vicious disease that is self-perpetrating. It is also contagious. Busyness spreads from partner to partner, from boss to subordinate, from customer to support executive.

The inability to spare time for the essential is a disease that often goes undiagnosed. The cure is to surgically remove parts of our schedule that are non-essential.

Self-driven vs. ape driven

94% of accidents on US roads were caused due to human error. Given our track record, most automotive experts agree that self-driving cars have the potential to increase road safety.

Yet, self-driving cars are perceived to be far more unsafe. 6 in 10 pedestrians in the US would feel unsafe in a city with self-driven cars. Every time a self-driven car is involved in an accident, it makes global headlines.

Despite knowing that people are more reckless, we would rather trust a preson behind the wheel. It is freaky for us to imagine a machine that drives itself. But given how many people die on our roads every day, tens of thousands of lives depend upon our changing our attitude.

Self-driven cars are unsafe, compared to what?

The underlying problem is that we don’t realize is how unsafe humans are as drivers. Imagine that you being driven on a highway and your chauffeur comes down with a terrible bout of hiccups. A human driver is prone to distraction, mood-swings, overconfidence, sleepiness, coughs, sneezes, panic attacks and every bit of biological baggage that comes from being a species of ape.

We need to put things in perspective. Given a choice between a self-driven car and an ape-driven car, which one would you prefer?

Earning your rights

In Germany, you can be fined if you don’t have a headlamp and a taillamp on your bicycle.

The German legal system is riddled with laws that don’t make sense. At first, I thought of how this was one more of those superfluous rules. If my vision is good enough to ride a bicycle in the dark, why should I be coerced into using headlamps?

Later, when I took some driving classes, I discovered a whole bunch of rules that protected cyclists. Motorists are to give cyclists a wide-berth while overtaking them. Several roads in Germany have a separate cycling lane, and before any motorist turns, they have to give way for passing cyclists. I have often seen massive busses with accordions in the middle, loaded with 60+ passengers wait for my puny cycle to pass.

One night, when I was driving a car, I looked out for passing cyclists before taking a turn. In that instant, I observed how difficult it is to spot an oncoming cycle if they didn’t use headlamps. That brainless headlamp rule suddenly made so much sense.

We take for granted the rules that protect us while hating the ones we are forced to obey. In most cases, they both are related.

Individual contributors don’t exist

In the modern workplace, certain professionals are referred to as ‘individual contributors’.

These are often people who directly contribute to the output that touches a company’s end customers. They could be developers who write the lines of code to render a company’s website. Or technicians on an assembly line who put the finishing touches on an automobile.

Yet, their contributions aren’t individual. A developer relies on a product manager for insights on what to build. A product manager relies on designers, sales personnel, data-analysts and customers to decide whatever is worth building. This principle would apply to every individual contributor on our interconnected planet.

The modern world is an interdependent and intertwined web, where individual contributions are extinct.

One minute at a time

Why do we have days, where we are busy all the time, but don’t get anything done?

At the heart of the ‘busy work’ problem lies a tendency to switch between tasks. Finishing one task is more satisfying than making 10% progress on 5 tasks. In case you are wondering, the remaining 50% is spent switching between these tasks.

The solution to this problem is to make a check-list, prioritize it and work through it one task at a time. Instead of doing things in parallel, you only move to the next task after striking it off the list. The underlying principle is to build a habit of doing one thing at a time – one that is as hard to cultivate as it sounds banal.

A long journey is made one step at a time. A meaningful day is lived one minute at a time. Can you step into every minute of your day with complete focus on only on that minute?

Greatest thing since…

Otto Frederick Rohwedder invented a prototype for a bread slicer in 1912, and it was nearly a failure.

Until 1928, he wasn’t able to sell a single loaf of sliced bread. Like most inventors, he focused more on the technology rather than popularizing the idea behind it. He drafted elaborate drawings of bread-slicing machines and filed patents. However, nobody cared for sliced bread. The idea didn’t catch on.

Finally, in 1930 a US company named Wonder sold bread pre-sliced nationwide. This campaign was responsible for making slices the most obvious form in which bread is sold all over the world. Yet, this idea wasn’t obvious until the right marketing campaign made it so. In fact, it almost died out.

The best means to strengthen an idea is to spread it rather than protect it.

Source: History of Sliced Bread

Honest rejection letters

A standard rejection letter for a university programme reads something along the following lines:

‘We regret to inform you that we will be unable to offer you a┬áposition. We were impressed with your credentials, unfortunately we have limited seats and cannot accommodate all the talented candidates that have applied. We are sure that given your background, you will have great success in the future.’

A more honest rejection letter would read something along the following lines:

‘We loved your application and thought you are a good fit for our programme. However this year, we received far too many good applications and are only able to offer a seat to 20% of that accomplished pool. We used a lottery to decide who gets in and unfortunately, you were not lucky enough to be selected.’

If you applied to your dream university, which rejection letter would you prefer?

Fortune plays a bigger role than we like to admit with both our success as well as our failure. Being more honest about that could make the world a better place.

Inspriration: Seth Godin

The gene and the daemon

As a cyclist races towards the finish line of a stage of the Tour-de-France, whom is he competing against?

On the surface, this answer seems obvious. The Tour-de-France is a race where cyclists compete against one another. Yet, deep down, every cyclist in that race’s deepest wish is to be the best possible cyclist they can ever be. Their ultimate goal is intrinsic, and the competition is merely a means for them to get there.

Our genes push us into competition. Evolution has rigged our genes to compete, and these genes predispose us to one-upmanship. But of course, there is more to us than merely our genes.

The ancient Greeks defined the best part of ourselves as our daemon. Our daemon pushes us to self-actualize while guarding against the forces of mediocrity, self-doubt, complacency and at times, genetics. It cares less about the competitor than about the enemy within us that holds us back.

When our daemon takes precedence, our opponent is the limitation within. From this perspective, our competitor turns into our ally and our genes turn into our catalyst.

When our genes take precedence, our competitor morphs into the opponent and winning often comes at the cost of the daemon – the best part of ourselves.