The power of tension

What makes a magic trick so captivating?

A magician pulls rabbits out of a tiny hat and makes coins vanish. This induces tension in our minds. Our understanding of the world tells us that coins don’t vanish and rabbits don’t fit into tiny hats. The magician holds our attention by harnessing this tension.

A story or a movie builds tension only to resolve it in a climax, sometimes leaving some tension behind to bring you back to the sequel. Authors of crime thrillers build in a bit of tension into the end of every single page so that you are tempted to keep them turning.

A quiz works because of the tension of an unanswered question. The closer you feel you are to the answer, the higher the tension is. Tension keeps you glued to the television set as you root for your sports team on the other side of the world. As your two-week vacation approaches, you are excited by the tension of discovering a new part of the world.

To inspire change is to create tension and relieve it in purposeful ways. It works like magic!

Inspiration: Seth Godin

TOLO

The flipside of YOLO is TOLO.

YOLO stands for You Live Only Once. YOLO reminds us that our lives are short and implores us to seize the day.

TOLO stands for They Live Only Once. It reminds us that other people’s lives are short. It nudges us to treat others with generosity and part with them on good terms, for there is no guarantee we would ever meet them again. This is patently true for the supermarket clerk or the flight attendant, but is also true for the parent we bid goodbye on the phone or the partner we kiss goodnight.

Both YOLO and TOLO are true. While YOLO is self-centered, TOLO fosters empathy and generosity.

Inspiration: Akimbo

The cost of free email

It used to cost us a small amount of money to mail a physical letter. However, email is absolutely free. Or is it?

My Gmail inbox has 4,534 unread emails. This is without accounting for the ‘Social’ and ‘Promotions’ folders. All those emails have gotten there despite the sorting algorithms and the spam filters. What’s more? This sorting isn’t perfect – occasionally, good email flows into the ‘Promotions’ or the spam folders. Retrieving those emails is like sifting through your trash for something precious that your roommate accidentally disposed.

Since email is free, it costs somebody just as much money to send a million emails as it does to send ten emails. At some point, when a certain kind of person realizes that sending a thousand emails is going to earn them ten dollars, it won’t be long before they scale up to a million. To deal with this deluge, Gmail builds in priority, spam filters and sorting algorithms even as we learn to ignore certain emails and dive into the dumpster for others.

The act of sending an email maybe free, but the act of using email cost us time, attention and resources. Could several of those problems be mitigated by charging a small (minute) fee for every email sent – just like the good old postal service still does?

Inspiration: Akimbo

Keep at it or put it down?

Say you find a book interesting, but really hard to read. Do you go on with it or put it down?

A book can be hard to read for two reasons. If the book isn’t well written, it takes more effort than necessary to understand a simple point that the author is trying to make. Despite the language appearing attractive, the reader encounters unnecessary friction. Reading such a book feels like riding a bicycle on a cobblestoned alley – it might look pretty on the surface, but the rider feels every little bump on the road.

The second reason a book can be hard to read is because it is at a higher level than the reader currently is. The reader has to herself to understand what the book says. All of this takes effort, but having read and digested such a book, the reader is elevated to a new plane. Reading such a book feels like performing a difficult yogasana – it requires one to to stretch everyday, but all of that stretching eventually pays off.

How do you distinguish one type of book from the other? Here’s a simple thumb rule. Highlight a couple of key sentences in the book. Look at them and ask yourself if you can simplify them without degrading them. If you succeed, the book belongs to the first category – feel free to abandon it. If you cannot simplify the author’s prose without taking something away, it belongs in the second category – keep at it.

Here are three things you should avoid

Back in college, I learnt to play the guitar without a formal teacher. I either read lessons online or learnt from my friends. Looking back, I regret not going to a formal teacher because for I internalized bad form and sloppy habits, which I am now having to to painfully untangle from my playing.

The flipside with online lessons or other forms of student directed learning is that you watch an expert do something and try to copy them. The emphasis is on what you ought to do rather than what you should avoid. This gets students to focus more on the outcome rather than the process. We get tunneled into playing a song exactly as we hear it rather than internalizing the right method or technique.

For a student, a directive such as ‘here are the three things you should avoid’ is often more useful than ‘here is how you do it’.

Speak their tongue

To gain influence with a Mexican, it helps if you can speak Mexican Spanish.

When you want an engineer to act, show her how something doesn’t work well – how it is broken or is sub-optimal.

To convince an economist or businessman, show him a business case that underlines how the status-quo isn’t feasible or profitable.

Explain to a marketer how something would not sell, or how it frustrates customers.

To a behaviour scientist, explain which psychological barriers are getting in the way.

Sit a lawyer down and elucidate which morals are compromised and which ethic is undermined.

All professionals often speak their own dialect. While persuading them, it helps to use that dialect.

Why pre-heat an oven?

When an oven is heating up, parts of it closer to the coils are hotter. Therefore, sticking food into the oven will cause some parts to get charred even as parts remain uncooked. We pre-heat an oven because the heating process interferes with the baking.

When we are drafting a letter, an article or a presentation, it is tempting to edit as we go. We fix words or sentences, align and format boxes on slides and rewrite paragraphs in the process of composition.

However, the process of editing interferes with drafting. Editing halts the mind and breaks the flow of its ideas. Much like an unevenly heated oven, it causes the product to be well done in some parts while leaving them half-baked in others.

Draft your creations to the end before giving into the temptation of refining them.

What do you want?

What does the toddler want?
To go to the construction yard,
Pass sand through her fingers
And watch it flow
While suspended in awe.
“Stay away from that sand”,
A hand drags her back.
Bad girls play with sand
Good girls memorize the alphabet
And recite nursery rhymes instead.

What does the child want?
To go with his friends to a plot nearby
To play a game they made up
That vaguely resembles cricket.
“But you have music class today.”
The child’s smile withers
As he signals to his waiting friends.
Good kids learn classical music
And coding, perhaps, to get a head-start
In a race that their parents run.

What does the graduate want?
To be part of a vision, a movement,
With sprightly steps and twinkling eyes
To gift posterity a better planet.
“Environmentalism? That is just as a hobby.”
A passing fad, a trend in the end.
What good have liberal arts wrought,
That rivals the marvels of engineering?
Graduates stop worrying about the world’s future
And focus on their future instead.

What does the professional want?
To lead with kindness, benevolence,
And let creativity flourish
Even as hers was trampled under foot
By her boss’s sales targets and stale temper.
“Empathy? That is just branding jargon.”
Money and markets are ruthless
And so are her most successful colleagues.
If she dare think different she can step aside
For the legions of cronies vying for her place.

What does the retiree want?
At the twilight of a regretful career
His eyes still twinkle. A second chance perhaps?
To pass sand through his fingers,
Learn a new craft and leave a better world.
“The old dog wants to learn new tricks?”
They employ only those who are half his age.
Too old to answer a new calling.
Too old to be spending more
Than Sundays with his own grandkids.

What do you want?
“Life is hard. We have done our part,
Paid our dues and given you a head-start.
How dare you now ask what you want,
Question our sacrifice and play the truant?”
What do you want? Just close your eyes
And listen carefully for a familiar voice
For down beneath, muffled by all that noise,
The answer that you once only knew too well
Is murmured in a desperate whisper.

The ‘false consensus’ effect

Professor Lee Roth enrolled a bunch of Stanford students in a psychology experiment.

He asked them if they could wear a sandwich board saying ‘Eat at Joe’s’ around their necks and walk around their campus. The students were told that they would be participating in a communication study and that they would learn something useful at the end of it.

About half of them agreed to wear the board while the other half declined. However, Roth also asked both groups of students what they thought their peers would do. The ones who wore the sign thought that 65% of the other students would wear the sign too. The ones who refused to wear the sign thought that 69% of other students would refuse too.

In other words, students in both groups thought that the majority of their peers are like them. What’s more? Each group of students had pretty unpleasant things to say about the other group. The ones who agreed to wear the boards thought the ones who refused to be cowardly. The ones who refused thought of the other group as show-offs.

Our minds are adept at extrapolating our own experience to derive a skewed picture of how the world works.

Your personal experiences make up maybe 0.00000001% of what’s happened in the world but maybe 80% of how you think the world works. – Morgan House.

The myth of Masterclass

Is Gary Kasparov sure to be a great chess teacher?

Masterclass is a place where world-class performers (several of them with little or no teaching experience) offer pricey online recorded lessons ($90 per class!) to their star-struck students.

Let us try and deconstruct what Masterclass is actually about. Gary Kasparov may be a chess legend, and Serena Williams might be among the best tennis players the world has seen. But why should that also make them world-class instructors in their trade?

The Masterclass videos make for great marketing, entertainment and glamour. At some point, we have started telling ourselves the story that if somebody is world-class at something, they can tell us their secret (‘Learn chess from Gary Kasparov!’).

However if I had the key to Kasparov’s house, could I use it to open the door of my own house? The path to mastery is paved with hours of practice that is deeply personal.

Masterclass features world-class performers talking about their paths to the top. Great teachers help students along paths that the students choose to go on. This difference is worth considering before shelling out $90 per session.

Inspiration: Akimbo

Which discrimination is fairer?

We often use money (price) to allocate scarce resources. Are there instances where we should rather use time?

New York’s Public Theater has a long standing tradition of offering public performances of Shakespeare’s plays in Central Park. Free tickets to the shows are available, but since demand for these tickets is so high, people often queue up hours in advance. The presence of these long lines has created a cottage industry of people who stand in line and sell their free tickets to willing customers. Much to the theatre’s chagrin, scalpers can sell these tickets sell for as much as $125 a pop.

By offering free tickets to people who wait, the theater uses time to allocate scarce tickets. The people who queue up to sell them later trade in their time for money. Yet this defeats the spirit of the initiative – those free theater performances should be open to everybody. They are gifts that are not for sale. But free market economists tend to disagree. They argue that markets allocate goods and services most fairly since markets ensure that they reach the people who value them the most, as indicated by their willingness to pay.

However, let us look closer at that argument. Does a high price always make me value something more? Would a rich business executive who is busy on his phone in a Michelin star restaurant value the experience more than an aspiring chef who cannot afford it? Buying something isn’t merely a measure of how much I value something – it is also a measure of my ability to afford it. It is this second factor that dilutes the economists’ argument.

If, instead, you made the tickets to ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ non-transferable and insisted that people wait in line for their tickets, free market proponents would argue that you discriminate in favour of people who have more free time. They are right – discrimination is inevitable in the allocation of scarce goods.

However, for a ticket to a theatre performance that is open to all, isn’t time a fairer means to discriminate, given that we all have the same 24 hours?

Inspiration: What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

Start with simple ingredients

If somebody isn’t adept at making a plate of pasta, giving them truffles, cold-pressed olive oil and parmesan cheese will not turn their dish into a masterpiece. In fact, it is easier to learn to cook with a handful of simple ingredients.

Merely adding erudite words to a writer’s prose wont elevate its quality. Rare, scholarly words are difficult to use – they aren’t easily translatable and fit only in much narrower contexts than their more commonplace synonyms.

Simplicity is an aspiring writer’s best friend. Like exotic culinary ingredients, every complex word is expensive and takes some practice before it can be integrated into one’s vocabulary.

How ‘The Sound of Music’ almost wasn’t

Maria von Trapp never intended to write about her life. However, a friend of her’s simply would not let her be in peace. She begged and pleaded with Maria to write about her story.

Finally, in desperation, Maria excused herself and went to her room for about an hour to scribble a few pages and demonstrate to her friend her lack of writing talent. To her surprise, this act demonstrated such natural writing talent that she was forced to finish what she had started.

Maria wrote the book, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, which was published in 1949 and served to inspire the West German film The Trapp Family, which in turn inspired the 1959 Broadway musical The Sound of Music and its 1965 film version.

But what if that friend of hers hadn’t persisted and Maria had never scribbled those lines?

Like mysteries of an underwater world, we all have an infinite variety of inspired creations swimming within us. Unless we dive in and take a look, we will never know that they exist.

Disappointment

Think about that word. Its etymology is to fail to keep an appointment.

Our mind loves to book favourable appointments with destiny. Once an appointment is booked, a part of our mind already leaps ahead in time and attends it. Even as we have just booked our vacation to Greece, we find ourselves daydreaming about white sand beaches. Even as we have just finished interviewing for a new job, we already draft the outlines of our resignation letter.

To some degree, this tendency of our mind is healthy. It gets us out of bed in the morning, puts a spring in our step and gives us something to look forward to. However, when these appointments aren’t honoured, it also sets us up for disappointment. To prevent this disappointment, a part of our mind ought to be open to the possibility that our appointments with destiny can be cancelled on very short notice.

On a work calendar, you can always mark an appointment as tentative. Destiny is fickle with keeping her appointments. Therefore, whenever she features on the list of invitees, always mark the appointment as ‘tentative’.

We are all imposters

Imagine you show a professional footballer 2 vidoes.

The first video is 2 hours worth of the best performances of football greats throughout history. The second video is 2 hours of his career’s worst moments – bad passes, red cards, him missing an empty post or him skying a penalty.

At the end of the second video, how can he not help but feel like an imposter?

The imposter syndrome is caused by our intimate relationship with our own personal flaws while having a platonic relationship with other people’s flaws.

Behind every lengedary movie is a blooper reel that is much longer. How many of those reels would have won the Oscars?

What do I do next?

It is much faster to shop with a list than to wander around the shelves of a supermarket.

The reason check-lists are helpful is because the act of deciding ‘what do I do next’ does not mix well with focused work. It is more efficient to make a list first and then get to work.

Pre-reading a book

Looking at a map before wandering into a new place helps you get around faster. Besides, you will also know which parts of the city are worth visiting, which ones you can stroll past and which ones you can avoid.

Pre-reading a non-fiction book is analogous to reading a map. It helps us decide

  • Whether the book is worth picking up
  • Which parts of the book you can skim through
  • Which parts you can read in detail (chew and digest in Francis Bacon’s immortal words)

Here are a few things you can do in order to pre-read a book

  • Study the table of contents (especially the most descriptive ones)
  • Read the preface
  • Skim through the epilogue – most writers summarize their findings there
  • Examine the index to find out the topics covered in the book
  • Dip in and out of chapters that are crucial to the book’s central argument
  • Listen to an interview about the book with the book’s author

Pre-reading a book should not take more than a few minutes – one hour at the most. But it sets you up for reading the book faster and getting the most out of it.

Inspiration: How to Read a Book

A more detailed read on the topic

How regret is more reliable than pleasure

Do you often regret wasting away your leisure?

While deciding how you could spend your free time, you could either choose to maximize pleasure or minimize regret. While our tendency is to maximize pleasure, we are better served by dodging regret instead.

After a hard day’s work, you might have a craving to stuff your face with chocolate. When you do, pause and think of whether you would regret eating a whole bar of chocolate two hours from now.

In the middle of a busy week, you might feel like going out for a drink. When you do, pause and ask yourself if you would regret that decision the next morning.

On a lazy weekend afternoon, you might feel like binge watching TV shows. When you do, pause and ask yourself if you would regret watching 3 hours of Mad Men.

You might not regret some of those choices. In that case, let yourself go without a feeling of guilt hanging over your shoulders.

The best decisions are the ones that serve our long-term interests. Since regret lingers over a longer period than fleeting pleasure, it serves as a more reliable yardstick.

Not for sale

We all know that the joy of eating garden fresh produce cannot be bought. I cannot replace the pleasure I derive from eating cherry tomatoes that grew in our balcony even with the gourmet organic kind sold at the farmer’s market.

Putting a price on something automatically changes the way we view and treat it. Once you put a price on cherry tomatoes, we start regarding them as commodities. While the effect of creating a market for tomatoes might be benign, we deliberately prevent the market from venturing into certain areas:

  • A market for organs is controversial
  • A market for children is prohibited. Human beings are not for sale
  • A market for votes would undermine democracy

Economists believe that you can put a price to almost anything – that companies buying the right to pollute and an international market for organs will make the world a better place. However, the rest of us aren’t convinced. In our eyes, putting a price on certain things is out of question.

Markets are valuable, but they change the way we look at anything they trade in. Creating a market for children makes us view them as commodities (as we did during the era of slavery).

We must keep markets in their place and not let them wander out into places where they can corrupt what is most dear to us – into things that are ‘invaluable’.

Inspiration: What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets