Frankenstein metrics

Simon Kuznets and Alfred Binnet shared a couple of things in common. They both invented metrics that reshaped the world, and they both went on to regret it.

Kuznets gave us GDP – a measure that continues to quantify the health of a country’ economy. Binnet proposed IQ, mainly as a means to measure a country’s education system, rather than brand individuals as intelligent or not.

The problem with both these metrics are that they are oversimplifications. A country’s economic and social well-being is tied to several other factors than merely the rate of its GDP growth. Human intelligence is highly specialized and is therefore hard to quantify with a generic number.

The creators of these metrics had warned us of how they could be misused. Why, then, do we persist on using these metrics?

This points to the tendency of the human brain to wish away complexity and uncertainty by using a metric. Doing so gives us a target to aim for and reduces ambiguity – those are the obvious benefits. But it distorts our perception of the world and exacts hidden costs, such as pursuing GDP growth without paying attention to income distribution or environmental degradation. In the case of IQ, it has led us to snatch opportunities away from people who score low on this arbitrary standardized test.

In Sanskrit, the word maya, which translates to illusion, shares the same root as the word for measurement. Our fetish for quantification gives rise to some of the most powerful illusions we have of misguided certainty.

When patience is a superpower

Try to imagine a life without timekeeping.

You probably can’t. You know the month, the year, the day of the week. There is a clock on your wall or the dashboard of your car. You have a schedule, a calendar, a time for dinner or a movie.

Yet all around you, timekeeping is ignored. Birds are not late. A dog does not check its watch. Deer do not fret over passing birthdays.

Man alone measures time. Man alone chimes the hour. And, because of this, man alone suffers a paralyzing fear that no other creature endures. A fear of time running out.

Those are lines from The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom. They demonstrate how measurement of time is an illusion that surrounds us.

Sure, this illusion is helpful – it keeps the assembly lines running, the trains on time and different corners of the world in sync. But it also exacts its cost. We are the only species on that planet that is late, hasty, tardy, rushed, delayed and always behind schedule. Rats don’t really run the rat race – only humans do.

Patience is a forcefield that shields us from the tyranny of timekeeping. When you’re patient, it doesn’t matter if a project takes 10 hours longer than anticipated, or if your package arrives 3 days later than scheduled.

The more our world is plagued by timekeeping, the more patience turns into a superpower.

Play poker at school

If you managed a supermarket, your decisions would depend upon several factors:

  • The probabilistic distribution of a diverse set of outcomes (How much beer and chips your customers are likely to buy on a summer weekend)
  • How much you’d like to stake with each decision (What percentage of your inventory would be perishable fruits and veggies)
  • Other people’s decisions (Which brand of dark chocolates your competitors hold and which ones your customers prefer)

Decision making is hard to teach, and therefore, we don’t include it in the school curriculum. What if we taught kids to play poker instead? Playing poker has the potential to teach the most crucial aspects of decision making. While playing every hand, you have to think of probability, risk and adapt your strategy to other people’s decisions.

Including poker to the school curriculum is one of those crazy ideas that makes sense the more you think about it. Besides, its more fun than cramming facts that are of no use to anybody.

Inspiration: Seth Godin

Rich and unhappy

He was rich, but unhappy. She was a successful entrepreneur, but she wasn’t happy. He was a popular actor, but he sufferered from depression.

This dichotomy often makes for good stories. Yet, I have one problem with such premises – the use of the word ‘but’.

Happiness is a tricky goal – we are still not sure of what it takes to be happy. Yet, we have enough research to show that external measures such as wealth, success and popularity aren’t sufficient to make us happy.

However, when we say somebody was ‘rich, but unhappy’, we imply a contradiction – that despite being rich, the said person is unhappy. We seem to implicitly believe that wealth automatically ought to bring happiness with it. This leads to a culture where more people chase wealth, fame or success in pursuit of the happiness that eludes them.

Sentences such as ‘Rich and unhappy’ or ‘successful and depressed’ make for boring stories, but are a more honest reflection of the world.

Where the question is also the answer

Am I a good person?

The earnest act of asking yourself if you’re a good person is a sign that you truly are one. This question also contains the kernel of its answer within itself. And good people can never answer this question with a resounding ‘yes’.

Am I being complacent?

The self-awareness it takes to earnestly pose this question also serves as a guardrail against complacency. Therefore, this question is only posed by those who aren’t complacent. Further, these are also people who cannot answer this question with a resounding ‘no’.

Some lingering doubts are healthy, for they stem from the part of us that is the guardian of our own betterment.

Keeping score

It’s fun to keep score while playing a game. Not to pick winners or losers, but because keeping score is more fun for everybody that way – even those on the losing side.

What if marks and grades in our examinations worked the same way? What if they served as a means to make learning more fun rather than as a sorting mechanism? What if a company’s financial goals – its quarterly and annual targets- made it more fun to run the company rather than to serve as reward or punishment?

Well, if they don’t serve that end, is it still worth keeping them?

Keeping score is the work needed to ensure that our games are fun. But why have we neglected the play needed to make our schools and workplaces fun?

Do they have it made?

What percentage of your social media contacts seem like they have their lives figured out?

Now what would this percentage be for your friends or colleagues? What is that same percentage for your relatives and close family members?

A pattern soon starts to emerge – the lesser we know somebody, the more sorted their lives seem to us. Our social media connections seem to have it much better than members of our family. But on the flipside, our perfect social media contacts are also other people’s imperfect relatives, friends and colleagues.

Everybody’s life is broken in some way or the other. We aren’t alone.

Second place is wasted

We all know that the fastest 100m sprinter in the world is Usain Bolt.

A lot fewer people know of Asafa Powell – the second fastest sprinter in the world. If Powell were to walk across your street, would you be able to recognize him?

Powell’s 100m timing (9.74 s) is mere 2% slower than Bolt’s timing (9.58 s). All that separates first and second place at that level is about 200 milliseconds. And yet, Bolt is likely to be 100 times more popular than Powell worldwide.

The fastest women sprinter of all time is Florence Griffith-Joyner. How many of us knew about her? How much more underrated her achievement is?

We live in a winner take all world – one where first place is given all the fame, glamour and accolades, despite them being only a small whisker ahead of the people around them.

However, this also means that those who came second, who are merely a few insignificant percentage points behind, are usually up for grabs.

Chilling out online

It is perfectly normal to walk up to a colleague and talk about the movie you watched last evening. It isn’t acceptable to get on a call or an online meeting to do that.

At the office, you can talk about the weather with the person beside you while waiting for the all-hands-meeting to start. Online, it isn’t kosher to do that with 25 others on the call.

At a team outing, it is acceptable to talk about your life’s story after hanging out for three hours and chugging down a couple of beers. Remotely, it is nearly impossible to organize a casual hang-out that lasts three hours.

Those moments of casual socializing are to a company’s culture what vitamins and minerals are to our diet. You need them in small measure for a healthy work culture. When they are lacking for too long, the organization suffers from a deficiency disease.

With the massive shift to remote work, the creative challenge that lies ahead of us is to think of ways in which we can all chill out a little from behind a computer screen.

Creeping standards

Last evening, I found myself irritated because my laptop’s fingerprint reader wasn’t working. To login, I had to enter my password instead.

I then paused to realize that this frustration mainly stems from having a new work computer. My work computer uses facial recognition for authentication. I only need to look at the camera for a second to login to it. With this convenience added to my life, my standards have crept higher.

I then paused longer to reflect on the days of my first computer, which ran on Windows 98. About twice a year, the operating system would get corrupted and need to be reinstalled. Almost every week, the computer screen would freeze up or turn blue without warning and need to be hard reset. In fact, computers even came with a separate reset button because of how often this needed to be done.

Those difficulties are but a distant memory now. However, my standards have steadily crept higher, with the current watermark being authentication through facial-recognition.

Our tendency to get take higher standards for granted helps us progress and grow. However, the convenience this brings works like a drug – its absence leaves us miserable.

A critical thinking exercise

You can use most online articles (including several on this blog) to sharpen your critical thinking skills.

Consider this article titled titled ‘It’s Okay If You Don’t Wear a Bike Helmet’. I have picked out a paragraph that the author uses to support her conclusion:

Forbes contributor Carlton Reid doesn’t think so. In a column published in 2018, Reid lists the many activities he does without a helmet. He walks on icy sidewalks and cleans the gutters on his roof. If we don’t wear helmets for these daily but potentially deadly tasks, he argues, we shouldn’t bother when we ride a bike. The expectation that we should only adds extra barriers to cycling.

When you read that paragraph, you can already sense that the author’s argument rests on shaky ground. When you break this argument down into what logicians call the ‘standard form’, you can see its problems more clearly.

An argument in a standard form always includes premises that support a conclusion. The paragraph above in standard form is:

  • It is okay to walk on icy sidewalks and clean roof gutters without helmets
  • Cycling is like those activities
    ______________________________________________________________
    Therefore, it is also okay to cycle without a helmet

Expressing an argument this way makes it easy to take it apart. If activities such as walking on ice or cleaning roof gutters are indeed risky, why is it okay to do it without cranial protection? Also, how is cycling like those activities? For instance, how much time does a person spend on their bike each year when compared to cleaning their roof gutters?

To express any argument in standard form, you start off by writing down its conclusion. You then go on to write down the premises used to draw that conclusion as bullets.

Once you do that, any flimsy argument comes apart like wrapping paper.

Inspiration: Critical Thinking

Half a bridge

Building half a bridge

  • Takes half the material of building a full bridge
  • Takes more than half the effort to build a full bridge
  • Is completely useless

Sadly, too many projects are binary – they are either complete or useless. Therefore, too much effort is poured into half bridges.

It’s time to cut your losses.

The flipside of ease

While learning to cycle, it is easy to start off with balancing wheels. But soon enough, you realize how were entirely reliant on those dummy wheels.

It is easy to learn programming using a low-code platform. But once you need to code something a little more complex, you run into major limitations.

It is easy to learn a new language using an app like Duolingo. But once you try using it in your daily life, you realize that you haven’t made as much progress as the app leads you to believe.

When you learn something the easy way, that very ease could turn into a crutch.

Individually stupid. Collectively brilliant

There is no single human being on the planet, who can build an entire computer mouse by herself.

Nobody single handedly has the requisite expertise to do all of the following things – to mine and refine the oil needed for creating the plastic case, to build the optical or tactile sensing mechanism, to program the interrupt that happens when the mouse pointer is clicked and so on.

It is humbling to realize this as you hold a mouse within the palm of your hand. At the same time, a thing that no single human being can create costs merely a handful of dollars. It is a marvel that most things we used today are both impossible to single handedly create and are priced at a bargain. So interconnected is our world.

Every person, just by himself, is stupid. The intelligence within an individual is overrated. It is only in the collective that we are smart enough to transcend this planet and turn into an inter-planetary species.

As a corollary, the smartest human beings are not those who are the most intelligent individuals. The smartest are those who can harness our collective intelligence.

Inspiration: The Rational Optimist

Thinking and doing

Every successful project strikes a good balance between divergence and convergence. Yes – this applies to every single project.

Divergence is about exploring new ideas and fresh perspectives through creativity and lateral thinking. The team needs to examine enough possible approaches before selecting their best approach.

Convergence is about translating thought into action and plans into outcomes. It involves heads-down work on pushing the project towards the finish line. A converging team sticks to the selected approach, meets deadlines and ships the project.

Most teams fail to strike a good balance between convergence and divergence.

The first challenge comes with different team members operating differently. Some team members are too divergent with their thinking, while others are too convergent. Good team work synergizes the two, whereas in dysfunctional teams, they cancel each other out.

The second challenge is that the right mix depends upon the project stage. At the start of a project, more diverging thinking is needed, and the project approaches the end, it needs to converge more. Flipping this order around is a recipe for disaster.

The third challenge is to switch seamlessly between convergence and divergence depending on the situation. During a brainstorming session, a team needs to channel divergent thinking. But as the session draws to an end, it needs to converge on the next steps. Whenever the project threatens to converge on an unforeseen disaster, the team needs to immediately diverge and course correct.

The beauty of this principle is the broadness of its applicability. Does your project team have the right mix?

Sampling bias

A pizzeria once hired three teenagers to hand out discount coupons.

At the end of the month, 90% of the codes were those that were handed out by one out of the three youngsters, who received a fat bonus. The other two simply could not fathom how he did this, so they asked him. He replied that he merely distributed coupons to people who were lining up outside the pizzeria.

I recently saw a connection of mine publish a survey on LinkedIn:

Where did you hear that my company just got funded?
a. On LinkedIn
b. On Twitter
c. I haven’t heard this piece of news

Are you surprised that most respondents went with option a? If the same survey were posted on twitter, how do you think the responses would have changed?

When we use a contact thermometer, we stick in under the tongue and not in any odd crevice in the body, for we know that some samples are more accurate than others.

Your ability to choose a sample is more important than your ability to interpret its results.

How did that happen?!

We all have moments where we are surprised by how well we perform – coordinating a productive meeting, nailing a great job interview or discovering an elegant solution to a friend’s problem.

But here’s what is missing – the act of sitting down afterwards and asking ourselves the question ‘how did that happen?’

Hitting a zone of high-performance feels magical – there is a shroud of mystery cast over performing in ‘the zone’. Yet, there is nothing magical about high performance. It can just as easily be broken down and replicated. Imagine if you could put yourself into ‘the zone’ at will! The upside here is too good to ignore.

We all have moments of genius. But the difference between genius and expertise is consistency.

It’s a distribution problem

How often have you had a fantastic job application rejected?

While switching careers a few years back, I made a slew of unsuccessful applications. I updated my resume and wrote flowing cover letters that were tailored to the opportunities I sought. In most cases, I never heard back.

Good entrepreneurs know that to succeed in the market, you need both a great product and good distribution. The problem with my job applications is that I had focused too much on product and neglected distribution.

If you have a world-class resume in your field (in the top 10% percentile) but know less than 10 people who are also top 10% performers in your field, you have a distribution problem.

In the job market, you can build good distribution by

  • Networking with a handful of great professionals in your field
  • Creating a portfolio, blogposts, tutorials or videos that showcase your expertise
  • Choosing companies where you’re a good fit and getting to know some people who work there
  • Doing all of this when you aren’t desperate for a job offer

And no – distribution isn’t the same as worming your way into a job through ‘influence’. It is merely a means to ensure that you are seen for the great professional that you are. Preferably not by a person sifting through 10 resumes a minute when their hair is on fire.

Why are simple explanations rare?

Have you had the feeling, that when somebody explains a concept to you verbally, you understand it more easily than if you read about it, say, in Wikipedia?

Why is that the case? Why are our verbal explanations more accessible than their written counterparts?

Back in primary school, we were all taught that gravity is a force of attraction between all things that have mass. The more accurate definition for gravity is provided by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. It describes gravity ‘not as a force, but as a consequence of masses moving along geodesic lines in a curved spacetime caused by the uneven distribution of mass.’

If you had given me the more accurate definition of gravity in school, I would not have been able to understand it – I still don’t for the most part. Therefore, calling gravity as a force is an error in the purest sense. But that error is necessary to make its explanation accessible.

Simple explanations are rare, more so in the written medium, because some expert or the other is always trying to error-proof it. Yet, a certain degree of error is a feature, not a bug. Good teachers will do well to leave it in rather than eliminate it.

Start a streak

The main reason I am still able to keep up my daily blogging habit is because I have been doing this for more than 1200 days now.

Streaks help you stick. Streaks are anti-fragile – the bigger the streak, the stronger and stickier it gets. It helps if the effort needed to preserve the streak is small. It also helps if your streak is public.

If you wish to get better at something – a little bit everyday – streaks are your best bet.