The problem with theory

Knowledge maybe power, but a clean slate is freedom.

The problem with theoretical expertise, is that it isn’t embodied. Therefore, it is fragile. It creates a reinforcing loop to protect itself from change or destruction. Just when we are about to start something new, it gives us one more excuse to not do it. To not leap and to not act.

That is why curious young people who refuse to accept the status-quo are transforming the world. In the past, these young people did not have access to the factors of production. Today, all they need is a laptop and internet connection.

A fresh perspective is an undervalued asset.

Emotional fitness

Recollect that feeling as you rest after an intense workout. You are panting hard and your heart is drumming away in your chest. As you recover, your heartbeat becomes softer and it slows down to its natural rhythm.

A measure of physical fitness is the time it takes to recover from an elevated heart rate back to the resting heart rate. While this might take a couple of minutes for most people, elite athletes can bring it down to a few seconds through their training.

Now recollect how it feels to be angry. Likewise, you can sense the physical changes – the tingling in your palms, the rush of blood to your face and the feeling of rage surging through your body. Your heart rate also rises when this happens. When the anger subsides, those feelings go away and your heart rate returns to normal.

The measure of our emotional fitness is the time it takes for us to go from anger to our normal state. Similar to physical fitness, it can be trained like the muscles that help us run, swim or do a cardio workout.

Buddhists philosophy likens holding on to our anger to grasping a piece of hot coal, in order to throw at somebody else. The sooner we learn to drop it, the lesser it can damage us.

Discard the broken crockery

Christopher Hsee of the University of Chicago conducted an experiment with dinnerware. He asked people to price 2 dinnerware sets at a clearance sale.

Set A had 40 pieces: 8 dinner plates, 8 salad bowls and 8 dessert plates in good condition. 8 cups, with 2 broken ones and 8 saucers with 7 broken ones.

Set B had 24 pieces: 8 dinner plates, 8 salad bows and 8 dessert plates all in good condition.

One can easily observe that Set B is a subset of Set A. Set A has 6 additional cups and 1 additional saucer in good condition, when compared to Set B. When people independently priced these two sets of crockery, they offered an average of $33 for Set A vs $23 for Set B. The information of the defective pieces within Set A led respondents to undervalue it despite it having more unbroken pieces in total.

Things that are well made restrict themselves to the essential. The best design is minimalistic. The best phone came without buttons. The best websites have the least amount of clutter. A wardrobe with 6 elegant dresses is better than one with 20 dresses and 8 elegant ones. The additional noise in any system pulls down its entire value.

This principle is counter-intuitive. There is always the temptation to add more, and often, the things that are broken aren’t as obvious as defective crockery. Our resumes are better off without lines to merely fill up the page. Our writing is better with short sentences free of unnecessary adverbs or adjectives. The emails we write, the speeches we make – noise is everywhere once we look for it.

This noise surrounds the essence with most things, much like dirt buries a fossil. The discerning eye recovers the fossil by brushing away the dirt, while retaining the essence.

Source for the experiment: Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

How travelling fuels art

The essence of art is to see the things that everybody does, but show them in a way that nobody else has. Through art, we experience the world from a different perspective.

Every mundane object around us could inspire art just as a jazz musician interprets a popular number. Vermeer’s paintings are an impeccable depiction of the beauty of everyday life. RK Narayan and Anton Chekhov achieved the same end through their words. This world map shows us international shipping routes that crisscross the water, leaves the land in negative space and offers us a refreshing perspective.

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Source: Debbie Symth

Talking about perspective, every culture looks at life from a different vantage point. As Derek Sivers points out, in most parts of our world, streets are named and the blocks are the empty spaces between them. In Japan, the opposite is true – where each block has a number, and the streets are the empty unnamed spaces between them. With traditional Chinese doctors, their patients paid them when they were healthy, and received treatment for free when they were sick. It was their doctor’s job to keep them healthy. India’s exquisite diversity led a British economist to remark – whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true. At once, India is a land that is rich and poor, kind and cruel, backward and developed, ancient and modern.

Travelling is enriching because of the perspective it can give us. Opening up to these perspectives makes artists out of each one of us.

A little above average

Weddings across cultures are expensive. A wedding today is far more pricey than one five years ago. What do weddings share in common that make them so?

Weddings everywhere convey status. With status, everyone wishes to be a little above average. Being just a little above average is the sweet spot. It is safe. It does not raise eyebrows. It meets all expectations.

But when everybody wishes to be a little above average, it creates a ratchet that pushes the average upwards – the ratchet of our expectations.

This isn’t unique to weddings. Any source of status sees this shift – fine dining, luxury clothing or dream careers. What these things have in common is the ratchet that keeps pushing the average upwards – things become costlier, the bar gets higher and the working hours get longer.

But pursuing status can be a choice. A lot depends on which side of the equation we stand.

If we seek to acquire status, we must embrace the ratchet of expectations. We must understand that we are paying not just for a service but the status that comes with it. Products and services can become commodities. Status cannot.

Alternatively, if we seek to deliver status, we can charge a premium for our promise. However, this requires us to subscribe to our customer’s definition of status – not our own. It then involves doing the difficult work of crafting an above average experience day after day.

Inpsiration: The Wedding Industrial Complex – Akimbo, a podcast by Seth Godin

Mistaking technology for a state function

One of the fundamental concepts of Physics is the difference between a state function and a path function.

With state functions, such as potential energy, everything that matters is the initial state and the final state. The intermediate steps are irrelevant. A 5 kg bag of sand has more potential energy on the twelfth floor of a building than it does on the fifth floor, regardless if it went to the twentieth floor on the way.

Path functions are different. The intermediate steps matter here. Friction is a path function. When we push a carton across the room and return it to the same place, we still expend effort. Most physical effort is a state function. Lugging a 5 kg bag of sand from the fifth floor to the twelfth floor is already a workout. Going to the twentieth floor on the way can be exhausting!

Technology is a path function. When we adopt a new technology, it leaves a profound impact on the people it touches. It can reshape the social fabric in subtle ways that we can never imagine. When we first discovered the potential of fossil fuel, we could never have predicted that it could lead to global warming. Technology can change climate. It can just as easily reconfigure jobs, or cause them to disappear. All these consequences depend on the path we take to implement it.

The world is setup to treat technology as if it is a state function. To scratch the surface of a new development and encapsulate our limited understanding into futuristic use-cases. Rarely do we stop to consider the import of those changes on the social fabric. And by the time we do, it is often too late.

Sure, fossil fuels have significantly enhanced our lives. But could we have minimized their downside? Sure, social media has reshaped how we communicate. But is it creating a better society?

The default mode of the market is to pick up the next shiniest thing and adopt it with a myopic view on its benefits. We start today in state A, and place bets on technology to take us to state B. The more relevant, but less sexy problem is that of the path we take to traverse these states. The most important questions are why we need to get to state B, and what that would mean for humanity.

Start with yourself

Every single flight announcement goes through the same drill:
1. Wear your seat belts
2. Your nearest emergency exit maybe behind you
3. Put on your oxygen mask before assisting others

Number three, the instruction about oxygen masks, is what generous people are likely to forget. Altruism hints at caring for the person next to you more than you care for yourself.

But that notion is counter-productive. When you’ve helped yourself, you are more capable of help another person. Several things work this way: kindness, compassion and acceptance for instance. Once we are kind to our own selves, we can offer kindness from a state of abundance rather than scarcity.

In order to care for the rest of the world, we should start with the person that we spend every single minute of our lives with. Trying to help other people with their oxygen masks before we wear our own turns us into a liability.

Asymmetric payoffs

Failure may well be a stepping stone to success, but failure under all circumstances doesn’t automatically lead to success. There are situations where failure can be beneficial, while there are failures that are pure tragedies.

Most startups fail. Perhaps 9 out of 10 startups fail. This reality is central to a venture capitalist’s business model. But a successful startup has the potential to offer returns that can far offset the failures in one’s portfolio. On investing an equal amount in ten startups, let us say that nine of them fail. If the one startup that succeeds offers you a return of 30x (not unusual with successful startups), it can easily offset the losses you made on the nine failed ones. Your net gain here would be about twice as much as your initial investment.

An asymmetric payoff is one where the downside is limited, but the upside is unlimited. We identify them when we start looking for them.

Every book is a bargain. Within each book is the potential to give us an insight that can transform our life. It can plant a seed that could grow into unimaginable possibilities. It can help us absorb a lifetime’s worth of the author’s learning in 3 to 6 hours. All of this for a price of about Rs 500 or €10. Older books that are cheaper end up having more wisdom. You can find fewer better deals.

Every moment that unfolds in our lives is filled with possibility.  Adam Robinson believes that we ought to step into every moment expecting wonder. Sure, there are chances that this does not happen, but when it does, the person with a glint in her eye notices it. Not the disinterested cynic.

Wonder, just like the asymmetric payoff it offers, appears when we look for it.

For human centric technology

Which of the two words would you attribute to technological progress today – reactive or responsive?

To react is to be hasty – to jump to a plan of action before gleaning all the facts. To respond is to gather the necessary facts, evaluate several courses of action and pick the best one available. The difference lies in sequence of those activities. Arthur Conan Doyle had the immortal Sherlock Holmes quote:

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.

We realize today that we humans aren’t quite the poster children of rationality we assumed we were. We have seen how free internet services fueled by ads can spiral into a cut-throat race for user attention. We also see how social media causes mental health problems and how centralized digital services are creating  way fewer jobs than they are destroy. And yet, so entrenched are we in our reaction to these trends that we find it extremely hard to extricate ourselves out of these business models.

Technology exists to benefit humans as a whole. Let us start with that assumption. But what we are resorting to is to react to the shiniest new technological knickknack and integrating it into every aspect of human life. This phenomenon ratchets forward with internet, smartphones, artificial intelligence and every other shiny trend out there.

Our approach has been to place technological progress at the center of humanity. But we seem to have our priorities mixed up. Instead, we ought to place humanity at the center of technological progress.

Inspiration: Who owns the future – Jaron Lanier

What you see…

I looked at the clock beside my table to see that it was 8:00 AM.

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What time it is?

Later, I had realized that I had not read the time correctly, and I was running late! You can see the actual time in the clock’s reflection.

This anecdote demonstrates our mind’s ability to jump to conclusions with limited information – a tendency that Daniel Kahneman likes to abbreviate as WYSIATI – “What You See Is All There Is”. The moment we hear about the rich, religious American creationist, our mind assumes that he votes Republican. No sooner than we see a geeky kid with glasses, who spends all day at a computer, we assume she would grow up to become a programmer.

Did the use of the female pronoun (“she”) in the previous statement come as a surprise? Q.E.D.

The mind’s ability to jump to conclusions is an asset. The mere sight of a pattern is enough for us to decode it. However, it must be kept in check. For it can present an illusion that causes us to misread the time, make bad decisions, or worse, judge a person unfairly.

Our superhero intuition could use a sidekick – a good measure of healthy skepticism.

Inspiration: Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

Walk away rather than bargain hard

Bargaining is mastered in the streets of India. Roadside bazaars are fertile grounds for training this skill. Here, I have seen customers adopt both approaches – to walk away from unreasonable deals or to persist and bargaining hard and reach a compromise.

Every trader in a bazaar has learnt to use anchoring to his advantage. Anchoring is a phenomenon by which our mental decisions are heavily swayed by an initial piece of information. When a trader quotes Rs. 1000 for an article of clothing, he has raised its price to a particular benchmark. A real estate agent who tells us that a house is worth 3 million dollars, pushes its worth in our eyes towards this value. Other examples include “estimates” in fine art auctions and discounts offered on e-commerce websites on “original” prices.

Anchoring is prominent across businesses. How do we guard ourselves against it?

Kahneman suggests that we refrain from making counteroffers that are too far to the other side. This usually creates a gap between the parties that cannot be bridged through subsequent negotiations. Instead, he suggests that we make a scene, state how ridiculous that proposition is and refuse to continue until it is withdrawn. In the process, we convey to the other party, as well as our own mind, how absurd the anchored value is.

Coming back to the Indian bazaars, I have witnessed both approaches – walking away from ridiculous offers, or trying to bargain hard by swinging to the other side. Walking away guards us better against anchoring. When we are called back, we can set the new terms for the deal.

Inspiration: Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

Perfection as a consequence

sOne could approach their creative work with two mindsets – in pursuit of perfection or to honour a commitment to publish.

The perfection approach emphasizes quality. It tells us that we ought to not work until the right inspiration strikes us. We wait for the combination of inputs that could produce the perfect output. The belief is to rather not publish than to offer something sub-standard.

But this approach can shrink our output. If we show up only when inspiration strikes, it strikes less often. It manifests as writer’s block. We are convinced that we are only as good as our last work. What we do next ought to be better than what we’ve already done thus far. Our expectations from ourselves keep ratcheting upwards, until we stop.

The publishing approach is to show up at regular intervals regardless of the quality of output. The target maybe to ship everyday, every week or every month. But the constraint is that we do ship – not that we meet a particular standard.

The second approach would not see us improve with every output. Our quality fluctuates. But it puts us on the hook to show up more often – to stick to a commitment and take ownership of whatever we ship. With time, all of that deliberate practice enhances quality.

The first approach, quality is the goal. This can lead us to feel trapped by its ratcheting expectations.

In the second approach, quality is a consequence. Once it turns into a by-product we are liberated to keep up our commitments and do the work we love.

Knowledge and wisdom

Knowledge progresses in a straight line, one discovery, one invention and one fact at a time. People in the past weren’t as scientific as we are today, despite our romanticizing the “good old days”. Aristotle observed the Sun rising and setting everyday, to conclude that the Sun revolves around the Earth. We do not read Aristotle’s scientific theories today. Instead we read the works of Copernicus, Kepler and Newton – stalwarts who stood on Aristotle’s shoulders.

Wisdom is cyclical. It is rediscovered in every era. The best works of wisdom are also the oldest – The Bhagavad Gita, the teachings of the Buddha and Stoic philosophy. How we ought to live our lives is an old question, with old answers. We continue to read Aristotle for his wisdom.

If you in search of knowledge, pick up the latest book on the topic. If you seek wisdom, look for the oldest book that is still around.

The difference between money and wealth

When you trade time for financial gain, you earn money. Examples include working for 8 hours a day to receive a salary every month, charging your client for every hour of work or running your convenience store.

An asset creates wealth while you sleep or do something else. You may maintain the asset, but somebody else runs it or uses it. An asset can be physical, like a food truck that you own. It can be virtual, like an online platform. Or it can be expertise that you can encapsulate in a book.

The distinction between money and wealth is subtle, and can have overlaps. Nevertheless, it is important. People who make money earn their retirement, while the ones who create enough wealth earn their freedom.

Inspiration: This tweetstorm by Naval Ravikant

You are the product

A few years ago, the tech giants that own the largest internet companies faced a question – how could they monetize their services?

They had two choices. One was to charge theirs users subscription fees. The other was to keep services free, while selling ads. The choice was between making their users their customers or turning them into their products. We know today that they chose the second option.

But everything is free! Why should we care?

Let’s start with the obvious – customers generate revenues for a business. That is why “customers come first”, “customer is king” and every other customer obsession cliche exists. When we buy a burger at McDonalds, we are the customers. The store’s shelves hold buns, patties and snips of lettuce and tomatoes. Those patties and are made using cows and chickens raised in factory farms. Processing units grind and tenderize their meat to make patties. All these things and a little fry cooking makes up the product at McDonalds.

Customers are central to McDonalds (like any other business). McDonalds works hard to ensure that their burgers are safe, adhere to quality standards and are a bargain for their customers. To meet these ends, McDonalds goes the extra mile to increase production efficiency. It ensures that its machinery and industrial equipment operate at maximum efficiency.

Production is the process of turning raw materials into products. Products are merely the means for businesses serve customers. In effect, a business serves customers and optimizes production.

When the internet giants decided to turn their users into their product, we became a means to serve their new customers – the advertisers. Facebook sells ads. Its customers  are most concerned about two metrics:
a) Who sees our ad?
b) How much of their attention do we get?

Ever noticed how those Youtube ads have gotten longer, more frequent and more stubborn with time?

Every internet giant that offers “free” services does so in exchange for user attention. Once they picked this business model, of course, their services had to be free. That is the best way to ensure that metrics a) and b) above are maximized.

Businesses live to serve their customers, not their products. McDonalds cares more for people who buy their burgers. Not the animals that produce it. A few years back, the internet giants made a choice. As their users, the choice now rests in our hands.

Unlike those poor animals, we have a choice. At least for now.

Why privacy is important

Our minds are prone to seeing patterns and establishing norms with very little information.

Daniel Kahneman and his wife were driving from New York to Princeton one Sunday evening, when they spotted a car burning by the side of the road. The next Sunday, they spotted another burning car. Thereafter, that section of the road became “the place where cars catch fire” in their minds. Although a car burning twice in the same road section is extremely rare, our mind assumes that this is the norm and will not be surprised to see it happen the third time.

Additionally, our minds are biased towards negative information.  It takes fewer negative instances for us to establish a “bad” norm than a “good” norm. This tendency has its evolutionary advantages. It kept our ancestors from eating poisonous plants or playing with colonies of wasps. At least the ones who survived to pass on their genes.

However, the same tendency renders us more unforgiving of mistakes. It skews our evaluation of people, given our bias for negative information. We are prone to judging people too harshly for their misdeeds.

Therefore, our mind’s penchant for jumping to negative conclusions makes privacy important. A world without privacy is also one without fairness.

Inspiration: Thinking, fast and slow – Daniel Kahneman

A heap of pistachio shells

While gobbling pistachios one morning, I collected the shells. When I looked at them after a couple of hours, I couldn’t believe how many I had eaten.

Pistachios shells serve as reminders of our indulgence. As we pop the delectable nuts into our mouth, they stimulate our brain. But this stimulation disappears as suddenly as it is caused. Without the heap of shells, I would never have realized how many I had unwittingly popped into my mouth.

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All the food we eat leaves shells behind, just like pistachios do. Some of them leave impressions in our mind. Some others in our bodies. Some people photograph everything they eat. Some others count calories on mobile apps.

This habit isn’t restricted to food. A journal is nothing but a residue of the author’s daily experiences. Each day in our lives comes and goes like the pistachios we pop into our mind. By writing a journal, we collect the shells that help us keep an account of their passage. Through this habit, one realizes how much can actually happen in a single day. Every time we stop to look at the shells we heap up, they surprise us.

Pistachio shells, photographs of the food we eat, and the journals we keep – all of them have something in common. They help us take a step back. And by doing so, they put the lives ahead of us in perspective.

Building roads with a wheelbarrow

Developing a skill is like building a road. The wider the road, the more traffic it can hold. Each one of us builds these roads by making repeated investments using a wheelbarrow – one cartload at a time. By doing this over and over, our road becomes wider and we are able to execute something effortlessly.

When a novice starts off at chess, she has to think of all pieces on the board, one move at a time. She has merely started building her road. Only a trickle can pass through it. With hundreds of hours of practice, she can look at a position and develop an intuitive feeling for it. Thousands of hours in, she can play blindfolded. The road is laid well enough for traffic to ply in the dark. Eventually, she masters the discipline and can play a simultaneous game with several players.

The size of the wheelbarrow we use to construct our roads is our intelligence. With a larger wheelbarrow, one can build a road faster – surely the more intelligent among us have an edge. What matters more though, is whether we are building roads with our wheelbarrows. Road building is hard work. It requires us to make difficult choices everyday.  It much easier to squander our loads of wheelbarrows on frivolity.

What also matters is the choice of roads we build. What do they connect? How well are they planned? For the same length of road, the traffic can flow smoothly in a well planned city, while it can be chaotic, haphazard and noisy in one that is unplanned.

With every skill we build, we are constructing information highways in our brain. It isn’t all about the size of the wheelbarrow. It is about showing up day after day to build the right roads.

Three reflections on gratitude

1. It helps shed baggage and declutter. Marie Kondo is a world expert in organizing homes, a crucial part of which is getting rid of clutter. In order to discard something, she asks us to thank it for how well it served us in the past. She suggests that we actually pick up the item and say the words, “Thank you for serving me well”. Our gratitude gives us the freedom to let things go, without a sense of guilt. This extends to emotional baggage as well – blame, resentment or addictive habits.

2. It helps us learn from other people’s wisdom. When somebody else’s wisdom is shared with us, it becomes our own provided we thank them for it. One is called either a thief or a patron, depending on whether he expresses gratitude. The extent to which we are grateful determines how much wisdom is accessible to us.

3. Thanksgiving is a festival to celebrate gratitude. It is a time when people (mostly in the US) gather with loved ones to be grateful for what they value the most. In this age largely corrupted by commerce, I am grateful for Seth Godin’s Thanksgiving Reader – something that helps us remember and cherish the essence of this festival. Something to show us that it could be done differently.

Putting panic to good use

The ‘Undo Send‘ feature on Gmail is genius.

Once enabled, it keeps an email in our outbox for a few seconds before sending it out. In that time, you can stop it from going out by pushing the ‘Undo Send” button that hovers on your screen. It has spared me the embarrassment of sending out incomplete or incorrect email several times.

At the root of the Undo Send feature, is a deep understanding of human behaviour. Once we hit the send button on any email, we feel a rush of excitement within. The more important the email, the greater this rush is. In that tense moment, our intuition raises a red flag if we have made a mistake or forgotten to say something important. When that happens, the Undo Send button helps us prevent the email from going out.

The key here is the sequence of events. Our intuition perks up in the split second after we hit the send button.

A feature that delays sending an email by a few seconds is the simplest to build. Yet, it has a profound impact on its users, who send out hundreds of emails on a busy day. In essence, it is a placebo. It tricks our brain into thinking that the email has been sent, to trigger a reaction. It employs an unconscious response to a mistake, while empowering the user to correct it.

The most elegant features have the highest impact for the least programming effort. I only wish Microsoft Outlook would adopt this soon, and thereby save thousands of professionals from following up with an apology note.