Half-measures

At some point, the world agreed to ban the development and testing of nuclear weapons. But only partially.

In 1963, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty, that banned the testing of all nuclear weapons everywhere except for testing underground. Since then, 123 other states have become party to the treaty

The reason? Testing nuclear weapons on air, land and in space could easily be monitored by other countries. Underground testing was hard to detect, and therefore, a ban on underground testing would be hard to enforce.

This treaty was expected to slow-down the development and testing of nuclear weapons. However, the testing merely went ‘underground’. From 1963, 1,500 nuclear bombs were detonated – that is roughly one a week, for 30 years. The thinking was if you only tested underground, you better test extensively, so as to not fall behind other nuclear powers.

Detonations
Source: Veritasium

Notice how the number of detonations multiplied after the test ban treaty. By the mid-1980s, 70,000 nuclear warheads had been developed.

It is true that the Partial Test Ban Treaty helped the world by substantially reducing the concentration of radioactive particles in the atmosphere. However, its partial nature also catalysed the proliferation of nuclear war-heads to astronomical levels.

While a half-measure seem like a good compromise, they often leave the back-door open for unintended consequences that can leave us all worse off.

Inspiration: Veritasium

Our infinite capacity

On the days when I work from home, I merely have to unplug my personal laptop, and plug in my work laptop.

Yet, there are days when I have noticed my mind getting frustrated by this microscopic inconvenience. A tiny part of my mind craves for a setup where I wouldn’t even have to lift a finger.

Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Uber: these gynormous corporations are all merchants of convenience. Their size is testament to our mind’s capacity to fight against inconvenience.

Our mind’s capacity for frustration is infinite.

Measure of success

More than 2000 years ago, the stoics recognized how we ought to not be affected by things we don’t control.

Yet, only too often, we measure success based on things that aren’t in our control. An admission to a famous college, working for a dream employer, annual revenue targets, the likes on our social media profiles – we aren’t in control of any of those outcomes. Sure, those things can be goals we strive toward. But our idea of success need to be decoupled from goals that we don’t control. As Seth Godin tells us, if we measure success based on things we don’t control, we are likely to burnout.

We do not control outputs, but we do control the inputs. We do not control outcomes, but we are in control of our practice.

Success is in merely the dedication, the rigour and the consistency with which we show up to our challenges. The Bhagavad Gita, another ancient fount of wisdom, already told us so. 2000 years later, we still struggle to put this into practice.

To give up. To let go

We give up a battle. We let go when there is no battle.

We give up in defeat. We let go in peace.

We give up desire. We let go of attachment.

We give up in abstinence. We let go with equanimity.

We give up in tolerance. We let go with respect.

We give up in inadequacy. We let go in contentment.

We give up what we have. We let go of what we are.

To give up is discipline. To let go is freedom.

To give up is to sacrifice. To let go is to love.

60 cents from a young girl

The Statue of Liberty almost didn’t happen.

When the statue was conceived, it was agreed that the French pay for the statue, and the people of the US pay for the pedestal. However, fundraising in the US proved difficult in the late 1800s and the construction of the pedestal was halted due to lack of funds.

Joseph Pulitzer (of Pulitzer prize fame) then started a donation drive. Pulitzer published New York World, a New York newspaper, and pledged to print the name of every contributor, no matter how small the amount. His notes sparked my imagination along with that of thousands of New Yorkers.

60 cents from “a young girl alone in the world”, the result of self denial.

“Five cents as a poor office boy’s mite toward the Pedestal Fund”.

A group of children sent a dollar from “the money they saved to go to the circus”.

A dollar from a “lonely and very aged woman.”

A kindergarten class in Davenport, Iowa, mailed the World a gift of $1.35.

As you can imagine, the donations poured in and the pedestal’s construction resumed.

We know the Statue of Liberty to a symbol that welcomed immigrants and refugees to the free shores of the US. But given that its origin story, it is also a monument to ordinary people everywhere, who sacrifice on the behalf of something larger than own selves.

Statue of Liberty, New York

Disney doesn’t make art

Art and popularity are at odds with each other.

Popularity rises when something is familiar. Disney movies are popular because they rehash familiar themes. Damsels in distress, a commoner winning a princess’ heart, a hero fighting monsters, monsters turning into heroes and interpretations of fairy tales. Sure, Disney is exceptional. However, it stands for exceptional celebration of the status-quo.

Art is not meant to celebrate the status-quo. It is meant to question the status-quo, tear it down and build something new. Once that new movement is the norm, art moves on to tear down something else. Art is the process of creative destruction. Artistic movements aren’t popular because they make most people feel uncomfortable. Once a movement is popular, it gradually stops becoming art.

Disney movies have never questioned traditional views on race, gender roles or sexual identity until recently, when those questions have turned mainstream. Artists have always raised those uncomforatable questions.

Accomplished artists have a hard time choosing between their art and mainstream popularity because that which is popular is usually not art, and thatwhich is art is usually not popular.

Inevitability

The game of chess is centered around the idea of ‘inevitability’.

In chess, quite early in the game, one player can often have a slight advantage – say an extra pawn. From there onwards, if both players play correctly for the rest of the game, it is inevitable that the person with the extra pawn wins the game. As the game develops, this slight advantage multiplies until it overwhelms the opponent.

The player with the advantage seeks to maintain the status-quo – to play predictable moves and avoid surprises. The player with the disadvantage tries to shake things up. Since they are losing by default, they play moves that are unusual and can surprise their opponent.

This idea also has real-life implications. A startup might be default-alive or default-dead. In the absence of additional  funding, if the startup can survive on its profits, it is default-alive. Else, it is default dead. Startups that are default-alive are fine even if they maintain the status-quo. Startups that are default-dead are forced to shift the status-quo via explosive growth or a pivot.

We can extend this to every idea, habit or routine we have nurtured. Which of our current practices serve us well in the long-run? Those are the ones to sustain. Which ones serve us less? Those are the ones where we need to shake things up.

Loaded questions

‘I haven’t finished the task yet.’ ‘Why are you so slow?’

A loaded question is judgement in the guise of a question.

On the surface, a question appears to indicate curiousity. But a question that implies a judgement judgement often doesn’t move us forward. It shuts down conversation and erects defensive walls.

Judgement and curiousity cannot co-exist, and it is judgement that crowds out curiosity rather than the other way around.

Watch out for loaded questions – both when you pose them as well as receive them.

What if Gutenburg didn’t invent the printing press?

Both Newton and Leibniz invented calculus.

Both Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace discovered the theory of evolution.

Oxygen was discovered simultaneously by Joseph Priestly and Carl Wilhelm Schlee.

Two Frenchmen invented colour photography in the same year.

Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray, both filed a patent for the telephone on the same day – 14 February, 1876.

At least 13 inventors other than Thomas Edison filed a patent for a glowing filament in a bulb of glass.

So if Johannes Gutenberg didn’t invent movable type printing, we would still have books because somebody else would have.

Most inventions are inevitable products of their time – an inventor mainly gets to put their stamp on it first. This isn’t to take anything away from inventors – they were all brilliant people. But the world has never been short of brilliant people.

If we have a good idea, chances are that it isn’t original. We are all better off sharing it with the world and finding the others rather than keeping it a secret.

Can ChatGPT write this blog?

‘Write me a blogpost about how AI can be used to generate blogposts.’

ChatGPT is all the rave in the last couple of months. If you gave ChatGPT this prompt, odds are that you will end up with a good blogpost.

But what makes a blogpost ‘good’? What is it for? Is it to filling space on a website? Is it for driving traffic? Is it to say something interesting? Or is it to inspire a change?

When I write a blogpost, I wrestle with an idea and examine it critically. The idea changes in my mind as I explore it. But more importantly, my own mind changes. Every post I write rewires my mind a little. And through this process, I also hope to change the reader’s mind.

I could end up with an AI generated post that is more interesting and more engaging than my own post. But doing so doesn’t change my mind very much. It is the practice of writing one on my own that brings about change. In fact, that is the very point of this blog. Regardless of how good AI becomes, it will change little in how I show up to my blog.

If the work we do is to fill space or drive traffic, chances are that AI will disrupt it. Yet, it is unlikely to disrupt the work we do to change the culture.

The opposite is also true

We all have great ideas sometimes.

People with a scarcity mindset believe good ideas are rare, and they need to be hoarded. When one such person has a fantastic idea, they will protect it and keep it a secret. But since their idea isn’t exposed to the world outside, they receive no feedback. No community builds around it, and this idea doesn’t multiply or gain traction since it isn’t shared. This only confirms their belief that great ideas are rare.

People with an abundance mindset believe that good ideas are aplenty, and they need to be shared. Such a person will share good idea with the world. The world responds either by ignoring it, or by grooving with it, sharing it and improving it. A community builds around this idea. It merges with other ideas to give birth to new ones. It is only a matter of time before the same person has another great idea.

It is true that great ideas are rare. It is also true that they are abundant. You get to choose.

Why is the Mona Lisa famous?

The Mona Lisa is the world’s most famous painting. Wikipedia calls it ‘the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about and the most parodied work of art in the world’. Several people flock to Paris just to see it, but are underwhelmed when they look at the picture.

Why are they underwhelmed?

Because the Mona Lisa is merely another just another painting, like the thousand others in art galleries around the world. Hardly anybody knew about this rather unremarkable work of Leonardo da Vinci the until 1914, when it became world-famous almost overnight.

Why did this happen? People have various theories as to why it captures our attention – its mysterious smile, its composition, subtlety and the genius of its creator. However, the real reason is because it was the victim of theft.

See adjacent text.

In 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre by Vincenzo Peruggia, a Louvre employee, who whisked it away inside his overcoat. But Peruggia wasn’t just another thief – he was an Italian patriot, who wanted the painting returned to his country. He kept the painting for 2 years until it was discovered and returned to the Louvre. Peruggia serve a short prison sentence, but was hailed as a model patriot in an era of patriotic fever.

More importantly, the painting’s recovery and the story of its theft was reported world-wide in newspapers, at a time when international news was not common. Millions of people around the world learnt about this painting, making it one of the best recognized works of art. It was this recognition that allowed the painting to be parodied and eventually made it the world’s most famous painting.

“The Mona Lisa has returned”

So the world’s most famous painting isn’t a remarkable painting – it merely has a remarkable story that most people who flock to visit it are unaware of. They are underwhelmed because they look at the painting rather than its story, and leave disappointed.

We often confuse fame with excellence or goodness, but the reasons for fame are often orthogonal to those qualities. That is why the pursuit of fame, like the pursuit of Mona Lisa, often leaves people feeling disappointed when they get there.

Gather information, ignore data

Thanks to fitness trackers, we are all flooded with a large amount of data.

We can all know our resting heart-rate, real-time heart rate or the amount of time we spent last night in REM sleep, deep sleep, light sleep, or laying awake in bed. We also have a count of how many steps we took, and how many minutes we spent at an elevated heart-rate each day.

Despite having all this data, only a minority acts upon it. Only a fraction of people set fitness targets, track them and use them to get in better shape. For the rest of us, that data is harmless at best. Data we cannot / do not act upon can turn into a source of stress – more so if those metrics fluctuate.

More data isn’t always a good thing. Data that we act upon is information. Data that acts upon us, but we do not act upon is a liability.

‘Why won’t you simply listen?’

When a friend once opened up about his problems, I immediately jumped to give him solutions. At some point, he stopped me and told me that he didn’t want my solutions – he merely wanted me to listen.

When somebody opens up with their problems, our impulse is to give them solutions. While we might think of this act as generous, it is often selfish.

Listening to somebody’s problems is painful. When somebody talks about their problem, they fill the conversation with tension and discomfort. To resolve this tension, we often jump in with a remedy. While we think we are doing this to help, we often do this to alleviate our own discomfort.

Avoiding the tension related to a problem will result in premature solutions. It is only by engaging with tension and dancing with discomfort do we find effective solutions. Therefore, it is generous to listen to somebody’s problem, engage with their discomfort and help somebody get to the other side.

When data does harm

It is good advise to not check stock prices frequently.

Sure, the stock price affects our portfolio. But given that we have no control over fluctuations in the stock, a minute-by-minute update of the stock price isn’t helpful merely stresses us out. Most national and international headlines also fall into this category.

The local weather report is helpful – we can decide what to wear when we step outside. The national weather report isn’t. Local news is helpful – we can organize, petition and make a chance. National news isn’t. Sleep data from a fitness tracker is of no use to a shift worker who is unable to change their sleep habits. Instead, it can turn into another source of stress.

Information is data that we have the power to can act upon. Everything else is either entertainment or a source of harm.

Could you repeat that

When a presentation is delivered to a large group, important information can get lost.

The information often needs to be reworded and repeated for the group to understand it. This could be resolved by any one of them asking the presenter to repeat their point. However, given that the group is large, it is awkward to admit one’s ignorance. The bigger the group, the larger is the probability of information getting lost. But the bigger the group, the more hesitant people are to ask a ‘stupid’ question.

It take courage and generosity to interrupt a presentation. If we haven’t understood something, we are often not alone, and we are doing everybody else a service.

Just play the game

You can try and teach everybody to play a new game by having them read the rulebook. But that doesn’t help much. Even with the simplest of games, it is hard to take in all the rules at once. When we listen to the fifth rule, odds are that we have forgotten the first one and have to start over.

Instead, it is more effective to have people play the game and learn the rules as we go along. Once we start playing, the rules appear one at a time and in the right context. This makes it far easier to understand them all.

The most effective way to learn the rules is to merely start. It is daunting to start without knowing all the rules, but it is often the easiest way forward.

The need of the hour

One striking scene from the excellent novel, Shantaram, involves the Western protagonist riding in the unreserved compartment of an Indian train.

As soon as the train’s doors open, he observes how the vast throng of people rush to grab the limited seats for the long journey ahead. In this chaos, he observes how people launch themselves through windows, step on each other, shove around, punch, kick and do whatever it takes to acheive their objective. Disgusted at this scene, he wonders why these people cannot behave themselves.

After the train starts moving and the crowd has settled down, a fellow passenger’s foot accidentally makes contact with his body. As soon as this happened the passenger touched the Westerner’s knee and then his own chest with his right hand – an Indian gesture of apology. He also observed how all the passengers were respectful with each other, engaging in warm conversation and sharing their food.

The protagonist couldn’t reconcile these two scenes – just an hour earlier, the very people who had shoved, kicked and scartched each other were now the paragons of humility and politeness. He thought of their behaviour as being inconsistent.

However, after staying longer in the country, he is struck by an insight that resolves this paradox. In both situations, people were responding to the need of the hour. When the seats were scarce, the need of the hour was to secure them, even if violence was necessary. Once everybody had settled down, the need of the hour was to have a pleasant journey with one’s fellow travellers. By this measure, the people’s behaviour was entirely consistent.

We often think of decorum, manners, morals and norms as being universal, thereby jumping to judgement that is divorced from context. When people behave a certain way, it represents merely the tip of the iceberg that is their context. If we wish to understand their behaviour, we need to understand their context. If we wish to change their behaviour, we need to change their context.

Inspiration: Shantaram

4 heads are better than 1

Say you need to make an important presentation on Friday. You can go about this task in two ways. You can block off 4 hours on Thursday and work on the presentation in one burst, close to the deadline. Or you can block of one hour each from Monday to Thursday and work on the presentation in four sittings.

Here’s a related question – have you ever stepped away from a problem only to return to it with new insight? How does that happen? How does a break help us return to a problem with a fresh perspective?

When we return to a presentation on 4 different days, we are actually 4 different persons. How we feel on a Monday morning is quite different from how we feel on a Wednesday evening. By spreading this task across several days, we are recruiting a team of 4 slightly different people to bring their insights to the presentation, without any communication and coordination overhead.

4 heads are better than 1.