The cost of getting a nose ahead

There are times when finishing first pays rich dividends. The #1 best seller in any category often sells twice as much as the #2 does.

At other times, it does not. That person who switches lanes on a crowded highway, honks away to glory and goes 20 km/hr above the speed limit endangers everybody else on the road to get merely a 100 m ahead. All of that would only get neutralized the moment they are stuck behind a large truck or caught behind the next red light.

We often pay a cost to finish ahead – by going faster, pushing harder and sometimes being unpleasant to the people around us. It helps to exercise discretion here and ask ourselves the question – is getting a nose ahead here really worth all the effort? If it is, we should double down. If it isn’t, why not take it easy and redouble our efforts elsewhere?

The shore and the horizon

While kayaking along a coastline, one often orients one’s self using a point along a coast on the horizon – a distinctive tree, a telephone tower or a rounded curve. Paddling on the sea without the right orientation can be very inefficient. Orienting ourselves towards a goal can help us paddle in as straight a line as possible, optimizing our route instead of curving and zigzagging around.

But the horizon is often several kilometers away, and kayaking in the sea can be a slow affair – much slower than walking on land. Even after an hour of paddling, especially against a steady wind, the horizon can seem just as far away as it was when started. This can be demoralizing. To reassure ourselves, we could look at the shoreline close to us and ensure that we are moving. Hence, with each paddle stroke, we make some progress against the shore, while orienting ourselves towards a goal on the horizon.

It helps to have a vision to paddle and orient ourselves towards. Whenever a new opportunity comes up, we can measure it against that vision and check if it is relevant. Having a vision saves us a lot of time and agony by avoiding waste.

And yet, a long-term vision on its own can seem daunting. Let us say your vision is to get an entire city to start segregating their waste. Even after years of hard work, it may still be far from realized. What we also need are the small wins to celebrate the progress we make everyday. It is the small victories – the drops that we add everyday that compound into an ambitious vision in the long run.

A good plan has a vision on the horizon to orient towards and a shore to ensure progress with every paddle stroke.

The shore and the horizon

The insatiable fire

A hungry person who eats a large meal is no longer hungry. A hungry fire that is fed well only grows hungrier. Adding a few logs to a campfire makes it blaze higher and brighter. But it also burns through the wood at a faster rate.

Our “busyness” – the rate at which we keep ourselves occupied – the number of daily meetings and how we rush towards the next deadline also ratchets up in a similar manner. Not to mention, the number of cups of coffee we drink everyday. It is quite fitting that when our commitments spiral out of control, we end up feeling “burnt-out”.

To keep a fire going for longer we need to moderate the rate at which we feed it. A blazing inferno burns higher and brighter. A steady fire burns longer.

How old is your problem?

And the times, they are a changing. At a rate of a century every 20 years. Ray Kurzweil estimates that the amount of progress the world has seen in the entire 20th century will be matched in a mere 20 years – between 2000 and 2020. This rate of change leaves a trail of redundant subjects and textbooks in its wake. The syllabus for almost every subject today turns redundant just a few years. Canned food seems to have higher shelf life than textbooks in electronics or Information Technology.

The exceptions here are curious. The Bhagavad Gita, the letters of Seneca, Buddhist teachings and several other ancient philosophical works remain relevant today. They will continue to be relevant hundreds of years from now. As quickly as human knowledge expands, human wisdom seems to remains constant.

Those ancient texts address some of our oldest problems – of providing meaning to our existence, of leading a happy life, of finding a life-partner, on raising children well and so on. Of course, those problems are just as relevant today.

New problems need new solutions. An internet search algorithm that is twenty years old is useless. But our oldest problems have solutions that are just as old. To know where to look, just ask yourself how old your problem is.

The intellectual humility of science

With science, what is true today is often proved wrong tomorrow. More so in the scientific study of the human body.

When malaria wasn’t sufficiently understood, it was thought to have been spread by bad air (hence the name mal-air-ia). Today, we have proven that thought to be wrong. In the 1950s, it was believed that lobotomy – severing the frontal lobe from the rest of the brain was an acceptable treatment for mental health patients. Today, we know that curing mental illness isn’t as simple as discarding the most evolved part of the brain. In the last 50 years, we have believed fat to be the enemy and the primary cause of heart disease, obesity and other health issues. Today, we know that sugar is the silent culprit, and we are changing our habits accordingly. In the scientific world of health and medicine, things are always in flux and knowledge is being constantly upgraded.

This can lead us to discredit science in these fields. It can lead us to vilify entire fields of systematic medicine and nutrition studies and instead, resort to alternative therapies. It can give rise to romantic feelings about how our ancestors had all this figured out, and revert to traditional cures. But is doubt – the bedrock of all of science, fundamentally a bad thing?

When we are in doubt, there is potential for learning something new. Whenever we make a discovery, we find out something new. At the same time, we destroy an old belief we held in its place or fill up a vacuum of ignorance that we faced up until that point. When we discovered that the anopheles mosquito spreads Malaria, we had to discard our old belief that Malaria was an air born diseases. The success of science is tightly intertwined with the room for being proven wrong. It is by destroying the old, that we can rebuild something newer and better.

It is hard to study the human body. We know a lot more about faraway galaxies and sub-atomic particles than our digestive system. This is not only because of the complex miracles that our bodies are, but also because it is difficult to carry out controlled experiments on human beings that lead different lives the moment they step outside laboratories.

However, discrediting science as a result, is to throw the baby out with the bath water. The prerequisite for carrying out scientific study is to provide disprovable hypotheses. And that is a good thing – possibly the best thing about science.

Science is centered around intellectual humility. To be learned is to know and acknowledge how little one actually knows.

Delving into the essence

Great art transcends boundaries of space, time and context.

Heidi, a novel written in 1881 by the Swiss author Johanna Spyri, was retold as a Japanese anime production that became popular all over the world. The story of the flight of the von Trapp family from the Nazis was retold by Hollywood in the world famous musical – The Sound of Music.

Both these works transcended their respective contexts by connecting with us at a deeper level – one that is universal.

Heidi isn’t just a story of a little girl falling in love with the mountains. It shows us how adults everywhere, both in Frankfurt and in the Swiss alps, have much to learn from precocious little children. The Sound of Music isn’t just a story of a family’s escape from the Nazis. It tells us about the transformative power of music to heal adults and children alike.

If only we make a habit of digging through the surface and delving into its essence, great art everywhere inspires us to become the best versions of ourselves.

Where the mind is headed

Where are you headed?

If you were asked that question when you’re driving to a destination, you have an easy answer. Say you’re driving to a theater to watch a play, which is west of where you live. You have a route in mind and you follow this route faithfully. It may have narrow roads and you may encounter traffic. But you know that it is still the easiest way to get to the theater. Just because there is a broad and empty highway heading south from where you live, you do not take it. When it comes to driving somewhere, we are all purposeful individuals.

And yet, if I were to ask your mind where you were headed right now, what would its response be? Our minds are wanderers. They do not have a pre-defined route and when we give them a route, they do their best not to stick to it. When the going gets tough, our minds simply turn away from discomfort. When we ask our minds to head west and they encounter a traffic jam, they turn south into the fast and easy highway and lose themselves in several hours of blissful procrastination. While we are purposeful when we drive somewhere, our minds that drive us are anything but purposeful.

To be mindful is to simply observe the mind as it takes its twists and turns. It is to set a wild stallion free on a meadow and observe where it goes. It is to see which turns the mind takes and to ask why it does so. This way, we aren’t trying to control our mind, but to merely understand it. To control it would be like taming a wild animal – either we do not succeed, or if we do, we reduce a magnificent being to a shadow of its former self.

To meditate is to ask ourselves where we are headed, with a sense of curiosity and openness.

Where are you headed?

Everyone is a critic

With activities people perceive to be easy, they rate themselves as being above average. 90% of motorists consider themselves above average drivers. 94% of college professors consider themselves to be better than average teachers.

With some fields, everyone is a critic because they seem easier to us than they actually are. Examples here include writing, stand-up comedy or sports commentary. In all these fields, a mistake seems obvious. A poor joke on stage makes us feel like we could have done better. A cliche used by the commentator simply stands out. We all write regularly, have cracked a good joke at some point or used made clinical observations about a game of football. All these acts give us an illusion about how easy those activities are.

And yet, when we try our hand at doing any one of them without sufficient practice, our illusions come collapsing down. All those things are much harder than we perceive them to be.

The key to mastery in any field is deliberate practice. This is to practice a skill at the outer edge of our current abilities, so that it feels uncomfortable. When we breeze through an activity, we aren’t in the zone of deliberate practice. More importantly, we aren’t really upgrading our current capabilities. Despite hours of practice with talking to other people, when we make a speech in public, our stomachs tie up into knots.

Practice doesn’t make perfect, deliberate practice does. The reason we aren’t as good as we are with things we perceive to be “easy” is because our practice in those domains hasn’t been deliberate. This implies a couple of things. The first is to lean into discomfort when we are learning a new skill rather than away from it. The second is to be more generous to the professionals practicing deliberately on stage, rather than pepper them with our enlightened remarks.

Source for statistics: Stumbling on Happiness – Dan Gilbert

The second time around

The first time I walk somewhere, I am too intent on arriving.
The second time around, I notice the trees and the birds.

The first time I watch a movie, I am too intent on following the plot.
The second time around, I grasp the director’s genius.

The first time I read a book, I am too intent on finishing it.
The second time around, I read between its lines.

The first time I meet somebody, I am too conscious of myself.
The second time around, I can listen to them.

The first time I do something, I go farther. I go wider.
The second time around, I go deeper.

The illusion of willpower

Why is willpower so hard? After a heavy night of drinking, why do several people resolve they would never drink again, only to end up shitfaced in the next party? Why is it difficult to eat healthy and exercise regularly, despite knowing their benefits so well?

Part of the reason here is a devious trick that our minds play. Our minds trick us into believing that we feel right now about certain things is the way we would always feel about them. Thereby, our minds extrapolate how we feel in the present moment well into the future.

Our mind’s tendency to play the repentant saint causes us to declare each time we overeat that we would never repeat that folly. But sure enough, when the next wedding feast arrives, we find ourselves carrying a pot of lead in our belly as we waddle out of the venue. In the instant where we resolve to give up on eating sugar, or to meditate for a few minutes every day, our brains feel optimistic. But 12 hours later, after a stressful evening at work, the same brains scream out for a cup of coffee and chocolate cake rather than to observe the subtle sensations of every breath we take in.

How we feel about something right now is often not how we would feel about it forever. But the whole premise of willpower is based on this faulty assumption.

Therefore, the best way to effect behaviour change is to make the intended behaviour easier and the unintended behaviour harder – through adjusting our environment and instituting systems. It is to leave chocolate cakes in supermarkets or bakeries, so that we would have to walk for 15 minutes to earn them when the craving strikes, while leaving nuts and fruits around for snacking between meals. It is also having a system of having one “cheat day” for desserts per week.

Willpower is overrated because our mind’s inherent naivete. Every time we feel like changing our behaviour, we could harness that burst of inspiration to change our environment or create a suitable system.

Inspiration: Stumbling on Happiness – Dan Gilbert

Language learning and jigsaw puzzles

The first feeling I get when flight announcements happen in French, is that French people speak so fast. The same goes for Spanish or languages I do not know well.

In my early days in Germany, this was just as true of German. But as I learnt the language, I noticed how German people spoke slower. At least, they became slower relative to their French and Spanish counterparts. Of course, it is absurd to think that an entire nation would start speaking slower just as you begin to learn their language. Becoming proficient in a language seems to slow it down to our ears, because our brain can process it faster. As we learn a language, our brain forms “chunks” – neural pathways to process its words, sounds and accents.

Learning a language is like solving a jigsaw puzzle. When we are new to a language, we may catch certain words being spoken. In effect, we are picking isolated pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. We still struggle to construct the big picture. But with practice, our neural networks grow stronger and more of the puzzle becomes visible to us. It is much harder to locate a missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle which is nearly full as opposed to one that is nearly empty. Our language proficiency at any given time is the fullness of the puzzle into which we fit the missing pieces.

With learning languages, as with anything new, there is a feeling discomfort when things get hard. Our brains ache with the effort, but along with this pain, it creates new connections. But as it does so, it is filling in the missing pieces of the puzzle in our head. When you have learnt a language, the puzzle would turn indistinguishable from the picture that was used to make it.

To learn fast is to embrace the discomfort that is integral to the learning process. With each additional piece, the jigsaw puzzle becomes easier to solve.


Why first impressions are a big deal

First impressions carry the burden of two psychological biases.

The first one is what Daniel Kahneman calls “What You See Is All There Is“. In a famous study, Amos Tversky and Kahneman told participants about Julie, a girl who is precocious and learns to read fluently by the age of four. The volunteers of his experiment used just that piece information to estimate Julie’s graduation GPA at a US state university at 3.7 or 3.8. Now a graduation GPA depends on a host of factors, including the mean value of all graduation GPAs and several of Julie’s life events that have not transpired yet. And yet, when we request our brain for a number, it readily supplies one. It does so by treating the only piece of information we have about Julie as everything there is to her.

You can see how this can easily apply to first impressions. When we have just met somebody, that limited window is everything we have to construct their image. And our brain does that without the slightest hesitation.

The second bias is that of anchoring. Two sets of volunteers were asked to guess the number of African nations are in the United Nations. One of them were asked to guess how much larger or smaller the number was than 10. The other set was asked how many more or less than 60 nations were members.  While the first group guessed about 25 nations on average, the second one, which was primed with 60 nations, guessed about 45. Both groups were anchored to an initial estimate that was supplied to them.

Our brain is an anchoring machine. From the anchored value, every change is an upward or a downward increment depending on subsequent interactions.

Our minds are wired to hold onto first impressions. Moreover, we are driven to believe that this is all there is to that person. These tendencies of our mind disproportionately weight a customer’s first interaction with our brand or our interview performances.

Inspiration: Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

Distorted by the present

Enlightened minds often talk about living in the present moment.

However, one persistent feature of our mind is for our present to colour our view of our past and our future. Dan Gilbert in Stumbling in Happiness, talks about how what we feel in the present moment distorts our perspective of both the past the future. When middle aged people are asked about their political views, their thoughts about pre-marital sex and how much liquor they drank when they were in college, their answers are influenced by how they feel, think and drink now. Future scenarios predicted by futurists across decades are striking in how much they resemble the predictor’s present in each era.

One more distinguishing feature of our present experience is the powerful illusion that plays us straight into the hands of the instant gratification monkey. A blueberry tart feels good now as it bathes our mouths with its sugary flavour, and our brains with hormones. Exercise as it happens, is painful. Our muscles stiffen up in protest for being withdrawn without notice from a warm and toasty bed into the cold and frigid morning.

How each of those experiences feel in the moment do not reflect how they would make us feel for the rest of the day. The tart’s sugar rush is bound to wear off, leaving us feel depleted (and therefore drawing us to more junk food). Exercise boosts our mood and keeps us more energetic throughout the day. Yet, in the present moment, we are blind to those consequences. Instead, we make a linear extrapolation of how a tart would continue to feel good and exercise would continue to make us feel horrible, even when the opposite is true.

Living in the present moment is to not just prevent the past and the future steal the fleeting joy of the present. It is also to prevent the present from spilling into our past or the future.

The downward spiral

Does one small mistake attract other ones like a magnet?

In chess, especially at the higher levels, the objective is to create a small weakness in your opponent’s position, and over time, multiplying that weakness to your advantage. What begins as being one pawn ahead of your opponent can often end up winning you the game.

Often though, it only takes a small mistake for a player to lose an advantage she has nurtured for several moves. One careless and hasty move can wipe out a long-held strategic advantage, especially against strong players. What separates the amateurs from the pros is how they respond to this loss.

Losing something we already have is more painful than gaining something we did not have. This can cause us to behave in irrational ways.

When we lose something or somebody, our first response is usually disbelief – that it simply can’t be. On losing an advantage on the chess board, players often refuse to accept it and continue playing as though they still have the edge. But that is merely an illusion. One mistake leads to several others, and they soon enter a downward spiral simply because of not conceding a small loss. From having a small advantage and seeing it taken away, they slide down a slippery slope until it is too late and the game is all but lost.

We this happen in other games as well. Every football fan can remember when their team was ahead 2-0, only to see the score at 2-2 due to a couple of defensive errors or just dumb luck. Now if the team continues to use the same tactics as they employed when they were 2-0 up, they risk losing the game altogether. As those fans can tell you, this happens only too often. They can also tell you how seeing one’s team lose a winning game feels like being hollowed out from the inside.

Loses are painful. This leads us to deny them for to deny a loss gives us temporary relief. However, recognizing a mistake when it happens is crucial to ensure that it does not balloon into a crisis.

Between the unexpected and the unreasonable

Quite often, the world doles out a future that we didn’t ask for. And it isn’t anybody’s fault either.

There is a large gap between things that are unexpected and demands that are unreasonable. Such as a manager falling sick on the most crucial week of the project. Or a regular guest at a hotel asking for all her bills from the previous year to be mailed to her on a busy day. Or a person with a coriander allergy walking into an Indian restaurant.

The easiest way to cure an illness is to rest completely for a couple of days, as opposed to ignoring it and have it drag on for two weeks. The best antidote to a stressful and frenzied week at work is a weekend of relaxation. As people, we need the slack to handle the unexpected, and our systems must factor in this buffer, as a counter-measure to the (artificial) urgency that is constantly driving our lives.

Yet, it is easy to forget this rather obvious lesson. When Elon Musk demands that working for 80 hours a week is crucial to changing the world, the sub-text is that he wants to change the world right now.

The people who make enduring change are the ones who play the long game. One of the unwritten rules of playing a long game is to trade some urgency for slack and buffer, so that we can rest today and return to work tomorrow, refreshed and stronger than ever.

The easy vs. the important

The hardest thing about getting through a prioritized list is to stick to the order of priority.

Because whatever is highest priority isn’t always easy. It isn’t always a “quick-win”, a “low-hanging fruit” or whatever jargon we choose to call it. And when we sit down to do the difficult work, the universe seems to conspire against us.

That is why when we sit down to write that important report, we clean our desk. That is why instead of studying for an important test, we day-dream about curing world hunger. That is why we pick off the easy items in our to-do list, while never getting to the important tasks. That is why we procrastinate.

And procrastination isn’t as much a conspiracy of the universe, as it is of our own minds. When we encounter a difficult task, we activate the insular cortex – a part of the brain that experiences pain. Our brain mistakes doing difficult work with being physically attacked. Therefore, our response is to shift our attention to something easier – like a quick item on our to-do list or a sugary snack. This confusion, this bug in our cerebral programming is the conspiracy. When we do get to the work itself, we realize that it wasn’t as hard or unpleasant as we thought it to be. Starting is the difficult part.

The easiest way to get around this is to trick our brain. When we do not feel like running on a cold morning, we could promise the brain that we could turn back after 200m. Another excellent trick is to use the Pomodoro technique, for every 8 hour report can start with 25 minutes of focused attention. All of these are methods to trick our brains to merely start. Once we start, it is easier to keep things rolling.

What is easy isn’t always important, and what is important isn’t always easy.

Why happiness is elusive

Because happiness is hard to define. But let us take a minute to look at some definitions.

When I define a tree, I can associate certain characteristics with it, such as
– having a woody structure
– typically having a single trunk
– growing to a considerable height
– bearing lateral branches
– having leaves, at least during some seasons
– having a lifespan of several years

When I go to a new place and find something that looks like a tree, I can run through this checklist and confirm if it is actually a tree.

But some other things that we take for granted elude definition. Such as the colour blue. When I look up the definition, I get:

Blue (adj) – of a colour intermediate between green and violet, as of the sky or sea on a sunny day.”

I am only able to define blue by pointing to whatever is blue, or as a combination of two other colours. I can confirm if a jacket is blue if it looks like the sea or the sky. It is much harder to write down an definition for blue that points towards its innate properties. Moreover, what I perceive as blue is entirely subjective, and can be a different shade from what another person, perhaps one who is colour blind, sees.

Now onto happiness and its dictionary definition:

Happiness (n) – “the state of being happy”, where happy is defined as “feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.” This is followed by several synonyms such as “contented, content, cheerful, cheery, merry, joyful, jovial, jolly, joking, jocular, gleeful, carefree, untroubled, delighted, smiling..” all of which we can associate with happiness, but cannot substitute it with. Defining happiness is more like defining the colour blue than a tree. We can only define it by pointing to whatever makes us happy, or the palette of emotions we feel when we feel happy. It is only experienced in our subjective reality.

Every human being pursues happiness – something we are unable to define. Each one of us points to different sources of happiness, a feeling that is subjective. Is there any wonder, then, that we are all so confused about how to be happy?

Source: Stumbling on Happiness – Dan Gilbert

Why words matter so much

Read the following words:
– A creamy chocolate cake
– A yellow raincoat
– A bright red telephone booth

It is fascinating how words can simulate entire objects in our mind’s eye. The more specific the descriptions, the more vivid our imagination. It appears that our minds cannot distinguish between the words for objects and the objects themselves.

Telling somebody a word, then, has the same power of showing them an object. Good authors write books without using pictures. The words used by these storytellers are just as powerful. Stephen King argues that words are even more powerful than pictures, because they can make the reader a co-creator in your storytelling by leaving the imagination to them.

Words are incredibly powerful. If I could put plant a picture of a yellow raincoat in your head, I could do the same with ideas or emotions. They are the direct manifestations of the ideas that float around in our unconscious mind, that can manifest either as the optimism of abundance or the cynicism of scarcity.

“All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down.” -Friedrich Nietzsche

We live on the tip of the words we speak. Both to other people, as well as to ourselves. If we wish to to see the world a different way, changing our vocabulary would a good start.

Bonsai systems

I cannot fathom gigantic trees such as the peepul, the banyan and pine growing in tiny pots.

And yet, that is exactly how they are cultivated as bonsai trees. These trees can grow to mighty heights and can shelter entire ecosystems. But their bonsai equivalents have to be tended to with utmost and taken indoors if the weather isn’t just right. A bonsai tree is a one that is endlessly pruned and stunted, to ensure that a mighty tree remains a sapling throughout its life.

Every human being strives for growth and recognition. As employers, we ought to recognize initiative and promise amongst our workforce and give them opportunities to grow. However, there are so many jobs when such initiative is snubbed. They treat people like cogs in an industry, because that way, they are easier to manage, and easier to replace when they are gone.

And there are symptoms of such jobs – employees escalating the smallest of decisions to their managers. Or people working slowly enough to match the fairness with which their jobs treat them. The undertone here is – “this special case, is not part of my job description. I am not paid enough to handle it.”  Or “to do just enough”, because any bit of over-achievement would go unnoticed, if it isn’t snubbed.

When this happens, the owners of these systems reach an easy conclusion – that people are inherently lazy, that good people are hard to find and that their workforce is mostly a bunch of thankless people. But the underlying truth here is that people are products of their environment. A broken workforce is a consequence of a broken system.

A company  that recognize initiative and merit, will produce a spirited workforce. Whereas one that treats its employees as bonsai trees will ensure that both the employees and the company itself would remain shadows of what they can truly become.