Humour and status

When we laugh at somebody, the joke works because we lower somebody’s status. When we laugh with somebody, more often than not, we elevate their status.

Whether you are elevating or lowering somebody’s status comes down to permission. When we laugh at the unfortunate butt of the joke in our friends circle, we don’t have their permission. However, when somebody is a good sport or a professional comedian, our laughter elevates their status. Most of us have laughed at Mister Bean, and thereby turned Rowan Atkinson into a respected professional.

Before we crack a joke, it helps to ask if we have its target’s explicit or implicit permission. If you find yourself at a joke’s receiving end, you can have your status elevated by granting people your permission.

Can you imagine?

Can you imagine a school where teachers don’t lecture at a class? Instead, students learn on their own with teachers as their guide? Where there is no ranking, comparison among peers or academic pressure of any sort? Where learning is self-directed and school hours are filled with joyful discovery? Yes, schools like that exist.

Can you imagine a company that is managed without managers? Where employees set their own working hours, salaries and bonuses? And no, I am not talking about a tech startup, but a full-scale manufacturing company, replete with factories and assembly lines. Yes, companies like that exist.

Can you imagine a cop deciding to hand out tickets for good behaviour rather than for crimes? Where teenagers receive appreciation for tossing garbage into the trash can, helping elderly people cross the road or shaping up to be responsible adults? Yes, an officer tried that with great results.

To imagine a different school, workplace or police department, you need to challenge the underlying assumptions that we have about people – about students capable of directing their own learning, employees capable of self-management and teenagers capable of responsible behaviour.

Can you imagine a better world by challenging some of your deeply held beliefs?

Structure fosters creativity

Learning to draw a complex shape, like that of an elephant, can be hard.

Each part of the majestic creature needs to be in proportion with the whole. An inexperienced hand is quick to forget this and turns the sketch inadvertently into a caricature.

To prevent this from happening, budding artists use a grid to draw images. With training, they don’t need a grid anymore – they have one etched into their unconscious minds.

When used appropriately, structure can be creativity’s closest ally.


Stories in the sky

On a clear moonless night, when you look up at the stars, do the innumerable dots in the sky take up definite shapes and forms?

When I look at the signs in the zodiac, I am always baffled by how those stick figures are made out to be a muscular bull or a ferocious lion.

Cancer – Takes quite the imaginative leap to picture a crab there (source)

In fact, if we presented all the stars in the zodiac sign ‘Scorpio’ to three people without the scorpion drawn around it, I am sure that we would end up with three alternative shapes that don’t involve a menacing creature with a stinger. Every zodiac sign is entirely arbitrary – the work of some Babylonian minds in the first millennium BC, which continues to see widespread adoption even today.

But it doesn’t end with those figures. We humans have also drawn up an elaborate field of study on their influence on our lives. Many a professional have made full-time careers in the 21st century on foretelling people’s future and guiding their lives based on the imaginative extrapolations of some ancient Babylonian minds.

The zodiac’s continued prominence emphasizes how stories matter to us more than the truth behind them. The human mind is captivated by the story of the Mahabharata, the Iliad or the life of Jesus Christ – not whether those are inherently true. Similarly, people are interested in the story of your brand, your restaurant or your fashion label rather than merely the underlying facts.

That the zodiac came to represent a menagerie of creatures and shapes is testimony to the human mind’s ability to tell fascinating stories. That they continue to endure into the 21st century is testimony to their timeless allure.

The golden deer

During their 14 year exile, Rama, his wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana lived in a hermitage in the forest of Dandakaranya.

One day, they spot a golden deer with silver spots. The deer passes close to them, gamboling to catch their attention. The moment she lays her eyes on the exotic creature, Sita is captivated. She implores Rama to capture the deer, dead or alive, for her keeping.

Rama entrusts Sita to Lakshmana’s safety and sets off after the deer. A long chase ensues, where the deer leads Rama deep into the forest and away from his hermitage. Finally, the deer tires and stops in a shady grassland, where Rama shoots it down with an arrow. However, no sooner than the arrow strikes the deer does the handsome creature transform into the hideous demon Maricha.

The story of the golden deer in the Ramayana alludes to a tendency of our minds to spot something golden and shiny in the horizon. We then pursue it with all our might and acquire it, only to realize that it wasn’t quite what we had expected it to be. What is more? Just as soon as we come to terms with this disappointment, another golden deer appears in the horizon.

Whenever you catch your mind saying, ‘If I have _______, I will be happy’, watch out. It might just be a golden deer.

Can I play this game longer?

To evaluate a particular habit, think about its sustainability.

Some people habitually max out their credit card. Needless to say, one can’t play that game for very long.

Burgling convenience stores is a great source of adrenalin. So is cycling through the countryside. Which of those acts will lend itself to continuity?

Working 16 hour days under a boss you don’t like might fetch you a higher salary today. Contrast that to an 8 hour workday with somebody you love working with. Which situation can you sustain longer?

When dating somebody, does every passing hour you spend with them make you want to spend more time with them? Would your partner say the same thing about you?

Does your investment strategy have a portfolio that enables you to invest tomorrow as well? Or does it entail a chance, however small, that you blow up?

The good choices in life are the ones that keep you in the game. The best ones enable you to play better the next day.

Extending intelligence

Obtaining an appointment at a municipal office here in Berlin can be a distant dream. You have to check their website regularly for open slots. No sooner than these slots appear do people snap them up like a shoal of piranhas.

Since I did not enjoy visiting the website every 15 minutes or so, I wrote a computer script to do that and email me whenever it found an empty slot. That script performed the repetitive task so that my intellect was freed up to do something else.

Since the earliest of time, we humans have realized the limitations of our working memory and figured several ways to store away bits of our intelligence to play it back on command. From scribing hymns on clay tablets to writing machine learning algorithms, we have come a long way.

Extending our working memory can happen in various ways

  • To-do lists
  • Checklists
  • Reminders
  • Habits and routines
  • Outsourcing a task
  • Computer scripts

Our intelligence and memory may be limited. But there are limitless imaginative ways in which we can make up for this deficit.

Limits to perfection

If I asked you to stand in front of a tree, gave you some pencil and paper and asked you to produce the best possible drawing of that tree, how long would it take you?

While performing studies, artists do this differently. They maybe also be asked to draw the best possible tree, but with the constraint of doing it in 2 minutes. And then, they are asked to do this over and over again.

What is the best possible blogpost you can write in half an hour?

What is the best possible song we can compose in two hours?

What is the best possible scene we can shoot in 5 takes?

What is the best possible dish I can make with these five ingredients within an hour?

Shooting for perfection can be meaningless without meaningful constraints.

Hurry hurts help

A bunch of seminary students were reminded of the parable of the Good Samaritan. They were then told to walk to a nearby building for a task. One group of students were told that they had plenty of time to get there, while another were told they were late already.

Enroute, the students encountered a man sitting slumped in a doorway who moaned and coughed twice as they walked by. Unknown to the poor souls, some psychologists had setup an experiment to observe their behaviour towards this ‘victim’. Among the students who were running late, only 10% offered to help the victim in need – some literally stepped over the victim. When they were not in a hurry, 63% helped.

Despite just being reminded of the lesson of the Good Samaritan’s willingness to help a stranger in need, the import of the lesson was negated by the scarcity of time that the students felt in that moment.

From receptionists to nurses, people in several professional roles have to help customers in need. Since hurry is a formidable foe, these professionals would need slack in their schedules to answer the call of duty.

Think about it – if the parable of the Good Samaritan did not have any effect on seminary students, your corporate training sessions don’t stand a chance.

What writing 1000 blogposts has taught me

On one cold January evening in 2018, I wrote a blogpost on an impulse. I then chose a simple WordPress theme and published that post. The next day, I wrote another post. The day after that, I wrote another. 1000 posts later, I find myself here.

Growing up, I always thought of myself as a writer. I wrote my first poem in class 4, which was published out of kindness in the local newspaper. Throughout my schooling and university, I have been part of writing clubs. I wrote only when I found myself in the grip of an inspired moment. These moments had a will of their own, but they followed one pattern – whenever I put out a good post, the next one would take longer to arrive. People often complimented my writing, but I guarded those compliments closely by holding onto the dangerous myth of one being only as good as one’s last performance.

Yet, even as my writing became sporadic to the point of non-existence, I continued to think of myself as a writer. At some point, this notion started to feel empty. You cannot call yourself a plumber, a carpenter or a surgeon for long if you idled away amidst your tools while waiting for inspiration to strike. While writers are veterans at this act of self-delusion, even inventing terms like ‘writer’s block’ by way of justification, a writer that does not write feels empty inside. You are what you do despite what you say you are.

For the first time, I stopped calling myself a writer and decided instead to write everyday. I did not wish to merely write in private – I wanted the world to see my writing, and along with it, parts of my naked self. Striving for perfection in total secrecy is more than it is made out to be. It is harder, but more meaningful to publish your imperfect creations to the ruthless judgement of the world rather than protect them within the sanctuary of your own head.

Most people think they are better writers than they actually are. It is, after all, a skill that we are taught right from primary school. But just pause to think about how writing actually works. The cerebral cortex of our brain has the surface area of two newspaper sheets that are that are folded in and squeezed into our skulls – hence all the wrinkles. Like a firework display, this canvas within our head is witness to several interesting thoughts, ideas, feelings, notions, memories and experiences that fire off in different regions. The act of writing serves to build the neural highways and the alleyways needed to connect these disparate regions and convert their sparks into a story that can help reproduce the same firework display in the mind of a reader. The job of a creative writer is to make this reproduction accurate, but not precise. One’s writing ought to convey the essence, but leave enough unstated between the lines so that the reader can reproduce their own variation of the same firework display. Defining writing as the means to clearly express whatever one feels is simple, but on digging deeper, one realizes how it is a craft that demands its own 10,000 hours of rigour.

The more one writes, the more one realizes how building these intricate network of connections in the brain bestows several other benefits. For instance, one learns to recognize bad writing almost instantly. The hallmark of bad writing is a feeling that the writer is making you work harder than you ought to in order to understand a particular idea. Seen this way, it becomes clear how bad grammar, spelling or word choice adds speed breakers and potholes on what ought to be a smooth road. Additionally, one also learns to recognize when a writer is using sophisticated language merely in a bid to sound smart while doing nothing to clarify what they are saying. In the manner of how a chef knows the quality of a dish no sooner than she spoons it into her mouth, a writer knows, after reading a paragraph or two, whether a piece of writing is well written.

Despite having written everyday for so many days now, I am surprised by how writing a new post continues to be hard work. I still have days when I wake up and amble to the computer only to find myself clueless about expressing an idea that seemed crystal clear the evening before. Several of my posts have given me the impulse to hit delete and assume a new identity rather than put them out into the world. The benefit of sustaining a habit so long is that when the ugly monster of Resistance rears its head, the habit makes it harder for the practitioner to discontinue their practice on a whim. Nevertheless, I constantly ask myself whether this habit is worth the time and effort that I dedicate towards sustaining it. So far the answer has always been a ‘yes’, but someday that might change.

Even as I count the benefits my writing has given me I understand that it hasn’t done nearly as much for my readers. Like the patient roommate who puts up with somebody practicing the violin next door, you have received word of my posts as emails and on your social media feed. Writing a daily blog does much more for a writer than it ever can for a reader. I am grateful for anybody who has engaged with this blog in their own capacity – from silently reading a couple of posts to initiating conversations centered around the blog. Amidst this journey, I pause today to thank you for your generous help.

I have always thought of myself as a writer. Writing this blog has given me the action to back up this feeling. However, I realize that this is just a beginning. Having written a thousand blogposts, I aspire to write articles, essays, booklets and someday, books to voice the ever more intricate firework displays that light up inside my brain. As for this blog itself, I will continue to appear on stage and perform this daily dance until a clear voice within convinces me that it is time to pull down the curtains.

‘I have to’ vs. ‘I get to’

I have to practice singing this song today.
I get to sing this song today.

I have to pass this tough math examination next week.
I get to write this tough math examination next week.

I have to start work at 9 AM tomorrow.
I get to work at 9 AM tomorrow.

I have to read one book every week this year.
I get to read a book every week this year.

As free individuals, we don’t have to do anything. We get to do them. Framing things that way reminds us of how these are choices we have voluntarily made.

However, with this power to choose also come the responsibility of bearing the consequences of our choices. Our discomfort with this tension often leads us to believe that we have too many obligations.

What else can this meeting tell you?

When a couple is seated across a table and unable to engage in conversation, you know that the relationship is troubled.

When a team is unable to have a constructive meetings week after week, that is a sign of its dysfunctionality. If most people in the team dread going to meetings, it is a sign that they are getting in each other’s way rather than collaborating.

The quality of your meetings can serve as the pulse for your team’s health.

How knowledge and wisdom are different

Knowledge is cumulative, wisdom is cyclical.

With knowledge, we are able to build upon the work of past generations to see further. With wisdom, we only rediscover what people have already found out for thousands of years. If Archimedes gave us the principle of buoyancy and Aryabhatta told us the value of pi, we have used them to build ships and satellites. We don’t read books written by ancient Greek or Indian scientists, but we continue to read the Bhagavad Gita or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

Once knowledge is discovered, it can be taken for granted and applied without truly understanding it. Every time I switch on a tube light, I don’t need to stop and think as to how it works. I can whip out my smartphone, shop for gadgets and have them appear at my doorstep. Right now, I am pushing buttons to have my thoughts magically appear on a screen to be dispersed to the rest of the world. I can do all this without the slightest knowledge of the complex systems that make this possible.

The same, however, isn’t true of wisdom. Wisdom ought to be thoroughly understood before it is applied. In line with the Gita’s advice, I cannot pretend to do my duty without attachment for a reward without understanding what ‘duty’, ‘attachment’ and ‘reward’ mean in a specific context. Marcus Aurelius wrote, ‘Soon you’ll be ashes or bones. A mere name at most—and even that is just a sound, an echo. The things we want in life are empty, stale, trivial.‘ What do those words mean? And in which context are they true? Wisdom applied without understanding decays into ritual, dogma or superstition.

Isaac Newton, perhaps the greatest purveyor of knowledge yet, once said ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.‘ And so it goes with knowledge. With wisdom, however, despite our having become bipedal more than 4 million years ago, every single toddler has to learn anew to amble on its feet.

Loans and investments

A loan is money taken out from the future. You borrow a certain sum today to pay it back with interest tomorrow.

An investment is money lent to the future. You invest money today so that it pays dividends tomorrow.

Some behaviours are akin to borrowing from the future. A night outside with plenty of alcohol makes you feel great, but is repaid with interest in the future. To drink is to borrow happiness from tomorrow.

Some others are akin to investing in the future. Going for a run in the cold feels downright unpleasant. A few years from now, it pays dividends with better health and an increased lifespan.

When you engage in a certain behaviour, are you taking out a loan or making an investment?

How branding works

Branding is more than just slapping a logo and a trademark on your product.

If a company made detergent that cleans well, is eco-friendly and doesn’t leave a residual odour, its customers would associate those qualities with its brand. If it does not lather well, smudges clothes or costs too much, its brand would remind people of those experiences too.

Similarly a personal brand is more than a pretty profile picture, a manicured resume and an up-to-date LinkedIn profile. If you show up on time, meet your deadlines and exceeded expectations, your profile will remind people of those qualities. If you are often moody and you constantly miss your deadlines, people will register those lapses as well.

Your brand is a trigger that reminds people how you made them feel. To build a strong brand, create moments that delight your audience.

A zero-waste supermarket

What if your supermarket shopping trip was a zero-waste activity?

You bring your own bottles and weigh them beforehand. You then fill them with grains, nuts, shampoo and chocolate, weigh once again at the counter and pay.

Would such a system even work? It would be inefficient and full of bottlenecks. The products would be more expensive. You lose out on industrial economies of scale. It would take forever for customers to shop at the store, and longer still for employees to restock it. In one word, it would be impractical.

And yet, there are such supermarkets in Berlin, among several others in the world.

Leading a zero-waste life is inconvenient. But people do it because it lends meaning to their lives.

What people often value more than convenience is to be part of a story that is worth telling.

Delighting the few

Say your club’s audience has jazz and heavy metal fans. Inviting a jazz band and a metal band onstage together is a recipe for cacophony.

Say your top selling ice cream flavours are chocolate, vanilla and mango. By offering a mix of all these flavours, you aren’t doing anybody a favour.

Some people prefer classical works like that of Vermeer. Others prefer more abstract paintings like those of Picasso. A painting that blends both these styles is likely to please nobody.

Marketing is the science of delighting the few. This is because tastes often don’t mix well.

What does success look like?

Can you draw the stick figure of a bicycle from memory?

What seems on the surface like a simple task can be surprisingly hard. Here are a few samples of what people came up with.

Annotation 2019-10-06 212231.jpg
Rider beware!

When they were provided a bicycle to look at while drawing, their figures improved a whole lot.

You can apply the same principle to perform better in meetings and interviews. Before you start, try and define, in clear terms, what success would look like. Having done that, work backwards to think about the best way to achieve it.

Say, during this pandemic, you have enjoyed working from home. You have seen how you are less stressed out and more productive overall. You are now going to meet with your boss, who is eager to have you back in the office regularly. How do you approach this meeting?

Firstly, define what success would look like. For instance, your boss approving your request to work from home for 4 days a week. Now work backwards to try and make that happen

  • Research the internet to list out the benefits to employers of people working from home
  • Explain how long uninterrupted stretches of work boosts your productivity
  • Use records of your work from before the pandemic to prove that you have indeed been more productive
  • Restructure your calendar to cluster all your in-person meetings on the day of the week you plan to be in the office

A clear definition of success lets you do most of the work upfront and address your boss’s concerns. Now, all she has to do is to approve your request.

We navigate several situations using a feeling of what success looks like. However, we all draw bicycles differently (and a whole lot better) with a clearer understanding of what one looks like.

Before jumping in, just ask yourself this simple question – what would success look like?

Circuit breakers

A circuit breaker is a regulatory measure employed by stock indices to prevent people from panic trading. They function by automatically stopping trading when prices hit a certain level. For example, an index such as the S&P or the Sensex, may decide to suspend all trading after a 10% intra day change.

Panic is an epidemic. A handful of people panic selling in the market quickly leads others to sell their stocks as well, putting the stock index on a downward spiral. Circuit breakers are external measures needed to stop our internal tendency to get carried away by our emotional state.

Emotion often happens in runaway cascades. What starts off as somebody chuckling in a subway car has the entire car rolling in peals of laughter. Checking the phone for one notification can end up in half an hour of scrolling. Going online for watching one video can end up as 4 hours lost to a tunnel of pointlessness.

In the face of runaway emotional cascades, circuit breakers often help us pause and take stock of the situation – perhaps a notification that we have already unlocked our phone a hundred times or our internet disconnecting after streaming videos for an hour.

When it makes no sense

It makes no sense to build a social media with short clips of people dancing and lip-syncing. But millions of TikTok users beg to disagree.

It makes no sense for Justin Bieber to be more popular than Miles Davis, or Michael Jackson. Even as a teenager, though, he had more than a billion views on Youtube.

It makes no sense for Britain to leave the European Union. But a majority of Britons did not think so.

It makes no sense for people to be anti-vaxxers. Yet, millions of people in the developed world do not get their children vaccinated.

Why do people continue to doing what makes no sense to you? The easy, but lazy answer is to write them off as idiots.

Every mass movement that doesn’t make sense to you is an opportunity to dig a little deeper and discover something new about how the world works.