Compliment mining

Sincere compliments are curious creatures. They are incredibly valuable and do not seem to cost anything. But they do not come cheap either. They have to be earned, both by the giver and the receiver.

Our language hints at their value. We pay compliments just as we pay money or attention. The world today, at least the internet giants, are tapping every minute of our attention. On the other hand, compliments are rare. They are untapped gold-mines

At the same time, compliments do not come cheap. Insincere compliments are worthless and can actually cost the giver something – their credibility. A sincere compliment requires us to care, to be generous and to notice what the world misses quite often.

Compliments require sincere effort. Just as every nugget of gold required a Californian panner (wearing denims) to invest hours of back-breaking labour or every bitcoin that is mined requires investment in coding, mathematics, IT infrastructure and abandoned garage space.

Time to put on a hard hat.

On the fingertips of intent

We humans live on the fingertips of intent. Our vocabulary reflects this quality through a variety of terms.

Confirmation bias – Our tendency to actively and selectively seek information that reinforces our existing beliefs and world-view.

Self-fulfilling prophesy – A prediction that causes itself to become true, due to positive feedback between the belief and our behaviour.

Pygmalion effect – Where other people’s high expectations of a target person causes him/her to improve and live up to them.

Golem effect –  The opposite of the Pygmalion effect, where other people’s low expectations of a target person turns into truth.

The law of attraction – The belief that when you want something so badly, the universe gifts it to you.

Affirmation – A wishful statement that people repeatedly make to themselves, or write down, to increase their likelihood of actually happening.

PropagandaInformation of a biased / misleading nature that intends to further certain political views.

To predict your future, do not ask an astrologer. Just consult your intentions and those of the people around you.

Venturing deeper into a jungle

It is easy to sell vegetables at a farmers’ market. Or to apply to a posting on an online job portal. Or to spam thousands of email addresses with advertisements.

But humans are incredibly efficient at seizing easy opportunities. Therefore, whatever is easy is also crowded. These crowds engage in what Seth Godin calls the race to the bottom, with the prize always goes to the lowest bidder. This bidder is then forced to bid even lower in the next round.

To go in the other direction is to embrace difficulty, deliberate practice and discomfort. It is to leave the well worn path and find new, creative ways of addressing problems. But it is also to leave the crowd behind.

When we venture deeper into a jungle, we leave most other people at its periphery.

Listening deep

When we listen to music without a trained ear, we listen flat on the surface. We notice the lead singer or the interesting solos, but we listen only to the most prominent part of the composition at any given time.

When a musician with a trained ear listens, she listens deep rather than merely on the surface. In a jazz number, she listens to the saxophone solo over the chord progression, like all of us do. But in addition, she notices the pianist’s left and right hands push down on the keys with different time signatures. She notices how the drummer intersperses brushes and rim strokes into his beat. She also follows the walking bass, which suggests which turn the melody would take next. The song comes across to her as a perfect harmony of all these elements.

Whenever we speak, we also include several layers of information in what we say – with our choice of words, the tone of our voice, the expressions on our faces, the gestures of our hands, and the words we emphasize. Just as it takes a true aficionado to appreciate good jazz or sublime classical music, so too does it take a deep listener to empathize and truly understand the spoken word.

Inspiration: The Dying Art of Conversation – Celeste Headlee’s interview on the Knowledge Project podcast

Invite your Twitter timeline to dinner

At college, we hung out with a select group of people. We lunch everyday with a handful of colleagues. We are close to a selection of friends. We invite a small number of people to the dinner parties we host at home. In all these cases, we are purposeful about whom we choose to engage with.

We do so not to be exclusive or elite, but because our mental bandwidth and attention is limited. At a two-hour party with fifty invitees, we can, at most, have a meaningful conversation with about five of them. The knack of selecting those five people is second nature to us.

And yet, we follow thousands of people on Twitter or Facebook. We somehow assume (or those companies convince us) that our attention online is unlimited.

I propose a thought exercise here. Let us say you invite your Twitter timeline to dinner and give each of them a seat at the table. How many of those voices would you wish to listen to? With how many would you rather that they shut up?

Once you figure that out, use the “mute” button well. Or better yet, one that says “unfollow”.

The written word is still the richest medium

Despite being one of our oldest means of communication, writing remains the richest means to express ideas in the 21st century. The learning derived from a focused hour of reading can be matched by few other mediums.

To explore why, let us look at the writing process. Books are always written through several iterations of reading and editing. Authors start with an outline and scribble their first drafts. They then make revisions as needed to the main message of their draft. Then comes the painstaking part of combing each sentence, paragraph and word for edits. If that wasn’t enough, it is then sent to copy writers and publishers for further changes. Through all these changes, an author can quite easily get through at least five drafts of a book before it is printed. All of that work ensures that you get the most bang for the buck for every second you read and every pie you spend on a book.

Today, we are surrounded by other mediums that seem like substitutes for reading. But each of these mediums typically start with the written word and dilute it to suit their audience. Writing for radio, for instance, has stringent rules about sentence structure and complexity – to avoid subordinate clauses and limit the number of ideas to one idea per sentence. The problem with television is that it continues to be expensive, and has to be diluted for mass consumption. Every other audio-visual niche in the internet is yet to match the richness and refinement of the written word. Besides, books will always retain one advantage over every other medium – that they have stood the test of time. Today, I can pick up a book that has was stored in the library of Alexandria two thousand years ago, and read it in the original.

The written word also offers the reader more flexibility than other mediums. I can choose to re-read the first paragraph, slow down on the second one and skim through the third and fourth ones. The experience of reading is an act of co-creation between the reader and the writer. As a writer I can describe characters, but as a reader, I am free to imagine their appearance and the tone of their voice.

In a world filled with distractions, it is easy to lose sight of the value of reading (and writing). Every minute spent in reading offers us the richest second-hand learning experience possible. Every minute not spent reading is to forego that opportunity.

No time to rush

There are barely 15 minutes left for the next meeting. Perhaps, it makes sense to rush through the conversation we’re having with a parent, a sibling or a spouse.

But what if the process of rushing itself got in the way of our conversation itself? What about the cost of rushing? On a hike, have you noticed how when we walk twice as fast as our regular speed, we only observe half as much?

Rushing often entails a hidden cost. At times, this cost can be high enough to offset our frantic speed.

A metaphor for successful conversations

Successful conversations are ones where each party learns something from all the other parties involved. They are like playing catch.

A game of catch is wonderfully symmetrical, in that a player can only throw exactly as many times as he catches. It is ideally played with two people. In a friendly game, each player sets up his companion for success. If there are other people involved, they need to throw and catch the ball as well. If they do not, they are merely spectators.

It is striking how many parallels a game of catch has with a good conversation.

Inspiration: The Dying Art of Conversation – Celeste Headlee’s interview on the Knowledge Project podcast

Craftsmanship is like archaeology

I used to think of myself as a passable writer, until I wrote more often. Writers have to say what they think and have their readers think the same thing, while navigating the complex jungle of linguistic cognition.

First there are the basic rules – about using the correct grammar and style, favouring simpler words over complex ones, and making one’s writing honest, descriptive and vivid.

Then there is the rhythm underlying each sentence. Writers often juggle synonyms and adjectives until they create a crisp cadence or hit upon a serendipitous alliteration. All of that, while respecting the subject-verb-object order, which favours active constructions over passive ones.

With all of these nuances, we haven’t even departed from the construction of single sentences. All writers, from bestseller novelists to the ones who draft your refrigerator’s instruction manual, are storytellers. Sentences and paragraphs that follow each other need to tell our readers a compelling story, that help their readers climb higher on a ladder. The moment a rung is missing, their readers fall off and do not return.

And through that soliloquy, I have merely dusted the surface. The more I write, the more I know how much more there is to the craft of writing. I wager that any craftsman would something similar about their craft as well.

Craftsmanship, like archaeology, is the art of uncovering one layer of a craft, only to expose two more that are hidden.

Confusing collaboration with competition

Most people own just one or two smartphones. If I own an Android phone, it comes at the cost of my owning an Apple phone. Therefore, Google and Apple are engaged in a classic zero-sum game tussle. Every iPhone purchased is an Android phone foregone.

But not every purchase is part of a zero-sum game. The vast majority of people on earth do not read books. The few people who do read, end up reading a lot of books. Getting somebody to read a book – any book – increases the likelihood that she would read more books in the future. Therefore, authors are happy to blurb their fellow authors’ books, even if they belong to the same category. They not competitors, but collaborators.

Confusing collaboration for competition is the world’s favourite pastime. It is costly to compete where we could easily collaborate instead.

Hat tip: Seth Godin

Too slow to worry about

We humans are adaptable to an astounding great degree. We originated in Africa but we have inhabited, and continue to thrive, in the far-corners of the earth. As long as change is not too sudden, we are adept at adapting to it. Technological progress enables us to even permanently inhabit regions like Antarctica.

Now this adaptability of ours comes with a flip side. It hinders our ability to sense danger when change is slower than a threshold. Sure, we care about our environment. When the ozone layer was disappearing, we humans took collective action to minimize the use of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) everywhere in the world. A fast disappearing ozone layer and the visceral consequences of its absence inspired us into action.

But with climate change, the change happens much slower. In the last hundred years, fossil fuels have been rising earth’s temperature to a geographically significant degree. The last time the earth was as warm as it is today, is 125,000 years ago. So we have created a geological anomaly – an epoch that we call the Anthropocene.

However, this change is subtle for the everyday person. In the Paris accord, nations agreed to limit human warming of the earth’s mean temperature to well within 2 degrees Celsius. 2 degrees isn’t much for us to adapt to as individuals. This means that if I lived a in place where the average winter temperature was -10 degrees and summer temperature was 20 degrees Celsius, I would now have to contend with -8 degrees and 22 degrees – a change that doesn’t seem catastrophic.

And yet, the geographical systems that sustain the ecological balance on earth are delicate enough for this 2 degree change to be the difference between the planet as we know it, and a much more hostile place. The planet itself changes and adapts to change much slower than we humans do.

Among the problems we have, it isn’t the obvious, visceral Hollywood varieties that represent a greater threat to us. When an asteroid hurtles towards earth, we are equipped well enough today to avert Armageddon. It is the slow, silent and insidious problems that we need to worry about.

Book covers are important

It is easy to underestimate the importance of packaging.

Electronic manufacturers spend millions of dollars in design and manufacturing to package their gadgets. We wrap birthday presents, wax our car’s exteriors and dress our best for interviews. Authors have book covers designed, while musicians fuss over album art.

But there is more. In the era of HDTV, we go to stadiums to watch games without the benefit of TV replays and despite the action being so far away. We attend classical music concerts despite digital mediums creating better aural experiences in our living rooms. We watch movies and read books set in the places we visit on vacation.

All of these decisions do not make rational sense if we were to neglect the form and focus on the substance of those experiences. But substance is not everything. In fact, in most cases, substance is nothing without the right packaging.

While our minds understand and interpret substance, our brains comprehend both the tangible substance and the intangible form it takes.

We are told not to judge a book by its cover. But the moment we look at a book, we cannot help but do just that.

Two types of negative feedback

Negative feedback can come in two flavours.

The first, and the most frequent, is that which comes from people our work is not meant for. Everything we create is done for a particular audience. It is never for everybody. In the e-commerce era, every great book or product has its healthy share of one-star reviews. Such feedback isn’t helpful for its substance, which we would do well to ignore (our work isn’t for them after all). But it helps us clarify who our work is for.

The second type of negative feedback comes from people in our audience who thought something could be improved. This type of feedback worth pondering over for its substance, rather than its mere existence. It inspires us to iterate on what we have created and make it better. It helps us clarify what our work should be. It wakes us up from the state of familiar mediocrity that our work tends to slip into, if there isn’t any negative feedback for a long time.

Mixing up the two kinds of feedback is the world’s favourite pastime sport. But both deserve to be treated differently.

Nevertheless, negative feedback always comes from a person who cared enough to stop by and let us know what they thought. Apart from our discernment, it deserves our gratitude.

Speak to the people right in front of you

I watched Jaron Lanier deliver his Ted talk again yesterday. (If you have the time to be reading this, you should definitely check it out).

Hundreds of people in the live audience watched his talk and gave him a standing ovation. However, the vast majority of Lanier’s viewers see him from behind their computer and mobile screens. This got me thinking – whom should Lanier address his talk to – that live studio audience or his internet viewers?

Knowing that this was a Ted talk, likely to gather millions of views (2.3 million and counting), it is seemingly rational to think that Lanier ought to focus on his virtual audience. Perhaps there ought to be a camera that allows him to address his internet audience (like a news anchor does). Or his script needs to cater to those millions rather than the handful of invitees to the TED conference. But through this talk, we see how Jaron Lanier, or any great TED speaker, reaches millions of people by connecting with the people in the audience who sit right in front of him.

What seems irrational at first glance here – to focus on the few rather than the many – is entirely rational.

This principle remains of creation in any form that is directed at a particular audience. It is better to delight 10 members of one’s audience than to mildly stimulate a thousand. Our best work happens for a small set of people, from where it gets amplified to reach a large audience. The best made movies cater to niche audiences. Bands make their best music for their superfans – people who follow them on the concert tour and buy every album and every piece of merchandise they put out. Tim Urban, the author of the blog Waitbutwhy writes to wow a reader who is as similar to him as possible. Dan Carlin of Hardcore History fame, one of the best podcasting voices out there, calls podcasts a narrowcasting medium.

The common thread here is that the audience gets to decide our best work – often what is best for them. And what is best stands to delight a niche rather than pander to the masses.

Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. – Kurt Vonnegut

Nobody is biased (everybody is biased)

When people speak a native language the way people around them speak it, they assume that they do not have an accent. Accents are for outsiders. We ourselves speak the correct way.

The same applies for biases. Our mind constantly shifts its frame of reference on any issue to what we hold to be dear. If we thought we were biased, we would make corrections accordingly.

Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” – George Carlin

And yet, all of us have accents. A South Indian will talk about a “North Indian English accent” (and vice-versa). An American will tell you how all Indians have an “Indian English accent”. A Britisher could point out all the quirks of an “American English accent” and everybody in the room would agree about the existence of a British English accent, except perhaps the Brit.

The only way to not have an accent is to not speak a particular language. I do not, for instance, have a Japanese accent.

Biases, like accents, are inevitable if we know anything about a topic. Biases are like pieces of spinach stuck between our incisors. We easily notice them in other people, but fail to see them in our own selves. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Existential and experiential feelings

We assume certain feelings to be existential. When we are in their grip, we associate our identities (at least in those moments) with the feeling itself. The language we use reflects this.

Any feeling that we use to fill the blank, “I am ______” is one such existential feeling.

I am anxious.

I am angry.

I am disappointed.

I am amused.

On the other hand, there are experiential feelings, which we regard with a certain amount of distance. Here, we use the formulation, “I have ____”

I have a fever.

I have a headache.

I have a sore throat.

I have an upset stomach.

With experiential feelings, we separate our identities from the feelings themselves. This allows us to do something about those feelings – such as go to a doctor, take some medication or rest and recover. Separating our identities from these conditions gives us a sense of agency over them. We do this most readily for physiological conditions, because our minds are able to separate themselves from our bodies.

However, several existential emotions also manifest in the body. When we are angry, we can feel our blood rushing and our heart-rate increase. We begin to perspire faster and our breathing becomes quicker. In other words, “I have anger”, might be a more correct statement than “I am angry”. With the former, we have the emotion while with the latter, the emotion has us.

Of course, going around saying “I have anger” is sure to earn you some strange looks and prompt exclusion from parties and other social gatherings. We are, unfortunately, stuck with the conventions of the languages we use.

But every time we say we are something, we could have an alarm go off in our head and recognize how we might be confusing an experiential feeling with our existential state. This recognition restores our sense of agency from the emotional states that have us in their grip.

Inspiration: Searching Inside Yourself w/ Chade-Meng Tan –  The Heart Wisdom Podcast with Jack Kornfield

India, Pakistan and inverted priorities (off-topic)

It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend – William Blake

I meet a few Pakistanis here in Germany – mostly cab drivers. It is a pleasure to meet somebody who speaks Hindi here.

There is more we have in common. We share a history and eat largely the same cuisine. The big Indian store we buy provisions from has a Pakistani owner. Several restaurants here serve ‘Indian and Pakistani’ cuisine.

The two countries also have something else in common – we both have world-class military. The Indian military is seen as being the 4th strongest in the world, while the Pakistani military, at 17th place, isn’t far behind. This video compares the two countries’ military prowess head-to-head. Kashmir is the world’s most militarized zone. No two neighbours “hate” each other as much as we do.

But where else are we world class? Let us look at a few other social and economic indicators alongside our military ranking.

Indicator
India
Pakistan
4
17
157
172
HDI
130
150
133
75
All numbers here are global ranks

As you can see, we may have world-class military (Pakistan ranks just 1 place below Israel). But both nations rank way behind in almost every economic or social indicator.

And those numbers are tightly intertwined. India spends 12.1% of its national budget on its defense forces. With Pakistan, that number is nearly double in percentage terms, at 21% of total outlay. All those billions of rupees, that could have been invested in health-care and education, end up in the coffers of arms manufacturers instead. For more than 7 decades, the two neighbours have been pumping themselves up with steroids at the cost of nourishing what is most important for both their economies in the long-term.

In comparison, let us look at the same numbers for two countries that top the global happiness index rankings – Finland and Norway, who are incidentally neighbours.

Indicator
Finland
Norway
59
36
38
11
HDI
1
2

It appears as though the tables, the one below and the one above, are inverted.

I know that this is a simplified perspective, that these indicators have their limitations and that I speak with the benefit of hindsight. Nevertheless, a time of crisis is also a time of clarity. For the 72 years since our independence, military one-upmanship hasn’t served either country well.

As tensions rise across the border could we adopt a different approach this time? Could we prioritize better? Could we see the consequences of shooting ourselves in the foot for more than 7 decades?

The need for constant reminders

Some skills are like learning to ride a bicycle. Everybody knows how it is impossible to forget how to ride a bicycle.

But most others need regular practice. Or else, they slowly evaporate from our brains. When we do not speak a language for several years, it slowly fades away. We need to train regularly to run at a particular pace. All of these are quite evident to us.

And then there are certain qualities. They seem like bicycle riding, but actually require constant renewal. Such qualities include the art of making good conversation, the ability to listen to other people and even qualities such as empathy and compassion. Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator, talks about how we lose our negotiation skills without our conscious knowledge, if we do not practice them regularly.

In all these cases, it helps for us to revise and refresh those qualities once in a while. To reread books that have taught us and revisit some of our most valuable lessons.

We would never forget how to ride a bicycle. For everything else we hold dear, it helps to have constant reminders.

Othering

Othering (n) – treating people from another group as essentially different from and generally inferior to the group you belong to

For the longest time, we humans have only operated in small tribes of a handful of individuals. This is still true of every other species in the world today, which are either solitary or operate in small groups. The older parts and more animalistic parts of our brain draw a tight circle around what we consider “our group”.

With the cognitive revolution, our brains grew rapidly and gave us the ability to imagine, to craft stories and organize ourselves in ever larger numbers. This is certainly a step forward from the warring bands of our ancestors. We have never had a more peaceful time in human history than we do today.

And yet, these tendencies that are wired deep within our brain – our tendency to indulge in othering, surface from time to time. And when they do, they manifest as elitism, and selfish immigration policy. The term ‘racism’ is our attempt to call out this tendency – to name it, identify it and recognize it.

When we draw larger circles of inclusion, we are pushing forward by harnessing the most evolved parts of our identity as a species. Every line segment, regardless of if it is a kilometer long or a centimeter long, can be extended infinitely on either side. The same line segment can also be divided indefinitely.

Inclusion inspires us to look past ourselves as individuals, fraternities, tribes, castes, classes and countries. Exclusion is a means to move in the opposite direction and divide ourselves into oblivion.

Discard that half-read book

Do you hesitate to put down books you have already started? Do you slog through them instead? Rather than praise you for not quitting, I am going to call you out.

Firstly, there is such a thing called a book-reader fit. Just as there is a product market fit. Or an employee and organization fit. When we think of some books, vivid scenes come to our mind’s eye. They change the way we look at the world. We mistake certain characters for being real (of course Sherlock Holmes is real!). Also, there are books we slogged through just to finish them. Odds are when we think of those painful reads, only vague details come to our minds. Books that are not for us require longer to finish, while leaving fewer memories.

Which brings us to the second point – opportunity cost. Let us consider a 30-year-old, who reads 10 books a year. At current life expectancy and rate of reading, she has about 45 more years to live – so about 450 more books to read in her lifespan. Adjust your own numbers upwards or downwards in that equation. Regardless, those aren’t a lot of books! We have limited space on our lifetime-reading-bookshelves. Given that there are millions of fantastic unread books out there, we ought to be careful about the books we choose to read. Every good book has earned its limited shelf space, while every book we slog through takes up some of that space without giving enough in return.

My only premise here – we can often tell if a book is good for us about 60 pages in. Or sometime before we finish. Or when we put it away for months and have to start again from the beginning.

Life is too short for reading a “bad” book. Not books that are universally bad. Not books that the critics think are bad. Merely books that are bad for you.

Book venn
Even that tiny ZONE has enough books to last several lifetimes