Take advantage of that fat bill

Spending a large sum of money is sometimes the easiest means to transform deep-rooted habits.

I recently spent about €150 on a professional dental cleaning – a grand sum! But the hygienist was meticulous and I left her pneumatic chair with a mouth full of squeaky clean enamel.

Prior to this appointment, dead habit had rendered my brushing and flossing into a thoughtless ritual. The expensive dental cleanup changed that. When I now brush my teeth now, I do it mindfully. I present the brush at the correct angle and move it with a gentle twist (the hygienist showed me how). In effect, the €150 down payment helped me transform my brushing habits for the better.

Racking up a large bill can kick-start useful habits. A friend of mine once spent a large sum of money on running gear, which motivated him to run everyday. Alternatively, you can use your spending to stop harmful habits. Buying a chair with a nice backrest has reduced my slouching even when I am not seated on it.

To drive a behavioural change that matters to you, spend an amount that is large enough to matter. The more you care about how much you have spent, the more likely you are to change the status-quo.

From greed to wisdom

Greed can be defined as the pursuit of short-term gain with a harmful long-term cost.

A greedy company charges a hefty price for a low-quality product. This might lead to short-term profit but erodes customer trust in the long-term.

A greedy landlady charges an exorbitant rent. Her desperate tenants might grudgingly pay her rent, but they jump at the opportunity to move to another place.

Wisdom is the ability to make the best long-term decisions, often at a cost in the short-term.

A wise company invests in a quality product and nurtures loyal customers who won’t abandon them for the cheapest alternative.

A wise landlady makes an effort to cultivate a healthy relationship with her tenants – one that is not merely transactional.

Going from greed to wisdom requires us to shift our perspective from the short-term to the long-term.

Stop chasing fads

In a bid for clicks, the internet has flooded us with instant solutions.

How to do chakrasana perfectly in 5 days

I actually like this video – the instructor shows us how to go step-by-step to performing a chakrasana – an advanced posture in yoga. It is the ‘perfectly in 5 days’ part that is problematic.

For anything to have the desired results, you need to administer the minimum effective dosage. Just as the doctor prescribes a dosage of 4 tablets for an entire week to successfully wipe out an infection, I needed 4 weeks of daily practice to learn to do the chakrasana. Not 5 days. And I am still miles away from perfection.

The internet pushes people to chase fads. They don’t stick to one thing long enough because it doesn’t produce the results they expect. However, they’ve got things the other way around. They do not get the desired results because they don’t keep at things long enough.

Why Tagore would be proud of the internet

Back in school, we recited a few lines from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali as part of our school pledge. In these lines, the great poet envisions a utopia:

‘…Where knowledge is free,
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls…’

Sure, we aren’t there yet. The internet has caused its own set of problems. But it has also taken us closer to Tagore’s vision.

The internet lets you learn a foreign language before moving to a different country. It lets you watch 5 different recipes of Thai Green Curry and combine them as you see fit. It can teach you to code and allow you to change professions.

If that isn’t impressive enough, the internet enabled this badass Kenyan javelin thrower to win the world championship by training himself using Youtube videos.

If Tagore would be alive today, he might not be proud of the people we are. But he would certainly be proud of the people the internet enables us to become.

Stop sounding smart. Start sounding clear

A terrible mistake that several amateur writers make (myself included) is to sound smart rather than sound clear.

In a bid to sound smart, several writers employ arcane verbiage and contort their sentences in a manner that leaves their hapless readers thoroughly befuddled. Did you see what I did there?

The most effective way to sound smart is dig deep and say exactly what you want to say. Written communication doesn’t come naturally to us. The mere act of getting your mysterious thoughts across to another person via squiggly characters on a page is challenging enough. Unusual vocabulary and complicated sentences is akin to placing speed breakers on an already bumpy road.

Always put clarity ahead of smartness.

E-mail blast training

Most leaders aren’t clear enough in their communication. They haven’t received what Derek Sivers calls E-mail blasts.

Sivers was the CEO of company with about 2 million customers. When he sent out an email to his customers, he had to invest a tonne of effort to make it crystal clear. Any hint of ambiguity would see his mailbox flooded with about 20,000 confused queries, costing him more than $5000 plus morale to process.

“One unclear sentence? Immediate $5000 penalty. Ouch.”

In most organizations, leaders don’t communicate clearly. This is because they don’t receive the immediate and painful feedback that Sivers received in the form of email blasts.

It takes a heavy investment of effort upfront to keep your communication clear – effort that is painfully visible to you. But hidden from your sight, ambiguous communication invariably costs your team way more effort to clean up after you.

The more upstream you are in a communication channel, the more it is worth fretting upon every sentence and every word that you use.

It takes a village to innovate

Among the several things I memorized in school, two of them were lies or half-truths at best:

1. James Watt invented the steam engine

2. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.

James Watt didn’t invent the steam engine. Three luminaries had already harnessed steam for performing useful work before him – Thomas Newcomen, Thomas Savery and Denis Papin (who also invented the pressure cooker). Watt improved upon their existing designs to make his engine more efficient, and thereby commercially viable outside of coal mining.

Let me know if any of these names ring a bell:
Marcellin Jobard (Belgium)
William Grove, Fredrick de Moleyns, Warren de la Rue and Joseph Wilson Swan (England)
Alexander Lodygin (Russia)
Heinrich Göbel (Germany)
Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (France)
Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans (Canada)
Hiram Maxim and John Starr (USA)

Every single one of those people (among others) published, produced or patented the idea of a glowing filament in a bulb of glass. The efforts of these contemporaries inspired Edison’s ‘light-bulb’ moment. Nevertheless, Edison deserves a fair share of the credit (but not all of it) because he combined the light bulb with a system of generating and distributing electricity to provide a complete solution.

Our textbooks often credit inventions to singular persons. But that is because we cannot memorize the names of the entire community that made the contribution.

If you wish to foster innovation, start by building a community around the problems you wish to solve.

Inspiration: How innovation works

Show your work

Earlier, it was possible to get a great job in an interview by telling people how you are great at doing something. Today, you have to show your work.

If you are a designer, they will wish to see your portfolio.

If you are a developer, have your code repository ready.

If you are a scientist or a writer, show them your published work.

The internet has made it easier than ever for us to show our work. If you aren’t already doing this, now would be a good time to start.

Work on things. Not just in them

Standing on a building requires us to rise one level above the building itself.

Working in a kitchen is to use its ingredients, vessels and appliances to cook up something. Working on a kitchen is to improve the kitchen’s setup – to service the stove, label the spices and reorganize the shelves.

Working in a job is to perform its day-to-day tasks. Working on a job is to improve the job – to define new standards, train employees and increase efficiency.

Working in a business is to run the business itself. Working on a business is to take a step back and make the business run better.

We are often too busy working in things. How about devoting a fifth of your time to work on them instead?

How can I make this easier?

There are several ways to make sambar – some easier than others.

The most elaborate method involves boiling the vegetables in tamarind water, grinding the spice mix and steaming the lentils separately before cooking them all together. Number of cooking vessels involved = 3+.

An easier way is to start with a pre-ground spice mix. The vegetables and the lentils are cooked separately, to which the spice mix powder is added in the end. Number of cooking vessels employed = 2.

The easiest sambar is a one-pot dish. The vegetables, the lentils and the spice mix are all added to a pressure cooker, which is then fired up.

Each method is easier than the previous one. While a connoisseur would argue that taste is compromised, the easier methods save oodles of time and effort.

There are several ways to get to a particular result – some easier than others. Until we have found the sweet-spot between quality and efficiency, it is worth asking ‘How can I make this easier?’

Value experience ahead of appearance

Most of us would rather go to a restaurant where the food is tasty than one where it is merely presented well.

We all know deep-down that experience ought to be valued over appearance. Here are a few ways to do that outside of restaurants:

Test drive a car several times before buying it. Better yet, rent one out for a road-trip.

Rent out a house for a few months before buying it.

Before you hire anybody full-time, offer them a short-term internship.

And yet, none of these are commonly practiced today. We fall too often for supermodels posing next to cars, one-time visits to properties with realtors in tow and charismatic interview frauds.

Conventional decisions are often wrongly skewed in favour of appearances. However, you have choice to do things differently by putting experience ahead of appearance .

Inspriation: Appearances vs Experiences: What Really Makes Us Happy 

Good design limits choice

Fitbit Charge 3, my fitness tracker, is a particularly well designed device.

The device itself, though, is very limiting. Here are a bunch of things I cannot do on it:
– Adjust the time for an alarm
– Change the display theme
– Upgrade the device’s software version
– Change location for my weather tracking
– Access historical fitness data

It’s settings menu has merely 4 configurations. Not 40.

Good design eliminates choice that you are not likely to miss.

How to harness unfinished business

Unfinished business helps us sustain momentum.

Novelists and screen-writers are great at leaving plots hanging. When I have a few pages in a book remaining, I look forward to reading them the next day. Ernest Hemingway always left a portion of his work unfinished when he retired each night to serve as a foothold the morning after.

It is better to end a workday with a portion of your work unfinished. It is better to end a conversation with friends or family with something left unspoken.

Yesterday’s unfinished business can serve as today’s kick-start.

Takers are generous people

Berlin is different from the average German city in several ways.

Berlin has a thriving culture of reuse and upcycling. In Berlin, you can furnish your house with second-hand furniture for a tiny fraction of what it would cost you otherwise – even for free. There is no taboo against using what somebody else has already used. Given Berlin’s penchant for environmentalism and its fight against materialism, elegant reuse elevates your status as opposed to lowering it.

It is difficult to replicate this in places which have a different definition of status. Even if you are ready to give your stuff away, you are unlikely to find enough takers.

We all feel good when we help other people. At the same time, we are also averse to seeking help. This binds us in a deadlock – a society with too many givers, but not enough takers.

Generosity is a two-sided affair. A gracious taker is also generous.

A runners guide to goals and processes

Elite runners strike a healthy balance between focusing on inputs and outcomes during their training.

For majority of their training (80%) they focus on keeping their inputs – heart rate and perceived effort – in an optimal zone. They pay less heed to how fast they are running. Their focus is on build stamina and staying injury free.

For the rest of their training (20%) they focus on their outcome – pace. They push themselves to run harder to build speed and strength.

We control our inputs and can design habits around them. Measuring outcomes keep our habits honest. A good plan strikes a healthy balance between the two.

What are plans for?

Say your plan is to read a book in one week.

On the first two days, you read furiously and make good progress. On the third and the fourth day, you are unable to read much because you are too busy at work. On the fifth day, one idea you read makes you put the book down and think. When the week is over, you have read 60% of the book’s pages.

Seen one way, your plan was a failure. You couldn’t meet your target. On the other hand, 60% is great progress. Without this plan, you likely would not have gotten that much reading done.

Plans are made not just for getting done. They are also made for getting started, to discover the unknown unknowns and to keep us moving.

Why are some conversations difficult?

A difficult conversation happens because we seek to achieve two conflicting outcomes at the same time.

Asking people to rush out of the office when it is on fire is not a difficult conversation. In that moment, everybody wants only one thing – to be out of harm’s way.

It is difficult to tell your star salesperson to stop bullying her colleagues. You want her stellar results, but you also want her to stay in your company.

It is difficult to tell your friend to be punctual the next time. You want your time to be respected, but also don’t want your friendship to deteriorate.

It is difficult to pursue an unconventional career while pleasing everybody around us. Society is wired to push people into conventions.

The next time you find that a conversation is difficult, think of the two things you want to achieve at the same time. Which among those is dearest to you?

Inspiration: Akimbo

Authority blindness

In a study, some nurses on duty were telephoned. The caller claimed to be a doctor and asked the nurses to administer 20 g of a drug, Astrogen, to a certain patient.

There were several good reasons for the nurses not to comply with this order:
– It was against hospital policy for nurses to take orders over the phone
– The maximum dosage of Astrogen, as mentioned in the bottle, was 10 g per day
– The nurses had never met or spoken to the doctor before

Yet, 95% of the nurses in the experiment headed for the medicine cabinet, picked up a bottle of Astrogen and were on their way to the patient before a hidden observer intervened.

Those nurses were professionals – they weren’t incompetent. Yet, once they received an order from a doctor, the nurses switched off their brains and went to work.

Our brains are parsimonious. Authority causes them to suspend independent judgement and blindly comply with orders. This quality serves us in most situations – in most cases, an expert orders ought to be heeded. But as this experiment demonstrates,  unquestioned obedience can sometimes lead to grave mistakes.

Wearing a uniform or bearing a title doesn’t make people immune to mistakes. Do not suspend your judgement.

Inspiration: Influence