I was once providing a live coding demo in a hall packed with executives.
The entire room peered at me as I crafted a simple piece of code that I had written tens of time before. Once I thought I was ready – rather, once I was sure I was ready – I hit the play button.
Boom! The program spat out an execution error to publicly humiliate me. Red faced and with beads of perspiration on my forehead, I fixed the error and got the script to run. The crowd let me off the hook with some consolatory applause.
The first execution will always have a bug. As a developer, you learn to accept this as gospel truth. You soon realize that there is neither pride nor any point in striving for perfection on the first run. This lets you scramble code fast and iterate to get it to run.
Recognizing that the first draft is never going to be perfect liberates us to create fast and hit the play button rather than be held back by the illusion of perfection.
Conversations are among the richest and the most rewarding forms of human exchange.
And yet, we aren’t explicit about slotting them into our schedules. We meet friends for lunch or dinner. When friends come home, we play board games or watch football. We plan road trips, hikes and city tours. Sure – conversation can happen beside any of these activities. But good conversations are incompatible with packed schedules. They are large beasts and need their own territory to thrive.
The best conversations I have had is when they are the main agenda, with everything else playing second fiddle.
Veggies grown in one’s own garden taste better. The same vacation, when planned on our own, is more enjoyable than if a travel agency was employed. The same view from a hilltop looks better if we hiked up the hill rather than took a train to the top.
Sure – there is time and effort involved in doing things yourself. But in several cases, they are investments rather than costs.
We live in a society that values money ahead of time.
Society doesn’t consider stealing somebody’s time as a crime. Nobody receives penalties for showing up late, making people wait or calling pointless meetings. Steal somebody’s money, even a pittance, and you can land in jail.
Yet, a recent study has shown how people who value their time ahead of money are happier on balance – even when you correct for how wealthy they are.
‘Time is money’ is a cliche. But you can’t really say ‘money is time’. While you can easily trade your time for money, it isn’t as easy to do the opposite. Doesn’t that already indicate what we value more?
Will we ever have another physicist as well loved and revered as Albert Einstein was? For that matter, would we have a naturalist as prominent as Charles Darwin or biologists of the ilk of Francis Crick and James Watson?
In several established fields, we are unable to name prominent people to serve as their figureheads. Nevertheless, we have advanced by leaps and bounds in every single one of those fields. How is it that we are making progress, but are still unable to single out the prominent people who are responsible for it?
One reason that is often stated is that the substantial leaps of understanding – such as such as the theory of relativity or the helical structure of DNA – were all ‘low-hanging fruit’ that have already been discovered. However, this is short-sighted. Since Einstein’s time, physicists have discovered a flurry of new sub-atomic particles, furthered our understanding of quantum mechanics and formulated string theory. Biologists have bio-engineered crops, mapped the human genome and discovered gene editing. We have also created new fields that straddle several existing fields such as evolutionary psychology, behavioural economics and quantum computing. Knowledge is a vessel that keeps on giving. The more we learn, the more likely we are to uncover new paradigms.
The real reason could that scientific progress is more democratic today and spread out among scores of eminent individuals rather than confined to one or two prominent ones. In his 1993 book, Genius, James Gleick pondered why physics hadn’t produced more giants like Einstein. Paradoxical as it might seem, Gleick suggested that there are so many brilliant physicists alive today that it has become harder for an individual to stand apart. Our perception of Einstein as a towering figure is, well, relative.
Every established field with centuries of legacy, such as physics and biology, has a hive of scientists furthering our understanding. Just as it is difficult to identify individual bees in a hive, progress in these fields is so widespread that it has become difficult to single out prominent individuals.
The stereotype of a scientist has always been that of a reclusive geniuses whose abilities overshadow their peers. However, scientific progress is more communal today than ever before. Prominent scientists would do well to nurture and lead communities of peers rather than ponder away in isolation.
While 9 mothers cannot produce a baby in one month, 9 farmers can harvest a field of cotton 9 times quicker. Why can you ‘divide and conquer’ with some tasks and not others?
Two main factors prevent a task from speeding up linearly when you add more manpower to it:
When the task cannot be perfectly partitioned – A field of cotton can be perfectly partitioned. But sequential tasks that are interdependent cannot be partitioned without delays – e.g. writing the script for a video and recording it.
When partitioning requires communication – Suppose that three programmers are writing a scheduling software that is (ironically) behind schedule. Adding two more developers requires communication. First, they need to be trained on what has already been done. Second, they need to coordinate among each other on a regular basis.
Adding more people may even make the problem worse. The number of information channels increases exponentially as team size increases. A team of two people has merely 1 communication channel (A-B), a team of three people has 3 (A-B, B-C, A-C) and a team of five people has 15 channels – n(n+1) / 2.
As managers, it is tempting to throw more people at a task that is behind schedule. But that doesn’t always help – especially while dealing with the two scenarios above.
I saw this board outside my house, advertising a jackpot of € 21 million. Below, it has some more text in smaller font explaining how the win likelihood is 1 in 95 million. I’d wager that German regulation requires the lottery company to declare this.
While I always knew that the odds in a lottery were long (lottery companies have to make a living), I was surprised by how slim they were (instead, they were making a killing). In effect, if 9.5 million people deigned to purchase €10 lottery tickets, a mere handful would stand to win a total of €21 million.
When a massive €21 million jackpot is advertised, it is difficult for a person buying a ticket to grasp what that means. It helps, through regulation or otherwise, to include the denominator, declare the odds and put that number in perspective.
Owning a house means that you have a place to stay or rent out. Owning a house also means taking out a housing loan, registering it at the city council, paying taxes, maintaining it and ensuring that you pick your tenants carefully.
Owning a car allows you to drive it whenever, wherever and however you wish to. Owning a car also needs you to purchase insurance, maintain it and seek out parking space.
Newton stated how every action has an equal an opposite reaction. Ownership is just as much of a two-way street.
Keep up with every news notification on your phone
Read every tweet on your timeline
Peruse every Whatsapp forward your uncle sends you
Read every article you’ve bookmarked for later
Read all the books you have on your Kindle
In the last 20 years, our world has changed in ways that makes ‘staying on top of things’ an ever more futile act. Realizing this is liberating. Instead, we could conserve our attention merely for things that are important.
One moment, you lay sprawled on your couch. In the next instant, you have the solution to that knotty coding problem you were thinking about all week long. Inspiration is state-dependent. ‘Being in the mood’, lets you perform inspired feats that often surprise you.
Craving occurs in the spur of the moment.
You are sitting down, deep at work on an important project. In the next instant, you feel like getting up and eating a piece of chocolate. Instead of getting back to work, you check your Twitter feed and order earphones on Amazon. Like itches, cravings come out of nowhere and refuse to go away until we scratch them.
The spur moment can lead to creative bursts just as easily as it can distract us from doing the work that matters. Here’s the rule of the thumb. When it manifests as inspiration – the need to create something – it is usually beneficial. When it manifests as craving – the need to consume something – it is often detrimental.
Can you learn to tell them apart and treat them differently?
Until the 1950’s, science and technology was practically closed for women – half the human population. What if women always had access to cutting-edge research? How many breakthrough discoveries did we lose to male exclusivity in science?
To this day, people of a different religion or a race continue to be excluded from prominent positions. How many breakthroughs do we continue to lose everyday to race, caste and other forms of exclusion?
The problem with discrimination is that while it protect a group of people in the short term, it exacts a high cost by holding the whole world back from much needed progress.
Several companies insist that you have ‘several years of relevant experience’ before they can entrust you with a job. Several young people have proven how they have this problem upside down.
Sportspersons in their late teens and their early twenties successfully carry the hopes of entire nations on their shoulders. At age 24, Steven Gerrard led Liverpool to their first Champions League win in more than 20 years.
Tech entrepreneurs, most of them in their 20’s and their 30’s, have upended several of the world’s long established industries – hotels, cabs and shopping for instance. when they founded AirBnB in 2008, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky were 27 years old with zero experience in the hospitality business.
The biggest world-wide movement on environmental awareness is now spearheaded by groups of young people who are less than 25 years of age. As of today, Greta Thunberg is all of 17 years of age.
If companies had written job descriptions for these positions, would Gerhard, Gebbia, Chesky or Thunberg have made the cut?
Like pieces of pottery baked in an oven, people often rise to the levels of the challenge presented to them – not the other way around.
The design of our tongue is the reason for some of the most pressing health problems in the world today.
Our tongue is built to fall in love with food that is rich in fat, salt and sugar – the kind that isn’t really good for the rest of our body. Yet, since the tongue lies at the entry of the eating process, it exerts a huge influence on what we eat. The food industry has exploited this to leave in its wake the biggest health problems of the world today – obesity, blood pressure, heart disease and so on.
We see the entry bias in several other places.
Companies are designed to hire people with good resumes and great interview skills. Yet, only too often, people who are good at those things are not necessarily your best employees (and vice-versa).
It feels good to scroll down a social media feed in the first five minutes. It takes about 2-3 hours of manouvering through a rabbit hole of frivolity to start to realize how meaningless it starts to feel.
Beware of the entry point bias. What feels good now isn’t necessarily what will continue to feel good later.
While waiting for his turn to bat in the dressing room, Sachin Tendulkar was known to visualize his upcoming innings to the last detail. Several sportspersons visualize top performance en route to achieving it.
In the Alchemist, Paulo Coelho tells us how when you want something, the universe conspires to help you to achieve it. Of course, the first step is to focus our thoughts and intentions for us to really want something.
As a consultant, I’ve worked with enough companies to recognize how the ones with clear goals and a well-defined strategy outperform their competition. What gets done in a day at one of these companies, may take weeks in another, whose intention isn’t as clear.
The power of intention seems magical. It is often portrayed as the world meeting us halfway to realize our vision. Of course, this isn’t true. The universe doesn’t care about our vision.
However, the power of intention does something else. It recruits our unconscious brain, nudging it to meet us halfway. Like a searchlight, a clear intention directs our attention to the right places. When we are relaxing, it works in the background to solve problems and give us insights out of the blue.
The power of intention doesn’t bend the curve of the universe. But it rewires our neurons and focuses our energy to help us do things that often surprise us.
Nobody wants to be judgemental, but everybody wants to exercise good judgement.
Judgemental people jump to conclusions. Reacting to a first impression is driven more by one’s internal bias rather than external reality.
Judgemental people are prejudiced. They hear somebody out, but refuse to be affected it. They encounter facts that run contrary to their world view, but refuse to change.
Judgement is a filter through which we choose interact with the world outside. Good judgement is to exercise the right amount of judgement. Too little, and we risk being herded around like livestock. Too much, and it morphs into its evil cousin – judgemental.
The institute where I got my bachelor’s degree ran into a naming crisis.
Initially, the institute was small and had all its classrooms in one building. And then it grew some and they built another building for classrooms. They called it the Additional Teaching Block (ATB).
Soon enough, the institute grew some more and they build yet another building. This time, they called it the New Teaching Block (NTB). I wonder what they are going to call the next one.
We live in a world where the normal keeps shifting. On most days, it shifts just a little, like a setting sun. During the last few months, we have seen the ground beneath shift faster. We have dubbed this our ‘new normal’.
This normal might be new today, but it will give way to another normal. When that happens, I hope we can give it a suitable name.
You have invited a dear friend of yours, a modern day hunter-gatherer, to your house. Say you are fluent in the language of her tribe.
You live next to a construction site, and as you are catching up, a clattering sledgehammer interrupts your conversation. Your friend is startled. She asks you what those noises are about.
“Oh that! That is just a construction site nearby.”
“What is construction?”
“Construction is when you build something new”.
“What is building?”
“Building is the act of creating structures that provide shelter. Like caves, or huts made from mud and straw.”
“Oh okay. What are they building?”
“They are building a school”.
“What is a school?”
You spend the rest of the evening in this manner. If the conversation were about gathering wild berries or hunting antelope on foot, it would have transpired in the opposite direction.
It is startling to realize how much of our language depends on being familiar with a particular context. It is startling precisely because the curse of knowledge makes us take this contextual knowledge for granted.
The cure? Always close the feedback loop when you make presentations. Watch for signs of understanding and stop when you see puzzled looks. Engage with your audience and pepper them with questions.
If that isn’t challenging enough, their benefits might take years to surface. Run, write or meditate for 30 days and you will often have nothing to show for it.
A bad habit only takes about 30 days to form.
If that isn’t scary enough, their repurcussions might take years to surface. Drink beer, smoke a cigarette or check Facebook for 30 days straight. On the 31st day, they only leave behind withdrawal symptoms.
The feedback loop for several habits is often slower than how long it takes to cultivate them. Therefore, it is helpful to trust people who have already reaped their benefits or faced their repurcussions rather than relying on our own experience.
Learning from other people’s experience is the shortcut to cultivating good habits and discarding bad ones.