As if it were the first time

Blessed is…
…the gardener, who receives her 100th rose with the same enthusiasm as her first one.
…the teacher, who delivers his 1,000th lecture with the same excitement as his first one.
…the flight attendant who welcomes his 10,000 guest onboard like he greets an old friend.

To retain the ability to do something as if it were the first time is an underrated superpower.

We are ridiculed more in our imagination

The stoic philosopher, Cato, was known to wear the most outlandish of outfits and walk the streets of Rome without footwear. This was his way of boosting is own immunity against shame, ridicule and the fear of disapproval.

As a parting gift from when I quit my first job, I was given white cotton t-shirt on which several of my colleagues had scribbled in their best wishes. At a glance, the white cotton shirt now resembles the wall of a house that has been surrendered to the vagaries of a toddler and her set of crayons. I tried to wash the ink off, but to no avail. So a couple of days back, I decided to wear it anyway and see what happened. I mentally prepared myself for the barrage of questions and the comments that would be directed at me.

However, nothing of that sort happened. My parents, neighbours and friends, with all of whom I spent time that day, never once mentioned the shirt. I wonder how many of them even registered its hand-scrawled notes.

Doing this little experiment taught me that we are ridiculed more in our imagination than in reality.

The case for a mandatory helmet law

The first ice-hockey player to wear a helmet was George Owen, when played for the Boston Bruins back in the 1928-29 season.

For the next 60 years, Owen was pretty much the only ice-hockey player to wear a helmet. Any other player who tried to wear one faced peer pressure, fan pressure and ridicule. It wasn’t until as late as 1978 that helmets became mandatory in the sport. At least eight NHL players have died due to on-ice injuries. Countless others have suffered facial lacerations and concussions that could have been avoided by the use of helmets.

Until it was made mandatory, hardly any motorcyclist in India wore a helmet. Even after the rule, no pillion rider wore a helmet until even that was made mandatory. I still see several motorists lament the mandatory helmet rule – their reasons can vary from considering it ‘uncool’ to fears that it accelerates their hair-loss. They consider the mandatory helmet rule as an infringement of their personal freedom. They argue that they ought to be able to decide whether to wear a helmet (or a seat-belt) on their own rather than the government mandating it.

It is an objective fact that wearing helmets saves lives on Indian roads. This ‘hard’ fact often clashes with the subjective beliefs people have for not wearing one. Given this conflict, there are two good reasons for enforcing a helmet rule.

Firstly, while it is true that the government is a custodian of our personal freedom, it is also a custodian of public welfare as a whole. We humans do what the people around us do. If wearing a helmet isn’t mandatory, the default behaviour is to not wear one. When a helmet rule is enforced, the default behaviour switches to wearing one.

Secondly, having such a rule in place liberates people from the choice of linking their personal beliefs and values worth to the act of wearing a helmet. Earlier, when a friend could ridicule you for choosing to wear a helmet, making them mandatory eliminates that choice along with the ridicule. Frustrated motorists are now likely to direct their rants towards the government, but in return, we are all benefited by having a much smaller number of fatal road accidents.

When it is a fact for people to behave a certain way, enforcing this behaviour by law liberates them from the subjective beliefs that may prevent them from doing so.

Why is it so hard to do nothing?

It is easy to read a book for an hour. It is difficult to sit down to write for an hour.

It is easy to listen to music for an hour. It is difficult to compose your own tune for an hour.

It is easy to watch a movie for an hour. It is difficult to create a short film for an hour.

An act most difficult is to do nothing – absolutely nothing – for an entire hour.

Our mind likes to be in a state of flow – one where it is in an ordered state. A book, a song or a movie is a creation where information is ordered in a manner that makes sense to us.

To consume somebody else’s creation – a book, a song or a movie – is to impose this order externally. Any creative act is to create this order internally – an act that is more difficult and more fulfilling than mere consumption.

It is difficult to meditate because we are forced to sit still and be with the chaos that resides within our own minds. To be with the chaos is more difficult than drown it out with internal or external order.

Dancing with the outcome

We have lesser control over outcomes than we think we do.

A parent could give a child the best upbringing, but he isn’t in control of how the child turns out.

A candidate could perform to her best abilities in an interview, but she isn’t in control of its result.

You could give your friend some well-meaning advice, but you’re not in control of how he would receive it.

Nevertheless, our actions do have a bearing on the outcome. A child that is brought up well is likely to turn out well. A candidate who performs well in an interview is likely to be chosen. A friend is likely to heed advice that is sensible.

We don’t have complete control over a single outcome in this world. But like a dancing partner, every outcome responds to the moves we make. The way forward isn’t to tunnel on inputs while ignoring outcomes, but to use the outcomes as feedback to refine our inputs and give it another go.

Why do people buy $3000 trainings?

A course with Tony Robbins or Ramit Sethi easily costs upwards of $3000. How are people willing to pay that much for such a course?

Let us assume that this course enables its attendees to do a modest 1% better job the next year. Say a junior engineer who generates about $100,000 in value for his employer takes this course. The value of a 1% improvement on his performance amounts to $1000. Therefore, a training that costs $3000 doesn’t make sense.

Now let us consider a senior executive who generates about $3,000,000 in value for her employer every year. Assuming that the training results in a 1% improvement in her performance, the additional value she generates is worth $30,000 in this case. The $3000 training is a bargain – it yields more a 10x return within one year. The executive’s employer will pay up the required $3000 without a second thought.

The value of any product or service depends on the value that its user is able to derive from it. This value, of course, is different for different users.

Who am I?

The sociologist Charles Horton Cooley said, ‘I am not who I think I am; I am not who you think I am; I am who I think you think I am.’

Our very identity is shaped by who the people around us think we are. We often suffer from identity crises because of conflict between the identity that we ascribe to ourselves and our identity in the minds of the people around us.

A related truism here is the saying that we are the average of the 5 people we most associate with. If we suffer from identity crises, a short term fix is to carefully surround ourselves with the right 5 people. True liberation from this conflict lies in separating our identity completely from what other people think of us.

Illusions of competence

Have you ever had the feeling that you understand a concept, but are unable to explain it to somebody else?

Our brains often fool us into thinking that we understand things better than we actually do. Psychologists call this the ‘illusion of competence’. An effective means to break this illusion is to try and teach what we think we know to somebody else. When our explanation doesn’t make sense, it is merely a sign that we haven’t understood the concept well enough.

If you’re unable to find a willing listener for every concept you’ve learnt, writing a blogpost is a good fallback. And yes, I have had to scrap several blogpost drafts owing to my having fallen prey to illusions of competence.

Sharing is multiplying

St. Augustine once said, ‘if a thing is not diminished by being shared with others, it is not rightly owned if it is only owned and not shared.’

Knowledge that is not diminished by being shared with others is shared today on Wikipedia and Coursera.

Recorded music and video that are not diminished by being shared with others can be streamed on Spotify or Youtube.

Conversations and interviews that aren’t diminished when shared are available today as podcasts.

Software code that does not diminish when shared has given rise to the open source movement.

St. Augustine would be proud of the 21st century, for we have invented several means for discovering his vision. Besides, things that don’t diminish when shared with others end up growing and multiplying instead.

Feelings are irreversible

Mixing Sodium and Chlorine results in a spontaneous, irreversible reaction that produces common salt. Once this reaction has taken place, getting the original ingredients back requires tremendous effort.

Watching a horror film causes its viewer to be scared of the dark. That same person wasn’t scared of the dark before he watched the film. He also knows that the film is simply a made-up script with made-up actors and a made-up plot. Yet, knowing all this doesn’t prevent him from being a little more timid after having watched that movie. The movie has resulted in an irreversible reaction – having seen it, he cannot unsee it.

Any information that makes us feel a certain way by-passes the logical and rational centers of the brain to invoke an irreversible reaction. In an era when we are flooded with information that is meant to trigger our emotions, the only way to keep ourselves from being affected is to carefully curate the information we consume.

Once you have read that inflammatory Whatsapp forward or watched that manipulative Youtube video, its effect is already irreversible.

Manual override

If you have never driven a car before, it is a bad idea to enter a car, turn on the ignition and drive into a road filled with speeding vehicles. The terrifying experience might see you wake up in the intensive care unit of a hospital.

If you have never made a public speech before and step forward to deliver a speech, you may stutter, stumble and not make too much sense. The experience feels as terrifying as rolling untrained into a highway. But after a few minutes, nothing disastrous happens.

Our mind mistakes certain benign events to be deadly encounters. Manually overriding this tendency can help you put your hand up and step forward even as the people around you are paralyzed by fear.

Experts aren’t the best teachers

I once had a math teacher who was considered a genius. For several decades, he had taught brilliant minds at India’s leading technical institute. As high school students, we were told how fortunate we were to be learning the elements of calculus and vector algebra from such an accomplished soul.

But here’s the flipside. Majority of his students did not understand most of what he taught. He would solve limits, calculate derivatives and perform complex vector transformations in his head. He would skip all the ‘unnecessary’ intermediate steps while we sat there dumbstruck. His lessons whizzed past our heads, but we only blamed ourselves. We weren’t smart enough to be taught by him.

In contrast, I have an uncle who is a great teacher. He is an engineer by training, but teaches children in his neighbourhood accountancy and economics. He reads their textbooks, understands the concepts and makes them more accessible to his pupils through patient explanation. He is clearly a non-expert in the subjects he teaches, but that does not hinder him from doing a great job.

The world often makes the error of assuming that an expert in a particular field is the person best suited to teach it. Alternatively, they write off non-experts in a particular domain as not having enough expertise to teach it. What we often miss is that teaching demands its own expertise. The best elementary high school science teachers aren’t Nobel prize winners, nor have the best football coaches had world-class playing careers.

Do not confuse expertise in a particular field with the ability to teach it well. In fact, being an expert actually serves a hindrance rather than an aid to teaching.

Taking progress for granted

When do you take something for granted?

About a hundred years ago, having electricity and running water was a luxury. Receiving an electric or water connection would have brought delight to a household. Today, those things are taken for granted. Riots can break out if they are denied.

During my childhood, owning a computer with an internet connection was a luxury. Today, we take it for granted that they are basic necessities.

We have taken something for granted when its presence does not increase our happiness, but its absence makes us unhappy. Throughout human history, breakthrough inventions of a certain era have been taken for granted thereafter.

To progress is to reach for something that we don’t already have. It is a destination that always looms on the horizon, but never arrives.

Why do hierarchies exist?

Early in my career as an engineer working for the Indian Space Research Organization, I was introduced to the rules of organizational hierarchy.

One day, I walked into the cabin of the general manager of our large spacecraft facility. I told her that I had a complaint. The soap we used to wash our hands in the canteen was watered down, and I told her how this got in the way of washing our hands properly. The general manager smiled at me, thanked me for my suggestion and told me that she would look into it.

A couple of hours later, my boss, who was several levels junior to the general manager, pulled me up to ask me if I had a problem with the soap in the canteen being too dilute. He then explained to me, rather calmly and patiently, that I wasn’t to speak about toilet soap to a general manager. If I had a complaint in the future, I was to speak to him first and only then escalate to higher levels.

Why do hierarchies exist within organizations? For a large part, they exist to address people’s status needs – to massage their egos, justify their salaries and to give them authority over other people. As I left my boss’s cabin, I recognized that I had hurt the general manager’s pride.

However, they also exist for another reason that I had missed back then.

People at every level within an organization need to spend their limited time and attention in solving the right problems. If the CEO of an organization was bothered about every lightbulb in the office or every laptop that needed fixing, she would never have the time to make the more important decisions – setting the company’s annual goals, steering its business strategy and fixing its cash flow problems. Hierarchies are also in place to streamline problems so that they are the best use of the time and the attention of the people who address them.

Today’s organizations are beginning experiment with flatter organization structures. Even as we work to replace them with alternatives that don’t have their flaws, we must ensure that they retain the benefits – one of which is ensuring that the right problem is presented to the right person.

I am disappointed to mention, however, that despite my complaint, the soap in the toilet continued to be dilute in my ex-employer’s washing facilities. In the wake of the recent pandemic, I hope that things are better today!

Why do we still wear uniforms?

Like most children in India, I wore a uniform to school.

Throughout my schooling, I never stopped to think about what uniforms were for. Think about the word ‘uniform’. A uniform surface is completely level, without pits and bumps. A uniform object meets spec in every respect. A uniform student is compliant without any sign of independent thought. Uniformity helps you fit in and prevents you from standing out.

Is that what school is for? To fit into a mold and not stand out? For unquestioned obedience rather than independent thinking?

Industrialists built the school system to ensure that you fit into their molds. But we have since moved on. Today schools need to nurture independent thinkers who can stand out. We need schools that celebrate the unique gift that each student can offer to the world. 

As long as a school can do that, I don’t have anything against school uniforms. 


Starting over

It is difficult to stop people from adding trash to a street that is already littered. A street that was once dirty is likely to remain that way.

Having invested several years in building a career, it is difficult to give it up despite hating it. Such a career feels familiar, and to discard it seems wasteful.

You need kindness to mend a relationship that has been broken due to years of strife. Yet, it is difficult for people to mend it because to them, dispute feels familiar and kindness feels alien.

Familiarity imprisons us. The means to free ourselves is to have the courage to start over – to approach something as if we are doing it the first time.

A mountain out of a mole-hill

I once had the privilege to trek with a unique trekking group.

On our treks, tents and GPS were prohibited. We would often choose to approach a climb from the most challenging face – one with sheer rock faces, thorny shrubs and dense vegetation. We would trek through the night rather than by daylight. At the end of each of our treks, we felt a surge of accomplishment since we strived so hard to get there.

The point of a trek isn’t to get to the end. The point is to enjoy the experience of getting there.

In several walks of life, we are often tunneled by what a particular destination has to offer us. Yet, the destination itself is but a tiny fragment of the experience. Most of our life is the journey we take to get there.

If you drove up a hill, you would not enjoy the view from the top as much as if you had hiked up its most challenging face. Enjoying the journey is also key to appreciating the destination.

Marketing in a nutshell

How can you tell if a product has been marketed well?

My marketing teacher from B-school gave me a useful thumb rule – having used a product, if you’re thinking about its price, it hasn’t been marketed well.

We buy a product only when we feel that it is worth more than what we paid for it. The job of a marketer is to render the price of a product irrelevant to its target customer. The higher the price, the more effective the marketing needs to be.

Why does this always happen to me?

Our line in the supermarket is always the one that moves the slowest. Except for the 4 out of 5 times when it doesn’t.

Our seat in the airplane always has the misfortune of having a wailing baby in the vicinity. Except the 9 out of 10 times when it doesn’t.

Pigeons seated overhead are always conspiring to excrete right on top us of. Except for the 9,999 of the 10,000 times when they don’t.

Why do our minds think that terrible things always seem to happen to us even when they are statistical rarities?

Contentment isn’t complacency

Several high performers consider contentment as detrimental to their success. How can one be contented, but continue to improve and do one’s best?

Both, a feeling of contentment and a burning desire, affect the state of our mind. Consider two persons at a negotiating table. The candidate who desperately desires a deal is terrified of losing it if. As a consequence, she is forced to accept lower terms. A candidate who is contented has more leverage. His mind is freed from the fear of loss and he is able to walk away from the deal if it doesn’t meet his expectations.

Desire can fuel us, but just as easily consume us. A contended mind is sharp because it is free from the anxiety that gets in our way of doing our best.