To design is to piss-off

A power-off button is redundant on a digital wrist watch.

On a wrist watch, every button is costly. It is an additional part that can fail or be misused – a chink in the device’s armour. Instead, digital watches are designed to run around the clock (literally) with minimal power. If the watch has a backlight, a button can be used to trigger it for a few seconds.

Yet, if you designed a digital watch with a power-off button, certain users will find creative, meaningful ways to put it to use. If you later decide to remove the power-button in the next version, these users will grumble and give it one-star reviews: ‘The power-button was this watch’s only redeeming feature. And now, it’s gone! — 1 star–‘

We are attached to seeing the world a certain way. We now live in an era where digital wrist watches themselves are redundant. Yet, people continue to buy them.

To design something is a decision to piss a certain group of people off. The only question a designer needs to ask is if they are pissing the right people off.

Get out of the way

Several tech giants have tried out the 20% passion project – Google, Atlassian, 3M and the like.

The concept is simple – employees receive about 20% of their work time to work on creative projects of their own liking. Often, these projects don’t have any relevance to the company’s core business (Atlassian is a software company, and ‘refined beer’ was one of its 20% projects). Nevertheless, these companies were able to reap rich rewards. Some of Google’s best products – Gmail and Google News – resulted from its 20% projects.

The key factor for success in such initiatives was that employees were allowed to innovate without formal management. But what does that tell us about leadership?

The traditional definition of leadership is to ensure that a team is ‘doing the right things’. It is to show people the way. Creativity, however, flourishes when leaders get out of the way and let people express themselves.

Leadership in an innovative firm in the 21st century is less about ‘showing the way’ and more about ‘getting out of the way’.

From tactics to strategy

In most chess positions, you can checkmate your opponent with three uninterrupted moves.

However, you never get to play three uninterrupted moves – your opponent’s moves get in the way. For every tactic you plan, your opponent is out to foil it with their defence or counter-play. Most tactics in chess never materialize on the board and it is frustrating to spend several precious minutes in planning but never be able to execute.

The solution is to move from tactics to strategy. A strategic principle is based on the manner in which the chess board and the chess pieces are designed. The center of the board more valuable than the edges. The way the pawns work make them stronger when placed side-by-side rather than far apart. Bishops and rooks work well together, and so do queens and knights. These principles are independent of the opponent’s next moves.

A chess-board is closed system that is entirely mathematical – the real world is far more complex. Several factors can negate our tactical plans week after week, quarter after quarter and year after year. Like chess tactics, most plans don’t materialize in the real world.

To go from tactics to strategy is to translate from the conditional to the unconditional.

Information fasting

Intermittent fasting is quite the rage in the 21st century – more so in the developed world. In a world where food is abundant, refraining from eating for 12-16 hours turns out to bestow incredible benefits.

Information fasting is the mental complement of intermittent fasting. In a world where information is abundant, cutting ourselves off from the constant feed 12-16 hours turns out to bestow incredible benefits.

Intermittent fasting is already popular. Information fasting is soon catching on.

Buy a whiteboard

Whiteboards help us strike balances.

Small letters are illegible on a whiteboard – they force you to think and write big. A whiteboard nudges you to extricate yourself from the details and think about the big picture – to strike a balance between the forest and its trees.

Secondly, whiteboards force you to scrawl in free-form. You cannot draw perfect rectangles and circles like you do in your PowerPoint presentation. Nuggets of creativity hide within the messiness and randomness of freehand drawing. A whiteboard helps you balance order with chaos.

Further, whiteboards can be erased. The scrawls, the ideas and the proposals are temporary. This allows us to write ideas down even though we are ready to let them go. A whiteboard helps you balance attachment with detachment.

A whiteboard is one the best gifts we have received. Buy a whiteboard, or better yet, gift one. Your ideas deserve them.

The bridge of boredom

I have recently learnt to juggle three balls, but haven’t mastered it yet.

I can perform about 5 throws and catches, without breaking a sweat. After the fifth throw, my mind gets bored. It assumes that it has mastered basic juggling and wanders off, thinking of the next trick I can learn. The moment my mind drifts off, the balls come crashing to the floor.

A wide chasm separates a learner from mastery – one that is bridged by boredom. A mind that is easily bored refuses to cross this bridge and wanders away after the next shiny thing. A disciplined mind musters the will necessary to get to the other side.

In the self-learning era of the internet, one of the biggest values of having a teacher or a learning cohort is to ensure you have the discipline to cross the bridge of boredom.

The bottomless ‘have-to’ list

I have to breathe.
I have to drink enough water.
I have to exercise regularly.
I have to eat healthy.
I have to meditate.
I have to get enough sleep.
I have to maintain a journal.
I have to read.
I have to pay my taxes.
I have to call home often.
I have to be prudent with my finances.
I have to start work on time everyday.
I have to stay in touch with my friends.
I have to grow in my career.
I have to start a side-business.
I have to worry about the Covid-19 spread in my home country.
I have to practice playing the guitar.
I have to be appreciated for my work.
I have to gift my partner on our anniversary.
I have to perfect my dal makhani recipe.
I have to stay up to watch my football team play.
I have to say something intelligent at the dining table.
I have to be invited to parties.
I have to visit the Amazon.
I have to buy the latest model of Google Pixel.
I have to stay informed about the US presidential election.
I have to learn how to cook Thai food.
I have to invest in skin care.
I have to go bungee jumping.
I have to renew my wardrobe.

The list of things that the mind feels obliged to do is endless. Like honey adulterated with molasses, the frivolous often blends in with the essential.

The extent of your freedom bears an inverse proportion to the length of your have-to list.

Joining the dots

I recently met a concert violinist turned software developer.

I asked him about the shift in careers and was surprised by his response. Music, he said, had much in common with computer science. He mentioned how both these worlds were essentially mathematical at their essence. Where most of us don’t see much of a connection, the parallels seemed obvious to him.

At the fundamental level, all knowledge is made out of the same dots – they are merely rearranged in different patterns. When you learn one field deep enough, you are able to deconstruct the patterns into the dots that comprise them.

Once you are able to see the dots, you can rearrange them into new patterns any way you like.

Stupidity as an investment

‘What the deuce is it to me? You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.‘ – Sherlock Holmes to Watson

‘His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge’, wrote Watson of Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes understood the constraints of his brain despite its remarkable potency. He realized that he couldn’t concern himself with non-essential facts. The price he paid for this discretion was to appear as stupid as a flat-earther in certain moments. Secure in his own competence, to appear stupid in certain worldly matters was Holmes’ strategic decision.

To appear informed on all manners of subjects is tempting – it is the easiest way to come across as knowledgeable at a restaurant table, in a drawing room or at a cocktail party. But this only feeds the hollow chambers of the ego at the expense of the well-springs of deep learning that lead to fulfilling life of scholarship and mastery.

We derive greater meaning in depth than in breadth. In the breadth of matters that don’t concern us, stupidity turns into an investment.

The bridge to mastery

A deep chasm separates an amateur from mastery. The bridge that spans across this chasm is practice. As an aspirant starts crossing the bridge, she meets three obstacles on the way.

The first obstacle is the people who don’t want you to succeed – the parent that questions your pursuit of an unusual hobby or the roommate who yells at your playing the same Pink Floyd song over and over.

If you don’t get past this obstacle, there is the commercial world promoting variety as an end in itself. If you practiced your violin instead of scrolling your feed to find out ‘what’s happening in the world’, how would the silicon valley founders secure their next round of funding?

The final obstacle is the most potent yet – your own mind’s excuses. A part of us is afraid of realizing our own potential. Boredom is the mask that the mind uses to disguise this fear. Of the three obstacles, the mind is the most crafty and dangerous. If you still insist on crossing the bridge, it threatens to throw you off the edge.

If your practice is good enough to overcome these obstacles, mastery awaits you on the other side.

Who is it not for?

Every ‘universal’ brand is in actually exclusive.

McDonalds excludes people who care about organic produce.

Ikea excludes homemakers who wish to personalize their living space.

Microsoft excludes geeks who are passionate about the open-source movement.

AirBnB excludes travellers who want a consistent hospitality experience.

The answer to ‘who is it for’ requires a clear understanding of ‘who is it not for’. If the answer is, ‘it is for everybody’, it ends up being for nobody.

To-do lists

The quickest way to organize a messy cupboard is to empty out the clothes on the floor and reorganize them.

The quickest way to get a bunch of stuff done is to empty out the tasks on a piece of paper and reorganize them.

To-do lists are simple, but surprisingly effective. That is why they are central to every project management system.

Watertight systems

When a joined a new job, in the very first week, I found a few of the colleagues who had started with me bragging about how they found loopholes to exploit in the timekeeping system.

The human mind is drawn to exploiting deviations. Let’s say that a city’s traffic has a compliance rate of 99%. In the absence of penalties, we are drawn to imitate the 1% who offend rather than the 99% who comply. With more offenders, the system can quickly devolve into chaos and turn the city’s roads into death traps.

The same is true of individual systems. It is easier for an environmentally friendly meat lover to turn 100% vegetarian than to be a 90% vegetarian.

Systems need to be ‘watertight’ because deviations tend to multiply. The smallest hole in the hull can quickly expand to sink an entire ship.

The water’s surface

If you were trying to read on a boat, it would be much easier if the water were calm.

The movements of the mind are but ripples on the water’s surface. A calm mind can helps you read, think and act with clarity.

When you sit down to meditate, observe the water’s surface.

Joy efficiency

A fuel efficient vehicle travels farther for a given amount of fuel.

Joy efficiency is the degree of joy one is able to harness from a given amount of material possession. A toddler bubbling in delight with a pile of sand is joy efficient. So is Mahatma Gandhi who led a full life despite deliberate poverty. On the other end of the spectrum is the billionaire who dispatches disgruntled tweets from the comfort of his private jet.

Fuel efficiency is a feat of engineering. With joy efficiency, we can even further. While fuel efficiency is governed by the rigid laws of thermodynamics, joy efficiency, like the human mind, knows no bounds.

People ahead of machines

The industrial revolution conditioned us to regard the machine as the central entity in the workplace.

As long as the machine ran, productivity was high. People organized their lives around the machine’s needs. They worked around the clock in shifts so that the machine can run on schedule. They performed only the tasks that the machine itself couldn’t perform. Machines were expensive and unique. Labour was cheap and replaceable. This led to a mindset of machines ahead of people.

This attitude prevailed not just in manufacturing companies, but across industries. At an insurance firm, for instance, the mere difference was that the machine was metaphorical.

21st century digitization is upending this order. The machines of this era are laptops powered by an internet connection. They are cheap, portable and replaceable. It is the people who operate them – developers, designers and product managers – that are rare and expensive.

Today, companies need to put people ahead of machines. The startups (upstarts!) that are organized around this principle are ousting the lumbering leviathans of the previous era.

Using options

Dealing with a three-year-old can be hard. Toddlers don’t like being told what to do. Parents often use options to get around this challenge.

‘Would you rather carry the fire-truck to your room or would you roll it there?’

Presented with options, the toddler now felt like she was in charge. She would proceed to roll the fire-truck to its rightful place.

Outside of raising children, I have seen a manager apply this principle to communicate difficult news to a client. We once needed to raise our prices to continue serving a client. Rather than simply tell the client to cough up more money, the manager presented them with options:

A. Reduce the scope of our service and sustain the existing price
B. Shut down the service with the loss being shared by both parties
C. Pay the higher price for sustaining the service

The client did end up paying the higher price, but did so willingly.

When forced to communicate a difficult decision, a set of well crafted options can serve as an effective tool in your persuasion toolkit.

How preparation enables spontaneity

The key to succeeding with every performance with an audience is to strike the right balance between spontaneity and preparation.

If an amateur public speaker steps up to speak with all spontaneity and no preparation, she is likely to stutter and stammer. If she is all preparation and no spontaneity, her speech would sound mechanical and scripted.

The right balance makes the best use of our limited working memory. Our memory is split into short term working memory and long term memory. Working memory works similar to a computer’s RAM. Too little spontaneity and performance is sub-optimal, because working memory is underutilized. Too much spontaneity and working memory is overloaded, causing stuttering and freezing like an overloaded processor.

Great performance is mostly about memory management. Preparation stores information in your abundant long-term memory, while freeing up your working memory for a spontaneity.

You have the right to feel that way

Everybody is entitled to their opinion.

The German word for perception is ‘Wahrnehmung’ – which literally translates to ‘truth taking’. Our experience of the world – what we see, touch, smell and feel – is the result of what our sense organs perceive. All of reality is perception. Therefore, reality is subjective.

Disagreement happens when two realities clash. Since reality is subjective, disagreements are inevitable.

‘You have the right to feel that way’ is a constructive means to begin any disagreement.

Harnessing the focusing illusion

Spend an hour reading up about a topic. Any topic. At the end of it, it will seem more important to you than when you started off.

Spend an hour reading about terrorism and you will temporarily find yourself more fearful of the ‘unknown enemy’. Spend an hour reading up about dolphin conservation and you will find yourself more inclined to make a donation. Nuclear waste, Catalonian independence and or even curling. The list goes on.

The things we focus on automatically assume more importance. Psychologists call this tendency of our brains the ‘focusing illusion’.

The focusing illusion often leads us to fall prey to manipulation. Tech companies send us frequent notifications to raise their importance in our heads. Politicians scare us by focusing our attention on remote threats. Marketers create ads and send us promotional email to have us focus on their brand.

However, you could harness this tendency to your advantage. If whatever you focus on turns important, choose what to focus on. If you want to exercise more often, look at videos or articles on fitness. If you wish to adopt a vegan diet, look at recipes, videos and articles on veganism. If you can’t stick to a practice schedule with the electric guitar, immerse yourself in classic rock and heavy metal for a couple of hours every week.

Our thinking has its vulnerabilities. While being wary of exploitation, you might as well hack them to your advantage.