Base rate neglect and career regret

Read the description of Shyam – an Indian person selected at random. Shyam’s neighbour describes him as follows:

Shyam is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with little interest in people or in the world of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure, and a passion for detail.

Is Shyam more likely to be a librarian or a farmer?

Most people would guess Shyam to be a librarian – his personality matches that of a stereotypical librarian. But most people also end up neglecting statistical information that is highly relevant here. The number of farmers in India is at least 30 times more than the number of librarians. Given Shyam was an Indian person selected at random, it is far more likely for him to have been a farmer than a librarian. Although this is objective truth, it is hard for our minds to digest.

Daniel Kahneman provides the example above (which I have adapted for an Indian setting), to illustrate base rate neglect. The faster, more automatic parts of our brains jump to conclusions all the time without pausing to think about statistical information. Experts across fields, including statisticians, are prone to committing this error.

Neglecting base rate information while choosing careers, however, can be a deadly mistake. At any point, careers that are most accessible are also the ones that are statistically significant. In most parts of India, people are likely to have easier access to a career in farming than within libraries. And yet, when our minds and most people around us cannot reconcile our personalities with the jobs we are in, we end up feeling that we are stuck in the wrong job.

A good reason why “follow your passion” is bad career advice is because of base rate neglect. The alternative here is that every student ought to be given information about base rates and where they are headed in the next five years before selecting their degrees of specialization. Most governments can collect this information and make them available quite easily. This information could also inform policy in education.

But most importantly, it can rescue large sections of people feeling as though they are stuck in the “wrong jobs” for large portions of their lives. The first requirement for any dream job is that the market needs it.

Inspiration: Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

Aiming our mental shotguns

Our minds work like shotguns – not like precision rifles. Our thoughts are scattered in a particular direction as opposed to being razor focused on one thing. Fingerprints remind us of detectives. Chennai brings to mind a hot and humid climate. Christmas triggers thoughts about Santa Claus and decorated trees, while Florida reminds us of conservative seniors.

Neurons that fire together wire together.

Advertisers have known this all along. Brands try their best to associate themselves with things we celebrate. Cadbury launches several ads and changes its packaging during the festival of Diwali. Coca Cola had the audacity to be synonymous with “happiness” (and has largely succeeded). When we hear an ad-jingle or see something that resembles a logo, our mind is reminded of a particular brand. This reaction is unconscious.

Teams that build these brands invest a lot of thought on what they mean and what they signal to their customers. They handpick the colours they use, the words they choose and the brand-ambassadors that represent them. A successful brand presents a picture that is coherent in the minds of its customers.

Similarly, people who are coherent with their ideas on what they stand for, have fewer mental conflicts. A person who shows up everyday, is on time, and meets her deadlines signifies consistency, punctuality and professionalism. Being conscientious is to aim one’s mental shotgun and hit the same virtues again and again – the ones that we are proud of. People who invest this effort are comfortable in their own skin.

But the ones who do this are surely a minority. It is surprising how little time we spend thinking about what we represent – to the world as well as to ourselves. I’d reckon we leave money on the table and a hole in our souls by not doing so – holes that a few brands are happy to fill and money that they are happy to pocket.

Success with meditation

Meditation* is hard. It is difficult to confront the dreadful thoughts swimming around in our head. I have built a regular meditation practice only after several false starts. Based on my experience, here are my two cents.

The way we think about meditation can end up making it a lot harder. The world has trained us to think of success as parts of a perfect whole – such as scoring 95 out of 100 on a test, or 9 on 10 in a performance appraisal. Applying the same yardstick though would defeat the very purpose of mindfulness meditation. There is no test.

In that case, how do we practice meditation? How do we get better at it?

Success with meditation is every bit of attention we pay to our state of mind. It is about returning to a state of presence and attention. As we notice ourselves drifting away into the illusory world of thought and emotion, the practice is to notice whatever we feel in that moment. Success is not about concentrating or being free of thought, but the interruption of conditioned response.

With sufficient practice, I have observed myself doing this often in a variety of situations – when I stop listening to somebody who is speaking to me, when I am unable to focus on a book, or when the crises in my head multiply, fueled by my anxious thoughts. 

Chade-Meng Tan likens the state of mind to a flag. While it continues to flutter, a good meditation practice ensures that it stays anchored to a post.

Inspiration – Jack Kornfield’s podcast featuring Chade-Meng Tan

*I refer to mindfulness meditation in this post

Passing time vs. Spending time

How do you think of your spare time? Do you find ways to pass it or spend it?

How about money? We all spend money. But passing money is so absurd that isn’t even a part of our vocabulary. We all know that money is hard-earned, scarce and that it doesn’t grow on trees.

For most of us who come from a position of privilege, time is scarcer than money. In the evening of their lives, most people regret not having spent their time one way or the other. Not their money. But our language doesn’t acknowledge that. Yet.

Perhaps someday, passing time would sound as absurd as passing money.

Better through origin stories

One of my favourite TV shows was How it’s Made. This show breaks down the process of how everyday products such as trumpet horns, ice-cream and padlocks are made on industrial assembly lines. What made it interesting was that so much procedure and care went into making even the simplest things we take for granted. The show told us the origin stories behind the stuff we use everyday.

Last weekend, I was at Urban Nation, a free art gallery in Berlin that celebrates Berlin’s iconic street-art. As soon as we entered the building a pamphlet told me about how Urban Nation, against all odds, secured funding to house 26 artists in apartments nearby for fixed periods of time to focus exclusively on socially relevant art. The gallery is also filled with the tools that the artists use – spray cans, brushes, face masks, helmets etc. Certain sections have videos of interviews of artists telling us what they believe in and how they work. All of this makes those paintings on the wall come alive for its audience.

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A life well lived is one filled with appreciation. We appreciate everything better, even the mundane stuff we use everyday, once we know their origin stories. People care about origin stories – ones that make a product or service better in a world filled with cheaper alternatives.

It is easier than ever to tell our origin stories today.

Speed: Velocity :: Busyness: ?

Middle school physics taught us to distinguish velocity from speed. Velocity is movement with purpose. It not only denotes how far one goes, but also the direction of travel. One could travel a large distance in a circular track without displacing themselves by very much.

Busyness is the “speed” at which our day progresses. Busyness constitutes all that is urgent, and is not restricted to the important. Busy governs several of our lives, but we can all relate to being busy without getting much done.

If speed is analogous to busyness, we need an equivalent term for velocity.

Striving to make it easier

Since the beginning of human evolution, we have been training our memory. And yet, most of us struggle with people’s names. Let us look at two powerful ways to make remembering easier.

The first technique is called memory palace, and used by several professionals in memory competitions. Let us say you wish to remember a list. The idea is to walk around a space that you know well, such as your house or your neighbourhood, and mentally plant each item on this list somewhere in this space. Let’s say your shopping list has avocados, coconut oil and almonds, imagine an avocado rolling on your welcome mat, coconut oil spilled on your couch and almonds grinding on your kitchen top. This technique harnesses our spatial memory skills, which we developed during eons of living as hunter-gatherers.

The second technique is the use of rhythm and rhymes. I remember hundreds of verses of Sanskrit text (shlokas) without knowing their meaning. Shlokas were written with a strict meter and rhythm that made suitable for memorization. The Mongolian armies of Genghis Khan often formulated battle tactics in rhymes. People who design catchy slogans and taglines understand the need for simplicity and rhythm around the words they use, to make these messages stick to people’s minds.

And yet, these techniques are not put to use by most students or by people who need to train their memory. They often require a lateral investment in creative effort before they yield results – efforts we are not likely to put in under examination stress. But just like training our muscles, they grow easier with each attempt.

Making things easier often requires some creativity and courage to depart from the difficult things we have been doing for years. That investment, if made wisely, can often yield compounding returns.

They won’t make you happy

Consider the following questions:

“How important in your life is the car you drive?”

“How badly do you need a more advanced model of refrigerator?”

“How much do you value the casual conversations you have with your friends?”

Given how our minds work, it’s quite likely that we answer two out of three of those questions incorrectly. Psychologists attribute this to the focusing illusion. We are prone to overestimate the importance of our cars and refrigerators as we think about them. Nothing is as important as it seems when we are thinking about it.

If you own a car, and somebody were to ask you how important it was, instances of having used the car come to your mind. As smartphone users, most of us cannot imagine a normal life without one. But if you posed the same question to a person who does not own a car, or to somebody who lost their smartphone and resisted the urge to replace it that very evening, a different picture emerges.

When we buy a new car or appliance, for the first few days, we are filled with thoughts about our decision and we engage with the novelty with enthusiasm. But as the days roll by, those things slips into the background of our lives. This is true of most things that celebrities endorse. If a car is dependent on a supermodel or your favourite footballer to catch your attention, its makers are priming you to overestimate its importance.

Think of people’s biggest regrets as they age or when they are diagnosed with terminal illness. Not many people regret not having bought this car or that house. They instead regret not having made something or not having cultivated a relationship.

As humans, we have a 10,000+ year old legacy of making things faster, more efficient and shinier. But we also have an equally long legacy of them not making us happier as their consumers.

Inspiration: Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

Saving every drop of attention

A car is a packaging of wonderfully controlled explosions to produce smooth forward motion. Most mass-market cars come with 4 cylinders, which explode 8000 times every minute, when we rev up to a modest 4000 revolutions per minute (RPM).

All of these explosions generate tremendous heat. A coolant cruises through a car’s plumbing, ensuring that this heat doesn’t cause a meltdown in the middle of a deserted highway. When the car is in motion, the cooling system works full swing to keep the temperature under control. When the car rests, the coolant returns to room-temperate. If there is a leak in the cooling system, the car steadily loses its cooling capacity and must be replenished frequently.

An automobile’s cooling capacity is a determinant of how well it can function. Our attention works in the same manner. All of us are given a finite amount of attention to “spend” on any given day. Rest and relaxation restores our capacity for attention. Distractions and interruptions leak away our attention, limiting our mental capacity.

The worth of our attention is reflected in the valuation of internet giants such as Apple, Google and Facebook. It is great business to go around with a vessel and collect all the attention that leaks away each time people glance at their mobile phones, binge-stream videos or scroll through feeds. Way better business apparently, than manufacturing car coolants. How many car coolant companies can you name?

Our attention is our capacity for doing work that matters most to us – work that develops us and create moments that make us happy. We’d do well to save every drop of it.

Why sportspersons retire at their peak

I have often wondered why athletes like to retire at the top of their game. It takes years for them to get to the top. Given that is true, why do they wish to leave the moment they hit the topmost point? Wouldn’t it benefit them, their colleagues, their clubs or their countries if they stuck around a little longer? Sure, they might slide down from their peak, but they would still be way better than their replacements.

At most farewell speeches, we hear that they wish to “make way for the younger generation”. But this is ironical, because these same folks would not did not dream of retiring as they were still striving to reach their peak. In other words, they retire precisely in the moment that they are most useful for their teams, even as they stayed on in while performing at a lower level.

The real reasons are embedded in how we perceive our lives. The psychologist Ed Diener a thought experiment with a fictitious character called Jen who lives a fulfilling life, with a successful career and several happy moments to the age of 60. Jen never married and has no children. Now here we are faced with two versions of how her story ends: first, at the age of 60, Jen meets with a car accident that ends her life instantly and painlessly. Second, Jen lives for five more years that were pleasant, but not as happy or successful as her 60 years in the past. She then dies in a car crash at the age of 65. Which of the two lives is more desirable?

In Diener’s study, people overwhelmingly rated the first alternative as better. This is an interesting choice, because the second alternative clearly has everything the first one does, and more. But more isn’t necessarily better when it comes to how we evaluate our lives or our legacies. Instead, we attach more importance to the peak and the end. Kahneman calls this the “peak-end rule”. Further, we are indifferent to the 5 extra years that a person gains while not at their peak. He calls this phenomenon “duration neglect”.

Every human being’s evaluation of their lives is a narrative in which they are the heroes. These narratives are influenced by the peak-end rule and duration neglect. The real reason sportspersons retire at the top is because their legacy is significantly better that way. Due to duration neglect, they do no prolong their careers. And when they retire or eventually pass away, their tributes and obituaries often point to their most glorious moments.

“He shall be always remembered for that six that won India the cricket world-cup.”

“They don’t care for the years of sweat and toil I have poured into this company.”

These principles apply more broadly outside the sporting world. In effect, people are likely to neglect how long we associate with them, instead remembering us for either the peak moments or for how things ended with us. It pays to attend to those moments more carefully.

Inspiration: Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

How wisdom is “timeless”

Twenty-three hundred years ago Aristotle concluded that, more than anything else, men and women seek happiness. 

That is the first sentence from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s  seminal book, Flow. Csikszentmihalyi (the author with my favourite surname) goes on to point out how despite progressing by leaps and bounds in several ways since Aristotle’s time, our understanding of happiness is no better than his.

This principle applies more broadly to all matters pertaining wisdom. Most of our “progress” has happened in the realm of knowledge. Knowledge is cumulative: each one of us knows more about the world than our ancestors did. While they thought that diseases were caused by evil spirits entering bodies, we know about pathology. While Aristotle assumed that the sun and the planets revolve around the earth, we know better today. When Newton mentioned standing on the shoulders of giants to see further, he was talking about knowledge.

Despite people trying to pass on wisdom, it does not accumulate. Wisdom is analogous to growing up. We are not able to “pass-on” having grown up to our children. Regardless of its parents’ age, every baby has to start from scratch as a zygote in a womb and work its way up to grow into an adult. Of course, some children grow better than others because they receive the right nutrition and care. The wisdom we are handed down are merely that – favourable conditions for us to acquire this wisdom ourselves rather than theorems and formulas to be employed readily. Self-help comes with a bad rep because it promises short-cuts to wisdom, which only experience can truly internalize.

Knowledge is like an infinite ladder, perpetually extending in one direction. Each generation starts off at the rung that the previous one has climbed to. Wisdom is said to be timeless. That is probably a kinder way of saying that each generation’s wisdom dies and withers away along with its passing.

Taking the outside view

Amateur salespersons write their pitches to make themselves look good. Professionals realize that a good sale happens when a customer feels good about themselves.

People don’t share something they find online merely because it’s cool. They do it because the act of sharing makes them look better.

The toughest part is to strike a balance between looking good, and making other people feel better about themselves.

We could start with what we forward online – to think of forwards from the receiver’s rather than the sender’s perspective. The internet would become a better place that way.

Biting off too much

On long Himalayan treks, it is interesting how the destination keeps changing the moment we get somewhere. When we start, we have a particular point in sight. When we reach there, we see further (and higher) to where we need to get next. This process keeps repeating itself until we finally arrive at our final destination a week later. Looking at our course one piece at a time keeps us motivated and pushes us further. Alternatively, it would have been intimidating to see the entire route of the trek the instant we started. That would have put more than a few of us off from even attempting the trek in the first place.

The same principle applies for several other endeavours – with writing a book, learning a new language, finishing a PhD or mastering a martial art form. Experts in a particular field often appear mystical to us because watching them work is analogous to seeing the entire course of the trek in one glimpse.

There is comfort in having a destination to travel towards, but several times, our destination is revealed to us only once we embark on the journey itself. And that is a good thing!

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” – E.L. Doctorow

Learning in chunks

In the early 90’s, Swimming coach Terry Laughlin devised a then novel method called Total Immersion to teaching swimming. He broke down an effortless, streamlined freestyle technique into a series of drills, each of which combine to produce a smooth and flawless stroke. He then published these drills as lessons online. I have taken these lessons, and within a few months of weekend practice, I could go from swimming 50 m to save my life to swimming a kilometer without breaking a sweat.

At the heart of the Total Immersion method is chunking. Chunking is a term used in neuroscience, to describe the transformation a skill from a conscious and deliberate action to an unconscious skill. While Laughlin applied it to swimming, it can be adopted to learn any skill. It involves the following steps:

1. Break a large skill down to a set of micro-skills, to focus on one at a time. – A freestyle stroke maybe broken down into swinging the elbow around, stroking wide, the arm entering the water without a splash etc.

2. Practice the micro-skill over and over, until it becomes an unconscious action.

3. Learn all the individual micro-skills, slowly integrating them into the major skill itself.

4. Perform a major skill unconsciously by stitching together all the now unconscious micro-skills.

The technique of chunking can be used by coaches and students alike, to master a complex skill by breaking it down into its fundamental constituents.

Inspiration: Learning how to master any new skill – Total Immersion blog

A cockroach in a bowl of cherries

One cockroach can ruin a bowl of cherries but one cherry can do nothing for a bowl of cockroaches – Daniel Kahneman.

Our amygdala, the seat of unconscious fear in our brain, is masterful at sensing negative information. A terrified pair of eyes were flashed on a screen for 2/100th of a second. None of its viewers could consciously recognize it, but their amygdala could pick them up. A similar effect was not observed with a pair of smiling eyes. Further, one angry face stands out in a crowd of happy faces. But a happy face does not pop out of an angry crowd.

Our mind’s bias for negativity turns news and social media into whirlpools of despair. It is no surprise that an algorithm that maximizes our attention does so using endless streams of sensational information that is predominantly negative. These algorithms or the people who run these corporations aren’t evil. They are just feeding our brains what we are most likely to notice.

Our bias for negativity served us well in a hostile world. Our ancestors in the jungle who noticed the grass move and suspected it to be a lion were more likely to survive and pass on their genes. Negativity is a blessing in a dangerous world, where death could come at the hands of beasts of prey, mysterious disease or widespread warfare. A lucky person could survive past 30 in such a world – and the ones who did ended up propagating a bias for negativity. Today, with several actuarial tables crossing 70 years, our bias for negativity is vestigial at the very least.

Sadly, the connection between a hostile world and the negativity bias is reinforced both ways. If negativity was beneficial in a hostile environment, our bias for negativity tends to turn a peaceful world more hostile. It pushes us to war, danger and tribalism. We see how these topics dominates political discourse across the world today. 

To work against this innate bias is to swim against the current. A fine start would be to design better algorithms that are purposeful – or at the very least, are not programmed with advertising revenue as their ultimate goal.

It has taken us millions of years in an unfriendly world to construct one around the ideals of peace, happiness and fraternity. But we are yet to realize how fragile these values are.

Inspiration: Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

Looking at religion like never before

We live in an era when religion is losing its hold on human behaviour for the first time since we crawled out of the jungles. There has never been a better period in human history to deconstruct religion.

What do all religions have in common?

It is naive to think of all religions being the same. The more we learn about each religion, the more we see how radically different each one is. It is no accident that the people who interpret each religion in the strongest terms are called radicals.

But every religion aims to help its followers live harmoniously in large communities. While we humans have always been social animals, anthropologists like Yuval Noah Harari and Jared Diamond have pointed out how we lived in tribes not larger than 150 people for the longest periods. Organized religion puts community living on steroids. When millions of people follow the same rules and believe the same stories, they turn trustworthy in each others eyes. Even in parts of the world where human civilization evolved independently, such as Mesopotamia, China and North America, religion was central to people’s lives.

So how does religion help foster communities? To nurture a community, we need a system of rewards and punishments. People who serve the community’s interests are rewarded, while those who work against it are punished. While each religion’s mythology might be different, their rules are aimed at primary two things – to serve the greater good of the community of the faithful, and to punish the unfaithful. This punishment was necessary to avoid pretenders and free-riders from benefiting from the community’s hard work. Of course, it helped to have an omnipresent and omniscient being to keep watch all the time.

And yet, the 20th century saw the start of an interesting phenomenon. For the first time in human history, large sections of the world have started discarding religion.

As we have seen, every religion is merely a system of rewards and punishments. Just like most other carrot-and-stick systems, it is prone to substitution. Nationalism, social security, health insurance and democratic governments can all serve certain functions that religion did. Large parts of the western world have already discarded religion. This is because religion is past its shelf life in these parts of the world.

For centuries now, religion has worn a halo that has prevented most of its followers from deconstructing its true purpose. Today, several parts of the world have social structures that serve as its substitutes. We are fortunate to live at a time when this shift is happening, that helps us see religion differently from our forefathers – for what religion is, free from its mysticism and its halo.

Inspiration: Creating God – An episode of the podcast ‘Hidden Brain’

The good stuff sticks

Paulo Coelho is a unique writer. He does not take or organize notes. He simply lives each experience in the moment, and when he sits down to write, the words simply come to him.

Our minds are incredibly good at gleaning the essence from crucial experiences. We can list out the books that have had the greatest impact on our lives. We remember our best teachers from school and our most inspired moments at work. We also remember surprise parties, delightful vacations and the extraordinary kindness that strangers have shown to us. The good stuff sticks.

But a feeling of scarcity often prevents us from living certain moments to their fullest. When I am in the midst of an inspiring book, I am often a little anxious about how I would remember and internalize its lessons. This stress, conditioned through two decades of an education system steeped in rote learning, gets in the way of enjoying the book. Part of my mental faculty is invested in trying to remember what I read rather than paying attention and immersing myself in the author’s message. Reading the book this way might help me remember a little more, but in the process, I have traded off depth for breadth. On most days of the week, depth beats breath.

The alternative is to immerse one’s self in each learning experience, trusting that we would retain whatever is important. Sure, we could take notes later – recall is an excellent hack for learning something well. But the pressure of making “good” notes ought to not dilute the experience of learning in the moment. That is too dear a price to pay.

It takes courage and a posture of abundance to meet a blank page like Coelho does – abundance that lets us enjoy every meal of our lives rather than stuff ourselves silly when we encounter something good.

Credits: The title of this post is inspired by a Cal Fussman anecdote featuring Harry Crews

Premortems ahead of postmortems

The wisdom that hindsight offers us helps us carry out postmortems even if we are no experts with bringing a scalpel to cadavers. The only problem? The disasters that teach us so well are already behind us.

The psychologist Gary Klein proposes that we do a premortem instead. At the start of a project a team of decision makers imagines its state one year into the future. They assume that it has turned into a complete disaster! The team then takes about 10 or 15 minutes to write down why they thought it was a failure. They then discuss what each of them have written down.

The premortem is a remarkable exercise for several reasons. Firstly, it offers a deliberate counter to our bias for optimism that often blinds us towards risks. Second, it prevents group-think by having each member write down what they feel. Thirdly, it makes it acceptable to think of doomsday scenarios, speak uncomfortable truths and deliver bad news. Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, it favours intervention before the patient is dead.

Our bias towards optimism and hindsight are innate tendencies that are hard to counter. To mitigate their flip-sides, all we need to do is to act as if disaster has already happened in the future, and work backwards from there. By doing so, we salvage projects before they overrun schedules and run out of budget, as most projects do.

Inspiration: Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

Returning to happiness

Happiness, the thing all of us seek the most, is also most mysterious. While a precise definition for happiness continues to elude us, our vocabulary hints at the lens we use to view it.

It is common to hear people in the west talk about becoming happy. The western idea of happiness is something that is attained. Life’s purpose is seen as the pursuit of happiness. Happiness is seen in buying a Tesla, going on a hike or achieving a personal goal. It is a state or an ideal that we are far from, but strive towards.

Several eastern philosophies take the opposite view. They consider happiness as the default state that we depart from. A mindfulness practice is all about returning to the aliveness, the happiness and the bliss that was always within us. Rather than be lost in thought or activity, the practice of meditation directs our attention to the happiness that already exists within us. Therefore, happiness is not something to pursue, but a refuge that to return to after wandering away.

This distinction is worth pondering about – if what we seek lies within us, it is quite wasteful to look everywhere else. We talk a lot about the pursuit of happiness. We need to talk more about returning to happiness.

Inspiration: Jack Kornfield’s conversation with Chade-Meng Tan

What Twitter got right

The only real Twitter feature is the character limit. That such a constraint can even be an advantage is noteworthy, let alone helping Twitter become a social media giant.

Not all constraints are bad. Traffic rules, queues and data privacy laws make our lives better. Twitter’s character forces people to communicate the essence of their thoughts, and rewards them for it. Sure – you can start tweetstorms, but they are more inconvenient than free-flowing prose in a status window. And that deliberate inconvenience has boosted Twitter 261 million strong user base, and pushed its market cap past $30 billion.

At the heart of embracing constraints is the humility required to understand that our “free-will” is constantly limited, distorted and manipulated by our environment. This humility frees us to redesign our environments, add constraints and nudge ourselves to go where we seek to go.