An image of the mind

Programmers can tell a lot about how a person thinks by looking at their code.

A piece of code is a reflection of the mind. It is akin to a blueprint for a house. When you look at a blueprint, you can instantly tell if the house has been designed well. If you notice, for instance, that the shower is located inside the kitchen, you’ll instantly know that something is amiss. Programmers can interpret computer code in similar terms.

More broadly, the same principle applies to writing. You can read a piece of writing and tell if the author’s thinking on the topic is clear. Readable text that is logical and flows freely is a reflection of clear thinking. If you have to read and reread a paragraph to understand its meaning, the author’s confusion has been transmitted to your mind via their writing.

Writing is a great way to organize your thinking, because when you write, you are forced to spill out all the contents of your mind – confusion and all- on paper. By reorganizing the words on paper, you are also reorganizing your thoughts on the topic to make them coherent, cogent and clear.

Speed and efficiency

The people with the fastest typing speeds aren’t the best writers.

Elite long distance runners do most of their training at a pace much slower than their race pace. The key to running fast is to train slow.

A good programmer isn’t necessarily the fastest programmer. A good programmer takes the time to edit and rewrite her code to make it readable, maintainable and efficient.

We often confuse speed for efficiency. To be efficient is to take the time to do things right.

When was the last time?

As a bachelor in Hyderabad, I enjoyed going on long cycling rides. Every weekend, I used to ride about 80-100 kilometers across the green outskirts of my city along with a jolly bunch of fellow riders.

It has been more than 6 years since my last ride in Hyderabad. Ever since, I haven’t gone on a single such cycle ride. Yet, if you had told me after that ride that I would go 6 years without doing something like this, I would not have believed you.

When was the last time

  • you attended a concert?
  • played a team sport you really enjoy?
  • went for a walk just to go for a walk?
  • reread a book you always meant to read again?
  • went on a trek?
  • studied a course?

We have already had some of our best experiences for the last time, although we failed to realize this when we go through them. Understanding how scarce our best experiences are helps us savour them in the moments we are having them.

Inspiration: Sam Harris

The smartphone void

Most of us will find it hard to stay separated from our smartphone for a month.

What about a week? How would it feel if you did not have any access to your phone for an entire week?

If that is too hard, what about going for an entire day without a smartphone?

Say you notice that your smartphone is low on charge as you step outside the house, and don’t take it with you. In that moment, does it feel strange to remove the phone out of the pocket and leave it behind?

Does your smartphone accompany you to sleep? What would it feel like to not have it by your bedside?

There is a time interval for which every smartphone user will miss not having one around. How small does that interval need to be for it to register an alarm?

An exercise in humility

An argument is only half as good once I have written it down. This has often been my experience from writing this blog.

An argument we feel strongly about isn’t necessarily a strong argument. When you write an argument down, the feeling gives way to cold words on paper that are stripped of emotion. A written argument without its emotion has its weak logic exposed.

An argument always seems more potent in our minds than in reality. Staring at a blank page is a great antidote to this illusion.

The effect and cause trap

Celebrities lead lavish lives. Their fans sometimes also try and lead lavish lives to be celebrated and admired.

Yet, the reason they admired those celebrities are because they are great actors, entrepreneurs, sportspersons etc., and not because of their lifestyle.

Startups that need to scale often hire a bunch of talented people, hoping that all those people will help them grow at a rapid rate. If it helped Twitter and Uber scale, the same might work for them?

Yet, they often forget how Twitter and Uber scaled mainly because they had a great product – not because of how large their headcount was.

Athletes often endorse the high-end models of certain sporting brands. This tempts their young fans to also splurge on this equipment, in the hope that it will elevate their own game.

Yet, replacing standard sporting equipment with a high-end variant doesn’t really boost sporting performance.

The effect of celebrity is living it up. The effect of building a successful product is the need to hire a large team. The effect of being a world-class athlete is the privilege to endorse certain brands. Only too often, we mistake these effects for causes.

Cause and effect. In that order.

Bearing the unbearable

Have you ever experienced a feeling that was unbearable?

We have all had moments of pain, sorrow, anxiety and stress that have felt unbearable in that moment. Yet, after having experienced those feelings, we are still here. It turns out that we did bear them – that we were capable of bearing them.

The moment you experience discomfort, you have already borne it. What makes something feel unbearable is the fear of having to bear it in the next moment. Understanding this fear gives us the strength to bear that which was once unbearable.

Inspiration: Sam Harris

Protect the work

One of the best ways to grow your career as a good developer is to share your expertise with a community of fellow developers.

In every field, a handful of good developers write articles and speak at conferences about what they have learnt. These contributions often accelerate their careers.

However, there comes a point where these developers become inundated with speaking engagements, employment opportunities and other demands for their time. At that point, it is crucial for them to prioritize. They need to ensure that their other engagements do not come at the cost of writing code that is useful.

And yes, this principle applies to every other creative profession as well.

We often mistake interest in our work for its affirmation and approval. If we wish to preserve our creative edge, we must ensure that our other engagements do not come at the cost of whatever earned us those engagements in the first place – doing the work.

Inspiration: Maria Popova

This isn’t going well

Perhaps you were distracted this entire morning. Yet, there is no reason this evening cannot be one filled with focus and purpose.

Perhaps 50 minutes of an hour-long meeting didn’t lead anywhere. Yet, the 10 minutes that remain can spark something phenomenal.

Halfway into your workout, you catch yourself slacking off. Yet, you can push for the second half to be the toughest in a long time.

In the midst of an experience, we sometimes realize that it isn’t going well. In the moment, there is no reason why we cannot turn things around.

The power of instruction

My remote yoga sessions start with a pre-recorded warm-up routine.

With time, I knew the warm up session by-heart. I then stopped using the video and performed the routine from memory. However, I noticed a curious change. Somehow, the routine felt more boring, more tiring and more difficult to perform. I often ended up half-assing the warm up routine, which eventually led me to half-assing my entire yoga session.

I then went back to using the recorded warm-up video, and found that the rigour was back! I also enjoyed my sessions more. The reason this happened was because I no longer needed to spend precious mental energy on thinking about the warm-up routine while performing it. I no longer needed to keep count or keep track of which exercise was next. I simply followed along with the video.

Even if we know precisely what to do, we benefit from coaches and trainers. While they keep track of our training plans and routines, they liberate us to focus 100% on our performance and on improving it.

PS: My wonderful yoga instructor happens to be my mother. Happy Mother’s day!

I am just one person

How much power do you have over your fellow human beings?

Have you had a family member who has changed the course of your life? Have you had a friend who has intervened in a time of crisis?

Have you had a teacher, a boss, or a colleague, who inspired you to transform as a person?

Have you had a waiter at a restaurant or a security guard made you smile and filled you with warmth in the tiny interaction they have had with you?

Everyday, we are on the other side of all those equations. As family, friends, colleagues, bosses and customers, we all have tremendous power over the people we interact with. What’s more? This is just as true for the investment banker, as it is for the social worker. It is just as true for the CEO of a company as it is for its janitor.

Philanthropy is far more accessible than we think it is. It is available to each one of us, in every moment. Once we realize this, how are we going to show up in ways that we can be proud of?

Van Gogh without his art

We often hear people talk about how genius and insanity are intertwined.

Van Gogh is often portrayed as the tortured artist who struggled with mental illness throughout his life, which he eventually took. People celebrate Van Gogh’s genius, but often pity that it came at such a dear cost to his mental health and his well-being.  If that is the price for genius, is it really worth paying?

We often ask if it is Van Gogh’s art that fueled his mental illness and pushed him over the edge. Yet, we forget to ask ourselves another question – how many people suffer from mental illness, but are unable to create valuable art? How many people suffer from depression, but do not paint The Starry Night or Sunflowers? Unfortunately, far more people suffer from mental illness without creative genius to accompany it.

Sunflowers – Vincent Van Gogh

Seen another way, Van Gogh’s art didn’t cost him his life – it redeemed it. His art filled his otherwise tragic and meaningless life with some purpose. Without his art, Van Gogh would have merely been a poor man who suffered from mental illness in the Dutch countryside – one among millions of such people that we have long forgotten.

Inspiration: Maria Popova

‘Why didn’t you speak up earlier?’

A problem that most bosses, managers and CEOs have is a dearth of constructive feedback from their subordinates. When a small disagreement within their team snowballs into a large conflict, they often wonder why somebody did not speak up earlier.

The feedback we receive falls into one of three categories

– What we want to receive

– What we are open to receiving

– What we do not want to receive

From peers and subordinates, we only receive feedback of the first two kinds. It is only natural that they don’t tell us what we do not wish to hear, until things boil over.

Further, the kind of feedback we receive is largely a function of how much vulnerability we display. A boss who is always defending herself and covers up her mistakes is likely to receive much praise, but never any constructive feedback. Unfortunately, this only reinforces their sense of invulnerability.

Growth lies in feedback that is unpleasant, but that which we are open to receiving.

As a leader, if you don’t receive constructive feedback from your team, it is mostly because you aren’t ready to receive it yet. What can you do to change that? How can you signal that you are open to critique?

Becoming

Have you become the person you wanted to be?

We often ask ourselves and other people this question. Let us pause and break it down.

Asking this question is analogous to asking a traveller, ‘have you arrived at your destination?’. When we ask this question, we think of our identity as being a destination to arrive at.

When I accomplish _________, I will have arrived.

However, as long as we are alive, we humans are always striving to grow, explore and learn new things. Our natural state of being is to live a life that is dynamic – one where we are in flux. On the contrary, arriving somewhere is static. Once you have arrived, there is nowhere else to go.

To be human is to continue to journey as long as we live. Throughout our lives, we are continually in a state of ‘becoming’. Our life’s goal is an active verb – not a static destination. We only arrive when we finally die.

Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think that they’re finished. – Daniel Gilbert

Inspiration: Maria Popova

The meditation movement

We all know that our physical capabilities can be fundamentally expanded.

Despite being physically mature, we know that we can, through physical training, we can further our physical capabilities. Several adults lose tens of kilograms, learn to swim, train hard and manage to compete in triathlons well into their middle age. Our physical capabilities aren’t fixed – they can be expanded through physical training, and our culture celebrates the people who achieve this.

However, when it comes to our minds, we believe that once we are grown up, there is little scope for fundamental change. We believe children’s minds to be malleable, capable of learning new languages and being trained in wonderful new ways. Yet, we believe our own minds to be hardened and incapable of much change. There is no equivalent in the mental realm, of an unfit person finishing a marathon. There are no cheering crowds at the finish line either. Therefore, even when we realize that our minds are flawed in certain ways, we believe that we just have to live with those flaws.

Yet, there are ways to train our mind and fundamentally rewire our brains, just as we can reconstitute our body. Meditation is the tried and tested practice of training our minds, thereby enabling them to accomplish feats that we once thought were impossible.

Physical exercise, which is now universal, was once reserved only for a small percentage of the population. A time will come when a practice of meditation, which is now rare, will be nearly universal.

My colleagues and their work

When I talk to my colleague, I am friendly, cheerful and collegial. When I talk about their work, I try to be factual and objective.

I admire and appreciate my colleagues for the people they are. I praise their work, but I also criticise it when I see potential for improvement.

My colleagues are different from me – it is meaningless to say that they are better or worse than I am. But a piece of code they write is often more elegant or less elegant than something I can write on my own.

My colleagues are people, and I accept them for who they are. My colleagues are also professionals, whose work is separate from the people they are. With the work we do and how we do it, there is always potential for improvement.

To work hard

Who is a hard worker?

Is it somebody who ‘puts in the hours’, or ‘burns the midnight oil’?

Is it that person who has worked themselves into exhaustion, but continues working? Is it that person who fights sleep, and yet, continues to plod away? Is it that person who struggles to stay focused, but make decisions anyway? Is it that person who is too tired to detect their own mistakes?

Or instead, is a hard worker that person who is well rested and refreshed? Is it they who can sustain their focus for a long period and then make a well considered decision?

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, ‘Those who work much do not work hard’. Alas, our culture has long confused busy work with hard work.

The reverse interview

An interview is a test administered by the employer to ascertain if a candidate is suited to work within their organization.

Most questions in an interview are asked by the employer. Most of the evaluation is done by the employer. After multiple rounds, the candidate is presented an offer and merely asked to make a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision.

Yet, this system is riddled with imperfections. At best, interviews only result in accurate hiring decisions about 1 in 10 times. More often than not, great candidates are rejected, and bad candidates are accepted.

What if we have at least one round of interview, where the candidate interviews the employer?

What if, in this round, the candidate states what is important to them in their workplace, and asks the employer hard questions around them? Ideally, this ‘reverse interview’ ought to happen between the candidate and the boss or the team they will work with.

At the end of a hiring decision, it is crucial that both a candidate and an employer are convinced of its merit. Why don’t we redesign our interview processes to reflect this two-way relationship?

‘This is not likely to work’

This post works better if you perform the exercise below

– What are 3 achievements that you are really proud of? List them out before proceeding

– When you started any of them, were they likely to work? Answer with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’

Our most meaningful achievements start out as projects that are unlikely to succeed. Turning these projects around is what lends meaning to our work.

When something worth doing is not likely to work, that is a feature, not a bug.

4 strings of yarn

Consider a piece of wood suspended by 4 strings of yarn.

In a simple setup, these strings are parallel to each other. Such a setup is easy to maintain – it is possible to add new strings and repair, or replace existing strings without disturbing the system.

In a complected setup, these strings are intertwined. They perform the same function – of suspending the block of wood, but they are far harder to maintain.

Our requirements naturally gravitate from simple needs to complex needs, and so do the systems that fulfil these needs. The best engineers among us are those that can fulfil complex requirements while preserving simplicity in the underlying systems.

Inspiration: The Unicorn Project