An ode to repetition

What if somebody has already expressed an idea before? Does that mean you cannot say it again?

Most musical compositions have repeating patterns. In popular music like pop or rock ‘n’ roll, this repetition is obvious. In classical and jazz music, phrases are repeated with subtle variations each time.

We see repetition in symmetry, in fractal patterns and in alliterating phrases. We see it in dances, with a lead dancer and her extras. We see it in gymnastics and synchronized swimming. We see it in the rhyme and the rhythm of a poem as well as in the majestic minarets of a medieval mosque.

Most great ideas are repetitions of the artist’s impressions. It is poetic how all of nature in its spectacular variety is merely a permutation of a handful of elements.

Do not hold yourself back if it has already been said before. When you say it again, you will say it differently and add to its beauty.

An eye for ideas

How many species of birds frequent your neighbourhood? You would be surprised if you knew the answer.

Sometime in my early twenties, I started spotting birds. I then noticed how several exotic species of birds frequented Bangalore, my hometown – barbets, orioles, shikras and flycatchers. They were always there, but I had never noticed them before I developed an eye for spotting birds.

One Bangalore resident recorded the birds he spotted on his 10 minute daily walk. The chart below documents the 32 species that he regularly spotted. Those birds are just as visible to any resident in Bangalore. It is just that we look right past them.

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The ideas that surround us aren’t different from those exotic species of birds. We are surrounded by topics for podcasts, inspiration for articles, plots for novels and plans for businesses. They reside not just in the outside world, but also in the eye of the beholder.

Fear of the unexplained

A random event is an effect whose cause is unexplained. The human condition is to wage a war against randomness.

Why a particular stock does well is unexplained. Yet, analysts fill pages with their theories, insights and explanations.

The presence of several symptoms defies explanation. Yet, show a symptom to three doctors and they will give you three different explanations.

How a team pulls off a brilliant victory is often a mystery to their coach. Yet, listen to sport commentators and it seems like every play was all part of the coach’s grand plan.

We have no explanations for why Despacito, Gangnam Style and Kolaveri were roaring hits. Yet, numerous articles in the internet expound on their recipes for success.

Each person’s future is unknown. Yet, that doesn’t prevent us from using birthdays, the lines on our palms, gemstones and heavenly bodies in various forms to predict our future.

We are surrounded by vast amounts of complexity. Most complex systems have effects without clear causes. But human tendency is to swim against this current and explain everything.

What we fear most isn’t the stock market, deadly diseases or disasters lurking in the future. What we fear is the unexplained.

Definitions aren’t permanent

Pink has always been a feminine colour. Except, it wasn’t. In 19th century England, while men wore red uniforms, boys routinely wore pink.

American boy wearing a ‘masculine’ outfit

Major chords in music are known to be happy. They form the basis for songs such as Twinkle Twinkle, Jingle Bells and Happy Birthday. But the same notes of the major chord sound sad when a bugler plays them in a cemetery.

Mexican cuisine is synonymous with coriander (cilantro) and Argentina with beef steaks. But neither coriander nor cattle are native to the Americas. Europeans introduced them to the continent in the last four hundred years.

The symbols that define our culture – gender colours, musical taste and choice of cuisine – seem set in stone. But they aren’t. Like drifting continents, they move beneath our feet even as we don’t notice them.

Artists know this. That is why they break with tradition and combine things in unprecedented ways.

When you have no choice but to create

A famous study revealed something curious about how we make choices.

One weekend, a local supermarket was stacked with 6 types of jams. On another, it had 24 varieties with varying flavour and intensity. In which scenario did people buy more jam?

The intuitive answer here is that more choice would lead to more jam sales. But that did not happen. People bought more jam when they had fewer options. In fact, 10 times more!

When faced with a difficult decision, we often make no decision at all. Choosing between 6 varieties of jam is easy. Choosing between 24 is much harder. Therefore, we default to not buying jam. In other words, we are inclined to make the perfect choice available to us or don’t choose when that is difficult.

I am all for a world where people consume less jam. However, we shy away from all difficult decisions, regardless of how good their outcomes can be. When faced with a creative conundrum, we often don’t act rather than move forward. Suppose we have the perfect idea for writing an article. Like choosing between jam flavours, we could execute that idea in numerous ways. But given our mind’s penchant for perfection, it often defaults to not writing at all.

When we eliminate the option of not shipping, the work we create often turns out better than we thought. Did this not happen when your wrote essays in school even though you didn’t choose your own topic? I feel this way with every post I write, and that is one reason I keep coming back.

Comparisons between sets of perfect options are illusions. The work we ship is ground reality. Eliminate choice to move forward.

Stop following politics

Why do so many people follow politics?

The most frequent answer I receive is some version of “I need to be a well informed citizen to vote wisely.” I agree that elections are important, and that it helps to have a well informed citizenry. But we don’t need a degree in statistics to realize that merely voting doesn’t really achieve anything. Our vote is one among millions. The act of voting is important, but its impact is insignificant. I know that saying this is taboo. But there, I said it.

Now let us examine the hidden costs of following politics. Consider how a politically active person spends about half-an-hour a day on political news. That is at least three hours of their time and attention per week directed towards making one vote count. The question we don’t often ask: what else can one do with three hours a week? Three hours is plenty of time to volunteer, build a community and leave a substantial impact in your local environment. Unlike a political vote, your efforts could compound week after week. Imagine what you could achieve in 5 years – the average political term.

One other argument that I hear often, is what if everybody stopped following politics. Would that not lead to an ignorant society? Instead, I dare you to imagine – what if everybody devoted three hours a week to doing impactful work in their local communities? What kind of society would that lead to?

The real reason people follow politics is that it is easy. It is easy to listen to the news, to sound smart at the dinner table and rattle off rants from a keyboard. Following politics lets us off the hook. But it often costs us a precious opportunity – to make a meaningful, lasting contribution.

Seeing the invisible

Abraham Wald was the founder of operational research. What set him apart though was that he could see the invisible bullets.

During World War II, the US was losing several bombers to enemy fire. On examining the surviving planes, researchers on the ground noticed that some regions of the planes had more bullet holes than others. Therefore, they concluded that these places needed additional armour, given how they were susceptible to enemy fire.

But Abraham Wald rubbished this idea and suggested that they do the opposite. He asked that the parts of the plane that did not have bullet holes be armoured. He reasoned how those were the spots where the planes that had been destroyed were hit. While his colleagues had only used the surviving planes to draw their conclusion, Wald considered the ones that were more important – the planes that had crashed and the invisible bullets that had hit them.

Our brains tend to focus on whatever is visible – out of sight is out of mind. But sometimes this could lead us to the wrong conclusions. Sometimes, what you do not see is what matters the most.

Hat-tip: Akimbo

Leaving it unsolved

I like impressionist paintings. I find them more engaging than paintings that are completely realistic. But why is that the case?

Our minds are problem solving machines. Every game, riddle, puzzle and brainteaser is an unsolved problem that the mind leaps towards resolving. For a problem to exist, it needs constraints – rules and boundaries. But for a problem to be unsolved, it requires just the right amount of ambiguity and freedom.

Most movies don’t live up to the books they are based on (‘Never judge a book by its movie’). This is because a book provides us enough detail to visualize what happens to the characters, but also leaves things ambiguous enough for us to fill in several details.

A good manager provides instructions with the right amount of detail – with enough direction that they work towards a common goal, but with enough leeway for each team member to be creative and personal.

Impressionist paintings give us ‘impressions’ of real world objects, but leave out the details so that we can fill them in with our imagination.

The most exciting problems come with just the right amount of detail. In the process, they make us co-creators in the solution.

The future as a vantage point

When explorers were lost, they often corrected course by climbing a hill or a tree.

All of us are explorers in different walks of life – in discovering the ideal profession, in finding our life partner, in defining our friend’s circle and so on. And like most explorers, we often get lost. At ground level an explorer’s choices are limited by what she can immediately notice. Similarly most of our life’s choices are limited by what we experience in the present moment.

Let us say that Simon does a degree in law, because that is what his parents most wanted. On graduating, he works as a lawyer for 2 years and realizes how much he hates the profession.  Nevertheless, he continues working as a lawyer because of the 5 years that he just spent in law school. In the present moment, he is trapped by his most immediate choices.

Alternatively, Simon could ask himself if he would be happy with a successful career in law 20 years in the future. If the answer is ‘yes’, he would stop hating his profession as much. If his answer is ‘no’, he musters the motivation to move on. By stepping out of the present and leaping into the future, he gives himself a vantage point to evaluate his current choices.

Living in the present moment can be liberating. But at the same time, the present moment can be a prison that forces us to perpetuate the suffering caused due to a bad choice. The best way to step back from the present is to leap forward a few years.

PS: The first episode of my new podcast explores the psychological phenomenon at work here.

Repetition enables mastery

Who is the more formidable chef? One who has cooked a 100 different dishes or one who has practiced the same dish a 100 times?

The key word here is ‘practiced’. To merely make the same dish over and over won’t help you master it. To practice is to learn from each iteration.

The world discourages repetition. A person who has cooked a 100 different dishes is likely to have a more formidable resume. But repetition and the practice it enables is where mastery truly lies.

Whipping up a red sauce arrabiata a 100 times lets a budding chef combine the following variables in different ways:
– The choice of oil
– The browning of the garlic
– The ratio of tomatoes to onions
– The ‘doneness’ of the pasta

At the end of 100 iterations, she is likely to have mastered those key variables, which she can then translate to other dishes.

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times. – Bruce Lee

Emergence

Why do bees seem smarter than other insects?

A colony of bees is a complex entity. Consider how the bees build their hive. A bee-hive is a result of some extraordinary engineering. Its cells are regular hexagonal walls – a shape that maximises strength for a given amount of material. The walls of each cell in a honeycomb are 0.1 mm thick with a 2% tolerance. In comparison, the plywood that we use for constructing our homes has a tolerance standard of about 10%.

If that isn’t complex enough, consider how the bees communicate. You may know that bees do this through dancing, but that is not all. Suppose a bee wishes to convey the direction of a flower-bed to its brethren, it dances at a certain angle to the vertical axis of the honeycomb. The more intricate the dance, the farther away those flowers are.

Observing these complex feats begs the question – how can an organism whose brain is the size of a pinhead pull them off? Are bees smarter than we give them credit for?

It turns out that individual bees themselves aren’t the most intelligent creatures. Most of their behaviour is dictated by simple rules that are burnt into their genes. The genetic code of a bee is programmed based on the bee’s role in the colony. The queen bee lays eggs throughout her life. A worker bee gathers honey, raises larvae and builds the hive. A drone bee fertilizes the queen. At an individual level, the duty of every bee is to follow simple rules. But when thousands of bees follow these rules in perfect coordination, they turn into a bee hive. This property of how several simple parts in a system form a complex whole is called emergence.  A complex bee hive is comprised of millions of simple interactions of individual bees.

Emergence is ubiquitous. An orchestra’s harmony is the emergence of its individual instruments. A city’s traffic is the result of simple interactions between its motorists. An organization is the culmination of the actions of each and every one of its employees.

As leaders at the helm of emergent systems, it is tempting for us to institute top-down “strategic” interventions. But most strategic interventions fail because they disregard the most underlying interactions that emerge to form the organization’s culture. This led Peter Drucker to famously quip, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’.

On the other hand, the best functioning emergent systems are self-managed. There is no ‘manager bee’ that oversees the construction of a hive – every bee is an autonomous unit that does its duty independent of supervision. Great leaders realize this. They lay down the right principles while empowering people at every level of the organization to make autonomous decisions.

Emergent systems illustrate how the details at the lowest levels matter the most. Bypass them to alter the strategy directly, and you are likely to fail. Focus on the details and the ‘big-picture’ takes care of itself.

Beyond execution

A cook follows a recipe perfectly to make a delicious sambar. A chef thinks about cooking and writes recipes that cooks can follow.

An engineer follows a manual to manufacture quality goods. An innovator thinks about manufacturing to create a manual for engineers to follow.

A footballer executes a game plan and helps his team win the league. A coach thinks about football to invent a winning game plan for her team.

Execution is about following a procedure to obtain results. To go beyond execution is to go past the results and think about the process.

The flywheel

When you think about a combustion engine, firing cylinders and pistons come to mind. A crucial, yet lesser known part of an engine’s assembly is the flywheel.

The flywheel is a large rotating disc that is connected to an engine’s drive shaft. The role of the flywheel is to preserve momentum. The bursts of energy provided by the exploding cylinders are sudden and intermittent, while the engine’s output has to be continuous. The flywheel bridges this gap by storing energy and keeps the engine rolling between individual firings.

Inspiration comes to us much like firing cylinders – in sudden and intermittent bursts. But inspiration alone isn’t sustainable. It needs a flywheel.

A habit serves as a flywheel for our inspiration. It keeps our engine firing and helps us stay inspired.

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Image credit

Calm isn’t boring

On the surface, a calm person appears boring. However, calmness allows us to explore experiences that excitement does not.

Western Europe is straddled by two coastlines – the turbulent Atlantic and the clam Mediterranean. One way to explore these waters is to get on a surfboard and ride the waves on the Atlantic coast. Another option is to hire a kayak and paddle away on the calm waters of the Mediterranean. Both surfing and kayaking are interesting experiences. While excited waters are a prerequisite for surfing, serene waters make for a meaningful paddling experience.

The reason we perceive calmness to be boring is because we turn up on the Mediterranean coast with surfboards.

Perfection is overrated

What we crave for is not the perfect, but the real.

Our penchant for realness is illustrated by thriving markets for handmade soaps, food and clothing. Vintage vinyl records are valued higher than their ‘digitally remastered’ counterparts. The Japanese have a term for our affinity towards imperfection – wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi is a aesthetic centered on seeing the beauty in the imperfect, the impermanent and the incomplete.

As artists, perfection lets us hide. Our misplaced pursuit of perfection often results in procrastination, leading us to coin excuses such as ‘writer’s block’. The real measure of an artist’s work is not their ability to envision, but their ability to ship. Your art is what what you put out into the world – not an illusory standard that you hope to someday achieve.

Perfection is over-rated. Don’t let it get in the way of doing real work.

How project estimations fail

We humans are terrible at estimating effort. Large projects are consistently delayed and they invariably overshoot their budgets. This phenomenon is dubbed the planning fallacy. Let us explore why it happens through a simple thought experiment.

Imagine you had a large urn with 90 red balls and 10 white balls. Which of the following bets would you rather prefer? Try answering intuitively.

1) Picking 7 red balls from the urn in a row (with replacement and shuffling), or a fair coin-toss?

2) Picking at least 1 white ball from the urn from 7 trials, or a fair coin toss?

In an experiment, most volunteers opted for the 7 red balls over the coin-toss, and the coin-toss over the white ball. However, the odds of picking 7 consecutive red balls from the urn is 0.48 – a little under 0.50, while the odds of picking at least 1 white ball is 0.52 – slightly better than a coin-toss. Sure, those values are pretty close. But this experiment exposes an underlying and systematic error of the human mind in planning large projects.

In the first case, it is easy to see from that drawing one red ball from the urn is far likelier than drawing one white one. Therefore, our mind is anchored on how easy this event is, and pays less heed to how the same event needs to replicate 7 times in succession. It overestimates the likelihood of drawing a red ball, while underestimating the number of times this needs to happen. This is what happens when we plan large projects. In such projects, a large number of activities need to happen in succession. While each of those things might have a high likelihood of success, it is difficult for all of them to succeed when they have to happen consecutively. During our estimation, we simply add up the effort (or costs) of these successive tasks, while paying insufficient heed to how they are interdependent.

In the second question, we quickly realize that drawing a white ball from the urn is an unlikely event. In this case, our mind anchors on the rareness of this event, and extrapolates it to estimate overall likelihood. In doing so, it neglects the large number of trials – 7 in this case. In large projects, this tendency of the mind leads us to neglect rare events, such as setbacks, illnesses of team members and budget deficits, while drawing up our estimates. And yet, merely one key activity needs to fail in order to disrupt a project’s plan.

Our planning often misses its mark because we are focused on positive outcomes while neglecting setbacks. The only way we can mitigate this fallacy is by learning from past projects of similar magnitude, and by including buffers within our schedules and budgets. The closer we get to understanding the limitations of our brains in understanding a complex succession of events, the more likely we are in making accurate estimates of how long projects take and how much they would cost us.

Inspiration: Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases – Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman

The next big thing

Around the year 1750, a French gunsmith, Honoré Blanc, thought about how it would be nice if guns had interchangeable parts.

Until that time, manufacturing standards didn’t exist. If you had to make a screw and a trigger for a gun, you machined it specifically to fit that gun. If a machine’s screw broke, you had to craft a new screw that was specific to that machine. Standard spares didn’t exist. One French gunsmith’s insight led to interchangeable machine parts that are so ubiquitous today.

People often claim new inventions to be ‘The greatest thing since sliced bread’. Since when did we start slicing bread? the 1500’s? The 1600’s perhaps? Sliced bread was first marketed in 1928. It was touted to be ‘the greatest step forward in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.’ As late as 1928? I was surprised too!

It’s staggering to think of how simpler inventions such as interchangeable machine parts and sliced bread came centuries after calculus. Both Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz independently conceived of calculus and its intricate mathematics in the latter half of the 17th century.

Innovation isn’t boring today because it has all been done before. Innovation will always be interesting because people have no idea what they want next.

Should, want and be

I should wake up early.
I should listen.
I should be happy.

Saying ‘should’ implies that your actions are dictated by external judgement. Asking the question why for each of these statements makes this clear. Why should you wake up early? Because most successful people recommend it. It is fitting that the Biblical commandments used an older form of should (shalt). Should also points to a sense of  entitlement. If I should be happy, and I am not, it is somebody else’s fault.

I want to wake up early.
I want to listen.
I want to be happy.

Want implies volition. By replacing ‘should’ with ‘want’, we are no longer being driven by external forces. When we want something, it is an innate feeling. Free will exists in the realm of ‘want’. It also implies that we aren’t satisfied with the status-quo, which we wish to alter through our actions. While ‘want’ also expresses desire, unlike ‘should’, the actor is in charge and takes responsibility to exercise it.

I am waking up early.
I am listening.
I am happy.

Moving from ‘should’ and ‘want’ to ‘be’ (whose verb form in English is am), we go from desire to acceptance. Sages and monks in meditation try to internalize this state – to stop wanting the world to be a particular way and accept things just as they are. Being is the bastion of complete calmness. A person who ‘wants’ often considers a person who ‘is’ to be passive and fatalistic. But the person who truly ‘is’ is liberated from the constant stream of wants that arise in our minds.

We are the words we choose to use. Should, want or be? What do you catch yourself using most often?

The underlying operating systems

Every device has an underlying operating system. While the programs and apps are what we see, touch and feel, the device’s operating system lies at its core.

A site like Tripadvisor will list out a 100 peripheral things in a city – the sights, places to visit and statues to take selfies with. The city’s operating system is its more mundane, but crucial aspects such as roads, public transport and schools.

The information on a company’s ads, websites and its careers page is skin deep. A company’s culture – the things that they do everyday and how they do it – comprises its operating system.

People’s social profiles, the points they list on their resume and the things they do in public are superficial. Their values, principles and the things they do when nobody is looking make up their operating system.

We often form impressions based on what we see on the surface – the superficial, the peripheral and the quirky. The more fundamental question is why those things are the way they are.

What we see is not all that there is.