Eternal habits

Hindus believe Sanskrit to be an eternal language, perfect in its inception handed down to humanity from God. And yet, we do not know if Sanskrit existed for more than 3000 years. Ever since, it has seen much transformation.

Most religions claim to be eternal truths, but did not even exist 2000 years ago – a mere blink in the timeline of our species’ 150,000 years on the planet.

Chili is synonymous with Indian cuisine – it has always been a part of Indian cuisine. Except, it wasn’t. Chili is native to North America and was introduced to India by Europeans. 5 centuries ago, rasam did not have chili. It didn’t have tomatoes either.

Some smartphone apps are indispensable – we cannot imagine our lives without them. And yet, just 10 years back, we did not miss their absence.

We humans are creatures of ephemeral habits that mistake them to be eternal. Everything that we consider to be eternally true about religion, culture, cuisine, technology and our innate capabilities are but temporary. If our existing habits do not serve us any longer, we can replace them with new ones, which in a couple of years, will seem like they always existed.

A thumb rule to distrust predictions

Everybody wishes to predict the future with their complicated models – meteorologists, economists, political analysts, nutritionists. Here is a method to call out predictions that you cannot trust.

Think about the system that is being predicted. A level 1 chaotic system does not respond to predictions made about it. The weather is a good example – despite being complex with numerous factors and variables, we are able to predict the weather today a week in advance with a fair degree of accuracy. That is because the weather doesn’t change based on our forecasts about it.

A level 2 chaotic system is one that changes based on what we predict about it. If an astrologer told you that you would meet with an accident in Delhi next year, you can change that by simply not visiting Delhi. An economic forecast for copper’s price next year has a direct influence on its price – a higher forecast price would drive several people to buy copper today, which would increase the price faster than predicted. Both voters and politicians respond to political predictions, and therefore, they must be discredited as well.  

It’s funny how most predictions on the news (excluding weather forecasts) deal with level 2 chaotic systems. Before you believe a prediction, pause to think about the nature of its underlying system.

Sitting down to work

The reason most people don’t sit down to work is that they wait for inspiration to arrive.

If there is one thing I have learnt from blogging daily, it is that this order needs to be reversed. When you sit down to do your work, ideas come to you. There isn’t a more fertile ground of ideas than staring at a blank screen for at least 10 minutes, every single day.

The hard part isn’t the finding interesting ideas part. It is the sitting down to work part.

When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us… we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete. – Steven Pressfield

Surprise me

When was the last time you learnt something without being surprised?

The same facts can be presented in several ways. A science teacher could choose to tell his students how the human body has evolved the unique ability to sweat and cool itself. Or with a little creativity, he can surprise them by telling them how on a hot day, a human athlete is capable of outrunning a horse, thanks to our peculiar power to perspire.

Our best teachers are often those who can transform the mundane facts from a text book into surprising truths.

How deference is powerful

Deference is defined as “polite submission and respect”. But deference is often more powerful than we think it is.

The seasoned FBI hostage negotiator, Chris Voss, is a tough man. In his career, he has resolved the most difficult negotiations, with hardened criminals holding several people hostage. While deference and politeness is often seen as a sign of weakness, he considers  a versatile tool in his negotiation toolkit.

One reason deference is effective is because of its universal applicability in a hierarchy. If you show deference to your superiors, they feel good because they feel entitled to it. If you defer to your peers, they feel good because you didn’t have to. If you defer to your subordinates, they see you as a generous and courteous person because they didn’t expect you to. Under all these circumstances, you earn the influence of the people you defer to, regardless of your position.

Deferring to people is different from being stepped over and taken for granted. On the flip side, perceiving it as a weakness is often a sign of insecurity.

Inspiration: Chris Voss on The Knowledge Project podcast

“Someday, I will do _________”

When you see a blooming sunflower farm from faraway, it appears like a yellow blanket covering the land. When you get closer, you realize that this homogeneous blanket was actually individual plants with large yellow flowers.

Our mind perceives our goals in the same way. Suppose we wish to grow and farm sunflowers, all we see is the yellow blanket and not the individual plants. To cover the land with a large yellow blanket is intimidating – where does one even begin? It is easier to avoid that uncomfortable feeling and reach for something else instead.

We have one word to describe this entire cycle – procrastination.

But you can choose to start with one plant. You could pot a sunflower in your balcony and nurture it till it flowers. And then you could plant two more.

The ambiguity that surrounds our large goals causes us to postpone them. How can you break them down so that you can start today?

The games we get to play

Ask any kindergarten teacher, and he would tell you how toddlers can make a game out of anything. They sing to memorize the alphabet, make time machines out of cardboard boxes and can transform a pail of sand into an object of infinite wonder.

Growing up sees us replace many of those make believe games with mundane chores. But look at them with a fresh pair of eyes, and you can transform them into games.
– Filling rice into a container without spilling a single grain
– Keeping one’s back absolutely straight while walking to the supermarket
– Driving a long distance on a highway without causing a single jerk
– Spending an entire morning at work without checking email
– Fixing one’s bicycle so that the gears switch more smoothly
– Swimming across a pool with the fewest possible strokes
– Figuring out the chords to a favourite song
– Cooking a meal with the least possible utensils
Eliciting a smile from a guard at the Buckingham Palace

When we were children, almost anything counted as play. As we grew up, we were told that some things were work, while others were play. But a little creativity gives us the choice to unbelieve these definitions and replace them with our own.

Weight training your mind

You weight train by flexing your shoulder to raise the dumbbell and relaxing it to lower the weight. The more practice you have, the longer you are able to hold a dumbbell up.

Paying attention is similar to raising a weight. Getting distracted is similar to lowering the weight. A wandering mind is just as normal as a flagging muscle.

Every raise of a dumbbell makes the muscles in your shoulder stronger. Every time you bring back your attention, you strengthen the muscles in your mind.

How writing sharpens thinking

Consider a sculptor making figurines out of clay. You would see how she works in iterations – first to get the overall shape of the figure, next to add the rough details. And later, she adds the finer ones.

As she works, she notices the imperfections in her work. When she spots a mistake, she layers in some more clay and does it over. She keeps refining her work until she is finished and can no longer improve it.

Writing works in the same manner. These thoughts start off as clay and is moulded by every word and every sentence that we commit. We then get to our first draft and iterate upon it with repeated edits until we are done. The key parallel here is that of refinement. When we observe a problem with our thinking – with either the underlying logic or the choice of the words that express it – we go back and edit our words. And with those edits, we refine our thinking.

In the past, when people wrote on parchment, cloth and even paper, they didn’t have the luxury of iterating upon their work. It was akin to carving on stone or metal. But today, as we type on our screens, our medium is more malleable than the softest of clay. 

Has there ever been a better time to write?

Where is beauty?

Where is beauty to be found?

Our generation, like every other, busies itself to answer this question. Today, we spare no effort in making screens with the highest resolution in search of beauty that eludes us. LED LCD vs. OLED. Full HD vs. 4K. Maybe another thousand pixels on the screen would get us there. But let us jump across generations to the immortal words of the Roman Emporer, Marcus Aurelius. In his memoir, Meditations, he writes:

“Figs, when they are quite ripe, gape open; and in the ripe olives the very circumstance of their being near to rottenness adds a peculiar beauty to the fruit. And the ears of corn bending down, and the lion’s eyebrows, and the foam which flows from the mouth of wild boars, and many other things, – though they are far from being beautiful, in a certain sense, – still, because they come in the course of nature, have a beauty in them, and they please the mind; so that if a man should have a feeling and a deeper insight with respect to the things which are produced in the universe, there is hardly anything which comes in the course of nature which will not seem to him to be in a manner disposed so as to give pleasure.”

The foam which flows from the mouth of wild boars. The ripeness of olives and figs. The brows of a lion. Those things jump straight out as I read those words. Let us try and put them in perspective.

Firstly, as emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius was the most powerful man in the world. His military campaigns took him to its spacious boundaries spanning the countries of Syria, Egypt, Greece, and Roman provinces along the Danube in Austria and Hungary. He administered the most powerful empire of its era. And yet, amidst his responsibilities, he makes the time and space to notice the beauty in an overripe fig.

Secondly, he mentions how if a man should have a feeling and a deeper insight, it allows him to see the pleasure of all manner of things produced in the universe. In other words, the ability to perceive beauty is a state of being that is cultivated.

Thirdly, we live in an era where most of us have witnessed the brows of a lion in its natural habitat in greater resolution and detail than any Roman emperor has. In our lives, we witness the beauty not merely of figs, but also mangoes, papayas, passion fruit, avocados, jack fruit, kiwi fruits, persimmons and a cornucopia of exotic produce from faraway lands. And yet, beauty remains just as elusive.

In effect, the beauty that we seek is right here. It has always been here. And it lies not just in the eyes of the beholder, but also in her mind, her heart and in the enthusiasm she brings to all manner of things in the universe. Beauty stares us in the eye, in every moment of our lives – in the exotic and the mundane, in the calm and the frantic and in every fig, olive or bending stalk of corn that we lay our eyes upon.

The important question, then, isn’t “Where is beauty?”. Instead it is “Can you see it all around?”

Inspiration: Meditations – Marcus Aurelius

Resilience in complements

In sea swimming, the rougher the water is, the more relaxed the swimmer needs to be.

The largest of trees do not outlast the fiercest of storms. It is the slender plants with nimble bodies that do.

People with the calmest minds are the best at navigating the tensest of situations.

When faced with a challenge, what can you bring that can complement its force?

When you can’t trust your judgement

Observe these two lines below. Which of them is shorter.

Müller Lyer Illusion

Just throwing a glance at this picture tells us the line below is shorter. Our eyes make that impression in an instant. In fact, both those lines with fins attached are of equal length. You can take a moment to measure them if you like.

What you see above is the famous Müller-Lyer illusion. When faced with the question above, some of you might have recognized this illusion and put yourselves on guard. Therefore, you might have resisted your first impulse to say that the line below is shorter. But that input comes from your mind, and not from your eyes. Even though you have seen this illusion before, you cannot train your eyes to see the lines as having equal length. Nor can you force them through sheer will-power. With experience though, you learn to discredit your judgement of the lengths of lines when fins are involved.

The reason you’re not able to unsee this optical illusion is because its judgement is controlled by what psychologists call the automatic system. Our thinking is informed by two systems – the automatic and the controlled systems. Our first impressions are often guided by our impulsive automatic system, but the focus and the attention to perform more complex tasks is relegated to the more careful controlled system. One feature of the automatic system is that it cannot be turned off. It can be overridden – you can train yourself to discredit its judgement as people have learnt do with the Müller-Lyer illusion. But try what you may, the first impression produced by the automatic system continues to persist.

These automatic impressions that come to mind is true of a variety of situations we encounter. They inform decisions as trivial as which restaurant to go to and which dish to order, as well as more important ones such as which applicant to hire on a job application, or which supplier to collaborate with. Under most circumstances, our automatic systems make sensible decisions – just like our eyes do. But in some cases, they are prone to prejudice and systematic biases – mistakes in our judgement that we simply cannot turn off at will. And when it comes to crucial decisions such as interviewing people for a job or deciding the severity of a prisoner’s sentence, they can have far reaching consequences.

When you know that you are in situations where you can’t trust your judgement, you are better off by closing your eyes and making those decisions – such as blind auditions for orchestra performers or anonymizing resumes and profiles before screening them for your company. Those measures have repeatedly led to fairer selection outcomes.

When our eyes cannot see too well, we put on glasses. But when our eyes cannot unsee a mistake, it is better to use blinds. It is poetic that our personification of justice is a lady with her eyes blindfolded.

Inspiration: Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

Artificial goals and real failure

As part of our English curriculum in middle school, we read a story authored by the Indian athlete, Milkha Singh. Singh, often celebrated as India’s finest athlete, who had missed a podium finish in the 400m race of the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Singh set a track record, but missed a medal in a photo finish. The story was about how he still felt terrible about that loss. It’s title was “The Pain Lingers”.

Let me illustrate a pattern here:

  • When a company sets a target of growing 25% and achieves 24%, they fail to hit their target
  • When we plan to start our own business the following year, and that doesn’t happen, our plan is said to have failed
  • The silver medalist in an Olympics event, whose performance often falls short of the winner by a hair’s breadth, often fades into obscurity even as everyone celebrates the gold medalist

In all these cases, the goal that we have set is quite arbitrary. If that company had set its target at 23%, just another number, everybody within its departments would rejoice. But not for too long – lest they miss the next year’s target.

The problem with goals tied to outcomes are that they give us an arbitrary yardstick that separates success and failure. Just examine those two words though – to be successful is great, but often fleeting. Failure is like a stain that sticks to our reputation. How these opposites make us feel isn’t balanced. Even as those goals are artificial, they failure and the pain caused by not meeting them is only very real.

Before we chase an arbitrary target, it is worth thinking about what we are signing up for – about what success as well as failure would mean for us in a life that we were gifted with a clean slate – without a single pre-defined goal.

I’m not advocating that we settle for mediocrity. But excellence isn’t just about hitting goals. Milkha Singh, who lost his parents to partitions and spent a childhood without shoes, didn’t achieve his goal of securing an Olympic medal. But he is an excellent athlete, all the same.

Perpetual forward motion

In Robert Prisig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he tells us of a student in rhetoric who was staring at writer’s block.

Her assignment was to write a five-hundred word story about her town. The student was stuck – her town seemed small and unremarkable. What could she possibly write about it? Her teacher then changed the assignment. He told her to write about the front of the opera house opposite her classroom in that very town. He tells her to start with the upper left hand brick. At first, she was confused, but the moment she started writing, she had twenty pages of flowing prose to hand in the next day.

This parable points to the value of being specific and breaking down our task to induce forward motion. Once a big, fat, hairy project is broken down into a list of small to-dos, each of which are concrete and specific, we surprise ourselves with how much we can get done. The key here is to keep the tasks and the lists small. It matters less how large your project is – a bathroom renovation or building a new airport. The size of each task matters more. It matters less how many lists you have. The number of items on each list matters more.

Clarity and forward motion are self-sustaining – they attract more clarity and forward motion. And once we get going, we are done before we know it!

The black and white filter

When your friend recommends a black and white movie to you, what is your response?

My first response to black and white movies was to avoid them. My eyes are pampered by colour visuals – more so in our era of Full HD and 4K. Having to tolerate drab black and white pictures, despite those wonderful visuals, seemed like a missed opportunity.

But my opinion has changed in recent times, thanks to a string of great black and white discoveries such as Casablanca, Twelve Angry Men, and most recently, Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s concerts. All of those works turned out to be masterpieces.

If something in black and white is still popular today, it does so in spite of its obvious shortcomings. These works continue to survive based on their quality and artistic value. Such works outstrip their competition on qualities deeper than the ones that meet the eye – on sheer substance.

If that is what you seek in your movies, do lean towards those black and white classics.

The challenge behind technology transfer

Why do international development interventions often blow up in the face? Here’s a thought exercise that helps explore that.

Imagine you invent a time machine that can give you a one-way trip to a tribe of hunter gatherers who live in 12,000 BC – before civilization as we know it. However, the machine doesn’t let you bring along any materials along – just yourself and the hunter-gatherer outfit that you wear. You know this a year in advance, and are trained both physically and culturally in the language and the ways of your host tribe. Being from an advanced era, your mission is to help your host tribe. Now here’s the question – what knowledge can you impart to enhance their lives?

You could probably create a wheel and help your tribe transport their belongings or meat from a hunt across large distances. Wheels are simple to build and seem to be useful in a variety of situations. But the problem is that even if you could craft wooden wheels that are perfectly round with the tools at hand, you wouldn’t have enough good surfaces to roll them on. Wheels need roads, or at the very least, clear patches of land to function well. And considering how much your tribe moves everyday, towing along wheels on hard terrain is a burden.

Maybe you could teach them to grow crops and secure their supply of food. By observing which plants they eat, you could teach them to sow those plants, water them and harvest them. But growing crops requires a particular lifestyle that needs decades or even centuries of preparation. Crops require intensive care and require people to live in large settlements near them – all of which are ill suited to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. You are met with ridicule at the mere suggestion of an idea so preposterous.

At the very least, you could be a storyteller. You could tell your hosts captivating stories about how the future would unfold. You can tell them about how people would one day settle in cities with thousands of people, how we would grow our own food, domesticate animals and sail the oceans. You could tell them about trains and flying machines – about democracy and how people from hundreds of tribes would come together to elect their own leaders. At best, though, they would just dismiss your tales the crazy ramblings of a sick person. At worst, they could accuse you of being a sorcerer and burn you alive.

Any progress within society happens on the margins – the boundaries between the familiar and the unfamiliar. As a modern person in an ancient society, our margins are too far apart for us to help each other. This isn’t because hunter gatherers were primitive – they led wonderful, sophisticated lives and were both physically and mentally more capable than modern day humans (they even had larger brains). And yet, every single piece of knowledge and technology that we posses exists in a particular context. To be relevant, wheels need roads, and agriculture needs settlements. Even stories involving flying machines need enough familiarity with technology to be deemed acceptable.

While this thought exercise explains an extreme situation, it gives us an idea of why it is difficult to move to a new social context and try to change it for the better. That is why we see repeated failures of Western interventions in African, Middle-Eastern countries or Asian countries. Our ideas are all have their place in a particular context and separating a part of them out to fix a problem in a faraway land doesn’t often succeed.

Despite the best intentions, any intervention that does not understand the margins of its target society is bound to end up in consternation and eventual failure.

Busyness as a symptom

Busy people aren’t nice because in the time they can pay attention to you, they have fires to put out.

Empathy, listening, compassion – all of those qualities don’t scale. They require slack in the system – the ability to pause and to pay attention to whomever we engage with. A culture of busyness does not encourage this. That is perhaps one reason why people in busy cities are considered rude.

Busyness within an organization isn’t usually the busy person’s fault. That depends on whoever is making them busy. As a manager or a team leader, it is your duty to give them enough slack to listen to customers, train new co-workers and do a job that they are proud of. It is your job to be the doctor – to detect and to treat busyness as soon as it appears.

If you don’t, your team and its customers will bear the brunt of that chronic illness.

Higher order consequences

Several tech startups have a “unlimited” vacation policy. They mention how they trust their employees enough to take time off responsibly and don’t even track it. And yet, in most such firms, people take less time off overall and end up more stressed out.

People often take important decisions based on their immediate results – their first order consequences. But they fail to foresee how the higher order consequences, which are far ahead in time, may have larger repercussions. When a patient goes to a doctor with a belly ache, she gives him some medicine that relieves his pain – the first order consequence. But since the patient consumed that medicine, he does’t identify the root cause of his belly ache. Perhaps he is allergic to some ingredient, or perhaps he shouldn’t have overeaten at the party the previous evening. The higher order effects of consuming medicine here is that it encourages the patient’s self-destructive eating behaviour.

When a company starts an unlimited vacation policy, the first order consequence is that employees see it as a perk. A couple of them may even take a few weeks off. But the vast majority of the office is going to hold back and look at what everybody else does. Their goal would be to take a day or two lesser than the average. Pretty soon, nobody is taking too many days off for fear of being labelled a slacker. The higher order reaction of unlimited vacation time is that it discourages people to take time off even when they really need to.

These decisions aren’t restricted to individuals. On a global scale, the first order consequence of using fossil fuel was the industrial revolution. One of its higher order consequences is the climate catastrophe that we currently find ourselves in.

Higher order consequences may not always be bad. Riding a bicycle to a work has a few unpleasant first order consequences – riding in the cold, for instance. But its higher order consequence is that one develops better health and greater immunity in the long run.

Humans are a unique species, for we are the only ones in the animal kingdom blessed with foresight. However, this foresight is often myopic and lures us into making decisions that aren’t in our best long term interest. The ability to buck this trend and take decisions based on understanding higher order consequences is rare, but well known.

We call it wisdom.

“Pawns are the soul of the game”

The great French chess master François-André Danican Philidor once proclaimed, “pawns are the soul of the game”.

At first, that might strike you as being odd. Anybody who is even a little familiar with chess knows how the pieces – the sprightly knights, the incisive bishops, the formidable rooks, the majestic queen and even the king are all more powerful than the lowly pawn. The very name “pawn” hints at something that maybe staked for the greater good.

Pawns are not the soul of beginner’s chess though. In those games, the powerful pieces usually take center stage, for neither player is able to plan a few moves in advance. They often make the move that would yield the best position immediately, and pieces are able to do this more easily than slow and slumbering pawns.

But that doesn’t work with a player who has some foresight. The moment you play with an expert, she has already foreseen how you could make those elaborate moves with the pieces, and has either defended against them or laid a trap for them. When two experts are at play, both of them can see these obvious lines play out in their mind. Therefore, they are likely to avoid them. Instead, they make pawn moves that are small, subtle and stealthy. While a single pawn move in isolation may not seem significant, how the pawns sit together on the board has a large influence on the position. It is this tension between the subtlety of single pawn moves and the synergy that they achieve together that makes experts mindful about how the soul of your game play lies in how you handle your pawns.

This is true not just of chess, but of any endeavour. In football, the best player among beginners is one who can dribble his way past novice defenders. But masters of the game are well versed in the subtle movements and stealthy passes of positional play. With programming, while a beginner and an expert might have code that looks similar at a glance, the way the expert handles unforeseen exceptions sets her code apart. The difference between an ordinary writer and a great writer isn’t their choice of words, but the more subtle elements of their writing such as word order, cadence and the structure of their sentences.

Identifying the pawns of your art, for they are its soul.

Training your focus

How do you balance a bicycle?

A balanced bicycle looks effortless and smooth, but in reality, involves a series of continuous micro-adjustments. When the cycle leans towards the left, the cyclist unconscious leans towards the right. When the cycle takes a sharp turn, it bends at a certain angle to sustain its balance. A continuous stream of dynamic, unconscious input from the cyclist is needed to sustain the cycle’s balance. That is why it is harder to keep a cycle balanced when you let go of the handlebars.

Similarly, focusing our attention on anything involves a series of micro-adjustments that return our focus despite momentary distractions. Even as we are engrossed in a movie playing on our laptop, we are aware of who is in the room, the noises of vehicles whizzing by and the fact that we are hungry after about an hour. Despite those distractions, we return our focus to the movie because of how engaging it is. Similar to balancing a bicycle, it requires a constant redirection of our attention back to the moving pixels on our screen.

Who is a more skilled cyclist? Is it one who can ride for 100 kilometers on a flat, well paved road? Or is it one who can maneuver through a 1 km long dirt track, with pits, bumps, slopes and several obstacles? Similarly, who has cultivated better focus? A person who can stay focused for hours in absolute quiet without distractions, or one, who despite the constant noise and chaos around her, manages to bring her attention back to a demanding task?

A victory isn’t merely the ability to spend long periods with a task. It is the ability to bring one’s wavering attention back as it wanders off.