The horse before the cart

The internet is wonderful if we could setup our digital lives to help us succeed in our real ones. It could be destructive if we compromised our real lives in order to succeed in our digital ones.

Do your digital interactions lead to enriching conversations in real life? Or, like the person who texts while driving, does your real life subordinate to your digital one?

Better than anybody else I know

What sets you apart in your circle of friends? If your close friend were to answer the following question, what would he or she say?

“You do _________ better than anybody else that I know.”

If your friend were to ask you that question, what would your response be?

The answer need not be a single adjective (“you’re the most thoughtful person I know”), but a combination (“you combine aesthetics and practicality better than anybody else I know”).

Let me list out a few hypotheses here:

1. We are all uniquely wired and gravitate towards certain interests more than other people do.

2. We are often unaware of what sets us apart. This is because our mind perceives whatever we do to be normal. We do not often realize that what feels like play to us feels like work to other people.

3. Our close friends know us well enough to answer that question above, but are sufficiently disconnected to give us an objective response.

4. This question makes for interesting conversation among friends who are close enough.

Embracing uncertainty

In 1913, Neils Bohr, a Danish post-doctoral student of the physicist Ernst Rutherford, proposed a model of the atom that we continue to use today.

Most of us think of atoms as being small little balls orbiting a nucleus, much like planets. But this isn’t true – it is merely something that is easy for us to imagine. Bohr proposed that electrons in an orbit are similar to the whirling blades of a fan, in that they fill the entire region in which they move. The difference, though, is that while a fan merely gives us the appearance of doing this, the electron actually does it. Within its orbit, the electron is everywhere as well as nowhere at the same time.

Several other thought experiments (and actual ones), have now established how uncertainty is the bedrock on which atomic theory exists. Werner Heisenberg gave us the uncertainty principle, which states that it is impossible to simultaneously know the position and the speed of any object in the universe (explained elegantly in this 5 min video). This degree of uncertainty is negligible for larger objects, but significant at the atomic level. Given the uncertainty principle, Stephen Hawking once proclaimed, “We certainly cannot predict future events exactly if we cannot even measure the present state of the universe precisely!”

On the other hand, our mind perceives uncertainty as a risk and tries its best to get rid of it. We crave for explanations because their absence is stressful! Therefore, we often make predictions and include explanations for all manners of events (“Bombay Stock Exchange falls due to Chandigarh municipal by-elections results”). While insurance helps us bear the economical burdens of uncertainty, religion (fate) helps us cope psychologically. Threats that appear random and without any explanation cause us to panic and routinely overestimate them – like we do with terrorist attacks.

We live in the constant tension between the uncertainty that is fundamental to the universe and our mind’s need for causality and explanation. Religion, stories and other comforting illusions serve to alleviate our suffering – like pills and balms do. To prevent it, though, we could learn from the mystics who embrace the mischievous uncertainty of the universe with a full heart.

Inspiration: A short history of nearly everything – Bill Bryson

A conversation about trigonometry

Sin2θ + Cos2θ = 1

We all learnt this equation back in high school and its elegant derivation from Pythagorean principles. When was the last time, though, that we used trigonometry in the real world?

I converse everyday, both in my personal as well as professional life. Conversation is the currency of our social capital. The art of making good conversation is an invaluable skill for most of us, regardless of our profession. How many schools today teach us how to converse well?

Trigonometry is easy to teach, with its elegant mathematical proofs. But even to type out that equation above, I had to open a Word document and google the symbol for theta. In our schools, why don’t we simply teach people how to use the existing keys on the keyboard instead? What is school for? Is it merely a place where we teach concepts that are easy to teach? Ones for which we already have textbooks, lesson plans and problems formulated in elegant prose?

I do not dismiss the value of trigonometry. I am only questioning our assumption to teach it universally in place of several skills that are far more universal.


Paying it forward

How kind are we to strangers?

The answer, of course, depends on where you look. If you looked at a pay-it-forward restaurant such as this one, you either pay what you want, pay what you can or volunteer in exchange for your meal. At these restaurants, about 80 percent of the guests pay the suggested price or more for their meal.

My move to Germany about two years back was all thanks to the kindness of strangers. When I thanked them profusely, they mentioned how several people had helped them out before. I continue to help people out with their own international moves. I see this not just as a privilege, but as my duty.

The golden rule – to treat others as one would like others to treat oneself  – has been around on since the beginning of time. It is an unwritten code that is part of our genes.

Does your community or organization have a culture of paying it forward? If it does, this culture would sustain itself. If it does not, like a fire, it merely needs to be kick-started.

The 100x rule

Intuition is familiarity that we do not recognize – familiarly that we gain at an unconscious level through repeated practice.

Practice is the ability to perform something in a situation that is replicable – such as positions on a chessboard, the arrangement of notes in a famous song, or 100 leaky faucets that have the same problem. With sufficient practice, a chessmaster chooses the best move in a position within a split second. The fingers of a saxophonist push the right buttons to play Take Five with clockwork precision. An expert plumber can fix a leaky faucet with a few cranks of her spanner, and without a second thought.

But not all professions are equally suitable for developing one’s intuition. Take the case of the stock picker, who based on rigorous analysis, projects that a competitor to Facebook is 20% likely to double their revenues next year. For this soothsayer to validate his data, he would have to recreate our world a 100 times and observe in how many of those worlds the competitor succeeds. He operates in what psychologists call a “low-validity environment”. This is true, to varying degrees, of doctors who examine patients with different internal chemistry, of interviewers who examine candidates with different backgrounds and of all varieties of pundits who predict where the stock market is headed.

Before you believe an expert’s intuitive prediction, ask yourself whether she has had the ability to recreate a particular situation 100 times in her profession. The degree to which she can do that is the extent to which you should trust her intuitive judgement.

World-view vs. the world

When the world collides with our world-view, there are two broad ways to respond.

The first is to treat our world-view as the sacred truth to which the world must confirm. Anybody who doesn’t or measure up or act accordingly is dim-witted, narrow-minded or downright evil. Our response is to write them off as lost causes and stick to circles of people who share the same world-view. This mode of response unites people in opposing sides of a camp. Each camp is devoted to their world-view with equal fervour. Like the Shakespearean families of Montague and the Capulet, they are identical, but hate each other.

The second is to put the world before the world-view. Our world-view is nothing but our imperfect interpretation of the world, and if something doesn’t add up, it’s our world-view that needs to change. We engage with people who have a different world-view and converse with them, not to agree with them but to understand where they come. Seen this way, camps such as Left and Right, Democrat and Republican, Conservative and Liberal, are meaningless because they all represent world-views that are bogged down with inertia.

The world is real and complex. Our world-view is like a globe – a simplification that helps us cope with these complexities. By holding on too tightly to our world-view, we stand to mistake our globes for the world itself.

What makes a hero?

In our epics, heroes are made because of their deeds and actions, and not their outcomes.

In the Iliad, Patroclus, tired of Achilles’ hesitance, wears his armour and leads the Greek troops to battle the Trojans. He then pursues the Trojans, killing several enemy troops, until Apollo stuns him. Hector, the commander of the Trojan troops, then slays him with his spear. The Iliad celebrates Patroclus as a hero despite his demise at the hands of Hector.

Abhimanyu, the son of Arjuna, knew for certain that he could enter the Chakravyuha, (the discus formation) but not escape it. Yet, despite the odds being firmly against his favour, he steps into it, slays several Kaurava warriors and meets his end. Abhimanyu is celebrated for his valour, and not because he could survive the great war of the Mahabharata.

The ancients understood that our outcomes are not entirely in our hands. As metaphors, they attributed this to the whims gods, their politics and their favouritism. Ancient wisdom reflected this emphasis on inputs rather than outputs. The Bhagavad Gita reminds us of how we have the right only to our labour, and not its fruits.

In present times, we have less mythological models to describe the world. We have replaced the vagaries of divine beings with the forces of chance, randomness and chaos. We have narrowed down the causes of several diseases to congenital factors, vectors and pathogens. All of this gives us a feeling of control over outcomes that the ancients never had. This leads us to institute systems with a focus on outcomes (quarterly sales targets, KRAs and KPIs) rather than deeds, decisions and inputs. Further, we attribute successes or failure squarely to individuals (the new CEO has turned the situation around at Microsoft – something that his predecessor could not do).

The world often does not subscribe to our elaborate models. Oftentimes, our feeling of control is illusory, and leads us to have a myopic focus on outcomes, leading us to believe that we are responsible for all the success and failure we experience, and to strive to be successful at any cost – by cutting corners, compromising our morals and by performing acts that aren’t particularly heroic.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Similarly, an illusion of control over our outcomes is worse than their admitted ignorance.

Inspiration: Fooled by Randomness – Nassim Taleb

Cross-sectional interventions

In high school biology, we learn how we could take longitudinal sections and cross-sections. To slice a sliver of cucumber along its length would be to take a longitudinal section. To cut a circular chunk along its breath would be a cross-section.

Interventions can be longitudinal or cross-sectional. Deleting one’s Facebook account is a longitudinal intervention, while abstaining from using all social media on weekdays is to remove a distraction at the cross-section. To give up on eating cake is a longitudinal intervention, while abstaining from all desserts for 6 days a week is a cross-sectional decision.

It is often easier to cut something out at the cross-section than to single out and exclude a longitudinal slice. Just like it is with a cucumber.

Hitting factory reset

Cal Newport, the author of Digital Minimalism, asks us to uninstall all apps from our smartphones for a month. Tested by this period of absence, he then asks us to bring back only the valuable ones into our lives.

Marie Kondo asks us to heap all our clothes in a pile that is meant for discarding, and only decide to keep the few pieces that spark joy as we hold them in our hands.

Elon Musk is an advocate of learning from scratch – of discarding everything he knows about a particular concept and derive it again from the first principles.

The status-quo (also called ownership) adds inertia to our wardrobe, our habits and even our knowledge. We carry these things along not because they serve us, but because we always have.

A reset helps us disregard ownership and see something for what it is really worth.

Why the ancients seem wiser

Everybody talks about the good old times with a touch of romanticism. Several people have the impression that we have degenerated from a time in a past where we were wiser, lived happier and had more fulfilling lives.

While our ancestors might well have been wiser, it is not for the romantic reasons that are apparent to us. One of the main reasons we feel this way is because what survives from the past is only timeless wisdom. We still cherish the wisdom of the Buddha, the Bhagavad Gita and Stoicism. Even those three works are several hundred years apart although our mind lumps them all into one bucket – the ancient past. Further, they are the handful of works that have survived from their era.

The mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot coined the Lindy effect, whereby the future life expectancy of knowledge is proportional to the past. If a book has been around for two hundred years, it is likely to be around for two hundred years more, whereas that popular Buzzfeed article from two days ago won’t last for more than two days. An ancient work of wisdom that still survives today is testimony to its timelessness. But those works are outliers – survivors of their era, from which we have moved on. This survivorship bias distorts our perception about times in past. Think of a time two thousand years from now, where some works that are created today would still survive and make us seem like a clairvoyant people (if we don’t wipe ourselves out!). Those works are among us. It is just that we have no way of knowing which ones they are.

The scholar is forward looking, and mines the timeless works from our past for their wisdom. The fundamentalist misses the point by claiming that we go back to these times and live like those people did.

When less chess is better chess

The reason diamonds cost more than water is simply because they are more scarce.

One of my few vices is internet chess. Recently, I started playing rapid chess (5 min + 3s per move). I then cultivated the habit of playing several games back-to-back until hours would pass and I realize that it is past midnight. During such moments, I empathize with the citizens of ancient Rome, whose emperor, Nero, was busy fiddling even as the city burnt.

Chess is disproportional in its rewards and punishments. A win feels gratifying, while a loss feels downright agonizing. Perhaps that is why almost nobody plays it – most people aren’t masochists. A loss in chess needs at least a few wins to restore normalcy to the state of a player’s mind. Therefore, rapid chess players are likely to keep playing till they finally win a couple of games. The problem here is that the player doesn’t necessarily get better with each passing game – merely more obsessive. Under these circumstances, rapid chess turns into a game of chance, with obsessive gamblers pulling the levers of a slot machine across the chessboard.

To reduce chess to a game of chance isn’t desirable for any chess aficionado. So, I made amends. I now limit myself to 1 game of rapid chess per day. The first day I did this, I lost the game and realized how I had to wait an entire day to recover from the agony of that loss. I also spent more time analyzing my game than I normally did. The next day, I was primed to play a focused game and avoid blunders that would end my chances of winning in an instant. I played one of my better games and won. I saw this pattern emerge over several subsequent games. When I played less chess, I actually played better chess.

Scarcity serves me well in other aspects of leisure too. My TV streaming is limited to about 20 minutes per sitting, preventing me from binge watching shows. I go to the movies about twice a year, and therefore those movies have to meet a really high bar (in my own subjective taste, of course).

As we’ve seen with the diamond and water example, we have always understood the inherent value of scarcity. We would do well to extend this principle to our interactions on digital mediums. Where abundance is the norm, scarcity becomes even more precious.

Creativity surpasses imagination

In the Mahabharata, Dhirtarashtra was a blind king. His hundred sons were involved in a great battle which he could not see. To stay informed, he relied upon Sanjaya, his charioteer, who could witness the faraway battle from the comfort of his palace. Sanjaya had the special power of divya dristhi – the ability to see faraway events. Divya dristhi translates to English as tele-vision.

Peter Thiel reminds us how we have worked several miracles that we bracket under the term technology. Our world is filled with miracles that far surpass what the ancients had imagined. In the same epic Mahabharata, the Chayamukhi was a mirror that told a person whom they most intimately desire. Today, we have matchmaking algorithms and dating websites. Robert Oppenheimer chanted lines from the Bhagavad Gita as he watched the destruction of the atom bomb – “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” From flying machines to destructive weapons, we have cruised beyond our ancestors’ wildest dreams. 

Even in recent decades, creativity continues to surpass imagination. In the late 1960s we put a man on the moon. Today, a device in each of our pockets has more computing power than the entire United States had at that time. Most movies and artistic renditions of the future from the 60s’ and the 70s’ look nothing like the future we have actually created. In fact, these portrayals remind us more of the 60s’ and the 70s’ than of present times.

Having come so far with technology, one might get the impression that subsequent miracles are harder and are farther apart. Whenever such a thought crosses your mind, consider how it might just be a failing of your imagination – something that is inferior to your power to create.

They are all muscles

“She’s an honest person.”

“He’s not a good listener.”

“He’s a motivated employee. She is not.”

“My wife is a creative person. I am not.”

“I was surprised he acted that way. He is normally a calm person.”

Our language reflects how our brain interprets the world in binary terms. But integrity, listening, motivation, creativity and calmness – they aren’t binary. Just like muscles, they improve with daily practice and deteriorate with neglect.

The digital costs of leisure

How do you spend your leisure?

Leisure is scarce. It’s meant to give us a break from work and to refresh us. How does leisure look in the digital era? Especially leisure that is spent on digital media?

For one, it feels good in the moment. If not for those hits of dopamine we receive with every notification or with every like, the internet would not have created some of the world’s most valuable companies.

Secondly, social media is depleting in the long run. After spending a couple of hours on these websites, we do not feel refreshed.

Thirdly, despite social media being free, internet companies benefit from every action we perform on their platforms. Old school products like a Toyota Corolla or even Microsoft Windows have intrinsic value in the absence of any users cranking their engines. But products like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram would be worthless but for their teeming masses of users. Internet giants are successful because of their engineers, designers, product managers and the labour of every user on their platform.

If leisure depletes you in the long term and generates income for somebody else, is it truly “free”?  Every minute of leisure is an expenditure. More so, if it is spent in digital worlds.

Like playing a game

Learning a new language could be perceived as a compulsion – as something that you need to do. The disadvantage of being in a foreign land is the perpetual state of partial or complete ignorance to whatever is happening in one’s surroundings.

On the other hand, language learning is analogous to playing a game – something that you get to do. Every time you step outside your house, you can plug in and start playing – at supermarkets, through billboards on the subway or through flight announcement.

There are several extrinsic reasons to learn a new language – to move to a different country, to integrate better, to make new friends, to improve one’s cognition. But to learn a new language is to also play a game. It needs no other reason.


A coincidence vs. The coincidence

How likely is it that two people would share a birthday in a party? If the party has 23 guests, the odds that two specific guests share a birthday party is 1 in 365. The odds that any two guests share a birthday is greater than 50%.

How likely is it that the same person wins the lottery twice? With the New Jersey lottery, the odds were in the region of one in 17 trillion. The odds that any person wins that lottery twice was 1 in 30.

How likely is it that you’d run into somebody you know during your vacation? If you expect to run into a specific friend or relative, the odds are low. But if you expect to meet anybody you know, the odds are higher than you think.

The odds of any coincidence happening is often much higher than the odds that a specific coincidence happens. Confusing the two is the human brain’s favourite past time.

Since it’s cricket world cup season, I recently came across a stat that left arm seamers were extraordinarily successful in world cups. Left arm seamers were the top wicket takers and scalped more than 20 wickets in 4 out of last 5 editions. Why is that so? This could easily lead people to interpret that something about the world cup’s atmosphere give left arm seamers an edge. However, the person who found that stat was presumably looking at a pool of data for any coincidence, and this one happened to turn up. When presented in isolation, this stat looks specific, and remarkable. But of all the patterns from cricket world cup bowling, at least one such finding has to emerge. That isn’t remarkable, it is inevitable.

Of course, these conclusions are relatively harmless in sports statistics (unless you’re the hapless right arm bowler who was dropped or you are betting big money on this “fact”). But in fields such as medicine, finance and recruitment, decisions made based on patterns in random data routinely cause us to make costly errors in judgement. The absence of a correlation may be used to rule out causation. But the presence of a correlation can never confirm causation.

The next time you run into somebody during your vacation, act surprised, but don’t be surprised. And on medical matters, get second opinions.

Inspiration: Fooled by Randomness – Nassim Taleb

Telling ourselves a new story

The neurologist, Dr. Oliver Sacks, once had a patient with a memory disorder who constantly forgot the identities of the people around him, as well as his own. To cope with this condition, his mind unconsciously invented countless narratives, imagined selves and experiences.

Mental conditions are but amplified manifestations of mechanisms in the brain that are normally found in every person. We all reconstruct our own identities one narrative at a time. Our identity is nothing but the story we tell ourselves, adding bits and pieces as we go through new experiences, and subtracting as we forget. Biologically, we are quite similar to each other. The narratives that make up our identity are what make us unique.

This realization that we are but stories that we tell ourselves maybe unsettling. But it is also liberating. We are not tied to our failings from the past or the scripts people have handed down to us – merely the stories associated with them.

If a particular story does not serve us well, all we need to do is tell ourselves a different story. Fortunately, we happen to be great story tellers.

Inspiration: The Building Blocks of Personhood: Oliver Sacks on Narrative as the Pillar of Identity – Brain Pickings

When the news makes you dumber

The description that follows was chosen from a sample of 100 professionals – 70 lawyers and 30 engineers.

Dick is a 30 year old man. He is married with no children. A man of high ability and high motivation, he promises to be quite successful in his field. He is well liked by his colleagues.

Given this information what are the odds that Dick is an engineer?

When the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky posed this qusetion to their subjects, most of them judged the odds to be 0.5, or 50%. But the description is useless – it tells us nothing about whether somebody is likely to be a lawyer or an engineer. Therefore, we ought to actually stick to the base rate for our prediction – in this case 0.3 or 30%.

In the absence of the description, subjects did make the right prediction. The presence of irrelevant information distorted their judgement. Dilution is a well studied phenomenon in psychology. It is a judgement bias where people underutilize diagnostic information in the presence of non-diagnostic information.

One of the arguments in favour of following the news is that it helps us stay informed. And yes, it helps to receive the memo when breakthroughs such as a cure for AIDS, Artificial General Intelligence or biodegradable plastic are made. But along with this information, the news tells us about royal babies, celebrity weddings, weather reports from Costa Rica and every bit of information about the stock markets. In search of rare nuggets, the news has us wade through copious amounts of garbage.

As Nassim Taleb says, one would realize information gains by dispensing with the news.

Don’t blame the raw materials

A potter transforms clay, which is available in abundance, into beautiful objects.

A chef uses groceries that we all have access to, but cooks them in a manner that few people can.

The difference between your best and worst teacher in school is not proportional to the quality of text books they used.

The work of an artist is to take everyday objects and create something that nobody else has. Art is not so much about the ideas that are accessible to every single one of us. It is about what we do with them.

The lack of inspiration is often a symptom of fear that is rooted in execution.