The unsolvable riddle

What is the difference between fear and anxiety?

Fear is our natural response to things that are meant to make us afraid – from peering over the ledge of a tall building to making the speech at your best friend’s wedding. Fear is an inevitable physical response. Much like a sneeze, a yawn or a burp.

However, we are only anxious about things we have little or influence over. It can be about a variety of things – the state of our country’s politics, the plight of our football team or aging, sickness or the loss of loved ones.

Given we have no control over things that make us anxious, it is futile. On the flipside, it can exercise a great degree of control over our lives. It can ruin our health, sabotage our careers and render us incapable of leaving the bed.

To be anxious is to pick an addictive riddle that has no solution. When we see this clearly, can we put down the riddle and walk away?

The burst pipe

What is the most dangerous part of having a pipe burst in your bathroom.

The damaged pipe itself isn’t a major problem – one merely needs to call a plumber and have her replace it. It is the flooding of the bathroom that is destructive. You can greatly limit this damage if you turn off the water supply as soon as the pipe bursts.

To get emotional is to have a pipe burst within us. It is often our response to that emotion that spirals out of control and causes us to act in ways that we will later regret. We can avert much damage if we simply turned off the water supply.

The problem itself isn’t as dangerous as our response to it. Regardless of the problem, we can always choose to respond to it in ways that limit its damage.

Inspiration: William Irvine

Two opposing theories of knowledge

How can you tell if you know something? There are two diametrically opposite theories of knowledge to answer that question.

The first theory relies on confidence. It entails making repeated observations and becoming surer of our observations with time. If the sun rose in the east yesterday, the day before, and for all recorded history, we can be more confident that it will rise tomorrow in the east. With each observation that confirms our assumption, we grow more confident in our assumption.

This theory of knowledge is called the ‘justified true belief’ theory. We are naturally prone to reasoning this way – we are conditioned to do so. Even animals reason this way. When a bird recognizes that it is safe to perch on a particular branch, it is likely to keep returning to that branch.

The second theory relies on humility. It is based on a simple but baffling premise – that we are incapable of knowing anything at all perfectly. Every bit of knowledge we have is merely our best guess at something we can never know for sure. Newton’s gravitational theory was our best guess until general relativity came along. Now general relativity’s warping of space-time is our best guess until a better explanation comes along.

This second theory of knowledge is called epistemology. It believes that our best theories of today in every field are merely a framework for tomorrow’s scientists to improve upon, while pursuing a construction project that will never be finished.

The advantage of the justified true belief approach is that it is intuitive. Its problem is that we are most confident about a theory precisely the moment before it is demolished. For the longest time, the western world believed that the Sun revolved around the Earth. The moment Nicholas Copernicus proved otherwise, they were so confident of their assertion, that they refused to believe him and even threatened to kill him.

The disadvantage of epistemology is that it is counter-intuitive. It can also be depressing to know that we would never truly know anything at all. Yet, epistemology calls upon creativity, imagination and our powers of reasoning to propose ever more elegant explanations of the nature of reality.

Realizing that we are incapable of perfectly knowing anything at all replaces hubris with plenty of room for discovery and exploration.

What pandemic haircuts teach us

Did you ever imagine that one day, you would submit to getting a haircut from somebody who wasn’t a trained professional?

Before the pandemic, that would have sounded like an outrageous idea. Yet, here we are, where most of us have either given ourselves at least one haircut, or submitted our precious locks to the hands of an untrained loved one. In fact, it is more than a year since I went to a barber.

Why was this unthinkable for us before?

In the pre-pandemic era, the risk of getting a bad haircut seemed too high. We had assumed that bad haircuts would be easy to spot and invite much ridicule. Therefore, we always went to a professional.

Now that we are cutting our own hair and bad haircuts abound, where is the ridicule we once feared? Does anybody even notice?

Haircuts during the pandemic have taught us that we are ridiculed more in our imagination than in reality.

The value of a hand-crafted website

We value hand-crafted goods because they have a human touch.

We can tell if a carpet, a vase or a piece of soap is hand-crafted because they all bear the subtle markings of their makers. It’s all about the wabi-sabi. The imperfection of a creation that isn’t machine made enhances its beauty. It transforms a commodity into a personal gift from one human to another.

Can the same be translated to the digital medium? One that we cannot touch and feel?

A hand-crafted website is one where its creator has written every line of HTML and CSS themselves rather than using readymade templates or layouts. A digital creation might not have imperfection in the same way that a physical object does. But it does reflect the individual choices that its creators have made. It could use a font, a layout and a style that doesn’t have the same industrial sameness that a standard wordpress site does. The degree of customization that writing every line of markup behind your website offers allows it to bear the marks of its creator. These marks transform a digital commodity into a personal gift from one human to another.

Hand-crafting has as much a role to play in the digital world as it does in the physical world.

PS: I published my own hand-crafted website today.

Boredom unmasked

When somebody says they are bored, what do they really mean?

Boredom sounds like a benign word for being stuck in a situation – a mild form of suffering. Our culture tells us that the natural response to boredom is entertainment – television, computer games, social media, junk food, alcohol or drugs, depending on your circumstances.

At a deeper level, boredom is the inability to enjoy the mundane. Yet, reality is oftentimes mundane. Even a sensational life is mostly filled with ordinary moments. Boredom is the stimulus that nudges us into portals of distraction as a means to escape this mundaneness.

An addict is merely a person who is habitually bored and acts upon his boredom a certain way. Seen in this manner, boredom isn’t as benign after all.

If shunning boredom spiral down to addiction, what happens if you embrace it?

Any act of creativity often oscillates between bursts of insights and mind-numbing boredom. A writer seated at her desk has to often plod through stretches of boredom to glean the sparks of inspiration that light up her mind and transform into words. Boredom serves as the canvas for creativity. To innovate is to start with the mundane and end with the marvelous.

When you embrace boredom, it fuels art. A world without boredom is also one without art.

Knowledge in motion

Wisdom can be defined as knowledge in motion. When we know something to be true and are able to implement it in our daily lives, it turns from theoretical knowledge to practical wisdom.

At a personal level, wisdom is to continually bridging the gap between what you know about yourself and who you are.

And interestingly, you can close this gap in both directions – through addition and subtraction. You can learn more about yourself. At the same time, you can subtract everything you know that doesn’t make a difference to who you are.

Additive wisdom is fairly abundant. It is subtractive wisdom that is in short supply.

How to make a country disappear

In 1990, the country of East Germany disappeared.

From October 3, 1990, East Germany was no longer a country. And just like that, an entity that was backed by a flag, an anthem, an army, a parliament, a constitution, passports disappeared.

The reason the country disappeared was because Germans and the rest of the world decided to stop thinking of East Germany as a country. It was mind over matter – once we stopped thinking of the East German nation, everything else that attested to its existence ceased to matter.

Countries, currencies, races, castes, companies and the very measurement of time are stories we tell ourselves. They have tremendous power over us. But once we stop thinking about them, they cease to exist.

Our thoughts aren’t omnipotent. A winter’s day in Berlin where the temperature is 5 degrees is not going to change, regardless of how many Berliners try and think otherwise. Nor will the river Spree stop flowing through the city of Berlin because we thought otherwise. The weather and water bodies aren’t stories. To cope with them, we need to rely on winter coats and canals.

Yet, most of our torment originates in stories – ones that disappear when we cease to think of them. We have as much power over these stories as they do over us.

Nature is cram proof

How effective would it be to cram on a farm?

Imagine a farmer who relaxes through the sowing season and the monsoon, only to try and cram in the last few days to harvest a bounty. A farm is a natural system, and is subject to certain rules that cannot be hacked. To obtain a good harvest, the price must be paid.

We live in an era of hacking. Starting with cramming on tests, we have been conditioned into hacking our way through lives by employing a variety of shortcuts.

Yet, like a farm, our lives are surrounded by natural systems that are hack-proof. Personal health, human relationships, character – all these cannot be pumped on steroids and built overnight. Trying to do so is counter-productive.

Inspiration: The 7 habits of highly effective people

When stories collide with reality

The company, Lehmann Brothers, was merely a story. It crashed and burned during the financial crisis of 2008. Yet, the anguish of an elderly person who lost their life’s savings with Lehmann Brothers was only too real.

The country of Yugoslavia was merely fiction. It ceased to exist the moment everybody in the world stopped thinking of it as a country. Yet, the death of a Yugoslavian soldier who died fighting to protect its borders was only too real.

The idea of a Zimbabwean dollar, like every other currency in the world, is merely a story we believe in. When we stop believing in that story, the currency turns worthless. Yet, the helplessness of a Zimbabwean mother unable to buy a meal for her children with a whole month’s salary was only too real.

As civilization progresses, stories are finely woven into the fabric of ours lives. As humans growing up in a world run by fiction, we all need to understand how to navigate their collisions with our real lives.

Stories all the way down

The value of Bitcoin today is upward of 3.5 Trillion USD. To put that in perspective, if Bitcoin were a company, it would be more valuable than Microsoft, whose market cap is about 2.5 Trillion USD.

The valuation of a company is based on the problems it solves. Microsoft creates software products, which I use to write this blog. It also offers the cloud solutions on which enterprises run their business. It is a firm that is constantly innovating, and its board of directors are answerable to their shareholders. All these factors cumulate to sum up to the valuation of its stock price.

In comparison, what problems do Bitcoin solve?

Bitcoin is a digital currency that is a seen as an alternative to gold. It is not backed by any physical asset, software products or solutions. It derives its valuation almost entirely on the basis of its scarcity and cryptographic robustness. The price of Bitcoin is so high because its proponents believe in its story.

A story of a new store of value that is premised on scarcity and cryptography is worth more, as of today, than the largest corporation in the world.

But it does not end there. Every US dollar derives its ability to purchase bread, a plane ticket or an annual subscription to Office 365 merely because the world ‘believes in the dollar’. It isn’t backed by reserves of gold in Fort Knox or any other physical asset. The dollar derives its value entirely from our belief in its story. The rise of cryptocurrencies, at the very least, proves that there is room for alternative stories of money in the financial world.

Money is merely a story. And a story about a new kind of money can capture a greater share of our imagination than the largest corporation in the world.

However, a corporation is also merely a story we tell ourselves. It is stories all the way down.

They are pedestals

Why does that large house in a suburb sport a manicured lawn?

Why does a management consultant go to work in a starched blouse, high heels and impeccable trousers?

And what do they have in common with a peacock’s extravagant tail?

A peacock’s tail is a burden and a liability. Growing such a tail requires enormous resources. Further, it slows the peacock down when it is ambushed by a predator. Yet, peacocks with the largest tails are favoured by their mates. Their tails are a signal. They indicate to potential mates how the peacock is able to thrive in the jungle and add to its beauty despite having to lug such a tail around.

A lawn is a signal that despite space being scarce, the owner of that suburban house has enough land and resources to grow and maintain a patch of grass that is otherwise pointless.

Management consultants, through their impeccable dressing, signal how despite working 16-hour days, they are able to dress better than most of their colleauges at the client’s firm.

Certain parts of our culture serve no other purpose than to put somebody on a pedestal that says they are better than you are.

The piece of sweet

A piece of sweet
An innocuous morsel
Made merely
Of milk and sugar
Lies on the counter.

I sit at my table
Doing the lord’s work
And hit a roadblock.
My mind wanders
I walk to the counter.

My eyes drift
To the piece of sweet
Lying on the counter.
My hand picks it up.
The nugget of sugar
Disappears down my throat.

A piece of sweet,
A burst of delight,
A momentary shroud
Of torment and treachery.
An escape hatch.

As I ponder this marvel
Of mere milk and sugar
I catch myself hovering
Once again
Over the counter.

The escape hatch

Why do waiting rooms at a doctor’s clinic often have televisions?

Waiting in a doctor’s lounge is boring. The television at the lounge is a portal for its patients to escape this boredom as they wait for their turn. Even a television on mute does this job well enough.

And then there are people whose television is switched on whenever they are at home. Even if they aren’t actively watching the TV, it stays on in the background. Why is that? Is it also to escape boredom? In that case, is boredom the default state of their mind?

Today, we have several other escape hatches that are more effective than television. But whenever our eyes wander to one of their screens, what are we trying to escape from?

The flipside of a motivation quote

‘You are the master of your destiny.’

We often see such clich├ęd motivation quotes plastered over t-shirts or wallpaper backgrounds. And for what they are worth, they do empower people to some extent.

Yet, they sound empty because there is a flipside.

If you are the master of your destiny, this belief also holds you responsible when something goes wrong in your life. Just as the quote is universal, this blame is attached regardless of whether you were in control of the misfortune that struck you.

Even in the 21st century, we are held in the sway of several forces we don’t control – from natural disasters, disease to plain bad-luck. While sappy motivation may help us overcome limitations, it also holds us accountable for every failure in our own lives – even the ones we could not have prevented.

True empowerment is also about accepting our limitations.

Self-help and the Dunning-Kruger effect

Learn Sanskrit in 30 days.

Learn Java in 24 hours.

An entire MBA in four weeks.

We are all familiar with cliched self-help titles and their empty promises. If you learnt Java for 24 hours, you merely learn 24 hours worth of a skill that requires 1000s of hours to master.

Why do these titles remain popular? And more importantly, why do we keep falling for them?

The answer may have something to do with the DunningKruger effect. Two psychologists, Dunning and Kruger, established how people often grow overconfident in the initial days of learning a new skill. Amateurs often have the impression that they know more about a skill than they actually do.

However, this feeling doesn’t last long. On learning a little more, one’s own incompetence becomes clear and their confidence drops. When we know more of a topic, we also understand how much of it we don’t know.

Yet, reading that self-help book on a new topic leads us straight up the illusory peak of confidence, although the necessary competence is lacking. Therefore, it feels like we have taken a short-cut, and the fantastic reviews pour in for the book or the seminar that got us there.

However, on sticking to the skill, our incompetence becomes clear, and we realize that we have been cheated. That is, until we fall for the next self-help hack.

Empty holes

How can it be, that owning a cute little dog is a delight to some people and a burden to others?

How is it that one person’s dream job is another person’s idea of pain and drudgery?

How can some folks be entertained by a cricket match that last five days, whereas many others would rather watch paint dry instead?

Anything we desire and enjoy has its roots in unfulfilled needs that are often hidden from our plain sight. Since we all have different needs that aren’t fulfilled, our interests are also varied.

To live a complete life, requires an understanding of the ways in which we are incomplete.

The obvious mismatch

What are the days when I am the happiest?

I am happiest when I converse with a bunch of friends, go on a long hike, cook a meal for the family, run a marathon, finish a difficult project or overcome a personal challenge.

What do I do with most of my leisure?

I watch television, stream Netflix, play computer games, binge Youtube, scroll down social media, spectate sport or go shopping.

We wage a constant battle to protect our well-being from industrial capitalism that lures us into mindless consumption. Yet, if you see this rift clearly, can you take charge and make amends?

Fluency and mastery

The most basic vocabulary in the English language is about 800 word families. If you know merely these words, you can already understand up to 75% of a language as it is spoken in normal life.

At the next level, to understand dialogue in a film or TV, you’ll need about 3000 word families. To read novels, newspapers and articles, you need about 8000 words.

Finally, to achieve native proficiency in English, you need to know a staggering 20,000 word families. Besides, all those additional words get more and more obscure.

Skills are easy to become fluent in – just focus on learning the essential parts. However, there is no shortcut to mastery. It is always a long and hard slog.

Where did all my time go?

The last two centuries has seen us make unprecedented progress. Our productivity has skyrocketed. Our lifespan has doubled and we lead higher quality lives.

Yet, despite this abundance, we are perpetually short on time. If we have improved on every other measure, why are our lives still so rushed?

Every village that is newly electrified sees the following changes. First, industrial productivity goes up. Second, the lights go on in the evening. Third, every household purchases a television. Fourth, the leisure that people used to enjoy disappears.

The last few years have seen social media and video streaming leapfrog the dominance that television had over our leisure. When the pandemic forced us to work from home, millions of people saved at least an hour of commute time each day. How many of those hours were gobbled up by Netflix or social media feeds?

Leisure is free time spent in a manner that leaves us feel fulfilled. Television programming is designed to do the opposite – to leave you feeling empty inside. Of all your happy days on the planet, how many were spent flopped in front of a TV?

The engine of capitalism is fueled by consumption. As we progress further, our sources of entertainment and consumption turn more powerful and addictive, leaving us unfulfilled and craving for more consumption. This consumption further cranks the engine of capitalism and the cycle goes on and on.

It is this vortex into which our free time disappears!

Inspiration: Seth Godin