Inspiration has a shelf-life

I have made a habit of collecting writing prompts for my blogposts. Whenever I have an idea worth riffing about, I note it down in a file to revisit later.

This morning, I just deleted about 45 prompts I had for new blogposts. They were prompts I had collected in the last two years, but not acted upon. When I read them again, I either didn’t recognize them or didn’t find their ideas interesting enough to write about.

On the other hand, I am often surprised by certain posts I have written two years back. If I try to write those posts again, I would not have the same clarity and conviction I had back when I wrote them. Those were the prompts I had acted upon.

Inspiration has a shelf-life. If you do not use it, you will be forced to throw it away.

A thousand words

Have you ever stared in awe at a steam locomotive, wondering how it works?

For the umpteenth time, I relived this experience at a museum last weekend. Specifically, I wondered how the intricate mechanism around the engine’s wheels and their elegant swinging motion were driven by pressurized steam.

Discover & share this Steam GIF with everyone you know. GIPHY is how you  search, share, discover, and create GIFs. | Steam, Steam engine model,  Mechanical design
Source

This gif I found with a simple Google search answered the question more convincingly than anything else I have come across in 33 years, a degree in mechanical engineering notwithstanding. I only wish for every middle-school science teacher to have his students see this.

Bottleneck blindness

In my previous job, my team automated software processes. One of our processes kept breaking down and consumed a large chunk of our time. We tried rewriting the code, increasing response time and adding more checks, but to no avail. Every couple of days, the process would break down and deprive our heads of a few clumps of hair.

We finally figured out that the process was running on an old computer with poor hardware. This rendered any software that ran on the machine unstable. The moment we shifted the process to another computer, our problems vanished. The bottleneck in the process wasn’t the software code that we tried so hard to fix, but the underlying infrastructure.

To optimize a process, it is obvious that the effort must be directed at its bottleneck. The less obvious corollary is that any amount of improvement to a process outside its bottleneck is wasted effort.

Driving is best done solo

In a perfectly democratic world, do we even need leaders?

We live in an era that is more democratic and inclusive than any other period in history. In our homes, our workplaces and in our public lives, each one of us can voice our opinions and make our own life’s choice. As a consequence, our leaders leaders have less authority.

However, several important decisions cannot be a matter of consensus. A bus full of bus drivers, each with a steering wheel, would end in disaster very soon. They need to relegate the task of driving the bus to one driver.

A perfectly democratic world cannot do away with leaders. In fact, it needs better leaders who can lead by influence rather than authority.

Feedback that backfires

Certain kinds of feedback can also backfire. Even if the feedback is accurate, it can deteroirate performance.

Specific feedback that is aimed at process, method or technique is useful. If you liked a seminar, telling the speaker the parts of their session that resonated with you is good feedback. This feedback is actionable, and the speaker could choose to amplify those parts of the session.

Feedback that is aimed at a person’s ego can be harmful. Telling somebody that they are an outstanding teacher doesn’t help them improve their teaching, but is praise directed at their personality. This feedback isn’t actionable – knowing that they are a good teacher does not tell them how to improve their teaching.

The same applies to negative feedback. Criticism of process or technique can be harnessed by the receiver. Criticism directed at a person is often detrimental.

How do you know if a piece of feedback is good? Just ask yourself if the recipient can act upon it.

Inspiration: Ultralearning

The leftovers

Do you spend enough time cultivating your personal relationships? Or does ‘life’ get in the way?

When a zebra is hunted on the Savannah, its meat is staked in an order of priority. First, the lions, the leopards and the cheetahs get their shares. Then the hyenas totter in for their pounds of flesh. Once the hyenas are done, the vultures step in. In the end, if something is leftover, the jackals come in to salvage it.

The demands on our time are also lined up on a pecking order. Our time is limited and is mostly devoted to our careers, entertainment portals and personal projects. Our personal relationships, which are the most important for our long-term health and well-being, are often relegated to the lowest rung in our ladder of priorities.

For our personal relationships to thrive, we must stop treating them like scavengers.

The wasteful 80%

The famous pareto principle states that 80% of our outcomes accrue from 20% of our efforts. An overlooked corollary to this principle is that 80% of almost any effort expended is non-essential.

Take a crucial hour-long meeting that you missed. You can gather most of what happened in this meeting by reading its notes in 5 minutes. Most of the information exchanged in a majority of work meetings is non-essential.

When you catch up on the news after a long vacation, you realize you haven’t missed anything. The same is true of work projects. Despite long breaks, we don’t miss out on what we fear we will.

Things always appears more valuable they really are. The only means to sift out the valuable parts is to go on extended breaks and observe what we truly miss.

Beating the Resistance

Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint or a musician who doesn’t create music?

There is always an internal battle between an artist’s intentions and actions. The artist’s enemy here is the Resistance* – the part of our mind that deters us from showing up and creating our best work.

The Resistance is a wily creature that resides within every artist. Time and again, it berates the artist’s work and shames them into not pursuing their craft. The Resistance deludes the artist into thinking that it protects the quality of their work. Alas! The surest way to dilute the quality of your craft is to set it aside for long periods and lose touch with it. That is exactly what the Resistance wants.

One kind of artist successfully beats the Resistance. She appears at her desk, glues her backside to the seat, opens a blank piece of paper and creates something where nothing existed. In those moments, she is engrossed in her work and does not worry about its quality. In those moments, the Resistance leaves her alone.

To beat the Resistance, you must show up, for that is what the Resistance most hates.

*Resistance – Steven Pressfield’s name for that internal force that prevents us from being the best versions of ourselves. Outlined in The War of Art.

Are you in the driver’s seat?

Have you ever found yourself walking to your refrigerator for a snack and wondered how you got there?

Can you preserve your mood despite not having your morning’s coffee?

When your partner breaks a promise or your friend betrays you, can you choose to not get upset?

Can you sit for half-an-hour by yourself and do nothing?

With most of your decisions and actions, do you find yourself in the driver’s or in the passenger’s seat?

Anticipated addiction

Two sets of flight attendants who were smokers were enlisted in a study on tobacco addiction.

The first group flew a route within Europe that only lasted a couple of hours. The second group flew a transatlantic route from Europe to America. Both groups couldn’t smoke onboard and their craving to light up a cigarette was measured at regular intervals.

When the first group’s flight landed a couple of hours later, its flight attendants instantly reported a spike in nicotine craving. Interestingly, the second group, which at this point in their flight were still flying over the Atlantic, did not report any noticeable change in their craving levels. Given that their destination was faraway, they didn’t feel an immediate urge to light up.

This experiment indicates how a smoker’s craving is not just triggered by nicotine addiction, but on their own expectations. But that’s not all.

When my wife and I go on long runs while training for a marathon. The length of each run varies on a weekly basis. One week, after a 16 kilometer training run, we were thoroughly spent as we reached the finish. Yet the very next week, on a longer 20 kilometer run, we were still strong enough on the 16 kilometer mark to push on for another 4 kilometers. Ergo, our level of tiredness does not merely depend on the distance we’ve run, but also on how soon we anticipate to finish.

Both behaviours we wish to stop and the ones we wish to pursue depend on external factors as well as our own anticipation. This realization is empowering, for we can choose to control what we anticipate.

Turning boredom into a game

How much fun is it to swim 40 laps back-to-back in a swimming pool?

Most of us cannot swim 40 laps in an Olympic size pool. Nevertheless, we wonder how the few people who choose to do that day after day do not get bored. The swimmers on the other hand will tell you how blissful and exciting their daily swim routine is.

The key to understanding how swimmers enjoy swimming is to realize that they are playing a game that most of us cannot see. What appears to us to be the same stroke lap after lap, is filled with an incredible amount of variation. On each lap, the swimmer can focus on a different aspect of their stroke – core body balance, upper body rotation, the smoothness of their turns, their leg’s streamlining and so on. They can then tweak these aspects while tracking performance metrics such as the time taken per lap and the number of strokes expended per lap.

By combining all these aspects, you can craft an intricate game that one can never get bored of playing. Besides, once they have mastered one stroke, they can start all over with another stroke. The game never ends.

The key to enjoy the boring tedium of mastering any craft is to notice variability that most other people are blind to.

Inspiration: Indistractable

Proficiency

One’s musical instrument has little bearing on how well one can play it.

Gleaming utensils in the kitchen do not reflect a person’s culinary skills.

The quality of the books on a bookshelves do not attest their owners knowledge or wisdom.

One reason we accumulate so many possessions is because we confuse having with being.

A better Covid-19 metric

Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic started, most places in the world have been tracking and reporting a count of new daily cases diligently.

By now, most of us know that new-cases-per-day, as a metric, is woefully simplistic. For one, it neglects base rate – 4000 new cases mean very different things for a country like India and one like Singapore. Secondly, it neglects fluctuations due to reporting. The German public uses a better metric: 7-day-incidence. This metric is a count of new cases reported over a week per a 100,000 people. It includes a base rate and smoothens the curve over a weekly period.

7-day-incidence isn’t a complicated metric – a 7th standard student can calculate and comprehend it with ease. Yet, most parts of the world, including the World Health Organization, persist in using an inferior metric to track the world’s deadliest recorded pandemic. Continuing to merely report new-cases-per-day is also an insult to the common person’s intelligence and indicates that we aren’t taking the pandemic seriously enough.

Our metrics need to be simple enough for us to understand. But they also need to mirror real-world complexity. With tracking Covid-19 cases, we have leaned too far on the side of simplicity.

Always on vacation

On vacation, we are different people.

We draw up an itinerary, plunge into activity, tuck into local cuisine and immerse ourselves in beauty that is both natural and man-made. Above all, we are thoroughly engaged in whatever we’re doing, even if it is lying on a beach with our eyes closed.

This excitement with which we greet every experience ends when our vacation ends. We return to our hometowns and slide back into our dreary routine, longing for another vacation. At the same time, we marvel at how fascinated those tourists are at a statue that we have never stopped to observe on our way to work.

We realize well that a vacation is short and we need to make the most of it. What most of us fail to realize is the shortness of the rest of our lives. If we did, we would live every single day as though we were on vacation.

The rotten apples

Crypto currencies get a bad rap for their use in criminal dealings. Yet, the vast majority of people who hold cryptocurrencies aren’t criminals.

English football fans are often stereotyped as being hooligans. Yet, most English football fans are a peaceful lot who just love the game.

For the longest time, veganism and feminism was synonymous with its militant proponents. Yet, most vegans and feminists don’t hold extreme positions.

Thanks to our negativity bias, a community often ends up being defined by a critical mass of its worst users.

Peace from mind

Can you ever picture an unhappy person whose mind is peaceful?

Hindu and Buddhist philosophy equates happiness with a peaceful mind. Happiness is our default state – one that we return to when our mind is absolutely still.

We often experience bursts of mental stillness. When we’re engrossed in work or in play, our worldly concerns temporarily disappear. When we stand on a sea-cliff and take in the ocean’s magnificence, our worries and fears dissolve in a pool of insignificance. When we’re deep asleep, we are completely unaware of every mental torment that wakefulness brings.

The most ecstatic of life’s moments occur when our mind is silenced. What we all seek is peace from mind.

Surefooted

A hiker who can negotiate difficult terrain with ease is called surefooted.

A surefooted hiker isn’t one who carefully studies the rocky path ahead of her and plans out every step in advance. Instead, a surefooted hiker jumps right in and takes each step on the fly, springing and landing with a cat’s grace. The sureness lies not in advance planning but in being nimble, agile and flexible to make adjustments as necessary.

The surefooted among us are adept at making the most of leaps that are rather unsure.

The manager’s myopia

Frederick Taylor claim to fame was his habit of measuring the productivity of industrial workers with a stop-watch. When labourers loaded sacks of pig-iron on railroad carriages, he stood by the side and measured how many they could load in 15 minutes.

Taylor believed that workers were inherently lazy and they needed a manager to measure their productivity and motivate them using rewards and punishments. His interventions gained enough traction during the industrial revolution to earn Taylor the title, ‘the father of modern management’. Taylor’s assumptions and his crude early 20th century methods continue to influence managers today. Managers everywhere are still hooked on measurement, monitoring and metrics.

Yet, the problem arises when you treat any process like an assembly line. Take nursing for instance. Several nursing organizations today measure their nurse’s productivity in number of visits they make per day, number of injections administered etc. The nurses are then penalized if they don’t meet their daily targets. The nurses have little control over the patients they are assigned to – they could meet new patients every day and never treat them again. Now given that several nurses choose the nursing profession while foregoing more lucrative career options out of the joy of serving their patients, how satisfied are they going to be when every move they make is monitored by a crony with a stopwatch?

The manager’s myopia stems from addressing every problem as though it were a productivity problem and treating every process like an assembly line.

Three men make a tiger

‘Three men make a tiger’ is an ancient Chinese proverb. It’s based on the premise that if one person tells you that a tiger is prowling in your neighbourhood, you won’t believe them. If a second person tells you the same thing, you begin to wonder. If three people tell you about the tiger, you believe them and panic.

The broader lesson here is that we are prone to believing in something absurd as long as enough people around us repeat it. A related cognitive bias is ‘social consensus reality’ – our tendency to treat beliefs with high societal consensus like facts.

Growing up, I was led to believe that if I got a good university degree, I could breeze past the rest of my life. I was also told that to take a gap year at the age of 18 to figure out what I wanted to do was wasteful. I now know that these were falsehoods that I ended up believing because enough people repeated them to me.

As an antidote to this fallacy, you must turn into a critical thinker. Further, it also helps to be mindful of the three persons you are tuned into.