50 shades of for and against

“You are either part of the solution, or part of the problem.”

“If you are not with us, you are against us.”

“It’s my way, or the highway.”

“An enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

These popular phrases in our language illustrate the human tendency to form two clearly defined camps on a variety of issues – the proposition and the opposition.

What do abortions, gun-control, vaccination, corporate taxation, immigration, gay marriage and climate change have in common? Absolutely nothing, other than that they are all political issues in the United States. Further you’d see most people on one side or the other of those issues, depending on if you’re Democrat or Republican. As a Republican, you cannot favour lower corporate taxes while believing in climate change. As a Democrat, you cannot possibly be anti-abortion but pro gay rights. Inherently, there is nothing conservative or liberal about these policies – across Europe for instance, conservatives believe in climate change and are pro gay rights, while liberals can follow an anti-immigration policy.

Clearly, the need for people to belong to one or the other camp is more important to them than to take informed stands on important issues. But along the way, it kills nuance, which is essential for running large countries. (RIP – gay person who favours an uncontrolled economy).

The human brain’s automatic reaction to complexity is to lump everything we see into white or black. Our practice ought to be to slow the brain down and spare a moment to think critically on how many shades of grey exist in between.

Being a socialist AND a libertarian

The same society can follow radically different principles at the macro and the micro level. Consider Paul Slovic’s research on empathy for victims of disasters. 1 person dying in an accident is a tragedy. 2 people? More of a tragedy than 1 person, but not twice as much. What about the distinction between 86 people and 87 people dying in a flood? Well, both those numbers affect us about the same. Therefore, the value of the 87th person who dies in a flood is negligible.

Although it is unfortunate, Slovic explains how this is a fundamental truth about how our brains work. As numbers grow larger, the crises grow more abstract and fail to trigger the softer human feelings of empathy and trust. A quote that is often (mis-) attributed to Joseph Stalin is “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics”. But it makes a compelling point.

Nassim Taleb quoted in his book, Skin in the Game, how he’s a socialist at the family and friends level, a Democrat at the local level, a Republican at the state level and a libertarian at the federal level. While I might not agree with those exact words, there is value in the  underlying sentiment – as levels go up, trust and empathy goes down.

Perhaps it makes sense to have different political systems operating at different societal levels rather than paint them all with the same brush.

How alternative therapists are fooled by randomness

Amos Tverksy once said that “Man is a deterministic device thrown into a probabilistic universe.” Our brains are adept at seeing patterns where none exist – especially with phenomenon governed by probability.

In most cases, this property of our brain is harmless. But its prevalence in a field like medicine can have deadly consequences. The human body is extremely complex – we are only beginning to understand human pathology. We find several examples of doctors doing more harm than good. When George Washington had a severe bacterial illness, his doctors recommended about 2.5 litres of blood-letting, which ended up killing him sooner.  For centuries, doctors used toxic mercury to treat illnesses such as syphillis and typhoid fever. Until the 1970s, brain surgeons performed lobotomies. They severed connections in the frontal lobe of mental illness patients, leaving them far more impaired than when they entered the hospitals.

Thanks to the human body’s complex workings and its miraculous healing powers, it is extremely hard to point out what causes a patient to recover – the medicine or the body’s own immune system. Similarly, is is hard to find out what causes a patient’s condition to worsen – the disease or the medicine itself. Therefore, medicine is a field where alternative therapies such as homeopathy, acupressure and colour therapy continue to prevail. Some of these interventions do some good, mainly by piggybacking on the placebo effect, which has shown to have remarkably positive outcomes. However, when such therapists claim to cure deadly diseases like cancer, overruling the advice of medical doctors, they can lead to terrible consequences.

Let me illustrate this with an example. Let’s say a doctor has discovered that a patient has a tumour in their kidney, which has a 20% percent chance of turning carcinogenic and an 80% chance of getting cured on its own. The doctor then recommends surgery – what most people consider to be an unpleasant and risky intervention. The doctor knows that the risk of the surgery failing is 1%, but decides that it is a better bet than leaving the lump untreated.

Having received this advice (and estimates on how much the surgery would cost), the patient then goes to an alternative therapist, a well-meaning gentleman, who convinces her that surgery is both risky and unnecessary for this condition. The therapist prescribes a practice involving a few changes to the diet and a few daily exercises to stimulate certain pressure points. The patient follows this religiously, and decides against the surgical intervention.

In the days that follow, let’s say the patient was lucky and that the lump dissolves away – it had an 80% of getting cured on its own. The feedback that the alternative therapist receives is that the lump is cured due to his intervention. After all, the patient listened to him and her illness is now cured. But what he fails to understand is that the illness would have been cured in 80% of the cases without any intervention.

Here’s where things turn dangerous. This case reinforces the alternative therapist’s (and the patient’s) confidence in his treatment. He then goes on to recommend it to 100 other patients who walk into his clinic with a tumour in their kidneys. If these 100 patients choose not to undergo surgery, 80 of them would be “cured” but 20 of them would meet a tragic end. Had all hundred chosen to undergo surgery, maybe 1 of them would have had to deal with a failed surgery. Nevertheless, the 80 people would trumpet the benefits of their therapy, thereby perpetuating it despite it having done more harm than good.

Interventions often fail despite the best intentions because of the complex workings of a probabilistic world, which our mind is not equipped to understand. In most cases alternative therapy, especially for mild conditions, is harmless. But when it claims to cure deadly illnesses, it can do more harm than good with all parties remaining blissfully unaware of its terrible consequences.

Alternative therapy vs. Surgery.png

The algorithm knows better

Have you noticed how your homepage on media sites today is filled with the sites’ own recommendations as opposed to your subscriptions?

On Netflix, I find it hard to scroll down and get to the show that I was already watching. On Youtube, my own subscriptions are tucked away on the side. Medium.com makes it hard for users to find the publications they follow. All of these websites vie for every minute of their users attention. Through rigourous testing, they know that the algorithms know what their users want better than the users themselves.

The algorithm is watching you. It knows what you want right now.

Just one grain of rice

While cooking one day, I split a few grains of rice on the floor. As I continued cooking, I could feel myself stepping on rice all the time. I thought that rice was strewn all over the floor, but I realized that wasn’t the case as soon as I looked under my foot. I saw a grain of rice stuck to my sole, which had me believe that that there was rice everywhere.

The smallest of problems, when unattended to, can be a constant source of discomfort. Sometimes, it is better to attend to the small problem and get it out of our way before continuing on our journey.

The problem with larger teams

We have all been taught math problems along the following lines – “If 2 developers take 70 days to finish building a software, how long would 7 developers take?”.

Our math textbook encourages us to take a linear, proportional relationship to solve this problem. Managers in the real world, while estimating effort for their teams, often use the same logic. In the process they do not factor the time it takes to:

  • Explain the software to all the 7 developers and align them on the same goal
  • Minimize overlap among the individual tasks of the developers
  • Conduct meetings to check-in on progress and make interventions
  • Foresee all the challenges of developing in a particular technical environment
  • Minimize bottlenecks in tasks that are sequential
  • Integrate the separate pieces of work into a seamlessly working software

Brook’s law states that adding human resources to a late software project makes it later. As an IBM study shows, while the difference in efficiency between the best and the worst individuals could be 10x, the difference between teams can be as much as 2000x.

In real life, as in the world of math textbooks, dividing a task within a larger team is easy. The challenge is to coordinate, communicate and integrate the disparate chunks to a fully functional whole.

Turning the problem on its head

Inversion is a powerful mental model that tries to understand the world and make improvements by avoiding the undesirable rather than to focus on merely the desirable.

In order to be happy, we could eliminate that which makes us unhappy.

To improve decision making within an organization, it is easier to avoid stupidity than to seek brilliance.

To encourage a particular behaviour, we could focus on removing the obstacles to make the intended behaviour easier.

When we encounter a problem, rather than merely counter it head on we could explore how to attack it from the flank.

Be careful what you measure

Peter Drucker once said “What gets measured, gets managed”. But the inverse is also true.

For the longest time, I didn’t care much about getting enough sleep. All of that changed the moment I started tracking my sleep. I slept more and my sleep patterns became more regular. My sleep got managed. But in the process, I also turned into a sleep zealot. I became deadly serious about fixing my schedule, eating dinner earlier, getting back home soon and cutting down late night screen time. In effect, my sleep metrics ended up managing me.

We see this to be true with several organizations. Metrics end up bending their culture in ways they could have never fathomed. The social media and internet giants offer a great example here. Most companies in this space started off with easing communication, organizing data and helping people transcend geographical, financial and intellectual boundaries. However, they based their revenues on advertisement. As a result, most of these companies do everything necessary to monopolize user attention (and therefore, revenues) even if that means serving click-bait, creating echo-chambers and leading to a world that is ironically more connected and fragmented at the same time.

Consider a company that defines their competition along the following lines:

“…we compete with all the activities that consumers have at their disposal in their leisure time. This includes watching content on other streaming services, linear TV, DVD or TVOD but also reading a book, surfing YouTube, playing video games, socializing on Facebook, going out to dinner with friends or enjoying a glass of wine with their partner, just to name a few. We earn a tiny fraction of consumers’ time and money, and have lots of opportunity to win more share of leisure time, if we can keep improving.”

This company essentially aims to compete with what it means to be human. While those lines read as though they are straight out of a dystopic science fiction novel, they are actually from the Netflix investors page. It isn’t that these companies are evil. But what they choose to measure, especially after they turn public, ends up pushing them into disturbing trajectories.

What gets measured, ends up managing you. Sometimes in ways you could not have imagined.

Every individual must question what is most dear to his long-term happiness. Every company ought to ask themselves the change in the world they stand for, and measure that change rather than merely profitability. Governments ought to determine whatever is best for their people and push tech policy towards national well-being.

The human use of technology is the foremost challenge of the 21st century.

What writers can learn from the movies

Both writers and film makers are in the business of telepathy. Writers transmit their thoughts through words, while images offers film makers the option of directly having the audience empathize with characters on the screen, leading people to say things like “a picture is worth a thousand words”.

Nevertheless, words are the foundation on which movies stand. Several movies are adaptations of famous novels or biographies. Every movie uses a written script. But most readers (I’m guilty here) look at movie adaptations with disdain. We lament that they cut out the best parts, dumb it down for wider audience or spoil a few characters forever by casting the wrong actors. We swear by the saying “don’t judge a book by its movie”.

But this judgment is often myopic. The best movie editors transmit emotions with the fewest possible words. How long a shot lingers on the close-up of a character plays a key role in determining what the audience feels. All of those principles – describing a scene, using the fewest possible words and rhythm are principles that every writer internalizes. Paragraphs are analogous to scenes. The length of sentences often mirror the length that shots in a movie have. The choice and the rhythm of words reflect the movement of the camera within every scene. Editing, the invisible art that pushes both movies and books towards excellence, have a lot in common. Besides, the visuals of a well made movie offer something more visceral and engaging by bypassing words. It’s fascinating how such a movie can convey the essence of a 10-hour book in 90 minutes.

While video continues to use the written word as a basis, there is unexplored ground on how inspiration can flow in the opposite direction. As a writers, we would do well to watch movies with a fresh pair of eyes, with more curiosity and a lot less disdain.

Inspiration: How does an editor think and feel? – The Every Frame a Painting YouTube channel

 

 

The inner work

When a plumber is sloppy, it reflects in how she fixes her pipes.

When a cook is careless, his soup often misses its mark.

When a programmer is creative, it shows in her implementation.

An courageous author’s words are authentic.

Our work is but a manifestation of the world inside our heads. This is true of artists, craftsmen and professionals. It is also true of leaders, managers and owners of businesses – especially small businesses. Yet, most leadership frameworks, methodologies and approaches are focused on fixing the external problems – on formulating strategies, on devising tactics, on organizing teams and bench marking against competitors.

As leaders, it is easy to forget that whatever is “out-there” is merely a manifestation of whatever is “in-here”. Most effective change begins within us before it can produce results visible to everybody.

Inspiration: E-Myth revisited – Michael Gerber

500 posts

WordPress just reminded me that I had clocked 500 posts on this blog. In keeping with tradition, I use this opportunity to reflect on the journey so far as honestly as I can dare to.

Post no. 500 caught me by surprise. With post 100, 200 and so on, I cared a little more about the numbers. Having done this for so long, it has turned into a way of life. Writing here is something I simply do every single day regardless of the number of posts or of the number of people who engage with what I have to say.

Nevertheless, I am grateful for reader engagement. I lament, as does every blogger who is still holding on, about how attention spans have fallen and about how blogging has fallen out of fashion. But my motivation to show up, to observe things, to make note of them and to write a post everyday has turned more intrinsic. It is a task that is rewarding in itself – one that I would continue doing even if nobody else cared.

At all the same, I realize that this is a rare privilege – to have the time to write every single day, to have an internet connection and a laptop, and to be surrounded by more wonderful ideas than I can keep up with. I am grateful for the privilege of this stage and the luxury of being able to show up to perform on it for 500 days now.

 

A cycle-first society

The way we design our cities is the way we live our lives.

The Netherlands is a unique country in several respects. When most of medieval Europe was a string of warring monarchies, the Dutch chose to be a neutral republic. Large tracts of their land is below sea-level, reclaimed from the water from as early as the 11th century. But what is most striking to me is how they have designed cycle-first cities.

In Dutch cities, the cycling lane is always separated from the roads by a thin stretch of pavement. Cycles always have the right of way on these lanes – above cars and even pedestrians. As a local, you can rent a good bicycle for a whole month for about €20 – the average price of a meal at a restaurant. Most Dutch people own multiple bicycles – a bike to commute in their city or residence, one to commute bike in the town where they work and perhaps a speedy road bike for a weekend getaway. Every town has railway terminals with multilevel parking lots where one could leave a bicycle behind for several weeks. Standing in one of these lots, amidst a deluge of bikes, helps you appreciate what cycling means to the people of the Netherlands.

IMG-20190604-WA0007

Through careful and thoughtful design, the Dutch have built a cycle-first society that is perfectly suited to their flat, small and crowded nation. All that cycling keeps the average Dutch person active for about 25 minutes per day – more than 50% greater than the minimum recommended level.

Every country can be purposeful about urban design. Every individual could be just as purposeful about their living spaces. In the absence of purposeful design, as in most cases, chaos takes center stage.

Like a string of pearls

I love the movie Pulp Fiction. It’s amazing how each scene in that movie can stand on its own. Pulp fictions scenes are much like pearls on a string – each scene is complete in itself while being a part of the larger plot.

Our lives are made up of days. Our days are made up of moments. We all pay close attention to the aggregate factors that define our lives – our education, our careers our life-partners and so on. But all of those choices are results of the attention we bring to each passing moment.

One of the qualities of being mindful is to audit our attention in every moment of our lives. Not asking this question leads us into several trances – from gorging on junk food to scrolling down social media feeds. By the time we ask ourselves this question again, hours (or several chocolate chip cookies) can slip by unnoticed.

What are you doing right now, in this moment? Is that the best use of your attention?

The valuable struggle

What makes an experience fulfilling?

The reward and recognition,

The hits of dopamine we get along the way,

The thrill of working in a team,

The pride of making a change that matters,

and…

…the effort and the inconvenience of it all.

How fulfilling would it be to run a marathon without the sweat, the toil and the pain?

The source of meaning

This picture of Everest, with more than 100 climbers in a single frame, shows us the crowded path to the highest point in the world. Most of those climbers make that journey at great risk and personal expense to tell themselves the story of accomplishing this romantic feat – to tell everybody that they once stood on the world’s highest point.

Of course, the objective is not merely getting to the highest point. Even if we could charter helicopters to simply land on the peak, click a selfie and return, nobody would do it, for that would be meaningless. The act of scaling a mountain is incomplete without the difficulty and the hardship that the climb entails.

Similarly, a religion without ritual, penance and sacrifice is devoid of meaning. A soldier’s profession is without meaning if she did not have to stare death in the eye and endure hardships on the battle front. The very act of cooking a meal with one’s own hands – of buying ingredients, of peeling and chopping vegetables and stirring the pot so that the dish achieves the preferred consistency, makes it taste better than ordering in from a restaurant.

Convenience has brought great value to our lives. Going back to living off the land is no longer an option for most of us. But when taken too far – when we have all our meals delivered to us as we binge watch Netflix – convenience robs more from life than it gives.

When everything comes easily, life is devoid of meaning – Aldous Huxley.

One level deeper

A McDonald’s meal is boring, unhealthy and mundane. Yet, behind the McDonald’s restaurant around every street corner is a wonderful, artistic vision of consistency and crafting an excellent service that is not dependent on the people who deliver it. The “what” of McDonald’s maybe boring, but the “how” is fascinating.

How long do the fries have to simmer in the hot oil so that they roast to the perfect extent, and taste the same every single time?

How do they preheat heat the buns to a particular temperature?

How do all their stores maintain the same impeccable standard of cleanliness?

How do they make it so easy that college kids can do it well enough?

How do they do all these things, and yet service every order within 60 seconds?

What appears mediocre, boring or mundane is often more interesting beneath the surface.

The supermarket bill shock

Which of the two is more predictable – your supermarket bill or your restaurant bill?

Most restaurant orders comprise of a starter, a main course and a dessert or a drink. Our mind is good at estimating the overall price of two or three items quite well. When I receive bills at restaurants, it is usually within the bounds of how much I expect.

On the other hand, I have done the most routine shopping at a supermarket and stared in disbelief at my bill after I’m done.

“€40! That can’t really be correct!”

I have been so surprised on occasions that I have stopped to cross-check the computer generated invoice for arithmetic mistakes. Of course, when I do add up the prices of two avocados, that large jar of Nutella, the packet of organic mozzarella cheese, almond milk and the ten other little things on my list, I find no math errors – just errors in my own perception.

But why does this difference exist? Why are restaurant bills digestible, while supermarket bills aren’t?

The answer has much to do with how many things we can hold at any given time in our head. Our working memory is limited to holding about 4 things at any given time. In case we provide it with more than four things, it lets go of some information to accommodate the additions. In effect, we easily remember the four things we ordered at a restaurant, but our mind cannot account for every single item as they continue to stack up into our shopping cart.

This design of how our minds work is key to the business of running supermarket, and also why we end up over shopping on most of our visits there! We could also use the same principle, though, to our advantage – by breaking up larger projects or assignments into smaller chunks, while breaking up our workdays into a to-do list of smaller activities. That way, our working memory is often freed up to focus on whatever is the most essential task at hand in any given moment.

“Jump in before it is mainstream”

I saw this advertisement for a greentech festival on the Berlin subway.

20190510_085553.jpg

 

It says, “Berliner! Go there before it turns mainstream.”.

This advertisement caught my eye because it uses the tension we feel between the excitement of being first, and the fear of missing out. People like being the first few ones to go somewhere (even with pointless Youtube comments!). But at the same time, we also only care about what other people care about – we don’t want to miss out on the “in” thing. We are always in the pursuit of the sweet spot between not enough people caring about something and too many people having been there already.

This ad also grapples with another tension. For any event advertised on a subway train is, by definition, already mainstream.

The share of the wandering mind

Have you noticed how cookies or bowls of popcorn eaten in front of the television simply disappear before you realize it? It is as though the television claims its own share of whatever you eat while watching it.

How much of your attention is directed towards any given activity, as you perform it? Our attention is finite, and in most cases, distractions keep us from experiencing a something to the fullest degree. Moreover, distractions steal from our future – they plant the seeds of craving that would leave us feeling as though something is missing in the future.

One of the most effective ways in fighting craving and addiction is through mindfulness – to pay undivided attention towards whatever we indulge in, with a sense of curiosity. In the absence of distraction, we get to experience something to the fullest, rather than feel like we need to reach for that second treat on the kitchen shelf after 10 minutes.

The uphill climb

One of the pithy, yet most profound quotes is to Jerzy Gregorek’s credit – “Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices easy life.”

Framed another way, it is easy to break a good habit and difficult to build one, but difficult to break a bad habit and easy to build one.

We are all in the good fight together – to delay delay gratification, make hard choices, and build difficult habits despite the wiring in our brain pushing us in the opposite direction.