Healthy delusion

It is not going to work

That novel you are writing, that art-form you are creating, that movement you are pioneering, that company you are founding or that book you are launching has a very low likelihood of succeeding.

A voice inside us that knows this fills us with fear and hesitation. So do our friends, relatives and other well-wishers. Yet, with each of those pursuits, we must act as if our chances of succeeding are high. This necessary delusion gives us the hope to persevere despite the low likelihood of success.

It is important to take our chances, for in the long-term we regret not having tried more than we regret failure.

When the state cares so that you don’t have to

The degree to which your country’s governance and law making is good corelates inversely to the extent to which the common citizenry talks or thinks about politics.

The degree to which your country’s health-care system works well corelates inversely to the extent to which the its common citizenry arranges for its own access to medical facilities.

The degree to which your country’s education system is good corelates inversely to the extent to which the common person arranges for their own children’s schooling and university.

If you have access to state-of-the-art facilities, but you are having to arrange for that access yourself, you are privileged and those systems are likely to be broken.

Play stupid games, win stupid prizes

Back when I was a kid, I used to try and maximize my score while playing Tetris on a handheld video-game. When the game ended, I was left with a score, which I couldn’t really use anywhere else. Yet, without that score, there would be no game.

Having people earn points is among the easiest of tricks to hack into people’s behaviour. Twitter followers and Instagram or Facebook likes are points doled out to users to keep them on the platform longer – a tactic that works extraordinarily well. Hotel chains and credit card companies also have us collect points (the choice of the word ‘points’ is intentional). Airlines call them miles although you are only too quick to realize that 1 mile in your account doesn’t nearly translate to 1 mile in the real world.

We are surrounded by games that we often play. But what prizes do we win? Playing a fitness challenge with your friends can earn you a valuable prize. Does getting the max-score on your Tetris video-game benefit you? Collecting likes on Facebook benefits Facebook way more than it benefits you.

As Naval Ravikant often quips, when you play stupid games, you win stupid prizes. With any game you are playing, it is important to step back and ask what prize is at stake.

Puddles and us

Has the world been made for us? Have the trees, the flowers, the fruits, the grains, the rivers, the cattle, the rain, the fire and the seas made to benefit human existence?

Douglas Adams explores this feeling with a parable:

‘”This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!”‘

‘This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.’

If we compressed the history of earth into 24 hours, our existence on the planet represents merely 77 seconds. Put that into perspective and we recognize how much we have in common with Adam’s sentient puddle.

The cost of building canals

Building a canal from a river or a stream has its advantages, but always comes at a cost.

Diverting a river to build a canal has its utilitarian advantages – it can be used for to irrigate farms while supplying villages and towns with water. Yet, every canal damages ecosystems that have been stable for centuries – a cost that is often hidden from plain sight.

We are all asked to ‘find our own path’ in our lives. Like a river, we are gifted a natural path. While we are on this path, we are intrinsically motivated – our work is done for its own sake rather than for an external reward or due to the fear of punishment.

Yet, in a utilitarian society, we are forced to build compromises in favour of utility – to examine the viability and the social acceptability of our choices. All of those compromises are canals that cut through our lives – beneficial in the short run, but at the cost of self-worth and self-motivation in the long run.

I am not against building canals – some of them are invaluable. It is just that we must also account for their hidden costs when we pick up our shovels.

Let us rebrand leadership

It is way more exhilarating to find the solution to a puzzle than have it revealed to you. A necessity for any feeling of accomplishment is the feeling of having done it on one’s own.

Our lives are filled with puzzles to solve. The best leaders among us dedicate their lives towards helping us solve these puzzles ourselves.

Great teachers invest in helping students learn by finding answers on their own – by giving them projects and assignments that make them think better.

Great managers understand the motivations of their colleagues and channel it into activities that generate profit for their enterprise.

The best counsellors don’t offer solutions to people’s problems. Instead, they listen without judgement, and thereby help people solve their own problems.

We need to rethink the term ‘leadership’, for excellent leadership is more about helping people find their own path rather than showing them the path to follow.

You get what you wish for

The American management professor, Douglas McGregor (who also taught at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta), conceptualized Theory X and Theory Y management.

Some managers operated from what McGregor called a ‘Theory X’ lens. They believed that employees are inherently lazy and will avoid work whenever possible. They enforced strict controls and workplace surveillance practices. A Theory X manager is prone to micromanagement.

Others operated from a Theory Y lens. They believed that workers are ambitious, self-motivated people who can exercise self-control. Accordingly, they entrusted their employees with trust and responsibility. A theory Y manager is more of a hands-off manager.

Here’s the catch though – both these theories are true. A team managed with Theory X principles will do their best to game the system and validate their manager’s thinking. The same team operated under a high trust environment will be self-driven, and reinforce their manager’s Theory Y assumptions.

Regardless of which of these two contrasting theories you believe in, you get what you wish for. So which theory would you rather believe in?

When you need to be careless

Why is a false negative Covid-19 test far more dangerous than a false positive?

If a person is mistakenly declared to not have the disease, it would give them a false sense of security. They would then end up spreading the disease to a 100 more people and amplify the crisis. A false positive, one that points to somebody having the disease even if they don’t, would put them through two-weeks of isolation – an inconvenience for the individual concerned, but benign for society as a whole. With Covid-19 tests, you need to be more careful about false-negatives than false positives.

A good non-fiction book costs about €10 to buy. Within certain boundaries, the worst thing that could happen with such a book is that you end up reading it for 6 hours and you don’t learn a single useful thing. On the flipside, such a book could teach you something that ends up transforming your life for the better. With book purchases, you can afford to care less about the monetary expense.

Care is a scarce, non-renewable resource. You cannot absolutely care about every single thing. If you did, you would live inside a bio-bubble, have military grade cyber security and soon be bankrupt. The solution is to use care judiciously for cases where the downside risk is higher.

Measuring in ‘whistles’

Why do we Indians measure time to cook pasta (or noodles) in minutes, but time to cook rice in ‘whistles’?

In India, rice is mostly cooked in pressure cookers. This led to households measuring cooking time based on the number of times the pressure cooker whistles. I was taught to cook rice on a high flame till the pressure cooker whistled three times, simmer for five minutes and let the cooker depressurize naturally.

However, whistles as a means for measuring cooking time is flawed. Much like pasta in boiling water, the thermal conditions within a fully pressurized cooker are practically stable. The only variable that truly matters is the time the setup remains under pressure. The frequency of whistles depend upon the energy output (size) of one’s stove and can vary substantially, given that we Indians now cook rice upon gas stoves, induction stoves and electric cooktops.

Back when everybody used the same gas-stove and stopwatches were a rarity in an Indian household, whistles served as a good enough heuristic. It is time we moved on. Yet, I see almost every Indian recipe prescribe whistles instead of minutes – I don’t expect this to change anytime soon.

What we are used to sticks around even when it doesn’t serve us any more.

The collector’s curse

A collector is cursed to always feel incomplete.

I once met a colleague who collected Amar Chitra Katha comics – a popular brand of comics on Indian history and mythology. He told me how he had all but 4 of the 500+ volumes out there in the wild.

Now put yourself in his position. Until he is able to complete his collection, his attention would be focused on the handful of comics that he doesn’t have, as opposed to the hundreds that he already has. If he does manage to complete his entire collection, there is nothing else left for him to collect and the pursuit loses a part of its charm. Besides, this state only lasts until new volumes are released.

To collect anything – cars, paintings, comics or money, is a contract one makes with oneself to be disappointed as long as the collection isn’t complete. However, the collector’s curse stems from the collector feeling incomplete even when the collection is finally completed.

Having ambition vs. being ambitious

To have ambition is to have the drive to grow and get better. Growth is the natural state of the human condition, the opposite of which is stagnation, decay and eventually death. But how is that different from being ambitious?

For an ambitious person, ambition forms an integral part of their identity. This ambition is apparent in the words they use, the relationships they cultivate and in how they spend their leisure. Rather than ambition serving them, it turns into their master.

To be ambitious is to pursue one’s ambition at all cost. And that is precisely when it turns costly.

Eliminating ‘middle-management’

Frederik Taylor, the ‘father of scientific management’, was known to use a stopwatch to measure how many sacks of pig iron a labourer could load into a railway carriage per hour. In his words,

‘… the science of handling pig iron is so great and amounts to so much that it is impossible for the man who is best suited to this type of work to understand the principles of this science, or even to work in accordance with these principles, without the aid of a man better educated than he is.’

In direct accordance to these ideals, modern management theory has placed an extraordinary amount of importance on hierarchy and measurement. Workers clock-in and clock-out, and hourly output of every machine is registered. A worker was penalized for showing up a minute late and for output below the hourly target. Management does not trust labour to even be capable of ‘the science of handling pig iron.’

FAVI was a traditional brass foundry when Jean-Francois Zobrist took over as the CEO in 1983. FAVI worked like most manufacturing companies still do, with a layer of middle-management to exercise control over employees. Shortly after taking over, Zobrist did away with this layer of management and their timepieces.

His managers were aghast! ‘Productivity will collapse’, they said. Yet, Zobrist believed that employees and workers were reasonable people who can be trusted to do the right thing when given the freedom to do so. With that premise, very few rules and control mechanisms are needed.

The first week after he implemented the changes, Zobrist looked at the productivity numbers everyday. It turned out that hourly productivity actually increased. Also, operators earlier left their stations the minute their shift ended. In the absence of time controls, they stayed a few minutes longer to finish their work. When the operators were asked about it, they mentioned how under the old system, they didn’t work at their natural rhythm but had intentionally slowed down to gave themselves some slack in case management increased their targets. Further, their self-image had changed. Earlier, they used to work for the paycheck. Now they felt responsible for their work and felt pride in doing a good job.

Despite stiff competition from China and elsewhere, FAVI remains one of the most profitable and well run European manufacturing organizations. Zobrist documented its story in a book whose subtitle captures the essence of the company’s values – L’enterprise qui criot que l’Homme est bon (The organization that believe’s that mankind is good).

The people around us are often what we expect them to be. If we expect them to require micromanagement and slack off in the absence of a clock, they will conform to that image. Instead, what if we expect them to reasonable, smart and responsible individuals and treat them in that manner?

Recommended reading: The Management Myth, Reinventing Organizations

Teaching is marketing

UiPath, which had a successful IPO last week, is the market leader in the RPA software market. But UiPath wasn’t always the leader. Just 4 years back, UiPath was a distant third.

One of the main reasons for UiPath’s phenomenal growth is rather understated. Even as early as 2017, when the RPA market was quite nascent, UiPath invested in a world class online training and certification programme. Further, it offered this training and its software free to anybody willing to learn. This initiative turned UiPath into the software of choice in the developer community. Today, UiPath’s biggest evangelists are its users.

One of the most underutilized, but effective means to brand yourself is to teach others how to use your product. This is quick means not just to build a tribe of brand loyalists, but also to figure out which parts of your software people are most interested in and their most pressing pain-points.

I wish I had learnt this in B-School.

When to NOT begin with an end in mind

We are told too often to ‘begin with the end in mind’ – to set a goal, to make a plan and move towards it step-by-step.

Sometimes, getting to the destination is all that matters. When you’re rushing to the airport, the point is to get there as soon as possible – the journey doesn’t matter. But exploration is about the journey, not the destination. A stroll around the neighbourhood or a hike in the woods aren’t about the destination – they are about the experience itself.

We know the explorer, Roald Amundsen, for having led the first successful expeditions to the South Pole and the North Pole. We know him in terms of the ends he achieved. But dig deeper, and you will realize how the more interesting part is the journey it took to arrive there.

To begin with the end in mind makes sense if the end is all that matters. But exploration, by definition, doesn’t have a particular end. If you do explore with an an end in mind, you are likely to be disappointed when you arrive.

The default habit

When you have nothing to do, what do you default to doing?

I often default to playing back-to-back games of speed chess on the internet.

A friend of mine defaults to picking up a book around him and reading it. Another picks up a guitar and starts strumming it.

Some people default to catching a movie, going to a restaurant or hanging out in a bar. Others change channels on the television.

The universal default action of our age is to check notifications on one’s phone.

Your default habit is a deeply ingrained gateway for how you spend most of your free time. Be aware of what it is, and whether it serves you.

Read the best books over and over

How many great books have you reread?

Each time you read a great book, you learn something new and understand it deeper. However, most books that are written aren’t worth rereading. The problem is that there are too many of those substandard books and our lives are too short.

I often put down a book that I know isn’t worth a reread. I would rather read the best 100 books over and over again than attempt to read every single book out there in the wild.

We live in a culture where novelty is overrated and repetition is underrated.

Better praise

Most often, we hear praise that is directed at the outcome – ‘Great job’, ‘well done’ or ‘keep it up’.

But consider these alternatives: ‘I liked how you offered the customer a viable solution with the available resources’ or ‘I like how you preempted this problem and avoided a possible crisis.’

We are more in control of our approach towards a particular situation than its outcome. Offering banal praise on the outcome might be easier, but descriptive praise that is directed towards the approach is more meaningful.

Lifespan check

How many days is the average human lifespan? Answer this question from your gut, without falling for the temptation to calculate.

  • 20,000 days
  • 100,000 days
  • 1 million days
  • 5 million days

When this question was presented to me (in Andrew Ng’s newsletter), my gut reaction was 100,000 days. However, the average human lifespan turns out to be about 27,000. I was struck by how much smaller this number was than my answer.

We have lesser time on the planet than we realize. Is whatever you are doing today worth about 1 / 30,000th of your life?

The internet amplifies variability

As a rule of thumb, the internet induces greater variability.

Before the internet, we mostly had videos that were organized into half an hour or one-hour episodes. We watched these episodes on a daily / weekly basis. The internet has us watching videos that range from a few seconds to several hours. Further, we can choose to watch some shows monthly even as we binge-watch others.

A university degree in computer science, pre-internet, was a once-and-done affair taught in a physical classroom. This setup looked very similar regardless of whether it was done in Bolivia, Botswana or Brunei. The internet has now given us coding boot camps, online certifications and a host of other substitutes for the same degree that can span across a person’s entire career.

Pre-internet shopping was done in a mall or a supermarket in one’s own city. The internet has turned your laptop into one huge and diverse megastore where you can buy items from any corner of the world.

I am still fascinated by how a prism splits a white ray of light into a vibrant spectrum of constituent colours. The industrial age had stifled us to think in shades of black or white. The internet, like a prism, liberates us to explore a much wider variety of possibilities.

Source: Balaji Srinivasan

Believing is seeing

When rival football fans watch a game, each group feels that the referee is biased against their own team.

Both Democrats and Republicans claim that the electoral map works against them. On seeing the same presidential debate, both sides also routinely claim victory for their own side.

When partners who live together are asked about their individual contribution towards household chores, their answers often add up to more than 100%.

Academics across subdisciplines think they have a harder time with journal reviews, grant panels and tenure committees than peers of other subdisciplines.

This list could go on and on. It illustrates how it is our own beliefs that shape our perception of reality rather than the other way around.

Seeing is not believing; believing is seeing!
You see things, not as they are, but as you are. – Eric Butterworth

See also: Headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry