That argument should have been a conversation

Like war, every argument has a winner and a loser. And like war, both parties are worse off, with the winner merely being less worse off.

When couples, colleagues or teammates argue, the group as a whole loses. While the winner might feel good, the losers feel a lot worse. Sure, an argument is better than leaving things unspoken and leaving tensions simmering. Sure, sometimes war is necessary and righteous. But in most cases, there is an alternative.

A conversation can also resolve disagreements. You don’t win or lose a conversation – the point is to understand the other parties better. A good conversation improves everybody’s mood and leaves everybody better off.

Several disagreements can be approached both as an argument or a conversation. Can you pause before you jump into your next argument? Could a conversation take its place? If so, what words or tone of voice would you use instead?

Strange music

We were seated in a small dining room at our favourite South East Asian restaurant. A couple and their child sat down at the table next to us. We observed how the group was somewhat noisy.

Soon after they settled down, some strange music filled the dining room. The music was strange – it sounded nothing like the Thai / Vietnamese music that the restaurant usually played. We wondered where the music was coming from, and our suspicions went to the couple near us. We were quick to assume that they were the source of the strange music.

But as we got up to leave, I observed that the music came from the restaurant’s music system. I even tried to connect to that speaker via bluetooth to see if guests could connect to it (I couldn’t).

It should have been obvious that the music was played by the restaurant. But given that it was our favourite restaurant and where we were regulars here, our suspicion went instantly to the strangers at the next table. They were strangers, and the music was strange too. It was only after they came in that the music played. Therefore, there must be a connection.

Our minds are wired to think of ‘strangers’ as the source of our problems – foreigners, immigrants, refugees, people of another religion. This tendency makes us vulnerable to manipulation. We need to compensate for it by giving strangers the benefit of doubt.

We are what we defend

During my university days, we lived in a hostel and argued a lot.

We would argue about whose city, whose football team, or whose politics is better. The two sides would often form factions and battle it out well past midnight.

And yet, we weren’t the mayors of our cities. We weren’t the manager of our football teams, and we didn’t decide the quality of candidates that our political parties fielded in the next election. Why did we defend things that we were so far removed from?

It was because our identities were tied up with the things we defended. If somebody attacked our favourite footballer, it felt like they were attacking us. Without these things, we had lost our moorings.

We are what we defend. Sure, we could choose to defend that which we have no control over. Alternatively, we can choose to defend our work, our values and what we stand for.

The magic of mastery

A magic trick works precisely because we don’t know how it is performed.

A sureshot way to ruin a magic show is to find out how all the tricks are performed. Because we like to be dazzled by magic, we don’t do this. We preserve the magic by keeping its performance a secret.

Savants across fields seem like magicians. When Seth Godin speaks in public, TM Krishna sings a carnatic raga, or Magnus Carlen plays speed chess, they appear to be performing one magic trick after the other. And since we want to preserve the magic, we don’t try to think about how they do what they do.

With the right training and practice, anybody can learn to perform a magic trick. Mastery seems like magic, and like magic, it can be learnt.

Imposter by design

The things worth pursuing are difficult, likely to fail, don’t have a script, a map, a recipe or a user manual. They are also likely to be creative or innovative endeavours that nobody else has done before – at least not in the way you are about to.

Knowing all this is true, how can one not help but feel like an imposter? You are making things up as you go along, so how can you not feel that way? And yet, when that feeling comes along, why do we fight it?

The feeling of being an imposter is a good sign that we’re doing something worthwhile.

Truth and forward motion

The tree hugging hippie might denounce nuclear energy as an evil and dangerous conspiracy to destroy the planet. The oil and gas magnate with a vested interest might agree with her.

A nuclear scientist might point out how nuclear energy has been emperically shown to be the safest and cleanest form of energy thus far, even pointing out how it is far superior to even renewable energy.

Politicians are likely to say what their votebank most fears.

Depending on whom you ask this question, your mileage will vary.  – each of them are backed by a different set of facts.

All of these statements are true. But debating them doesn’t move us forward.

We all agree that we have a climate crisis at hand. We all agree that renewable energy comes with problems of storage and supply fluctuations. We all agree that disposal of nuclear waste poses a problem. It is useful to acknowledge these problems and work towards a common solution.

The pursuit for truth can often lead us to a deadlock. It is more useful to move forward by talking about what we agree upon.

Marketing is placebo

I used to think of placebos as sugar pills, only relevant in the medical realm.

The key here is in the presentation. Merely giving a patient a spoonful of sugar doesn’t help, despite what Mary Poppins tells us. But turning them into pills and presenting them as medicine works wonders.

If presentation is the key, I then realized that the placebo effect could be extended to the performance of a seasoned somallier as they pour a drink in an elegant restaurant. Even cheap wine poured this way tastes better. The same applies to the wrapping of a chocolate bar. A bar wrapped in purple velvet is likely to taste better than the same chocolate wrapped in plastic.

Why do we have lavish, traditional weddings with a big feast and plenty of guests? What is a massive cathedral for, if it not to fill you with a sense of awe and wonder when you fold your hands in prayer? And when people wed in a cathedral, aren’t they merely combining these two effects?

A placebo is anything around an experience that gives us the attitude to appreciate it better. Placebos aren’t merely a means to deceive – they are stories that magically transform experiences ranging from injesting sugar pills to a wedding in a cathedral.

Marketing is the placebo that we wrap around an experience.

Boredom

We think of boredom as that benign, uneasy feeling we have while waiting in line. But there is more.

Boredom is distraction. Our boredom pushes us to surf the web when we ought to be working on an important project or studying for a test.

Boredom is fear. It is the fear we have of being with our thoughts, our feelings and our selves. It is our aversion to our own mundane existance.

Boredom is a withdrawal symptom of our addiction to stimulation. Fleeing boredom is a Faustian bargain. It drives us to trade creation for recreation, focus for procrastination, and meaning for pleasure.

To deal with boredom, embrace it. On the other side of boredom, you will find focus, creativity and inner-peace.

Permission and forgiveness

Ask for forgiveness rather than permission is a maxim we often hear in entrepreneurial circles.

Sometimes, you can use this to overcome inertia and move things forward.

Sometimes, doing so can backfire and erode trust .

At no time can this be used to break a promise, do something immoral or to simply be a jerk.

In the short run, it might be tempting to hustle your way forward. Yet, the longer your journey, the more valuable are trust and permission.

Where leadership is needed

We often hesitate to lead because we fear failure, avoid uncertainity, and don’t want to cause conflict.

However, if a project existed where success was guaranteed, there is no ambiguity, and no potential for conflict, it would also not need a leader.

Leadership is scarce because the very situations that we are averse to are the ones where it is most needed.

As if it were real

I was once given a coding challenge as part of a job interview.

The challenge was to automate a simple business process. If I had to solve such a problem in the real-world, I would have used a framework. Since it was only a simulation, I used a lightweight solution without a framework and left a comment behind stating what I would have done differently if it were a real-world process.

As soon as my interview started, the interviewer asked me ‘what prevented you from using a framework to solve the coding challenge?’ I didn’t have a good answer to this question, and at that point, I knew that I had messed up.

We often think of practice and simulation as being different from the real deal. It is often useful to approach these situations as though they were real.

When and only when

When and only when old muscle fibre is destroyed does a person build strength.

When and only when there is a change in the audience does art get created.

When and only when there is potential for conflict does a leader arise.

When and only when there is a chance for failure can something lend meaning.

When and only when it feels like a struggle can there be growth.

When and only when the status-quo is altered can there be life.

Apples and oranges

We don’t compare apples with oranges.

But we compare people all the time. We compare siblings, cousins, classmates, peers, and colleagues, nudging them to be better and scaring them about falling behind.

Isn’t it absurd that we respect the uniqueness of fruit, but treat different people all the same?

Are you a peculiar person?

Can you look at a situation in your own, unique way? Do you foresee problems that nobody else does? Can you think of solutions that nobody else proposes? When the room arrives at a consensus, are you the one who has a concern? When the meeting is done, are you the one with a burning question?

We have been taught to suppress our peculiarity. We have been taught to agree with the majority, to put our heads down and do what we are told to do. We are taught to comply rather than question. All of this is reflected in how the word ‘peculiar’ sounds negative.

But complex problems need peculiar insights, questions and solutions. The more complex a problem is, the more we benefit from divergent thinking. And the problems we solve grow in complexity every single day.

We are all peculiar in ways that can move us forward. Celebrate your peculiarity. The world needs it more than ever.

Start all over

You are the top player of your football league. Your dribbling is so good, that you can practically dance around defenders and score individual goals. Nobody can stop you. So you move to the next league.

The defenders are now tougher, and you cannot get past them easily. When you try your usual tricks, they fail. So you need to unlearn them, learn how to pass and involve your teammates more. At some point, you get so good at this that you can score whenever you want to. That is when you move to the next level.

At this advanced level, defenders are keen at anticipating your passes, and they shut down your team’s play. You need to unlearn again, and learn something new – to combine dribbling, passing and clever movement across the field.

And then, you need to factor for injuries. At some point, you inevitably get injured. As you recover, your game needs to change to prevent such an injury and still sustain your level. Once again, a whole bunch of unlearning and learning.

The path to mastery isn’t a straight line from beginning to end. Instead, it is made of several circular loops of learning, unlearning and learning again.

In-person

In an era of TV and movies, why do plays on Broadway still sell out?

In a theatre performance, the actors are right in front of you. There is no screen, no cuts, no retakes, and no commercial breaks. Just a bunch of humans in costumes right in front of us without filters or special effects. And then, there is the scarcity. This in-person performance is for this audience only – right here, right now. This very show hasn’t been performed before, and will never be performed again in the exact same manner.

When the curtains rise in a theatre performance, we pay more attention. Because it is real. Because it is scarce. Because it is right here. Similarly, we pay more attention to an orchestra or a band heard live, a painting seen in a museum, a game seen in a stadium, or even a meeting we attend in-person.

The quality of attention we pay in-person is a benchmark. The next time we have a remote interaction, can we pay the same quality of attention as we would to something right in front of us?

The curse of scale

The larger a team’s size, the more it needs to communicate.

When you scale up a team from a size of 6 developers to 12 developers, how much more communication work does this entail? On the surface, we are led to think that we need to communicate twice as much. However, 6 developers can communicate two at a time in 21 ways (6 x 7 / 2). If you scaled this team to 12 developers, that number shoots up to 78 (12 x 13 / 2). That is 6 times more communication channels than the smaller team.

When we double a team’s size, we expect productivity to double as well. However, given that communication work need by 6 times, the productivity gain is a lot slower. This led Fred Brooks to coin Brook’s law – adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.

The small things are the big things

Big questions haunt us from time to time.

Are we realizing our true potential?

What is our life’s objective?

Are we pursuing a purpose-filled career?

What legacy do we create and leave behind?

Are we the being the best child, sibling, spouse, parent or friend that we can be?

And on and on and on.

It is difficult to answer these questions – more so when they keep us awake in the middle of the night. However, on this very day, you can choose to answer a different set of questions.

Are you going to uphold your daily routine?

Are you going to eat healthy and get some exercise?

Are you going to set aside some time for quiet reflection?

Are you going to recognize one thing that you are grateful for?

Will you go to bed, satisfied with how you have spent the day?

The small things are the big things because if you can answer the small questions favourably, day after day, the big ones take care of themselves.

Pay it forward

When somebody does us a good turn, we look to return the favour.

Once we return the favour, we are even. Until we do this, we are likely to feel like we are in their debt. However, paying it back can often feels like a transaction, thereby undermining the first person’s generosity. When we pay it back, the goodness involved is limited to two parties.

An alternative is to pay it forward. When we pay it forward, we can accept the first person’s gift with gratitude. We also set off a chain of goodness – we pay it forward, and the person we benefit also does the same thing. The goodness multiplies this way.

Paying it back is an obligation. Paying it forward is generous.

The I-message

Which of the following statements would you rather say to a colleague?

‘You didn’t finish the financial report on time!’ or ‘I am getting backed up on my work since I don’t have the financial report yet.’

When two people speak, the ‘I-message’ frames the situation from the first person’s perspective. The first person speaks about a situation as they perceive it, and make this explicit through the choice of their words. I-messages generally begin with ‘I’ rather than ‘You’, and frame the situation as the first person’s opinion rather than as a judgement or a conclusion.

‘I had to read that section of your paper three times before I understood it’ instead of ‘You need to learn how to word a paper more clearly’.

‘I feel sad when I come home to a messy kitchen.’ instead of ‘You have left the kitchen in a mess.’

‘I sense that we haven’t made good progress here.’ instead of ‘Things have been inefficient in this project.’

It is difficult to talk about a difficult situation without triggering negative emotion. The I-message is a tool that helps us navigate this minefield by taking ownership of how we feel rather than assigning blame or judgement.

Recommended reading: I-message on Wikipedia