The cost of discrimination

Until the 1950’s, science and technology was practically closed for women – half the human population. What if women always had access to cutting-edge research? How many breakthrough discoveries did we lose to male exclusivity in science?

To this day, people of a different religion or a race continue to be excluded from prominent positions. How many breakthroughs do we continue to lose everyday to race, caste and other forms of exclusion?

The problem with discrimination is that while it protect a group of people in the short term, it exacts a high cost by holding the whole world back from much needed progress.

‘Years of work experience’ is overrated

Several companies insist that you have ‘several years of relevant experience’ before they can entrust you with a job. Several young people have proven how they have this problem upside down.

Sportspersons in their late teens and their early twenties successfully carry the hopes of entire nations on their shoulders. At age 24, Steven Gerrard led Liverpool to their first Champions League win in more than 20 years.

Tech entrepreneurs, most of them in their 20’s and their 30’s, have upended several of the world’s long established industries – hotels, cabs and shopping for instance. when they founded AirBnB in 2008, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky were 27 years old with zero experience in the hospitality business.

The biggest world-wide movement on environmental awareness is now spearheaded by groups of young people who are less than 25 years of age. As of today, Greta Thunberg is all of 17 years of age.

If companies had written job descriptions for these positions, would Gerhard, Gebbia, Chesky or Thunberg have made the cut?

Like pieces of pottery baked in an oven, people often rise to the levels of the challenge presented to them – not the other way around.

Entry point bias

The design of our tongue is the reason for some of the most pressing health problems in the world today.

Our tongue is built to fall in love with food that is rich in fat, salt and sugar – the kind that isn’t really good for the rest of our body. Yet, since the tongue lies at the entry of the eating process, it exerts a huge influence on what we eat. The food industry has exploited this to leave in its wake the biggest health problems of the world today – obesity, blood pressure, heart disease and so on.

We see the entry bias in several other places.

Companies are designed to hire people with good resumes and great interview skills. Yet, only too often, people who are good at those things are not necessarily your best employees (and vice-versa).

It feels good to scroll down a social media feed in the first five minutes. It takes about 2-3 hours of manouvering through a rabbit hole of frivolity to start to realize how meaningless it starts to feel.

Beware of the entry point bias. What feels good now isn’t necessarily what will continue to feel good later.

The power of intention

While waiting for his turn to bat in the dressing room, Sachin Tendulkar was known to visualize his upcoming innings to the last detail. Several sportspersons visualize top performance en route to achieving it.

In the Alchemist, Paulo Coelho tells us how when you want something, the universe conspires to help you to achieve it. Of course, the first step is to focus our thoughts and intentions for us to really want something.

As a consultant, I’ve worked with enough companies to recognize how the ones with clear goals and a well-defined strategy outperform their competition. What gets done in a day at one of these companies, may take weeks in another, whose intention isn’t as clear.

The power of intention seems magical. It is often portrayed as the world meeting us halfway to realize our vision. Of course, this isn’t true. The universe doesn’t care about our vision.

However, the power of intention does something else. It recruits our unconscious brain, nudging it to meet us halfway. Like a searchlight, a clear intention directs our attention to the right places. When we are relaxing, it works in the background to solve problems and give us insights out of the blue.

The power of intention doesn’t bend the curve of the universe. But it rewires our neurons and focuses our energy to help us do things that often surprise us.

When does judgement turn into judgemental?

Nobody wants to be judgemental, but everybody wants to exercise good judgement.

Judgemental people jump to conclusions. Reacting to a first impression is driven more by one’s internal bias rather than external reality.

Judgemental people are prejudiced. They hear somebody out, but refuse to be affected it. They encounter facts that run contrary to their world view, but refuse to change.

Judgement is a filter through which we choose interact with the world outside. Good judgement is to exercise the right amount of judgement. Too little, and we risk being herded around like livestock. Too much, and it morphs into its evil cousin – judgemental.

It is another normal

The institute where I got my bachelor’s degree ran into a naming crisis.

Initially, the institute was small and had all its classrooms in one building. And then it grew some and they built another building for classrooms. They called it the Additional Teaching Block (ATB).

Soon enough, the institute grew some more and they build yet another building. This time, they called it the New Teaching Block (NTB). I wonder what they are going to call the next one.

We live in a world where the normal keeps shifting. On most days, it shifts just a little, like a setting sun. During the last few months, we have seen the ground beneath shift faster. We have dubbed this our ‘new normal’.

This normal might be new today, but it will give way to another normal. When that happens, I hope we can give it a suitable name.

Inspiration: A new normal

Sloppy job description

How many hours did it take you to learn how to use a new software, such as Gmail, Facebook or Microsoft Powerpoint?

How many years did it take for you to learn how to make quality presentations, moderate meetings or master a programming language?

Every time I see job postings with ‘knowing how to use Jira’ or ‘proficiency with MS Office’ listed as necessary skills, I know that the company is looking for cogs to keep their machinery running.

The curse of knowledge – a thought experiment

You have invited a dear friend of yours, a modern day hunter-gatherer, to your house. Say you are fluent in the language of her tribe.

You live next to a construction site, and as you are catching up, a clattering sledgehammer interrupts your conversation. Your friend is startled. She asks you what those noises are about.

“Oh that! That is just a construction site nearby.”

“What is construction?”

“Construction is when you build something new”.

“What is building?”

“Building is the act of creating structures that provide shelter. Like caves, or huts made from mud and straw.”

“Oh okay. What are they building?”

“They are building a school”.

“What is a school?”

You spend the rest of the evening in this manner. If the conversation were about gathering wild berries or hunting antelope on foot, it would have transpired in the opposite direction.

It is startling to realize how much of our language depends on being familiar with a particular context. It is startling precisely because the curse of knowledge makes us take this contextual knowledge for granted.

The cure? Always close the feedback loop when you make presentations. Watch for signs of understanding and stop when you see puzzled looks. Engage with your audience and pepper them with questions.

Related reading: The Curse of Knowledge, Undoing the Curse of Knowledge

The shortcut to choosing the right habits

A good habit takes about 30 days to form.

If that isn’t challenging enough, their benefits might take years to surface. Run, write or meditate for 30 days and you will often have nothing to show for it.

A bad habit only takes about 30 days to form.

If that isn’t scary enough, their repurcussions might take years to surface. Drink beer, smoke a cigarette or check Facebook for 30 days straight. On the 31st day, they only leave behind withdrawal symptoms.

The feedback loop for several habits is often slower than how long it takes to cultivate them. Therefore, it is helpful to trust people who have already reaped their benefits or faced their repurcussions rather than relying on our own experience.

Learning from other people’s experience is the shortcut to cultivating good habits and discarding bad ones.

Why we already have self-driving airplanes

Why is it more difficult to build self-driving cars than self-driving aircraft? Aren’t airplanes more complex?

The first auto-pilot system was demonstrated way back in 1914, and became standard devices on aircraft since the 1930’s. In today aircrafts, autopilots are capable of controlling every part of the flight from just after take-off to before landing. That recent flight you took might have been more than 90% self-driven.

Now flying a plane is certainly more complex than driving a car. An aircraft can rotate around all three of its axes. Pilots must constantly monitor aircraft altitude, attitude and trajectory. The cockpit of an aircraft has a multitude of knobs, dials and indicators that make a car’s dashboard seem like a child’s toy.

Yet, despite all this complexity, the air is far more predictable than the road. Sure, there are occasional thunderstorms and turbulence, but pilots don’t have to contend with drunk drivers, construction barriers or dogs and children that can dash across the road at a moment’s notice.

Auto-pilots are easier to build than self-driven cars because predictability is more important for automation than simplicity. To decide if a task can be automated, ‘Is it predictable?‘ is a more relevant question to ask than ‘Is it complex?

Ideas are like rabbits

John Steinbeck once said, ‘Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.’

Writing this blog has shown me how Steinbeck’s analogy runs deeper than its first impression. People often ask me how I get enough ideas to write one post everyday. I started with a couple, which have now multiplied into 949 blog posts.

Ideas that are closely packed are more likely to multiply. Ideas that are one day apart have a higher fertility rate than ones that are a week apart. Ideas also have breeding seasons. After a dry spell of 5 days, I will have 10 ideas all at once.

To have rabbits of your own, you could start off with somebody else’s rabbits. To have a bunch of ideas of your own, you could start off two that are already out there.

To be contented, but not complacent

Each one of us has come really far to be where we are today. Behind us lies a long and arduous journey.

Each one of us has much further to go. Ahead of us lies a long and arduous journey.

It can be a challenge to reconcile how despite having traveled so far, we still have miles to go. To be contented is to be grateful for how far we have come. To be complacent is to mistakenly think that we have already arrived.

Like food, water and air, growth is one of life’s essential requirements. To stagnate is to rot, decay and die.

Can you be satisfied with how far you have come, while looking forward to the adventurous journey ahead?

Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. – Daniel Gilbert

Image Credits: adrian

The power of artificial selection

File:Big and little dog 1.jpg

It is crazy to think of how a Great Dane and a Chihuahua are the same species. Yes, they can mate with each other and produce fertile offspring.

The idea is to select for a particular trait and reinforce it ad infinitum.

The vast variety in canine breeds is a reminder of the power of taking the same raw materials and moving forward with a particular intent, one step at a time.

Art vs. Innovation

Art is a function of its creator whereas inventions are creatures that are born of the environment.

If a particular artist died before she could produce her masterpiece, the world would never have that masterpiece. If a particular inventor died before he could invent something, somebody else would have.

Had Salvador Dali not painted The Persistence of Memory, or if Pink Floyd had not composed Comfortably Numb, it’s hard to imagine that other artists would have reproduced these masterpieces.

If Thomas Newcomen hadn’t invented his version of the steam engine, somebody else would have. By 1730, several inventors were working on similar prototypes. In the absence of Charles Darwin, another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace would have discovered natural selection. In the absence of Albert Einstein, Hendrik Lorzenz would have gotten to relativity in a few years. Without Watson and Crick, Maurice Wilkins and Ray Gosling would have figured out the structure of the DNA.

If you wish to be an artist, look deep within yourself. If you would like to innovate, on the other hand, pay careful attention to the world outside.

The other side of boredom

Say you are learning to play a favourite song on a guitar.

The first few sessions are interesting – you figure out the right chords and their rhythm. Soon enough, you enjoy the thrill of humming the song while strumming its chords.

At some point, you can play the chords without even having to think about their sequence. You have also played this song 20-30 times by now, and boredom starts to set in. This is the point where most people move onto the next song.

Instead, what if you persisted? What if you continued playing the same song a 100 or 200 times?

Despite so much repetition, there are ways to keep things interesting. Use a metronome in the background. Play the song at half its original tempo, and then twice its original tempo. Tweak the strumming pattern or substitute a chord or two.

At an unconscious level each repetition of the same song teaches you something new and makes you a better guitar player overall. When the notes remains the same, your brain, your fingers and your muscles can direct all their attention towards depth.

On the other side of boredom lies mastery. This is true of any discipline (and also why we call them ‘disciplines’).

Commitments vs. Sunk Costs

A commitment is a decision you have made in the past that continues to serve you in the present. Commitments ought to be kept.

A sunk cost is a decision you have made in the past that no longer serves you in the present. Sunk costs ought to be discarded.

A question we ought to ask ourselves more often – does this decision from my past continue to serve me today?

Choice of restaurant for great conversation

If you are headed to a restaurant for a great conversation, prefer full-service over take-away or buffets. Better yet, choose one where the service isn’t too quick and pick a corner table.

In-person conversations are more complex than they appear. Good conversations require your full mental bandwidth. You need to pay complete attention to the other person – the words they use, the expressions on their face, their bodily gestures and the implicit things they communicate between the lines.

All of this requires you to suspend interruptions and dispel any sense of hurry. A restaurant with good service staff ensures this. Once you have ordered your food, you can ease into a nice flow of exchanges before it arrives.

Also, there is no rush after you finish eating. You haven’t paid yet, so there is no need to leave. You can continue conversing and pay when you are done.

Like plants, conversation need to be carefully nurtured. Some spaces are more conducive than others, so choose wisely.

Innovation isn’t about ideas

A beaver and a rabbit were sitting close to the Hoover Dam, admiring it.

The rabbit asked the beaver, “Did you build that?”

The beaver replied, “No, but it’s based on an idea I had.”

A couple of days ago, I wrote about how using shipping containers instead of manually loading cargo in ships brought the cost of shipping down by a factor of 36 (from $5.86 per ton to just 16 cents per ton).

One might think that this brilliant idea would have been enough to make containerization standard practice across the world. Sadly, innovation is never that easy. Its inventor, Malcom McLean, had to fight several difficult battles before that happened.

in 1958, McLean sent two of his new ships from Newark, USA to Puerto Rico, where the longshoremen’s union refused to unload them, sitting idle for four months and costing him a fortune. Another dockers’ strike in 1959 brought McLean to the brink of bankruptcy. Then, there was the problem with standardization. It took more than 10 long years for the industry to settle on 20-foot and 40-foot standard container lengths.

It took one good idea, a lot of elbow grease and decades of patient work to make shipping containers the standard means for transporting cargo around the world.

Innovation isn’t about having great ideas. It is more about taking an idea and putting the difficult work necessary to realize the idea.

Observe thyself

The scientist Werner Heisenberg discovered how an atom behaved differently when it was observed.

This principle is easier to notice in living organisms. The mere act of being observed has a powerful effect on our behaviour.

We can put this to great use by intentionally observing ourselves.

Recording ourselves while making a speech and listening to the recording later helps us learn to speak better.

Writing a journal, where we observe our day after it has happened, helps us improve our lives through self observation.

People are often surprised when they learn how often they lock and unlock their phone. An app that tracks your phone usage helps you observe your own digital behaviour and make amends.

Observation can serve as a powerful means for behavioural change. Observing ourselves gives us the privilege of being both the observer and the subject.

Inpsiration: The Observer Effect 

Cutting-edge can be low tech

The invention of the shipping container is a remarkable story. It involved no new scientific or technological breakthrough, but merely better organization.

The Warrior was a cargo ship contracted by the US military to transport 5,000 ton of cargo from Brooklyn, USA to Bremerhaven, Germany in 1954. The cargo consisted of nearly 200,000 items. Loading and unloading the ship took 10 days, whereas the voyage itself lasted 11 days. Port costs accounted for a whopping 37 percent of the total shipping cost. The arduous sea voyage itself cost only 11 percent in comparison.

Along came Malcom McLean, an entrepreneur, who invented the shipping container. By packaging cargo in containers, McLean dramatically reduced the time a ship had to spend at port. Back in the early 1950’s, most cargo aboard a ship was loaded by hand, costing $5.86 per ton. Using standard containers, McLean reduced this cost to 16 cents per ton – a 36x improvement!

At times, the next biggest invention doesn’t involve making the biggest scientific or creating new technology. It merely requires us to observe a process and eliminate waste with a common-sense solution.