Your brain’s lies about time

Reading time: 20 seconds

How long does it take for you to brush your teeth? To take a shower? To walk to work, or to the bus-stop nearby? To shop for provisions this weekend? Or to prepare tomato soup for dinner? Write down your estimates and measure those things with a stopwatch. You would be surprised.

We are born with programming that gives us an overly optimistic disposition towards the time things take – the planning fallacy. We see it everywhere in our culture. Online recipes with a 10 minute prep time and 20 minute cooking time are not possible, unless four-armed mutants do the cooking. Google Maps estimates for how long it takes to drive across the city seem to be calibrated at 4 AM, with Kimi Raikkonen on the wheel.´

The bottom-line is that things take longer than we think they would take. We scramble to make it to calls and meetings on time. We burn the midnight oil to meet a deadline we promised our boss. We rush to the airport wishing for short security queues, and with tall hopes that the flight is delayed by 10 minutes. Our poor time estimation skills are a constant source of stress in our lives.

Our brain is a master at bluffing to us how long things take. The only way to break this vicious cycle is to use a stopwatch and call our brain’s bluffs once in a while. That way, we can be more in touch with the reality of how long things actually take.

Life is hard enough without having to fit 40 hours into 24 every single day.

Why slack is precious

As we industrialized and automated, we attempted to eliminate waste from the system. All forms of slack – time, material and personnel was minimized. A fully automated setup can run without any slack. Robots do not need breaks or unplanned vacations. Moreover, they are phenomenal at bringing down costs.

And yet, how good are they at services that touch humans? Every human being wants connection – to be noticed, acknowledged and treated with dignity and respect. Running a hotel or a school like a factory can be counterproductive. When a guest needs salt delivered to him to gargle his sore throat, there must be enough slack to attend to him immediately. When a student asks an intelligent question, the teacher must have enough slack to address it and encourage further questions of the sort.

And yet, it is unfortunate how frequently that does not happen. The industrial age has swung us too far in the direction of efficiency. With too much automation and efficiency comes the risk of throwing out the human baby with the bath water. Customer service in nearly every service industry is bursting at its seams.

“Your call is important to us…”

Ergo, you must key in your 12 digit credit card number, enter the right combination of buttons and tolerate 15 minutes of monophonic Für Elise before you can speak to a human.

Not all businesses think this way. Zappos is famous for having call centers that attend to several wacky requests from their customers. Zappos is a shoe store, but you could call a Zappos for a pizza or even stay on the phone with them for 10 hours. Zappos is a billion dollar business due to the goodwill they earned from treating humans like humans.

To require slack is to be human. No matter how much automation comes our way, we ourselves would (hopefully) continue to remain human. And when we decide to serve humans, our employees need the slack to look up from their desk, smile and pay attention to a human in need.

Recommended reading: Your customer service strategy – Seth Godin’s blog

The magic of communication

We take communication for granted, just like the air we breathe. And yet, a charismatic speaker draws her listeners in as though her words were magic.

Reading the following words with a gap of two seconds between each of them: “agree”, “concur”, “roger”, “okay” and “perfect”. They could all be used as synonyms, but invoke distinct imagery.

Communication is telepathy. To communicate is to take a thought or a feeling, express it different forms – as spoken words with a tone, or squiggly letters on a page, to make another person think or feel the same thing. Perfect communication is hard – one might argue it is impossible. But that it happens at all is a miracle. Our brains cells can dance a particular dance and teach the cells of other brains the same dance through words, sounds and pictures.

The secret to every magic trick lies in the details known to the magician, but not to his audience. Great communicators aren’t too different, in that they are simply more aware of the details of how they convey their message.

Substance and signals

Mating rituals are central to the animal kingdom. The question of which male gets to pass on his genes is an important question. Rearing children in the wild is costly and risky. Therefore, the prize often goes to the winner of an intense competition.

These competitions, or mating rituals, can be based on signals or substance. Lions fight for leadership over the pride, while tigers battle for dominance in a territory. Giraffes wrestle with their necks. Several species of deer lock horns. All these rituals are shows of strength – of substance. But other species, especially tropical birds, perform mating rituals using signals. The peacocks with the most beautiful fan of feathers gets the peahens. Birds-of-paradise, with their flamboyant plumage, make for some of nature’s most colourful signalling rituals. Signals send an indirect message. These birds signal that they are strong enough to afford feathers that are an obvious burden, and therefore, must be suitable mates.

Photo by Jakob Owens

In the human world as well, there is always an interplay between substance and signals. When we apply for a job, our project portfolios and recommendations indicate substance. By going to an interview in an impeccable suit, we send a signal. Consultants and investment bankers dress in suits to show that despite their busy schedules, they have an abundance to spend on their appearance. Our degrees and qualifications lie somewhere in the spectrum between signals and substance.

In a world made transparent through technology we often see substance take the place of signals. Portfolios and recommendations are becoming more valuable than qualifications. The best salespersons no longer dress in suits and ties. However, signals would continue to remain relevant. We are likely to always underestimate the role of a signal, while overestimating the role of substance, just as we value the quality of a product higher than attributes such as packaging, design or branding.

But how do we make a distinction here?

One way is to use Peter Thiel’s guidance here. Signals ought to be used as a means to a substantial end. As an end in themselves, they can fall short. Thiel, in his book Zero to One, says:

“In the most dysfunctional organizations, signaling that work is being done becomes a better strategy for career advancement than actually doing work (if this describes your company, you should quit now).”

A signal can be an effective means to communicate one’s innate worth. But it is a jungle out there, and a cat pretending to be a lion does not last very long.

Suggested listening: Honest Singals – Akimbo, a podcast by Seth Godin

For conversations, against debates

One approaches a topic from different positions through a debate or a conversation.

With a debate, each side takes a stand and attempts to defend it. The objective of a debate is to win. That essentially means to lose less ground than the opposing side. The person who has not changed their mind, while getting his or her opponent to do so, wins the debate.

A debate, like war, presupposes scarcity. It assumes that there isn’t room enough on a topic for both sides to be right – the aim is to grab more of a limited pie for one’s own self. In a debate, as in a war, the person who wins is the one who loses lesser. To change one’s mind, or in other words, to learn something new, is to lose a debate.

The objective in a conversation is to understand other points of view as well as one’s own. A conversation is an open exploration of the common ground between several opposing views. It aims to learn more as a collective. A conversation is born out of a posture of abundance. It acknowledges the pie of learning to be vast, and therefore, to have enough room for views that seem contradictory.

A chief distinction between the two is entertainment value. Good conversations are thrilling for their participants, but make for bad prime time entertainment. Debates are sensational. They can make for excellent gladiatorial showdowns. Public debate competitions abound, and more than one Hollywood film has ridden the waves of a glorious debate.

However, every debate is a finite game, and finite games need to simulate scarcity. Just as a football game is played in 90 minutes on fields of specific dimensions, with fixed rules, to obtain a definite result.

The more one learns, the more he is aware of his own ignorance, and of the sheer abundance to be discovered – one where there is enough room for viewpoints that are radically different from one’s own. Viewpoints to be discovered through conversations in playgrounds that do not resemble battlefields.

Inspiration: How to talk to people about things – You Are Not So Smart Podcast

All happy families are alike

Leo Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina, said, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Tolstoy implied that human happiness required the same criteria to be fulfilled. But even if one of them were not, they could end up unhappy. Therefore, there were several more ways for families to be unhappy than to be happy.

Every human being seeks the same things – a sense of belonging, to be appreciated and listened to, to be treated with dignity and respect, to earn status and to realize their true potential. With social roles – those played by each one of us as teachers, managers, marketers, parents, spouses and care givers, we ought to realize that the people we serve pursue the same set of criteria in the pursuit of happiness. When our efforts keep their focus on fulfilling these criteria, we are likely to succeed. Losing this focus leads to failure, waste and unhappiness.

When we sell somebody detergent and starch, we sell them the feeling of wearing clean and crisp clothes. When we post a job, we offer somebody a means to fulfill their dreams and desires. When we teach a child, we spark her wonder for the world by developing and exercising her intelligence. When we nurse an elderly man, we acknowledge that he is worthy of dignity and respect.

We all can learn from the Anna Karenina principle to focus our efforts on what is most important to us as human beings.

Relationships as chemical concoctions

As a school kid, I was delighted by the rare trip to the chemistry lab, where the teacher would demonstrate an experiment. Such experiments were thought of being too risky for us to carry out on our own. We would then get to see a powder of a certain colour come alive when mixed with a transparent liquid.

Some reactions were slow, while others were fast. Some were spontaneous. Others required catalysts. A reaction is a function of temperature, pressure and other external conditions, but most importantly, depended on which chemicals we mixed together.

Two people who may appear ordinary in several respects, can produce extraordinary results when mixed together. Like chemicals, some people mix better with others. Some form fast and quick relationships that die as soon as they form, while others form slow, long-lasting ones with half-lives longer than our life-spans.

To a certain extent, we can control chemical reactions by tweaking external factors, such as the temperature or the medium of the reaction. But past a point, certain chemicals were simply not meant to produce interesting combinations. This is similar with people. We are more unchanging than we would like ourselves to believe.

Studying chemicals – observing which chemical reacts with which other and investigating why that is so, helps us understand the world around us better. It is fascinating and insightful to learn about how all of creation, in its variegated, spectacular manifestations is comprised of merely a handful of elements.

Similarly, a handful of principal human qualities combine with each other to produce infinite patterns of friendships, mentorships, romantic associations and professional partnerships.

Understanding the chemistry behind our relationships helps us understand the elements we are made of.

To understand before seeking to be understood

No person is an island, though we sometimes delude ourselves into thinking so.

As an individual, my own joy and sorrow is intricately connected to that of certain people around me. When a loved one dies, a part of our self dies with them. It hurts when a close friend moves away or falls out of favour. Every friendship is an investment, however small, of ourselves in another person. We are all part of a connected whole and once we lose our moorings in this sea of connections, we find ourselves lonely and depressed.

Further, our empathy, our ability to feel what another person feels, is reserved for people we can connect with. We are less likely to be moved by hundreds of children in a far-away land dying in a war, as as we are by a couple of children in our neighbourhood who die in a road accident. The more somebody is like us, the more connected we feel with them. We are not jealous of the queen of England and we do not care much about starving children in an unknown African country.

Great leaders are charismatic. Through the strength of their personality, they get thousands of strangers to be connected with them in an instant. They gather influence in a sliver of the time it would take for somebody else to do the same thing. Their power to get people to rally around their vision seems mystical. They seem to be masters in getting people to do their bidding and fight for their cause.

But let us not put the cart before the horse.

Each of those leaders first observed the people around them, understood them and realize where they wished to go. Only then did they form their compelling visions that millions could connect with. In other words, they connected first before they sought connections. Mahatma Gandhi was an ordinary lawyer before he forged a connection with his fellow Indians’ innate desire for dignity and self-respect. The same can be said of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela in their respective circumstances. Their influence was a mark of their efforts to understand humanity. The people they led were also the people they served.

The starting point for leadership is not to formulate a vision that we find compelling and expect others to follow us. It is to dig deep enough to unearth a mission that is common to the people we want to serve, and lead them towards where they wish to go.

Where 80% is good enough

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”, said Stephen Covey. While this sounds obvious, it is quite hard to practice.

Time is our most precious, non-renewable resource. We need time to pursue the main things in our lives. The Pareto principle or the 80:20 rule can lend us a helping hand. It states how 80% of effects come from 20% of the causes. Stated another way, 80% of our outcomes result from 20% of our actions. The big question, then, is where is an 80% outcome enough?

We could cook a quick, healthy dinner and save that 6 course meal for special occasions. We probably do not need that 6th pair of jeans we plan on buying this weekend. While it’s great to be able to exercise for an hour everyday, you could get 80% of the benefits with a 20 min cardio workout. Those appendix slides with the terms and conditions probably do not need immaculate design.

We talk about Steve Jobs habit of dressing in black polo necks and jeans everyday. Jobs realized that this getup was good enough – he could focus on more important decisions than what to wear each day. But we would not be discussing Jobs’s dressing habits if not for Apple. Jobs didn’t lose sight of the main thing.

When the main thing is clear, it is also clear where 80% is good enough.

Tapping into the unconscious mind

Several of our best ideas take birth in the unconscious mind.

This is true across fields. Archimedes found inspiration in the bathtub. The structure of the benzene ring came to August Kekulé as a day-dream of a snake eating its own tail. Stephen King has written about how his book ideas come from out of nowhere. Both Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison used to doze off on their chairs to tap into their unconscious minds for ideas.

Our vocabulary is replete with phrases that hint at our connection with the unconscious. We talk about bursts of inspirations, bulbs lighting up in our brain and of ideas striking us like a bolt. If all of this happens in the unconscious, what are we to do with our conscious minds – the same as which are reading these letters on the screen?

When the footballer jogs across the field, he searches for gaps in the opponent’s defense. When a chess player scans the board in a game of blitz, she questions how the pieces relate to each other. A musical composer gets in touch with his innermost feelings to correlate what he listens to with what he feels. What all of them have in common is a sense of purposeful curiosity.

“Where can I find an opening through the defense?”

“How can my rook coordinate an attack with my bishop?”

“What does this particular chord remind me of?”

Curiosity is the domain of the conscious mind, while the unconscious excels at creativity. Through a posture of curiosity, the conscious mind gathers the right data for the unconscious mind to produce an insight. The feeling of a mental block or a lack of inspiration is simply the unconscious mind deprived of data.

Therefore, our best ideas will come to us provided we ask the right questions. When an author wishes to write about the blockchain, she could ask pertinent questions and read about 20 good articles that answer those questions. When she has done that, her article would appear the moment she sits in front of the keyboard. If the words are not forthcoming, it is time to read some more, think some more and ask more questions.

Our unconscious minds excel at joining the dots. Our conscious selves can serve them by providing them the right dots to join.

The cost of the status quo

Music is the silence between the notesClaude Debussy

This quote is profound because we often do not pay attention to the silence, which forms the background for all of music.

Our status quo is often the background on which the events of our life unfold. It is the normalcy that underlies our boring routine – our jobs, our old friendships, our neighbourhood and our cuisine. When we embark on changing the status quo by starting a new endeavour, we often evaluate the pros and cons of the decision itself, while neglecting the cost of preserving the status quo. This sometimes irrational preference for the current state of affairs is called the status quo bias.

Adopting a new business model might be expensive for a company, but what if their core business is being disrupted? Finding a new job is risky, but what is the risk of staying in the same job? Writing a journal everyday is difficult – it requires time, discipline and can feel unpleasant. But what are the costs of not writing a journal?



One year on

On 22 January 2018, on a whim, I wrote one post that has since turned into a daily habit.

Along the way a couple of things have remained the same:

  1. The posts have maintained a cadence and a consistency around certain themes. It gives me an indication of the things that I notice – of my narrow slice of consciousness of the world
  2. Every post is still agonizing. That hasn’t gotten easier with time. Everyday, I anguish over what I would write and how I would express it

If things remain the same – if I am writing about the same themes, and it feels difficult everyday, what is the point?

When we reread a book after a while, it feels different from our first reading. The book we read is the same. We, its readers, have changed.

It is difficult to notice the gradual, daily change that comes with such a habit. And yet, one year back, if you had asked me if I could blog daily for a year, I would have laughed at the thought. The surest sign of this change is the anguish I experience everyday, that keeps this challenge alive and keeps my practice deliberate.

For if I have learnt anything this year, it is to have more respect and gratitude for the anguish that makes our daily practice difficult, substantial and worthy of doing.

Going all in is easier

With most things, going from 90% to 100% is difficult. It is easier to secure 90% in an examination than 100%. It is much harder to build a 100% defect free production facility than one that is 90% accurate. It is difficult to retain a 100% accident free record on the road.

However, with decision making, a 100% rule is several times easier to implement than a 90% rule.

Let us take two resolutions, both of which aim to cut down alcohol consumption. When we say we are completely off alcohol for a particular time period, we simply do not drink. An alcoholic beverage ceases to exist as an option. Whereas when our aim is to reduce our drinking by 90%, with every drink that passes our way, we need to decide if it qualifies as an exception.

If I decide to blog 5 times a week, I need to think about which those 5 days would be on a weekly basis. When I decide to blog everyday, I would need to write just as surely as the sun rises. There are no further decisions.

The best decisions are ones that eliminate a hundred others.

Whose feedback to regard

Has anybody given you the wrong directions and wasted your time?

Whenever we put out our work into the world, people can offer us feedback. Some feedback is useful, but not all of it. In fact, most of it is noise. How do we make the distinction?

A good friend of mine runs a startup that optimizes transport routes. He mentioned how his conversations go with people who do not have a background in route optimization. They often suggestions that seem insightful, but are tangential to what his customers need. Going down the road they suggest could mean building features that customers do not use – a waste of precious time and resources.

The best feedback comes from a specific set of people. A business needs to focus on its most valuable customers. As individuals, we ought to listen to our friends and mentors – people who understand us, care for us, and want us to succeed. Every other feedback doesn’t matter as much. The best of products have 1-star reviews on Amazon and a handful of people howling at them. Sadly, that product wasn’t for them, and for the same reason, their feedback ought to be ignored.

When we need to get somewhere, we have one optimal route, but a multitude of sub-optimal ones. The people whose directions we follow can make all the difference.

Memory as the seed for learning

Back in India, I could spot at least a 100 bird species. For most of these species, I knew little about them other than how they looked.

Richard Feynman has articulated how knowing the name of something is not equivalent to knowing something. By knowing the name of energy, we do not even begin to understand energy – this mysterious, cosmic force. What, then, is the use of knowing all the names of those birds? Isn’t a bird by any other name just as beautiful?

A useful analogy here is that of a tree and a seed. A tree shelters entire ecosystems, whereas a seed is insignificant in comparison. But every large tree was once a tiny seed. Every seed has the potential to turn into a large and magnificent tree.

What we memorize can serve as a seed for further exploration. The underlying psychology is that of cognitive ease. Anything we have memorized is familiar to us, and in Daniel Kahneman’s words, “Familiarity breeds liking”. Our brain finds it easy to process familiar things. When we see a familiar word or phrase, it unconsciously makes us smile just a little. Familiar things feel good, and invite us to engage further with them. We like to chance upon people speaking our mother tongue in foreign countries, and look forward to reuniting with old friends. Similarly, our memory plants the seed for ease of cognition, which incentivizes engagement and learning.

There are several mysteries in the natural world waiting to be discovered – such as how Malabar pied hornbills can digest the deadly fruit of the poison nut tree, or how the tiny Tickell’s flowerpecker can bring down a giant tree by pollinating and propagating a deadly creeper along its trunk and branches. Of course, this knowledge is more accessible to people who know the names of these birds.


How to train your intuition

How does a firefighter know that a burning house is on the verge of collapse? In a game of blitz, how does a chessmaster find the most appropriate move in a fraction of a second? How does a striker on the football field find the space to dribble past three world-class defenders and beat the diving goalkeeper?

Intuition is the ability to arrive at a decision without knowing how you did it. When a fireground commander (leader of a firefighting team) approaches a situation, her decades of experience gives her patterns from hundreds of situations, both real and virtual, that she can invoke in a fraction of a second second to decide what to do. Psychological research shows us that she does this “by mentally simulating (her decision) to see if it would work in the situation they were facing.”

We train our intuition everyday, whether we know it or not. When we move to a new locality, every street turn leads us to a new place – a pharmacy, a convenience store or a subway station. With time, we can then drive to the supermarket without thinking about the route. To find our bearings is one of the oldest skills we possess. It helps us navigate lush forests as well as urban jungles. A person who is not good with routes is simply one who hasn’t trained his intuitive sense of direction.

We could take this even further. Where do the actions we do every day, every hour and every minute take us? What does reaching for our phone to check our notifications lead to? What happens when we reach for a snack and gobble it up? How does the decision to exercise for half an hour make us feel after we are done?

We could train our intuition by looking back at any of these actions and simulating where they lead us, just as the fireground commander does. Does our impulse lead us to a meaningful place? Every urge we have corresponds to a turn into a certain street or alleyway. Through introspection, could we simulate where we are headed before we are lost?

Inspiration: Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

What marketing is becoming

How do we market? Do we create a good product or service based on our beliefs and assumptions, and get the word out? Or do we listen in to our customers, understand their aspirations and give them what they need?

Conventional marketing was more of the former – to create a movie, develop a product and publicize it on hoardings, leaflets and TV advertisements. To market average products to the masses that are “normal”.

But every normal person is a weird person we do not know well enough. With the advent of the internet and digitization, we have seen a shift. We now serve niches that serve the quirkiness of every individual.  To market today is to move from the mass of normal to the niche of the specific, the quirky, the weird and the unique.

Today, everybody has a voice. Are we willing to listen?

Inspiration: This is Marketing – Seth Godin

At what pace?

A 100 m dash lives up to its name. It is a sprint – a run for your money from the gunshot to the ribbon. You simply give it your all in the 10 – 15 seconds it takes for you to get across.

As the distances gets longer, pacing is more nuanced. Even with a 400 m race, there are several pacing strategies. By the time we reach a full marathon of 42 kilometers, merely finishing the race requires good pacing. In ultra-marathons, pacing is everything. Runners employ professional pacers at those distances.

Needless to say, every increase in distance corresponds to a drop in average pace.

The speed at which we run often determines how far you go. What distances are you running in your project, career or relationship? Are you sprinting, or are you in them for the long run?

Abstaining from habits

What do you do enjoy doing regularly? Which sports do you follow? Which social media platforms do you use? Which snack do you consume often?

Several habits enrich our lives. At the same time, a habit could be gathered by chance and might bind around our legs and weigh us down. An Indian teenager may have started following a European football club to make more friends and to belong to a social circle. This pursuit could have turned into a lifelong habit without his conscious knowledge.

What if we step back for long enough? The focusing illusion tells us that the things we focus on appear more important than they really are. When we are in the midst of our habits, it may seem impossible to imagine our lives without them.

Take a break from those habits. Try going without them for a month. A long enough break hits the reset button. It helps us step back tells us whether our habits are really as important as they seem.

In periods of abstinence, illusions lose their grip to tell us what is essential to our lives.

Brushing with your weaker hand

When we get good at something, it becomes easy. As a result, we forget how hard it once was and undervalue its difficulty. What might be easy for a teacher might be difficult for a student.

Brushing our teeth is easy because we do it everyday. But just try brushing with your weaker hand. Doing so reveals the complexity behind something as easy as brushing your teeth.

Empathetic teachers do not lose touch with what it feels like to be a student.