We don’t live to breathe

We need just enough air to not have to worry about breathing.

More air than that doesn’t make us better off. We need air to survive, but we don’t live to breathe.

Time and again, we have learnt that we just need enough money to not have to worry about money. Additional income doesn’t lead our lives to become more fulfilled. And yet, our behaviour doesn’t align with this knowledge.

Money is like the air we breathe. It is essential to our survival, but we don’t live merely to make money.

Let us celebrate recovery

Let us celebrate the moment we close Netflix and go to sleep after having slipped into a late-night binge.

Let us celebrate the moment we catch ourselves having eaten one biscuit and put down the second one.

Right before we snap at a loved one, let us celebrate the moment we pause and stop ourselves.

Let us celebrate the moment we take off our headphones and listen to the little voice in our head screaming for our attention.

In a week full of distractions, let us celebrate the one evening we spend working on that which is important, but not urgent.

Let us celebrate recovery just as much as we celebrate our achievements.

Challenge vs. Suffering

Our lives are filled with struggle. This struggle is essential – it lends meaning to our lives. The absence of struggle renders life meaningless.

Like stem cells in our body, our struggle is mutable. When we embrace struggle, it turns into a challenge. When we shun and try to avoid this struggle, it morphs into suffering.

A challenge motivates us, while suffering makes use miserable. Most importantly, we have the power to choose between these states.

When job security turns meaningless

Several jobs in large or public organizations come with the promise of job security. But what does that really mean?

When you consider a long enough time horizon, an employee’s presence inside a firm has merely one of two possibilities – her contribution is net positive, and her presence within the organization is valued, or her presence on the payroll costs the organization more than her presence on the job.

In the former case, job security is redundant – one isn’t at the risk of being fired. In the second case, the employee finds herself in an environment where her contribution isn’t valued. Even if her job is secure, she is seen (and often treated) as dead-weight. In such a case, it is best for both parties to part ways rather than prolong this slow state of mutual attrition.

The key point here is the ‘long enough time horizon’. I am not advocating the ‘hire-and-fire’ that organizations with a short-term focus indulge in. But when both the organization and the employee are playing long-term games, job security loses meaning.

‘This is going nowhere’

We humans have excellent intuition for when something is going nowhere.

When moving around in physical spaces, we act upon this intuition. When we cant find the toilet in a restaurant, we ask somebody. When we take a wrong turn and find ourselves in a strange part of the city, we pause, retrace our steps, and ask for directions.

Yet, in aspects of our lives that don’t involve navigating physical space, we don’t act upon this intuition. When a book or a movie isn’t going anywhere, we wait and linger on. With our careers and relationships, we wander around for several years before admitting that we are lost.

Whenever a little voice inside you says, ‘This is going nowhere’, it pays to pause, retrace your steps or ask for directions.

Extrapolation isn’t creativity

Heat a liter of water in a saucepan and measure its temperature.

Let’s say the water’s temperature goes from 20 degrees Celsius to 30 degrees in 10 minutes. After another 10 minutes, the temperature rises from 30 to 40 degrees. 10 more minutes later, it goes from 40 to 50 degrees.

At this point, a naïve empiricist is tempted to state that if you heated the water for 2 hours, it would reach a temperature of 220 degrees Celsius. But we all know how this extrapolation leads us into a trap – at 100 degrees Celsius, when the boiling point is reached.

If we rely merely on extrapolation, we run into unexpected complexity. Instead, we need a creative explanation for why water boils – how at a certain temperature, the energy with which water molecules in a vessel is sufficient to overcome the atmospheric pressure that holds it down.

Extrapolation tells you that the sun will rise tomorrow. Creativity explains how this happens, by postulating that the earth rotates around its axis. Extrapolation can predict seasonal changes every 3 months. Creativity explains the seasons through a tilt in the Earth’s axis of rotation.

To be creative isn’t to derive insights based on extrapolation. This leads you into traps that nature has set for naïve empiricists. To be creative is to explain – to use your imagination to understand why things are the way they are.

Inspiration: Theories are Explanations, not Predictions

What do you do with the time you have saved?

Most of us don’t commute to work anymore – at least, not as often.

This time saved amount to about 50 minutes per day on average. What have you done with the time you have saved? How are you using it?

If, after having saved on commute time, your life still feels rushed, then the lack of time isn’t your problem. Your problem lies elsewhere.

Avoid the burn

For the most part, our physiological processes are controlled centrally by our brains.

Our reflexes are the exception to this rule. When you touch a hot plate, your hand jerks back immediately without having to consult the brain – there isn’t enough time. The milliseconds it would take for your brain to respond would cost you too many layers of burnt skin.

The broader principle here is that parts of our body that are closest to an emergency are equipped with the resources to deal with it. Autonomy in corporations works the same way. When an emergency occurs, how capable are your front-line workers to take the necessary decisions?

The more decisions need to escalate through a chain of command, the higher your chances of getting burnt!

What Nintendo can teach us

Growing up, I have played a tonne of computer games.

Further, I played them with the tenacity of a rabid bulldog. I never procrastinated. I never gave up. I kept at a game until I finished every ‘quest’.

As a grown-up, I wish I could bring that kind of drive to my real-world projects. With most of these, however, I am unfocused and give up before I have given them my best shot. Why does this happen?

A video-game is designed such that the game starts off being easy and gets progressively harder. With real world projects, your first big break is often the hardest – launching your first book, starting your first podcast or starting your successful first company are all much harder than doing them the second or the third time.

A video game also has clear goals and constraints – rescuing a princess, the bounds of the screen and the rules of the game engine. Real world projects are boundless in all those respect. The goals often need to keep shifting, and so too do our expectations and efforts, often giving us the feeling of running around in circles.

Now that I am out of excuses, here is the real reason.

A video-game is crafted by a game designer. Designing a video game is an ordeal – one that we don’t really acknowledge when we go around fragging zombies and collecting power-ups. The essence of why I was hooked to games until I finished it was because of the tenacious effort that somebody put into creating them. I don’t nearly invest that much effort into designing my real world projects.

In essence, if you wish to make your real world projects as enjoyable as a video-game, you need to invest the effort to break it down into levels, define your constraints and design your experience.

We could all learn from the creators of video games 🙏.

Toddler’s mind

Why do we find furry animals cute?

How can I buy food in exchange for coins and pieces of paper that are inherently worthless?

Why do we work for eight hours and eat three meals a day?

Why do we feed children ‘health drinks’ that are mostly sugar? Why do adults start their day with coffee?

Why does everybody carry a smartphone these days?

Why does some place in town turn into a tourist hot-spot?

As we grow up, we stop questioning why things are the way they are. That is, until a toddler confronts us.

Why wait for that toddler to ask?

How harmful is nuclear power?

Not as harmful as you think.

We have had two major nuclear accidents in the world so far – Chernobyl and Fukushima. By the most pessimistic estimates, those two disasters claimed up to 5,000 human lives. Sure, that is a big number.

But here’s the surprising fact. Every single year, pollution from energy generation using fossil fuels claims upwards of 4,000,000 lives through diseases such as heart disease, lung disease and stroke. When you normalize the death rate per unit of energy generated, nuclear energy claims about 1 life every 14 years while fossil fuels claim about 634 lives. Here’s a video that cogently argues this point.

Why, then, do we continue to see nuclear power as ‘dangerous’, while letting coal, oil and natural gas off the hook? Sadly, we have our psychological limitations in understanding certain kinds of threats. Slower and more long-term dangers, such as those caused due to pollution by a coal plant don’t trigger our mental alarms even if they are objectively 600 times more harmful.

We are quick to respond to certain dangers that are obvious to our brains – lions behind bushes, nuclear meltdowns, domestic break-ins and terrorism. However, the complex world we have built through centuries of technological progress, has given far more serious dangers plenty of room to hide. Our greatest challenge today is to recognize them and redirect our focus.

Limits to our intelligence

If you expanded an atom to the size of a football field, the nucleus of an atom would be the size of a mere fly. Despite the depiction we see in school science textbooks, most of the atom is empty space. And yet, tables, brick walls and saucepans appear quite solid to us. Where does all of that empty space disappear?

We are unable to grasp things on an atomic scale because our brains and bodies aren’t built to understand a world at that scale. But our limitation doesn’t stop there.

Representations of the solar system in our science textbooks are not drawn to scale. The planets are jammed close to each other and the sun is represented as a tiny ball in the middle. Much like an atom, the solar system is also mostly empty space, which doesn’t lend itself well to representation. I once tried to draw the distances in the Solar System to scale, but you’ll agree that I did an admirably poor job.

Solar System
The distances, in light minutes, are to scale (somewhat) but planet sizes aren’t

We are medium scale creatures built to understand medium scale dimensions. We can all grasp what it means for me to walk a kilometer in 15 minutes. But our brains are unable to wrap our heads around how a beam of light can traverse 300,000 km in a single second.

Those limitations might be obvious. However, for the same reasons, our brains are also unable to comprehend several other nuances. Our empathy – our ability to understand where another person comes from – is also limited by not having lived that person’s life – our own experiences have hard-wired us to merely understand experiences that are similar to our own. Our evolutionary conditioning has also limited our ability to live in a post industrial world that has very little resemblance to the Saharan grasslands where our species was cradled.

While we often marvel at what our brains are capable of, it has its limitations. Understanding those limitations forms the bedrock of humility, of which the human species has always had a deficit.

The essence of design

I still remember my first experience of using a computer.

When I was a 6-year-old, my father took me to his Infosys office. Across the sprawling campus, several PCs were left switched on for anybody to use them. I settled down at one of these PCs and played around with the keyboard and the mouse for hours. I remember clearly the moment I opened a media player and played some music on the machine.

Now we are so used to using computers and smartphones that we may not grasp what a marvelous achievement this is. Take your computer apart to see the cables, the transistors, the hard disks and the integrated circuitry that you actually communicate with when you move the mouse pointer and click a button. Yet, somebody was able to craft an interface that so neatly meshed with the manner in which the human brain works that a 6 year old was able to coax those circuit boards into playing a Beethoven symphony through his mere intuition.

A well designed system meshes with the human brain so well that it obviates the need for a cumbersome user-manual. The buttons, the mouse pointer and everything that you see on a computer screen is a virtual abstraction designed specifically to enable seamless audio, visual and tactile communication with a human user.

Taking that sentiment further, this is exactly how our brains work. There is nothing inherently red about a flower or blue about the sky – those surfaces are merely reflecting electromagnetic waves of specific wavelengths. The rods and the cones in our eyes work in a similar manner to a computer’s circuitry, with the brain taking in their signals to simulate a user interface – our conscious experience. Just as transistors and circuit boards come alive as icons and buttons on a screen, so does the physical world appear in colour, smells, sound and every other sense. Senses exist only so that we can make sense of our natural environment.

Evolution, through a slow and painstaking process, has built our bodies and our brains to mesh seamlessly with our natural environment. The essence of design is to do the opposite to come full circle – to modify the environment to mesh with our bodies and brains.

How to make a routine more interesting

A couple of days back, I watched a video where I learnt that flexibility depends upon moisture content in muscles. With age and lack of activity, muscles dry up and stiffen. Children are more flexible than adults since adult tissues have already lost about 15% of their moisture content.

I am not as regular as I would like to be with my morning yoga routine. However, the day after I learnt about that flexibility factoid, I was inspired to do my yoga routine. In fact, I have noticed a higher drive ever since. It is surprising that this piece of trivia, actually changed my behaviour for the better.

Preparing your own food makes it taste better. Watching how something is prepared allows us to appreciate it better, like this 4 min video on how pencils are made.

Even the most beneficial routines can turn boring. To make them more interesting, be curious about how they work. You might just find yourself more motivated to stick to them.

The absurdity of IQ

Assume that we came up with a test for athletic ability. We would have athletes take a standardized test in a variety of sports and award them an ‘athletic quotient’ based on cumulative performance. We would then award a gold medal to athletes that performed the best.

Doing that would totally ruin the Olympics. And yet, this is exactly how we treat cognitive intelligence by using the IQ test.

Cognitive intelligence is specific – an accomplished painter, a literary savant, a PhD in molecular biology and a Michelin star chef are all exceptionally intelligent people in different ways. And yet, a standardized measure of intelligence would fail to acknowledge their brilliance in their respective fields.

Intelligence is specific – like ice-cream flavours. To attempt to summarize it with one metric is like trying to mix all the different flavours and assign a score based on how the unsavoury concoction tastes.

An antidote to scarcity

When I started off writing this daily blog, I was often scrambling for ideas.

Whenever an idea struck me, I would pull out my phone and rush to make note of it, lest it get buried under some work email or Whatsapp forward.

With time, though, I rarely have this worry. I don’t fret as much about ‘lost’ blogpost ideas. I am now confident that if it is a good enough idea, it will stick around until I write the morning after. If it doesn’t, it probably wasn’t good enough. Also, some other idea will show up when my fingers hit the keyboard.

When we start off a creative practice, a dearth of inspiration is a nagging worry. A regular practice serves as a cure for this poverty of ideas.

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.