Normalization – 2

In a previous post, I had mentioned how our brain normalizes situations we once considered difficult and helps us achieve stretch goals. However, the same tendency has another, darker facet to it.

Four years ago, US democracy was sacrosanct. When a president in power was voted out, he made way for his successor with minimal fuss. In the last couple of months, all this has changed. The current president of the US, via several outrageous remarks, has normalized an attack on US democracy. Today, a large percentage of US citizens don’t believe in a democratic institution they have upheld and respected for centuries.

When a person of authority says or does something outrageous, they normalize the sentiment they espouse. The brains of the people around them is soon to forget what it believed for decades and is quick to subscribe to a new paradigm – one that starts off sounding outrageous, but is soon normalized. Politicians have long known this tendency and use it to pander to their vote bases by continuously push the boundaries of what is acceptable to say.

Left unchecked, normalization can be misused to corrode our culture. This applies just as much to a boss making a ‘harmless’ sexist joke as it does to a politician who spews venom and hatred.

Normalization – 1

I was surprised to learn yesterday that blind people can be trained to listen to audiobooks at 5-6x speed.

Given that blind people don’t utilize their visual cortex, blind people’s brains rewire themselves to direct this excess capacity to their auditory regions. This is a tribute to the brain’s ability to adapt.

Several sighted folks train their own brains to listen to podcasts and audiobooks at 2x or faster. They do this by bumping up the speed in steps of 25% until their brains normalize comprehension at that elevated pace.

Stretch goals work because of the brain’s ability to adapt to what once felt uncomfortable and normalize it.

Note: I present a contrarian perspective in another post.

2021

Whenever an old year gives way to a new one, two sentiments stand out.

Firstly, it is a time of jailbreak. On the first of January we break out from the prisons that our lapses and our sins have confined us to in the previous year. We are given a clean slate, and whatever happened last year seems not to count as much.

Secondly, every new year’s wish is a step closer to betterment. Living structures can be only if they become. Growth and refinement isn’t merely something that we do – it is a part of who we innately are as a species.

However, this time there is more.

2020 was a year of disruption, where we cobbled together an emergency release. A few resilient members of the species worked around the clock to envision the changes and beta test them. Sure, we found several bugs and are still fixing them, but the time for testing is over.

In 2021, this new version of the world rolls into production, laden with its bugs and its features. Even as a few people among us have already taken the lead in adapting to these changes, it is now time for the rest of us to step forward, be counted and play our part.

A ‘resolution’ is so termed because it stems from a position of clarity. Given the fresh perspective that a new year and a new era presents to you, what are you going to do?

Adaptive teaching

Video games are a marvel, because they make us work hard even as they are addictive. They do this by keeping pace with the player’s skill level.

Good teaching follows the same principle. Effective learning doesn’t happen unless the pupil works hard. Perseverance isn’t easy and the teacher’s role is to enable the pupil to keep at it. Good teachers do this in a manner similar to a video game – by adapting the level of the instruction to the pupil’s skill level.

The first level is ‘Let me show you how this problem is solved.‘ The teacher starts off by giving the pupil explicit instructions to simple tasks. While starting off with a skill, even mere imitation is hard work and effortful. This keeps the student engaged while putting their anxiety to rest.

The next level is ‘Try solving this problem on your own. Here’s my solution‘. When the student is ready, the teacher nudges them to solve problems on their own. In the end, the teacher presents his own version of the solution so that students can compare and refine their efforts.

The final level is ‘These are problems worth solving‘. The teacher hands a student a list of problems that is likely to present an adequate challenge to them. The solution to these problems aren’t revealed – these problems usually don’t have a finite set of solutions.

The process of teaching is complete when students are ready to teach other students to seek and solve problems. And the cycle continues.

Suggested reading: Shu ha ri

The problematic kind of perfectionism

When an artist sketches a masterpiece, it doesn’t come out ready in the very first try. Instead, she commits a version to paper and refines it until it turns into the version.

When developer implements a solution, the first version merely works. He then rewrites it to make it more readable, useable and efficient. After several rounds of rewriting, he publishes the final version.

Perfectionism plays a double role – that of the hero and the villain. The hero pushes your work towards excellence with each iteration. The villain prevents you from getting to the intermediate stages that are imperfect.

The path to excellence isn’t linear, but rather cyclical. The good kind of perfection speeds up these cycles while the problematic kind slows them down.

Let’s call it paddling instead

Only for a tiny fraction of the time does a surfer actually ‘surf’. For the most part, surfers paddle in the water while looking for a wave to catch. The surfing legend, Laird Hamilton, once quipped that we should call it paddling instead of surfing.

Hollywood often portrays computer programmers as nerds typing furiously on their keyboard, spitting out line after line of code that executes perfectly. In reality, a large chunk of a coder’s day is spent staring at a screen, either planning out an implementation approach or or getting a particular command to run. Besides, developers read 10 times more code than they write themselves. The furious typing, like surfing a wave’s crescent, is but a tiny fraction of what one does as a computer programmer.

Management consulting is sold as a profession where you are paid by the hour to solve problems. In reality, a consultant spends countless hours scouring the internet for data, interviewing their clients and perfecting a presentation to solve a problem whose solution is often obvious and banal. The brilliant insights are few and far apart.

Stand-up comedy is more about writing than about speaking in front of a crowd. A stand-up comic spends several days writing, rewriting and polishing their material before delivering a 10-minute sketch to tickle a crowd’s ribs.

At the end of this rant, here is the bottom line:

  • Aspirants beware – how a profession is popularly portrayed is entirely different from how it is practiced.

Dreadful only in prospect

The idea of taking a cold shower is dreadful, but it is merely the first minute of the experience that is uncomfortable. Soon enough, your body gets used to the feeling of cold water splashed on its skin.

The idea of getting an injection is dreadful, but in reality, the injection doesn’t hurt as much as we imagine it does.

The idea of getting up on stage and making a speech is dreadful, but once you get past the mental barrier and utter a sentence or two, your nerves calm down and the words flow better.

Procrastination happens because we respond to the idea of something being difficult, even if its execution is easier. To persevere is to get to the other side.

The most effortful part about driving an automobile is to get the vehicle rolling from a state of rest – that is when you need the highest gear ratio. However, that doesn’t stop us from hopping into a car and driving around.

Our brain isn’t great at telling the difference between the idea of something being dreadful and how dreadful the experience itself can be. To take the leap is to start the car, switch to first gear and start rolling.

The Brain vs. The Mind

We often confuse the brain and the mind, but those two things could not be more different.

Our mind is a mystical entity, infinite in scope and prowess, whose vehicles are intelligence, creativity and consciousness. It is a wild stallion in the Steppe, which sporadically gives us an unexpected glimpse or two of its magnificence. It is these glimpses that creators refer to as the muse, divine inspiration and the like.

The brain is a hunk of flesh that can be trained like a domestic animal. It is a physical entity that is governed by natural laws – if given a stimulus, it will respond in specific ways. If you can train a dog to salivate at the ring of a bell, you can train your brain to step out of the house as soon as you have worn your running shoes.

The mind needs the brain to work its magic. However, the brain is often an obstacle rather than an enabler of the mind. Behind every great mind that is consistently creative is a well trained brain that is kept in its place.

The degree to which you can tame your brain is the degree to which your mind can roam wild and free.

Inspiration: Jerry Seinfeld

Complaint vs Criticism

What differentiates complaint from criticism?

Complaint is about a situation – a duty not carried out or about a promise not kept. When your partner leaves behind a messy kitchen counter after preparing a meal, a complaint is necessary to remind them that they didn’t keep their end of the deal.

‘You didn’t clean the kitchen counter after cooking last night. Will you take care of it after breakfast?’

Criticism is directed at the person rather than the situation. When your partner leaves behind a messy kitchen counter, criticism questions their nature rather than the act itself.

‘You never clean the kitchen counter after cooking. Will you ever change?’

A complaint separates an act from the person who committed it even as criticism lumps those things together. Complaints are helpful – they help us imagine and create a better world. Criticism is devil’s bargain, for it might bring about change at the cost of a carefully cultivated relationship.

Source: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

Dodging regret

Regret is the act of having taken a decision we rather should not have. Given regret is a source of much angst, here are three ways to dodge it.

The most effective means to dodge regret, then, is at the moment of making that decision. The key to doing this is to ask other people who have already made this decision about how it turned out. If you wish to start a new career as a developer, ask people who have already done this. They are your most reliable source of information.

A second means to dodge regret is to stop looking at forks we have left behind. The problem with social media is that it keeps reminding us of choices we have passed up – childhood friends travelling the world, ex-colleagues earning promotions and our college mates founding successful companies. Logging off helps us shut the door on manicured representations of the lives of our peers.

A third means is palliative – to realize that some measure of regret is inevitable. Today, we invariably have more information than we did when we made a particular decision in the past. However, our brain is terrible at taking this into account, having us feel instead that we should have anticipated a mistake. Alas, that feeling is just an illusion, and realizing this rightfully lets us off the hook.

A vaccine against suffering

An old Buddhist saying goes ‘Pain is mandatory, suffering is optional.’ At first glance, that saying appears to be a koan – a statement that isn’t internally consistent. How can one be in pain and not suffer?

A runner training for a marathon is in pain. But since her mind is open to the idea of the burn she feels in her thigh muscles, she doesn’t suffer.

Working parents, who have to balance their jobs with child rearing, are often in pain. But whether or not they suffer depends on their outlook towards raising their children.

Monks and stoics often experience hunger, cold and the other hardships of living a frugal life. However, since their mind is open to these experiences, they don’t suffer as much.

A pre-requisite for suffering is to be closed to the idea of a hard or painful experience. On the flipside, being open to a painful experience serves as immunization against suffering.

Philosophy in disguise

Several years ago, I bought Will Durant’s anthology of Western philosophy. Around the same time, I also purchased a similar book on Indian philosophy. Ever since I purchased them, I have been meaning to read these books. I still haven’t read them, but I hope to get there someday.

Non-fiction books on philosophy are hard to read – they are several lifetime’s worth of wisdom condensed into a book. Like potent medicine, they ought to be consumed slowly. Pop too many pills at once, and you are left with a headache.

I have managed to read several other books on my bookshelf – some of them multiple times:

  • Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  • South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • The short stories of Anton Chekov
  • Farewell my Friend by Rabindranath Tagore
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell

These books are categorized as fiction in a bookstore. However, they are philosophical texts in disguise. Their authors are stalwarts who have employed the vehicle of fiction to make their philosophical essence easier to consume and digest.

The implications are two-way here

  • Thoughtfully crafted fiction can serve as an alternative source for philosophical truth
  • Fiction turns hollow when isn’t wrapped around a kernel of philosophy

Don’t be the Thanksgiving turkey

‘I am a safe driver because I have never met with an accident.’

‘Our traditional diet is the best. My grandparents lived and died healthy.’

‘In 20 years, I have never needed to go to a doctor. Why should I go now?’

How often have we heard that line of reasoning?

Now let us consider the life of a turkey raised in a farm. For three years, the turkey is fed every single day. Its well being steadily increases and the bird learns to trust and love its human caregivers. And then, the afternoon before thanksgiving, the bird is forced to make a drastic revision to its beliefs.

Nassim Taleb uses the parable of the Thanksgiving turkey to illustrate our inability to foresee unexpected events that can derail our lives. The problem here is that our own past experience, like the turkey’s, ends up blinding us further.

Danger is a rude guest because it can often show up uninvited and without precedent.

How to tell a good online course from a bad one

Having done more than a dozen online courses, here are my thumb rules to separate good learning sources from the bad ones.

The most effective means to learn a difficult skill is to break down into drills. The method would then have us practice these drills in isolation and slowly combine them to finally make up the entire skill. In a programming course, for instance, these drills would start off with the simplest tasks, like teaching you how to output a bunch of characters (starting with ‘Hello World!’) on the screen in different ways. They would then work their way up to building a game on a website. In between, you would have lots of homework to do on your own.

The ineffective sources of learning always come in the guise of a ‘shortcut’. The book or the instructor would indicate how their approach would make the learning easy. They would jump towards building an advanced project real quickly. They then handhold you through its execution, step by step. At the end of the project, you have a euphoric feeling and an illusion that you have accomplished it on your own. However, minus the handholding or with the smallest change in what is required, you are unable to replicate your success.

In essence, look for sources that teach you the hard way, but help you embrace the struggle by breaking it down into manageable bits. Steer clear of sources that promise you ‘shortcuts’, ‘secrets’ or have you master a difficult project within days.

The other side of commitment

What is the line that separates…

…a principle from dogma?

…a habit from a dependency?

…a ritual from superstition?

…a streak from sunk cost?

The thin line that separates them is the answer to the question – ‘does doing this continue to serve my best interest’?

The answer to this question is moral, subjective and often emotional. But the ability to answer it is what makes separates us from machines.

What is this meeting for?

Meetings are usually a waste of time because everybody in attendance does not have the same answer to that question above. More so for a recurring series of meetings that happen every week or every month.

When you setup a meeting, be sure to include an agenda on the invite’s mail body. More importantly, try and insist on on a clear agenda before accepting one. Do not accept an invite out of the blue with subjects such as ‘Status update’ or ‘Alignment call’. Your time and attention are worth a thoughtful sentence or two.

If the stated agenda doesn’t concern you, hit that decline button. Your attending a meeting ‘just-in-case’ is invariably a waste of time for all parties concerned.

What cancel culture gets wrong

Unknown to most of us, wild almonds are poisonous. They have a compound called amygdalin, which has a bitter taste and breaks down into cyanide in our body. About 50 such almonds would constitute a deadly dose.

However, almonds are safe today, thanks to centuries of selective breeding. Almond farmers selectively bred trees that lacked the gene to produce amygdalin to create the sweet almonds that we find in supermarket shelves today.

Most of us have parts of us that are beneficial and other parts that are toxic, and so does our culture. Our culture evolves continuously, and just like farmers, we ought to cultivate its beneficial parts and discard its toxins.

I admire Scott Adams for his perspectives on creativity, but I find some of his politics toxic. I have reread his short post on writing several times, even as I steer clear of his political posts.

What cancel culture gets wrong is to expect that every part of an admirable person needs to be pristine, as seen from the lens of present day ethos. By that measure, one would even have to cancel the Buddha or Lao-Tse for something ‘toxic’ they said two-thousand years back.

Besides, we would have discarded every wild almond and never have gotten to the delicacy we cherish today.

Two layers of moodiness

There are two kinds of moods – ones that manifest on the surface and others that run deeper down.

Moods on the surface are how we conventionally know them. When a moody boss sits across you, you never know what to expect. The weather, their choice of breakfast and delays during their commute has a direct bearing on how they show up to work.

Moodiness deeper down is more subtle, but affects most of us. This kind of moodiness digs deeper than emotions on the surface. On certain days we find ourselves in a creative mood and have the most inspired ideas. On other days, we are super productive – striking off a week’s worth of to-dos from our list. But then, there are also the days where ideas aren’t forthcoming and we are prone to procrastination.

If moodiness on the surface affects how we feel, moodiness deeper down affects what we do. To be a professional is bring our best selves to work regardless of the day.

Put them on the hook

My team once had a problem, where one member of our team kept derailing our team meetings. He would often go off on tangents during the meetings that tailspin into pointless discussions with the entire team of about 10 people in attendance.

At one point, he was assigned to be the moderator of our team meetings. I remember thinking that this move was a disaster – putting the person who most derailed our meetings in charge was like designating the naughtiest child in the class to be the class monitor.

However, I had to soon change my mind. Once given the responsibility of moderating a meeting, the teammate in question rose to the occasion and did a good job. The decision to give him the moderation duties turned out to be a masterstroke. Our meetings ended on time and they went from dreary dead ends we dreaded to productive sessions that we looked forward to.

Before writing people off, put them on the hook and give them a chance to do differently. My class monitor analogy from earlier wasn’t misplaced – teachers know this trick and employ it from time to time.

An alternative ending to The Matrix

Here’s a purported conversation that the philosopher William James had with an old lady.

‘Your theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system, and the earth is a ball which rotates around it has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it’s wrong. I’ve got a better theory,’ said the little old lady.

‘And what is that, madam?’ inquired James politely.

‘That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle.’

Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.

‘If your theory is correct, madam,” he asked, “what does this turtle stand on?’

‘You’re a very clever man, Mr. James, and that’s a very good question,’ replied the little old lady, ‘but I have an answer to it. And it’s this: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him.’

‘But what does this second turtle stand on?’ persisted James patiently.

To this, the little old lady crowed triumphantly,

‘It’s no use, Mr. James—it’s turtles all the way down.’

In the blockbuster move, The Matrix, Neo takes the red pill and enters the ‘real’ world, where he lives inside a spaceship in hiding in a post apocalyptic world. Once he has seen this world, he realizes that he has lived all his life in a computer simulation.

This movie is so popular because we can all relate to its plot. Sure, most of us might not believe that we live in a computer simulation. However, we are part of several other simulations – the world of our workplace with colleagues and hierarchies, the world of sport with elaborate make-believe games played on the international stage, the world of video games and internet porn, all of which we know aren’t real but we often find ourselves lost in.

However, here is the catch. Even after going back to the spaceship and into the real world, Neo continues to live in a simulation – one that is created by his own mind and that of the minds of the people around him. In this world as well, he faces the same struggles – of self-doubt, betrayal, jealousy, love and every other problem that he tried to escape by plugging out of the simulation.

We come to realize that every problem that we struggle against isn’t created by the world outside, but the world inside our heads. As long as our minds are with us, they create a little simulation bubble that we inhabit. It is possible to imagine a world without our minds?

Here is an alternate ending to the movie – one that would certainly have been more befitting than the movie’s lackluster sequels. In the spaceship, Nebuchadnezzar, Neo would be eventually confronted with yet another choice – red pill or blue pill?

It is matrices all the way down!

Inspiration: 21 lessons for the 21st century