The best or the master?

He is a good guitarist.

He is a better guitarist than the other band’s.

He is the best guitarist in town.

Being the best is always subject to comparison. But the moment we move away from mathematical measurement, comparison is always flawed. Therefore, best is a compromise, an approximation. Even an illusion. He is the best guitarist on what basis? There is never an objective answer.

She is a novice programmer.

She is an intermediate programmer.

She is a master programmer.

We don’t say somebody is a master compared to somebody else. Mastery stands on its own and in its own right. The same town has room for several master programmers, because each is a master in their own right.

Would you rather be the best or the master?

After you

A few months ago, I bought a single speed bicycle – one without gears.

Given Berlin is a flat city, this isn’t a problem at all. But I park my cycle in the office basement, which has a steep ramp. This ramp is difficult to climb on a gearless cycle. I tried my best – I went in with a good headstart, I stood up on the ramp, I zigzagged through it, but failed every time.

One day, I saw my colleague with another single-speed bike successfully climb this ramp. The next time, I decided to just follow him. I rode my bike behind him as he powered through the steep incline. And to my utter surprise, I could do it too. I cycled reached the top of the ramp before I knew how I did this. And ever since, I have succeeded in climbing that ramp every single time – even by myself.

When we perform a task with somebody who is better than us, some of their skill magically rubs off on us. This magic is what we call inspiration.

Uncomfortable, but safe

Yoga maximises our ability to stretch, while minimizing the risk of injury.

To stretch feels uncomfortable. But this discomfort is beneficial, thanks to this asymmetry of maximising flexibility while minimising the risk of injury.

Antifragility is the combination of high upside with low downside. Antifragile things get stronger when stressors are applied. Much like a body gets stronger under the stress of yogasanas.

Certain forms of discomfort help us grow rapidly. However, with discomfort also comes the risk of failure, injury or crisis. The key is to use the asymmetry – to find situations that help us grow, but are still safe enough to try.

Comfort often comes at the cost of growth. Discomfort isn’t the same as risk.

It isn’t about us

We consider our work a reflection of our own worth, and make it a part of our identity.

But this is a recipe for self-consciousness. And a self-conscious worker is usually sub par. A self-conscious speaker on stage, a self-conscious surgeon at an operating table and even a self-concious software developer will not deliver their best work, because of part of their efforts that are directed towards being self-conscious.

The remedy is to not make our work about ourselves, but about other people – the people we seek to help, to serve and to benefit through our work.

If every public speaker thought less about ‘how do I appear on stage’, and more about ‘how can I help somebody in the audience’, they would find the task a lot easier and speak better.

Generosity is the remedy to being self-conscious.

I’ve ordered good weather

If we have a big picnic planned on Saturday, we care about the weather. We talk about it, fret about it and will it into being a pleasant day. But we all know that the weather does what the weather does anyway. No measure of hoping, praying and willing will result in anything otherwise.

It is easy for us to see that trying to control the weather is absurd. But what about other factors we don’t control? What about the success of our product’s launch? What about the feedback from our boss? What about the approval of a friend? How much do we control those things?

It is easier for us to accept things we have absolutely no control over. But with things we partly control, it is also easy for us to overestimate our influence.

Inspiration: The Practice

What part of your work should ChatGPT do?

‘Write a shell script to take a string of comma separated words as an input, separate them with comma as the separator, trim them, and output them as a long string with ‘–flag ‘ preceeding each word.’

I gave ChatGPT the prompt above, and in 10 seconds, I had the perfect algorithm to solve this problem.

I had written that algorithm the week before, and it took more two hours to figure it out on my own, with lots of help from search engines and Stack Overflow. Also, ChatGPT’s solution made precisely the same choices that I had made, and it had better variable names.

What does this mean for my work?

Well, in the hours I spent figuring out this algorithm, I learnt a bunch of commands and how they are used. I learnt that ‘IFS’ stands for ‘Internal Field Separator’, and can be used to set any character as a delimiter. I learnt the syntax for for-loops and trimming whitespace characters in the Bash scripting language. Had I used ChatGPT, I would have merely copy-pasted the solution, verified that it worked and moved on.

On the one hand, I ‘wasted’ two hours by writing this algorithm on my own. On the other, I ‘invested’ those two hours in learning more about shell scripting works. Which of these is the truth? That depends on what I wish to do. If I wish to master shell scripting, outsourcing this work to ChatGPT is a missed opportunity. If I merely wanted to write a script and didn’t care about how it was done, ChatGPT is a wonderful assistant.

This leads us to a broader question in the face of smarter AI: what part of our work do we perform for its own sake, because it enriches us and sparks joy? Let us keep that part human. With what part of our work do we care more about the outcome rather than the process? Let us outsource that to AI.

Here is ChatGPT’s solution, in case you are interested:

# Input string of comma separated words
# Convert input string to array
IFS=',' read -ra words <<< "$input"
# Trim each word and add '--flag ' before it
for word in "${words[@]}"; do
trimmed_word="$(echo -e "${word}" | sed -e 's/^[[:space:]]//' -e 's/[[:space:]]$//')"
output+="--flag ${trimmed_word} "
# Output the result
echo "$output"

Hand over your laptops immediately

My wife’s colleague was laid off and asked to hand over her laptop on the very same day.

She was being laid off for no fault of hers – it was a business decision. Yet, she felt bad that she had to leave her project midway. She felt bad that she was forced do do something unprofessional. She was made to feel as though she had done something wrong.

‘We are sorry to let you go for no fault of yours. This was a business decision entirely. However, hand over your laptop and leave the premises immediately.’

This is how most layoffs happen. But the contradiction is jarring. If your layoff was a business decision, why are the people affected treated like criminals soon afterwards? Why are they being asked to submit their laptops on the same day. Or even worse – why revoke their access rights in the middle of the night?

These management decisions probably stem from fear that a laidoff employee could extract revenge on their employer. They are perhaps intended to protect their company. However, the signal it sends to other employees is how management views them as vindictive and unprofessional. It sends them a signal that the emplyoer views them with inherent distrust. This manner of laying off employees hurt companies more than protecting them.

We are going through a period of mass layoffs, where most people are being fired for reasons outside of their control. Some of these layoffs might have been inevitable. But when they do happen, can companies behave with the same professionalism that they expect of their employees? Can we remember that we are laying off people rather than human resources?

The dominant emotions in a layoff (as opposed to a dissmissal) ought to be regret and gratitude, both of which are incompatible with suspicion.


At some point, the world agreed to ban the development and testing of nuclear weapons. But only partially.

In 1963, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty, that banned the testing of all nuclear weapons everywhere except for testing underground. Since then, 123 other states have become party to the treaty

The reason? Testing nuclear weapons on air, land and in space could easily be monitored by other countries. Underground testing was hard to detect, and therefore, a ban on underground testing would be hard to enforce.

This treaty was expected to slow-down the development and testing of nuclear weapons. However, the testing merely went ‘underground’. From 1963, 1,500 nuclear bombs were detonated – that is roughly one a week, for 30 years. The thinking was if you only tested underground, you better test extensively, so as to not fall behind other nuclear powers.

Source: Veritasium

Notice how the number of detonations multiplied after the test ban treaty. By the mid-1980s, 70,000 nuclear warheads had been developed.

It is true that the Partial Test Ban Treaty helped the world by substantially reducing the concentration of radioactive particles in the atmosphere. However, its partial nature also catalysed the proliferation of nuclear war-heads to astronomical levels.

While a half-measure seem like a good compromise, they often leave the back-door open for unintended consequences that can leave us all worse off.

Inspiration: Veritasium

Our infinite capacity

On the days when I work from home, I merely have to unplug my personal laptop, and plug in my work laptop.

Yet, there are days when I have noticed my mind getting frustrated by this microscopic inconvenience. A tiny part of my mind craves for a setup where I wouldn’t even have to lift a finger.

Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Uber: these gynormous corporations are all merchants of convenience. Their size is testament to our mind’s capacity to fight against inconvenience.

Our mind’s capacity for frustration is infinite.

Measure of success

More than 2000 years ago, the stoics recognized how we ought to not be affected by things we don’t control.

Yet, only too often, we measure success based on things that aren’t in our control. An admission to a famous college, working for a dream employer, annual revenue targets, the likes on our social media profiles – we aren’t in control of any of those outcomes. Sure, those things can be goals we strive toward. But our idea of success need to be decoupled from goals that we don’t control. As Seth Godin tells us, if we measure success based on things we don’t control, we are likely to burnout.

We do not control outputs, but we do control the inputs. We do not control outcomes, but we are in control of our practice.

Success is in merely the dedication, the rigour and the consistency with which we show up to our challenges. The Bhagavad Gita, another ancient fount of wisdom, already told us so. 2000 years later, we still struggle to put this into practice.

To give up. To let go

We give up a battle. We let go when there is no battle.

We give up in defeat. We let go in peace.

We give up desire. We let go of attachment.

We give up in abstinence. We let go with equanimity.

We give up in tolerance. We let go with respect.

We give up in inadequacy. We let go in contentment.

We give up what we have. We let go of what we are.

To give up is discipline. To let go is freedom.

To give up is to sacrifice. To let go is to love.

60 cents from a young girl

The Statue of Liberty almost didn’t happen.

When the statue was conceived, it was agreed that the French pay for the statue, and the people of the US pay for the pedestal. However, fundraising in the US proved difficult in the late 1800s and the construction of the pedestal was halted due to lack of funds.

Joseph Pulitzer (of Pulitzer prize fame) then started a donation drive. Pulitzer published New York World, a New York newspaper, and pledged to print the name of every contributor, no matter how small the amount. His notes sparked my imagination along with that of thousands of New Yorkers.

60 cents from “a young girl alone in the world”, the result of self denial.

“Five cents as a poor office boy’s mite toward the Pedestal Fund”.

A group of children sent a dollar from “the money they saved to go to the circus”.

A dollar from a “lonely and very aged woman.”

A kindergarten class in Davenport, Iowa, mailed the World a gift of $1.35.

As you can imagine, the donations poured in and the pedestal’s construction resumed.

We know the Statue of Liberty to a symbol that welcomed immigrants and refugees to the free shores of the US. But given that its origin story, it is also a monument to ordinary people everywhere, who sacrifice on the behalf of something larger than own selves.

Statue of Liberty, New York

Disney doesn’t make art

Art and popularity are at odds with each other.

Popularity rises when something is familiar. Disney movies are popular because they rehash familiar themes. Damsels in distress, a commoner winning a princess’ heart, a hero fighting monsters, monsters turning into heroes and interpretations of fairy tales. Sure, Disney is exceptional. However, it stands for exceptional celebration of the status-quo.

Art is not meant to celebrate the status-quo. It is meant to question the status-quo, tear it down and build something new. Once that new movement is the norm, art moves on to tear down something else. Art is the process of creative destruction. Artistic movements aren’t popular because they make most people feel uncomfortable. Once a movement is popular, it gradually stops becoming art.

Disney movies have never questioned traditional views on race, gender roles or sexual identity until recently, when those questions have turned mainstream. Artists have always raised those uncomforatable questions.

Accomplished artists have a hard time choosing between their art and mainstream popularity because that which is popular is usually not art, and thatwhich is art is usually not popular.


The game of chess is centered around the idea of ‘inevitability’.

In chess, quite early in the game, one player can often have a slight advantage – say an extra pawn. From there onwards, if both players play correctly for the rest of the game, it is inevitable that the person with the extra pawn wins the game. As the game develops, this slight advantage multiplies until it overwhelms the opponent.

The player with the advantage seeks to maintain the status-quo – to play predictable moves and avoid surprises. The player with the disadvantage tries to shake things up. Since they are losing by default, they play moves that are unusual and can surprise their opponent.

This idea also has real-life implications. A startup might be default-alive or default-dead. In the absence of additional  funding, if the startup can survive on its profits, it is default-alive. Else, it is default dead. Startups that are default-alive are fine even if they maintain the status-quo. Startups that are default-dead are forced to shift the status-quo via explosive growth or a pivot.

We can extend this to every idea, habit or routine we have nurtured. Which of our current practices serve us well in the long-run? Those are the ones to sustain. Which ones serve us less? Those are the ones where we need to shake things up.

Loaded questions

‘I haven’t finished the task yet.’ ‘Why are you so slow?’

A loaded question is judgement in the guise of a question.

On the surface, a question appears to indicate curiousity. But a question that implies a judgement judgement often doesn’t move us forward. It shuts down conversation and erects defensive walls.

Judgement and curiousity cannot co-exist, and it is judgement that crowds out curiosity rather than the other way around.

Watch out for loaded questions – both when you pose them as well as receive them.

What if Gutenburg didn’t invent the printing press?

Both Newton and Leibniz invented calculus.

Both Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace discovered the theory of evolution.

Oxygen was discovered simultaneously by Joseph Priestly and Carl Wilhelm Schlee.

Two Frenchmen invented colour photography in the same year.

Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray, both filed a patent for the telephone on the same day – 14 February, 1876.

At least 13 inventors other than Thomas Edison filed a patent for a glowing filament in a bulb of glass.

So if Johannes Gutenberg didn’t invent movable type printing, we would still have books because somebody else would have.

Most inventions are inevitable products of their time – an inventor mainly gets to put their stamp on it first. This isn’t to take anything away from inventors – they were all brilliant people. But the world has never been short of brilliant people.

If we have a good idea, chances are that it isn’t original. We are all better off sharing it with the world and finding the others rather than keeping it a secret.

Can ChatGPT write this blog?

‘Write me a blogpost about how AI can be used to generate blogposts.’

ChatGPT is all the rave in the last couple of months. If you gave ChatGPT this prompt, odds are that you will end up with a good blogpost.

But what makes a blogpost ‘good’? What is it for? Is it to filling space on a website? Is it for driving traffic? Is it to say something interesting? Or is it to inspire a change?

When I write a blogpost, I wrestle with an idea and examine it critically. The idea changes in my mind as I explore it. But more importantly, my own mind changes. Every post I write rewires my mind a little. And through this process, I also hope to change the reader’s mind.

I could end up with an AI generated post that is more interesting and more engaging than my own post. But doing so doesn’t change my mind very much. It is the practice of writing one on my own that brings about change. In fact, that is the very point of this blog. Regardless of how good AI becomes, it will change little in how I show up to my blog.

If the work we do is to fill space or drive traffic, chances are that AI will disrupt it. Yet, it is unlikely to disrupt the work we do to change the culture.

The opposite is also true

We all have great ideas sometimes.

People with a scarcity mindset believe good ideas are rare, and they need to be hoarded. When one such person has a fantastic idea, they will protect it and keep it a secret. But since their idea isn’t exposed to the world outside, they receive no feedback. No community builds around it, and this idea doesn’t multiply or gain traction since it isn’t shared. This only confirms their belief that great ideas are rare.

People with an abundance mindset believe that good ideas are aplenty, and they need to be shared. Such a person will share good idea with the world. The world responds either by ignoring it, or by grooving with it, sharing it and improving it. A community builds around this idea. It merges with other ideas to give birth to new ones. It is only a matter of time before the same person has another great idea.

It is true that great ideas are rare. It is also true that they are abundant. You get to choose.

Why is the Mona Lisa famous?

The Mona Lisa is the world’s most famous painting. Wikipedia calls it ‘the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about and the most parodied work of art in the world’. Several people flock to Paris just to see it, but are underwhelmed when they look at the picture.

Why are they underwhelmed?

Because the Mona Lisa is merely another just another painting, like the thousand others in art galleries around the world. Hardly anybody knew about this rather unremarkable work of Leonardo da Vinci the until 1914, when it became world-famous almost overnight.

Why did this happen? People have various theories as to why it captures our attention – its mysterious smile, its composition, subtlety and the genius of its creator. However, the real reason is because it was the victim of theft.

See adjacent text.

In 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre by Vincenzo Peruggia, a Louvre employee, who whisked it away inside his overcoat. But Peruggia wasn’t just another thief – he was an Italian patriot, who wanted the painting returned to his country. He kept the painting for 2 years until it was discovered and returned to the Louvre. Peruggia serve a short prison sentence, but was hailed as a model patriot in an era of patriotic fever.

More importantly, the painting’s recovery and the story of its theft was reported world-wide in newspapers, at a time when international news was not common. Millions of people around the world learnt about this painting, making it one of the best recognized works of art. It was this recognition that allowed the painting to be parodied and eventually made it the world’s most famous painting.

“The Mona Lisa has returned”

So the world’s most famous painting isn’t a remarkable painting – it merely has a remarkable story that most people who flock to visit it are unaware of. They are underwhelmed because they look at the painting rather than its story, and leave disappointed.

We often confuse fame with excellence or goodness, but the reasons for fame are often orthogonal to those qualities. That is why the pursuit of fame, like the pursuit of Mona Lisa, often leaves people feeling disappointed when they get there.