The non-renewable resource

There are several things that compound with time.

Money compounds. A rupee or a Euro can be invested to bring in more. Relationships compound. One friend in a new city could lead to two, four and several more. Knowledge and skill compound. The drops we add everyday collect and combine to make us experts and professionals in the long-run.

However, time itself does not compound. One minute does not yield another minute. Instead, everything else that compounds feeds of it.

Success and acceptance

Everybody wants to bet on a winning racehorse.

Stephen King writes about how he received a string of rejections, until he became a little successful. In his own words: “One thing I’ve noticed is that when you’ve had a little success, magazines are a lot less apt to use that phrase, ‘Not for us.’”

The hard work, then, is to make that first breakthrough – to get a nose ahead in the race. And thereafter, you just have to convey that to your audience and they would willingly invest in you.

Because everybody wants to bet on a winning racehorse.

Freddie Mercury’s legacy

The best performer at the world’s biggest concert in the 80’s showed us how authenticity was overrated.

Live aid was the biggest concert of its time. On stage were Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Black Sabbath, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, The Beach Boys, Judas Priest, Elton John, Dire Straits and anybody who was anybody in the 80’s global music scene.

But one band stole the show. That band was Queen. That act was Freddie Mercury’s punctuation mark of a life lived to its fullest. He died 5 years later at the age of 45.

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Credits: Carl Lender

The movie, Bohemian Rhapsody, is a celebration of Mercury’s life and his journey with his band. It gives us a glimpse of how Freddie Mercury could hold his audience in the palm of his hand and exhilarate them to bits. From the first time he sang on stage, to the appearance at Live Aid 1985, where he thrilled more than a billion live viewers, Mercury did what it took to entertain every member of the audience. Queen guitarist Brian May wrote that Mercury could make “the last person at the back of the furthest stand in a stadium feel that he was connected”.

Behind the scenes though, behind his outrageous, crowd-pleasing antics on the stage, Freddie Mercury was a painfully shy introvert. Throughout his life, with every performance, he put on an act. He transformed himself into the world’s greatest on-stage musician to give the audience what they wanted.

What then is Freddie Mercury’s legacy?

Professionals needn’t be authentic. A true professional gets up on stage to look their audience in the eye and give them what they want. He does it day after day, month after month, with a consistency that supersedes authenticity. Being able to serve the people you wish to serve, even when you do not feel like it, is the mark of a true professional. Especially when you don’t feel like it.

After all, all the world is a stage, and we are all merely performers.

“I love the fact that I can make people happy, in any form. Even if it’s just an hour of their lives, if I can make them feel lucky or make them feel good, or bring a smile to a sour face, that to me is worthwhile.” – Freddie Mercury

Inspiration: Bohemian Rhapsody – The movie

The importance of raw materials

The finest coffee makers invest a lot of effort in getting the best coffee beans. Gourmet chocolate producers are specific about where their cocoa is grown. The best woolen sweaters are made of cashmere or merino wool, and English willow makes the best cricket bats. Ask every chef and they would tell you how the quality of their cooking depends on selecting the right raw materials. 

To produce anything is to take a collection of raw materials and put them through a process. The quality of the inputs serves as a base value. The process is a multiplying factor to get to the final quality of the output. This is why the finest producers are strategic about where they get their raw materials. 

This is as true of our understanding of the world. The input here is the information we consume.  This information combines with our thinking to form our world-view.

The need to curate our information input is more important today than ever. In the past, information was scarce and reached us through several gatekeepers – newspaper editors, book publishers and museum curators. These gatekeepers had the responsibility of controlling its quality. Today, most information that reaches us is free and spreads throughout the internet. This implies every one of us is forced to take over the role of controlling for quality, both with regard to the information that reaches us as well as what we choose to forward to our loved ones.

The key here is to be strategic about the input information, and not situational. The strategic coffee brewer invests effort in picking out her sources. The situational ones get the cheapest or the most readily available beans in the market. That is why the former is able to charge multiple times what the latter does for a cup of latte. 

Nevertheless, the information we consume is increasingly organized. Seasoned thinkers are strategic. They curate and organize this information. Everybody else is at the mercy of algorithms that might not be serving them.

No. 300

On 22 January this year, I started an experiment. I decided to write one blog post. If I enjoyed it, I would come back to write the next day. 300 days later, I have been as consistent with writing on this blog as I am with brushing my teeth.

There are few things that I perform with this level of consistency. Through this year, this blog has been an extension of my identity. It is a collection of things that caught my attention, cherished conversations I have had, as well as conversations I never had the chance to have.

I decided to open the door to this side of my person to the world. Initially, I was concerned about what the world thought. I often checked my visitor stats, even while telling myself the story that I did not care. With time though, that story has started to become true. This blog is meant to be a section of the internet that I carve for myself. I will leave the door open. But even if nobody walks in, I will continue to write.

All the same, I am grateful to the few people who do pay a visit. Since the door is open, fear is my constant companion on this stage. By doing this everyday, I have learnt more about that fear. I am more comfortable in its presence. There is fear with every post I write. There is fear as I type these words out. But that fear has been instrumental in making this blog better. It has helped make me better. So thank you. Your generous role as a reader has been invaluable.

Caring enough to do something even when nobody is watching is liberating. In this space, I can make things be what I want them to be. I can label and title the posts not so that they are clickbaits, but with titles that resonate me. It is a shame not being able to name one’s children what one wants to. 

We live in a time where anybody can carve out such a space for themselves. To do that everyday is a privilege. This blog helps me appreciate the time we live in, where anybody can create something and offer it up to the world with a click of a button.

What a time to be alive!

Don’t ask children to read the news

Whatever you focus on appears more important than it seems. This is an illusion that is a byproduct of having a human brain. 

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it. – Daniel Kahneman

The focusing illusion overrates the importance of anything we think of in a particular moment. The news has a near monopoly on what masses of people think of from moment to moment. It plays an inordinate role in determining what is important in our lives. 

Therefore, most people read or watch the news everyday. They feel that reading the news helps them become better informed citizens. Most parents see it as a healthy habit to push on their children. Most teachers see it as a must have for their pupils.

But think about it. What is on the news? Most events reported are of global importance on which the lay person has little influence over. With the internet, this dispersal has only increased. Today, I know about Ajit Pai’s Reese’s coffee mug, Elon Musk’s tiff with a British cave diver and the Chinese premier’s hatred of Winnie the Pooh. All of this is information that I have no influence over. Nor does it have much utility. 

I might be cherry picking those examples, but let us consider how news was in the past. News was traditionally hyper local. It concerned a particular town or city and whatever was noteworthy there. It had a certain bearing on the citizens that received it. In recent decades, with the spread of cable and internet news, it has lost this local relevance. What gets filtered through is simply the sensational, the entertaining, the quirky, but not necessarily the most important information. Nevertheless, due to the focusing illusion, all those things seem important to us in the moment that we read them. If this information was really important, why can’t we remember the news from a year ago, a month ago or even a week ago?

Besides, all that news comes at the cost of other reading. And there is no dearth of great literature that is handed down to us across the ages. Classics that survive through the ages pass the test of being remembered for years – the same test that news fails. 

The next time a parent or a teacher pushes children to read the news, I would urge them to think twice. With the best of intentions, they would be doing their wards a disservice.

Suggested reading: Why you should stop reading the news – Farnam Street blog

The cost of free samples

Our tour guide ended our walking tour at a sweet shop in Istanbul. No sooner than our group got there, several attendants offered us platefuls of samples – halwas made of rose, fig, almond, cashew, sesame and even chocolate, nut mixes and other savouries. We topped this off with a glass of pomegranate juice. All of this was free – a friendly gesture of the hospitality that is characteristic of Turkish culture.

You have already guessed the aftermath. Nearly everybody from the group emerged from that shop having bought bagfuls of stuff.

To sell something, is to earn somebody’s trust. One way of doing that is to offer free samples. That is what most gourmet outlets do. It also helps explain why Apple and Samsung invest in huge showrooms for people to play around with their gadgets. Numerous internet services offer a free trial period before they start charging you.

But trust isn’t the whole explanation. With free samples, there is something else at play.

When I try a sample somewhere, I always end up buying something. Having consumed a free sample in the presence of a salesperson makes it difficult to step away and not buy something. By offering a sample, the shop and the salesperson have already done me a favour. This creates some tension between us and people often purchase something to resolve this tension.

Therefore, it is important to realize that a free sample isn’t actually free. It exploits a tendency for reciprocity that is hard wired in us. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but your decision about making a purchase might be more rational before you try it out for free. 

Between the truth and being right

What outcome would you rather have from a discussion? Learning the truth, or having your beliefs validated?

In a quiz competition, or while solving a math problem, those two things coincide. There is little room for doubt. However, in the real world, things can get more complicated. The truth may lie on a spectrum, whereas only one shade of light might be visible to us.

It is useful to go into discussions with the correct intention. What are you looking for? Learning or validation?

Now consider this question: what would you rather prefer, an honest and blunt answer or a polite answer?

Given this choice, most people pick the honest answer. It probably helps to ask ourselves this question before stepping into a discussion or a debate. By doing so, we set ourselves up for listening to hard truths.

Learning to be ignored

For everything that an artist puts into the world, there is the fear of rejection. The fear that nobody would care enough, and that his work would join the pile of obscurity that most art does.

A budding artist learns to be ignored. Most greats artists have spent years in obscurity, sharpening their saw everyday. Stephen King pinned his rejected stories on the walls of his bedroom, until there was no space left. Kurt Vonnegut spent 20 years in obscurity being discovered. Vincent van Gogh was ignored all along, through his 2000 art works and until he killed himself.

It takes thousands of hours of deliberate practice to become world class at something. The audience does not have those hours to spare to applaud an artist along his way. Their lives are filled with their own challenges. Apart from cat videos, the internet has put at their disposal world class art from across the world. The art of people who are at the other end of the thousands of hours of practice. When they could listen to Diana Krall or Herbie Hancock, few people would rather listen to a musician practice.

The key then, as an artist, is to learn to play the long game. In a short game, we expect a clear result after 90 minutes. There are football managers who have achieved great success by learning to love the result. In a long game though, we learn to love the game, not the result. We learn to love the act of showing up everyday, and not the applause that ought to follow our performance.

The problem with political correctness

Back in college, I started spotting birds. I could identify more than 50 species of birds on India’s west coast.

Most of my friends could never understand this though. They saw no purpose behind learning these bird names. A bird was a bird to them. What difference did it make whether it was called a red-wattled lapwing or a racket tailed drongo?

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Red-wattled lapwing. Source: David Clode

Knowing a name is the first step towards understanding and engagement. It signifies an interest and a willingness to learn more. By calling somebody by their name, we recognize them and care enough about them. At first, I learnt the names of these birds. But later, I could identify the metallic call of a red-wattled lapwing from half a kilometer away. I also learnt that the drongos can imitate the call of more than 50 other bird species.

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Greater racket tailed drongo. Source: Praveenp

This applies equally to social problems that we care about and wish to address. The name “holocaust” brings to mind a particular dark period in history. That is certainly a start.

Political correctness is an illness of our present, touchy times. While it pretends to care about social problems, it brushes them under the carpet. It lacks the courage necessary to name, identify and engage with them.

Racism exists. But with political correctness,  but we pretend that it does not. Heck, we do not even mention another person’s race. Instead we paint every person with the colour of burying our heads in the ground.

The problem with political correctness is that it is grounded in cowardice and evasiveness. Its proponents and dictators share a common trait – a belief that a problem can be solved by denying its existence.

The “how” AND the “why”

We are more concerned with the “how”, at the neglect of the “why”.

How is a car made? How do I screw this bolt in? How is this part inspected? How do I polish the metal on the bonnet? How do I install this refrigerator? How do I operate this washing machine?

This disproportionate fixation on the “how” is a hangover of the industrial age. We needed answers in the form of manuals and standard operating procedures. And we put them everywhere – from the smallest watch to the largest refrigerator.

In fact, that is how we treated our jobs as well – with job descriptions and standard operating procedures. We wrote down how people should walk into work at 8 AM, should screw on widgets for 4 hours, should break for lunch at 12 and go home at 5 PM.

But we are moving on from this era. The best way to screw on widgets today is radically different from how it was done yesterday. Tomorrow, humans may no longer screw on widgets.

We could keep our operating manuals and our operating procedures. That is the still the quickest way to start somebody off on a new assignment. But along with the “how” in the manual, we also need to include a “why”.

How do you teach high school students?
So that they can do well on standardized tests.

Why?
Because these tests are the best measure of aptitude we have to admit them to college.

How do you cook burnt eggplant?
Expose it to direct flame on the stove for five minutes while rotating it

Why?
So that it acquires a smoky taste

Humans are creatures of habit and logic. Giving them just the “how”, recognizes only the former and doesn’t acknowledge the human ability to reason. In this manner, education has degraded to make standardized tests an end in themselves, often at the cost of imparting useful learning.

Specifying the “why” tells people the reason. It respects their logical abilities. It recognizes that in the absence of a direct flame, they could cook the eggplant in an oven to induce a smoky taste.I

In a world that is changing rapidly, people who are concerned merely with the “how” would be the first to be displaced.

A writing analogy

Writing is like stacking Jenga blocks on top of each other.

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Photo by Nathan Dumlao

The first sentence in a paragraph is the premise. Every following sentence supports, clarifies or illustrates the premise. Sentences, paragraphs, sections and chapters pile up to construct the author’s main point. It is all about stacking!

When your tower is small, it is easier to manage. It is easier to add an additional block. But when your tower is big, you have to be careful and purposeful about every additional block. A paragraph about an idea is quick and easy. Every additional paragraph requires a non-linear amount of time for it to all hold together.

The analogy runs deep. With Jenga, as with writing, you have an objective. You know how to build towards it. But you build as you go. It is more about creating a tower, and less about constructing it. There is no blueprint.

And if they both do not feel like playing a game, you are doing them wrong.

The bookstore test

In which field should you pursue your career?

This question is difficult to answer regardless of how old you are. Several of us try to avoid this question and go about our lives by pushing it to the back of our heads. But there it remains, ticking like a time bomb.

The only way to diffuse this bomb is to answer the question. And it is never too late to do it. But how do you answer it?

You could try the bookstore test. Head to a large bookstore. Once you are there, imagine that the store is closed and you are locked inside for the rest of the night. When that happens, which section of the bookstore do you head towards? Which titles does your hand reach out for?

A bookstore has limited shelf space. Its sections ought to be relevant enough to have a regular supply of titles. At your disposal are an assortment of substantial topics (worth writing a book about) that are in demand (worth putting on their shelves).

Inclination, substance and market value. Could there be better prerequisites for a field to pursue your career in?

Inspiration: Lousie Karch via What Color is Your Parachute – Richard Bolles

The case for universal health insurance

Systems flow down slopes determined by their incentives.

With insurance, the incentive is to prevent disease. Insurers make money when their clients stay out of hospitals. In Germany, where everybody has insurance, I have seen this in action. One could reduce their insurance premium through regular visits to the gym or by clocking 10,000 steps a day on a fitness tracker.

For health care providers, the opposite is true. Hospitals and doctors make money when patients walk in thorough their doors in search of a cure. Even at an unconscious level, providers are likely to push their patients towards a cure – by administering tests, recommending surgery and prescribing pills.

I am not blaming doctors and hospitals here. Nor am I praising health insurers. It is just that they are positioned on opposite ends of a road that every patient traverses. A road where prevention is better than cure. Insurers walk downhill on this road, while healthcare providers trudge uphill.

Universal health insurance makes it easier for an entire country to put prevention ahead of cure.

Between the real and the artificial

We hear often that we ought to live in the present moment. What does living in the present moment mean?

Our species evolved as tribes of hunter and gathers in the jungle, tens of thousands of years ago. Every minute of our lives, we had to pay attention to our surroundings – a rustle in the bush, some water in the horizon, a bright red berry behind the foliage, an approaching thunderstorm, the length of days, the change of seasons. Each of these events had a profound effect on our lives. It was in this backdrop that our organs, our hormones, our feelings and our behaviour evolved.

In that era, every human lived in the present moment – there was no other choice. It was a survival skill. Anybody who drifted off from the present moment was dead sooner than they could snap out of their trance. It was an era of survival of the present. Merely the present.

Therefore, paying attention to the present moment – to what was real here and now, was our natural state. We had sharp senses. Our lives were filled with excitement. However, it wasn’t all good. It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was fraught with fear and struggles. Living through every single day was a victory.

At some point, our fear got the better of us. We responded to the fear by seeking safety in in artificial constructs that distracted us from the real world. Safety in numbers. Safety in civilization. We started off by drawing in caves. With writing, we leaped forward by giving our thoughts a form that can be transmitted without losses. From one person to another. From one generation to another.

Fast forward to today – all our constructs are artificial – money, educational degrees, companies, religion, nations, the law. All these things exist only in our mind or on paper. Yuval Harari mentions how the company Peugeot, does not exist in the real world. It is simply an abstraction that exists on paper – in our minds. The moment we shred those papers, and people forget about Peugeot, it ceases to exist. A tree that we pass by on our way to work is quite different. Even if all human beings disappear, this tree would continue to stand tall and green.

We do not recognize the illusions we have created because we are steeped in them like fish in water. From masters of living and engaging with reality, we have turned into masters of simulation. Masters of verisimilitude. Think about the word verisimilitude – the appearance of being true or real. There are few words that can better describe our present state.

And yet, we all crave for the thrill of the jungle. We long to feel “alive”. We simulate this thrill in the form of computer games, sports, treks, ultra-marathons and other endeavours that fuel the thrill we once felt as we roamed the Savannah. These simulations attempt to create the thrill while avoiding the fear of living in our natural state.

But an animal removed from its natural state suffers. Sure, animals in zoos live longer in the safety of their cages. But they suffer from strange illnesses – illnesses of the mind, illnesses of the imagination. Illnesses of the lack of imagination.  The departure from their natural state makes them depressed.

We humans are condemned to dance between these two worlds – the natural one in which we have evolved and the artificial one which we have constructed.

When less is more

Ever wondered why movies often don’t live up to their books?

We are surrounded by noise. The daily news is a great example. How many of the several thousands news headlines and articles have had a significant impact on your life?

The essentialist gleans the essence from this noise. From the cryptocurrency hype, she realizes what blockchain technology means for our future. From Elon Musk’s farting unicorn, touchy diver friend and penchant for lighting joints on podcasts, she infers how fame, the limelight and a twitter account can be self-destructive.

Writers are essentialists. Stephen King talks about how writers have an advantage over film-makers in telling the same story. When portraying a character, a writer learns to supply the four of five most important details and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination. He can describe Alex as a lanky, socially awkward math genius. The readers can then fill in the gaps. They can give Alex a face, imagine what he wears and how he walks. My idea of how Harry Potter looked was quite different from yours before the movies came out. JK Rowling enrolled both of us into her creation.

This is where film-makers lose out to writers. The film-maker is forced to cast an actor and fill in all the blanks. He cannot conspire with the audience to create these characters. Thereby, he induces some noise along with the essence of the story he is portraying. Like Daniel Radcliffe’s face.

Essentialism is an craft. Writing can help you sharpen it.

When you don’t have enough time

What do you not have enough time for? For exercising regularly? For writing that book you always wanted to? For learning how to swim?

What if we reframe that statement? What if every time we say “we don’t have time for X”, we say instead, “X is not high enough on my priorities”. Because those two statements are equivalent.

How does it feel to make that substitution? Does that feel right? Or do you sense some conflict?

By stating that we don’t have enough time, we let ourselves off the hook. Somehow, it isn’t our fault anymore that we do not pursue something. Somehow, our busyness and external conditions conspire to prevent us from doing these things.

Instead, by saying something is not high enough on our priorities, we take responsibility. We recognize that it isn’t as important as we think. Or at least, we do not treat it that way. We realize that inaction is a choice we make.

Because what we do with our time is our choice. Isn’t it?

Using survivorship bias to our benefit

Everybody these days seems to have their mantra for success – ideal morning routines, the perfect breakfast, the best way to make money from cryptocurrency trading, the process to write, self-publish and market your own novel. Essentially, a tonne of motivational drivel with the following modus operandi:

  1. I have tried this and it has worked for me
  2. I am rich
  3. Let me show how it can work for you
  4. Give me your money

The survivorship bias has a good laugh at the expense of these pitches and the good folks who part with their monies.

Most ventures fail.  We only hear about the successful ones. And why they succeed is never clear. The reasons could be different from what their founders fervously believe. They could have been lucky.  Their formula might not work for people in different circumstances. And we all have different circumstances.

This comic from xkcd sums it up the best.

Survivorship Bias

Source: xkcd.com

I’ve seen quite a lot said about the survivorship bias, its drawbacks and its pitfalls. But what are its advantages?

We call some wisdom “timeless” – things that grow stronger and more prominent with the passage of time. It is telling how stoic philosophy from ancient Greece is prominent in the NFL and Silicon Valley today. The entire world has adopted yoga now.

These works are said to have stood the test of time. But what does that “test” entail? And what happens to works that fail this test?

The test of time ensures that works that are rife with survivorship bias do not make it to the next generation of readers. Nearly every generation since the invention of writing has had more stuff to read than the previous generation. The old is stamped out and replaced by the new. Nevertheless, timeless wisdom survives and grows stronger. It ages in reverse.

A work’s lifespan eliminates the noise associated with the survivorship bias. That motivational speaker who is an overnight success might sell books today. But he would most likely be gone in thirty years.

We can use the age of a particular work as a measure of its universality. In the words of Nicholas Taleb, if a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years.

This simple thumb rule encourages us to dig deeper into the past, to eliminate the noise that surrounds us in present times.

Further reading: The Lindy Effect

The things around us

One of the paradox of our digital times is that physical books sales have been on the rise.

I made the shift to digital about 5 years ago. At some point I owned no physical books. Every book I wished to read was part of my Kindle library. I could carry them anywhere. In recent times though I have started collecting physical books again. I got out and buy the best books that I read and stack them where I can see them.

Staying around these books makes me feel good. Looking at them reminds me of what they taught me. Of how they made me feel as I flipped through their pages. At times I consciously remember what I have read. At other times, they speak to my unconscious mind. Their presence influences my behaviour and my mental state. A picture or a digital copy cannot replace their physical presence.

Our surroundings give us the opportunity to be purposeful about how we decorate them. The inanimate objects on our desks and our walls pull strings in our brains – a few conscious ones and mostly unconscious ones.

Some people choose to display weapons in their house – swords, shields and guns. Some cultures celebrate the ownership and the display of weapons. By making guns widespread and easy to acquire, we reinforce their associations in our minds every single day.

What we display on our walls and our desks is a choice we can make. As individuals and as a society.

Loving the plateau

While learning a new skill, in the first few weeks there is rapid improvement with effort invested. We improve every hour, every day at a rate which we can easily perceive. This keeps us motivated.

But after a few weeks, we reach a stage where incremental improvement seems no longer as easy. This is the point where most people give up and do not push further. Some people call this the plateau. Seth Godin calls it the dip. Regardless of its name, it separates the dilettantes from the masters.

“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. 
After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” – Zen koan

The plateau can be discouraging. After months of practice, it can seem as if we are stagnant. On bad days, it can even seem like moving backwards. We maybe reasonably good at playing the guitar or at swimming. But even hours of practice does not help us break out of our mediocrity.

This feeling of discouragement and exasperation arises due to a focus on the result – on the end product. The key is to attend to the process instead. What are the nuances of a song you play on the guitar? Where are the space between the notes? Can you play it at twice the original tempo? Or at half the tempo? Can you divide your swimming strokes into its elements and learn to perfect each element – how long your arm extends, how symmetric your stroke is on both sides, how high your head breaches the water’s surface as you breathe.

As Terry Laughlin, the world-class swim coach says, when we keep at something and show up regularly, improvement happens at the cellular level.  After a certain period, this improvement consolidates and surfaces to our conscious knowledge, appearing as a leap of capability.

After hours of playing chess games, certain positions on the board seem to feel right. After hours of swimming, one day, we are able to swim a kilometer without much effort. But these leaps happen to those who embrace the process, love the plateau and keep their faith.

It happens to those who chop wood and carry water everyday.