The news and the novel

Seen one way, the news and good fiction are polar opposites.

The assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria sparked the First World War. A news article is likely to have reported how this incident happened during a car parade in Sarajevo, Serbia on 28 June, 1914 by Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old Serbian nationalist. It is likely to be a short account that includes facts around the 5 Ws – Who, What, When, Where and Why.

A historical novel about a similar fictional political assassination would go into several other details. It would dedicated a chapter to outline the political target’s life. A few other chapters would detail the political mood of the times. A further list of chapters would tell us about the assassin’s life and several other chapters would tell us whatever motivated his decision to line up along the roadside with a gun in his pocket. Even if it does not justify this violent act, a well written novel brings us closer to understanding it.

The news is all facts and no nuance. A good novel is no facts and all nuance.

Paradoxically, human truth is less about facts and more about nuance. If you wish to understand the the world better, you are better off reading good literature rather than the news.

A costly temper

How much is your peace of mind worth?

Whenever you lose your temper over something, you are valuing that something more than your peace of mind.

A colleague showing up 5 min late for a meeting, a restaurant being late with your order, a friend making a joke at your expense. Every angry fit in response to such transgressions is a decision to prioritize them over your own peace of mind.

A person with a low temper is also one who places a very small cost on their peace of mind.

However, we are all united in our ultimate goal – to seek a state of happiness and well-being. We also know that mental peace is the foremost condition for such a state. Every person, even angry ones, are striving their hardest to be at peace.

Placing a high value on your temper is the prerequisite for your happiness. There are very few things more valuable than your peace of mind.

The more important predictions

Most future predictions are answers to the question: what will change 50 years from now?

Self-driven cars, machine intelligence, lab grown meat, efficient storage of electricity, quantum computing – all of these are ‘future’ technologies that aren’t widespread today. They all represent changes from the status-quo.

Here is a more important, but less explored question for predicting the future – what will remain the same 50 years from now?

Would we continue to converse with each other with warmth? Would we maintain close familial ties? Would we be as nationalistic as we are today? Will we crave a human touch when we are sick? Would work still play a major role in our lives? Would our school system stay the same?

While predicting the future, the things that remain the same might be more boring, but are more important. With things that will change, we have little or no control. But with things that ought to remain unchanged, we have the power to choose our destiny and craft our future.

Healing by subtraction

The greatest medical contribution of the last sixty years is ‘telling people not to smoke’.

In Taking the Medicine, Druin Burch writes, “The harmful effects of smoking are roughly equivalent to the combined good ones of every medical intervention developed since the war… Getting rid of smoking provides more benefit than being able to cure people of every type of cancer.”

Ask not what you can add to your body to feel healthier. Ask what you can subtract.

Inspiration: Antifragile

Delightful exceptions

Zürich airport is unique for its observation deck, where you have a clear view of airplanes taking off and landing.

I recently visited the observation deck with my family, and a relative had come to see us off. Technically, we had to buy a ticket for the visitor. However, the employee at the counter allowed her on the observation deck for free. The ticket to the deck would have otherwise cost €5. But this small gesture from the employee and her friendly mannerism earned the airport well over ten times more goodwill than €5.

I was also at a hotel in a small Polish town on a cycling trip.

On checking in, we asked for a safe parking place for our expensive cycles. The employee at the desk let us park the cycles safely in the hotel’s conference room, given that they didn’t have any events scheduled. We spoke about this gesture several times and even ended up extending our stay for a night, partly due to this gesture.

Both these incidents have one thing in common – the customer-facing employee on the frontline was given the autonomy to accommodate special requests for guests, even if it meant straying out of the rule book. This autonomy is win-win-win. It is good for business, delights customers and results in happier employees.

The degree of autonomy your employees enjoy is the degree to which they can delight customers with a human touch.

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A tip for a less touristy trip

Touristifacation is a bane of modernity. It has turned travel into a commercial and souless activity of consumption.

To escape touristification visit a small non-descript town. The more non-descript, the better. In such towns, you don’t have to dodge tourist traps, since there won’t be any. You will be forced to read menus and make conversation in the local language, or by using somebody for translation. These ‘inconvenient’, but harmless encounters are the very essence of foreign travel.

Further, the locals are much warmer and friendlier than their urban counterparts, given that they aren’t jaded by encounters with unruly tourists. You also get to observe and experience local culture without the homogenization of the big city. If you have dietary restrictions, fret not, for you will suprisingly good restaurant options.

Modernity has turned most large cities into tourist traps. All the same, it has opened up access to small towns where you can still be a traveller rather than a tourist.

You are wiser than you think

Almost every problem in our lives can be solved by sitting in a quiet place without distraction and thinking about it for 30 minutes.

We have the wisdom to solve our own problems. The hard part is to quiet our minds, eliminate distractions and listen to the voice inside us.

Wisdom is often the ability to follow your own advice.

Fortune telling has a bright future

Reading ancient Roman history can leave you with the impression that fortune telling works.

A soothsayer informed Julius Caesar to beware of the ides of March (March 15). He was murdered on this day.

An astrologer correctly predicted that Otho, who had no familial ties to the ruling dynasty, would one day be emperor.

The emperor Domitian was predicted to meet his end at noon time. Despite the emperor’s best efforts to be on guard each day at noon, he was finally murdered at noon time.

The Roman king Hadrian was cursed by one of his opponents to “long for death but be unable to die”. In his later years, Hadrian was gripped by an illness that caused him much suffering. He tried several times to commit suicide, but each of these were discovered and foiled.

This list of accurate prophesies can go on and on. However, there is sure to be a much longer list of prophesies that did not work – a list that is lost to us, since people only talk about and record prophesies that work.

Consider a person who visits an astrologer. Say, the astrologer makes 10 predictions, of which merely 1 materializes with great accuracy. It is natural that the person tells the story (with much animation) about the 1 accurate prediction at a dinner party, whereas the other 9 are forgotten. Prophesies are asymmetric – accurate prophesies make for good stories, whereas the ones that miss their mark merely bore everyboday. Ancient Roman historians merely reinforced this asymmetry across generations to leave us with a selection of prophesies that seem deadly accurate.

The reason fortune telling is still practiced in the 21st century is merely due to our mind’s ability to hand-pick accurate predictions, while forgetting false predicitons. Despite all our scientific progress, fortune telling will continue to thrive so long as we don’t let the boring truth ruin an interesting story.

So here’s my 21st century prediction – fortune telling has a bright future.

Recommended listening: The History of Rome

To be unhackable

Security is a basic human need.

Traditionally, the biggest threats to our security were physical break-ins – burglars breaking into our house and taking away our valuables. Padlocks, burglar alarms, booby traps, CCTV, bank lockers – all of these were means to protect us from physical intrutions.

To be absolutely impregnable to physical break-ins was nigh impossible. Your house needed to be guarded against every form of physical threat in the world. Yet, there was a pragmatic solution here. Your house merely needed to be more secure than the least secure houses in your neighbourhood. As long as there were easier targets around, there is no reason a burglar would bother breaking into your place of dwelling.

Today, most of our threats are digital. A burglar would gain a lot more by breaking into my digital accounts than my house.

Here as well, to be absolutely unhackable is nigh impossible. You need to guard yourself against every possible cyberthreat. The pragmatic solution, once again, is to be more secure than the least secure computers around you. Given how insecure most people’s digital behaviours are, this is easy to achieve. All you need are a couple of simple measures and some common sense.

An attempt to be absolutely unhackable is futile. But to be relatively unhackable is easy, and it is the latter that matters.

The magic of 30 mindful minutes

When faced with a crisis, a pressing problem, a dilemma or anything else that feels mentally overwhelming, follow this procedure.

  • Set a timer for 30 minutes
  • Settle down in a quiet place
  • Eliminate all sources of interruption and distraction
  • Open a blank piece of paper (or an empty text file)
  • Think about the problem

At the end of 30 minutes, I promise that you will be surprised by how much more clearly you can see this problem.

The elegant alternative

You could move a block held between two springs by forcing the block one way or the other. Alternatively, you can subtract the tension in one of the springs.

You could lose weight by adding a hard exercise regimen to your routine. Alternatively, you can subtract the calories you consume.

You could add pressure on somebody to behave a certain way by force, nagging, harassment, pleading, and exhortion. Alternatively, you can subtract the obstacles to make the desired behaviour easier.

You could grit your teeth and preserve your focus through sheer will-power. Alternatively, you can subtract your sources of distraction.

You could become rich by adding other sources of income. Alternatively, you can be rich even with a modest income by subtracting your needs to a bare minimum.

You could cope with a disease by overpowering your symptoms with medication. Alternatively, you can subtract the factors that cause the disease.

You could stay happy by making tremendous effort to preserve and amplify your positive emotions. Alternatively, you can subtract negative emotions – the sources of your unhappiness.

Intellectual humility

Do not confuse the unintelligble with the unintelligent.

Do not confuse the inexplicable with the nonsensical.

Do not confuse the invisible with the non-existent.

Do not confuse absence of evidence with evidence of absence.

Do not confuse the unprecedented with the impossible.

Do not confuse what has always happened with the inevitable.

Inspiration: Antifragile

Generosity is unconditional

Let’s say you’re giving away your expensive road bike to a friend.

You could just say, ‘do with this bike whatever you like’. You could also impose certain conditions, ‘I’ll give you this bike if you promise to make the most of it – to ride it regularly and maintain it at least as well as I do.’ Or you could attach several strings with the act – that this friend owes you a favour in the future, and that they sing praises of your generosity.

The rule of thumb here is simple – the more terms and conditions your act involves, the less generous it becomes.

Generosity is the act of giving something away without expecting something in return. The higher the expectation, the more compromised the generosity.

A bicycle for the mind

Steve Jobs called the computer a ‘bicycle for the mind’.

A computer is a bicycle for the mind given how it multiplies our intelligence. Yet, a bicycle is all but useless in the absence of a well-paved road. If you’re being chased by an elephant on the Serengeti shrub, a bicycle is useless.

For a computer to be useful, we need roads. Making computers is only a tiny part of the IT industry. Operating systems, programming languages, the internet, cybersecurity, email, e-commerce, touchscreens, artificial intelligence – the computer needs an enormous ecosystem for its potential to be realized.

Every innovation that hits the market isn’t a lost opportunity. Instead, it often creates the need for a whole new ecosystem to be built around it. The more we innovate, the more there is to innovate.

Inclusive retrospectives

A periodic retrospective meeting is invaluable for any team. In a retrospective, team members reflect on a phase of work, amplify what worked well and voice out issues that affected them. The team then collectively brainstorms solutions to these issues.

In such a meeting however, time is a constraint – there are often more points to discuss than the time available.

One way to resolve this is by using democratic voting. The team votes for issues that most people deem important. It then discusses these issues at the expsense of the ones with fewer votes. On the surface, this seems like a sound approach – the team’s precious meeting time is used to discuss matters that affect most people present. The flipside here is that if an issue only affects one or two of its members, this issue could go unaddressed for weeks, even if it is of critical importance to them. Further, if one member has an issue that only affects them, they are unlikely to bring it up, considering how nobody else is affected. This is particularly problematic for new entrants to the team.

Therefore, in our retrospective meetings, we need to replace voting with ‘share of voice’ – to ensure that everybody gets an equal opportunity to voice issues they deem important, regardless of how important others perceive them.

At our workplaces, inclusion is paramount. Therefore, giving everybody a voice should take precedence over a democratic vote.

‘I’ll get to it when I need it’

A regular exercise routine prevents sickness. However, a sick person cannot start an exercise routine.

A sound investment strategy helps you withstand a crisis. However, you cannot start saving when you are in the midst of a crisis.

A good meditation practice makes you resilient to stress. However, when a person under tremendous stress is unlikely to find the mental space to start a meditation practice.

A just-in-time approach doesn’t always work. Especially not with habits that are important, but not urgent. These habits are the ones you need to cultivate when the going is good – well before you need them.

Fandom is one-sided

Creators such as artists, authors, and even philosophers are better off having a small number of fanatic followers rather than thousands of people who merely appreciate their work.

Fandom brings with it an asymmetry. There is no opposite of buying a book or commissioning a piece of art. Anybody who adores your work can do much more for you than you than somebody who doesn’t like your work. True fans will spend good money for your work, sing its praises and tell their friends. The worst that somebody who doesn’t like your work can usually do is to ignore it, but that doesn’t hurt you much.

The word ‘fan’ has its roots in the word fanatic. Kevin Kelly wrote about how having a thousand true fans can help individual creators work full time on their creations and earn a respectable income.

The number of people who adore your work count. The number of people who dislike it don’t count. You are better off delighting a select minority even at the cost of displeasing the vast majority.

Inspiration: Antifragile

Reject with humility

After an hour-long interview, here’s one way to reject this candidate.

‘Based on our interview, she lacks the skills and the aptitude required for this position.’

This rejection is problematic because it assumes that you can judge the skills and the aptitude of a candidate in a one-hour interaction. Here’s an alternative that is more accurate.

‘Based on our interview, I am not confident that she is a good fit for this position.’

The difference is subtle, but significant.

Our recruitment processes aren’t accurate – most processes are only slightly better than pure chance. We need to have the humility to accept this inaccuracy. Further, this humility ought to reflect in the tone and the choice of our words.

Status vs. virtue

A course of action can be both virtuous and give us status. It is worth teasing the two apart.

Status is always granted by other people – it is extrinsic. In the absence of others, there is no status to be earned. Virtue is intrinsic. A virtuous act is performed whether or not it is approved by the people around.

Status isn’t necessary moral. A rich or powerful, but unethical person can enjoy high status. Virtue is invariably moral. An act that is virtuous cannot be immoral.

Status is a zero-sum game. For some people to be high status, others have to be low status. Virtue is a positive sum game. An entire society can be virtuous.

Status is possessed – a person has status. Virtue is embodied – a person is virtuous.

Habit stacking

It is hard to put a baby to sleep at night. This can be made easier by giving the baby a warm bath just before bedtime every evening.

It is hard to meditate regularly. This can be made easier by meditating as soon as you wake up each morning.

It is hard to read regularly. This can be made easier by combining reading with a daily commute.

Bulding new habits is hard. This can be made easier by stacking them on habits that already exist.

Inpsiration: Atomic Habits