Dancing with aggression

To swim in turbulent ocean waters, the swimmer needs to be relaxed. The more turbulent the waters, the more relaxed the swimmer needs to be.

To outlast a storm, the stem of a plant needs to be nimble. The fiercer a storm rages, the more nimble the stem must be.

A Judo fighter softens when an opponent pushes in hard at them. They move into empty space and use their opponent’s momentum against them.

In a game of chess, an opponent playing aggressive and hasty moves is likely to blunder soon. You just ought to wait and watch for the weaknesses they leave behind.

When we are met with aggression, our automatic response is to tense up and confront it. Instead, we can train ourselves to relax, dance with the aggression and harness it.

The incomplete motto

One popular motto of our times is ‘Work hard. Party harder’.

We live in an era where it has never been easier for a young commoner to turn into a billionaire – one where that motto fits right in.

But ours is also an era with the highest rates of overwork and burnout. Even as we celebrate the rare unicorn entrepreneur, most of her burnt-out peers are neglected. Even as we cherish ambition, passion, hustling, sprinting and successful Series B’s, the periods of rest and recovery that enables us to do all of that is neglected.

That motto of our times is incomplete. It ought to read, ‘Work hard. Party harder. Sleep hardest.’

Reward the troubleshooters

Say you are on a boat with 10 people. You then notice that the boat has developed a leak and water is trickling in. Now even as most of you busy yourselves throwing pails of water overboard, somebody ought to find the leak and fix it.

In large organizations, it is easy to lose sight of this simple truth. I once worked with a manager who I thought was great at damage control. Regardless of the crises that raged on the project, he kept his calm and routinely looked for the best way to salvage the situation. With time, I realized that his projects always had raging crises and he was perpetually on damage control mode. I then realized that this manager was great at handling crises, but poor at preventing them. He was great at ordering his team to throw pails of water overboard, but poor at helping them finding the leak.

As organizations grow larger and more complex, they go from rewarding people who find and fix problems to the ones who are busy working long hours playing whack-a-mole with the crises that keep popping up. As leaders it is your job to prevent this from happening.

Crises are inevitable, and the occasional damage control is a necessity. But if crisis is the norm in your team, you are probably rewarding the busy damage control folks while neglecting the troubleshooters.

As if it were a game

The mark of an expert is to make something look easier than it is.

When a developer quickly scraps a script together, it appears as though she is playing with her keyboard. And when she hits the play button, something magical happens on the screen. And yet, when ‘non-tech’ people try to copy a tab from one Excel sheet to another, it feels like drudgery.

When a sales person approaches a customer, he treats it like a game. He makes his move and observes how the customer responds. He changes his tactics as needed. At the end of the meeting, he has clear feedback on whether he is closer to a sale or not. But for people who don’t like sales, even striking up a casual conversation with a stranger feels like a massive burden.

What feels like play to an expert, feels like work to everybody else.

But what if we flipped things around? What if we thought of work as play? What if we decided that every task on the computer was a riddle to solve? What if we considered every sale with a customer a two-player game? Would that change the way we approach them?

Revisiting a story from the Mahabharata

One of the Mahabharata’s famous stories is that of the invincible archer Arjuna shooting the eye of a parrot.

In an archery lesson, the guru of the Pandavas, Drona, had hung a wooden parrot on a faraway tree. He then asked his students to take aim at the parrot’s eye. The eldest among his students, Yudhistira, stepped forward and took aim. Drona then asked him what he saw. Yudhisthira replied that he saw the parrot, the branches and their leaves. Drona asked him to back away, confident that he would miss. Most of his other students provided similar replies, and Drona didn’t let them waste a precious arrow in the wilderness.

It was then Arjuna’s turn. When he took aim, Drona asked him the same question. Arjuna’s response was that he saw the eye of the parrot. Drona then asked him if he saw anything other than the bird’s eye – the trees, its leaves and its branches. Arjuna replied that he only saw the eye of the parrot and nothing else. Reassured, Drona asked him to fire his arrow, and as it often happens in these stories, the arrow landed right on the bird’s eye.

Indian children learn this story to understand the value of focusing on a goal. It is more interesting to look one level deeper. How could Arjuna focus only the bird’s eye even as his peers had a panoramic view of the scene?

The reason here is that Arjuna was a seasoned archer. He had practiced drawing the bow, looking at his surroundings and taking aim thousands of time so that all of these routines were unconscious in his head. This freed up his conscious mind to focus on merely what was most important – the bird’s eye. Since the other students had not invested the same amount of practice, when they stepped forth to take aim, their conscious mind was burdened with several other tasks. This prevented them from having the same amount of laser focus.

At any given point in time, there is one thing that is most crucial and requires all of your attention. When a footballer steps up to take a free kick, he ought to be laser focused on the corner of the goal post. The actions of taking a run up, stepping forward and sweeping his foot below the ball should be automatic. When a politician addresses a press conference after a national crisis, her conscious mind ought to attend merely to the sentiment she expresses in her reply. Her tone, her facial expressions and even the words she uses ought to be automatic.

We all know that the key to mastering any skill is to focus on the bird’s eye. What is implicit here is the arsenal of automatic routines that need to be practiced over and over to enable this focus.

Related post: How batsmen slow time down (and so can you)

Skills that aren’t ‘soft’

What kind of skills do you need in your white collar job?

If you’re at the entry level, you need ‘hard skills’ such as accounting, content writing, web designing and programming. Most of these skills are recent ones considering the arc of human progress.

As you climb the ladder, you need more ‘soft skills’ such as presenting, public speaking and listening. These timeless skills have been around, in one form or the other, for all of human history. And yet, we call them ‘soft skills’.

As Seth Godin says, the term ‘soft skills’ is misplaced. Why don’t we call them real skills, or leadership skills instead?


Magnifying glass moments

As a little child, I was awestruck the first time I used a magnifying glass to burn a hole in a piece of paper.

How do diminutive mothers lift cars off their children? In that time of crisis, every muscle fiber in her body is focused towards rescuing her offspring.

We all have experienced rare afternoons of unwavering focus when an entire week’s worth of work gets done. And then there are weeks where even an afternoon’s work doesn’t get done.

Focus works miracles.

Scarcity and its ironies

A dear friend and I once spotted a starling flitting around in the grass. On looking at its glistening wings, my friend remarked – ‘these birds would be magnificent if they weren’t so common’.

blue and green bird on white textile
Image credit

His words hint at one of scarcity’s several ironies. A bird whose feathers glow with a multicoloured metallic sheen is magnificent. And yet, common starlings aren’t what most birders include in their ‘magnificent’ lists.

Even as a bird loses its majesty by being too common, rare objects can attain astronomical value despite being defective. A US penny from 1969 that was mistakenly struck twice is worth around $75,000. The manner in which a defect multiplies a coin’s value a million fold is another of scarcity’s ironies

Our mind’s affinity towards scarce bits of metal comes from a mental shortcut – if it is scarce, it must be valuable. This shortcut is often true, and serves us well in several situations. Knowing a rare craft or wielding a rare instrument lets you charge a premium. Like most mental shortcuts though, this tendency also leaves the door open for manipulation.

Real-estate agents wield scarcity only too well. When an agent encounters a particularly indecisive customer, she would inform him of a wealthy buyer (‘an out of state businessman buying for tax purposes’) paying a visit the next day. Given this news, the fence sitter who had deferred a decision for six months comes up with the money within 6 hours. The agents refer to this tactic as goosing ’em off the fence.

As deadly as scarcity might seem in the wrong hands, one can defend against it. Scarcity is a state of mind. If we aren’t collectors, that double struck coin being auctioned for $70,000 would hold no sway over our purse strings. If we aren’t desperate to purchase a house, no fictitious tax evader can rattle our resolve. The party who wants the deal the least has the most leverage in any negotiation. There goes another one of scarcity’s delicious ironies.

From diamonds to defective dimes, much of what is sold as scarce is artificial. To see through this subterfuge is to discern what is truly scarce from something that is merely a scare.

The internet as an anti-library

Professor Umberto Eco had a huge library (with more than 30,000 books) that several of his visitors admired.

Based on their remarks, he divided his visitors into two categories. The first type  would look at the library and ask him how many of those books he has read. The second type – a small minority – understood that the library wasn’t to boost one’s ego, but a valuable research tool. They realized that the books that weren’t read were more valuable than the ones that were already read and digested.

When you own a library of 30 books, you have probably read all of them. When you have 30,000 books, knowing which book you need to read next and where to find it is more valuable than the mere number of books you have read.

Fortunately, we all live in a world where our digital libraries are lined up with an excess of 30 million books – more than any human can ever hope to read.

Enormous numbers put things in perspective. The internet has demonstrated that deciding which book to read and where to find it is a far more valuable skill to develop than the ability to wolf down book after book on a reading list.

Inspiration: Umberto Eco’s anti-library

Two approaches towards fighting procrastination

There are two ways to irrigate a field from a nearby river.

The quickest way is to install a pump. But pumping water is hard work. You have to work against the will of water, and this needs external power. The overall quantity of water you can harness this way is quite small.

The harder but more effective way is to build a canal to divert water to your field. A canal harnesses the river’s own flow. It merely changes the environment to direct a small part of this flow towards your field.

You can adopt two approaches to overcome procrastination. You can force your way through it using your will-power, like pumping water. This may work for short spurts, but it is mentally draining. Will-power is an exhaustible resource.

The alternative is to to build canals – to tailor your environment and remove obstacles from getting in your way of doing work that matters most to you. This requires more planning and discipline, but you can reap the rewards of your efforts for as long as the river flows.

Liberating the angel

Michaelangelo once said, ‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.’

All of us are born with a kernel that is a true expression of our self. Our work is to carve the marble – to get everything else out of the way so that self-expression can shine through unobstructed.

Master the rules before breaking them

Most abstract painters such as Picasso and Dali had mastered the brushstrokes of life-like classical painting before departing from its rules to create their own styles.

Most jazz musicians like Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong were trained in the theory of rigid classical music before they could create their own signature improvisation styles.

Meaningful creativity requires a mastery of fundamental constructs before deciding to depart them. Once you know the jungle well enough, you can discard the map and trace out your own paths.

Versatility vs. Constraints

Bathtubs are more versatile than shower cubicles. But that doesn’t make them better.

A bathtub lets you luxuriate in a therapeutic bath of fragrant oils and Epsom salts on a languid afternoon. With a shower curtain, it also lets you take a daily 10 minute shower. It seems to offer the best of both worlds.

Yet this versatility comes with trade-offs. A bathtub is designed for lying down. Showering upright on its contoured enamel surface is the perfect recipe for a bathroom accident. While bathtubs are designed to be perfect for the rare glamourous bath, they are less suitable for the routine daily shower.

Shower cubicles come with constraints – you cannot bathe in them. But this constraint helps them do one thing really well. Versatile bathtubs are designed for the rare edge case, while shower cubicles are perfect for everyday use.

Many of our purchase decisions are driven by putting the edge case ahead of the essential: cameras with too much zoom, cars with 4-wheel-drive, amplifiers with too much distortion and PCs with insane processing speed.

Versatility often leads to trade offs and dilution just as constrains can help us focus on the essential.

Prisoners of habit

The Shawshank Redemption is one of my favourite movies, and Brooks Hatlen is one of its several interesting characters.

In the movie, Brooks is an aged prisoner at the Shawshank State Penitentiary. After 50 years of incarceration, Brooks is paroled, provided a house and a job in a supermarket. However, Brooks is unable to settle into his new routine. In a few months Brooks takes his own life in desperation. He was too used to prison life and could not adapt to the outside world. He had become ‘institutionalized’. Although Brooks was granted freedom, he still remained a prisoner of prison life.

The character of Brooks Hatlen illustrates how we are bound to our habits with a force greater than our craving for freedom. Brooks’ story also demonstrates how we can be just as attached to habits that don’t necessarily serve us. American prisons are hellholes, but that doesn’t prevent the human mind from getting attached to life within their confines.

We are all prisoners of the way we do things everyday. If our manners are sloppy, we are prisoners of sloppiness. If we are constantly late, we are prisoners of tardiness. If fast food and cola is our staple, we are prisoners of McDonald’s and Coca Cola.

‘Institutionalization’ is merely a fancy word for habituation. We are our habits, regardless of whether they serve our long-term interest. When taken too far, we value their sustenance ahead of life itself.

All the way down to the 0s and the 1s

Whatever is happening on your computer screen manifests in several levels.

On the most superficial level is the application that is currently running. If you have an Excel file open, the computer renders it on your screen.

If this excel file is slow and laggy, you check if it has too much data or is performing too many calculations. You then check if the computer is performing other tasks in parallel – perhaps a file transfer or a full system virus scan.

If this isn’t the case, you press Control + Alt + Delete to find out if background processes are consuming too much of your ram. You check if that innocuous looking Google Chrome window has spun up 15 processes that are monopolizing your RAM.

Usually, people stop their forensic analysis here and restart their computer. One level deeper are the .dll files that your applications invoke and the lines of code they hold. The better this code is, the more efficient your programs are. And it is a couple of more layers down until we go all the way down to 1s and 0s.

Your mental processor also manifests in several layers.

While riding the bus to work, you might find yourself getting irritated with the person beside you who has loud hip-hop music spilling out of his headphones. Digging deeper, you realize that your bus is running 10 minutes late, delaying you for an important meeting.

A layer deeper, and you realize you have a hectic week ahead with several conflicting deadlines. You feel overwhelmed just thinking about them. What’s more? Those projects are crucial for your upcoming annual appraisal. Several layers further, you unearth the incredible parental and peer pressure that pushes you to pursue an ambitious career path. All these layers play their part in the irritation you feel towards the co-passenger grooving in the seat next to you.

Mastery in computer science starts with operating a computer on the surface, but goes all the way down to 1s and 0s. Self awareness starts with what you feel on the surface, but goes down the several layers that simulate our conscious experience.

If information were the answer

A good quiz question works like a riddle. It makes people feel as if the answer were at the tip of their tongue and teases them into thinking harder. If the answer is either too obvious or too abstruse, the question isn’t fun.

Back in college, I was an aspiring quizzer. The easiest way to get better at quizzing is to create one’s own quiz questions. I once asked my quizzer friend where he sourced his quiz questions from. His answer was simple – Google.com. I was left puzzled. I thought I knew what Google.com could do, but it hadn’t gotten me anywhere closer to setting good quiz questions.

I later realized how formulating a good questions required one to Google a topic and invest an hour or two in search of an interesting factoid. For instance, I could Google the history of my hometown, Bangalore, and go down a rabbit hole to stumble upon the story of Enayathulla Mehkri, the Arab businessman who visited the city in the 1930s. Back then, bullock carts were the chief mode of transport, and the Arab was pained to see the beasts bear heavy loads up the steep, rough climb from Hebbal Lake. He then spent Rs 10,000 from his own pocket to level the path – a princely sum in those days. The maharaja of Mysore was impressed by his gesture. He reimbursed the businessman and named an important traffic intersection in his honour – one that every inhabitant of Bangalore refers to as Mekhri circle.

I can now use this interesting historical factoid as a basis for writing a question. When it comes to setting quizzes, Google wasn’t the end as I had assumed for it to be. It was merely the beginning.

The internet has given us access to all varieties of ideas and information. But information isn’t the end. It is merely the beginning. The hard part is to make something of this information – use a historical record to create a quiz question, execute on a business idea, or watch kitchen gardening videos to grow vegetables at home.

As Derek Sivers once quipped, if information were the answer, we would all be billionaires with six pack abs. It is execution that is the hard part and that is where we ought to focus our efforts.

Trade-offs are a necessary evil

Not making trade-off decisions isn’t an option. Either you make them yourself, or somebody else will make them for you.

You have to design your morning routine, or somebody else (your job for e.g) will do it for you.

You have to decide your life priorities, or somebody else (your peers for e.g.) will do it for you.

You have to decide which friends you keep in touch with, or somebody else (Facebook for e.g.) will do it for you.

Trade-offs can be difficult. Among all your close friends, it isn’t pleasant to pick out the 5 with which you would keep in touch regularly. But to not make those important decisions is to surrender them to external forces.


Preventing machines from taking over your job

Ever since the industrial revolution, we have learnt to work like machines.

Our jobs are filled with repetitive, rule based work. Most of the world follows a strict 9-5 regimen, with the rest of us work in shifts around the clock. It is quite telling that both those terms, ‘work’ and ‘job’ originated in shop-floors.

Not all humans work like machines though. A handful of the most highly paid professionals are paid for the creative insights that they generate. Even as automation looms large over the rest of human society, it is their jobs that are most secure.

As machines threaten to take away our jobs, here are a couple of fundamental differences between how we work vis-a-vis machines.

1. Machines follow the same rules over and over. Humans are great at creating rules and terrible at following them.
2. For greatest efficiency machines need to be in continuous and steady operation. Humans work best with intermittent periods of rest and motion.

Biological systems work best when they fluctuate between periods of intense operation and complete rest. That is why interval training works so well. In periods of rest and recovery, our muscle fibers grow stronger and the brain generates the best ideas. The deeper your periods of rest, the more insightful your ideas will be.

Preventing your job from being taken by a machine is to learn to perform creative work. This requires us to build a habit of going from intense work to complete rest.

There is no such thing as bad weather

I’ve often seen Indian parents make a grave parenting mistake the moment their toddler falls on the ground and starts wailing. To comfort the child, they beat the ground while saying to it, ‘Bad floor, you made little Rahul cry. Take that!’. The child, seemingly reassured, stops wailing until this happens again.

The mistake here is that the parents unwittingly give their children an external locus of control. When things go wrong, they imply to the child that somebody else is always at fault – even the cold, hard, level surface that otherwise does a fabulous job of supporting them up. The harder, but more meaningful thing to say to their toddler is that he made a mistake and fell down, but not to worry – for with a little more practice he would soon be waltzing on the most sinister of surfaces.

Even as this seems like an extreme example, we adults routinely make this mistake when we talk about the weather. Have you caught yourself saying, ‘We are having bad weather today’? How different is the weather outside than the surface of floor that a toddler stumbles upon?

I am guilty as anybody else of attributing positive or negative adjectives to the weather. We are simply conditioned into believing that a pleasant, sunny day is good weather, while colder, windier and overcast conditions represent bad weather. In a study, several people across the US were telephoned and asked about how satisfied they were with their lives. The people whose city had better weather on the day reported being happier.

The surest recipe for misery is to be at the mercy of forces outside one’s control. The rule of thumb here is to attribute the adjectives ‘good’ or ‘bad’ to only things we have control over. A Scandinavian saying goes, ‘There is no such thing as bad weather. There is only such a thing as bad clothes’.

What change are you selling?

To become a better marketer, ask yourself the change you seek to make.

You might be a door-to-door saleswoman, selling a book on better coding practices. The change you seek to make is to ensure that budding coders work more efficiently. You sell them the opportunity to learn from mistakes that experts in the field have already invested sleepless nights and several hair follicles over. They don’t have to make those mistakes all over again.

You might be selling toilet paper to a supermarket chain. Although the difference isn’t obvious, your brand of toilet paper is made from recycled paper and is 10% more eco-friendly than the market leader. The change you wish to make is to reduce your customers’ carbon footprint one square at a time.

All marketers (and we are all marketers) seek to change their customers. Understanding what that change is brings clarity. If it is a worthy change, you become a more potent marketer. If it is not a change worth making, what you are selling is not worth your time.

Inspiration: This is Marketing