Protect empty space

When do you have your best ideas? Is it when your attention is laser focused or is it between periods of focus when your mind is free to wander?

Empty space, periods where the mind is free from external stimulus, is the bedrock of creative inspiration. It is turning into an endangered species.

Protect your empty space. Build it a sanctuary.

Inspiration: Josh Waitzkin

Let us break the marketer’s monopoly on metaphors

‘What does this remind you of?’, is a powerful question. One group of people know how to use it all too well even as the rest of us don’t use it often enough.

A bar of Toblerone carries the picture of Matterhorn, one of Switzerland’s most celebrated alpine peaks. A bar of Toblerone is also shaped like a mountain range. All of this isn’t an accident.

1280px-Matterhorn_at_sunset1
Source

Toblerone is branded to remind us of the Swiss Alps in all their magnificence and glory. This metaphor leads us to associate Toblerone with the reputation for immaculate quality and craftsmanship that Swiss chocolate makers have nurtured over the centuries. That is part of the reason we are willing to pay more than twice as much for a 100g bar of Toblerone than we would for Hershey’s, Rittersport or Cadbury’s.

From using logos and package design to recruiting brand ambassadors, marketers are adept at using metaphors and analogies to manipulate our buying decisions. How can the rest of us put them to better use?

Take endurance cycling for example. One of its crucial aspects is cadence – the rhythm with which you pump the pedals on a bike. If you’ve watched the Tour de France, you have observed how, regardless of the terrain, the cyclists maintain the same cadence by adjusting their gear ratios.

Picture a cycling coach teaching her students about the principle of cadence while invoking the metaphor of a pendulum clock. The more regular the rhythm of a pendulum clock, the more accurate is its time-keeping. An imperceptible two percent error in its oscillation rate could result in the clock losing half-an-hour over the course of a day. Having heard this, her students would be reminded of clockwork precision whenever they work on their cadence.

Despite being powerful tools for instruction, several teachers shy away from using metaphors and analogies. They require additional effort and come with the risk of sounding inappropriate or loony. But think back on the lessons from school that you can recall. I can still picture my teacher sliding two books into each other to show us how tectonic plates form mountain ranges.

Douglas Hofstadter called metaphors and analogies the core of our cognition. Brand managers and advertisers harness them routinely to make a killing. As teachers and coaches, it would be a pity if we stood by and let those marketing types retain their long-standing monopoly.

Tuning in to our intuition

A fire-ground commander, who leads teams of firefighters into a burning house, senses when the house is about to collapse and yells for everybody to evacuate it immediately. Seconds later, the floor of the house collapses into the burning inferno in the basement.

Our partners can sense if something is wrong by merely looking at our eyes. Our mothers manage this by merely listening to a ‘hello’ on the phone.

Before we eat a meal of spoiled food, we sense that something about it doesn’t seem right. Food poisoning happens when we overrule this instinct.

In the first ten minutes of a movie, we know who the good guys are, who the bad guys are and whom we would be rooting for.

When college bands play at music competitions, we often sense that something is off about their performance before we realize that the bass guitar is out of tune.

A chess player senses his position deteriorate before realizing that his knight is stuck in the middle of the board.

Reading merely one page of a novel is enough to tell us whether we would enjoy reading it.

Our unconscious intuition is adept at sensing risk, danger and a lack of quality before our conscious mind can point to the source of the problem.

Yet, our intuition doesn’t yell out loud. Instead, it whispers to us. Listening to this whisper requires us to maintain inner silence and tune-in.

Habituate hard things to make them easier

When I started flossing before bed, it was difficult to floss every single night. Having done it for several years now, it is difficult not to.

When I started writing this blog, it was difficult to sit down and write every single day. Having written 800+ posts, it is difficult not to.

Like Newton’s first law, our behaviour tends to stay either in a state of rest or uniform motion. Habituating hard things works like a flywheel. Once we have gotten things rolling, it helps us sustain momentum.

The power of sampling

Not enough people taste as they go.

While making a soup, tasting it 7 times and tweaking exposes you to up to 7 different variations of the dish. When you cook the soup the next time, you can draw upon this knowledge. To develop the same understanding without sampling requires you to cook the entire dish 7 times while varying the dish each time.

Several professionals use sampling – product designers who perform A-B testing,  musicians who tweak their instrument’s tone between songs and mechanics who test drive the automobiles that they have tinkered with.

Sampling requires you to leave the safety of a recipe or a user manual behind. But in the bargain, it turns you from a cook into a chef.

Why nobody cares about your writing

Having written more than 800 blog posts, I have realized that each blog post is like an advertisement. The people that make an ad love it, but pretty much everybody else considers it an unwelcome interruption.

Why do people skip ads and install ad-blockers on their browsers? Simple – because they are busy people who have better things to do.

The most despicable ads are all about the product. The best ads deliver something more than just a sermon on the product. They are humorous. They tell a story. They make a personal connection. They require the advertiser to be more concerned about the audience than the product.

Several writers are fooled into thinking that people are dying to read what they have just written. Perhaps this is a hangover from their school days when their English teachers were forced to read and grade their essays.

The cold reality – something that every budding writer stares at – is that our writing isn’t too different from an ad. This humbling realization makes you stop thrusting ideas and facts at readers and helps you invest the emotional labour to make your posts worth their time.

Inspiration: Nobody wants to read your shit

Why we call them cheat-codes

Few things beat the thrill of finishing a difficult video game without cheat-codes.

They are called cheat-codes for a reason. They give you unlimited lives, inexhaustible ammo and the ability to skip difficult stages. In return, they steal the sense of accomplishment you would have felt had you finished the game on your own. Like bewitched items in spooky movies, they grant you power but exact a hidden price.

Cheat codes aren’t limited to video games.

Unearned wealth feels empty. A fortune either inherited or won in a lottery will never feel as fulfilling as wealth that is earned through the sweat of one’s own brow.

Intoxication is fleeting because it rewards us without effort. Even as alcohol leaves us with a hangover the morning after, the feel-good chemicals from a long run or a tough hike linger in the body for days.

Entertainment comes in shallow and deep forms. Watching the Lord of the Rings movies, as magnificent as they are, requires little effort. Reading the books takes several more hours and requires you to recreate the battle at Helm’s Deep in your mind’s eye rather than consume it as post-processed HD visuals on a screen.

Challenge and effort aren’t the adversaries of accomplishment. They are its allies.

Separate the quote from its author

Why are so many quotes on the internet misattributed to Albert Einstein?

Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.’ That’s a pretty impressive thing to say. I used it as my email signature for a number of years. The towering American writer makes a compelling point – one that reminds us not to lose track of the present moment in pursuit of a ‘promised land’.

But I might just have pulled a fast one on you. Those lines, although often attributed to Hemingway, belong instead to Ursula K. Le Guin – an extraordinary author, but not as towering a personality as Hemingway.

Here’s an article, headlined ‘Hemingway’s stolen quotation‘, that mentions about how that quote was stolen from Le Guin. But wait a minute. Why is that article headlined ‘Hemingway’s stolen quote’, and not ‘Le Guin’s stolen quote’? The second title would have been more honest, but would have had fewer clicks. Ironically, the author of that article is guilty of the same crime that he goes on to explain from atop a pedestal.

Let’s look at that quote once again. Turns out that it doesn’t apply in every situation. If it is the journey that matters and not the end, what about vagabonds, tramps and wandering generalists who keep switching fields because of perpetual dissatisfaction? But Hemingway said it, so it must be true.

The truth is nuanced and never succinct. A pithy quotation applies only to a narrow window of situations. Most people use quotations and credit it to a towering personality to quell the questioning voices and slip their point in through the backdoor. As critical thinkers, we ought to separate the quote from its author.

Forget for a moment that Albert Einstein or Ernest Hemingway said something and instead imagine that your loony uncle twice removed says it. Would it still hold true?

A method to avoid sunk-costs

I wasted a large part of Friday trying to get one line of code to execute.

I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I just couldn’t figure out the right syntax. I tried paraphrasing my problem and Googling about 20 different variations. I posted questions on forums and incessantly hit the refresh button for a reply. I tugged at my hair and frazzled my nerves. Like an obstinate buffalo on a bazaar road, that line of code got in the way of all my progress.

When my work day was done, I realized how I had nothing to show for those 6 frustrating hours. To underline this, I arrived at a more elegant solution after disconnecting from the problem over the weekend.

What just happened here? A lay person would say that I disappeared down a rabbit hole. Economists call this the sunk-cost fallacy. What both these terms have in common is the act of lowering one’s self into a pit and losing sight of the big picture.

How does one avoid this mistake? Obviously the cliche of ‘never give up’ is counter-productive here. The best solution I have come across so far is called ‘time-boxing’. The idea is to set a deadline before we start a particular task. Say I encounter a stubborn bug and I am trying to get a solution to work. I could time-box my search to 1 hour before I start. When an hour has passed, I then ought to evaluate whether to give-up, compromise or give myself an extension.

Sunk costs work like quick-sand. The deeper in we are, the lower we are likely to sink. Time-boxing allows us to step into quicksand with a rope tied to our waist.

More isn’t better

It took me five months to find out that my work laptop came with a touchscreen and a fingerprint sensor. Even then, a colleague had to point these things out.

Most gadgets are cluttered with features. This is due to our brains’ tendency to mistake more for being better. We all know how a digital camera with too many features is hard to use. And yet, when we are choosing between cameras to buy, our our mind whispers to us, ‘Someday, I might stumble upon the perfect moment to use “flash output compensation”, in landscape mode with semi-automatic focus. So let me choose wisely.’ The result? Our cameras, washing machines and microwave ovens come with more knobs and buttons than an airplane.

Bells and whistles are the salesperson’s trick to get into our heads. Don’t let them distract you from what is most essential.

What accountants have in common with science-fiction writers

Uber owes its success to accountants. How else could it be so huge without returning a single dollar of profit all these years?

Uber and several ‘non-profitable’ startups are wildly successful because of how their net worth is evaluated. To value a company, you count not just the profit that a company makes today, but also the profit it would return in the future.

How would you value a firm that makes $1 million in profit every year, and is likely to stay in business for at least 5 years? Writing down its value as merely $1 million based on the current returns would short-sighted. That is why, accountants put its value down as $5 million (provided inflation is negligible). Given its size and success, Uber is likely to stay in business for decades, with millions of dollars in profit each year.

Accounting for future cash flows helps us take a long-term view on our investments. They have more in common with science-fiction writers other than merely making stuff up.

This principle, like many others, is broadly applicable.

In the present moment, it feels good to be popular at parties and have a large list of friends and acquaintances. In the long-run, a handful of deep relationships are worth more than a laundry list of fleeting friends.

While recruiting somebody or evaluating their performance, it helps to consider both their present as well as their future output.

Eating a muffin for breakfast felt good today? How would eating one daily make you feel in 30 years? Exercising felt crummy today? How will exercising everyday make you feel in 30 years?

Wisdom is the ability to realize the long-term effect of your decisions. In other words, wisdom is to deeply understand future cash flows.

What is that one thing?

If a benevolent dictator imprisoned you and told you that she would give you the freedom to do just one thing in prison, what would you choose?

The reason such a dictator is benevolent is because she makes it easy for you to connect deeply with the thing you want to do the most.

You don’t have to wait until she comes along.

Making sandals

Blackout curtains are a standard feature of bedrooms in the Western world – especially in the temperate latitudes, where the sun can shine as early as 4 AM in the summer months.

These curtains can be thick and heavy, or made from special material to block out the direct rays of the sun. Also, washing and drying them is no mean feat, but a dark, cosy bedroom makes all of this effort worth it.

An easier way to make your bedroom darker is to use sleep masks – those black flaps that go over your eyes when you’re on a long haul flight. A sleep mask is cheaper and way more portable. It’s like having blackout curtains that slip inside your pocket. However, not too many people use sleep masks because having something held up against your face takes some getting used to.

Blackout curtains and sleep masks point to two diametrically opposite tendencies. With blackout curtains, we expend considerable effort in bending the external environment to our will. With sleep masks, we are make a smaller effort, but one that is internal. Being able to tolerate two flaps over our eye is more of a mindset change than one that is environmental.

The fact that people often prefer blackout curtains, which sell for upwards of €100 over sleep masks that are cheaper than €10 points to our tendency to fight against external factors ahead of making an internal change.

To walk a thorny road, we may cover its every inch with leather or we can make sandals.
– Indian parable

When merely your work matters

During my days as a consultant, my team once submitted a document with 1000+ slides to a big client.

We had worked days and nights to accumulate those slides. But we knew deep down that the document wasn’t usable. Heck, even opening a document with more than a 1000 slides is difficult, let alone knowing what to make of it.

In some organizations, the impression that work is being done is more important than the work itself. Most of the folks at the client would not know anything beyond the fact that it had more than a 1000 slides. Invariably, as an organization grows larger, denser and more opaque, this tends to happen to its work culture.

As managers, the key to preventing this from happening is to evaluate our teams only based on the work they do. Everything else is immaterial – how long they work, whether they show up at the office and how many breaks they take. We hire people for the work they do – not how busy they appear to be.

One of the fringe benefits of having a remote team is that you only get to see people’s work – not the people themselves. You don’t see them get into the office or leave. You don’t see them calling for pointless meetings and packing people into conference rooms.

Inspiration: Remote

I see, therefore I care

My recipe for Ratatouille varies based on where my basil leaves come from.

I’m usually quite liberal with flavouring. If the basil leaves were to come off a packet, I would have no qualms is emptying the whole bunch into the dish. If I harvest them from a live basil plant that we bought from the supermarket, I use the leaves more sparingly.

Clearly, my beahaviour here is driven more by emotion than by reason. Both the basil plant as well as the packaged leaves came from the supermarket. The packaged leaves were once a plant too. Yet, having to pluck the leaves myself alters my behaviour.

This leads us to a well known psychological principle. In an experiment, Paul Slovic and his team asked people to donate for a worthy cause based on the magnitude of the crisis. For instance, their per-capita donations towards a tragedy with 1 victim was compared to another tragedy with 8 victims. As the number of victims went up, these donation went down. Yes, you read that correctly.

This absurd result is rooted in how our brains work. When we think of 1 starving child, we can picture a poor little boy who has to work with hunger burning in his belly even as his more fortunate peers complain about having to learn trigonometry. But if we were to try and picture a thousand or a million starving children, our brain is unable to invoke the imagery necessary to do justice to this greater tragedy. Slovic conducted the experiment again with a picture of one victim as a ‘face’ for the tragedy and this increased the amount of donations. It isn’t without reason that most charity appeals feature one victim as representative of the masses that are affected by the tragedy.

This principle applies not just to mass tragedies. The crisis we are going through helps us better appreciate the lives of healthcare workers, delivery personnel and supermarket employees merely because their professions have had increased attention. It turns out that we didn’t care enough about their valuable contribution during ordinary times. It then becomes the duty of the large organizations that they work for to give their customers a peek behind the scenes into the hard work that goes into getting a supermarket shelf stacked or having a package delivered to your doorstep at the click of a button.

I see, therefore I care. The corollary here is that if I do not show my work, nobody will care.

Related: Psychological distance is the first episode of The Work Brain, a podcast I co-host with a behavioural scientist.

In two places at once

How do you define stress?

Naval Ravikant defines it in the elegant manner of engineers: to be stressed is wanting to be in two places at once.

A beam’s tendency is to remain straight. When we try to bend the beam, it becomes stressed.

A spring’s tendency is to remain at its natural length. Reducing or extending this length causes it to become stressed.

We might expect to be done with work early, but when our work isn’t done for the day, we are stressed.

We might wish to get to the airport on time to catch a flight, but we might be held up due to traffic.

At the heart of every stressful moment is an unresolved conflict within us. The most effective means to resolve this conflict is to think about why we wish to be in two places at once.

How impermanence adds to beauty

A sand sculptor carves intricate patterns to see them meld back into the beach as the sea-breeze slowly chips away at its boundaries one grain of sand at a time.

Ice sculptor’s often see their masterpieces melt away when the sun comes out the morning after.

During the festival of Onam, people in Kerala celebrate by making elaborate pookalams – floral patterns on the ground whose creations require hours of painstaking labour.

In several wedding receptions, I have seen vegetables carved in the beautiful shapes of flowers and little animals, only for them to be consumed or to wither away.

The impermanence of these works of art and the detachment of their creators adds to their beauty. Sticking an ice sculpture or a vegetable carving in a freezer would destroy rather than preserve those works of art.

The work we do is a gift to the world, and like any gift, it must go out without have strings attached to the giver. To continue grasping after releasing it into the world is to do our work a disservice.

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise

– William Blake

Pookalam

How batsmen slow time down (and so can you)

Despite being a cricket fan during my childhood, I find myself baffled each time I watch batsmen step up to play fast bowlers.

Picture a projectile hurtling towards your face at 145 km/hr. The ball is harder than a karate black-belt’s clenched fist and it seems to have a mind of its own. Since it pitches on the ground on its way to you, it follows a three-dimensional trajectory. The bowler isn’t your friend either. He uses every trick he can, legitimate or otherwise, to get the ball to misbehave. And yet, armed with merely a piece of willow, professional batsmen are not just able to guard their cheekbones but dispatch the ball over a rope that is 70 m away.

A batsman’s ability to routinely wallop a ball that my eyes can barely register on HD video has often made me wonder about their mystical capabilities. Executing a hook shot requires them to judge the vertical position of the ball to within ± 3 cm and its time of arrival to within ± 3 ms. The time it takes for a ball released at 145 km/hr to reach a batsman is less than half a second. That is how long it takes for you to close your Facebook page when your boss sneaks up behind you. Apart from merely dragging a cursor, batsmen have to factor for the amount of moisture on the ball, the conditions of the pitch on the day, the movements of bowler’s fingers as he releases the ball, the position of the seam as it hits the ground and the amount of wear the ball has on either side. It appears as if batsmen operate in a different world at the crease – one where time moves slower.

Even as batting seems mystical, our brain routinely performs similar feats in other walks of our lives. When you step inside a car, take the steering and drive on a highway at speeds greater than 145 km/hr, you need to be mindful of several things – approaching speed breakers, faster vehicles in adjacent lanes, converging lanes, diverging intersections and overhead boards announcing the arrival of your exit. Yet, you are able to pull this off while having a conversation and, if you have good taste in music, with Porcupine Tree in the background. Yet, when something odd catches your attention, your mind snaps back into focus. Time slows down as you pump the brakes, swerve to avoid the pile up and roll to a halt.

These acts are a tribute to our unconscious mind’s ability to perform acts that seem like miracles. The reason a batsman is able to react in a split-second is due to most of his other actions being completely automatic. Years of practice help him lift his bat backward, transfer his weight to his back foot and swing the bat across his face to execute a textbook hook shot without eliciting any conscious effort. All he has to do at the crease is to observe the ball and decide which of his two dozen unconscious shots to execute to perfection. Every other decision is automatic.

When our conscious mind has an arsenal of unconscious routines, it is freed up to bring tremendous focus that can slow down our perception of time. For a seasoned driver, most routines such as switching gears, turning on the wipers, glancing at the rear view mirror and indicating before a turn are all unconscious. Yet, this isn’t the case when you are learning to drive. Most novices drive with both their hands firmly on the steering, with craned necks, furrowed brows and sweaty foreheads. Conversing with them or blasting heavy metal during these tense moments can put both your lives on the line.

This interplay between the conscious and the unconscious appears across several fields. Chess masters are able to play fundamentally sound blitz games because more than 90% of their moves are automatic and unconscious so that they can dedicate the 5 min on their clocks to create and fend off chaotic positions on the board. An expert programmer can identify a bug in seconds because most her unconscious mind digests most of the program’s logic so that she can direct all her focus towards the anomaly. A forest ranger can spot a horn-bill in the canopy with the corner of his eye, for his unconscious mind knows the subtle difference between the wind rustling the leaves and a bird’s movements. A pro-gamer can make even the act of dragging a mouse pointer across the screen an act of skill and extreme precision.

The key to master any field is to break it down into drills and practice them for thousands of hours so that its fundamental routines are unconscious. That way, our conscious minds are free to focus on the present, the particular and the peculiar to slow time down and respond in miraculous ways.

Inspiration: The Art of Learning

Information Source: From eye movements to actions: how batsmen hit the ball

The evening before

An important day begins well before the alarm clock rings.

The previous evening spills into the day. A healthy meal and a good night’s sleep helps us bounce out of bed, ready to seize the day. A late evening of drinking is a loan we take out that must be repaid with interest the next morning.

When you have an important day coming up, what do you do the evening before?

Why ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ are misnomers

A colleague once told me this joke involving a husband and his wife. Talking about how responsibilities were divided up between his wife and him, the husband says:

‘My wife? She looks after the small and unimportant things – such as keeping the household together, balancing our finances and taking care of the children.’

‘Me? I concern myself with only the large and important things such as the plight of our country, the news of the world and the state of the global economy.’

The terms ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ are misleading due to our tendency for mistaking the scope of something for its importance. The macro is always less important than it appears, while the opposite is true for the micro.