Objects on the map are smaller than they appear

Which is larger? Greenland or Australia? The world map you used in geography class is ridiculously inaccurate.

The most popular representation of a map is the Mercator projection, which is accurate for places near the equator, but enlarges places that are closer to the poles. On a standard Mercator projection map, Greenland appears as big as Africa does. However, its real size is closer to that of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Russia is a large country, but not as large as your map leads you to believe. In fact, it appears twice as large on world maps than it actually is.

A relation between the Mercator projection and the actual relative size of each country – Source

Initially conceived in the 16th century, the Mercator projection is advantageous for navigation. It is designed so that if you charted a straight line course between any two points on the map, you would still reach your destination despite the earth’s curvature. Given the prominence of naval exploration in that era, the Mercator projection quickly turned into the world’s most popular map, which it continues to remain to this day.

However, there are several other projections of the world map that represent the size of landmasses more accurately – something that is more relevant to teaching us geography or hanging in our living rooms. Yet, we refuse to change because these new projects would look ‘weird’ to our eyes that are already accustomed to the Mercator projection’s distortions.

A Gall-Peters projection map, where relative sizes are more accurately representedSource

The conventions we follow may not continue to serve us. Yet, like a piece of chewed gum on a trash can, they continue to stick around. We ought to be careful while choosing them and thoughtful about persisting with them.

Why learn history?

Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.
(In a place where books are burnt, eventually people are also burnt.)

Heinrich Heine, the German poet, wrote these words in 1821 based on the Spanish inquisition. More than a century later, as the Nazis rose to power in the 1933, they held bonfires of books across Germany. By the end of that decade, they were burning people in concentration camps.

Current events often have a historical precedent. We often see the similarities between Damocles’ sword, Socrates’s trial or Nazism’s infamous rise to power to events that transpire across the world today.

Nevertheless, today’s world is a radically different place. The average person from the time of Damocles or Socrates would struggle to cope with current times. Even if somebody from the 1940’s leaped forward in time, they would be shocked out of their wits. Despite clear differences between eras, how does history still manage to repeat itself?

History reveals those tenets of human nature that are timeless. We study history to understand whatever has survived despite everything else changing around it. It is little wonder that books like Sapiens, which explain human nature, can also double up as history textbooks.

We study history to better understand ourselves.

What makes you feel that way?

‘I’m in flow when I read this book.’

[What about that book makes it a fluid experience for you?]

‘I am frustrated with my job this evening.’

[What about your job has made you feel frustrated?]

‘I like how this abstract painting looks. I prefer it to that one over there.’

[What elements of this abstract painting appeal to you?]

Breaking down a feeling can be hard work. But it often helps us learn surprising things.

Reset the feedback loop

As George Orwell once lamented, sloppy thinking leads people to use unclear language. When unclear language prevails in our culture, it leads to more sloppy thinking.

When girls are led to believe that they cannot master math or computer science, they steer clear from these fields. When they steer clear from this field, it further reinforces that belief.

Several beliefs we hold reinforce feedback loops that do not serve us. But once we drop those beliefs, we have the power to reset them, move forward and build a better world.

High-intensity learning

We all know how a tough workout is more effective than one that is easy.

It is easier to read a storybook than a non-fiction book. It is easier to read non-fiction than a textbook. It is easier to read a text book than an academic paper. Yet, a good academic paper can often be the most effective way to learn about a new topic.

In the world of fitness, we are open to choosing a tough workout regimen. With learning as well, it helps to hit the gym and pump weights once in a while.

Social problems need social solutions

As an engineer, I once attended an interview for admission into an institute of social sciences.

A professor from the institute first peppered me with technical questions. He asked me about mechanical engineering and we discussed how we might use renewables to tackle the problem of climate change. So far, I was on familiar ground.

He then asked me which technology one could use to tackle poverty. I managed to come up with some answer.

‘What about the caste system? And gender equality? Which technology can you use to address those problems?’

I found my answers faltering.

Amused at my consternation, he explained how these weren’t technological problems. They were social problems and they needed social solutions. He had exposed how, as a hammer wielding technologist, I was tempted to think of every single problem as a nail.

As techies, it is easy to downplay the contribution of people who specialize in the humanities. Those disciplines are called the humanities for a reason. For not all problems that humans face can be solved using spanners, hammers and circuit boards.

Reframe it so you are in control

If you asked your boss for a raise, she is likely going to deny it.

One way to look at this situation is to assume that the boss wants to withhold the raise from you. Her motive is to extract as much work from you as possible without compensating you fairly for it. Looking at it this way places the onus on your boss. Therefore, you have no control over the situation.

An alternative is to assume that the boss wants to give you a raise, but she doesn’t have strong enough reasons to justify it. You could change that by pointing to specific instances of your excellent work, the extra money it has earned for the company, and why it is in her interest to give you that raise. This way, the onus is on you. But it also gives you control over the situation.

When faced with an obstacle, can you reframe it so that you are in the driver’s seat?

Branding is inevitable

You are that person in your circle of friends who _______.

For most people, their friends would be able to answer this question more easily for them than they can for themselves.

People like to put you in a box – that is how the human brain works. Personal branding is simply a way for you to influence the box they choose. Framed that way, personal branding turns less icky and more pragmatic.

Branding is inevitable. Either you influence it or leave it entirely to other people’s discretion.

A simple trick for better effort estimation

How long would it take for you to finish a shopping trip? Let us try two ways to arrive at an estimate.

First, close your eyes and come up with a number – which is what most people do.

Second, list out the different steps involved…

  • Preparing a shopping list
  • Walking / driving to the supermarket x 2
  • Collecting the items from the shelf
  • Queue up and check-out
  • Unpacking and stowing the items in your cupboard and the refrigerator

    … and then provide estimates for each of these items. Add them up, and include a 10% buffer.

I am willing to bet a lot of money that the second estimate is far more accurate than the first one.

Estimate in smaller pieces. Sure, it might take you a couple of minutes more than to pull a number out of the hat. But it is sure to help you plan better, mitigate stress and make promises that you can keep.

The first run is never perfect

I was once providing a live coding demo in a hall packed with executives.

The entire room peered at me as I crafted a simple piece of code that I had written tens of time before. Once I thought I was ready – rather, once I was sure I was ready – I hit the play button.

Boom! The program spat out an execution error to publicly humiliate me. Red faced and with beads of perspiration on my forehead, I fixed the error and got the script to run. The crowd let me off the hook with some consolatory applause.

The first execution will always have a bug. As a developer, you learn to accept this as gospel truth. You soon realize that there is neither pride nor any point in striving for perfection on the first run. This lets you scramble code fast and iterate to get it to run.

Recognizing that the first draft is never going to be perfect liberates us to create fast and hit the play button rather than be held back by the illusion of perfection.

Let conversation be the main agenda

Conversations are among the richest and the most rewarding forms of human exchange.

And yet, we aren’t explicit about slotting them into our schedules. We meet friends for lunch or dinner. When friends come home, we play board games or watch football. We plan road trips, hikes and city tours. Sure – conversation can happen beside any of these activities. But good conversations are incompatible with packed schedules. They are large beasts and need their own territory to thrive.

The best conversations I have had is when they are the main agenda, with everything else playing second fiddle.

DIY as an investment

The same meal tastes better if you prepared it yourself than if you ordered it at a restaurant.

Veggies grown in one’s own garden taste better. The same vacation, when planned on our own, is more enjoyable than if a travel agency was employed. The same view from a hilltop looks better if we hiked up the hill rather than took a train to the top.

Sure – there is time and effort involved in doing things yourself. But in several cases, they are investments rather than costs.

Why stealing time is not a crime

We live in a society that values money ahead of time.

Society doesn’t consider stealing somebody’s time as a crime. Nobody receives penalties for showing up late, making people wait or calling pointless meetings. Steal somebody’s money, even a pittance, and you can land in jail.

Yet, a recent study has shown how people who value their time ahead of money are happier on balance – even when you correct for how wealthy they are.

‘Time is money’ is a cliche. But you can’t really say ‘money is time’. While you can easily trade your time for money, it isn’t as easy to do the opposite. Doesn’t that already indicate what we value more?

Inspiration: Is this the most important?

Where is the next Einstein?

Will we ever have another physicist as well loved and revered as Albert Einstein was? For that matter, would we have a naturalist as prominent as Charles Darwin or biologists of the ilk of Francis Crick and James Watson?

In several established fields, we are unable to name prominent people to serve as their figureheads. Nevertheless, we have advanced by leaps and bounds in every single one of those fields. How is it that we are making progress, but are still unable to single out the prominent people who are responsible for it?

One reason that is often stated is that the substantial leaps of understanding – such as such as the theory of relativity or the helical structure of DNA – were all ‘low-hanging fruit’ that have already been discovered. However, this is short-sighted. Since Einstein’s time, physicists have discovered a flurry of new sub-atomic particles, furthered our understanding of quantum mechanics and formulated string theory. Biologists have bio-engineered crops, mapped the human genome and discovered gene editing. We have also created new fields that straddle several existing fields such as evolutionary psychology, behavioural economics and quantum computing. Knowledge is a vessel that keeps on giving. The more we learn, the more likely we are to uncover new paradigms.

The real reason could that scientific progress is more democratic today and spread out among scores of eminent individuals rather than confined to one or two prominent ones. In his 1993 book, Genius, James Gleick pondered why physics hadn’t produced more giants like Einstein. Paradoxical as it might seem, Gleick suggested that there are so many brilliant physicists alive today that it has become harder for an individual to stand apart. Our perception of Einstein as a towering figure is, well, relative.

Every established field with centuries of legacy, such as physics and biology, has a hive of scientists furthering our understanding. Just as it is difficult to identify individual bees in a hive, progress in these fields is so widespread that it has become difficult to single out prominent individuals.

The stereotype of a scientist has always been that of a reclusive geniuses whose abilities overshadow their peers. However, scientific progress is more communal today than ever before. Prominent scientists would do well to nurture and lead communities of peers rather than ponder away in isolation.

When should you NOT add manpower to a late project

While 9 mothers cannot produce a baby in one month, 9 farmers can harvest a field of cotton 9 times quicker. Why can you ‘divide and conquer’ with some tasks and not others?

Two main factors prevent a task from speeding up linearly when you add more manpower to it:

  1. When the task cannot be perfectly partitioned – A field of cotton can be perfectly partitioned. But sequential tasks that are interdependent cannot be partitioned without delays – e.g. writing the script for a video and recording it.
  1. When partitioning requires communication – Suppose that three programmers are writing a scheduling software that is (ironically) behind schedule. Adding two more developers requires communication. First, they need to be trained on what has already been done. Second, they need to coordinate among each other on a regular basis.

Adding more people may even make the problem worse. The number of information channels increases exponentially as team size increases. A team of two people has merely 1 communication channel (A-B), a team of three people has 3 (A-B, B-C, A-C) and a team of five people has 15 channels – n(n+1) / 2.

As managers, it is tempting to throw more people at a task that is behind schedule. But that doesn’t always help – especially while dealing with the two scenarios above.

Inspriation: The Mythical Man Month

Recommended Reading: Brook’s law

Transparency in action

I saw this board outside my house, advertising a jackpot of € 21 million. Below, it has some more text in smaller font explaining how the win likelihood is 1 in 95 million. I’d wager that German regulation requires the lottery company to declare this.

While I always knew that the odds in a lottery were long (lottery companies have to make a living), I was surprised by how slim they were (instead, they were making a killing). In effect, if 9.5 million people deigned to purchase €10 lottery tickets, a mere handful would stand to win a total of €21 million.

When a massive €21 million jackpot is advertised, it is difficult for a person buying a ticket to grasp what that means. It helps, through regulation or otherwise, to include the denominator, declare the odds and put that number in perspective.

Ownership works both ways

Owning a house means that you have a place to stay or rent out. Owning a house also means taking out a housing loan, registering it at the city council, paying taxes, maintaining it and ensuring that you pick your tenants carefully.

Owning a car allows you to drive it whenever, wherever and however you wish to. Owning a car also needs you to purchase insurance, maintain it and seek out parking space. 

Newton stated how every action has an equal an opposite reaction. Ownership is just as much of a two-way street.

Don’t stay on top of things

20 years ago, it wasn’t possible to

  • Read every article in the newspaper
  • Watch every news bulletin
  • Read every book in your local library

Today, it isn’t possible to

  • Read every email in your inbox
  • Keep up with every news notification on your phone
  • Read every tweet on your timeline
  • Peruse every Whatsapp forward your uncle sends you
  • Read every article you’ve bookmarked for later
  • Read all the books you have on your Kindle

In the last 20 years, our world has changed in ways that makes ‘staying on top of things’ an ever more futile act. Realizing this is liberating. Instead, we could conserve our attention merely for things that are important.

In the spur of the moment

Inspiration occurs in the spur of the moment.

One moment, you lay sprawled on your couch. In the next instant, you have the solution to that knotty coding problem you were thinking about all week long. Inspiration is state-dependent. ‘Being in the mood’, lets you perform inspired feats that often surprise you.

Craving occurs in the spur of the moment.

You are sitting down, deep at work on an important project. In the next instant, you feel like getting up and eating a piece of chocolate. Instead of getting back to work, you check your Twitter feed and order earphones on Amazon. Like itches, cravings come out of nowhere and refuse to go away until we scratch them.

The spur moment can lead to creative bursts just as easily as it can distract us from doing the work that matters. Here’s the rule of the thumb. When it manifests as inspiration – the need to create something – it is usually beneficial. When it manifests as craving – the need to consume something – it is often detrimental.

Can you learn to tell them apart and treat them differently?

Inspiration: Peak state decisions