Mean one thing

If you mean one thing to your audience, every interaction is likely to be impactful.

If you mean ten things to ten different people, you are likely to make the tenth of an impact. And this is without considering the cost of switching between those ten things – the cost of wearing different masks, different costumes and speaking different languages.

When it comes to leaving a mark, depth beats breadth. That is why it is called an “impression”.

Investment in loss

Almost nobody wants to be a loser.

Losing gets a bad rap. To be a loser is to be hopeless. It is disrespectful. But almost nobody wants to be a loser. Who are the exceptions?

Josh Waitzkin is a legend. A childhood chess prodigy, he retired from the game at the age of 23. From there, he became the world-champion in Tai Chi push hands with less than 6 years of training. A fraction of what his opponents received.

Josh achieved this by investing in loss. During his training, he pit himself against the bigger and more accomplished students in his class. All day long, he would get thrown against the wall and end up battered and bruised.

But with each passing day, he learnt from his losses. Eventually, his body dodged attacks from his stronger and more reckless opponents. He studied their techniques, learnt their methods and exploited their weakness. He translated his losses into learning. By investing in loss, he had put himself on a rapid learning curve.

Our culture cherishes winners. I bring up Josh Waitzkin’s example only because he was world champion. But every world-class performer has invested in loss.

It is tempting to hold a winning streak. It signals quality, consistency and proficiency. However, when we are not at the top level, a winning streak could help us hide. It encourages us to pick on weaker opponents. It protects our pride and comes at the cost of learning.

The battles we win are the ones we brag about. These are our degrees, our credentials and every line on our resume. They determine the intercept on our learning curve – the destination.

It is the losses that determine the slope.

wins and losses

Inspiration: The Art of Learning – Josh Waitzkin

The Gross Fitness Index

A fit society has its priorities in order.

Last week, I went on a hike with my colleagues. We climbed Wallberg, in the south of Germany. At 1623 m it was a considerable incline. But we did it in good pace. It took us merely 3 hours. And the view from the top was well worth it.

20181012_131039

Sure, trekking enthusiasts can achieve this anywhere in the world. But not many countries have random samples of colleagues that are fit enough to do this. And here’s the baffling part – most other people at the peak were folks well past their retirement.

Germans are fond of fitness. 48% of the population exercises regularly.  Several of my colleagues ensure that they work out everyday.

Yet, fitness is one of the hardest things to prioritize. It is hard to wake up early and work out. Exercise is the epitome of delayed gratification. Most people indulge in regular exercise only when they have few other burning issues distracting them.

“Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.” – Jerzy Gregorek

German society is organized to help Germans put fitness first. Several factors play their part here – clear separation between work and leisure, good infrastructure with gyms, parks, wide pavements, cycling lanes, and a thriving fitness culture where working out and eating healthy are the norm.

Therefore, a Gross Fitness Index might be a good measure of social development. Only when several factors are in place can the average septuagenarian in a country be fit enough to climb a Bavarian peak.

Writing is cartography

How do you decide you have an idea worth writing about?

A common notion is that elaborate planning and research precedes writing. That we ought to start writing only when our idea is well formed. For most forms of writing (except scientific or technical writing) this is a misconception.

Daniel Pink talks about how he writes his books. He starts off with a hint and bangs away at the keyboard for several days. Only after he has written a 30 page proposal does he know if his idea deserves to be a book. He does not write when he has things figured out. Instead, he writes to figure them out.

Writers do not have a map when they start. Instead, they pick a direction and explore their mental jungles using their keyboards.

When I write my posts, I often end up at a different place from the one I had intended. The creation of every post is an exploration. And the post itself, the words scrawled on the screen when I am finished, is the map.

Using the task manager

Every kid remembers the day they learnt to use Ctrl + Alt + Delete.

It meant that whenever their computer froze, they could do something about it. They could see which program was at fault and terminate it rather than be passive observers. It meant empowerment.

Task Manager

Oftentimes, we find ourselves drifting away from what we ought to be doing. During these times, something doesn’t feel right. Like how we ought to be working on our report or studying for an exam rather than checking our phone. In the words of Stephen Covey, “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” And yet, this is a constant battle.

When we perform a difficult task, it activates our insular cortex – a region of the brain associated with pain. This causes us to put off our task and seek relief with a quick hit of dopamine – by checking our phone or by reaching out for a snack. This mechanism in the brain is the root cause of procrastination.

When it is triggered, it helps to open the task managers of our brains. Through training in mindfulness, one becomes aware of the mental processes in the background that cause us to procrastinate or trigger our anxiety. By being mindful, we are able to zero in on the cause of the problem and pay attention to it.

Being mindful lets us access the task manager to our brain. It puts choice back in our hands as our brains drift away from the essential.

What caricatures teach us

“Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself.” – Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin_caricature

Source: Greg Williams

Caricatures are curious. They are wildly out of shape and proportion. And yet, 10 out of 10 people would identify good old Charlie Chaplin above.

Our minds are great at noticing whatever stands out. Even without our conscious knowledge. A good caricature artist takes note of those features and amplifies them in her drawings.

We could all learn from caricature artists to think about what distinguishes us, our companies or our work, amplify it and get the word around.

If I were the only dealer of Channapatna puppets in Stockholm, people would hear about it. At least the ones who need to. Instead, if I chose to blend in and called myself a toy seller, I am sure to be ignored.

It often helps to get the word around. And doing so has never been as easy as it is today.

Beware of stories

Have you heard the story of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment?

The setup is something like this. An adult researcher makes a deal with a 4-year-old. The kid can choose his favourite treat: a cookie, a marshmallow or a pretzel stick. The researcher would leave the treat in an empty room, free from distractions. The kid was free to eat the treat whenever he wished to. But if he could hold off for 15 minutes, the researcher would reward him with another treat.

All the while, the researchers observed the kids without their knowledge. 15 minutes can be agonizing wait when you’re four years old. Some kids covered their eyes or turned away from the treat. Others kicked the desk or tugged on their pigtails. A few stroked their treat as if it were a stuffed toy. And some would simply eat the treat as soon as the researcher left the room.

Here’s the interesting follow up. The kids who waited grew up to have better life outcomes – SAT scores, educational qualification, Body Mass Index score etc.

Why was that so? What led to those better outcomes?

The experimenters thought it was because these children had higher will-power. Will- power enabled these individuals to delay gratification and this led to better outcomes.

This sounded like a convincing explanation, and I had bought into it. But then it turns out that this was the wrong conclusion. It failed to replicate in follow-up experiments. The story of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment was merely the story we all told ourselves.

The original experiment was conducted with 90 children, all from the nursery at Stanford. A follow-up experiment was conducted with 900 students from diverse backgrounds. Here, the results were controlled for income. The second study found that children with affluent backgrounds performed better in the test.

Another experiment included groups of children primed with a broken promise and a fulfilled promise before the test. It was found that the fulfilled promise group waited four times longer than the broken promise group.

Clearly, there were factors that played a more dominant role than will-power here – such as affluence and trust. Further, these factors are not independent of each other. A child growing up in affluence – in an environment of abundance could also end up having higher trust and more will-power.

As homo-sapiens, stories lie at the foundation of our very species. It was perhaps our ability to tell the best stories that ensured that ours was the dominant species among six other early human species. Stories help us learn and remember. They are an invaluable tool. But they come with a defect – the narrative fallacy.

This fallacy pushes us to explain facts by fitting narratives into them. Through the Stanford experiment, it was clear that children who waited for the second treat had better outcomes. This was a fact. But the narrative fallacy caused the researchers to explain this fact. They did this by assuming will-power was responsible for the success that followed. But in making that leap, the researchers had slipped up. It turns out there were other conditions at play.

Our minds love stories. Whenever we are faced with facts, our automatic response is to explain them with a believable story. But at times, this tendency can get in the way of objectivity. The real explanations can turn out to be far more complicated.

We ought to be wary of people who are great at crafting excellent stories. More often than not, these are our own minds.

Recommended reading: The narrative fallacy and what you can do about it

Mystery makes magnificent

In the adventure of the Red Headed League, Sherlock Holmes meets Jabez Wilson for the first time, and the following conversation ensues:

Holmes: Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some done manual labour, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else.

Wilson: How in the name of good-fortune, did you know all that, Mr. Holmes? How did you know, for example, that I did manual labour?

Holmes: Your hands, my dear sir. Your right hand is quite a size larger than your left. You have worked with it, and the muscles are more developed.

Wilson: But the writing?

Holmes: What else can be indicated by that right cuff so very shiny for five inches, and the left one with the smooth patch near the elbow where you rest it upon the desk?

Wilson: Well, but China?

Holmes: The fish that you have tattooed immediately above your right wrist could only have been done in China.

Wilson (laughing): Well, I never! I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it, after all.”

Holmes: I begin to think, Watson, that I make a mistake in explaining. ‘Omne ignotum pro magnifico,’ you know, and my poor little reputation, such as it is, will suffer shipwreck if I am so candid.

“Omne ignotum pro magnifico”. This Latin phrase translates roughly to “everything mysterious makes things magnificent”. Mysterious people inspire awe. They speak rarely, and when they do, they are often cryptic. Entire professions are based on keeping people in ignorance- magicians, fortune tellers and the like.

Conversely, once the mystery is revealed, it holds no charm. The spell is broken. A card trick explained is one that is discarded. Several people have shifted our understanding of the world by breaking its mystery and we are likely to discredit each one of them.

Nicholas Copernicus, against the wisdom of his time, proposed that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

Sigmund Freud spoke about the duality of the conscious and the sub-conscious mind.

Sushrutha envisioned and performed plastic surgery is 600 BC.

Aristortle classified all living beings into plants and animals back in the fourth century BC.

“Plants and animals?” You might ask. “That is certainly no big achievement”.

Spoken just like Jabez Wilson.

Crucibles of creation

A crucible is a container where substances are heated to high temperatures, melted and combined to create something new.

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, has a rule for writing jokes. Humour is all about the punch-line. Adams tries out several punchlines for a joke on himself. As he reads them out, he notices how each one of them make him feel. With the right punch line, he would chuckle inside. And he would know it.

World-class performers identify the slightest ripples within their own selves. A great singer can deliver a virtuoso performance even if she cannot hear her own voice on stage. Through years of practice, she knows how the notes feel as they leave her. A sensitive writer is more inspired by a walk around his neighbourhood than the average tourist making a trip across Europe.

By being in touch with their sensitivity, artists transform themselves into crucibles of creation.

Inspiration: The art of learning – Josh Waitzkin

Big store and Small store

We frequent two Indian stores in Berlin – Big store and Small store.

Big store is expansive. It has everything – packets of Parle-G, Rooh Afza, LG Asafoeteda and Dabur Chyawanprash stocked in semi-organized shelves. With the familiar colours and packaging, the happy coexistence of chaos and order, I felt like I was back home.

As you have already guessed, Big store isn’t too orderly. It has a large staff, but its scale makes it hard to maintain. Its vegetable counters have wilted produce. Looking for what you want quickly turns into a search-and-rescue expedition.

Small store is compact. It stocks only important things. They follow the 80:20 rule. They stock the 20% that comprises 80% of what most people buy. My first impression of Small store was that it was nice, but inadequate. Like portions at fancy restaurants.

Small store is organized – week after week, the tamarind paste, the groundnuts and the cumin seeds stay on the same shelves. Their vegetables are fresh. A small family runs the entire store. You’d find just 2 people running it at any point, and when they find you looking for something they help out.

If Big store and Small store were side by side, my first impulse would be to walk into Big store and spend an hour getting everything on my list (along with 20 other useless things). With time, I’d learnt that it takes me just 20 minutes to shop at Small store even if I do not find one item on my list. It is more expensive to run a smaller store, but I’d gladly pay a premium for 40 minutes of my time.

It is tempting to go big – to stock everything and offer unlimited choice. But choice often comes at a hidden cost. The price marked on the packet isn’t the only price that we pay.

Small is beautiful. May its tribe increase.

Slow yourself down

Whenever I looked at Tai Chi students performing their slow, mystical movements, I thought of how it could ever be a martial art. Isn’t a martial art more about speed and power than imitating a snail?

Tai Chi

Image source: http://cc.nphoto.net/view/2008/11403.shtml 

To be fast is tempting. Speed is a mask that can cover up our mistakes. A nervous speaker speaks fast. An amateur guitarist cannot play a song at half its tempo. Slowing down is a path to excellence where the route isn’t pretty. For it is paved with our imperfections.

The slow movement in Tai Chi comes from comfort with imperfection. The pursuit of excellence takes precedence over insecurity. As a Tai Chi student spends hours moving their hands out a few inches, their brain registers every movement of their joints and every muscular twitch. They observe how tension builds up in their body and replace it with energetic awareness.

Experts across disciplines slow down to imprint the right habits. A swimmer slows down to notice tension in her arms as she strokes forward. A guitarist slows down to hear his string buzz or catch a subtle tuning error. A speaker slows down to find where her intonation falters and observe where her conviction is weak.

I didn’t realize earlier that Tai Chi is meditation – where the mind’s awareness melds with the body’s movements.

Inspiration: The Art of Learning – Josh Waitzkin

Revisiting classics

Classics age like wine does.

I was exposed to several classics during our childhood – illustrated novels, Disney movies and comic books about Indian epics (have the same initials as Amar Chitra Katha).  I did not think much about returning to them at a later point.

When Daniel Pink was in college, his teacher announced “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain as required reading for the class. In that moment, the entire class let out a collective groan. Everybody had already read Huckleberry Finn back in school. The teacher waited for the noise to subside, and replied,

“You have read Huckleberry Finn, but you haven’t read Huckleberry Finn.”

They were no longer the same people who had read it 15 years back. Classics change every time we read them. The works themselves remain the same. They are timeless. But we have changed.

There is an advantage to revisiting classics. Since we already know the plot, a second visit lets us go beneath the surface and uncover their deeper layers. Little wonder that jazz artists use classics or popular songs to dig deeper and improvise.

Classics age like wine because people discover and rediscover them, putting them in newer perspective.

Not as important as it seems

These words you are reading on your screen right now are not as important as they seem.

The focusing illusion is fundamental to our thinking process. Daniel Kahneman describes it when he says “nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it”.

The focusing illusion is important from an evolutionary perspective. The moment something catches our attention, we are wired to consider it as being important – like the smell of smoke, movement in the grass or bright red fruits in the bush.

But in today’s world, this tendency distorts our perception of what is essential. All those extra words in that long-winded speech seem important to its speaker. In a long email that could’ve been conveyed in three sentences, every word seems important to our colleague who is composing it. This blog post could have certainly been shorter. Every creator struggles with leaving in the essential and editing out whatever isn’t.

Similarly, our environment is filled with noise, vying for our attention. The ringing desk phone has been replaced by smartphones chiming in each of our pockets. And once we look at them, we accord them more importance than they are worth.

An essentialist has trained herself to cut through the noise and pick out the essential. A seasoned journalist distinguishes herself from her peers by listening to the same conference, but writing a more compelling report about its essence.  A journal is a record where we revisit the most important moments of the day. It isn’t a coincidence that journal and journalist are derived from the same root.

Hindsight comes with the benefit of being a better judge of the essential than the present moment. Therefore, a regular journaling practice can be an effective antidote to the limitations of the focusing illusion.

Inspiration: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less – Greg McKeown

Between analysis and synthesis

An expert is one who synthesizes fundamentals into a seamless whole.

But as learners, we all start with the fundamentals. When a little kid sits down at a piano, he learns to play the individual notes, and how each of them sound. A budding chess player learns about individual pieces and how they move on the board.

As they progress, musicians think about notes in relation to one another. They learn about intervals – the spaces between the notes, and chords – the harmony of several notes played together. A seasoned chess player evaluates a position not based on individual pieces, but where they placed on the board and how they work with each other. For a chess Grandmaster looking at a single configuration on the 64 squares of the chessboard is equivalent to a beginner looking at a piece in isolation.

Once experts become teachers, they have to move from synthesis to analysis. The way masters construct chord progressions or evaluate chess positions can appear mystical to their students. They need to step back to the fundamentals and explain to their students how they put things together.

The mark of a great teacher is to move from analysis to synthesis like descending a staircase and guide a student through every step of the way.

Inspiration: The art of learning – Josh Waitzkin

Leaving something behind…

Ernest Hemingway left his writing unfinished every night.

Hemingway did not write until he had described an idea or a plot entirely. He always stopped before he was done so that when he resumed the next day, he had a foothold to start from.

Terry Laughlin, the expert swimming coach, advises us to stop swimming and get out of the pool before we are totally spent. That unfulfilled urge to swim serves as motivation to return the next day.

My rare visits to museums usually stretched on for more than four hours – going through every level, and viewing every exhibit. Once I made my visits shorter, I enjoyed them more and I went more often. If we push on till we extract the last bit of fun from an activity, we are less likely to come back another time. If a phone call with that old friend stretches on for two hours, we are likely to put off having another conversation for a year.

Leaving an activity at its peak comes from having a mentality of abundance. By doing so, we increase the likelihood of there being a next time.

What does that meeting cost?

Meetings are infamous for being a waste of time. 67% of all meetings are failures.

And yet, we see our virtual calendars filled with meeting blocks. Anybody is allowed to mark us down for an hour of our time, often without a specific agenda or objective. Periodically, we see entire teams and departments with a hundred members or more dial into a meeting.

What does this translate to in money terms?

Let us say about 10 executives attend a meeting. And each one of them earns an average of €30 per hour. If the meeting goes on for an hour, it costs the firm €300. The person who called that meeting is then responsible for deriving at least €300 of value from it. If the same employee who calls a wasteful hour-long meeting was caught squandering €300 of the company’s funds, they would be fired.

We do not value our time in the same manner that we value money.

For longer sessions, it can get worse. A day long workshop with 10 such people costs €2,400. A two-day training with 40 attendees? A whopping €19,200 plus travel costs. I have attended few workshops or trainings where I have seen a contribution commensurate to the resources we pour into them.

The time value of money – how the value of money is discounted with time is a fundamental accounting concept. We need to talk more about the money value of time.

Inspiration: Alex Cowan’s online course on Digital Product Management

Memory and conditioning

What separates memory from conditioning?

Every experience in our life leaves an impression on our brains. As we walk down a street, our eyes notice colours, designs and faces. Our unconscious mind continually scans what we see, and directs us towards certain things. That is how we are able to pick out a pretty face, the facade of a beautiful building or oncoming traffic as we walk through a crowded street. An impression is, by definition, an imprint. Our memory is a a collection of these impressions that we can remember.

However, some of these impressions can modify our behaviour. If we fell sick eating the food at a restaurant, we are unlikely to enjoy a meal there ever again. If a certain person wronged us, we are unlikely to trust them again, and by extension, people who remind us of them. Conditioning is that automatic process by which our response to a past event becomes more frequent and predictable. The conditioning from an experience can remain even after its memory has faded, and oftentimes it can lead to biases and prejudice in our judgments.

It is the difference between remembering and response that distinguishes memory from conditioning. If memory is what we take away from our present, conditioning is what our experiences take away from our presence.

Accepting compliments

It requires two people for a generous act to manifest – a giver and a receiver. In the absence of a graceful receiver, generosity can turn into awkwardness.

Every genuine compliment is a generous act through which a person acknowledges your contribution, and cares enough to let you know. And yet, this isn’t clear to many of us. There are several generous compliments I have brushed off with affected modesty. As I’ve grown up, I have realized how compliments are rare, and it is this scarcity that helps me acknowledge its value.

To have a compliment accepted feels good, while its rejection can feel like stepping on somebody’s toes. To gracefully accept a compliment isn’t hard. A simple thank you goes a long way.

Nurturing intuition

During my childhood I often heard the story whose protagonist was a cat. Whenever this cat closed its eyes, it had the habit of assuming that the world ceased to exist. This story was used to point out instances where somebody denied the existence of whatever they are unaware or unconscious of.

Speaking about the unconscious, our intuition resides in our unconscious minds. Daniel Kahneman defines intuition as knowing how to do something without knowing how we know it. The very meaning of intuition has a sense of unawareness is built into.

Several experts harness their intuition to perform at the highest levels – like the fireman who pulls his crew out of a burning house just seconds before it collapses. Or the Grandmaster playing speed chess, whipping out moves in seconds that even experts would require hours to understand. Or that seasoned real-estate salesman who reads the subtle cues on her customer’s face, looks at her watch a couple of time and pushes them into a quick purchase.

Compared to the limited nature of our working memories, the power of our unconscious mind is extensive. And one could train it by making predictions and testing them with feedback in everyday situations. While cooking a meal, we all exercise our intuition by adding a new ingredient and simmering the dish for 10 minutes with the hope of improving its taste.

By opening our eyes to our intuition, we are training it to be a powerful force that aids us like a mysterious tailwind. By closing our eyes to it, like that cat in our story, we continue to deny its existence and limit its capabilities.

Why timeless wisdom is cryptic

What are some of the wisest words you have heard? Here are the ones that come to my mind as I type this out:

“Man is condemned to be free…” – Juan Paul Sartre

“To see the world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour” – William Blake

“We suffer more in our imagination than in reality.” – Seneca

“Arjuna, there are two paths, one of return and the other of no return. The wise, the connected, know the difference and choose the one of no return.” – The Bhagavad Gita

Knowledge is discovered by all of us, each adding to the whole. Wisdom is rediscovered by each of us, one at a time. – Naval Ravikant

Most wisdom is poetic. As profound as it gets, it is also profoundly cryptic. But why does it have to be so?

Ever since the enlightened eras of scientific progress, we have been taught to think critically and concretely. Any scientific hypothesis is an assertion that can be challenged and disproved by conducting the right experiments. And these experiments are replicable. Science is a map that explains the intricate workings of the world, and our education steeps this training into our blood – of creating and seeking concrete maps.

However, the workings of our inner selves are more complicated. We understand several facets of the external world, such as the trajectory of a cannonball, far more precisely than the inner workings of our brain. Every one of us is differently wired and has to follow different paths for inner discovery. Past a point, concrete maps break down. One person’s map would simply make no sense to another.

Contrast maps with a compass. A compass merely points us in in a certain direction. Navigating with a compass alone is much harder than using it with a map. And philosophical truth, which unlike science has remained fundamentally unchanged for several thousands of years, works like a compass. It favours poetic subtlety over the concrete lines and markings we see on a map – poetry that resonates with us, inspires us and serves as our compass.

Maybe a day would come where we understand the workings of the human mind as precisely as we understand the flight of a cannonball. But until we get there, it is up to each one of us to dig deeper to find our own way, using the subtle discoveries of other wise persons as our guiding posts.

By doing so every one of us turns into an explorer, discovering a new land. Tellingly, the earliest explorers set out on their discoveries using compasses, and not maps.