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 – I was left puzzled. I thought I knew what 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

Life’s shortcuts

While cooking a batch of pasta, amateur cooks often add some oil to keep it from sticking to the pan. Alas, this is a mistake. Italian cooks everywhere will tell you how adding oil to the pasta prevents it from integrating well with the sauce.

Learning how to cook pasta doesn’t require us to make the same mistake. Somebody has already done that before and it is quicker to learn from their mistake. We use this principle of surrogation (learning from other people’s experience) each time we follow a recipe. We could do more to harness this principle outside the kitchen.

It is a human tendency to underestimate the power of surrogation, especially with our life’s most important decisions. In an experiment, a sample of women were asked to predict how much they would enjoy a speed date with a particular man. Some women decided based on looking at his personal profile and a photograph. Others knew nothing about him other than asking another woman (a stranger) how much she had enjoyed her speed date with him. The second group predicted their levels of enjoyment far better than the first. But both groups had expected the opposite to be true, and strange as it may sound, both groups opted to have the photograph and profile for their next date despite knowing these results.

Surrogation doesn’t come naturally to us. It might feel more authentic to learn from our own experience, but it is efficient to learn from somebody else’s.

Only a fool learn’s from his own mistakes. A wise man learns from other people’s mistakes. – Otto von Bismark


Take the path of most Resistance

Electricity takes the path of least resistance. Our search for meaning does not follow this law.

An internal force prevents us from getting what is most valuable from us. It fosters procrastination, dilutes ambition, rationalizes failures and prods us into self-sabotage. Steven Pressfield calls this internal enemy the ‘Resistance’.

We all have experienced the Resistance in one form or the other. It turns up precisely when we wish to do valuable work. The more meaningful our mission, the stronger the Resistance.

We are most scared of talking to the person we have a crush on. We are most scared of pursuing an unconventional, yet meaningful career. We are most scared of committing ourselves to a worthy cause. If it isn’t important in a life-changing sort of way, the Resistance doesn’t get in the way. It steps aside and lets us through.

When you started your career, which of your aspirations frightened your ‘well-wishers’ the most? As you pivot out of a meaningless job, which of your options seem most daunting?

Our search for meaning requires us to take the path of most Resistance.

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.


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.