What Twitter got right

The only real Twitter feature is the character limit. That such a constraint can even be an advantage is noteworthy, let alone helping Twitter become a social media giant.

Not all constraints are bad. Traffic rules, queues and data privacy laws make our lives better. Twitter’s character forces people to communicate the essence of their thoughts, and rewards them for it. Sure – you can start tweetstorms, but they are more inconvenient than free-flowing prose in a status window. And that deliberate inconvenience has boosted Twitter 261 million strong user base, and pushed its market cap past $30 billion.

At the heart of embracing constraints is the humility required to understand that our “free-will” is constantly limited, distorted and manipulated by our environment. This humility frees us to redesign our environments, add constraints and nudge ourselves to go where we seek to go.


Experts seem to have extraordinary memory in matters pertaining to their field. University professors read hundreds of papers, but can recollect a nugget of information they read years back. Chess players can recall entire games move-by-move from their childhood. Expert memory seems mystical to their students and people outside their domain.

And yet, the same people do not have great memory overall. They are just as likely to forget their car-keys, birthdays and anniversaries of their spouses or to leave the milk on the stove for too long.

Memory, therefore, is both domain specific and a result of training. Experts learn how to glean the essence from the information they peruse. Seasoned academics can summarize the essence of 10-page research papers into four to five bullet points. By sticking to what is important, their brain compresses all that information into a nugget that they store and retrieve at will. Their brain works much like a computer, zipping and unzipping information into their working memory.

On the other hand, as students and lay-persons are are much likelier to get lost in the details rather skim the essence of articles or research papers. What they read today remains fresh in their memory for a few hours but rapidly plunges as the weeks and months pass by.

People do not have “good” or “bad” memories – just trained and untrained ones. To increase one’s memory is to become great at gathering the essence – to summarize meetings, to take notes and to keep journals. While expert memory seems mystic, it is simply the effect of focusing on the essence in a particular field again and again and again. 

When the iron is hot

Anger is often seen as a destructive emotion. The Buddhists liken anger to a holding a hot coal in our hand before we throw it at our enemy.

The stoic method to deal with anger is to observe it and let it subside just as easily as it comes. Stoics recognize the feeling of anger and ensure that it does not have a grip over their actions. Separating one’s self from one’s anger is a deliberate act that is mastered with years of practice. But adopting this perspective relegates anger to a merely a counterproductive emotion.

An alternate perspective is to channel anger into a creative force. Opponents knew better than to taunt Michael Jordan on the basketball court because once he was riled up, he turned unstoppable. Josh Waitzkin, the chess prodigy turned martial artist, mastered the art of transmuting his anger into his best chess games or jujitsu performances. Under the right circumstances, anger replaces lethargy with action, inspires clarity and increases our resolve to fight injustice – just as it fueled struggles for freedom, civil rights and gender equality.

Anger is often destructive and wasteful, but that need not always be the case.

Planting a seed in the unconscious mind

As a gardener, a most fulfilling feeling is to see a growth spurt in one of your plants. The unconscious mind does the same thing to our ideas.  Several creative geniuses such as Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison have harnessed the benefit of unconscious inspiration. Stephen King talks about how inspiration comes to us from everywhere – and that as writers, all we need to do is to take note of it when it knocks on our door.

In my own experience with writing this blog, I have found how effective it is to sleep on an idea for a post. Just before I close my eyes, I decide on what I would write the next morning. When I wake up, the idea is well formed and its connections with other concepts are clear in my mind. As I sit down to write, the words come out in a blessed flow, sometimes garnished with analogies and anecdotes. Those moments are easily the most rewarding ones for a writer.

Planting ideas in the unconscious mind isn’t something we do often enough. On realizing the limitless potential here, we can be more purposeful with the use of what several great innovators have chanced upon in their everyday lives.

Leaving the puzzle unsolved

A few months ago, a few colleagues and I went on a team-building outing to an “Escape Room”. For the uninitiated, every escape room has a series of puzzles to be solved as a team within a stipulated time. The scenarios here can range from solving murder mysteries to having one hour to defuse a doomsday plot that threatens to destroy the earth. The venue usually arranges for a guide to accompany us, explain the case and ensure that things are going fine.

Our own case, was a murder mystery – a South-American politician who was assassinated amidst a drug scandal. We had to solve a series of puzzles, with occasional assistance from the young guide who waited outside our room. The setting was quite cliched. The whole experience felt a bunch of interns had put the scene together with puzzles from the internet. We solved the puzzle in the nick of time – in 57 minutes. Despite what I said about the setting and the puzzles, everybody on the team was delighted with the experience. This got me thinking as to what really happened there, and why we ended up enjoying the experience so much.

Looking back at the whole experience, the role of the guide stood out. At certain moments, she dropped us hints and clues to ensure that we made progress. At the same time, she never gave us the solution to our puzzles. In the end, all my teammates were happy that we had solved the case ourselves, conveniently forgetting that we had been shepherded through it all along.

Everybody loves solving puzzles. There are fewer delights than solving a riddle or a difficult problem on your own. Looking at the solution simply does not feel rewarding. Under these circumstances, as people who serve as guides, teachers, consultants, therapists, counsellors, trainers and Escape Room hosts, we would do well to lead our audience to the solution, but give them the feeling of solving it themselves. This requires more restraint than you’d think. When we are experts in a particular domain, no sooner than we understand a problem, a solution flashes in our mind. And then, we itch to jump in, offer the solution and resolve it. However, doing that robs the person with the problem of the gratifying feeling of solving it themselves.

Even with a poorly designed setting, our escape room turned out to be a wonderful experience. While we did emerge successful in the nick of time, behind the scenes was a young guide who dropped enough clues to egg us on, but showed enough restraint to lead us to believe that we did it on our own.

Well played, young lady. Well played.

Risk aversion and regret aversion

Risk aversion has taught us well over the centuries. We have learnt to save for a rainy day and are reminded of it by stories involving ants and grasshoppers. We guard ourselves with insurance, enforce stringent public safety standards, and impose stringent standards for medicines, cars and even financial plans. We realize how fragile our well-being is and have built excellent products and a culture centered around risk mitigation. We are masterful at capping our downside.

We do not hear often about regret aversion.

Regret is caused by our failure to distinguish between real risk and illusory risk. Real risks are what we should continue to guard against. Illusory risks feel like real risks, but like animals that mimic predators, are actually much safer. Most of us fear speaking in public or putting our creations out into the world.

A combination of software and the internet gives us an new playground to create, to share and to bust myths about what merely feels risky. Failure in the real world can cost several people’s lives or result in our being outcasts. Failure in most software is merely a couple of hours of downtime. Failure in starting an internet company gives us several lessons and a great story to trade in for a successful one.

If avoiding risk is capping our downside, avoiding regret is to uncap our upside.

The internet creates, we curate

In the past, most learning and training was a do-It-yourself endeavour. Schools hired the best teachers. Universities crafted their own courses and curriculum. Companies created their own employee training programmes.

The only exception here were books. Therefore, we built libraries and curated them.

Today, great education need not be created by everybody – it is already out there on the internet as e-books, articles, video lectures and online courses. Institutions merely need to curate this information and they can build themselves world class educational programmes.

What most people haven’t yet realized is that world class education just lies a click away.

Disagreement – the easy way and the hard way

We can often sense it when a conversation devolves into a disagreement – frequent use of the word “but”, raised eyebrows and defensive responses. Given this situation there is the hard way and the easy way to proceed.

The easy way is to dig in deeper with our argument – to adopt a more dramatic stance, to invest more force and to speak louder. A little anger often accompanies and amplifies this approach. The easy approach feels good in the moment, but ends with our partner raising their defensive walls and closing themselves off.

The hard way is to realize that the other person has a different point of view, and to invest in understanding the way they see the world. This implies a return to listening and empathy when a conversation turns difficult. This response is hard and feels terrible in the moment. It doesn’t come to us naturally. And yet, it lies at the crux of expert negotiation.

As philosopher Martha Nussbaum says, anger is how we seek to create an illusion of control where we feel none


Regret and fear

Regret starts off as a seed and slowly grows as time ticks by. Our regrets of chances not taken last week are mere saplings, most of which would die. But the seeds of regret from 10 years ago take root and start growing into trees that are hard to uproot.

Fear starts off as a monster, and shrinks as we engage with it. We fear the chances that lie ahead of us. We fear unlikely consequences, unknown risk and anonymous enemies. The more we unpack that fear, understand the risks and evaluate the consequences, the more the fear itself shrinks – form a monster to a mere mouse.

Regret and fear are two sides of the same coin, and they grow in opposite directions. Their common enemy, though, is engagement.

3 ways to “align stakeholders”

The larger an organization is, the more responsibilities are divided, and the more it tends to work in silos. Within organizations, a large chunk of time is spent in explaining processes and decisions to keep everybody updated.

There are broadly three ways to do this. Here they are in the ascending order of effectiveness, but descending order of how good they feel in the moment.

1. Meetings and calls – To get all concerned parties into the same room, or on the same telephone line for a particular window of time. One person speaks at a time, and at a rate at which the entire room can understand what is being said. Meetings are expensive, and are often a waste of time. And yet, they happen so often because they feel urgent, and we feel good the moment we call them.

2. Emails – To send structured information to all the parties concerned as memos that they can read and respond to at their own convenience. Email is less expensive, but harder to moderate – anybody marked on it can take the email thread wherever they wish to. Emails carry some urgency and their flip-side is their tendency to interrupt deep work or to go off on unrelated tangents.

3. Documentation – The most effective means to convey information is often a well written specification, well organized minutes, a neat flow-chart or a crisp design document. When they are stored centrally and are up to date, anybody can access them instantly without any collateral cost to other people in the firm. And yet, good documentation is rare because it feels terrible and thankless.

Documentation is the most effective means to align on processes and information. We talk about getting everybody on the same page –  not in the same meeting room or the same email thread. But writing a document also feels the least gratifying. No wonder most of us suffer unproductive meetings and incomplete documentation.

To move water uphill, you need a pump – such as clear incentives that encourage clean documentation. From my experience as a management consultant, I have seen tremendous untapped potential within organizations here.

Credits: To Tim Urban for the Instant Gratification Monkey below.

documentation is the best.png

The fear of failure to start

We hear a lot about the fear of failure – of staking our status quo for something bolder and closer to our heart. But we do not speak enough about its opposite – the fear of failure to start.

The status-quo is alluring not just to our own selves, but also to people who are closest to us and who wish us well. Seeing other people in an image different from what we are used to is a source of cognitive strain, which most of us go quite a long way to avoid. Psychologists call this the status-quo bias.

Conventional wisdom holds us back from taking leaps of faith, even when the risk is only illusory rather than real. Failure itself is often perceived as a risk before we embark on a venture. In prospect, we humans are risk averse. However, what people end up regretting the most several years into the future are the changes they did not take – not the ones they did take. Our minds are masterful at rationalizing our choices after we make them. It isn’t as as good at rationalizing our “non-choices”.

The conventional recipe to avoid failure is to hush the little voice in our head, put our heads down and continue doing what we do everyday. The irony is that the surest way to fail at something is to fail to start.

Compliment mining

Sincere compliments are curious creatures. They are incredibly valuable and do not seem to cost anything. But they do not come cheap either. They have to be earned, both by the giver and the receiver.

Our language hints at their value. We pay compliments just as we pay money or attention. The world today, at least the internet giants, are tapping every minute of our attention. On the other hand, compliments are rare. They are untapped gold-mines

At the same time, compliments do not come cheap. Insincere compliments are worthless and can actually cost the giver something – their credibility. A sincere compliment requires us to care, to be generous and to notice what the world misses quite often.

Compliments require sincere effort. Just as every nugget of gold required a Californian panner (wearing denims) to invest hours of back-breaking labour or every bitcoin that is mined requires investment in coding, mathematics, IT infrastructure and abandoned garage space.

Time to put on a hard hat.

On the fingertips of intent

We humans live on the fingertips of intent. Our vocabulary reflects this quality through a variety of terms.

Confirmation bias – Our tendency to actively and selectively seek information that reinforces our existing beliefs and world-view.

Self-fulfilling prophesy – A prediction that causes itself to become true, due to positive feedback between the belief and our behaviour.

Pygmalion effect – Where other people’s high expectations of a target person causes him/her to improve and live up to them.

Golem effect –  The opposite of the Pygmalion effect, where other people’s low expectations of a target person turns into truth.

The law of attraction – The belief that when you want something so badly, the universe gifts it to you.

Affirmation – A wishful statement that people repeatedly make to themselves, or write down, to increase their likelihood of actually happening.

PropagandaInformation of a biased / misleading nature that intends to further certain political views.

To predict your future, do not ask an astrologer. Just consult your intentions and those of the people around you.

Venturing deeper into a jungle

It is easy to sell vegetables at a farmers’ market. Or to apply to a posting on an online job portal. Or to spam thousands of email addresses with advertisements.

But humans are incredibly efficient at seizing easy opportunities. Therefore, whatever is easy is also crowded. These crowds engage in what Seth Godin calls the race to the bottom, with the prize always goes to the lowest bidder. This bidder is then forced to bid even lower in the next round.

To go in the other direction is to embrace difficulty, deliberate practice and discomfort. It is to leave the well worn path and find new, creative ways of addressing problems. But it is also to leave the crowd behind.

When we venture deeper into a jungle, we leave most other people at its periphery.

Listening deep

When we listen to music without a trained ear, we listen flat on the surface. We notice the lead singer or the interesting solos, but we listen only to the most prominent part of the composition at any given time.

When a musician with a trained ear listens, she listens deep rather than merely on the surface. In a jazz number, she listens to the saxophone solo over the chord progression, like all of us do. But in addition, she notices the pianist’s left and right hands push down on the keys with different time signatures. She notices how the drummer intersperses brushes and rim strokes into his beat. She also follows the walking bass, which suggests which turn the melody would take next. The song comes across to her as a perfect harmony of all these elements.

Whenever we speak, we also include several layers of information in what we say – with our choice of words, the tone of our voice, the expressions on our faces, the gestures of our hands, and the words we emphasize. Just as it takes a true aficionado to appreciate good jazz or sublime classical music, so too does it take a deep listener to empathize and truly understand the spoken word.

Inspiration: The Dying Art of Conversation – Celeste Headlee’s interview on the Knowledge Project podcast

Invite your Twitter timeline to dinner

At college, we hung out with a select group of people. We lunch everyday with a handful of colleagues. We are close to a selection of friends. We invite a small number of people to the dinner parties we host at home. In all these cases, we are purposeful about whom we choose to engage with.

We do so not to be exclusive or elite, but because our mental bandwidth and attention is limited. At a two-hour party with fifty invitees, we can, at most, have a meaningful conversation with about five of them. The knack of selecting those five people is second nature to us.

And yet, we follow thousands of people on Twitter or Facebook. We somehow assume (or those companies convince us) that our attention online is unlimited.

I propose a thought exercise here. Let us say you invite your Twitter timeline to dinner and give each of them a seat at the table. How many of those voices would you wish to listen to? With how many would you rather that they shut up?

Once you figure that out, use the “mute” button well. Or better yet, one that says “unfollow”.

The written word is still the richest medium

Despite being one of our oldest means of communication, writing remains the richest means to express ideas in the 21st century. The learning derived from a focused hour of reading can be matched by few other mediums.

To explore why, let us look at the writing process. Books are always written through several iterations of reading and editing. Authors start with an outline and scribble their first drafts. They then make revisions as needed to the main message of their draft. Then comes the painstaking part of combing each sentence, paragraph and word for edits. If that wasn’t enough, it is then sent to copy writers and publishers for further changes. Through all these changes, an author can quite easily get through at least five drafts of a book before it is printed. All of that work ensures that you get the most bang for the buck for every second you read and every pie you spend on a book.

Today, we are surrounded by other mediums that seem like substitutes for reading. But each of these mediums typically start with the written word and dilute it to suit their audience. Writing for radio, for instance, has stringent rules about sentence structure and complexity – to avoid subordinate clauses and limit the number of ideas to one idea per sentence. The problem with television is that it continues to be expensive, and has to be diluted for mass consumption. Every other audio-visual niche in the internet is yet to match the richness and refinement of the written word. Besides, books will always retain one advantage over every other medium – that they have stood the test of time. Today, I can pick up a book that has was stored in the library of Alexandria two thousand years ago, and read it in the original.

The written word also offers the reader more flexibility than other mediums. I can choose to re-read the first paragraph, slow down on the second one and skim through the third and fourth ones. The experience of reading is an act of co-creation between the reader and the writer. As a writer I can describe characters, but as a reader, I am free to imagine their appearance and the tone of their voice.

In a world filled with distractions, it is easy to lose sight of the value of reading (and writing). Every minute spent in reading offers us the richest second-hand learning experience possible. Every minute not spent reading is to forego that opportunity.

No time to rush

There are barely 15 minutes left for the next meeting. Perhaps, it makes sense to rush through the conversation we’re having with a parent, a sibling or a spouse.

But what if the process of rushing itself got in the way of our conversation itself? What about the cost of rushing? On a hike, have you noticed how when we walk twice as fast as our regular speed, we only observe half as much?

Rushing often entails a hidden cost. At times, this cost can be high enough to offset our frantic speed.

A metaphor for successful conversations

Successful conversations are ones where each party learns something from all the other parties involved. They are like playing catch.

A game of catch is wonderfully symmetrical, in that a player can only throw exactly as many times as he catches. It is ideally played with two people. In a friendly game, each player sets up his companion for success. If there are other people involved, they need to throw and catch the ball as well. If they do not, they are merely spectators.

It is striking how many parallels a game of catch has with a good conversation.

Inspiration: The Dying Art of Conversation – Celeste Headlee’s interview on the Knowledge Project podcast

Craftsmanship is like archaeology

I used to think of myself as a passable writer, until I wrote more often. Writers have to say what they think and have their readers think the same thing, while navigating the complex jungle of linguistic cognition.

First there are the basic rules – about using the correct grammar and style, favouring simpler words over complex ones, and making one’s writing honest, descriptive and vivid.

Then there is the rhythm underlying each sentence. Writers often juggle synonyms and adjectives until they create a crisp cadence or hit upon a serendipitous alliteration. All of that, while respecting the subject-verb-object order, which favours active constructions over passive ones.

With all of these nuances, we haven’t even departed from the construction of single sentences. All writers, from bestseller novelists to the ones who draft your refrigerator’s instruction manual, are storytellers. Sentences and paragraphs that follow each other need to tell our readers a compelling story, that help their readers climb higher on a ladder. The moment a rung is missing, their readers fall off and do not return.

And through that soliloquy, I have merely dusted the surface. The more I write, the more I know how much more there is to the craft of writing. I wager that any craftsman would something similar about their craft as well.

Craftsmanship, like archaeology, is the art of uncovering one layer of a craft, only to expose two more that are hidden.