What lies beneath that grudge?

Can grudges be of any use? Let us unpack them a little to find out.

Why do people do something with a grudge? In some cases, a grudge could be that person’s reaction to underlying injustice. Such as the poor boy who has to clean tables in a restaurant while most kids around him are going to school. Or lovers whose marriage is forbidden by society for caste or racial reasons.

In others, expectations plant the seed for a grudge. When reality gets in the way of those expectations, people harbour grudges. We all expect to have tolerable neighbours and good bosses. When we end up with an obnoxious neighbour who plays loud music late at night, or a boss whose temperament is fickle, a grudge could be the end result.

All grudges happen due to a feeling of indignation and our helplessness to deal with it. It denotes a lack of freedom that is either denied or not exercised. In case of the boy who is forced to work at an early age, it is freedom denied. With obnoxious neighbours or bosses, to some extent, it is freedom not exercised. In such situations we have several alternatives rather than to grit and bear the situation – to confront our neighbours or change our bosses. Our expectations are creatures of our own making, and we have the freedom to honour them or change them. A grudge here is an indication of our abdication of this freedom.

A grudge serves to inform us of either underlying injustice or sub-par expectation management. Either way, it is a reminder to change the status-quo, which we are often bound by.

Lean into the discomfort

It feels comfortable to review a lesson. It feels uncomfortable to close the text book and test ourselves.

It feels comfortable to practice one’s jokes in gatherings with friends and family. It feels uncomfortable to do it in front of a crowd of strangers.

It feels comfortable to do train at a lower heart rate. It feels uncomfortable to push past that zone into high intensity training.

And yet, we learn far more rapidly through those uncomfortable experiences than their comfortable alternatives.

That discomfort you feel is your friend. It is the feeling of your body creating muscle fiber, and your mind forging neural connections.

This will take just one minute

We all have a little gatekeeper within our head who decides what to let into our garden of attention.

Checking notifications, watching a quick video or uploading a photo. All of these actions promise to take up less than 5 minutes of our time. So our gatekeeper promptly lets them in.

But once they are inside, this gatekeeper falls asleep. Those activities then expand from the minute or two that they promised, to several hours. Only when several hours have passed does an alarm go off and the gatekeeper wakes up. And yet, the next time these activities show up, the gatekeeper swings the gate open again.

The most dangerous distractions are the smallest ones. For they great at tricking the gatekeeper within all our heads.

Decisions are emotions

It is popular knowledge that emotions do not mix well with decisions. The best leaders do not let their moods dictate their judgement. Nor do the best traders let a downturn upped their portfolio.

And yet, consider the parable of Buridan’s donkey. The fabled donkey stood at equal distances from a bale of hay and a bucket of water. This donkey was also hungry and thirsty in equal measure. Therefore, unable to decide whether to go towards the bale of hay or the bucket of water, it dies of both hunger and thirst.

The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied patients who had undergone brain surgery. His subjects could not feel emotions, but were otherwise unimpaired. Damasio then observed how they made decisions. These subjects were unable to make the simplest of decisions. They could not even get out of bed in the morning. They were paralyzed like Buridan’s donkey.

The best decision makers aren’t free from emotions. They are just more familiar with their emotional sides. And in real life, a donkey placed between hay and water would make its way towards one of them, at random. Donkeys are, after all, creatures with emotion.

Inspiration: Fooled by Randomness – Nassim Taleb

What is in a name?

McDonald’s

Daimler

Tata

Deloitte

Morgan Stanley

Kirkland & Ellis LLP

Initially, I thought that using a person’s name on a business was a sign of vanity. But that opinion has changed with time.

It is (and always has been) hard to start and run a business successfully. Most business fail in their first few years. Knowing that, how can any business get the first few customers to care about them and trust them?

By putting their name on the business, the founders of these businesses stick their neck out. They signal skin in the game. You can see this more frequently in businesses where trust is paramount. That is why banking, accounting and law firms follow this convention more than others.

There is more to getting your name on a business than vanity. Courage, for instance.

Reciprocity

The happiest of people are also the most generous and selfless.

The best speakers among us are also the best listeners.

Your ability to influence somebody depends on how open you are to be influenced by them.

Even in the world of inanimate objects, action is necessary to elicit reaction.

When you wish to receive something, what should you be first giving?

The rebellious mind

A student once asked his master to teach him how to meditate. His master gave him a simple task – to sit under a tree nearby and not think of monkeys. Needless to say, the minute the student closed his eyes, all that he could think of were monkeys of all forms and shapes.

This parable illustrates how the mind is a rebel. The mind does not like being told what to do – it promptly does the opposite. Quite fittingly, it is often referred to as the monkey mind.

The rebellious mind often gets in our way. When we rely on will-power, it causes us to procrastinate. Diversity and inclusiveness training does not work because merely asking people to be inclusive does not change their behaviour. Reverse psychology works because our minds do the opposite of what we them to. The psychologist Viktor Frankl would suggest to patients suffering from insomnia, that in order to fall asleep, they should try their best to stay wide awake.

The most effective way to get people to behave is not to lecture or sermonize them, but to institute systems and redesign their environment. The goal is to make the intended behaviour easy. Or better yet, to make the unintended behaviour impossible.

Why vs. Why not

“Do you want to do this?”

Two follow-up questions we hear often are “why” and “why not”.

The difference here is the default state. When we ask “why”, the default response is a no and the onus lies on the answer to change that to a yes. When we ask “why not”, the default response is a yes, and the onus lies on the answer to change that to a no.

We all know the power of a default response. So much so that the phrase “why not” isn’t really a question. It is synonymous with “yes”.

Most of us suffer from the problem of saying “yes” too easily. When you catch yourself saying “why not”, try and retrace your steps.

Show. Don’t tell

Good novelists know that it is better to demonstrate what a character feels rather than tell you about it. For instance, compare the two examples below:

“The little boy examined the ladybird curiously.”

“The boy looked at the ladybird with widened eyes. He counted six black spots on the little red insect. He picked it up, placed it on his palm and saw how it played dead. He set it down on a blade of grass and watched it climb up to the tip, spread its wings out and fly away across the meadow.”

At the end of the second description, you don’t just know about the boy’s curiosity. You feel like you know him.

The same principle applies to any virtue. Virtues are embodied, not advertised. They are demonstrated, not signaled. They are shown, not told about.

When somebody tells you about their honesty or humility, their virtues are suspect. When a startup tells you how they are disruptive, it is likely that they are not.

Real virtue is spoken about in third person, not first person.

An obstacle that is a blessing

Back in early 2016, my goal was to learn German as quickly as possible.

I first took the conventional route. I signed up for a certification and enrolled in classroom sessions. I bought textbooks and pored over them. I managed to clear the beginner certification, but I wasn’t satisfied with my progress.

My teacher mostly wasted time – he spoke to us in English for the most part. I could not push myself to study through the week – the textbooks were drab and boring. I skipped several classes because I felt that they were a waste of time. I wasn’t getting any listening or speaking practice. The classes were not cheap either. For the intermediate certification, which was considerably harder, I knew I had to change things.

I then explored online resources. I saw how a website offered free German courses structured around the beginner and intermediate levels. I used a variety of apps – ones that gamified language learning and helped me practice vocabulary. I found a conversation partner for speaking practice. I watched German sitcoms on Youtube and subscribed to podcasts for German learners. With this constellation of online resources, I managed to clear the intermediate certification by covering all my bases – speaking, reading, writing and listening.

When I resorted to learning German online, I had thought of how it would be a compromise. I had thought that in-person classroom sessions with a good teacher were surely superior. However, I realized how active self-paced learning online offered several advantages over passive classroom learning. I could choose material that was on par with my level. I wasn’t bound to a schedule. I could learn and practice on the go or at convenient times. I could select approaches that worked best for me. Besides, none of these online resources cost me any money.

We are anchored to approaches that are familiar and conventional. But an obstacle can turn out to be a blessing. By going around it, we may explore alternatives that are far superior to what we had always assumed was the best way.

Don’t confuse business with war

The business world is filled with metaphors that are derived from the world of combat.

To capture a market or a market share.”

Takeovers – hostile or otherwise.

To have a sales force.

To destroy the competition.

To conduct marketing campaigns.

To build a moat around your business.

To fight a price war. 

To headhunt talent.

And on and on…

Even the word “strategy” comes from the ancient Greek word for “general” in a military campaign.

But business is not war. War is the act of fighting over limited resources. War is a zero sum game. Business is the act of multiplying value that resources can yield. By definition, it is a positive sum game.

When we use war metaphors in business, we confuse business with war. We become obsessed with the competition. We employ aggression instead of cool-headed thinking. We build an air of desperation around unrealistic goals. We cut corners and use the ends to justify any means. And we fight zero-sum battles everyday instead of engaging in creative and profitable problem solving.

All might be fair in war. But business isn’t war.

Inspiration:  It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work – Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

 

Between law and order

Order isn’t merely a function of strong laws and strict enforcement. Instead, the best systems are designed to make orderly behaviour easier.

The road systems of a country offer an excellent example. In India, a recurrent problem on highways is slow moving trucks driving on the lanes meant for fast traffic. My dad pointed to one such truck and asked a traffic cop why he didn’t stop the truck and penalize the driver. The cop merely shrugged his shoulders in exasperation.

“We cannot do anything about that, sir.”

Ensuring safe and smooth driving goes well beyond following traffic rules. It relies on vehicles following traffic norms – stopping for oncoming traffic on narrow roads, slow moving traffic sticking to appropriate lanes, overtaking from the correct side and so on. And as the hapless cop indicated, it is often difficult to enforce road norms and etiquette through penalties. What you need, instead, are nudges.

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Nudges are features in an environment that induce people to behave well. On the roads, nudges can take the form of intelligent signs. The roads in Scotland offer several examples of good nudging. Take this Edinburgh street, for example, where the speed limit for a particular road is painted directly on the street itself. Such a sign serves two purposes – it is far easier for drivers to notice than on a board by the side. Further, several European tourists, who are used to driving on the opposite side of the road, would see those numbers upside down if they are driving on the wrong side. Painted arrow-marks and bus lanes in a different colour are all excellent examples of good nudging. As a result, people are awarded with more orderly traffic without the need for constant policing.

When a setup (such as Indian highways) doesn’t work too well, it is often not the individuals (drivers or traffic cops) that are to blame. It is usually the system’s design. Slow trucks drive occupy faster lanes in India because the slow lanes on most highways are either in a state of disrepair or random blockages (with barricades or stopped traffic) which requires heavy trucks to switch lanes often. A better designed system would make it easier for drivers of slow trucks to drive on the slow lanes.

To ensure order, the law and its stringent enforcement is often insufficient. What we need are well designed systems with nudges and cues to make good behaviour easier.

Beware of the down slope

Have you had a weekend vacation destroy your carefully cultivated diet or a regular exercise regimen?

Have you noticed how if it takes 40 days to build a good habit, it takes merely 4 days to build a bad one?

Sustaining a good habit is always an uphill climb. The gradient becomes less steep with time, but it continues to remain. A bad habit, on the other hand, is a downward slope that gets steeper with each day.

The taxi-driver thumb rule

Cab drivers in urban India have a reputation for being terrible drivers. They cut people off and veer across lanes to take turns, while honking as if their life depended on the incessant noise.

But this isn’t true of cab drivers everywhere. It is common wisdom in London that it is safest to step into a pedestrian crossing when a black-cab driver approaches it. Getting a black-cab driving license is incredibly difficult, and even minor traffic violations get the drivers in trouble with the licensing authorities. That is why these drivers are among the safest drivers in London.

Taxi-drivers are the most representative drivers in a particular road system. They spend the most amount of time on the road. They have their skin in the game. They are also experts in picking up on the norms and figuring out what works. If they are rewarded for honking and throwing their weight around, they would do that. If they are punished for these actions, they would try something else and eventually figure out whatever works.

The taxi-driver thumb rule serves as a measure of how well a road system is designed. It is also true that an Indian taxi drivers performs one of the world’s hardest jobs – spending 12 hours a day on a road system that is as chaotic, dangerous and emotionally draining. In a particular road system, the better behaved the cabs are, the better is its systemic design.

Who are the taxi-drivers of your system?

Ignore the daily analysts

Investors ought to avoid the daily analysts on news channels. Yes – the ones we see on TV. This is because they play different games. While analysts are rewarded for being right, investors earn or lose money based on how right they are. Let me illustrate the difference.

Consider a stock that observes the following movement in one week. Let us assume that both the analyst and the investor are “bullish” on the stock during this period.

Day 0: Rs 1000
Day 1: Rs 1010
Day 2: Rs 1017
Day 3: Rs 1024
Day 4: Rs 1020
Day 5: Rs 1060
Day 6: Rs 1064
Day 7: Rs 970

Based on the prices from the previous day, the stock price rises on 5 days out of 7. The analyst was right on about 70% of the days. The investor, though, is more concerned with net losses or gains. Since the closing price on day 7 was 970, she stands to lose Rs 30 per share. Besides, it is quite common for a stock to display a small upward trend over a long period to only to fall suddenly at the outbreak of bad-news or events beyond anybody’s control.

Be wary of taking advice from any professional whose incentives are not aligned with yours.

Separating science from scientists

Science is great, but individual scientists are dangerous – Nassim Taleb

Lord Kelvin is one of the most prodigious scientists to walk the earth. Kelvin was admitted to the Glasgow University at the age of ten, and since the age of twenty-two, he held a professorship in natural philosophy. He wrote 661 papers and gathered 69 patents. Among others, his contributions include:
– Inventing refrigeration
– Devising the scale of absolute temperature
– Enabling telegrams to be sent across oceans
– Inventing a modern mariner’s compass

The one shortcoming in his otherwise illustrious career was his inability to calculate the age of the Earth. Kelvin spent much of the second half of his career engaged with this question, but never came anywhere near the right answer. His first estimate was 98 million years, while admitting it could be as low as 20 million or as high as 400 million.  Through the course of his life, Kelvin became more assertive about his estimates. He revised the maximum number downwards from 400 million years to 100 million. Later, he put the number at 50 million years, and finally in 1897, about 10 years before his death, he asserted that the Earth was, at most, 24 million years old. Alas, he was far too wrong. Today, we know the Earth to be about 4500 million years old.

In 1904, a brilliant young scientist from New Zealand called Ernest Rutherford made a landmark finding. He presented new evidence to Lord Kelvin that a sample of uranium he had analysed was 700 million years old – way older than Kelvin’s estimate for the age of the Earth. Knowing that he was in the presence of a scientific giant, Rutherford was tactful and respectful in getting this message across. Lord Kelvin beamed at his presentation, but was unmoved by its argument. To his dying day, Kelvin didn’t believe the revised figures and went to his grave with the assumption that his most important contribution to science was his work on finding the age of the Earth.

The German physicist Max Planck said that science advances one funeral at a time. Pierre Azoulay and his colleagues recently investigated this assumption and found it to be true based on publications made in a field, and their likelihood to be cited. “The loss of a luminary,” they write, “provides an opportunity for fields to evolve in new directions that advance the frontier of knowledge.”

Although science itself is a field that is dedicated to the impartial and unequivocal pursuit of rational truth, the scientists who further it are human. And with humans, scientific or not, the emotional tail wags the rational dog. Therefore, in our worlds of emotional human decision makers, we need systems like the scientific method to ensure that the pursuit of the truth is not forestalled by our tendency to hold on to our truth.

The problem with “priorities”

The word “priority” appeared as a noun in the English language as far back as the 1400’s in the singular form. It stayed only in the singular form for 500 years thereafter. Only in the 1900’s, did we start using the word “priorities”.

Just think about the word “priority”. It denotes whatever is prior, or first. In an ordered set, there can only ever be one first item. And yet, in the modern world, we wish to bend this reality and have “priorities” – more than one first items. It stems from our misconception that we can get everything done, all at once.

Try asking yourself every now and then – “what is the most important thing in this very moment?”. Do you have more than one answer? Do you have the priorities problem?

Inspiration: Essentialism – Greg McKeown

The behavioural case against daily trading

It is popular wisdom that daily trading in the stock market is dangerous. Here’s some perspective on why it is quite incompatible with how our brains work.

Firstly, let us model a good stock in simple terms. Let us say that this stock costs Rs 1000, and has a 51% chance of going up by Rs 10, and a 49% chance of falling by Rs 10 every single day. On a daily basis, the stock is likely to fluctuate up and down in the following fashion

Day 0: 1000
Day 1: 990
Day 2: 1000
Day 3: 1010
Day 4: 1020
Day 5: 1010
and so on….

Further, within each day, the stock goes up and down on in intervals that are random.

Now let us see what happens if we purchase this stock and leave it alone for a year (without looking at the daily price). Assuming that the market is open for 250 days a year, if that stock is left alone, the expected value of that stock at the end of one year is:

1000 + 250 x 10 x (0.51 -0.49) = 1500 Rs

Even with a meager spread of 2% (51% – 49%), this stock would yield substantial returns (50%) at the end of a year – more than most good stocks. Funnily enough, the daily series that we see above converges to the same result if the stock is left alone for a year.

But here is the catch. Our brains are loss averse. We are hurt more by losses than by gains. We are, on average, twice as likely to be hurt by losses than by gains of equal amounts. In other words, a stock needs to gain Rs 20 to offset the pain we feel when it loses Rs 10.

When we look at the series of stock prices above and see the stock going below the reference price of Rs 1000 (which can often happen) or if we see the stock losing money on three subsequent days (there’s a ~12% chance of this happening), the daily trader is likely to intervene and make changes to the portfolio. With hourly and minutely tracking in our connected world, this problem only grows even stronger. Needless to say, our interventions to our portfolio resets the annual equation we have mentioned above, which works only if the stock is left undisturbed even during periods of down-time.

As paradoxical as that might seem, our behaviour makes it beneficial to invest in a bunch of stocks and forget about them for long periods than to respond to daily fluctuations in the market. This strategy pays off even without considering the additional investment of time and emotional stress that is involved in daily trading. In other words, the human psyche does not set us up for success with trading on a daily basis.

It is true that traders can steel their nerves against daily fluctuations in the market and respond to them without much emotion. But even for professionals, doing that is much harder than it sounds. As for casual investors in the stock market, it is far more beneficial to buy some stocks and stay away from market prices or the constant noise from business channels for extended periods.

Inspiration: Fooled by Randomness – Nassim Taleb

No. 600 – An ode to constraints

The word “constraint” is synonymous with difficulties. It reminds us of restrictions, limits, prohibitions and curtailment of freedom.

To make a commitment to write one blog post a day is severely constrained. It implies that I cannot spend more than a limited amount of time on each idea. My posts seldom exceed 300 words. I cannot support several of my beliefs with carefully researched facts. I cannot attach an image or a sketch to go with every post. I am also forced to have something to say every single day and hit the publish button, even if my mind screams out that the post isn’t “worthy”.

And yet, if I hadn’t embraced this constraint 600 days ago, I wouldn’t be here 600 posts later. While constraints eliminate several possibilities, they often serve as conduits for creativity. As they do in Sonnets and Haiku.

600 posts in, I am grateful for the constraints that have served me so well.