The key to effortless execution

Eating rice with one’s hands is an intricate and skillful act.

A few years ago, I would have laughed this suggestion off. We Indians have grown up eating rice with our hands. I never considered this to be skillful – even toddlers can do it with little effort. Only when I moved to the Western world, I realized how eating with one’s own hands can be hard work. I once switched to my untrained left hand and experienced this myself. My clumsy fingers grasped around in vain to pick up the slippery, elusive grains.

Our habits and routines as Indians make eating with our hands effortless. In the same vein, people in South-East Asia can polish off a bowl of rice with chopsticks. Europeans make large pizzas disappear down their throats with a few flicks of their knifes and forks. All of that is hard work for people from outside those cultures.

The key to making any hard skill seem easy is to make it a part of one’s daily routine. Once we have established a habit, we have the luxury of taking our progress for granted.

Do something once in a while and it feels like a struggle. Do it everyday and it turns effortless without your realization.

Why interviewers should have more FOMO

Everybody knows the cost of hiring a bad candidate. What we don’t know well enough is the cost of foregoing a great one.

A bad hire can be devastating to a company. They stick around for months after hiring and bring down the productivity of entire teams. The duration of their presence in the company serves as a constant and painful reminder of one’s mistake, prodding us to not make such mistakes in the future.

Letting go of a good hire can be equally damaging. But this is harder for us to realize because we don’t have constant reminders of how they are doing a fabulous job elsewhere. We only see the losses we inherit, but not the gains we forego. This asymmetry causes us to be loss averse as interviewers.

TripleByte helps companies hire developers and has data on thousands of technical interviews. On crunching their numbers, they found that even the best developers didn’t clear every technical interview. Despite what their interviewers thought, those candidates weren’t flawed, but those interview processes were.

Everybody looks stupid on some questions in an interview. A small quirk in the interview process can cause people to reject a good candidate. Questions like ‘what is your biggest weakness’, or ‘why do you not want this job’ are intended for candidates to trip up.

As an interviewer though, one ought to emphasize on strengths rather than weaknesses. Our strengths are what make us unique. Every successful company is a handful of people with unique strengths. Cutting out weaknesses as an interview strategy will merely  result in recruiting a mediocre bunch of middlers.

We are bound by what we see – bad hires that have ruined ruins our company’s culture. What you do not see hurts performance all the same – like that rock star who works for your competitor instead.

Make no mistake

What is the best approach to learning table tennis? To learn a flashy flicks and smashes or to merely return the ball and stay in the game?

Our inspiration mostly stems from experts. With table tennis, this would involve looking at rallies where pros outdo each other using techniques they have practiced for decades – smashes, spin, chops, flicks and the like.

Looking at pros work their magic leads us to imitate them. We often leap forward to learn these techniques rather than mastering the important, but boring art of simply returning the ball every time.

But the objective of table tennis is to return the ball. By definition, the player who fails to do this loses a point. The most fundamental skill needed in most racquet sports is to merely stay in the game.

The problem with flashy is that it often comes with a hidden cost. Every attempt at a smash comes with a risk of making an unforced error. Every hour invested in learning how to smash keeps us from mastering the fundamentals.

The most effective way to master any skill is to focus on the important, but boring. Jumping to flashy seems like progress at first, but is oftentimes the opposite.

The value of going around in circles

I used to consider NASCAR as one of the world’s most pointless motor sports. But listening to David Heiemeier Hansson talk about motor sports changed my mind.

In NASCAR, participants drive a fast car in loops around an oval track while racing each other. The objective of this sport is to literally drive around in circles. On the face of it, it seems entirely boring and pointless.

However, this setup offers a driver unique learning opportunities. Since the track is uniform and well defined, the driver can do something different on every lap and learn from it. She could tweak the angle of her turn, decide which line to take on the race track or change the timing of her gears shifts. Her lap time tells her the effect of her action with millisecond precision.

Any skill we practice can be broken down into simple drills. While these drills may seem boring, they give us the opportunity to perfect our art one iteration at a time.

Writing this blog has its similarities to NASCAR. I write one post everyday. These posts are short and I often end up repeating myself. Nevertheless, writing and editing every post gives me pointed feedback on the choice of my words, the rhythm of my sentences and the relevance of my anecdotes.

Variety comes with the risk of staying mediocre. When things change every time, they offer plenty of room for mistakes to hide. Repetition is ruthless and doesn’t give you that luxury.

Secrets vs. Gifts

Secrets are what you keep hidden, while gifts are what you share freely. But quite often, people confuse the two.

The best way to tell them apart is to see what happens when they are shared with other people. A secret wears off if too many people know it. A gift multiplies.

How a magic trick works is a secret. If too many people know it, a magic trick is boring. Those videos on YouTube that explain magic tricks are actually doing the world a disservice.

Most talents are gifts. If you have perfected the recipe for a risotto, share it freely and people will flock to your restaurant. Chefs know this and that is why they share their recipes.

Gifts prevail over secrets in a world with open access to information. Gift your information to the world and its benefits returns compounded to you. Keep your know-how a secret and somebody else will share it to reap its benefits.

Inspiration: Linchpin

Hiding behind busyness

We all know people who try to do too much, but never really get anything done.

Busyness is a form of hiding from doing work that is most important. When nothing gets done, our impulse is to add more items to our ‘to-do’ list. But that only makes the problem worse.

Having a hundred items on our ‘to-do’ list gives us the most insidious excuse to not begin: ‘I’m too busy for that now.’

To make real progress, what can you subtract?

In flux

Even as water flows through a pipe, we recognize the pipe and the water to be separate. We say ‘the water flows through the pipe’, or ‘the pipe has water’.

It is quite the same when we think or feel. Thoughts and emotions may flow through us, but are inherently separate from us. Yet, our language doesn’t reflect this. We don’t say ‘anger flows through me’, or that ‘I have anger’. Instead we say I am angry. But saying that we are a fleeting feeling is as absurd as saying the ‘pipe is water’.

Separate your self from your thoughts and feelings. Those things will pass. You will persist.

The factory mentality vs. the company mentality

In a factory, division of labour is sacrosanct. Each worker is expected to simply do their task and not get in another’s way.

The word company comes from the same root as companionship. A company originally referred to a group of soldiers who fought side by side.

An organization’s culture can foster the factory mentality or the company mentality.

The factory mentality is to avoid problems. When something goes wrong, the idea is to punish the careless individual who is at fault. The company mentality embraces problems as part of the game and explores how to solve them together. Where the factory mentality is problem obsessed, the company mentality is solution oriented.

Factories shoot down ‘trouble makers’. Companies reward trouble shooters.

Within a factory, you would see individuals protecting their turf. You would hear the phrase ‘it’s not my job’ only too often. In a company, you hear ‘let’s get this done’ instead.

At a factory, you would hear ‘let’s ban this from tomorrow’. At a company, you would hear ‘let’s get to the bottom of this’.

Within a factory, people follow the herd. That way, nobody is to blame. A company dares to think and work differently and define its own mission.

Factories have low trust – between departments, roles and individuals. Within a company, everybody has got their comrade’s back.

A factory has individual workers. A company is one team.

What kind of organization is yours?

A full calendar by default

The days on a work calendar are empty by default. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

An empty calendar attracts meetings like sweets on the roadside attract flies. A meeting every other hour is counterproductive especially if you are an individual contributor.

Even coordinators, like managers and team leads, require chunks of uninterrupted time. When their calendars are bursting at their seams, managers often deliberately block time off on it. But this often happens only after they are with inundated meetings and struggling to stay afloat. Individual contributors simply don’t do this at all.

Designate two days every week for deep work and block off 80% of your time on these days. That way, all your meetings get squashed into the remaining days and you enjoy clear separation between meeting days the ones where work actually gets done.

An empty calendar implies that you are open to interruption by default. You can change that with a click of a button.

The cost of a good yelling

When things don’t work out as planned, we often want to teach somebody a lesson.

If the pizza was delivered 30 min late to our party, we let the delivery person have it. If a referee makes a bad call, the entire stadium boos to let her know. If the airline keeps us waiting for 30 minutes on the phone line to the accompaniment of an off-tune Mozart piece, the poor chap who finally picks up gets a hearing.

In giving somebody a good yelling, we feel like we are fixing the world. If only things were that simple!

What we lose instead is more precious – a calm and collected state of mind. Few things in this world are worth losing one’s mind over. Especially the millions of decisions that we don’t control, but affect us anyway.

It is vastly more important to retain your peace of mind than give somebody a piece of your mind.

Re-frame outcomes in terms of inputs

Seasoned hikers know that they do not control the weather and prepare accordingly.

They waterproof their bags and pack ponchos to guard against the rain. They carry sufficient water and bring enough sun protection. They wrap studs around their shoes to trudge through ice.

Although they do not control climatic conditions, they know that they can be prepared. The weather here is an outcome. Their preparation is their input to meet this outcome.

Several things we want are outcomes that we do not control. We often frame these outcomes as our goals – like securing a job promotion or becoming a famous musician. But merely being outcome focused is like trying to control the weather.

What if we re-framed these outcomes as inputs instead?

We don’t control if we get promoted. We could, however, ask our boss the three things we need to do to get there. We can then do our best to check those boxes. We don’t control the fame our music would bring. We do control the number of hours of disciplined daily practice we put into our art.

Outcomes are often outside our grasp. Why not re-frame them in terms of the inputs we control instead?

Inspiration: A Guide to the Good Life

The trade off between comfort and learning

Which experiences have taught you the most? Were they periods where you coasted along? Or did you struggle through them?

The stoic teacher Epictetus mentioned how a session of stoicism ought to feel uncomfortable. He likened it to a medicine – bitter, but beneficial.

Two millennia later, science backs up the ancient philosopher’s claims. Psychologists call this deliberate practice – practice that is uncomfortable and stressful, but productive.

Comfort and learning do not mix very well. Where one is present, the other is often missing.

Contemplation vs. Worrying

Stephen Covey asked us to imaging our own funeral in great detail – the flowers, the casket and guests reading our eulogies. To live a meaningful life, he said, was to live with the end in mind.

If you thought that was morbid, stoic philosophers kissed their children goodnight while considering how they might not be alive the next morning. They practiced negative visualization to be grateful for everything they had rather than taking them for granted.

The psychologist Gary Klein invented the pre-mortem. Several teams do a post-mortem after a project has ended to glean relevant lessons. He flips this around. Before a project starts, he asks the team to imagine, in vivid and specific ways, how the project could fail. The team can then take preemptive action to avoid this failure.

All this time tested advice goes against the grain of ‘thinking positive’. They argue with good evidence about how contemplating negative events can have positive consequences.

However, we all know people who wear themselves out by imagining disastrous scenarios. All that negativity doesn’t seem to help. So what is the truth? Does thinking of negative events help us or cripple us?

The distinction here is between contemplation and worrying. Contemplation is a deliberate act done with calmness and curiosity. Worrying is the antithesis of these very feelings. A worried person wants to have nothing to do with the fears that haunt her. While contemplation is an act of acceptance, worrying is one of rejection.

The first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge it. To contemplate is to say ‘yes’ to a problem. To worry is to say ‘no’ and deny its existence.

Who is the better parent?

Consider two fathers tucking their daughters into bed. Father 1 thinks of how his daughter might not be alive in the morning as he kisses her good night. Father 2 assumes that his daughter would outlive him. Her lifespan never crosses his mind as he tucks her in. Who do you think would make a more loving father?

While Father 1 seems morbid in our eyes, stoic philosophy makes a convincing case that he would make a better parent. Father 1 recognizes and constantly reminds himself of the fragility of his life together with his daughter. When she wakes up in the morning, he would hug her with great affection, thankful for having one more day with her. Suppose his daughter wishes to play with him on a busy evening, he would oblige. Who knows if he would get that chance the next day?

On the contrary, the Father 2, who assumes that his daughter would always be around, takes her for granted.  When she asks for her attention, he is likely to put off spending time with her, thinking of how he can do that  tomorrow or the next week, when he has ‘more time’. If something unfortunate were to befall his daughter, he would be heartbroken and filled with regret.

This counter-intuitive lesson was taught by stoic philosophers two-thousands years ago. Epictetus asked us in the very act of kissing our children to silently reflect on the possibility of their death tomorrow. Seneca reminded us that all we have is ‘on loan’ from Fortune, and that she can reclaim it without our permission or advance notice. The stoics regularly practiced what we know as negative visualization.

Despite this negativity, the stoics were die-hard optimists. A modern day optimist may see a glass as being half-full. A stoic, who contemplates the worst, is grateful for the glass itself. She recognizes the privilege of holding up a glass intact rather than sweeping up its broken pieces from the floor.

Ironically, a person who thinks of a glass shattered on the floor occasionally can be more optimistic than one who merely sees it as being half-full.

Inspiration: A Guide to the Good Life

How easy things keep us from doing hard things

What do going for a run, writing a blog post, checking your social media feed and eating a piece of cake have in common?

You guessed it. All these activities release dopamine in our brains. But while two of those activities are easy and give us a big dopamine hit, the other two are hard but offer us a smaller chemical reward. The biggest problem, though, is that since both virtuous and wasteful activities reward us with the same chemical, they get intertwined.

Similar to drugs, our body develops a resistance against dopamine. The more dopamine we are exposed to, the more our brains crave for it until it turns into an addiction. Since all manners of activities release dopamine in different amounts, we are always looking for easier ways to get a hit. Eventually, this interferes with our ability to do hard things.

This is why it is difficult to buckle down and get hard things done. When I sit down to write a blog post, I often wander off into the internet. Our impulse to procrastinate has its origins in this deep seated craving for dopamine within our brains.

The only way to break this cycle is to consciously go on periods of low stimulation – dopamine detoxes. The idea is to set aside a few days (or a few hours each day) where we don’t check our phones, don’t indulge in junk food or don’t wander off into internet rabbit holes. This reduces our resistance to dopamine and makes hard things like meditating, reading a book and exercising feel rewarding once again.

Once again, I invoke Jerzy Gregorek’s immortal words here: Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.

Inspiration: How I tricked my Brain to Like Doing Hard Things

Why multi-level marketing makes us feel uneasy

What is the difference between a gift and a transaction?

A gift is given without expecting anything in return. The reward for giving a gift is the act itself. Gifting happens mainly among friends and relatives and keeps a tribe together.

Every transactions entails a binding reciprocity. This reciprocity could be formal, like a contractual payment, or informal, like a favour you owe the Godfather someday. Transactions help us do business with strangers.

Gifts and transactions don’t mix very well. But multi-level marketers try anyway, and that is why we despise them. Such schemes encourage people to ‘cash in’ on their personal relationships.

The problem with a world that is primarily driven by commerce is that it often confuses gifts and transactions, leaving a string of hollow individuals in its wake.

Inspiration: Linchpin

Nobody is just one person

Are you the same person when you start a sugar free diet, and a week later, stare at the dessert section of a lavish buffet? I am not.

We all know scientists who believe in astrology, smart people who think vaccinations are a conspiracy and alcoholics who quit every morning.

The criminal justice system understands how circumstances shape personality. When the same person commits a crime in the heat of the moment, they get a smaller punishment than if they conceive it with a cool and collected head.

Our resumes, identity cards and birth certificates need to come with a small asterisk next to our names – ‘conditions apply’.

The singular coherent identity our minds construct is an illusion. We are many personalities trapped in one person.

Catching a bowl of anger

When you realize that a porcelain bowl is tipping over, you can try and catch it before it hits the floor. Once it has fallen, you can only gather up the broken pieces.

If you are mindful of anger as it arises, you can catch that anger and not get riled up. If that anger has already passed through you, you can only gather up the broken pieces.

10% for curation

Thanks to the internet, our biggest problem has changed from information access to information curation.

Pre-internet, access to information was hard. If you wanted to learn C programming, you borrowed from a library or bought a title from a bookstore nearby. Today, you can choose from thousands of tutorials online.

But this flood of choices also has its disadvantage. Each of those myriad choices can vary wildly in quality. Search engines don’t have enough quality control built into them (and will not for as long as they sell ads). Therefore, if you plunge headlong into the first search result for an online course, you might find it sub-standard or unsuitable halfway through.

The alternative is to dedicate about 10% of your total time to research. Let’s say you set aside 40 hours for a C programming course online. Then allot 4 hours for trying out different courses and finding the one that works for you.

Related post: Where 37% is the answer

Inspiration: Scott Young


The secret ingredient for creative work

Any work that is creative needs a dash of “I don’t know”.

When I sit down to write each post, I know that I draft it first and edit it later. I also know the skeleton of the idea that I wish to express. What I don’t know is how it would turn out. The choice and the rhythm of the words and the quality of the post are all a mystery until the moment of creation.

When you know exactly how something is done, you can write it down in a manual. It then turns into a standard procedure and fails to be creative. Further, it moves out of the human realm and into that of machines.

What makes any endeavour creative, and thereby human, is a kernel of mystery.