Wisdom is sensitive

A weighing bridge can tell if a truck is within 10 kilograms of a particular weight.

The weighing scale in your bathroom can tell if you have lost a kilogram last week.

A scale on a kitchen counter can tell if you have a few extra grams of salt in your spoon.

A pharmacist’s scale can measure the presence or absence of a chemical in milligrams.

The difference between these instruments is sensitivity. While the weighing bridge can sense large changes in weight, a pharmacist’s scale can sense even a layer of dust.

Our life, and that of most normal people, is filled with a handful of big experiences, and numerous smaller, more mundane everyday experiences. Those who aren’t perceptive go through big experiences without learning anything from them, whereas those among us who are curious, attentive and eager to learn are sensitive to the degree that they derive useful lessons from day-to-day experience.

Wisdom is the ability to derive big lessons from small experiences.

‘I have this problem’

When a friend comes to me with a personal problem, what I think she wants is my solution. However, what she really wants for me to help her solve it.

The difference here might seem trivial, but it is profound. Solving somebody else’s problem is to give them your solution. To help somebody solve their problem is to help them arrive at their¬†solution.

Deep down, we all know that a person’s own solution to their problem is more effective than one that somebody else gives them. Can we remember this the next time a friend approaches us with a problem?

Think small

One of the central tenets of Lean Manufacturing is to perform work in small batches.

Smaller batch sizes result in

– Fewer defects

– Satisfied customers

– Happy employees

When a piece of work is small, it is easy to figure out if something doesn’t work as expected. It is easy to push it out to customers faster than they expect. Also, it is satisfying as an employee to be done with it and cross it off your list.

Amazon is known to make thousands of changes to its website each day. Yet, as a user, you don’t notice those changes. This is because each change is a micro-change – so small that it often escapes your notice as a user.

A defining trait of a good manager is the ability to take a large chunk of work and divide it into small meaningful batches for their team to finish.

Busting search engine myths

Myth 1 – Google is way better than other search engines out there.

Several detailed analyses online (one among them here) show that Bing is almost on par with Google with the quality of search results. Even though Google has cornered 85% of the market share for online search, the rift in quality is definitely not as big as the difference in market share.

Myth 2 – Duck Duck Go and Ecosia are far inferior to Google

What most people don’t realize is that smaller search engines such as Duck Duck Go and Ecosia use search results from Bing. Therefore, they are comparable to Google in terms of search quality.

What is undeniable fact is that the presence of search engines like Bing, Duck Duck Go and Ecosia are good for the world. They prevent Google from being the only search option available to the public. Besides, they have desirable side effects – Duck Duck Go fiercely protects your privacy, while Ecosia is a non-profit that redirects its ad revenue to planting trees.

For the last year or so, I have used both Duck Duck Go and Ecosia as default search engines on my browser. They have perfectly served my search needs, and I know that using them makes the world a little better off.

Inspiration: The Think About Search – Akimbo

Magic in our pockets

In the world of Harry Potter, wizards and witches stayed in touch by sending each other owls.

Given that the book was set in a pre-internet, pre-smartphone era, sending scrawls of paper attached to owls was seen as a ‘magical’ means of communicating.

In the 25 years since the series was invented, we have far superior means of staying in touch. I am sure nobody would trade-off communicating with a smartphone or via video conferencing with owl post. Not even the wizards and the witches of the Harry Potter world.

Yet, given that we have grown up along with these technologies, we fail to recognize them as being magical.

Arthur C. Clarke was right when he remarked that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. The innovators among us are those whose eyes shine with the same wonder on seeing new technology, as those of a little child when she flicks across the magical pages of the Harry Potter world.

The side-effects of your business

What if you are in the business of selling shoes online, and as a side-effect, your world-class customer service team ensure that the people who call your helpline hang up feeling better than they did when they called?

What if you are in the business of retailing sporting goods, and as a side-effect, your customers are a healthier and more active lot?

What if you are a chef and a restauranter whose cook books, help your audience discover the joy of cooking tasty and healthy meals at home?

It is inevitable that running a business at scale has side-effects. To run a business that makes the world better is to ensure that its side-effects are worth embracing and amplifying.

Too true to be good

You might believe that the five rings of the Olympics stand for the five competing continents (with the Americas considered as a single continent).

However, this is a myth. Pierre de Coubertin, the creator of the Olympic rings, meant for them to represent the various countries of the world. The colours of the five rings, combined with the white background, had something in common with the colours of all flags of nations back in 1913, when they were created.

We often don’t let truth get in the way of a good story. The true story about your brand (or your self) is always at the risk of getting displaced by another story that is easier to spread and is more compelling.

The taxi is here

I could announce to my family that our taxi has arrived for our trip to the railway station.

It would also be valid for me to state that an intricate contraption made of metal, rubber and plastic, with 4 wheels, a roof and a window, operated by a contractor, has arrived to pick us up and drop us at a place where trains arrive and depart on a schedule. Of course, I could then go on to describe what a train is.

There are infinite ways to communicate the arrival of a taxi. Yet, since everybody knows about taxis and railway stations, the optimal way to do this is in a short, crisp sentence. All other details are distractions.

Communicating the arrival of a taxi is trivial. Yet, we are all to prone to forget that effective communication is all about finding the right level of abstraction for a certain audience.

Expand the margin

When presented with new information, are you willing to accept it and change the way you see the world?

Well, that depends on what that information is. We are only open to information in a certain margin. This margin lies between the familiar and the absurd. Whether a person is broad- or narrow-minded is merely a question of how large this margin is. Broad-minded people have a high tolerance for absurdity. Narrow-minded  people only consume information that is consistent with how they already see the world.

To change somebody else’s mind, we need to start at the margin and work our way outwards. If that margin is narrow, we need to start with what they already believe, and slowly work our way outward.

To design well

Say a friend of mine has scheduled a video-call at 3:30 PM German time.

What I want to do is to see her on my laptop screen and start talking to her when it is 3:30 PM. What I have to do is a few among the following actions

– Open up my web-browser

– Enter the call link into my browser window

– Accept cookies on the site

– Sign in on the platform that sent me the call

– Permit the site to access my webcam and microphone

– Enter a passcode if necessary

– Wait for my friend to let me into the call

What I want to do is merely start a conversation. What I have to do is all the non-productive things needed to get there. Great design is about getting as much of that non-productive work out of the user’s way as possible.

Yet, somebody has to deal with all the complexity that comes with starting a video call – creating a stable network connection, protecting the user’s rights, securing their privacy and so on. Great design owns those battles, freeing the user to focus on having a great conversation.

To design well is to give the users what they want. To design well is to also take ownership of everything that doesn’t matter to the user.

A means to uncover hidden talent

Donald Knuth is a towering giant in the field of computer programming.

His multi-volume book, the Art of Computer Programming, outlines the foundational constructs for writing computer programs. It won him the Turing Award – the highest distinction in computer science for his contribution to the field.

There is an interesting backstory to how he became a computer scientist. In the mid 1950s, when Knuth was a first-year undergraduate student in Physics, he started working on the IBM 650 – the world’s first mass produced computer. However, he found the user manual for the machine so badly written, that he was appalled. He thought how, even as a first-year student, he could do a better job of writing a user manual for computers.

The manuals we got from IBM would show examples of programs and I knew I could do a heck of a lot better than that. So I thought I might have some talent.

To this day, Knuth states that if IBM had better user manuals, he might not have turned into a computer scientist.

The world is filled with promising fields that have badly written user manuals. If you can do a better job than those shoddy manuals, you might have just discovered some hidden talent.

Who you are

‘Let me just check this one notification’.

I am deep at work, when my phone clings its notification tone. I don’t wish to be distracted, yet there is a small itch in my brain to check just that one notification. ‘After checking on it’, I think to myself, ‘I am going right back to work’.

You guessed it – 15 minutes later, I am still flitting from one screen to another on the phone.

Why does this happen only too often? Well, underlying this behaviour is an identity crisis. We assume that the person deep at work is the same as the person who glances at their phone screen a couple of minutes later. However, having looked at that notification, we are no longer the same person. We have received new stimulus, and this has slightly altered our identity – from a person who wishes to only focus on their work, to another who wants to follow a notification one link deeper. After clicking on that link, our identity changes again.

A distracted person is not the same as the focused person they were a few minutes ago. The continuity of their identity is an illusion.

You are what you are stimulated by. By extension, you are also the stimuli you surround yourself with.

A marketing strategy for a better world

Who are your customers?

Traditionally, this question was answered in demographic terms. ‘Our customers are middle-aged, male, white, and live along the country’s west coast.’

As a marketer, this helped you zero-in on a particular group of customers. You could advertise in places they live, with messages that specifically appeal to them. You can design your branding to reflect their taste.

However, as we move to a more diverse and inclusive world, targeting customers demographically becomes problematic. There is less emotion attached to demography – less people are proud of belonging to a certain ethnicity – especially those with privileged backgrounds. Besides, serving only customers of a particular race or age-group may not fit in with the world you wish to create.

The alternative is to ask another question – what do your customers believe in? Do they believe in a more equitable world? Do they wish to fight climate change? Do they care about fair wages for the people who manufactured their goods?

If you can identify with how your customers see the world, regardless of how old their are and what their ethnicity is, you still have a means to target them, on matters that they are proud of. Also, the internet is better suited to target people based on what they believe, rather than who they are.

Targeting people psychographically rather than demographically is a win-win. It can not only make the world a better place, but it is also good for business.

Drill down

Which part of a guitar solo do you find hardest to play?

Which question in a job interview do you usually find hardest to answer?

What kind of algorithm do you often struggle with?

Which chapter in a good book did you find hardest to read?

What part of your exercise routine do you find to be the toughest?

When you are practicing, those are the parts to drill.

The parts that feel most uncomfortable is usually the parts we often skip. Yet, those are the parts where the potential for improvement is the greatest.

Meeting etiquette

Is it disrespectful to leave a meeting midway?

If you leave a meeting early, it has one less participant – one less source for ideas and exchange. But you have also allowed those who remain to proceed with more focus.

When you leave a meeting early, you indicate that it is no longer relevant to you. But you also convey that you are no longer relevant to it – that it has one less potential source of noise.

While leaving a meeting early, you momentarily disrupt the meeting. But the rest of the meeting can proceed with one less passive member, and into a more meaningful exchange.

Is it disrespectful to leave a meeting midway? Well, that depends upon how you define respect. If your idea of respect is for people to suffer through a meeting for your sake, leaving midway would be most disrespectful. If your meeting is meant to be a meaningful exchange, those who leave because they are no longer relevant have just done everybody else a service.

How strong is air?

The air around us is so powerless that it cannot lift even the lightest feather. Yet, that same air is capable of lifting a massive aircraft. Or uprooting trees during a storm.

The difference here is between air at rest and air at motion. Air at rest is rather weak. Moving air is capable of turning into a tornado.

Motion is a superpower, for it can transform the weak and powerless into an unstoppable force.

3 reasons for hope

Ten years ago, we had assumed that renewable energy will be far more expensive than fossil fuel based sources. Today, solar and wind energy are several times more inexpensive than coal.

Ten years ago, we had assumed that countries such as India and China would continue burning coal at increasing rates. Today, we know that coal consumption in these countries has tapered off and will decline soon.

Ten years ago, we had assumed that developing countries had to choose between economic growth and reducing their carbon footprint. Today, several countries have established that these two factors can go hand-in-hand.

We still have plenty of reasons to feel hopeless in the face of the biggest challenge that faces humanity. Yet, we have overcome some of those reasons from 10 years ago.

The key to deal with a seemingly hopeless situation is to find tiny glimmers of hope and to amplify them.

Inspiration and source: We WILL fix Climate Change!

A test for understanding

‘If you can’t program it, you haven’t understood it’.

This was a quote by David Deutsch in his book the beginning of infinity. I prefer a milder version though – ‘If you can’t teach it, you haven’t understood it.’

Once something ‘makes sense’ to us, our mind tricks us into believing that we understand it. Yet, several things make sense to us, but we are unable to teach them to somebody else. Do we really understand those things?

To know an explanation is just the first step. To teach it, we need to commit it to memory, see other places where the principle applies and be able to explain it to somebody else who doesn’t know what we know. If your explanation makes sense to them, you have truly understood it.

If you can’t teach it, you haven’t understood it.

A trick to expand your memory

How easy is it for you to remember the four digits 9, 1, 0 and 2? If I asked you again after one day, would you be able to recollect them?

Now what if you rearranged those digits as ‘2019’. Would you find it easier to remember now?

What I just demonstrated here is a trick that lies at the heart of the methods that international memory champions use. Neuroscientists called it chunking.

Our working memory can hold a limited number of items at any given point – about 4 to 7. That is why it is hard to memorize a mobile number, since that number has more than 7 digits.

However, there is a loophole that we can exploit. What I refer to as ‘items’ is flexible. If I stated the 4 digits 9-1-0-2 without any correlation, they would occupy one slot each in working memory. If I grouped them together into something that ‘makes sense’, like a recent year, they can be compressed into one single slot in working memory. This compression trick is called chunking – to create meaningful chunks out of random bits of information.

Chunking lies at the heart of learning. Our brains can chunk telephone numbers, chord progressions in a song, patterns on a chessboard or programming constructs that we have seen before. Every word you read is actually random letters of the English alphabet that your brain has seamlessly chunked together.

To memorize anything, make sense of it. Once it makes sense, it is easier to remember. If it doesn’t make sense, what’s the point of remembering it anyway?

Inspiration: The Science of Thinking

Entropy minimizer

Each member of a team is a sources of energy as well as entropy. It is the team’s objective to maximize energy and minimize entropy.

To minimize entropy is to:

– Read the room – to observe who is engaged in a meeting, who isn’t, and figure out why.

– Sense unspoken needs and underlying tension among team members.

– Convert abstract feelings into words that the team can understand.

– Foresee conflicts due to friction among team members.

– Diffuse tension.

– Energize the team towards action, contribution and collaboration.

‘To minimize social entropy’ within a team isn’t something you would notice on job descriptions. Yet, it is among the rarest and most valuable skills in today’s workplace.