They are also actions

If I feel inspired.
If I feel motivated.
If I feel energetic.

We think of inspiration, motivation and energy as feelings.

However, it is also true that
If I act inspired, I feel inspired.
If I act energetic, I feel energetic.
If I act energetic, I feel motivated.

It turns out, that they are also actions – ones that we control.

Organizations vs. Organisms

Most of us go to work in an organization.

An organization is a machine that organizes our work. It lays down rigid rules and workflows and designates bosses. The bosses wield more authority and get to sign-off on important decisions. Work hard enough, and you can be one too. Climbing up the org-chart is a game that panders to our need for greater status and control.

How is an organism different from an organization?

An organism isn’t a machine. It is alive and responds to its environment in ways that are natural. An organism has organs that are inter-dependent – a brain is useless without a heart and a heart is useless without a brain. However, they are autonomous – each of them serve a unique function without subordination, while working towards the well-being of the organism that they comprise.

We have always thought of our companies as organizations. What if we designed them to be organisms instead? What if we treated every employee as autonomous organs that coordinated to serve a higher purpose?

What would you rather work inside – an organization or an organism?

Inspiration: Reinventing Organizations

Dodge the news feed

How often do you go over to LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter to quickly check your personal messages, but end up getting sucked into news feed for hours?

The news feed, conjured up first at Facebook, is one of the most insidious pieces of software code ever written. Behind every news feed is a smart algorithm optimized to snare your attention. News feed has this mystical power to convert our 2 min trips to half-an-hour scrollathons, by flicking on the zombie switch in our brains.

News feed is the secret sauce that the social networks want you to use. It is the slot machine which generates most of their ad-revenue. Notice how none of them offer you the option of turning it off on their sites.

Yet, you can fight back by finding ways around news feed. For Youtube, you can use a browser plugin that can turn off autoplay and the feed. With LinkedIn or Twitter, land on your profile page rather than the default URL. That way, you can still access your messages and notifications without looking at the news feed. I am certain that similar workarounds can be found for every social network.

Social networks are built to serve advertisers – not users. If you cannot avoid using them, use them in ways that serve you rather than its creators and shareholders.

A feeling of competence

A competent colleague is productive – he get things done at ever faster rates. A competent colleague is also friendly and approachable. As a team-mate, his presence makes you feel better.

A competent doctor is clinical – her diagnosis and treatment is precise and efficient. A competent doctor is also empathetic. She has an ear for a patient’s concern and makes them feel cared for.

A competent life partner helps you channel your strengths and help you succeed in your endeavours. A competent partner also accepts your flaws and helps you accept them through kindness and understanding.

We often equate competence with what we do and what we achieve. We often forget that comptence is also how we make the people around us feel.

Behind the words

‘Can you clean the kitchen today?’

When your partner says this, they could imply one of the following statements.

‘I am busy today. Can you clean the kitchen instead?’

‘I always clean the kitchen. Can you do it more often?’

‘I feel overwhelmed. I need your support.’

All these statements have different connotations. What do they actually mean? How can you find out?

An average communicator exchanges facts. A good communicator interprets feelings. A great communicator uncovers hidden needs.

A world of difference

If your country had an elite university, how would you decide who gets in?

In India, this decision is made using a competitive examination. Merely 1 mark – one measly answer to a multiple-choice question – can separate a student who qualifies for the country’s elite technical university and one who does not.

Students of the elite university have exclusive access to the best laboratories, professors, peers and technical opportunities in the country. As the years roll by, two students separated by a single mark begin to inhabit different worlds.

Do students who are separated by one mark in an arbitrary exam deserve to be worlds apart?

When confronted with this question, we blame the imperfection of our competitive, standardized examination and rue that we don’t have a fairer alternative. But that is merely the symptom. The disease is the very existence of the elite universities themselves. Why have we created these exclusive islands of excellence?

In a fairer world, one where excellence isn’t synonymous with elitism, the opportunities available to two students will more closely resemble the marks that separate them.

Other privileges

The word ‘privilege’ refers to advantages we enjoy due to our race, ethnicity, caste, gender or class. Those who are fortunate to enjoy these privileges are duty bound to help those who do not.

Yet, a handful of us enjoy several other rare privileges

  • Caring parents
  • A memorable childhood
  • A loving partner
  • Tight-knit family
  • Thick friends
  • Supportive colleagues
  • Sound health

Given that fortune plays a large role in bestowing these privileges too, does that not bind us to a duty in service of those who do not have them?

Meet ups were already broken

Today, meetups are what we call a congregation of strangers who are interested in the same topic.

It appears that meetups are a victim of the pandemic and its varied restrictions. However, even before social distancing entered our vocabulary, meetups were broken.

In most pre-pandemic meetups, I suffered through the following problems

  • A room with fifty people taking turns to introduce themselves
  • The five people whom I thought were interesting were stuck speaking to somebody else
  • It was difficult to break off conversation with somebody when it turned long and wasteful
  • Presentations that nobody was interested in

In effect, most meetups often blew up an entire evening with nothing to show for it

In-person meetups were terrible. A well designed online space gives us several ways to address their problems. I have been to events that do this already, with bios instead of intros, fifteen minute one-on-one meeting slots, breakout room discussions etc.

The pandemic didn’t kill meetups. It potentially shocked them back to life.

If only I had more time…

Here is a thought exercise to put that question to rest.

a. If a day had 26 hours, what would you do with the 2 extra hours?

b. If a day had only only 22 hours, what part of your current schedule would you cut out?

And here’s the crucial question – is your answer to a. more important to you than your answer to b.?

If so, what is stopping you from rearranging things?

Did I really write that?

We writers are often embarrassed by something we have written in the past.

The choice of words, the accuracy of the sentiment, the examples and analogies used – with all these it seems as though we could have done better. Yet, this wasn’t how we felt when we created the post itself and published it. The worst part is that this shame dissuades us from writing anything else.

Why are we later ashamed of our own creations? The problems here manifold, and all of them have to do with our feelings.

Firstly, any act of creative writing translates feelings into words. Given how rich our feelings are, and how limiting our vocabulary is, this translation is always incomplete. This task is akin to sketching an intricate landscape with a set of crayons. Despite our best efforts, what our hands produce won’t do justice to what our eyes witness.

Secondly, our feelings work like alcohol. Once we are drunk on a feeling, it make us look at the world a certain way. But it has passed and we are sober again, the world we saw and wrote about earlier seems strange. Even shameful – like photos of our drunken selves.

Thirdly, we grow every day to understand our feelings better. Like a pixelated screen whose resolution improves with time, we can see our feelings more clearly. This makes our past writing seem like blurry and crude versions of what we now feel. Ironically, the very act of writing and communicating accelerates this understanding.

In effect, writing is our best attempt to capture our dynamic feelings by means of words that are static. Given this reality, it follows that our dissonance, our shame and our dissatisfaction is natural and even healthy.

Once we recognize that something is natural and healthy, we are not ashamed anymore. And then, we can sit down to write once again.

Reframing sunk costs

The decisions we have made in the past often spill into the present.

A decade ago, I trained to become a mechanical engineer. Subsequently, I pursued a successful career as a strategy consultant. Recently, I have embarked on a new career – my third so far – as a software developer. Looking back, those degrees and past careers seem like a waste – a cost that I am unable to recover. However, I am certain that had I stuck to my career as strategy consultant, I would have regretted it.

Our youngers selves take long-term decisions as gifts to our older selves. However, those decisions do not always turn out to be correct. It is unrealistic to expect our selves in our late-teens or early-twenties to pick the careers we wish to pursue for a lifetime – we simply don’t have the necessary information or the experience.

Yet, several people are handcuffed to crucial decisions they have made in the past – pointless careers, toxic relationships, harmful purchases. The main reason we fall for the sunk cost fallacy is because we think of our past choices as costs that we need to recover.

What if we recognized those choices as gifts instead? In the present moment we always have a choice – either to accept that gift or to politely decline it.

Equal, but different

A potluck party helps us understand difference and equality.

Difference is about what we bring to the table – everybody brings a different dish. Equality is about how we are treated at the table. Everybody receives their fair share.

A potluck party would be boring without the difference, and no fun without the equality. They both need to coexist.

Men and women are different, but equal.

A graphic designer and a back-end developer on a tech-team are different, but equal.

Gender, race, ethnicity, language, culture, background, domain – all of these are different shades of colour on a canvas of equality.

Let us conjure up some masterpieces!

There are no side-effects

A chemical factory manufactures batteries. The side-effect is that it pollutes its surroundings.

A soft-drink is tasty and gives us a rush of dopamine. Its side-effect is that a soft-drink habit could lead to obesity and diabetes.

Popping a pill can relieve your pain. Its side-effect is that too many pain killers can turn into an addiction and weaken your liver.

A domestic flight can bring a consultant face-to-face with a client in 3 hours. Its side-effect is the kilograms of carbon it belches into the atmosphere.

We have chosen to separate all our decisions into effects that are desirable to us and side-effects which aren’t. Yet, branding them differently neither amplifies their benefits nor diminishes their harm.

There are no side-effects. There are merely effects.

Tame the thesaurus

Drizzle, downpour, shower, hail, sleet, torrent, rainstorm, cloudburst, pour, cats-and dogs. The English language has a multitude of synonyms for rain (little wonder, given how much it rains in England).

This vibrant vocabulary helps us understand rain better. When I think about a drizzle, my brain creates very different imagery than if somebody told me they were caught in a torrent. If I knew only one word for precipitation, my imagination, and therefore, my understanding of what it means would be limited.

A shortcut to understanding a new discipline quickly is to internalize the rich vocabulary it uses. Take bouldering – a sport where people scale surfaces using supports on them. The various holds used by climbers are called slopers, jugs, pockets, crimps, pinches, underclings, matching hands, side pulls and gastons. Yet, for a non-climber, all these are merely holds. Recognizing each of those holds takes you a little closer to climbing them better.

To understand a concept deeper, tease out the differences between the various synonyms in its domain.

Chaos is costly

Our eyes are invariably drawn to the one crooked picture hung on the wall.

Our attention is drawn to the one voice that is singing off-key in a choir.

The creaking breaks of a bicycle, a leaky faucet, a buggy feature in a program – all of these capture a disproportionate share of our attention. So do unplanned interruptions, unsymmetrical layouts and uneven surfaces.

Order is efficient because chaos grabs a larger share of our mental bandwidth.

Taking out the trash

Most of us begin our day to the visit to the loo. Emptying the body of trash the first thing in the morning is a good feeling. It primes us to face the rest of the day.

The same principle applies to the mind as well.

If you closed your eyes shortly after waking up, what is the state of your mind? Which thoughts swim around in the confines of your head? Which of those really serve you? As our brain tries to make sense of the world around us, the thoughts in our head serve as background noise. A quiet, still and empty mind that is free from trash is also one that is most receptive.

Here is how you can take the trash out from the mind every morning. Start with a blank piece of paper / file on your computer. Close your eyes and once you sense a thought swimming inside, write it down as a short bullet. Then close your eyes again and repeat this process until your head is quiet once again. It is important to write down any thought you have without judgement, lest they hide away when you’re looking for them only to resurface later.

Once those thoughts are outside your mind and trapped on paper or an electronic device, it is harder for them to find their way back into your head.

The real threat

Our minds are captivated by the threat of machines turning human. From HAL9000 in 2001 Space Odyssey, the Terminator series to the Matrix, Hollywood speaks to this fear in every era.

Konrad Zuse, the inventor of the first programmable computer, once claimed, ‘The danger of computers becoming like humans is not as great as the danger of humans becoming like computers.’ The real threat may actually be the opposite of what we fear.

Right from the industrial age, the machines we use have rendered us more in their likeness. An assembly line requires workers to perform repetitive, mechanical and mindless actions, in striking similarity to the machines they operate. Most computer programmers have experienced how the ruthless efficiency and optimization demands of their instruments spill into their everyday lives as well. As the cliché goes, wielding a hammer for too long distorts the manner in which you see the world.

Even as machines turn humanlike, how can we guard against humans turning machinelike?

Machine talk

If you told a human being to type out the letters ‘Ain’t nobody got time for that!’ on a computer screen, they would understand and get it done in a jiffy.

If you needed a computer program to print these letters on the screen, you need to give it precise instructions. In the programming language Python, you would need to say:

print("Ain't nobody got time for that")

If you accidentally forgot the first bracket in that statement, your computer would spit out the following error message:

print"Ain't nobody got time for that")
File "", line 1
print"Ain't nobody got time for that")
^
SyntaxError: invalid syntax

It is now up to you to figure out what your syntax error was and how you can fix it.

Programming a computer has helped me understand how imprecise verbal communication is, and how other human beings meet us half-way to interpret and execute our vague wishes. A machine, on the other hand, is a ruthless and precise pedant.

On the flipside, programmers who talk to machines all day are prone to extending their precision outside the machine realm. Given that they instruct machines day-after-day (and on several nights), their brains end up expecting their fellow human-beings to be just as precise. This tendency feeds the stereotype of the snippy, rude and introverted programmer – one which believes that learning to communicate with humans is wasteful, given how imprecise and inefficient human communication is.

While the solo programmer in the basement could afford to be a brilliant programmer and a terrible communicator, most significant code today is written collaboratively – in coordination with customers, product managers, designers, sales reps and fellow programmers.

As career programmers, we need to master the craft of instructing machines without compromising on the art of human communication.

Inspiration: Coders

Empathy is hard

If you are from the upper caste, the caste system is less visible to you. A lower caste person is reminded of their caste everyday.

If you are from the ‘fairer’ race, racism is harder for you to perceive. A black person is reminded of their race only too often.

If you are from the dominant gender, it is harder for you to sense sexism. Women are forced to reckon with their gender more often than men are.

If you have had a happy childhood and a caring family, it is harder for you to relate to somebody who hasn’t.

If you have grown in material abundance, you are more numb to a life lived in constant scarcity.

If you are endowed with a combination of these advantages, your numbness towards those who don’t is compounded.

Empathy is hard because we have a keen aware of our headwinds, but are rather oblivious to our tailwinds.