The era of hiring cogs is over

The industrial revolution turned employees into cogs. But the times, they are a changing.

McDonald’s pioneered a system that delivered world-class operational excellence while hiring the cheapest and the most dispensable labour – like and cheap replaceable machine parts. This model worked well for decades. This led to a number of other chains imitating the McDonald’s model – Burger King, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Subway and so on.

But the internet challenges this model fundamentally. Today, every experience with a customer is worth more than it ever was in the past. Delight them, and they are likely to spread the word. Disappoint them even accidentally, and its likely to spread like wildfire.

Take the case of this Muslim from Birmingham being served pork in a McDonald’s by mistake. Twenty years ago, this incident might have gone down as a footnote in the local newspaper. Today, the internet has proliferated it widely enough for you to be reading it right now.

Every business today is an internet business. Every cog in your business has the potential to bring it down to its knees.

Inspiration: Linchpin

Logs for people

A computer program is written for a machine. Its logs are written for humans. A machine’s log is its journal – something that tells you about its thought process.

The old adage goes think twice before you act. Any psychologist will tell you the difference between fast and slow thinking. Think fast and you are the mercy of the immediate. Slow yourself down and you exercise your autonomy.

A computer program is fast and immediate. Its log helps us slow things down and make adjustments. The days of our lives are fast and immediate. Our journal helps us slow them down and exercise choice.

Recovery is what matters

Movies tell us several stories. But in essence, a movie is nothing but a series of pictures that move past us so rapidly that they produce the illusion of continuity. The word “movie” seems to derive from this phenomenon of the moving pictures that comprise it.

A focused person appears to pay unwavering attention to what they are doing on the surface. But they are open to distraction just like anybody else. Deep down, they recover from every distraction that other people fall prey to by redirecting their focus to whatever they are doing.

Resilience isn’t a measure of how much we can sustain something continuously in a state of perfection. It is our ability to recover from discontinuities.

5 minutes a day

What if a flower seller on the pavement in India saved ₹ 5 of her earnings every day?

A couple of behavioural scientists explored this question while studying flower sellers in Chennai’s Koyambedu market. The poor vendors sold flowers on the roadside with little more than a carpet or a blanket to sit on. Everyday, they bought flowers for about ₹ 1000 and sold them for ₹ 1100, making a daily profit of ₹100.

Most of these vendors took a daily loan for the ₹ 1000 they used for buying flowers in the early hours of each morning. This loan had a steep rate of interest – 5% per day! Therefore, the mere interest on this daily loan claimed ₹ 50 of the flower seller’s profit every single day, leaving her with only ₹ 50 as her net earnings.

The researchers, while undoubtedly empathetic, also explored this problem with their cold and rational minds. They wondered what would happen if the vendor saved ₹ 5 everyday. How long would it be until they were free from the obligation of having to borrow daily, and thereby get to keep all their earnings?

While you might think that the answer is 200 days, in reality, it is merely 50 days. If the vendor saved ₹ 5 on the first day and reinvested it into buying flowers, she would only need to borrow ₹ 995 the next day. A 5% daily rate compounds quickly. By doing this everyday, she could be out of debt four times faster than our intuition tells us.

This example attests to the power of daily compounding. Instead of ₹ 5, what if you spared 5 min in an enriching daily habit? 5 min a day, like₹ 5 a day, doesn’t seem like much. But keep up this habit, and chances are that you would would get to your destination 4 times faster than you thought you could. 

Inspiration: Scarcity

Run into trouble

Most people stay away from trouble. But doing the opposite – leaning into trouble – offers several upsides in the professional world, with very little downside.

When you walk into a troubled situation, expectations are low. Since things are already broken, any result that is better than the status-quo is to exceed expectations – a low risk, high reward situation.

As an outsider, you look at a problem with a fresh pair of eyes. This gives you insights that insiders have long overlooked due to their assumptions. You are more likely to solve a long-standing problem than people who have stood with that problem for a long time.

Everybody loves troubleshooters. If you are one, you would be recognized and promoted. If you don’t get your fair share of recognition, you have formidable points on your resume and interesting stories to tell your prospective employers.

Troubleshooting is an artist’s work. If you find a solution in a manual, it is no longer troubleshooting, but ‘standard operating procedure’. The person who writes a standard operating procedure gets to be an artist, but not the person who follows one.

That doubting little voice in your head

Many people hold back from making a contribution because of a little voice in their head. This voice whispers to them that they aren’t good enough to be contributing. It urges them to postpone their contribution and attend to the more immediate and banal.

But here’s the truth – we are not good enough because we haven’t contributed. The only way to get better at making contributions is by contributing. That little voice in our head has us convinced that we aren’t good enough. But it is the other way around – we aren’t good enough because of that doubting little voice. The only way to break this vicious cycle is to defy that voice with a small contribution today.

So what is that going to be?

Infusing faith

Have you stood in the center of a massive medieval structure and wondered what could have motivated people in those difficult times to construct such a behemoth?

They hewed temples out of hunks of rock with mere chisels and hammers. They erected cathedrals 60 times taller than the people who stood inside. Why did they go through all that trouble?

The reason is that faith is fleeting. In one moment, people are brimming with faith in God, and in another, they brazenly flout his holy commandments. But no sooner than they step into the sanctum, with its ornate carvings, high roofs and elaborate rituals, the religious faith in their heart is restored and redoubled.

Our culture is filled with experiences meant to infuse faith into us. Several tribes have elaborate initiation rites. Companies and colleges have induction ceremonies. All these experiences have in common a sense of grandeur, elaborate rituals and an element of sacrifice. Those three qualities are the building blocks of faith.

Faith doesn’t make sense to our rational mind, leading us to question the existence of temples and cathedrals. Instead, faith bypasses reason and appeals directly to emotion. And as the psychologist Daniel Kahneman puts it, the emotional tail wags the rational dog.

When you wish for people to buy into your vision, think about how you can infuse them with faith. Visiting a massive medieval monument might give you some interesting ideas.

Multiplying excellence

Excellence is rare. How do multiply it to create a better world?

Excellence is personal. We are all wired to the world in slightly different ways. These differences permute and combine to make us a creative species. But these personal differences also make excellence hard to pin down. The 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration notwithstanding, there is no real formula for genius.

On the other hand, we know excellence when we see it. We observe it when a flight attendant puts on a fantastic show with her safety demonstration. We taste it in the exceptional red sauce pasta from the office canteen. We witness it in an intern’s 15 min presentation, which he is sure to have rehearsed for hours.

The most effective way to multiply excellence is to point it out when we see it. A simple, specific and well timed compliment can amplify a moment of excellence into a lifetime’s worth of genius.

Scarcity and trade-offs

What can you buy with Rs. 1000?

Here is a list off the top of my head:

  • A meal at a fancy restaurant
  • A month’s premium Netflix subscription
  • A basic set of clothes
  • An electronic toothbrush
  • A train ticket to a faraway place
  • A good pair of earphones
  • A branded badminton racket
  • Groceries for a week
  • A decent pair of sneakers
  • A quality beard trimmer
  • 3 bestselling books

Rs. 1000 can buy you such a wide variety of stuff – some more essential than others. Every spending decision is a trade-off. Every time you spend Rs. 1000 on a purchase, you forego everything else on that list above and a million other purchases.

But if you are fortunate enough to be reading this, Rs. 1000 is not hard to come by. Surely, you didn’t run through a list like this in your mind before you ordered paneer butter masala with garlic naan at a fancy restaurant. Since we have an abundance of Rs.1000s, we do not care as much about the trade-offs involved. However, the poor are acutely aware of them. Rs. 1000 thrown away on a frivolous purchase could mean several hungry days for their family.

The same applies for time as well. You could spend two hours of your time in an equally colourful list of ways – some more valuable than the others. Unlike money though, all of us have a limited amount of time left in this world – an amount that we are never truly aware of.

We are all time poor. Knowing this helps us realize how two hours thrown away on a frivolous experience could have been used in a variety of more fulfilling ways.

Inspiration: Scarcity

Optimal scarcity

Several good things can result from scarcity.

That is right. A looming deadline stems procrastination, fosters clarity and helps us make quick decisions. Meetings are often more productive in the second half, when time is running out. We are more judicious with toothpaste when the tube is nearly empty. Psychologists call this positive aspect of scarcity “the focus dividend.”

Too much scarcity is detrimental. A poor person makes bad decisions because their mind is always thinking about the challenges of being poor. Even simple decisions are difficult for a mind preoccupied with anxiety. We all know the manager who is too busy to notice that their biggest problem is their busyness itself. Psychologists fittingly call this “tunneling”.

The key here is to find the middle ground – with enough scarcity to bring focus, but enough slack to avoid tunneling.

Inspiration: Scarcity

The truth and its narrative

We often prefer narratives to the truth.

Fiction books flood the bookstore. Look around you might find that meager section dedicated to non-fiction books. Open up the best selling non-fiction books and you’ll see how they also have great narratives.

Entire professions illustrate our affinity towards narratives even at the expense of truth.

Magicians dress the truth up in a narrative that seems to defy logic and common-sense.

Astrologers explain your life’s events in terms of planets that are millions of kilometers away. The stars maybe too distant to physically interfere in our lives. But they aren’t far enough to spark our imagination and the narratives it produces.

Marketers describe things to us to make them appealing. Psychologists have long known that people did not choose between things, but rather between descriptions of things.

To see the world for what it is requires us to dance between the truth and its narrative. Every truth needs a narrative for people to accept it. Every narrative that resonates with us rests upon an underlying truth.

Wisdom is the ability to step between the real world of truth and the fictitious world of narratives.

Design or default?

We can make our choices by design or by default.

To eat by design is to be mindful of what goes into the mouth. To eat by default is to eat what everybody else is eating.

To live by design is to have hobbies. To live by default is to seek entertainment.

Designers create new patterns and look at the world in new ways. Defaulters simply ease into existing patterns.

To design is to choose the inconvenient but meaningful. To default is to do the convenient without paying heed to meaning.

To design is to choose your life. To default is to let somebody else choose for you.

So what is it going to be?

Taste as you go

The luxury of instant feedback is one of the biggest gifts of cooking.

From large changes such as onions caramelizing to the subtle effect of an additional minute of boiling on the texture of spirali, we are sensitive to a wide spectrum of tastes.

And yet, most people do not utilize this opportunity. They would rather finish cooking the entire dish before dipping in with their spoon.

This points to a broader tendency of our minds. We are eager to get things done once we start them. We are less eager to pause along the way and ponder.

If you follow a recipe from start to finish every time, you end up with the same dish. If you stopped and changed things along the way, infinite possibilities open up.

Trust brings efficiency

What type of scrutiny does your public transport system have?

One type makes the assumption that passengers are crooks and need to be prevented from cheating at all costs. Security gates for entry and exit are the norm. And then there is additional security to ensure that these gates aren’t circumvented or vandalized. When trust is low, every customer has to be checked, surveillance is costly and the system is inefficient.

Another type of system trusts people to behave themselves. Passengers walk into trains and trams without any scrutiny. However, a handful of people perform random checks, and once a person is caught travelling without a ticket the fine is quite hefty. This system is efficient – a handful of people keep the entire system functioning by dissuading the detractors.

Needless to say, the lightweight system of random checks requires a certain amount of trust in the system. If travelling without a ticket were the norm, it would quickly cease to function.

Self-monitoring is efficient. Besides, the freedom it gives us inspires us to be better people.

Maximization is costly

From a bunch of 100 sticks, how would you pick the longest stick? How would that approach be different from picking one that is long enough?

To pick the longest stick, you would have to consider the length of every single stick before you find your choice. With the long enough approach, the moment you find a suitable stick, you can stop looking.

Add two other parameters and your search turns way more complicated. Consider picking a stick based on length, width, material and cost. Imagine optimizing all those parameters with a 100 sticks. No wonder we emerge tired and exasperated every time we go shopping for clothes.

To maximize any decision requires a large amount of your time and cognitive resources. To maximize every decision is to end up fatigued and disappointed. Stick to good enough with most matters so that you can maximize the handful that matter the most.

To multitask is to fail to prioritize

I once saw a manager attend a phone call even as she met and spoke to us in-person. I was impressed by her ability to seamlessly juggle between the two conversations. But later it occurred to me that by doing both these things together, neither of them was important enough to deserve her full attention.

The problem with multitasking is that you are always busy. When one activity has a lull for a few seconds, you switch to the other one. Your mind is always occupied. On the other hand, by doing just one thing, you are bored if it does not engage you. This boredom indicates how relevant that task is for you. If a meeting bores you to the bone, you have good reason to turn down a similar invite in the future.

Multitasking seems impressive on the surface. But beneath the surface, it indicates an inability to prioritize.

Put context ahead of content

Where have your come across some of the most remarkable facts in recent times?

The answer is invariably some place on the internet – on Youtube or Whatsapp perhaps. 20 years ago, the answer to this question would have likely been a book, a newspaper or the television.

I don’t really need to point out how most books and newspapers are more reliable sources of information than the internet mediums that have replaced them. Nevertheless, the internet has prevailed over them for several reasons.

This phenomenon points to a broader principle behind how our minds work. We pay more attention to content (the piece of information itself) rather than context (where it came from). This has resulted in the flood of less reliable but more sensational information that we find ourselves drowning in.

Information is like food. Once you have consumed it, your mind has already assimilated it and it is an integral part of you. And just as you are careful about what you eat, be mindful of where you get your information from.


Embrace impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome is ubiquitous. In certain situations where we doubt ourselves, we all end up feeling like a fraud who doesn’t deserve to

The typical response to impostor syndrome is to fight it – to perceive it to be negative, brush it under the carpet and go on to make the change that we seek to make. But is it really something that ought to be shunned?

Any change that pushes us and the world past our comfort zone is likely to make us feel like an impostor. When we challenge the status-quo, we run into the way things have always been done. The impostor syndrome is a warning that things can go wrong in the process. It is an indication that we wish to effect a change that is good. Sociopaths experience little impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome indicates that we are challenging tradition. Further, it serves as a guardrail against doing harm. When we feel like impostors, we ought to thank that feeling and lean in further to learn why we feel that way.

Inpsiration: Seth Godin 

Delay response and dodge regret

How often do you regret accepting invitations to events? Why does this happen so often?

A well established tactic to guard your time (and your pangs of regret) from invitations is to delay your response. The next time you receive an invitation, even a casual one, try waiting a day before you text back your instant acceptance.

The underlying mechanism in the brain here is the focusing illusion. Daniel Kahneman summarized called it his fortune cookie maxim – ‘Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.’ Things always seem more important when we are thinking about them than they really are. This is why emails and notifications hijack our productivity. The moment we see that email, it seems like the most important thing in the world. So we drop everything else and respond to it.

The same cycle plays out when we are sent an invite to an event. The moment we see the invite, the event seems all important and we gratefully accept. But as the event draws closer, the feelings of regret set in. More so if this event requires travel to a faraway location.

Waiting a while before giving our response mitigates the effect of the focusing illusion. The invitations that survive despite the wait are the ones really worth accepting.

The quick way and the easy way

In a few cases, the quick way is the easy way – like ripping off a band-aid. In most cases, the quick and the easy involve a trade-off.

The quick way is to start programming as soon as some requirements are presented. The easy way is to figure out the algorithm and its structure first.

The quick way is to drive to work – it requires no planning. The easy way is to take the train. Somebody else does the driving.

The quick way is to throw everything we’ve got at a problem. The easy way is to avoid problems.

The quick way is dirty (“quick and dirty”). The easy way is clean.

Our brain can think quick or think easy. When it thinks quick, it holds only one piece of information at a time. When it thinks easy, it works slower, but it compares several choices to pick the best alternative.

As it should be clear by now, “quick” isn’t always the same as “fast”.