Failing well

A good design is one that is designed for failure. Here is a broad framework that categorizes features that bolster failure resilience.

Heads-up: Give the user a warning to take preventive action before failure occurs. Fuel or battery indicators and expiry dates belong to this category.

Backup: Ensure that the system can continue running at least temporarily, until the failure is addressed. Power banks, spare tyres and reserve fuel tanks are examples.

Blow-up: Build in damage control whereby the impact of the failure on the device and the user is mitigated. Seat belts, airbags, fuses and helmets belong here.

How well something fails is often more important than how well it works, since the costs of failure are often higher than the incremental gain of an enhancement. Good design prevents or mitigates this cost.

Identity

Who are you?
Are you the smiling face
On that living room portrait?
Or that ‘neutral’ face
On your passport
Looking straight ahead at the camera,
Unblinking, unfeeling?

Are you merely a face
Stamped alongside a name
Printed on a card
That is authorized by
The sovereign republic of India?
But what is India?
And what authorizes India to define you?

What India wants
Is to put a name and a face
To every human within its borders
To ensure that the taxes are paid
The traffic rules are obeyed
And poor Dhanraj can receive compensation
For the mangoes the urchins picked from his orchard.

Is identity natural?
Would a lotus smell sweeter
If you called it a rose?
Would a bulbul be more punctual
If you called it a rooster?
Would a tiger turn vegan
If you called it a bison?

Identity is a story we tell ourselves.
To keep the trains on time,
Our cities in order
And show everybody their place.
Identity is fiction.
Do not turn it into fact
Lest you fetishize suffering.

Honest vs. Correct

Where do you see yourself in five years?

The honest answer might be that you don’t know. The correct answer is to say what the interviewer wishes to hear.

How do you like this idea?

The honest answer might be that you think your boss’s idea is terrible. The correct response might be to say it is a great idea and challenge its margins at best.

Why don’t you come drinking with us tonight?

The honest answer might be that you would rather be in a medieval torture chamber than go drinking with your colleagues. The correct answer might be to drown yourself in alcohol and laugh at your boss’s misogynistic jokes.

Honesty is a reflection of who we truly are, whereas correctness is how a particular environment or context conditions us into behaving.

If you find yourself in a job where honesty and correctness are often at odds, get out.

Installation aborted

When you install a program on your computer, you have to wait until it goes to 100%. If you interrupt the installation, your computer rolls back to its previous state and you have to start over again.

Installing a program requires several inter-dependent steps to happen in a particular sequence. Your computer first ensures if you have the necessary system specifications. It then copies the specific .dll and .exe files needed for the program’s execution. Finally, it creates shortcuts that appear on your start menu.

As ‘makers’ we all take up complex tasks that have sequential dependencies. Fixing a bug in your production code requires you to isolate the bug, reproduce it and make the smallest possible change in your code that is necessary to fix it. Interruptions are costly, because you have to start all over again.

And yet, our work days are filled with interruptions. Emails demand to be answered within an hour or two. An instant message demands an instant response. Managers don’t think twice about scheduling meetings into empty afternoon slots, breaking them up into smaller bits.

Deep work is a winner-take-all game. As a maker, can you work hard to protect interruption-free slots in your schedule? As a manager, can you understand the costs of your constant interruptions?

TL;DR: A fun cartoon that explains this more elegantly than I can.

Inspiration: Maker’s schedule, Manager’s schedule

Does it fail well?

When we buy, our minds are fixated on how well things work. Instead, we ought to spare a thought for how well things fail.

When we buy a car, the salesman tells us about its mileage, sleek interiors, its powerful engine and the ability of its software to receive upgrades over the internet – shiny things that we will stop noticing after a couple of months. What is more important is how the car is built for failure – the design of the seat belts, crash protection and how easy it is to change tires.

Builders ought to be mindful of how well their creations fail. While buying a house, the real-estate agent tells us how it is centrally located, spacious and well lit. Nevertheless, our house ought to have a strong foundation, and it ought to be built with quality materials – attributes that its buyers can easily overlook.

We are short-sighted buyers and this tendency doesn’t serve us well when we make long-term purchases. Therefore, we need standards and regulations to help us create a culture where things don’t merely work well, but also fail well.

‘Enough’

At the root cause of all misery is a feeling of ‘Not enough’.

‘Not enough’ perpetuates greed. Like an insatiable weed taking over a forest, it causes us to overeat, accumulate wealth, status and other shiny things at the expense of the people around us.

‘Not enough’ drives us to procrastinate by dangling a mirage of perfection in front of our eyes. Despite hours of tireless striving, it leaves us with a hole that cannot be filled. It sends us to bed with a brain racing with thoughts only to wake up tired.

‘Not enough’ is an infinite void because it is a creation of our minds. The only means to address it is to lean into every moment, every action and every day by recognizing their completeness.

‘Enough’ is a state of mind.

A Roman Emperor’s advice on managing expectations

Can there be anybody who can feel more entitled than the most powerful person on Earth?

The Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, once wrote in his dairy, ‘Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.’

Here is the world’s most powerful man during his era reminding himself to keep his expectations low. Despite his incredible might and stature, the Roman emperor learnt to check his expectations on how he would be treated. Marcus Aurelius was a great stoic. In line with the tenets of stoic philosophy, he understood that he could not control how people behaved towards him. Instead, he could only control his expectations of that behaviour.

We do not control how we would be treated. We only control our expectations. Keeping our expectations modest makes us resilient to disappointment.

Humour and status

When we laugh at somebody, the joke works because we lower somebody’s status. When we laugh with somebody, more often than not, we elevate their status.

Whether you are elevating or lowering somebody’s status comes down to permission. When we laugh at the unfortunate butt of the joke in our friends circle, we don’t have their permission. However, when somebody is a good sport or a professional comedian, our laughter elevates their status. Most of us have laughed at Mister Bean, and thereby turned Rowan Atkinson into a respected professional.

Before we crack a joke, it helps to ask if we have its target’s explicit or implicit permission. If you find yourself at a joke’s receiving end, you can have your status elevated by granting people your permission.

Can you imagine?

Can you imagine a school where teachers don’t lecture at a class? Instead, students learn on their own with teachers as their guide? Where there is no ranking, comparison among peers or academic pressure of any sort? Where learning is self-directed and school hours are filled with joyful discovery? Yes, schools like that exist.

Can you imagine a company that is managed without managers? Where employees set their own working hours, salaries and bonuses? And no, I am not talking about a tech startup, but a full-scale manufacturing company, replete with factories and assembly lines. Yes, companies like that exist.

Can you imagine a cop deciding to hand out tickets for good behaviour rather than for crimes? Where teenagers receive appreciation for tossing garbage into the trash can, helping elderly people cross the road or shaping up to be responsible adults? Yes, an officer tried that with great results.

To imagine a different school, workplace or police department, you need to challenge the underlying assumptions that we have about people – about students capable of directing their own learning, employees capable of self-management and teenagers capable of responsible behaviour.

Can you imagine a better world by challenging some of your deeply held beliefs?

Structure fosters creativity

Learning to draw a complex shape, like that of an elephant, can be hard.

Each part of the majestic creature needs to be in proportion with the whole. An inexperienced hand is quick to forget this and turns the sketch inadvertently into a caricature.

To prevent this from happening, budding artists use a grid to draw images. With training, they don’t need a grid anymore – they have one etched into their unconscious minds.

When used appropriately, structure can be creativity’s closest ally.

Source

Stories in the sky

On a clear moonless night, when you look up at the stars, do the innumerable dots in the sky take up definite shapes and forms?

When I look at the signs in the zodiac, I am always baffled by how those stick figures are made out to be a muscular bull or a ferocious lion.

Cancer – Takes quite the imaginative leap to picture a crab there (source)

In fact, if we presented all the stars in the zodiac sign ‘Scorpio’ to three people without the scorpion drawn around it, I am sure that we would end up with three alternative shapes that don’t involve a menacing creature with a stinger. Every zodiac sign is entirely arbitrary – the work of some Babylonian minds in the first millennium BC, which continues to see widespread adoption even today.

But it doesn’t end with those figures. We humans have also drawn up an elaborate field of study on their influence on our lives. Many a professional have made full-time careers in the 21st century on foretelling people’s future and guiding their lives based on the imaginative extrapolations of some ancient Babylonian minds.

The zodiac’s continued prominence emphasizes how stories matter to us more than the truth behind them. The human mind is captivated by the story of the Mahabharata, the Iliad or the life of Jesus Christ – not whether those are inherently true. Similarly, people are interested in the story of your brand, your restaurant or your fashion label rather than merely the underlying facts.

That the zodiac came to represent a menagerie of creatures and shapes is testimony to the human mind’s ability to tell fascinating stories. That they continue to endure into the 21st century is testimony to their timeless allure.

The golden deer

During their 14 year exile, Rama, his wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana lived in a hermitage in the forest of Dandakaranya.

One day, they spot a golden deer with silver spots. The deer passes close to them, gamboling to catch their attention. The moment she lays her eyes on the exotic creature, Sita is captivated. She implores Rama to capture the deer, dead or alive, for her keeping.

Rama entrusts Sita to Lakshmana’s safety and sets off after the deer. A long chase ensues, where the deer leads Rama deep into the forest and away from his hermitage. Finally, the deer tires and stops in a shady grassland, where Rama shoots it down with an arrow. However, no sooner than the arrow strikes the deer does the handsome creature transform into the hideous demon Maricha.

The story of the golden deer in the Ramayana alludes to a tendency of our minds to spot something golden and shiny in the horizon. We then pursue it with all our might and acquire it, only to realize that it wasn’t quite what we had expected it to be. What is more? Just as soon as we come to terms with this disappointment, another golden deer appears in the horizon.

Whenever you catch your mind saying, ‘If I have _______, I will be happy’, watch out. It might just be a golden deer.

Can I play this game longer?

To evaluate a particular habit, think about its sustainability.

Some people habitually max out their credit card. Needless to say, one can’t play that game for very long.

Burgling convenience stores is a great source of adrenalin. So is cycling through the countryside. Which of those acts will lend itself to continuity?

Working 16 hour days under a boss you don’t like might fetch you a higher salary today. Contrast that to an 8 hour workday with somebody you love working with. Which situation can you sustain longer?

When dating somebody, does every passing hour you spend with them make you want to spend more time with them? Would your partner say the same thing about you?

Does your investment strategy have a portfolio that enables you to invest tomorrow as well? Or does it entail a chance, however small, that you blow up?

The good choices in life are the ones that keep you in the game. The best ones enable you to play better the next day.

Extending intelligence

Obtaining an appointment at a municipal office here in Berlin can be a distant dream. You have to check their website regularly for open slots. No sooner than these slots appear do people snap them up like a shoal of piranhas.

Since I did not enjoy visiting the website every 15 minutes or so, I wrote a computer script to do that and email me whenever it found an empty slot. That script performed the repetitive task so that my intellect was freed up to do something else.

Since the earliest of time, we humans have realized the limitations of our working memory and figured several ways to store away bits of our intelligence to play it back on command. From scribing hymns on clay tablets to writing machine learning algorithms, we have come a long way.

Extending our working memory can happen in various ways

  • To-do lists
  • Checklists
  • Reminders
  • Habits and routines
  • Outsourcing a task
  • Computer scripts

Our intelligence and memory may be limited. But there are limitless imaginative ways in which we can make up for this deficit.

Limits to perfection

If I asked you to stand in front of a tree, gave you some pencil and paper and asked you to produce the best possible drawing of that tree, how long would it take you?

While performing studies, artists do this differently. They maybe also be asked to draw the best possible tree, but with the constraint of doing it in 2 minutes. And then, they are asked to do this over and over again.

What is the best possible blogpost you can write in half an hour?

What is the best possible song we can compose in two hours?

What is the best possible scene we can shoot in 5 takes?

What is the best possible dish I can make with these five ingredients within an hour?

Shooting for perfection can be meaningless without meaningful constraints.

Hurry hurts help

A bunch of seminary students were reminded of the parable of the Good Samaritan. They were then told to walk to a nearby building for a task. One group of students were told that they had plenty of time to get there, while another were told they were late already.

Enroute, the students encountered a man sitting slumped in a doorway who moaned and coughed twice as they walked by. Unknown to the poor souls, some psychologists had setup an experiment to observe their behaviour towards this ‘victim’. Among the students who were running late, only 10% offered to help the victim in need – some literally stepped over the victim. When they were not in a hurry, 63% helped.

Despite just being reminded of the lesson of the Good Samaritan’s willingness to help a stranger in need, the import of the lesson was negated by the scarcity of time that the students felt in that moment.

From receptionists to nurses, people in several professional roles have to help customers in need. Since hurry is a formidable foe, these professionals would need slack in their schedules to answer the call of duty.

Think about it – if the parable of the Good Samaritan did not have any effect on seminary students, your corporate training sessions don’t stand a chance.

What writing 1000 blogposts has taught me

On one cold January evening in 2018, I wrote a blogpost on an impulse. I then chose a simple WordPress theme and published that post. The next day, I wrote another post. The day after that, I wrote another. 1000 posts later, I find myself here.

Growing up, I always thought of myself as a writer. I wrote my first poem in class 4, which was published out of kindness in the local newspaper. Throughout my schooling and university, I have been part of writing clubs. I wrote only when I found myself in the grip of an inspired moment. These moments had a will of their own, but they followed one pattern – whenever I put out a good post, the next one would take longer to arrive. People often complimented my writing, but I guarded those compliments closely by holding onto the dangerous myth of one being only as good as one’s last performance.

Yet, even as my writing became sporadic to the point of non-existence, I continued to think of myself as a writer. At some point, this notion started to feel empty. You cannot call yourself a plumber, a carpenter or a surgeon for long if you idled away amidst your tools while waiting for inspiration to strike. While writers are veterans at this act of self-delusion, even inventing terms like ‘writer’s block’ by way of justification, a writer that does not write feels empty inside. You are what you do despite what you say you are.

For the first time, I stopped calling myself a writer and decided instead to write everyday. I did not wish to merely write in private – I wanted the world to see my writing, and along with it, parts of my naked self. Striving for perfection in total secrecy is more than it is made out to be. It is harder, but more meaningful to publish your imperfect creations to the ruthless judgement of the world rather than protect them within the sanctuary of your own head.

Most people think they are better writers than they actually are. It is, after all, a skill that we are taught right from primary school. But just pause to think about how writing actually works. The cerebral cortex of our brain has the surface area of two newspaper sheets that are that are folded in and squeezed into our skulls – hence all the wrinkles. Like a firework display, this canvas within our head is witness to several interesting thoughts, ideas, feelings, notions, memories and experiences that fire off in different regions. The act of writing serves to build the neural highways and the alleyways needed to connect these disparate regions and convert their sparks into a story that can help reproduce the same firework display in the mind of a reader. The job of a creative writer is to make this reproduction accurate, but not precise. One’s writing ought to convey the essence, but leave enough unstated between the lines so that the reader can reproduce their own variation of the same firework display. Defining writing as the means to clearly express whatever one feels is simple, but on digging deeper, one realizes how it is a craft that demands its own 10,000 hours of rigour.

The more one writes, the more one realizes how building these intricate network of connections in the brain bestows several other benefits. For instance, one learns to recognize bad writing almost instantly. The hallmark of bad writing is a feeling that the writer is making you work harder than you ought to in order to understand a particular idea. Seen this way, it becomes clear how bad grammar, spelling or word choice adds speed breakers and potholes on what ought to be a smooth road. Additionally, one also learns to recognize when a writer is using sophisticated language merely in a bid to sound smart while doing nothing to clarify what they are saying. In the manner of how a chef knows the quality of a dish no sooner than she spoons it into her mouth, a writer knows, after reading a paragraph or two, whether a piece of writing is well written.

Despite having written everyday for so many days now, I am surprised by how writing a new post continues to be hard work. I still have days when I wake up and amble to the computer only to find myself clueless about expressing an idea that seemed crystal clear the evening before. Several of my posts have given me the impulse to hit delete and assume a new identity rather than put them out into the world. The benefit of sustaining a habit so long is that when the ugly monster of Resistance rears its head, the habit makes it harder for the practitioner to discontinue their practice on a whim. Nevertheless, I constantly ask myself whether this habit is worth the time and effort that I dedicate towards sustaining it. So far the answer has always been a ‘yes’, but someday that might change.

Even as I count the benefits my writing has given me I understand that it hasn’t done nearly as much for my readers. Like the patient roommate who puts up with somebody practicing the violin next door, you have received word of my posts as emails and on your social media feed. Writing a daily blog does much more for a writer than it ever can for a reader. I am grateful for anybody who has engaged with this blog in their own capacity – from silently reading a couple of posts to initiating conversations centered around the blog. Amidst this journey, I pause today to thank you for your generous help.

I have always thought of myself as a writer. Writing this blog has given me the action to back up this feeling. However, I realize that this is just a beginning. Having written a thousand blogposts, I aspire to write articles, essays, booklets and someday, books to voice the ever more intricate firework displays that light up inside my brain. As for this blog itself, I will continue to appear on stage and perform this daily dance until a clear voice within convinces me that it is time to pull down the curtains.

‘I have to’ vs. ‘I get to’

I have to practice singing this song today.
I get to sing this song today.

I have to pass this tough math examination next week.
I get to write this tough math examination next week.

I have to start work at 9 AM tomorrow.
I get to work at 9 AM tomorrow.

I have to read one book every week this year.
I get to read a book every week this year.

As free individuals, we don’t have to do anything. We get to do them. Framing things that way reminds us of how these are choices we have voluntarily made.

However, with this power to choose also come the responsibility of bearing the consequences of our choices. Our discomfort with this tension often leads us to believe that we have too many obligations.

What else can this meeting tell you?

When a couple is seated across a table and unable to engage in conversation, you know that the relationship is troubled.

When a team is unable to have a constructive meetings week after week, that is a sign of its dysfunctionality. If most people in the team dread going to meetings, it is a sign that they are getting in each other’s way rather than collaborating.

The quality of your meetings can serve as the pulse for your team’s health.

How knowledge and wisdom are different

Knowledge is cumulative, wisdom is cyclical.

With knowledge, we are able to build upon the work of past generations to see further. With wisdom, we only rediscover what people have already found out for thousands of years. If Archimedes gave us the principle of buoyancy and Aryabhatta told us the value of pi, we have used them to build ships and satellites. We don’t read books written by ancient Greek or Indian scientists, but we continue to read the Bhagavad Gita or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

Once knowledge is discovered, it can be taken for granted and applied without truly understanding it. Every time I switch on a tube light, I don’t need to stop and think as to how it works. I can whip out my smartphone, shop for gadgets and have them appear at my doorstep. Right now, I am pushing buttons to have my thoughts magically appear on a screen to be dispersed to the rest of the world. I can do all this without the slightest knowledge of the complex systems that make this possible.

The same, however, isn’t true of wisdom. Wisdom ought to be thoroughly understood before it is applied. In line with the Gita’s advice, I cannot pretend to do my duty without attachment for a reward without understanding what ‘duty’, ‘attachment’ and ‘reward’ mean in a specific context. Marcus Aurelius wrote, ‘Soon you’ll be ashes or bones. A mere name at most—and even that is just a sound, an echo. The things we want in life are empty, stale, trivial.‘ What do those words mean? And in which context are they true? Wisdom applied without understanding decays into ritual, dogma or superstition.

Isaac Newton, perhaps the greatest purveyor of knowledge yet, once said ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.‘ And so it goes with knowledge. With wisdom, however, despite our having become bipedal more than 4 million years ago, every single toddler has to learn anew to amble on its feet.