It is another normal

The institute where I got my bachelor’s degree ran into a naming crisis.

Initially, the institute was small and had all its classrooms in one building. And then it grew some and they built another building for classrooms. They called it the Additional Teaching Block (ATB).

Soon enough, the institute grew some more and they build yet another building. This time, they called it the New Teaching Block (NTB). I wonder what they are going to call the next one.

We live in a world where the normal keeps shifting. On most days, it shifts just a little, like a setting sun. During the last few months, we have seen the ground beneath shift faster. We have dubbed this our ‘new normal’.

This normal might be new today, but it will give way to another normal. When that happens, I hope we can give it a suitable name.

Inspiration: A new normal

Sloppy job description

How many hours did it take you to learn how to use a new software, such as Gmail, Facebook or Microsoft Powerpoint?

How many years did it take for you to learn how to make quality presentations, moderate meetings or master a programming language?

Every time I see job postings with ‘knowing how to use Jira’ or ‘proficiency with MS Office’ listed as necessary skills, I know that the company is looking for cogs to keep their machinery running.

The curse of knowledge – a thought experiment

You have invited a dear friend of yours, a modern day hunter-gatherer, to your house. Say you are fluent in the language of her tribe.

You live next to a construction site, and as you are catching up, a clattering sledgehammer interrupts your conversation. Your friend is startled. She asks you what those noises are about.

“Oh that! That is just a construction site nearby.”

“What is construction?”

“Construction is when you build something new”.

“What is building?”

“Building is the act of creating structures that provide shelter. Like caves, or huts made from mud and straw.”

“Oh okay. What are they building?”

“They are building a school”.

“What is a school?”

You spend the rest of the evening in this manner. If the conversation were about gathering wild berries or hunting antelope on foot, it would have transpired in the opposite direction.

It is startling to realize how much of our language depends on being familiar with a particular context. It is startling precisely because the curse of knowledge makes us take this contextual knowledge for granted.

The cure? Always close the feedback loop when you make presentations. Watch for signs of understanding and stop when you see puzzled looks. Engage with your audience and pepper them with questions.

Related reading: The Curse of Knowledge, Undoing the Curse of Knowledge

The shortcut to choosing the right habits

A good habit takes about 30 days to form.

If that isn’t challenging enough, their benefits might take years to surface. Run, write or meditate for 30 days and you will often have nothing to show for it.

A bad habit only takes about 30 days to form.

If that isn’t scary enough, their repurcussions might take years to surface. Drink beer, smoke a cigarette or check Facebook for 30 days straight. On the 31st day, they only leave behind withdrawal symptoms.

The feedback loop for several habits is often slower than how long it takes to cultivate them. Therefore, it is helpful to trust people who have already reaped their benefits or faced their repurcussions rather than relying on our own experience.

Learning from other people’s experience is the shortcut to cultivating good habits and discarding bad ones.

Why we already have self-driving airplanes

Why is it more difficult to build self-driving cars than self-driving aircraft? Aren’t airplanes more complex?

The first auto-pilot system was demonstrated way back in 1914, and became standard devices on aircraft since the 1930’s. In today aircrafts, autopilots are capable of controlling every part of the flight from just after take-off to before landing. That recent flight you took might have been more than 90% self-driven.

Now flying a plane is certainly more complex than driving a car. An aircraft can rotate around all three of its axes. Pilots must constantly monitor aircraft altitude, attitude and trajectory. The cockpit of an aircraft has a multitude of knobs, dials and indicators that make a car’s dashboard seem like a child’s toy.

Yet, despite all this complexity, the air is far more predictable than the road. Sure, there are occasional thunderstorms and turbulence, but pilots don’t have to contend with drunk drivers, construction barriers or dogs and children that can dash across the road at a moment’s notice.

Auto-pilots are easier to build than self-driven cars because predictability is more important for automation than simplicity. To decide if a task can be automated, ‘Is it predictable?‘ is a more relevant question to ask than ‘Is it complex?

Ideas are like rabbits

John Steinbeck once said, ‘Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.’

Writing this blog has shown me how Steinbeck’s analogy runs deeper than its first impression. People often ask me how I get enough ideas to write one post everyday. I started with a couple, which have now multiplied into 949 blog posts.

Ideas that are closely packed are more likely to multiply. Ideas that are one day apart have a higher fertility rate than ones that are a week apart. Ideas also have breeding seasons. After a dry spell of 5 days, I will have 10 ideas all at once.

To have rabbits of your own, you could start off with somebody else’s rabbits. To have a bunch of ideas of your own, you could start off two that are already out there.

To be contented, but not complacent

Each one of us has come really far to be where we are today. Behind us lies a long and arduous journey.

Each one of us has much further to go. Ahead of us lies a long and arduous journey.

It can be a challenge to reconcile how despite having traveled so far, we still have miles to go. To be contented is to be grateful for how far we have come. To be complacent is to mistakenly think that we have already arrived.

Like food, water and air, growth is one of life’s essential requirements. To stagnate is to rot, decay and die.

Can you be satisfied with how far you have come, while looking forward to the adventurous journey ahead?

Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. – Daniel Gilbert

Image Credits: adrian

The power of artificial selection

File:Big and little dog 1.jpg

It is crazy to think of how a Great Dane and a Chihuahua are the same species. Yes, they can mate with each other and produce fertile offspring.

The idea is to select for a particular trait and reinforce it ad infinitum.

The vast variety in canine breeds is a reminder of the power of taking the same raw materials and moving forward with a particular intent, one step at a time.

Art vs. Innovation

Art is a function of its creator whereas inventions are creatures that are born of the environment.

If a particular artist died before she could produce her masterpiece, the world would never have that masterpiece. If a particular inventor died before he could invent something, somebody else would have.

Had Salvador Dali not painted The Persistence of Memory, or if Pink Floyd had not composed Comfortably Numb, it’s hard to imagine that other artists would have reproduced these masterpieces.

If Thomas Newcomen hadn’t invented his version of the steam engine, somebody else would have. By 1730, several inventors were working on similar prototypes. In the absence of Charles Darwin, another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace would have discovered natural selection. In the absence of Albert Einstein, Hendrik Lorzenz would have gotten to relativity in a few years. Without Watson and Crick, Maurice Wilkins and Ray Gosling would have figured out the structure of the DNA.

If you wish to be an artist, look deep within yourself. If you would like to innovate, on the other hand, pay careful attention to the world outside.

The other side of boredom

Say you are learning to play a favourite song on a guitar.

The first few sessions are interesting – you figure out the right chords and their rhythm. Soon enough, you enjoy the thrill of humming the song while strumming its chords.

At some point, you can play the chords without even having to think about their sequence. You have also played this song 20-30 times by now, and boredom starts to set in. This is the point where most people move onto the next song.

Instead, what if you persisted? What if you continued playing the same song a 100 or 200 times?

Despite so much repetition, there are ways to keep things interesting. Use a metronome in the background. Play the song at half its original tempo, and then twice its original tempo. Tweak the strumming pattern or substitute a chord or two.

At an unconscious level each repetition of the same song teaches you something new and makes you a better guitar player overall. When the notes remains the same, your brain, your fingers and your muscles can direct all their attention towards depth.

On the other side of boredom lies mastery. This is true of any discipline (and also why we call them ‘disciplines’).

Commitments vs. Sunk Costs

A commitment is a decision you have made in the past that continues to serve you in the present. Commitments ought to be kept.

A sunk cost is a decision you have made in the past that no longer serves you in the present. Sunk costs ought to be discarded.

A question we ought to ask ourselves more often – does this decision from my past continue to serve me today?

Choice of restaurant for great conversation

If you are headed to a restaurant for a great conversation, prefer full-service over take-away or buffets. Better yet, choose one where the service isn’t too quick and pick a corner table.

In-person conversations are more complex than they appear. Good conversations require your full mental bandwidth. You need to pay complete attention to the other person – the words they use, the expressions on their face, their bodily gestures and the implicit things they communicate between the lines.

All of this requires you to suspend interruptions and dispel any sense of hurry. A restaurant with good service staff ensures this. Once you have ordered your food, you can ease into a nice flow of exchanges before it arrives.

Also, there is no rush after you finish eating. You haven’t paid yet, so there is no need to leave. You can continue conversing and pay when you are done.

Like plants, conversation need to be carefully nurtured. Some spaces are more conducive than others, so choose wisely.

Innovation isn’t about ideas

A beaver and a rabbit were sitting close to the Hoover Dam, admiring it.

The rabbit asked the beaver, “Did you build that?”

The beaver replied, “No, but it’s based on an idea I had.”

A couple of days ago, I wrote about how using shipping containers instead of manually loading cargo in ships brought the cost of shipping down by a factor of 36 (from $5.86 per ton to just 16 cents per ton).

One might think that this brilliant idea would have been enough to make containerization standard practice across the world. Sadly, innovation is never that easy. Its inventor, Malcom McLean, had to fight several difficult battles before that happened.

in 1958, McLean sent two of his new ships from Newark, USA to Puerto Rico, where the longshoremen’s union refused to unload them, sitting idle for four months and costing him a fortune. Another dockers’ strike in 1959 brought McLean to the brink of bankruptcy. Then, there was the problem with standardization. It took more than 10 long years for the industry to settle on 20-foot and 40-foot standard container lengths.

It took one good idea, a lot of elbow grease and decades of patient work to make shipping containers the standard means for transporting cargo around the world.

Innovation isn’t about having great ideas. It is more about taking an idea and putting the difficult work necessary to realize the idea.

Observe thyself

The scientist Werner Heisenberg discovered how an atom behaved differently when it was observed.

This principle is easier to notice in living organisms. The mere act of being observed has a powerful effect on our behaviour.

We can put this to great use by intentionally observing ourselves.

Recording ourselves while making a speech and listening to the recording later helps us learn to speak better.

Writing a journal, where we observe our day after it has happened, helps us improve our lives through self observation.

People are often surprised when they learn how often they lock and unlock their phone. An app that tracks your phone usage helps you observe your own digital behaviour and make amends.

Observation can serve as a powerful means for behavioural change. Observing ourselves gives us the privilege of being both the observer and the subject.

Inpsiration: The Observer Effect 

Cutting-edge can be low tech

The invention of the shipping container is a remarkable story. It involved no new scientific or technological breakthrough, but merely better organization.

The Warrior was a cargo ship contracted by the US military to transport 5,000 ton of cargo from Brooklyn, USA to Bremerhaven, Germany in 1954. The cargo consisted of nearly 200,000 items. Loading and unloading the ship took 10 days, whereas the voyage itself lasted 11 days. Port costs accounted for a whopping 37 percent of the total shipping cost. The arduous sea voyage itself cost only 11 percent in comparison.

Along came Malcom McLean, an entrepreneur, who invented the shipping container. By packaging cargo in containers, McLean dramatically reduced the time a ship had to spend at port. Back in the early 1950’s, most cargo aboard a ship was loaded by hand, costing $5.86 per ton. Using standard containers, McLean reduced this cost to 16 cents per ton – a 36x improvement!

At times, the next biggest invention doesn’t involve making the biggest scientific or creating new technology. It merely requires us to observe a process and eliminate waste with a common-sense solution.


The power of simulation

One video game I played involved racing a remote control car through a street.

When I practiced on a particular track, the game would project a ghost of the car from my best performance on the track, racing beside me. If that ghost was ahead of me, I would know that I am lagging behind. If I am ahead of that ghost, I know that I am getting better.

Our brains are equipped to simulate several experiences that we can put to our use.

When you witness a beautiful scenery, assume that you would go home and sketch it out. The power of simulation pushes you to pay more attention and take in every little detail.

When you are performing a mundane task out of it, try making a game out of it. The power of simulation can turn drudgery into fun.

When accepting an appointment long into the future, ask yourself if you’d accept the appointment if it were happening tomorrow. The power of simulation prevents you from taking on commitments you will regret later.

The human brain is unique in having an enlarged frontal lobe that is able to simulate experiences. With a little creativity, we can put this part of our brain to fantastic use.

What if Newton or Leibniz didn’t discover calculus

Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz are famous for independently discovering calculus. But their co-incidence isn’t a case in isolation.

Newton and Leibniz both discovered calculus. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel-Wallace both discovered evolution. Three mathematicians invented decimal fractions. Oxygen was discovered by Joseph Priestly and Carl Wilhelm Schlee. Colour photography? Invented by two French men in the same year. Alexander Graham Bell filed a patent for the telephone on February 14, 1876. On the very same day, another inventor, Elisha Gray, filed an identical patent.

Back in 1922, William Ogburd and Dorothy Thomas compiled a list of major scientific discoveries that had happened simultaneously across the world. They documented 148 such discoveries.

Inventions and discoveries are often ‘floating in the air’, waiting to happen. How else could all of those things have happened for the very first time in so many different places?

Innovation isn’t the work of a heroic individual sitting in a laboratory, as we are led to imagine. Like a treasure hunt, the world has already laid out the clues for the next big invention. An innovator’s job is to put out her antenna and follow their trail.

If Newton and Leibniz didn’t discover calculus, somebody else would have.

Suggested Reading: In the Air

I do and I understand

When you start out playing table tennis, you are taught to focus all your attention on the ball.

You realize that merely by watching the ball, the rest of your body knows what to do. You legs know how to position themselves, your hands swivel to get behind the ball’s trajectory and your wrist knows just how much force to use to nudge the ball back into the opponent’s court.

Now you may read tonnes of books and watch several videos on table tennis. But none of that is going to help you build the hand-eye coordination and the other unconscious motor skills needed to play the sport.

Several key aspects of any skill, from playing a sport to running a company, are picked up through immersion and without conscious effort.

The treadmill illusion

Say you’re running on a treadmill whose speed increases gradually and perpetually. It is absurd to think of how you can continue to keep up if only you ran faster. The only way to cope with such a treadmill is to get off it.

We are quick to recognize the folly of running faster on a real treadmill. However, our brains fall for the trap of the hedonic treadmill. We are programmed to think of how if we worked a little harder, if we earned a little more and if we increased our social stature a little, we would finally be happy.

Alas! Those two illusions aren’t too different.

Say yes to the underdog

Pandemic or not, I watch just one movie a year in the theaters. It was an easy choice to pick Parasite this year – a Korean movie, that despite subtitles, managed to win the Oscar for best picture.

Despite our best efforts, the world is far from being a fair and equitable place. In your own selfish interest, you are better off backing an underdog who has defied several odds to rise to prominence.

Backing the underdog is a win-win. You are less likely to be disappointed while making the world a better place.

PS: Parasite is a mind-blowing movie. Highly recommended.