The velocity of learning

We measure learning like we measure distance – in terms of an absolute quantity.

Our degrees are milestones in how far we have explored a field – a bachelor, a master, a PhD and so on. Further, we divide these degrees up into semesters just like evenly spaced checkpoints in a marathon.

But what motivates us to learn is analogous to velocity – the distance we cover in a given amount of time. When I make progress today, I am motivated to do it tomorrow. An excessive focus on distance, has distorted our learning by having us focus on the milestones – the tests and the exams rather than progress on a daily basis.

Learning about new fields, acquiring new degrees, learning from new mediums and performing new jobs are becoming survival skills. The distances we have already travelled aren’t as important as the velocity with which we learn.

Flow and adaptive learning

Around 10 years ago, every second person I knew was preparing for the GRE. In our undergraduate hostel, the GRE was a gateway to our dreams of pursuing graduate studies abroad. One interesting thing about the GRE is that it is an adaptive test. The better you performed, the harder the questions became.

We humans are creatures of incremental progress. One of our biggest motivators is to be being better at something today than we were yesterday. To ensure that this happens, the level of difficulty has to be just right – too easy and we learn nothing new. Too difficult, we also learn little and give up out of frustration. The sweet spot between our comfort zone and way outside it is the zone of maximum learning. And there is a scholarly body of research that backs this up.

The Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is arguably the best psychologist of our times. His surname, that goulash of consonants, is pronounced “six-cent-mihaly”. His work deals with flow – a state of mind we experience as we learn in the zone of optimal difficulty. We attain flow states when we are thoroughly engrossed in an activity and become unaware of our surroundings or the passage of time. Flow is a state that is fundamental to human happiness.

An adaptive system can be used to keep learners in a flow state by having the level of difficulty of a test correspond to the skill level of the learner. But an adaptive system need not be limited to the GRE, GMAT and the like. Self-learning is on the rise – 69% of developers today are primarily self-taught. We have all the required technology to be able to fit in adaptive testing to all our online, self-learning worlds.

One step further would be adaptive teaching – where a learning system could adapt the pace at which it proceeds or the complexity of the learning content to suit the skill level of the learner. As we move out of the molds of classroom learning, where several children are locked into listening to a teacher who keeps pace with the slowest student, adaptive teaching represents great potential for accelerated, personalized learning.

A decade after most of my friends have realized their GRE dreams to fruition, why is adaptive learning not widespread? How is it still not a thing?

Using questions as prompts

A student puts up her hand in a primary school science class.

“How do plants breathe?”

The teacher could answer this question in several ways. One of them could be to give the “textbook” answer – every leaf has pores out of which plants inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. Plants breathe through their leaves.

Alternatively, he could use this question as a prompt. He could tell children about how plants deliver water to their highest branches. A giant redwood tree that is 100 meters tall transports water from its roots to a leaf on its highest branch by simply breathing. In this manner, trees are able to move water to the height of a thirty storey building without a pump.

Every question is a prompt. At times, direct answers are valuable. But otherwise, questions can tell us something about our listener’s inclinations to embark on an interesting journey. Or to spark wonder in the eyes of little children in a science class.

The premium of specificity

It is tempting to serve a large market.

The most amateur business cases start by sizing the entire pie. The more people one serves, the larger the market. Everybody buys rice! The market for rice is massive. Even if we were to capture a tiny fraction of this market, our revenues would be in the millions!

The question is, at what cost?

If everybody buys rice, everybody can sell it as well. If you sell it at a profit of 10%, there are several others who would do it at 8% or 6%. And that flags off a race to the bottom, where nobody ends up making any money. A world of perfect competition, as an economist would call it.

What if you sold a specific type of rice instead? What if you sold red basmati rice? Not the standard, super-polished, pearly white version or even the brown version, but one that is truly red?

By selling this variety of rice, you decide to serve a particular market – people who cook their pulaos and biriyanis with a special kind of rice. But with this focus, you can serve this market better than most generic rice traders – a service they would be willing to pay you a premium for.

Being specific allows you to charge this premium. It is a reward for your courage and your commitment to mean something to somebody rather than everything to everybody.

If everybody is your market, unfortunately, everybody is your competitor as well.

Between knowing and understanding

We are surrounded by oceans of information. Getting specific information about the most arcane topic has never been easier. Yet, how does this benefit us? How many of our pressing problems does it solve?

If more information were the answer, we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs. – Derek Sivers

Not all this information is useful. Most of it is noise. Only the information that we engage with, internalize and use to understand the world constitutes learning. True learning shifts our perspective and changes something within us.

Since prehistoric times, art has been our vehicle for internal change. Today, art coupled with technology could help us engage with this deluge of information through immersive and interactive learning experiences. I already knew about the Prisoner’s Dilemma and repeated games. But only after playing Nicky Case’s excellent simulation of this Game theory concept, did I truly begin to understand it.

Engagement bridges the gap between knowing and understanding.

This is how the future of education would look like. Rather than knowing a thousand concepts, it would involve understanding them through works of art on a technological canvas.

Today, we stand at a cusp. The days of one-way classroom sessions and passive textbook re-reading are numbered. The way we educate ourselves is set to radically transform. This represents a great opportunity for us as teachers, learners, technologists and artists.

I bow to wonderful and generous people like Nicky Case for leading the way.

What sport can teach us

I was recently asked what my best childhood memory was. The first answer that came to my mind was one from high school – back in the days when I played cricket with a passion.

Our school was divided into four houses which faced off against each other in sporting events. I was representing the Einstein house in a cricket match. When I walked up to the crease, we needed 5 runs to win of 3 balls. The bowler was considered the best bowler in the school, and was two years my senior. I was nervous as I watched him run up to the crease. He released the ball. It was a fast low full-toss, and thereafter my instincts took over. Without a conscious thought, I swung the bat at it. It was a clean hit. The next moment, I watched it sail high up in front of me, over the bowler’s head. As it moved further away, it became clear that it was headed for the nursery block building behind the playing field. It struck the wall of this block, which meant that I had a six. The match was won. I was the school’s hero that evening.

Fast forward to my present, and I neither play nor follow any competitive sport. And yet, of all my childhood memories, this was the one that sprang to the fore.

Every sport is centered around performing an inherently meaningless task – scooping a ball into a net or whacking a piece of leather as far as one can – with certain rules that define the game. It is a reflection of life itself, which is inherently meaningless, but with each one of us struggling to give it some meaning by thinking of what we stand for – what our specific goals are, and under what rules or constraints. Sport mirrors the struggles we face in our life, and that it is why millions of people care about 22 players on a football field in Russia. Besides, winning a game is a shortcut to experiencing the pure glory of confronting a challenge and emerging victorious.

If sport were a reflection of real life, to what extent is the inverse true? Is there something we can learn from sport in our lives?

A couple of things come to mind. The first one is that of rules and constraints. A sport would feel meaningless if there were no rules, or if every player cheated. And similarly would our everyday lives feel meaningless if there was no “goal” – no ideal to live up to. And the rules here are ones we define ourselves – our principles, beliefs and values, without which we are lost.

Secondly, every sport is a concoction of meaning for the sake of it, where winning isn’t everything. That is why we celebrate acts of sportsmanship such as Morten Wieghorst deliberately missing a penalty against Iran or Adam Gilchrist walking back to the pavilion numerous times before the umpire declared him out.

Sport is the epitome of finding meaning in the meaningless. What has it taught you?


A thumb rule for checking the phone

The smartphone is the greatest interrupter of the 21st century.

Each notification is a dopamine hit, and each reward modifies our behaviour. We are but Pavlovian dogs, responding to these rewards.

Here’s the thumb rule – is responding to your phone at any given moment more important than what you are currently doing?

The key word here is important, not urgent. Anything that comes through as a notification brings with it a sense of urgency, but no real importance.

There are perhaps no notifications more important than being present in that family dinner conversation. Or being present in that engaging lecture. Or being present to that important presentation we are preparing. Or merely being present to the world around us. If we find a certain application causing us to break that rule above several times, we are better off uninstalling it.

Our smartphones are merely gateways. The question is – who is utilizing whom? Are we utilizing the internet to enhance our lives with its information? Or do the internet overlords, Facebook, Google, Snapchat and co., utilize us to enhance their profitability?

Leaning into the down slope

On my first Himalayan trek, I received an invaluable tip from the trek leader.

Descending can be tricky if the gradient is steep, or the ground is icy and slippery. It is hard to find one’s footing, and people can either tumble down or resort to crawling on their backs.

On encountering a steep, downward incline, our impulse is to lean away from it out of the fear of slipping. But this only causes our foot to slip further. If our foot were on a banana peel, the more we angled away from it, the likelier it is to slip under our feet.

Our Captain, as we referred to our leader, told us that the trick was to lean into the slope.  While that seemed counter intuitive, it does wonders for our traction. Moreover, we retain our sense of balance even as we begin to slip, by continuing to lean in rather than panic and lean away.

On facing a formidable challenge, like a steep icy incline, leaning away will only ensure that we fall down. When the going gets tough and things look like they might not work, it is perhaps the best time to lean into them.

Stronger with use

Most constructions get weaker with use. But the Roman arch is an exception. The more you load the arch and the more you use it, the stronger it gets.

Holding a streak is addictive. Especially if that streak is public. If you have done something for 149 days in a row, it is far more compelling to do it on the 150th day. Like a Roman arch, it gets stronger with use.

Apps like Duolingo and Snapchat have utilized this to hook users and serve their interests. But what if those streaks could serve our interests instead?  What if a daily or a weekly habit were the basis for powering through a dip and emerging victorious on the other side?


Obsolete conventions

Every convention has an expiry date. The qwerty keyboard is a prime example of one that is long past its time.

The qwerty keyboard was designed in 1873, for typewriters. It wasn’t optimized for speed, as one would imagine. Instead, it was designed so that the keys of the typewriter would not get stuck. It did this scattering the most common alphabets in the English language far apart, and by concentrating them on the left side – on the typists’ weaker hand so that they would slow down . The next time you type something out, observe how your left hand is more animated.

The qwerty keyboard is a convention that previous generations have handed down to us. It was useful in their era, but it no longer is. And yet, we continue to cling to it. The smartphone was revolutionary – it did away with a physical keyboard. Yet, remarkably, we still kept an obsolete keyboard layout.

We humans have the tendency to hold on to something merely because it has been gifted to us. Just like medicine, conventions can be harmful past their expiry date.

A toast to showering

About three years ago Elon Musk was asked in a Reddit AMA, “Which daily habit do you believe has had the largest positive impact on your life?”

His response was simply “Showering”.

We don’t shower merely because we are dirty. It is a ritual we use as a to enter a particular state of mind. In the shower, our minds can enter a diffused state where some of our best ideas can surface. This is the underlying truth beneath the enduring legend of Archimedes stepping out of the bathtub, naked, through the streets of Syracuse screaming “Eureka”.

And thankfully, the devices that pervade every minute of our lives have not been able to enter our bathtubs and shower cubes. They are, perhaps, the last bastions of the idle, solitary mind.

So here’s to showering – the performance enhancing drug that kick starts our day or helps us tune into some of the best ideas brewing under the surface of our conscious minds.

Humour signals generosity

The most popular online course in the world is Learning how to Learn. Its instructors are Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski, and zombies are their teaching assistants. Here’s one of them reviewing his things to-do . 8-1_Zombie_task_list.jpg

Source: ©2014 Kevin Mendez

To be humourous is difficult. As any stand-up comedian would tell you, it takes hours of practice to pull off a joke that looks spontaneous. The same applies for pulling off a carefully scripted joke in a classroom, or to design an online course featuring sublime wordplay from realm of the undead. One reason their course is so popular is because the instructors have worked hard to make it funny.

Everybody loves to laugh. Every bit of laughter bathes our brain with a spurt of feel good chemicals. When somebody is humourous, it shows that they have put in some effort to make you feel better, and that they care enough about you to have done that.

This is why humour, especially in places where it isn’t a requirement, is a sign of generosity.

Recruiting those bursts of inspiration

Starting something is usually the most difficult part. This is as true of going for a run on a cold morning, sticking to a healthy diet or for composing a blogpost or an article. Invariably, the idea of doing these things – of running, eating healthy or writing regularly seem more appealing than their actual execution.

There are certain times when we feel better about doing something. Perhaps, going for a run in the morning seems more appealing the night before. Or that healthy diet seems particularly compelling the moment we step on the weighing scale.

The key is to utilize those moments to modify our environments in our favour. This could mean changing into our running clothes the evening before and and setting aside our shoes and socks. One could also step off the weighing scale, go straight to the refrigerator and put the fruits and veggies on the top shelves while pushing junk food out of sight into the tray below.

We routinely underestimate the role of our environment in influencing our behaviour. One way to change that is to utilize those random moments of clarity to reconfigure our environment. That way it can aid us rather in our noble, but difficult pursuits rather than work against them.

How technology can amplify social reform

What do Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Martin Luther King and Joe Gebbia, the co-founder of Airbnb, have in common?

To be a social reformer is to appeal to our higher conscience and change our culture. How does a corporation like AirBnb do that?

In our eyes, strangers are the “others”. We have always perceived them to be dangerous and taught our kids not to speak to them. Our houses are locked and strangers are not welcome. But by using a well designed experience, AirBnB changes all of that, increasing our trust in human beings everywhere.

With social reformers in the past, their entire life’s work was restricted to their local environments. Joe Gebbia is fortunate to be alive today – a time when a technologist can spearhead a social movement across the globe, even as he is just 37 years old.

Inspiration: Joe Gebbia’s TED talk – How Airbnb designs for trust

Ignore almost everyone

In our first Services Marketing class, our excellent professor tricked us.

He presented a simple case: lunch hours at an Italian restaurant have closed. A customer walks in and asks the waiter if he could have a particular dish – a Penne Arrabbiata. The enterprising waiter observes some fresh pasta in the kitchen, along with most ingredients required for the dish. He asks the chef to prepare the pasta and serve it to the customer, with his eye on a big tip. What should the chef do?

As unsuspecting students, the entire class opined that the restaurant staff ought to go the extra mile and serve this customer. That’s what conventional wisdom teaches us. But alas, we had taken the bait. Our professor, as he often did, had the last laugh.

What separates a good marketer from an amateur is that she ignores almost everyone. The most important question is “whom do we serve?” In the case above, a person who walks in outside service hours, is not our customer. Cutting corners to make a sub-standard pasta is not what we stand for.

As Seth Godin says, everybody ought to find the smallest viable audience they can serve, and do it in a manner that delights them. As counter-intuitive as that is, it is the surest way to succeed.

Marketing does not end with identifying that small audience. But that is where it begins.

The perfect vacation

Popular advice tells us that it helps to begin with the end in mind – to have a clearly defined goal or vision and work backwards in trying to achieve it.

But what about happiness? Does it work in the same manner? Does it help to say “if only I have x, y and z, then I would be happy”?

The human brain is unique in its ability to sythesize experiences before they actually happen to us. We know instinctively that blueberry chocolate ice-cream would taste awful, or that having our nails pulled out could be excruciatingly painful even without going through those specific experiences. That is because our pre-frontal cortex is great at sythesizing them.

However, the same part of the brain is terrible at guessing whatever makes us happy. It keeps trying, but the harder it tries, the more it stumbles. This is because
– Our world isn’t predictable
– We are bad at defining whatever would end up making us happy
– We are prone to a number of cognitive biases and errors in judgment

Let us consider an example – of planning the perfect vacation. Even after the most meticulous effort, several things outside our control could go wrong. Our flight could get cancelled. We could miss our connecting flight due to a delay. Our baggage could be lost in transit. All of these things can happen in the very first leg of our “perfect” vacation.

If our quest for happiness has this perfect vacation (among several others) as our goal, it is vulnerable to fail in the very first step and cause discontentment. This discontentment causes us to remark, “there is always room for improvement.”

The alternative, is to shift our focus from a set of goals, to experiencing the present moment to the fullest. What if one starts with the assumption that this moment, regardless of what it offers us, is already perfect? When things are already perfect and there is no more “room for improvement”, happiness is complete.

Buddhist monks spend their lifetime internalizing that the present moment is perfect in itself. Under those circumstances, our happiness is immune from any consequence that life throws at us. On a trip, we are immune to flight cancellations, delays and baggage losses. Because unexpected events exist only in the face of tightly defined goals and expectations.

To attach preconditions to our happiness is a powerful illusion that we all fall prey to. To undo it is to learn to recognize the inherent perfection of every moment – expressed simply, but one of the hardest things to achieve.

PS: For elaborations on why we are terrible at being happy, read Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness

Pulling the trigger

A sniper squeezes triggers just for a tiny fraction of time through her entire career. For the most part, she lies hidden, in wait. The best snipers are invariably the most patient human beings.

Significant developments across fields are slapped across face every minute of our life – thanks to online news, social media and discussion forums. All of those messages scream out how much wonderful work other people are doing. At the same time, they whisper to us, “you are not doing enough”.

With a little discernment, one can see that most of it is just noise. At least noise from your perspective. And it is very important to know what your perspective is.

In the era of noise, it is best to operate like a sniper – to wait for the meaningful specific to emerge and engage with it. Without anxiety. Without the fear of missing out.

Ditch that billboard

I use billboards as a way to decide NOT to attend events.

An event advertised on a billboard tells me it has been watered down for the masses – for anybody who lays their eyes upon it. With a billboard, the audience is necessarily heterogeneous. And to appeal to such an audience is to fit an event in the boring middle of a bell curve rather than its exciting extremes.


And this applies not just to billboards, but any form of mass advertisement – TV, radio, magazines or those trailers they play in movie theaters.

In the past, most events were designed for the mediocre middle rather than the exciting, but risky extremes. This was a necessity, considering the high cost of publicity. Everybody aimed to make a popular hit with a low risk of failure. Mainstream Hollywood movies which run expensive television ads continue to be built this way.

Sure, some of these mainstream events might delight me. Nevertheless, the likelihood of that happening is lower than something built for people just like me, and just for people like me.

Thanks to the internet, there has never been a better time to seek out exactly what you want. Rather than Hollywood’s thirtieth interpretation of a superhero, it might a podcast for people who grow hydroponic plants or an ask-me-anything session with that Kenyan javelin thrower who became a world champion by watching Youtube videos.

And those niches will only continue to multiply and become easier to find. So consider ditching that billboard.

Play a different game

There are numerous similarities between your job and a video-game. But a couple of ways in which they differ can be frightening.

We start a video game as amateurs in the first level, learn the controls, figure out the game’s objective and build the skills necessary to achieve them. In the process, we level-up and face bigger challenges. The gameplay keeps getting harder to correspond to our increasing level of competence.

When we’ve done that too often and things get boring, we move onto another game. We also quit if the game has gotten too tough and is way beyond our capability. Nevertheless, in both instances, quitting is entirely voluntary and entails little risk.

Your job isn’t too different. Just like a video game, your company is fictitious – it is not a real entity but one that exists only on paper or in the minds of people. With each skill you learn, you are promoted to a higher level and entrusted with more responsibility.

The analogy runs even deeper. Just as people who have played several games are likely to learn a new game fast, people who are good at switching professional contexts are better able to acquire skills for a new role, or transfer their existing skills.

But here’s the frightening part – in a video game, as we have seen, quitting is voluntary and trivial. With a job though, quitting need not be voluntary and it can have dire consequences.

We are headed for paradigm shifts in the world of work. Most of us need to acquire skills that are different from the ones we have developed all our life. And we would need to do it decade after decade.

In those cases, it is better to quit playing the old games and move on to newer ones voluntarily. Better than having somebody else make that decision.

Inspiration: Mindshift by Barbara Oakley – A book that breaks stereotypes on what is possible for us to learn

“The cyclist must watch out”

One Saturday morning, outside a swimming pool in Berlin, my wife and I overheard an interesting conversation.

A woman and a little girl walked out of the pool, with the woman holding the little girl’s hands. A cyclist zipped across their path, which caused the little girl to flinch. A look of fright swept across the features of her face. But the woman, presumably her mother, was calm. She told the child with an assertive tone:

“Du muss nicht aufpassen. Der Fahrradfahrer muss aufpassen.”

This translates to “You do not need to watch out. The cyclist must watch out.”

Given a similar situation, it is likely that a very different conversation would have happened in India or elsewhere in the developing world, where pedestrian rights are not respected. As Indian children, we have always been told that we ought to look out for our own safety at every street crossing. That vehicles are powerful, can be reckless and can deal us irreparable damage if we do not watch out. It is every pedestrian for themselves.

This incident reflects how good German pedestrian rights are. They enable Germans to step boldly into areas designated for pedestrians – trust that would be thoroughly misplaced in countries with unruly traffic where hit-and-run is the norm. It also points to how German parents teach their children to become bold and independent from a very young age. But more importantly, they live in an environment which makes that easy for them to do.

And perhaps those things – independence and public safety, are interrelated.