A bird’s eye view

It is a challenge to find your way around a hedge maze at ground level. Present a bird’s eye view of the maze and even a toddler can scrawl out the most efficient route. Maps work for the same reason.

From the snapshots of an office floor, it is hard to discern what a company does. A process flow diagram is way more effective.

If you opened a book and read a couple of pages at random, it is hard to decipher what the book is about. A table of contents works much better.

Bird’s eye views come in various shapes and forms. If you find yourself lost in the details, just take a step back and sketch one out.

Replace a ‘change’ mindset with a growth mindset

From today, you switch to computers – not papers.

From today, your team works remotely – not from office cubicles.

From today, learning doesn’t end with your university degree. You have to learn every year just to keep your job.

These things are inevitable – you must embrace change, and we, as your bosses, will manage it.

Change is perceived as a necessary evil – something that is hard, unpleasant and imposed. But the problem mainly lies in how it is framed.

From today, you get to work with computers that are 10 times faster and more secure than working with paper.

From today, you get to work on your terms rather than having to show up somewhere at a particular hour.

From today, you get to learn something new every day. We will invest in your growth.

If your aim is to change people, it is difficult – you need to impose it and ‘manage’ it. If you wish to help people grow, things can be a lot easier. All you need to do is to remove the obstacles that get in the way.

A step back

When stuck with a problem for a long while, stepping away is the best thing we can do. Long involvement entrenches us in a particular way of thinking. Once we step back and return, we often find a solution.

Like insects in a spider-web, experts in an established field often find themselves trapped in the intricate weavings of its existing paradigms. Every such field of study has been revolutionized by outsiders.

Our friends can give us refreshing insights to solve our problems, for unlike us, they are detached from our problems.

Attachment contracts our field of vision. Detachment expands it.

A magnet for mishaps

Everybody complains about weather forecasts. Yet, a five-day forecast is, on average, 90% accurate. The problem is that we only take note of the wrong forecasts.

Everybody feels that their checkout queue at the supermarket always moves slower. Yet, they can’t all be right. The problem is that we take note of only the slow moving supermarket queues.

A huge percentage of the population is afraid of flying. Yet, flying is the safest mode of transport we have yet invented. The problem is that we take note of only dramatic air-crashes.

The mind is a magnet for mishaps. The world is a kinder, safer and better than our minds make it seem.

Understand pain

Suffering is painful.

No pain, no gain, is a cliched slogan of the ethic of the 21st century. Pain is a by-product of gain to be ignored and overcome. Several motivational posters tell us to grit, bear and hold out, but to never give up in the face of pain.

However, pain is our mind and body’s feedback mechanism. Pain signals that we are hurting ourselves. In some cases, this destruction is helpful – like destroying weak muscle fiber to make way for stronger ones. In others, ignoring pain leads to injury and spirals downward into burnout – yet another 21st century trend.

The alternative is not to deny this pain, but to pause and ask ourselves why something hurts. Asking that question presents us with the space to make a choice – to sustain the pain because it is worth it, or to cease it because it isn’t. Having made that choice, the pain might remain, but the suffering ceases.

Suffering is a choice.

Being a pro

A professional writer writes her thousand words everyday. No exceptions.

A professional helpdesk agent responds with warmth and empathy even as a customer is screaming into the telephone.

A professional marathoner trains regardless of the weather forecast.

A professional waiter’s service quality has little correlation with how packed the restaurant is.

Professionalism is mostly about consistency. The rest is just window dressing.

Look forward

Think back to a version of yourself from ten years ago. I bet you have grown, evolved and become better in innumerable ways. Your self from 10 years past would be a stranger in many ways.

On a day-to-day basis, it is easy to forget how much we grow and evolve over long stretches of time. It is all too easy to feel like we are stuck in a rut and not going anywhere. But all those bits of efforts add up and compound.

At every moment, you have a better version of yourself to look forward to 10 years in the future.

Put your unconscious brain to work

How nice would it be, if you woke up each day with answers to your most pressing problems?

The good news is that you can train your brain to do that. What you need to do is:

  1. Formulate your most pressing problem into a question.
  2. Pose the question to yourself before bedtime and stop thinking about it.
  3. Brainstorm the answer right after waking up.

Through this routine, you tap into the power of your unconscious brain, which is hard at work even as you rest. Like in a relay race, your conscious brain hands the baton to its unconscious counterpart and receives it back the next morning.

While these 3 steps are simple, they aren’t easy. Firstly, most people don’t really know what their most pressing problem is. Secondly, they cant stop thinking about it in bed. Further, they lack the discipline to practice this routine day-after-day and train it like a muscle. (Yes – I suffer from all these inadequacies)

It’s horrible!

Try your hand at something as a non-expert.

Record your introduction in an interview. Draw a lady walking with a winter coat. Write your life’s first poem. When you are done, the results are often horrifying (my introduction makes news bloopers look elegant). But that is actually a positive sign.

Ask yourself why something is horrible. List out the specific reasons.

  • The lady’s legs look deformed
  • The poem’s clich├ęs dulls its imagery
  • Being born in Bangalore doesn’t improve my introduction

Now give the same task another go after fixing these problem and repeat until your creation no longer makes you cringe.

The same part of our mind that decides that something is horrible can help you get better.

Deciphering Clarke’s first law

Arthur C. Clarke once said, ‘When a distinguished, but elderly scientist says something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.’

Notice the asymmetry. Decades of immersion in a field gives distinguished scientists a clear understanding of its current possibilities. Besides, distinguished scientists have a reputation to protect – nobody wants to be that prominent scientist who got a fundamental assertion dead wrong.

However, given their in-depth exposure to their field, experts are unable to bring a fresh perspective to it. Today, our understanding of science evolves at a rate faster than the human brain can rewire itself. Deep expertise works like a magnifying lens. It gives its wearer an enlarged perspective of what is possible today, but blurs out whatever is possible a few years from now.

Isaac Newton claimed it was impossible for light to be a wave. Lord Kelvin claimed it was impossible for the earth to be older than a 100 million years. Albert Einstein stated it was impossible for information to travel faster than the speed of light. Clarke’s law held up for these pronouncements.

As a new entrant to a field, trust experts in their assertion of what is possible. Remain skeptical, however, of what they claim to be impossible.

Not enough time

Do you often feel like there isn’t enough time?

Since my mid-twenties, I live with the niggling feeling that I always have more stuff to do on any given day than the number of hours it contains. Time always seems to pass too quickly.

That is, until I sit down and close my eyes for an hour. When I meditate, time simply doesn’t pass fast enough.

The main reason time flies is because we have filled our lives with activity. To counter this, we try to do more – to automate, optimize and try to outrun the ticking clock by running even faster. Alas! All of this activity only serves to dump fuel into the raging fire.

‘Not enough time’ is a mirage – one that appears more real the faster we run towards it. Instead, it helps to slow down, suspend activity and observe the empty space between the tick and the tock.

Having authority vs. being an authority

A boss has authority. It lets him order people around and often has little to do with his competence. Those who receive the boss’s orders don’t have a choice in the matter. Having authority – authority that is possessed – is enforced.

A person who is an authority has mastered a field. Her mastery earns the respect of the people she leads. Her followers are enrolled in the journey. When you are an authority, you don’t possess it. You embody it.

In a broken system, authority is an end in itself – choice and competence only have supporting roles. In a functioning system, authority evolves naturally as a plot whose lead roles are played by choice and competence.

Moderate dissatisfaction

Wanting to be a little better is normal. Our brains are configured to be dissatisfied. The moment we get comfortable, boredom kicks in.

Wanting to be a little better is useful. Stagnation is a dangerous disease with lethargy, cynicism and complacency being its symptoms. A good challenge is the cure.

Moderate dissatisfaction is a feature rather than a bug. It has to be moderate – if dissatisfaction is too little or too large, it fails to get us off the couch.

A thimble of rotting potato

I recently noticed a strange stench in our kitchen.

It was emanating from a bag of potatoes we bought home from the supermarket. At first, I ignored the stench hoping that it would go away.

When I woke up a couple of days later, I couldn’t step into the kitchen – the smell had turned unbearable. I opened up the bag and noticed a tiny piece of potato – the size of my thimble – rotting inside. I quickly discarded that piece and stowed away the rest. In a couple of hours the smell vanished.

Our most pressing problems usually have a tiny source that can be surgically addressed. Our reluctance to confront that source often lets it fester until the situation turns unbearable.

The importance of prospecting

Imagine you are a used-car salesperson and your family’s sole bread winner. It is the end of a difficult quarter and your employer has responded with layoffs. You are one sale away from meeting your quarter’s target – failing to meet it will get you fired.

As you are wringing your hands, an enthusiastic customer walks into the store. Given the circumstances, how well is your conversation with her likely to go?

Alas, it is too late to salvage this situation. We aren’t at our best when the stakes are too high. In this state, the amygdala – the primitive part of the brain we share with reptiles – takes over. Needless to say, it doesn’t make the best decisions for securing a sale.

This problem isn’t restricted to salespersons. If you are desperate to find a new job, you will take the next offer that you receive. If you are desperate to find an apartment in a new city, you might overpay for a rundown shack outside the city limits. To prospect is to have enough options lined up before all is lost.

Most problems don’t arise suddenly – you can usually see them coming. The key is to be alert to those signs and address them with your neo-cortex before your amygdala is forced to take over.

A transference of feeling

If leader can’t see her vision, her team won’t be inspired by it.

If a candidate isn’t keen on joining a company, he most likely won’t clear the interview.

If a salesperson doesn’t believe in the product they sell, unless they are peddling drugs, they are not going to sell very much of it.

As Zig Ziglar often said, selling is a transference of feeling. To be able to sell something, you need to first be able to feel it in your bones.

The bathtub astronomer

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, a professor of cosmology lays down in a warm bathtub while contemplating the structure of the Horsehead Nebula 1,375 light years away.

Barnard 33.jpg

As she is lost in her reverie, a drop of water mixed with shampoo lands in her right eyeball, which registers a shooting pain. She scrambles to the showerhead and carefully drips fresh water into her eye to wash away the film of soap on her cornea. Her consciousness that had expanded to the farthest realms of the universe had now collapsed to the confines of a ball of jelly attached to her face. In the next 10 minutes, exploding supernovae mattered less to her than to be rid of the throbbing pain in her eye.

The human mind is wonderfully elastic. When the mind can contemplate the vastness of the universe, how significant can one’s own shortcomings be? But in a heartbeat, the mind can contract to render our contributions as meaningful as creation itself.

But the human mind is also perverse for it is prone to do precisely the opposite.

Write like you move houses

While moving houses, it helps to follow a sequence.

First, everything we own ought to be packed into cardboard boxes, crates and suitcases. Second, all this stuff needs to be transported to the new place. Third, the transported stuff ought to be unpacked and setup in the new place. If you try to do them together, they would get in each other’s way.

This principle also applies to writing. You first have to package your ideas into words, phrases and sentences. You then need to transport them from brain tissue to a medium – a piece of paper or a portion of computer memory. Finally, you need to edit and rearrange those words for them to make sense.

In creative pursuits, separate the acts of ideation, drafting and editing. If you try to do them together, they would get in each other’s way.

Why we need morals

Human societies swing like a pendulum, back-and-forth, between autonomy and authority. Our love for autonomy has created self-managed teams and self-governed societies, even as our penchant for authority has given rise to monarchies, oligopolies and governmental power.

A free market is an expression of autonomy. In a free market, people have no barriers to solve each other’s problems. A business, the cellular entity of a free market, solves a problem in return for profit. So long as people willingly part with their money to be rid of their problems, profit is a sign of benevolence.

However, markets have their dark side. They have what economists call ‘externalities’ – a fancy word for side effects. One of these side effects is that the market corrupts, to varying degrees, anything it trades in. A free market for child adoption might be an efficient solution but not an effective one, for children being traded in a market would undermine the essence of childhood or human life.

Any authoritarian system believes that society’s problems are best solved by central planning and decision making. If free markets are an expression of autonomy, regulation is an expression of authority. The right amount of regulation – enough to keep the markets in check – is benevolent. Too much regulation is just another form of authoritarian violence.

Both markets and regulation can help us create benevolent societies. But both these entities can just as easily do the opposite. We humans tend to swing back and forth because we refuse to have a discussion about what a benevolent society looks like.

And that is where morals come in.

Inspiration: The Moral Limits of Markets