Instant interruption

I once had a manager who apologized if he didn’t respond to an instant message within 15 minutes.

While this might seem polite and courteous, it indicated that the manager thought of a 15-minute response to an instant message to be too slow. As his team, we proceeded to respond to his messages the moment they arrived.

Focused work requires long periods of no interruption – periods that are incompatible with responding to every instant message within 15 minutes. The expectation that instant messages need to receive an instant reply destroys the focus necessary for deep work.

Perhaps we need to stop calling it ‘instant messaging’.

An ode to discomfort

To discover something new, you need to lose your way. Confusion, uncertainity and some frustration are part of the process.

To learn something new, it needs to feel effortful. Your brain and body needs to hurt from the effort. That is what forging new neural connections feels like.

To build new muscle, you need to push yourself into pain. Only when old muscle is destroyed can new, stronger muscle take its place.

A meaningful pursuit is also one that might not work. A chance for failure is built into the very kernel of whatever we consider meaningful.

In our worship of comfort and convenience, we forget the value of embracing discomfort on purpose.

Get lost

To discover something, you need to get lost.

To be lost is to have ‘no known path to one’s destination’. The process of discovering a new piece of land, a route through a thick forest or to scale a peak for the first time, by definition, requires an explorer to get lost. Since nobody has done it before, no known path exists.

When we choose to be innovators, artists and pathfinders, it is necessary to get lost along the way. That is part of the plan. To be lost isn’t the point, but it is an inevitable stepping stone.

If you don’t lose your way, you do not discover.

The price is right

A friend who offered German lessons for free told me about how people didn’t take his lessons seriously. But when he charged a fee for the same lessons, they were more engaged. They also left him better reviews.

Several studies have confirmed this effect. When a placebo was offered as a painkiller, but patients were told that it was expensive, it was more effective than when they were told that it was cheap. When energy drinks at a gym were sold at half-price, they were not as effective – people exercised less and felt more tired.

When we buy a product, we often buy the story of the product in our minds. And to a degree, putting a higher price on a product improves its story. Getting it for a bargain undermines its story.

When we buy an excellent product, we are better off paying full price. When we sell an excellent product at the high price it deserves, we are also helping our customers better appreciate it.

Source: Dan Ariely

My placebos

I always draft blogposts on the same empty notepad file. I also use turn on a 30 min stopwatch timer while writing. When that timer is on, my mind knows that a blogpost needs to be drafted.

I always edit my blogposts on the WordPress editor. When the WordPress UI is open, my mind enters the editing state.

Before an important meeting or interview, I also listen to the same song, to enter a zone of high performance. That song is reserved only for these occassions.

I sit down to meditate in a fixed location in the house.

All of these routines are placebos for the acts that are performed in them. They condition my mind to enter a particular state while performing a habit.

Once we have done the difficult job of showing up and doing our best work, we can wrap it in a placebo. It’s free, and it makes our work better.

Falling into focus

A walking meditation can be a revealing exercise.

The practice is to walk very slowly and pay deliberate attention to the 3 parts involved – lifting our leg, moving it forward and placing it back on the ground. Lift, move, place. Lift, move, place.

On doing this, I realized how everytime we lift our legs, we are actually unbalanced. When we place our foot down, we regain our balance. Walking, then, is the process of falling into the next step – a continually process of losing and regaining one’s balance. If this is hard to believe, try standing on one foot for a while.

We are all exceptionally good at walking, but not at paying undivided attention. Yet focusing the mind involves the same process – of momentarily losing one’s focus and regaining it.

Studies have examined the minds of long-time meditators who can maintain intense focus. They found that their minds are also prone to wandering. The key difference here is that they have trained their minds to regain focus as soon as it wanders away – much like we regain our balance with every step.

Walking and paying attention are both dynamic acts of continual recovery.

A wandering mind is an unhappy mind

Several ancient traditions have emphasized the merit of ‘being in the moment’ and pay attention to what we are doing.

A landmark scientific study in 2010 backed up this advice. The study found that when people’s minds wandered, they were likely to be unhappy – even if their mind wandered to happy thoughts.

The study also found that our minds wander a lot. The 2250 adults in the study reported that their minds were wandering almost half the time they were engaged in an activity.

When our minds wander, it is a symptom that we aren’t happy with whatever we are doing. Everytime we catch our minds wandering, we have the opportunity to redirect our attention to what we are doing and thereby rewire the brain to be happier.

Reframing placebos

We often think of placebos as duds and sugar pills.

But we do know that placebos are effective. In studies, placebo anti-depressants were found to be as effective as the drug itself. When patients were injected with a saline solution, but were told they were receiving a pain-killer, pain levels dropped. Even a placebo surgery, where patients had their knees cut open and sewed back in, was found to be as effective as knee surgery itself.

In all these cases, the bodies of the patients were healing themselves at least as well as the drug or the medical intervention.

We have grown to think of placebos as fake substances that aren’t the real deal. However, what if we reframed placebos as the gap in understanding of the wonderful healing powers of our own bodies?

Inspiration: Akimbo

The nocebo

When a doctor instructs a patient not to think of a monkey while taking a specific pill, we all know what would be on the patient’s mind when they pop that pill.

Similarly, when a doctor tells you that the side-effects of taking a particular pill are headache and nausea, it is likely that the patient suffers from headache and nausea even if the pill given were merely a placebo.

In an extreme case, when a 26-year-old man took 29 inert capsules believing them to be an antidepressant, he suffered from hypertension and needed to be rushed to a hospital. His symptoms only subsided after the true nature of the capsules were revealed to him.

The nocebo effect is one where we feel worse due to an intervention even if the intervention itself wasn’t administered. It is the opposite of the placebo effect, where we feel good as a result of a non-intervention. Both effects are also relevant outside of medical science – our expectations of any experience can actually influence its reality.

To a degree, we are rewarded with what we wish for. We are also cursed with whatever we fear.

Embrace placebos

We might consciously detest placebos, but our bodies and minds embrace them.

A bar of chocolate wrapped in a regar purple cover that appears like satin will taste finer than that same chocolate sold in a transparent plastic cover. The quality of chocolate, as measured by a food scientist, is separate from these embellishments. But our minds cannot tell the difference.

In several blind taste tests, Coca-cola has lost out to Pepsi. But once you put wrappers on the drink, it is Coca-cola that prevails due to its stronger brand. The effect of the wrappers were real. Both drinks taste better, thanks to their wrappers. And the difference isn’t in the drinker’s eye or the tongue either. Regions of theier brain were found to respond to this difference.

Using a placebo is to wrap a product in a story that has little to do with the product itself. Just like sugar that is shaped and packaged like a pill.  Given that the placebo effect is real, we can use it to our advantage. Once we have done the hard-work of creating an excellent product, we can then wrap it in a placebo that amplifies customer delight.

Inspiration: Akimbo

Breath

On a sandy beach,
A gentle wave
Engulfs it slowly
And recedes
Again and again
To the vast expanse
Wither it comes.

When you sit down
To observe the waves
They turn deliberate,
Slow and deep,
Until thought takes hold.
The surf splashes on
As it always did.

A storm approaches
The waves grow
In size, fury,
Lashing the shore
Carving rock
Only to subside
To an innocent calm.

Ebbing and flowing,
The waves change
Slowly as nature
But surely as time
Year after year
To dampen into
Eternal sleep.

Write like you talk

Spoken and written language is different. Reading any legal document makes this amply clear. Lawyers seldom write like they talk. While some of us enjoy listening to lawyers argue, nobody likes reading legal documents.

Have you noticed how it is easier to watch a video of somebody explaining a concept than to read about it? This is because we enjoy listening to spoken language more. We also have more practice with speaking than with writing, and therefore, most of us are better speakers than writers. On the other hand, we are also better listeners than readers.

As writers, it often helps to bridge this gap between the spoken and the written word. The key is to write like we speak. To be more precise, we need to edit like we speak. When editing a draft, we ought to ask ourselves whether what we have written down is actually something we would say out loud. To do this, it often helps to actually read out the draft aloud.

I am not very good with following this advice myself. While editing this very draft, I rewrote a few phrases to match what I would actually say.

‘To this end’ ‘To do this’.

On the flipside‘ ‘On the other hand’.

‘Is conducive’ ‘Is suitable’

Writing is hard work. We can make it a little easier, both on the writer and the reader, when we write like we talk.

Against and for

When people disagree, they can be vehement, vocal and loud. They often back up their disagreement with emotion, facts and reason.

When these people are presented with evidence that is contrary to their belief, how do they respond?

Do they change their mind? Are they now vehement proponents of an idea that they once vehemently opposed? Do they now support the idea with the same force that they once opposed it?

We have the right to firmly oppose an idea. But in the face of evidence to the contrary, we also have the duty to change our mind.

A tale of two foreigners

I have met two kinds of foreigners in places where they don’t speak the language.

The first kind of person sees no reason to learn the language since they can manage with English. The second kind starts learning the language and using it at every opportunity.

The first kind of person thinks of how their stay in the country is temporary, and how learning the language is wasteful. The second kind uses even a temporary stay as a great excuse for learning a new language.

The first kind of person talks about how difficult it is to learn a new language. The second kind talks about how much fun it is to learn a language a little bit everyday.

The first kind of person is frustrated everytime a native speaker doesn’t switch to English. The second kind of person is grateful whenever a native speaker doesn’t switch.

The first kind of person always feel like an outsider regardless of how long they stay. The second kind of person feels welcomed from the beginning.

The onus to be integrated rests on the outsider. The kind of person they choose to be makes all the difference.

Untrue, but helpful

What if we believe that every human being is born with the potential for genius?

What if we believe that every person in the world could be a close friend?

What if we believe that every one of our problems is of our own making, and therefore, can be solved by us?

What if we believe that we could choose to be happy regardless of whatever happens in our lives?

What if we believe that every person was built around a kernel of inner goodness?

What if we believe that we can master any skill that we set our mind to?

Even though certain beliefs may not be true, they can serve us in wonderful ways.

What if we lived our lives as though these beliefs were true?

Heroic in loss

We celebrate several heroes despite them being on the losing side.

Karna lost the war of the Mahabharata.

Hannibal Barca lost the Battle of Cama, and therefore, the Second Punic War.

Rani Lakshmibai did not win against the British. Nor did Bhagat Singh.

The Red Baron was eventually killed, and Germany eventually lost World War 1.

Che Guevara was executed by his enemies and was unsuccessful in spreading the communist revolution.

Milkha Singh, the Flying Sikh, did not win a medal at the 1960 Olympic games.

Yet, we remember all these people as heroes.

We talk about heroic deeds, not heroic results, for heroes are defined by their actions. Not by their results.

A hero is a person who acts in honorouable ways regardless of whether they win or lose. To act in heroic ways, the means are more important than the ends.

A garden full of weeds

Let’s say a garden is prone to attracting weeds. You can deweed the garden, but the weeds will come back.

This is because the garden’s conditions – the soil, the climate, the moisture – are conducive for weeds to thrive. Unless these conditions are fundamentally altered, weeds will continue to grow.

When you kill the tallest weed, in time, another one will take its place.

Several people today are hoping for Vladimir Putin to be assassinated, to end the Russian war in Ukraine. Adolf Hitler’s assassins thought that killing him would have ended the Second World War. Alas! Assasinating Julius Caeser did not save the Roman Republic, but only brought it to a swift end.

Assassinating a leader and expecting to end their legacy is like getting rid of the tallest weed in a garden and expecting it to be weed free.

It is easy to whack the tallest weed. It is hard to alter a garden’s soil composition. Sure, getting rid of the tallest weed helps, but it is merely the start.

Communication

The word ‘communication’ has the same Latin roots as the word ‘common’ and ‘commune’.

When people communicate, they have something in common. They commune for its duration, in that they cease to become individuals and meld into a common entity.

To communicate, in essence, is to transcend our selves and become part of something larger.

Self prosecution

‘I am not good at learning new languages.’

‘I am terrible at keeping in touch with old friends.’

‘I am incapable of reading a non-fiction book.’

‘I am a horrible negotiator.’

‘I cannot speak well in public.’

‘I do not deserve the credit I have earned.’

Some of the things we say out loud turns us into the best lawyers for our limitations. If so, what chance do our better selves have?

When we fight for our limitations, we get to keep them.

A world of apologisers

When two people mistakenly bump into each other, each one of them is both the jostler and the jostled. Given that both peopler are simultaneously perpetrators and victims, it is interesting to see how they respond.

In some cases, this minor incident can escalate into a screaming match, with both persons yelling at the other. The incident leaves both people feeling worse.

Alternatively, one person could jump at the other, accusing them of carelessness and cowing them into an apology. Here, the aggressor feels powerful while the apologiser is left feeling worse.

The incident could also result in both people apologizing to each other and exchanging a smile before proceeding. The incident actually leaves both of them feeling a little better than before.

With most conflicts, the parties involved are both victims and perpetrators. We are better off in a world where we give others the benefit of doubt, even if we ought to err on the side of being apologetic.