‘With’ vs. ‘At’

How do you have somebody do your bidding?

As teachers, leaders, well-wishers and salespeople (spot the odd man out) we often wish for somebody to do our bidding. But only too often, we aren’t able to have people do our bidding.

The crucial distinction here is between ‘with’ and ‘at’. To do something with somebody is to first work hard and secure their permission before leading them. It is to listen to them, to gain their influence and to earn their trust.

To do something at somebody is to compensate permission with authority or persistence. It to have somebody obey you merely because you’re higher up on a hierarchy or to persistently nag them until they finally give in.

To gain permission is hard to begin with, but easier in the long-run. To shout orders is easy. It gets things done in the short run, but you pay for it with your credibility.

Inspiration: Seth Godin

Turning envy into inspiration

Inspiration and envy are two sides of the same coin. The mindset with which we approach them makes the difference.

Locus of control is the degree to which people believe that they have control over their life’s outcomes.

People with an external locus of control are reactive. They believe that external forces control their destiny. Their central belief is that “things happen to people”. They are prone to envy.

People with an internal locus of control are proactive. They believe that they make their own fortunes. They believe “people make things happen”. In a similar situation they are more likely to be inspired than envious.

Change your mindset and you can transform envy to inspiration.

Conditions apply

It is difficult to have an objective view of things that are close to our heart – about our favourite political party, about a career choice or our opinion of a friend for instance. One useful question can help us remedy that – what would it take to change your mind?

The answer usually takes the form of, if X happens (or doesn’t happen), I would change my mind about Y. A few pointers here:

1. The condition for changing your mind must be a falsifiable prediction, much like a scientific hypothesis. E.g. If my political party enacts legislation to oppose LGBT marriages, I would stop supporting them, as opposed to if my political party is not open-minded, I would stop supporting them.

2. You could also use it in the negative – I would love my parents / stand up for my Alma Mater even if X, Y, or Z happens.

3. It is better to put these statements down in writing. By not writing them down, you risk your unconscious mind modifying them without your permission.

Thanks to our fickle emotions, our views are prone to be unconditional in instances where they ought to be conditional, and vice-versa. Asking yourself one simple question can help bring clarity to this common dilemma.

Stealing time is easy

Organizations know that Time = Money. And yet, they do not treat the two in the same manner.

This hypocrisy is best illustrated with meetings. Most meetings are a waste of time. They invariably have more people in attendance than required and lack a clear agenda.

And yet, calling a meeting is the easiest thing to do. Everybody’s calendar is public and people can block time on it without a moment’s hesitation. When they do, the onus is then on the other person to provide a valid reason and reject it if it doesn’t work for them.

Every meeting costs the organization a ton of money. 3 people paid $35/hour in an hour long  non-productive meeting  costs about $100. But just try stealing $100 from your organization and you would be neck deep in trouble. All variety of auditors and comptrollers would try their best to punish you.

Most companies go around saying Time = Money. What they lack is the courage to put their money where their mouth is.

Inspiration: Jason Fried

What makes practice deliberate?

Here’s an experiment I suggest – while typing out a long email, try drafting it first on a notepad file and then copy it over to your email client. You would be surprised by how many red underlines your text would receive.

We all have plenty of practice with written communication. And yet, those number of hours do not necessarily translate to drafts with better spelling.

There is more to practice than merely the total number of hours. The psychologist Anders Ericsson studied how practice needs to be deliberate to attain mastery in a particular field. One of the defining features of deliberate practice is to make mistakes and learn from them through immediate feedback. Sure, we rectify spellings on a word-processor, but we don’t expend any mental effort in the process.

Here’s the rule of thumb – if you aren’t stretching yourself enough to make mistakes or investing cognitive effort into correcting them, you are merely sustaining your current level of proficiency. You aren’t really improving.

You can write better than you think you can

The Roman philosopher, Seneca, wrote in letter to his friend Lucelius. “We suffer more in imagination than in reality”. And those words became immortal.

These posts on my blog start as ideas within my head before I type them out. Even after posting for 700 days, when I think of them as abstract ideas, they don’t seem particularly well formed. They manifest as vague feelings that I often doubt would result in concrete blog posts.

And yet, when I sit down to type, the words spill out of the keyboard. And as they appear on the screen, clarity takes the place of vagueness. The ideas themselves turn out to have better structure in my posts than they did inside my head. This surprising feeling of clarity that I experience every single day is part of what keeps me coming back.

A couple of years back, I would have never thought that I would sustain a daily blogging practice. My imagination would not let me do that.

Here is my exhortation to you. You can write better than you think you can write. It is mostly your imagination that holds you back. Just sit down and write something up. I promise, you would be surprised by what you see.

We are better writers in reality than in our imagination.

Top 5% in the world

There are no easy ways to be world-class, but some are easier than others.

The hardest spots are for folks who specialize in merely 1 discipline – concert violinists, Olympic athletes or physicists vying for the Nobel prize. The world only needs about a thousand world-class violinists, and about three Nobel prize winning physicists per year. And yet, millions of people compete for these spots.

An easier bet is to excel at the intersection of disciplines. Being in the top 15% of more than one discipline can put you in the top 5% of their intersection. Dan Carlin is neither the world’s best historian nor its foremost radio host (that dying breed!). But within this intersection, his Hardcore History podcast makes him the king. The Harlem Globetrotters are unique because they are the best actors among basketball players, and the best basketball players among actors.

A few observations here:

Top 15% in an intersection is exponentially easier than top 5% in a single, crowded discipline. Intersections are niches that are more scarce and less crowded.

Some disciplines mix better than others. Writing plus podcasting go better together than chess and juggling. But don’t hold your imagination back, for the internet can enable the weirdest of intersections.

Being the top 15% in two or three meaningful disciplines is better than being in the top 50% of a goulash of trades hacked together without forethought. It is difficult to build an audience based on being a fashion designer, a writer, a guitarist and a triathlete who can craft some pottery.

The world is all respects is turning more interdisciplinary. Today’s cars have more electronic than mechanical parts. Today’s leading biologists do less field work than in the past, and get way more done while coding on a computer.

In the pursuit of excellence, don’t restrict yourself to one thing. Instead, think of the meaningful intersections.

Beware of lonely numbers

Only about 3000 wild tigers are left in India today.

At an annual rate of about 2400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, India is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.

Those facts above are both real, and indicate grave problems that the country faces. But they are lonely numbers. Let us add some perspective to them.

Only 3000 Indian tigers are left in the wild today, but their number has more than doubled since 2006, when they numbered 1411.

India’s annual per-capita carbon-di-oxide consumption stands at 1.8 tonnes per person – about a third of the world’s average number. India has a large carbon footprint, but individual Indians leave carbon footprints that are tiny. In a democratic world, per-capita is what matters most.

Lonely numbers replace hope with cynicism and give us a distorted view of the world. Yet, most journalists jump at including them in their news reports.

Never leave a lonely number all by itself. When you see such a number in a textbook or an article, always think about what other numbers you need to put it in perspective.

Inspiration: Factfulness – Hans Rosling

Where you have more control

Chances are that you and I spend at least eight hours everyday in front of a computer screen, which inevitably wrecks our posture. Observe your own posture as you read this. Is your back straight?

Straightening your back momentarily is of no avail. With the passage of even a few minutes, your back would return to its default state, with a hunch in its spine. What gravity lacks in strength, it makes up for with persistence. 

Your best bet in this life-long battle is to focus on your environment rather than your behaviour:

  • Is your computer screen high enough so that you sit up straight as you stare right into it?
  • Does your desk at work allow you to stand up? If so, leave it in the standing position at the the end of your work day
  • Raise your bathroom mirror so that you start and end each day with a straight back as you brush your teeth

You have less control over your unconscious behaviour and more control over your environment than you realize.

The urgency red flag

Several people signal urgency to grab our attention – more so in an era when attention is perceived to be the new oil.

“Claim your Christmas discount before the 18th of December. Limited offer only!”

“Our religion is in danger unless we do something drastic right now!”

“We need a revolution overnight to address the problem of global income inequality.”

These messages exhort us to react right now. They are designed to hijack our attention and suspend our ability to scrutinize our response. In the real world, though, the most effective solutions do not emerge overnight. On the bright side, most threats aren’t as grave as they are portrayed to be. Both positive and negative developments precipitate by small actions everyday that compound over time.

When these actions reach a particular threshold, they grab our attention. But what we fail to see is how they got to that point. And several people are willing to cash in on this blind spot, trigger our fears of missing out and have us do their bidding.

The problem with needlessly urgent messages is that they distract us from doing the work that matters the most – to address a problem drop-by-drop every single day.

Temporal accounting

Time and money have several parallels.

Society has always valued money highly enough to account the expenditure of every last rupee. The mere act of having to record his expenses makes a person a more disciplined spender. At the end of the month, your records tell you where most of your money gets wasted.

The same principle translates to time as well. To account one’s time is to open a spreadsheet and log how every minute of one’s day is spent. Like unveiling a magic trick, your time log will reveal where 24 hours disappear when you aren’t looking.

Does this help you sleep better?

A colleague recently asked me – what is one thing you would recommend to anybody that can have the greatest positive impact on their life?

That is a hard question. Therefore, his simple answer intrigued me. His rule of the thumb was to live each moment of his day so that he could sleep better at night.

On giving it some thought, I realized how a night of sound sleep has several positive feedback loops:

  • Sound sleep requires regular habits and a virtuous diet
  • Exercise and sleep complement each other
  • A good night’s sleep leads to a productive day and vice-versa
  • Healthy people sleep better. Better sleep makes you healthier
  • One needs a clear conscience to enjoy a good night’s sleep
  • Well rested people makes better decisions and can keep their conscience clear

Life’s most elegant solutions are simple. A good night’s sleep is the elegant solution to several of our hardest problems.

Housekeeping hours

Productivity loves focus. Our most productive chunks are those hours in the day when our heads are down and we are lost to the rest of world.

And yet, getting those interruption free chunks keeps getting harder. Our lives are filled with distractions – from emails, meetings and an assortment of other notifications. Despite their dent on productivity, these distractions cannot be done away with. These housekeeping tasks play their own role in keeping our work lives in order.

Nevertheless, housekeeping doesn’t mix well with focus. The best option is to separate them and batch them together. We could dedicate two hours in an 8 hour work day exclusively for housekeeping tasks – answering emails, attending meetings and so on. Alternatively, one or two days in a five day work-week could be housekeeping days. At the same time, we also need to block off time on our calendars for deep work, without which it would never happen.

A morning session with 3 hours of deep focused work and 1 hour of housekeeping is more productive than 4 hours that are constantly punctured by interruptions.

What make us human?

Writing doesn’t come naturally to humans.

For millions of years, we communicated with each other solely through words, gestures and facial expressions. Only about 12,000 years ago, when we started harvesting crops did we need to start writing to count them up. The earliest known written script was a partial script, which could describe numbers but didn’t have the words or the grammar to express a variety of feelings. Our brains aren’t inherently good at remembering or dealing with numbers. Writing started off as an accounting tool, and has become so important that we dedicate a few years of education merely to teach our brains to read, write and do enough math.

Fast forward a few millennia and we find ourselves in the midst of machines. Most people today need a college degree to make a decent living, and the most preferred college degrees are in engineering and technology. Communicating with machines is often more valuable today than communicating with humans. Just think of all the proficient, but socially inept computer programmers that you know.

But along with those shifts, we also started working like machines to complement their efficiencies – moving data mechanically from one place to another, following well-defined rules on an assembly lines and driving a bus along specific routes in accordance to a time-table. Further, we have also started working around the clock, in shifts or otherwise. The tech pioneers of our age tell us that working less than 80 hours a week is a recipe for failure. Our vocabulary mirrors our fetish for all things mechanical: stress, break-downs and burnout.

We live in an era of machines, and have transformed our society to think and work like them, one step at a time. The transformation that started with the written world has progressed onto programming languages and teaching machines to learn. But the more headway we make here, the farther we move from our natural state.

In an era where we have learnt to work and speak like machines, we need to think the hardest about what makes us human.

“First world problems” are real

We all hear about “first world problems” – problems that affluent people face that seem trivial to the large masses of people who are still struggling to meet ends meet. However, first-world problems aren’t trivial. They are real.

Why do first world problems matter? It is true that affluent people have their basic needs met – food, shelter, clothing and security. And yet, do they not suffer from depression? Do they not take their own lives at times? A list of countries by suicide rate features affluent countries such as South Korea, Japan and the United States in the top 40.

The psychologist Victor Frankl explained human suffering with a useful analogy.
“If a certain quantity of gas is pumped to an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human should and the conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the ‘size’ of human suffering is absolutely relative.”

In other words, comparison of the suffering faced by affluent and poor people merely based on its degree is meaningless. The problems of affluent people, despite their smaller magnitude, are just as real as any other form of suffering that humanity endures.

The cure for “writer’s block”

The author, Mary Shelly, gave us Frankenstein – the monster that can result from our creative endeavours. Percy Shelly, her husband, created a far more insidious monster that we often fail to recognize: the idea of writer’s block.

Writer’s block is absurd. Few other professional outside the creative field have such a thing. A computer programmer doesn’t have coder’s block. Imagine if a doctor had surgeon’s block while standing over an operation table.

Secondly, the term “writer’s block” is the elephant behind which an artist can hide. In all professions, one is expected to improve with experience and deliberate practice. And yet, a writer can claim that he has writer’s block and refuse to do precisely the work that pushes him towards excellence. It serves as a term of consolation for premature resignation.

Writer’s block has a remedy. If your subconscious mind isn’t bursting with ideas, it is because you’re not giving it enough quality input. Like quinine is to Malaria, reading is a sure shot cure to writer’s block of all forms. If you are feeling stuck as a writer, it isn’t a sign that your writing career is over. It is merely a sign that you haven’t done your due diligence.

We don’t mourn sick people. We treat them for their sickness. The cure for writer’s block is reading. And there is no such thing as reader’s block.

The bad old days

In almost every development metric, the world has gotten better in the past few decades.

Fewer children die today before the age of 5 than they did at any time in the past (4% compared to about 40% in 1900).

The world’s life expectancy stands at 70 years now, as opposed to around 30 years in 1900.

The average price of solar panels has gone down from $66/Wp in 1976 to $0.6/Wp today.  

If our present has gotten better, the inevitable corollary is that our past was a lot worse. And yet, when you ask people about life in the 1950s and the 60s, they invariably romanticize the past. It reflects in our language – we talk about the ‘good old days’ but nobody talks about the ‘bad old days’.

We owe this paradox to a fundamental feature of our memories – that they are selective. Our brains are designed to remember the happy moments and erase out the bad ones. We tend to remember peak moments, while disregarding more mundane ones. This tendency also reflects in our language, when we talk about memorable and forgettable events.

Selective memory is a feature of our brain and not a bug, because they keep us happy and help us cope with tragedies in the past by making nasty memories gradually disappear. But this tendency ends up distorting our world-view in the present, and leaves us feeling bereft of hope precisely when we should feel pride in our collective achievements.

Our memories work like rear view mirrors. They aren’t perfect, but they are indispensable tools for navigating the present. Nevertheless, all our flashbacks must also come with a warning scrawled under them: Objects in your memory are rosier than they appear.

Inspiration and source for all those stats: Factfulness – Hans Rosling

The 10 year test

Has something your read in the news 10 years back had a lasting impact on your life?

What about a book you read, or a conversation that you had with a friend or a mentor? In which category of interactions do you see a pattern of importance emerge several years after they have happened?

The urgent and the current often bring with them the illusion of importance – one that often does not withstand the 10 year test.

Can you routinize it?

Would you rather grow a spinach plant or a mango sapling?

Growing a spinach plant involves putting in a little effort today to obtain a quick reward. Both your investment and returns are immediate. With the mango tree, you would require careful and regular tending in the initial years. Your investment is separated from the returns by a large period of time, during which it compounds.

Several one-off opportunities enhance our life momentarily – an inspiring book on a flight, a tasty salad at a restaurant, a weekend yoga retreat or a cycling trip through the countryside. The flip side of these one-off experiences is that they do not compound. They all come with the promise of having a long standing impact in our lives, but more often than not, they vanish like flares in the dark after the moment has passed.

How can you change that? How do you make these experiences and their benefits sustain? Rather than order the occasional salad, how can you make salads a regular part of your diet? How does your learning from a book translate into a weekly practice? Which three postures from the yoga retreat can you do every single day?

Naval Ravikant mentioned how if you can’t work with somebody for the rest of your life, don’t work with them for a day. Similarly, the value of any one-time experience is often fleeting if you can’t do something with it on a daily, weekly or on a monthly basis.

Why is will-power so fleeting?

At certain times, it feels as if we have an abundance of will-power. And at others, entirely the opposite is true.

Psychologists investigated this further and found that we all have limited reservoirs of will-power. They found out how people experiencing a higher amount of stress or the ones who have exerted higher mental effort through the day are likely to have depleted their stores of will-power. In this depleted state, they made poorer decisions.

They also measured their blood sugar levels and found that people a state of lower will-power corresponds to lower sugar levels in the blood. Interestingly, restoring sugar levels in their blood also restored the subjects’ ability to think clearly. It also gave them a sweet tooth –  when given a choice between a virtuous fruit salad and a sinful chocolate cake, the depleted people often opted for the latter. Quite disturbingly, a study of eight Israeli judges showed how they were likely to approve requests for parole 65% of time right after each meal, and how their approval rates steadily dropped to zero until it spiked back up after the next meal restored their sugar levels.

When you find yourself devoid of the will to accomplish a difficult task, the problem may lie outside the task itself – a stressful day at work, a poor night of sleep or merely a growling stomach.

Inspiration: Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman