The correct technique

With which part of your body do you paddle a kayak?

Paddling a kayak seems to be all about arm-strength. But it isn’t. Every trained rower knows that rowing power is generated from the body’s core. A kayaker’s head and spine are erect and stable, but her core muscles twist around the spine to propel the kayak forward. This twisting is levered at the feet and transmitted into the water by the arms. Like electric wires, the arm is merely transmitting the power generated in the rower’s core to the paddle.

I received this insight on looking at a video right before our recent kayaking trip. Using a better technique helped me enjoy every one of my thousand strokes more.

Learning the correct technique is an unbelievable bargain. And today, one gets to learn learn concepts that experts have invested their careers to figure out in a 10 minute video. What a time to be alive!

The illusion of a trustless society

Libertarian proponents of crypto currency and decentralized finance wish to create a trustless society. They wish to minimize the scope of trusted third-parties such as governments, banks and public insurance. The rewards are lower taxes and a greater control over one’s own fate. But what are the costs?

To trust somebody else is to outsource responsibility to them as well. The more I trust my employees, the less I am worried about what they are doing in their 8-hour shifts. The more I trust my public insurer, the less I am worried about my access to healthcare. The more I trust my bank to secure my savings in the local currency, the less I have to worry about its safe custody.

The alternative – to design a trustless society – may protect you from somebody else exploiting you. However, the onus now falls on your shoulders – to be your own bank, your own insurer, and your own police force. Do you trust yourself to do a good job on all those fronts?

Source: xkcd

By not trusting somebody else, you don’t live in a trustless society. You are merely trusting yourself with everything.

A writer’s poverty

As mediums of communications go, writers are at an obvious poverty.

Video creators are among the most affluent creators. Their repertoire isn’t limited to words, but extends into visuals, animation, body-language and voice. Each of those dimensions unlocks a rich tapestry for expression – special effects, camera angles, lighting, and scene pacing. A writer is limited to words scrawled in coloured ink.

Audio artists aren’t as rich, but still retain a massive edge over writers. Through audio, you can modify tone, volume and tempo. You can have the same four words, ‘that is a great idea’, mean four different things by emphasizing a different word each time. A writer has to make do with italics, bold and strikethroughs.

In a world with limited attention, writers have to contend with these mighty adversaries. They are forced to be frugal, improvise and make the best of their limitations. Despite these odds, writing shapes movies, videos and speeches in the form of written scripts. Every time we hear of a book that is better than its movie, we hear about a definitive victory for the writer.

As a writer, your craft’s poverty strips away everything that is peripheral and forces you to choose the right combination of words to communicate the essence of your idea. Navigating this constraint transforms a writer’s poverty into a superpower.

Strings attached

On our upcoming beach vacation to Spain, we rented a car for the obvious freedom that it would give us – access to the best beaches for swimming, snorkeling and kayaking.

No sooner than we rented the car, we were faced with a dilemma – where do we put our car keys when we go out to swim? Googling this problem made me realize that there aren’t too many great solutions.

Given that most car keys are electronic, we could buy a waterproof pouch and swim with it. However, there is the added hassle of choosing the right pouch and ensuring that we don’t lose it while swimming. There are also ways to hide your key under a rock or on the body of your car before heading out into the water. However, it is highly unlikely that we would find a hiding place that a seasoned car thief cannot sniff out.

Renting the car robs us of the freedom of heading out into the water with complete peace of mind. Relying on public transport confines us to certain routes and schedules. Either way, we are forced to reckon with a trade-off.

Freedom always comes with strings attached. Those strings are pulled by the weight of our expectations.

A means to accelerate your learning

Here’s a key principle to learning something much faster – break it down into concepts, facts and procedures.

Any learning objective can be broken down into these three facets. Learning a language involves concepts such as grammatical rules and etymology. It also involves facts such as vocabulary and certain exceptions to grammatical rules. Its procedures include fluency, pronunciation, writing and listening.

Some learning goals are concept heavy, like a math course. Some are fact heavy, like law or language learning. Others are primarily procedural, like learning to cook or to ride a bicycle.

Breaking up your learning objective serves two purposes. Firstly, each facet can be tackled using a different approach. Concepts require you to understand theory. Facts can be memorized using recall and spaced repetition. Practice and visualization help you perfect procedures. Secondly, this break-up ensures that you don’t focus on one facet at the expense of the others. It prevents you from becoming someone who can understand a language well but struggles to speak it.

Inspiration: Ultralearning

God will notice

I once remember reading a fable about a watchmaker who painstakingly engraved on the inside of his watches. When somebody pointed out that nobody would notice his diligence, his reply was ‘god will notice’.

Whether or not that argument appeals to you, the broader question is about how we do our work when nobody else notices it.

On days I have given my 100% to my work, I am left with a sense of satisfaction that I have showed up. When I go to sleep, my mind is calm and quiet because I have done my due. On other days, when I cut corners or procrastinate, I am left with a nagging feeling inside my head. This nagging feeling causes me to stay up late and waste more time, pushing me deeper into a downward spiral. I am plagued with the guilt of having let myself down by not showing up to the fullest extent.

Some part of our being always keeps a careful account of the ways in which we show up in every moment. Even if nobody else notices, your conscience will.

‘Every problem is your problem’

Thanks to the news, I am always aware of whatever is happening in the world. The United States is struggling to convince the anti-vaxers to take their Covid-19 shots. The Taliban has grabbed power in Afghanistan. The Indian government has unveiled a new education policy.

Now once I have read an article or an editorial on any of those topics, I have an opinion on them. This opinion is automatic – I now care about those issues.

However, there is an asymmetric power relationship between those issues and me. By gobbling up a significant part of my attention and making me feel a certain way, those issues have some power over me. On the other hand, I have no influence or power over any of their outcomes.

As Naval Ravikant says, the news media’s business model is based on making every problem in the world your problem.

A hidden cause for our busyness

There is one overlooked cause of our chronic busyness – half-assery.

Half-assery always leaves us feeling a little empty. Doing any work saps our energy. Even idling around can be exhausting. However, if you’re deeply engrossed in the work you do, your tiredness is accompanied by satisfaction. If you half-assed your work, you are left feeling that you could have done more. And it is the nagging feeling of ‘I could have done more’ that leaves us feeling busy.

When you whole-ass every waking hour of your day, you will go to bed exhausted, but deeply satisfied. Your sleep is deep and you wake up refreshed to whole-ass the next day. On the contrary, half-assery keeps us awake in bed and exhausted the next morning. High performance always alternates between high-intensity and complete rest. Half-assery leaves us hanging in the middle.

A life well lived is a string of days we can look back on with the satisfaction of having given it our best shot. The key to do that is to design a life around whole-assery and avoiding half-assery.

What is the meaning of life?

This is a question that has no single answer. And that is the best part.

If our life had a definitive meaning, we would all be forced to subscribe to it. Like fundamentalists, we would be bound to one doctrine without the power to question it. We might gain more direction and clarity, but we would lose the joy and the freedom in discovering or creating our own answer.

The cynic might say, ‘since life is innately meaningless, why bother?’. With a little more imagination, it is easy to see that the very lack of universal meaning infuses our individual lives with meaning.

The meaning of life is for every individual to discover and create their own life’s meaning.

Unchain the stallion

If you have set aside a Saturday afternoon to goof off without any agenda, is that time wasted?

For the most part, we lead regimented lives. Our schedules structure our days, simplify our lives and keep us sane. However, these time-tables also leads our minds feeling like a chained stallion. In rebellion, our mind breaks free into portals of distraction, precisely in those moments when it hurts us the most.

What if we allowed our mind to roam free once in a while, without any agenda?

The time you plan to waste isn’t wasted time.

Love what you do

‘Do what you love’. ‘Follow your passion’. ‘Be true to your calling’.

We give people, young and old, this advice only too often. Digging a little deeper reveals it to be bad advice.

‘Do what you love’, essentially means doing that which energizes and captivates your attention in the moment. It implies that we should only stick to doing whatever we would enjoy doing for hours at an end.

Alas, expertise in any craft isn’t a one-way street of pleasure. Once the excitement and the novelty wears out, boredom and repetition sets in. You face frustrating problems against which you don’t make headway. Levelling up is harder – you are forced to repeat a procedure 30 times instead of 3 times before you can go onto the next level.

Meanwhile, our mind is ready to switch to countless other shiny new ‘passions’. ‘Perhaps computer programming wasn’t my thing. Let me switch to selling bicycles instead’.

The alternative is to stick to one thing – to persevere through pain, boredom and frustration until you become an expert.

Amateurs do what they love. Professionals love what they do.

Onboarding speed as a KPI

In a complex domain, such as software engineering, a crucial measure of a team’s effectiveness is the speed with which it onboards newcomers.

When a software team expands, it is usually because there’s too much stuff to be done. Onboarding a new team member slows the entire team down – the newcomer needs to be trained before they can be productive. This transitional period is often frustrating for both the existing team and its additional member.

The means to address this frustration is to adopt an 80:20 approach. In most cases, 80% of our results are derived from 20% of our efforts. For a newcomer to a field, it helps to master that crucial 20% of a job first, so that they can start contributing quickly. With time, they also manage to learn the peripheral 80% that is needed to do a complete job.

Of course, this is easier said than done. It is often difficult to pin-point the crucial 20% of any software. This code also needs to be documented and crafted in a manner that is easily understood. The team needs to have sandbox environments where they can experiment and make mistakes. It also needs to have enough slack to coach the newcomer. On the other hand, the new team member needs to bring an attitude of contributing in the face of tremendous ambiguity. All of these are mighty challenges. However, the ingredients to overcome these challenges are precisely the same ingredients necessary to build a great software team.

Onboarding speed can double up as a great metric for how well your software team is configured to otherwise function.

So similar, yet so different

It is human nature to be drawn towards contrast. When our differences are large, we focus on that which makes us similar. When our similarities are large, we focus on that which makes us different.

We are all similar enough to find community and belonging. Yet, we are all different enough to contribute in unique ways. Most of our problems arise from confusing the two.

What driving in Germany taught me

Having driven incident-free for 10 years on crowded Indian roads, I considered myself a good driver. I was in for a nasty surprise.

In the last few weeks, I took driving lessons here in Germany to secure a German driving license. My Indian license counted for nothing – I had to pass all the tests again. Given my driving experience on challenging and chaotic Indian roads, I expected to breeze past the driving test. Alas, that wasn’t to be.

The key to life preservation on Indian roads is to expect the unexpected. Drivers need to always be alert and expect other drivers to behave in strange ways. Traffic rules in India are, for the most part, guidelines – drivers break them at their will. Therefore, a good driver is one who is prepared for everything.

The German road system is ruthlessly efficient. It is designed for people to commute 60 kilometers from the countryside to the heart of a city within 45 min. Every road is designed to be driven close to its speed limit, while assuming that everybody else follows traffic rules. If a road is marked with a speed limit of 50 km/h, you are expected to clock at least 45 km/h. On a highway marked at 80km/h, driving at 60 km/h is hazardous. A good driver on these roads is quick, decisive and predictable at all times. A driver who expects the unexpected is seen as hesitant, halting and hazardous.

My driving lessons in Germany, made me realized how little I knew about driving outside India. I was conditioned to expect everything on the road and be prepared. The same training that made me an alert and careful driver in India turned me into a hesitant driver who was a potential in Germany. After much patient admonishment from my driving teacher, I barely managed to pass a driving test that most German teenagers regularly ace. It was a humbling experience.

Unknown to us, our expertise and competence are all relevant within a narrow context. We now live in an era where context change is sudden and widespread (welcome to 2020) – one where the ability to reinvent one’s self is indispensable, and the humility that enables it, invaluable.

Embrace the cynics

An ultrasonic flaw detector is a clever instrument. It works on the principle that sound waves are distorted when they encounter a crack in the metal. When the detector is beamed through a defect, its sound profile changes and alerts us. Once we detect the fault, we fix it.

Cynical people perform the same function in society. Cynical folks are usually intelligent, and channel their smarts to look for faults and cracks in society. Once they spot these faults, they are only too vocal about how exactly the world is broken.

Once a cynic alerts you to a fault, thank them and go fix it.

Distracted from what?

You cannot be distracted unless you intend to be doing something else.

The word distraction is derived from the word traction. Traction itself derives from the Latin word trahere – to pull or draw. Words such as track and tractor share the same root.

By definition, you need to have traction before you can be distracted. You need to be on course to achieving a clear goal or a vision. When you deviate from this course, you are distracted.

In most cases, our distraction stems from a lack of traction.

The real opponent

In an unhealthy relationship, the partners are always fighting each other. In a healthy relationship, the partners are a team that fights its common enemies: their problems.

This principle extends beyond personal relationships. In the 1950’s, the Australian world champion middle distance runner, John Landy, declared that it was humanly impossible to run a mile in under 4 minutes. For nearly a century before, athletes had tried and failed to accomplish the feat. That was until the 6th of May, 1954, when the Briton, Roger Bannister, ran a mile in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. Merely 46 days later, Landy ran a mile in 3 minutes and 58 seconds. Bannister and Landy were competitors on the track, but seen another way, there were also on the same team – one that pushed the boundaries of what humanity can achieve.

The electric carmaker, Tesla, has decided to not sue any competitor for exploiting its patents. Tesla’s vision is to power the world’s automobiles on electricity, and they embrace competitors who help realize that vision. By freely sharing their patents, they turn competitors into collaborators. (Are the vaccine manufacturers listening?)

Seen from the right perspective, we are all in this together, pushing past our limitations and making a better world.

Talent and Skill

Derek Sivers wasn’t a born singer. His pitch was bad, his tone was bad, and everybody told him so.

Despite thousands of hours of solo practice and touring as the lead singer of a band for years, Sivers still wasn’t there. At the age of 25, his mentor told him, ‘Derek, you’re just not a singer. You really need to stop trying. Admit you’re a songwriter, and find a real singer.’

Unfazed, he continued to practice and persevere. At the age of 29, after fifteen years of practice and a thousand live shows, somebody who heard him for the first time told him, ‘Singing is a gift that either you’re born with or you’re not. You’re lucky. You were born with it!’.

Talent and skill are the same thing. If you don’t have the talent, you can practice to acquire the skill, for practice eventually transmutes skill into talent.

Inspiration: After 15 years of practice

Jargon vs. Lingo

When you talk to a cyclist about cadence, the peloton or refer to somebody on her team as a domestique, they know exactly what you mean. Saying cadence instead of ‘the rate at which you pedal’ signals that you know the sport and also saves your breath.

All those words above are part of a cyclist’s lingo – their insider language. It’s not the same as jargon.

I once had an ‘expert’ in the field of process automation refer to how self-healing scripts were the hottest development in the field. Intrigued, I clicked on his article, only to find that what he referred to as ‘self-healing’ was merely what we developers already called exception handling – a script’s ability to throw a pre-defined error and end execution safely when an error occurs. Exception handling was as old as software itself.

The purported expert had used jargon to bait me into clicking on his article. However, it indicated that he didn’t know the lingo, and his obvious incompetence.

When you use the lingo, you signal to a group that you are an insider. When you use jargon instead, people realize that you’re trying to sound smart despite being on shaky ground.

Choice giveth. Choice taketh away

We live in a world that pretends as if more choice is always better. While we are aware of what choice offers, we are often unaware of what it costs us.

A feature rich app offers its users much choice – control over configuration, user experience and an endless list of use-cases. A feature rich app is also difficult to use, bug-prone and open to security attacks. Past a point, increasing a user’s choice reduces their chance of having an app that is that is easy to use, bug-free and secure.

The rise of Amazon, the ‘everything’ store, is an enabler of tremendous choice. Thanks to its unlimited online shelf-space, ruthless efficiency and customer obsession, Amazon offers unbridled choice at the lowest price in the short term. In the medium term, Amazon leads to smaller businesses shutting shop and monopolizes certain segments of the market. In the long term, everybody is forced to buy certain goods from Amazon. In the long term, Amazon robs us of the choice to buy from somebody who isn’t Amazon.

Standards and adversarial interoperability are the bedrock of every engineering discipline. They have helped us to craft a world with much variety and choice. The same 5 millimeter screw can be used in a bathroom cabinet, a hard-disk drive or within a harmonica. Yet, standards, at their core, are about relinquishing choice to enable homogeneity. Without the uniformity they offer, much of this world’s variety would disappear.

Choice is always a trade-off – to increase choice somewhere is to take it away elsewhere. And vice-versa.