24 November 2014

The best place to hide something is ...

Right in front of our noses :) This is how life works when it comes to hiding happiness. It is not that we always fail to recognize it for what it is. Heck, at times we are even grateful - sincerely at that - for what we have. But eventually, we move on in search of greener pastures, a better me, a better them, a different overall. We refuse to believe that the solution to life's puzzle could be this straightforward, the answer to our questions as simple, and that which we have been seeking with endless restlessness this obvious. The mind continues to crave complexity and that which is obvious remains comfortably hidden and inconspicuous from our questing gaze. 

I love stories. Stories that speak of Truth, which bring us closer to who we are, and help us see things the way they are. In this vain I started a book yesterday - Beggar king and the secret of happiness. This is the story of a storyteller, who happens to lose his voice, and his journey from self-defeat to discovering something within that is unconquerable, not defeat-able. Along the way, through trials and inquisitiveness, he author stumbles upon the meaning of life. His quest, like a wise ancient map, is there for any who may be drawn by such an impulse. 

His story reminds me of days and associations in my own life, which I have found to be most profound, which I cherish most deeply. They are all, invariably, rooted in coming upon the truth of my life at that instance and in my taking the courage to stand next to it unabashed. 

Truth offers us many lies so we are not afraid in approaching her. Such is a sum of our lives. Those days are special when we show the courage to show up next to our Truth. The truth of a sense of vulnerability and discontentment in face of outer calm; sitting next to our frustration and anger in abeyance of a false outer acceptance; holding hands of the strong inner desire to relate to another, letting the surrogate support of "I am not really emotional" drop away. 

I found this little book delightful in its rendering of insightful stories that inspire, make us smile, laugh, may be even tear up a little. But above all, it is about coming upon Truth, our Truth. For there is nothing more frightening or more healing than the light of the truth, especially when we have, as we all have, become accustomed to the diluted filtered streaks of Truth pouring through the thick heavy curtains of the lies we tell ourselves, of the lies we believe of what others tell us about ourselves, just so we can keep up the outward appearances of "having it all together". 

May we all embrace Light.

09 November 2014

The Commercialized Citizen

“Almost half of American states have taken steps to legalize cannabis. The federal government should follow”, reads the opening line of an article in the Nov 8th,2014 issue of The Economist. The article comes in light of the latest polls where more states have chosen to allow for free trade in cannabis. Alaska and Oregon chose to expand cannabis use beyond medical to recreational purposes, just like Washington and Colorado already have. Florida came very close to legalizing cannabis.
Cannabis is used to manage pain in medical situations as well as for recreational purposes. It is purported to be less harmful that some other drugs such as cocaine, heroine, etc but is quite harmful nonetheless leading to disorders such as psychosis, panic attacks, hallucinations, depression, aggressiveness. Even in short term use the drug impairs judgement,  memory, and learning. Mental disorders associated with marijuana use have their own category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) IV, published by the American Psychiatric Association. These include Cannabis Intoxication (consisting of impaired motor coordination, anxiety, impaired judgment, sensation of slowed time, social withdrawal, and often includes perceptual disturbances; Cannabis Intoxication Delirium (memory deficit, disorientation); Cannabis Induced Psychotic Disorder, Delusions; Cannabis Induced Psychotic Disorder, Hallucinations; and Cannabis Induced Anxiety Disorder.
What is prompting such a rush to legalize this harmful drug? From the users’s point of view this is yet another mad rush toward nirvana – finding that next silver bullet that will dull the pain of loneliness, hardship, and the alienated face that  life can present from time to time. It would be a great escape from needing to face up to reality.
On the seller side, the interest in cannabis business is quite an obvious one. The overall weed business is already around $40B by some estimates and expected to be much larger (closer to $100B/year) if fully legalized [The Economist].
The Government, expected (by some) to watch out for the society’s greater good have much to gain (or lose, by not legalizing) as well. Colorado, where cannabis was legalized in Jan 2014, already raked in $1B this year alone. Given the significant budget shortfalls faced by most of the US states, this would be a lucrative option (as is gambling to many states).
Some cannabis legalization advocates argue a reduction in criminal activity from drug legalization. Perhaps we would also be safer if we legalized cocaine, heroine, people trafficking, prostitution, child pornography, and ivory trading? This argument fails to recognize that these acts were deemed illegal not because of who carried them out (“criminals”) but because of what they meant for the overall well being our society.  Criminals become “criminals” not because they are so born but because they blindly pursue their personal gains in severe conflict to the overall social well being. Legalizing what has been rightly illegal does not reduce crime, it legitimizes it.
What is the future of a society in which the buyers, the sellers, the regulators all collude in trading a false sense of freedom? The buyer buys an escape from reality, while the sellers and regulators happily forgo social responsibility in view of commercial gains.
Several months ago, a friend, unhappy with some cultural aspects of the US, wondered aloud how life was probably better in other countries and asked for my opinion on the same. Being an immigrant to the US and having lived and worked in many different continents across the globe, her question forced me to really think through my experiences. “In my experience, US is by far the best country to live in terms of economic opportunity and personal freedom. Here, more than anywhere else, one can choose to build a great life or to wither away into nothingness, unnoticed. Where this country is failing, however, and in a dangerously risky way, is that it has chosen to put its commercial interests ahead of its citizens’ welfare”, I reflected.
In such a world, a wakeful citizen of individual responsibility can come to rescue of the individual and of the society. Alas, it is not an easily cultivated virtue or mental habit. Nonetheless, it exists, is available, and is much needed in face of today’s increasingly conscience-free commercialization.

08 June 2014

Idea Man

This book was a fascinating read into the world of technology, how it came about, and one some of the instrumental players behind bringing it to life, as we know it.

Paul comes across as a candid, fair, and the next door person. His vision has been ahead of time. His company with Bill Gates helped immensely in execution of the  vision. Bill comes across as a shrewd businessman, who is also a good friend who somehow manages to maintain this split personality of being cut throat on the business table, regardless of who you are, and then being caring for you as a person whom he calls his friend.

The book also highlights the importance of good schooling and its far reaching effect on one's life and career. Small things can and do have lasting effects. Curiosity and imagination come across as the founding stones for Paul's genius. His passion to read voraciously, to imagine a world that was not but could be served him well in creating a life he enjoyed. The story also brings home the profound insight, which eludes many, that money is a side effect of engaging in what one is truly passionate about. Moreover, even if one is not super-rich from one's pursuits but carries the passion (Nikola Tesla comes to mind) one would find contentment and fulfillment form one's life. On the other hand, having loads of money but being devoid of passion, is sheer misery.

Some points to ponder:

  1. Pay attention to your passions - what engagements make you come to alive? Where do you spend most of your time? 
  2. Diversify your interests - do not let your life become a ground-hog day.
  3. Tap into your imagination! What can the world be? What can your life be? What can be different - not just on an individual level but on a grand scale? How? What is the human side of this problem?
  4. Keep a daily journal of your thoughts, findings, insights, challenges.
  5. Love what you do. Do not succumb to boredom or monotony.
  6. Be true to your values.
  7. Know that what seems easy in another is result of hard work. Do not shy away from tough diligence.
  8. Anything you build - no matter how great - can disappear overnight.
  9. No mater what you lose, know that great things will follow suit. What is often has to go so what needs to be can come about. Stay positive and open minded. 
  10. Even when you are doing things that you love to do, it will have parts and periods that you would make you cringe. Stick to it. 
  11. No good idea survives a flawed business plan; it is hard to compete with "free".
  12. Know and operate form your strengths.
  13. Develop stamina, conserve energy, enhance concentration.
  14. Be obstinate in adversity. 
  15. "Once you are no longer a decision maker at work, people don't look at you the same way (your advice does not count for much)."  
  16. To avoid mediocrity, you need to be rigorous about weeding out non-performers.
  17. Too many efforts can distract form the unwavering focus you need to for your core products and strategic initiatives.
  18. Don't go alone. Secure commitment from all sides, especially from people who are or claim to be stakeholders. Make sure they have a skin in the game (Paul did not give all the money for building the new stadium, even though he could, unless the city matched half the amount).
  19. Give your children the love for learning and imagination.
  20. "I am disinclined to invest in completely open ended research. I've learned that creativity needs tangible goals and hard choices to have a chance to flourish."
  21. Don't try to get too big, too fast, in too many markets all at once. Stay organic.
  22. Know the key financial variables for any Industry in which you operate or in which you invest.
  23. Talent is essential but seasoning and maturity are not to be underestimated.
  24. "I have learned the pitfalls of getting so locked up in looking ahead that you miss the pothole that makes you stumble, or the iceberg that sinks you. Still, any crusade requires optimism and the ambition to aim high."
  25. "I have come to realize that many things happen at their own pace, beyond your control" 

The upside of irrationality

This beautiful book speaks about how the expectation of extracting rational behavior from our irrational selves is flawed. If we were completely rational, we would easily make choices which were in our long term interest and just as easily let go of short term pleasures and gains which did not serve us in the long run. But the fact that this is not how we are is illustrious of our irrational self. However, in spite of the seeming malignant nature of this dilemma there is a benign upside to this phenomenon, which is what this book is about.

The book also behooves readers to think of oneself as the subject of an experiment whose aim is to discover the truths about one's own self and behaviors. The author shares some fascinating experiments with revealing insights. There is much available for us to learn about ourselves should we so desire and go about it meticulously.

While we figure out what experiments we may want to conduct on ourselves, we may think through the following findings and lessons from the book and think of how they may apply to our day to day behavior, what could be learned from them, how could we grow as a person of greater self awareness and discipline:

Incentives and Performance 
Incentives up to a certain point motivate us to learn and to perform well. But beyond that point, motivational pressure can be so high that it actually distracts an individual from concentrating on and carrying out a task (an Inverse-U relationship between Incentives and performance - Yerke's and Dodson's experiment).
  • This is why very high bonuses can actually adversely impact performance. This is especially true of knowledge based tasks. For mechanical efforts, high incentives may work.  
  • This is also where the teaching from Gita comes into play where it is taught that one should do one's duty with diligence, focusing on the effort, remaining unattached to any rewards. 
  • This result also points to the importance of effective relaxation and stress management techniques which allow one to take on more, focusing more on the effort and being less scared or anxious at the hands of the possible outcome. Here, meditation and spirituality have significant bearing on improving performance. 
  • The other very important implication of this outcome is the impact on creativity. Since creativity requires a mind free of fear and pressure, high incentives in knowledge field can get long hours from workers but not sufficient quality of creative output.  
  • Keeping bonuses frequent and/or low (or simply adequate salary amounts) can be a good way to reduce performance anxiety and foster creativity. 
Work and Meaning
As a society we often see work as a means to an end, an unavoidable obstacle to life's pleasures and sense of freedom. Yet, work is not disjointed from happiness. For most of us work is a critical piece of our identity, without which we feel lost and misplaced. Why we work has serious implications for how we work or how our work environments either engage us or turn us off and away. If work is tied to meaning, which it is, then one should be able to connect the dots between what one does and what one holds meaningful in life . For someone who values being of immediate and tangible service, working in a back office, shuffling papers around without much human contact, would be quite meaningless even though it probably does serve some some people in an indirect but meaningful manner.

Even without such individual specific sense of meaning, we all have innate needs for appreciation and acknowledgement. These needs get thwarted , and consequently motivation, when our efforts go unacknowledged or feel wasted ("Sisyphean's mythology story"). The greater the effort one puts in, the more the pride one takes in the quality and quantity of one's output, the more it may hurt and be demoralizing to see one's effort go unacknowledged. Here then lies a key for good management - understand individuals, align their efforts with their value system, acknowledge their efforts, and create clear, tangible, and meaningful goals and outcomes for individuals to achieve/deliver - if one is to create, foster, and preserve motivation and engagement that is. We tend to seek and to find meaning at the intersection of our efforts and resulting outcomes.

Another great insight into the matter is provided by the teachings of Frederick W Taylor and that of Karl Marx. Taylor was a proponent of the idea of division of labor to achieve local efficiencies (productivity gains), while Marx questioned the loss of meaning for the individual (the human cost) if the worker could not connect his efforts to the big picture due to such divisional breakdown. Any of us who work in large corporations can attest to the truth of Marx's sentiment.

Although the author touches upon the need for acknowledgement and sense of completion as necessary ingredients for creating meaning at work, I believe there are few additional critical factors involved, namely: a sense of growth/learning, a sense of belonging (co-worker/team dynamics or relationship quality), and a sense of one's ability to influence change (feeling of autonomy and empowerment).

A few important lessons:
  • As long as we are doing something that is somewhat connected to our self-image, it can fuel our motivation and get us to work much harder.
  • Even for an activity that one is passionate about, meaningless working conditions can very easily kill any internal joy one may derive form the activity. 
  • The translation of joy into willingness to work seems to depend to a large degree on how much meaning we can attribute to our own labor. 
  • Sucking the meaning out of work is very easy - simply destroy a person's work in front of their eyes. Or, if you want to be little more subtle, just ignore them and their efforts. 
  • Two critical components for meaningful work - giving employees a sense of completion and an active and timely acknowledgement for a job well done.
  • Division of labor is one of the dangers of modern work-based technology, which allows projects to be broken into very small tasks and assign to each person only one of the many parts. Doing so, risks taking away an employee's sense of big picture, purpose, and completion. In the absence of meaning employees may have little desire to put their heart and soul into their labor.
The IKEA Effect
We all take pride in things we create whether as parents, inventors, or as employees. Our investment of effort increases our affinity and attachment toward the output of that effort, provided the challenge keeps pace with our effort (if the challenge is too great it is unlikely to result in affinity for lack of progress). This attachment causes us to overvalue our creation as well as leads us to (mistakenly) believe that others would value our creation just as much. The author refers to this as the IKEA effect, for obvious reasons. However, to enjoy IKEA effect, it is necessary for our efforts to result in success, even if that success simply means that the project was finished. If effort does not lead to completion (or is unfruitful), affection for one's work plummets. This could be one of the reasons why "finish what you start" is a sage advice. That which we leave incomplete, makes us feel bad about ourselves. Since we do not like to feel bad about ourselves we start believing that it is the task or the subject at hand that is the problem and hence we develop an aversion to the subject, thereby losing our affinity toward it and closing the door on it in our life. This can stymie our progress in many ways and on many fronts. Nikola Tesla was adamant about finishing what he started. He once started a 20 volume book series on a particular subject. Halfway through the first book he lost his interest but so great was his discipline of "finish what you start" that he did not give up and finished all volumes. Bill Gates too is known for not giving up until he has finished what he started. 

Another important aspect of this effect is that since (the right amount of) effort creates affinity toward what it is expended on, in our laziness or shortsightedness, when we forego effort and seek claim only to the results, we lose a depth of enjoyment, which would otherwise have been our to enjoy since it is often the effort that creates the long term satisfaction.

This also ties into the Not-Invented-Here (NIH) syndrome, as per which we do not give much worth to what we did not create. Consequently, in order to build a sense of ownership, put effort into it (IKEA effect); to get another's buy-in, help them believe it is their idea. For essentially, IKEA effect is people love what they put an effort into, while NIH is people reject what they did not create.

The author complied the following four take aways:
1. The effort that we put into something does not just change the object. It changes us and the way we evaluate that object.
2. Greater labor leads to great love (or hate/frustration if left incomplete?)
3. Our overvaluation of the things we make runs so deep that we assume that others share our biased perspective.
4. When we cannot complete something into which we have put great effort, we don't feel so attached to it.

Hedonic Adaptation (Happiness Effect) 
This is the emotional leveling out when positive and negative perceptions fade. One important aspect that hedonic adaptation has toward effective decision making is that we can be influenced by the initial appeal of an outcome and forget that we will eventually adapt - in general we are not good at predicting our own happiness. The thing to remember is that even if we feel strongly about something in the beginning, in the long run things will even out and will not be as ecstatic or miserable as you expect.

Some keys to changing the adaptation process by interrupting them:
  • People will suffer less when they do not disrupt annoying experiences, and enjoy pleasurable experiences more when they break them up. Any interruption would keep people from adapting to the experience. 
  • To increase the duration of the happiness experience slow down pleasure and not indulge in everything all at once (don't do all your pleasure shopping in one instance!). Similarly we can maximize overall satisfaction in life by shifting our investments away from products/services that give a constant stream of experiences toward those that are more temporary and fleeting (purchase experience, not product). 
  • Purposefully add randomness to your daily routine/day to disrupt adaptation. 
  • Our happiness is influenced by how we compare to those around us. Choosing an environment where we feel good about ourselves (because we have more, are more etc) can make us much happier. 
Empathy & Emotion
"One man's death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic." - Stalin
"If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at one, I will." - Mother Teresa
"Whoever saves one life
Our decision to jump in an help someone spontaneously in driven by three psychological factors:
1. Our proximity to the victim - either physical or a sense of kinship.
2. Vividness of description or perception
3. Drop-in-the-bucket effect - your faith in your ability to single-handedly and completely help the victims of a tragedy (one can counteract this effect by reframing the magnitude in one's mind - instead of thinking about the problem of massive poverty, think about feeding five people).

It is almost impossible to think of number/calculations and feel emotions at the same time. Hence, once one starts computing the cost of helping, the compassion level goes down. This might also indicate to an effective way to deal with surge of high emotions - start counting or calculating in your head. The only effective way to get people to respond to suffering is through an emotional appeal, rather through an objective read of massive need. Once we attach an individual face to suffering, we are much more willing to help, and we go far beyond what economists would expect from rational, selfish, maximizing agents.

Long term effects of short term emotions
It is important that we do not act on our negative feelings since all emotions seem to disappear without a trace! We take our past actions (driven by a certain emotion) as indication of what we should do next, even when that original emotion no longer exists. If we see ourselves having once made a certain decision, we immediately assume that it must have been a reasonable one (Self-Herding). That way, the effects of the initial emotion end up influencing a long string of your decisions.

Your DECISION (one driven by emotional component) has set a precedent for your future behavior since self-herding kind of animal and look to our past decisions as a guide. It hence becomes critical to be very mindful of our decisions and actions we take driven by the emotional states. We have a very poor memory of our emotional states but we do remember the actions we took. In essence, once we choose to act on our emotions, we make short-term DECISIONS that can change our long term ones:

The emotional cascade:
decisions --> emotions --> DECISIONS (short term) --> DECISIONS (long term)

This means that when we face new situations and are about to make decisions that can later be used for self-herding, we should be very careful to make the best possible choices. Our immediate decisions don't just affect what's happening at the moment; they can also affect a long sequence of related decisions far into our future.

Practical lessons:
  • If we do nothing while we are feeling a emotion, there is no short- or long-term harm that can come to us. We must give ourselves time to cool off before we DECIDE to take act action under the emotion's influence. If we don't our DECISION might just crash into our future. 
  • However, if we react to the emotion by making a DECISION, we may not only regret the immediate outcome, but we may also create a long-lasting pattern of DECISIONS that will continue to misguide us for a long time. 
  • Finally, our tendency for self-herding kicks into gear not only when we make the same kinds of DECISIONS but also when we make "neighboring" ones (we not only remember our past decision but we also interpret it more broadly instead of automatically repeating what we did before; it becomes a general indication of our character and preferences and our actions follow suit - "I gave money to a beggar, so I must be a caring guy; I should start volunteering at the soup kitchen" - In this type of self-herding we look at our past actions to inform ourselves of who we are more generally, and then we act in compatible ways). 
Miscellaneous Lessons
The book also covers other important themes such as:

  • Our innate desire for vengeance and the healing effect of an apology
  • Our ability to adapt to almost anything with time, and the role that hope and our ability to assign meaning to that pain play in alleviating or at least in reducing suffering
  • How we adapt more easily to gain (pay increase) but it is much harder for us to put up with a loss of same amount (pay cut)
  • While our level of attractiveness does not change our aesthetics tastes, it does have a large effect on our priorities (less attractive people view non-physical attributes as more important);

Following are some of the irrational influences that one needs to be mindful of:
  1. Endowment Effect: We tend to overvalue what we have.
  2. Loss Aversion: The misery produced by losing something we feel is ours outweighs the happiness of gaining the same amount. Loss aversion makes it difficult for us to give up something even when doing so may make sense. 
  3. Status Quo bias: Generally we tend to want to keep things as they are. 
  4. Irreversibility of decision bias: Making choices is hard enough, but making irreversible decisions is especially hard. 
  5. Sunk cost fallacy: Looking back at all our efforts, we are very reluctant to write them off and change our decision.
  6. People are fantastic rationalizing machines. 
In summary, then we all have biases; we must learn to doubt, question and test our underlying assumptions by running experiments and reviewing the results and applying the lessons learned. 

Other Pointers
  1. "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it" - Upton Sinclair.
  2. Glossophobia: Fear of public speaking.
  3. Contrafreeloading: Aterm coined by animal psychologist Glen Jensen, refers to the finding that many animals prefer to earn food rather than simply eating identical but freely available food.
  4. Not-Invented-Here (NIH) Bias: If I(we) didn't invent it, then its not worth much.
  5. Hedonic Adaptation: The emotional leveling out when positive and negative perceptions fade.
  6. Hedonic Treadmill: We look forward to the things that will make us happy, but we don't realize how short-lived this happiness will be, and when adaptation hits we look for the next new thing.
  7. "It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data." - Sherlock Holmes

26 May 2014

Career Choices when Life is Short

In a recent issue of HBR a case study was showcased. The subject of case study was a co-founder of a startup who is diagnosed with a terminal illness that gives him about 5 years to live at best. He is also the brain behind the venture and enjoys his work. He has before him the opportunity to continue working, to retire to his hometown and spend time with his family, and/or to work with an upcoming research that seeks to raise funds and find a cure for the illness he is facing. The Case Study asks the readers what may be the best choice for this person - continue working, retire with family, or help with the cure. Following is my response:

Dear Editor,

A more apt title may have been "Choices when life is shorter", for life is already short. Most people's first response in face of terminal illness (of theirs or another) is that it is a ticket to do whatever, live however, become happy by any and all means. However, life does not function that way. 

For most human beings there is no joy devoid of meaning and of meaningful effort, regardless of whether they have to die today or in fifty years. In many ways when one is in position of responsibility such as a CEO or the head of a family, such adversity brings additional responsibility the recognition and delivering of which is key to passing away peacefully. Steve Jobs is an example in case. Such was also the case with my father. He was the CEO of a multi-national power corporation when he was diagnosed with non-treatable Leukemia. For the next two and a half years he continued to execute his duties with full responsibility. Besides his two close friends the only other people who knew about his illness were the Managing Director and the Board of Directors, that too because he considered that they needed to know to be ready with a succession plan in case he couldn't make it until his retirement. No one saw what he was facing. As family I got a glimpse here and there of how much it scared him, how much he wanted for it to not be true, and of how much he wanted to make sure that he left things in a way that we (his wife and kids) will have an easy time with his passing away, at least from financial and logistical standpoint. 

My father survived for six years after his retirement. During those years he tried his best to beat the disease or to delay the inevitable. He was scared and angry but he did not let it stand in the way of how he would have lived his life even if he were not sick. Till his very last days he continued his morning and evening walk, he consulted for companies that sought him for advice, he helped his friends as and when needed, and he continued to be a responsible and giving parent to me and my sister and a good husband to his wife, my mother. 

In his final days, chained to seven different tubes in a hospital bed, his only regret was that death was coming too soon for him. On all other fronts he was peaceful and content with having done his best, given his best, and lived a life he loved to the eleventh hour. 

For this case study, Gil should continue with that which brings meaning to his life. He should, in addition, pay special attention to new responsibilities that are now required of him - not just managing his emotions but being mindful of the fear, pain, insecurity and hurt that his wife and other family members would be going through; to be cognizant of the concern and fear that his co-workers would carry not just for him but for the future of the organization and what it may mean for their own career. He should also recognize that having an opportunity to fight for this cause is a god-given gift for him and he should make the best of it for there is no greater satisfaction than to have an opportunity to right a seeming wrong. 

In the US we idolize the idea of family even though we have among the highest divorce rates. We carry this notion that career somehow happens at the expense of family and hence when faced with such drastic situations our first instinct is that one should quit work and spend more time with family. However, this would be the case for people for whom work is meaningless (and there are many). It is not for those who derive great meaning from their work, as was the case with my father. For those who truly respect and understand the value of work in their life, quitting work is not an option while they are still capable of carrying it out effectively. 

I was able to be with my father during the last few weeks of his life. Those were not happy times for me. In fact, those moments were some of the most challenging and full of desperation as I helplessly witnessed him slipping away while still wanting to hold on. Yet, there are no moments, no matter how happy, for which I would trade those days. Our satisfaction in life, of which joy is a side-effect, is derived from meaning, which comes from being useful. 

Thank you