A higher standard of discourse

It is tough to maintain a higher standard of discourse.

Thoughtful blog posts don’t win popularity contests.

Great pieces of journalism don’t always get the recognition they deserve.

Smart television rarely gets a massive audience.

On the other hand, slap stick comedy always seems to win the day. Articles spewing hate regularly get massive reach. And, there seems to be a never ending market for superficial stuff.

There’s always an excuse for not holding ourselves to a higher standard of discourse. But, when has the presence of an excuse changed anything?

We owe it to ourselves to hold ourselves to a higher standard – to ask the tough questions and to talk about the tough stuff. It won’t be for the likes, of course.

We will do it because we care… and mostly because we can.

Luck or skill

It is helpful to distinguish between the effects of luck and skill. Our human bias is generally to attribute most of our success to skill and that of those around us to luck. Of course, that isn’t very helpful.

The ability to seeing things as they are versus how we’d like them to be is a particularly powerful habit. And, yes, it is a habit. In this case, distinguishing between luck and skill helps us in two ways.

First, it helps us make better decisions by virtue of us having the right map. Imagine being stuck in a new city and following the wrong map. That’s how we’d make decisions if we aren’t truly aware of what our skills are. It is a critical component of self awareness.

Second, it helps us learn more from those around us. If we get good at identifying the valuable skills that others possess, we can both learn from them and, in cases where those skills are complementary, make it a point to surround ourselves with people with those skills in the future.

At the end of the day, how we deconstruct success into luck and skill is still just our point of view. But, it is important we attempt to do so periodically and test our assumptions from time to time. The more we can move this from our truth to “the truth,” the better for us and those around us.

One metric that matters – for our lives

The idea behind the “one metric that matters” or OMTM is to move past the noise and focus on the metric that actually drives business success. For example, in the context of publishing and advertising, the one metric that matters is user attention. No attention = no business. What, then, is the OMTM for our lives?

My hypothesis is that it is engagement. Metrics that matter are rarely result based metrics. Result based metrics are lagging indicators. Thus, process based metrics are the way to go. As humans, two process based metrics that play a big role in our days are time and energy. Many tell us that time management is the ultimate hurdle. Then again, others have made a strong case for us to forget about time and focus on our energy. But, that’s exactly what makes engagement special.

Engagement is a function of both time and energy. Engagement requires us to pay attention. And, attention requires energy. So, engagement is actually the consistent application of energy through time. It drives everything good in our lives – better work, better relationships and better fun.

Researcher Brene Brown wrote this about parenting – “We all know that perfect parenting does not exist, yet we still struggle with the social expectations that teach us that being imperfect is synonymous with being inadequate. The real questions for parents should be: “Are you engaged? Are you paying attention?” If so, plan to make lots of mistakes and bad decisions. Imperfect parenting moments turn into gifts as our children watch us try to figure out what went wrong and how we can do better next time. The mandate is not to be perfect and raise happy children. Perfection doesn’t exist, and I’ve found what makes children happy doesn’t always prepare them to be courageous, engaged adults.”

Of course, we could replace parenting with life in this passage and it would still work wonderfully well.

3 small things

Pick 3 small things you want to do today. And, do them with extraordinary love. Shower them with the sort of care that accompanies excellent work.

Repeat tomorrow.

Then, the day after.

One day, you will wake up in the morning realizing that it has become habitual to do the small things with extraordinary love. And, on that day, you will deserve to be called a craftsman.

The craft? Life.

Sexism and cooking

Quartz shared Unicef data about the difference between the time girls and boys spend on household chores every week. Between ages 5 and 14, this adds up to 160 million hours. This is where the gender gap begins. As it turns out, the answer to “who does the cooking in your household” correlates with the amount of sexism in the household.

In their 2016 annual letter, Bill and Melinda Gates shared similar data. And, rather than talk about sexism from a third person’s point of view, I thought I’d share my own experience after coming across this data for the first time in February this year.


I found Melinda Gates’ note to be very powerful. I thought of myself as someone who cared deeply about these matters. However, I hadn’t realized the sheer size of this problem. I had grown up raised by two very strong women. So, I was under no illusions about the strength and capability of women. Yet, I clearly wasn’t doing a good job of contributing toward reducing the inequality of time spent doing unpaid work.

I had been married for two and a half years when I read the letter – a year and a half of which counted as normal since it wasn’t spent “long distance.” And, while I helped out in the household by cleaning the dishes, doing the laundry and vacuuming, my share of household chores was still likely around 25%. After all, cooking was the single biggest household task and I didn’t do any of it. After four years largely traveling as a consultant, I was very grateful for the home cooked food. Also, I had promised my wife that I’d learn to cook right after graduate school. But, what good were promises if my track record hadn’t shown any action?

I believe that what we do defines who we are. So, I didn’t think the promises were any good. I was contributing to the sexism I considered abhorrent.

Anyway, a few months down the line, I’ve learnt to cook and do my best to contribute to our cooking for the week. I’d say there have been a few times in the past couple of months when my share of household chores were well above 50%. But, I’m painfully aware of all the behavioral economics research that points to us over-estimating our own contribution. :) So, I reckon we’re probably closer to 50% on average.

I’ll take that as strong improvement 8 months since reading Melinda Gates’ note. However, after not contributing enough for nearly two years of married life, I still have a long way to go. But, I guess the first step is being aware of that.

And, here’s to first steps.

Testing for a relationship between innate talent and expertise – The 200 words project

(continued from part 1)
We measure innate talent in the mind with “IQ”. IQ had no relation with the London taxi drivers who passed the qualification test.

While the average IQ of scientists is higher than the average person, there is no correlation between IQ and scientific productivity either. Richard Feynman, one of the most brilliant physicists of all time, didn’t make it to the top 5%. Researchers have suggested that the minimum requirements for performing capably as a scientist is around 110 (top 25%). Beyond that, there is little or no additional benefit.

Similarly, dental students’ early success was found to be related to their existing level of visuospatial ability. But again, this trend disappeared with residents.

And, a study of 91 fifth grade students who were given piano instruction for 6 months found that students with higher IQs performed better at the end of the 6 months. However, as years of study increased, the correlation between IQ and music performance got smaller and smaller.This finding is similar to other studies of this nature.

If there isn’t an observable link between “innate talent” and expertise, do we explain expertise with the 10,000 hour rule?

Coming up next week.

It is unclear if the IQ requirement in research is for one to succeed as a scientist or to do the writing and admission tests required to get a PhD. – Anders Ericsson

Source and thanks to: Peak by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

(The 200 words project involves sharing a story from a book/blog/article I’ve read within 200 words)

3 thoughts for the weekend

Here are 3 thoughts for the weekend –

1. If you are having people over, a lovely thing to remember – “It doesn’t matter how big your home is, it just matters how big your heart is.”

2. Next, for those of you who are looking to just relax this weekend – “Weekends don’t count unless you spend some time doing something completely pointless.”

3. And, finally – “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes. Including you.

Wishing you all a lovely weekend!

Machine values with Joi Ito and Barack Obama

I read a fantastic conversation on Wired magazine between Joi Ito (Director of the MIT Media Lab) and Barack Obama yesterday. The conversation was about artificial intelligence, self driving cars and the future of technology. I would strongly recommend reading all of it. However, if you are out of time, here is an important excerpt from the discussion.

JOI ITO: This may upset some of my students at MIT, but one of my concerns is that it’s been a predominately male gang of kids, mostly white, who are building the core computer science around AI, and they’re more comfortable talking to computers than to human beings. A lot of them feel that if they could just make that science-fiction, generalized AI, we wouldn’t have to worry about all the messy stuff like politics and society. They think machines will just figure it all out for us.

OBAMA: Right.

ITO: But they underestimate the difficulties, and I feel like this is the year that artificial intelligence becomes more than just a computer science problem. Everybody needs to understand that how AI behaves is important. In the Media Lab we use the term extended intelligence (Extended intelligence is using machine learning to extend the abilities of human intelligence). Because the question is, how do we build societal values into AI?

OBAMA: When we had lunch a while back, Joi used the example of self-driving cars. The technology is essentially here. We have machines that can make a bunch of quick decisions that could drastically reduce traffic fatalities, drastically improve the efficiency of our transpor­tation grid, and help solve things like carbon emissions that are causing the warming of the planet. But Joi made a very elegant point, which is, what are the values that we’re going to embed in the cars? There are gonna be a bunch of choices that you have to make, the classic problem being: If the car is driving, you can swerve to avoid hitting a pedestrian, but then you might hit a wall and kill yourself. It’s a moral decision, and who’s setting up those rules?

ITO: When we did the car trolley problem (The car trolley problem is a 2016 MIT Media Lab study in which respondents weighed certain lose-lose situations facing a driverless car. E.g., is it better for five passengers to die so that five pedestrians can live, or is it better for the passengers to live while the pedestrians die?), we found that most people liked the idea that the driver and the passengers could be sacrificed to save many people. They also said they would never buy a self-driving car. [Laughs.]

DADICH: As we start to get into these ethical questions, what is the role of government?

OBAMA: The way I’ve been thinking about the regulatory structure as AI emerges is that, early in a technology, a thousand flowers should bloom. And the government should add a relatively light touch, investing heavily in research and making sure there’s a conversation between basic research and applied research. As technologies emerge and mature, then figuring out how they get incorporated into existing regulatory structures becomes a tougher problem, and the govern­ment needs to be involved a little bit more. Not always to force the new technology into the square peg that exists but to make sure the regulations reflect a broad base set of values. Otherwise, we may find that it’s disadvantaging certain people or certain groups.

I think this is a critical conversation – one that we must all have as we build toward the future.

Machines are not sources of disembodied truth. Anyone who has conducted any kind of analysis with huge data sets will tell you that. Machines take with them our assumptions and judgment. Similarly, artificial intelligence isn’t going to conjure up values. We will teach AI to make these decisions. The self driving car decision is just one such example. President Obama remarks later that there aren’t enough people thinking about “the singularity.”

That is true. Most of us are wrapped in day to day nonsense that isn’t really going to matter in the big scheme of things. As technology becomes a bigger of our lives, the onus is on us to make sure we have discussions on how we build this technology. Machine values are not going to save us.

Human values are.

PS: How many heads of state can you imagine having such a thoughtful conversation about the future?

Deadliest animals and availability bias

Availability bias is a mental shortcut we use when evaluating a topic or decision by relying on immediate examples that come to mind. For example, below is a chart with the planet’s deadliest animals in 2015.

Before you look at it, what animals come to mind when you think of deadly animals?

I think I might have had lions/tigers, snakes and sharks in some order.

The deadliest animals were mosquitoes and humans by a distance. The shark attack number is the lowest of the lot. But, I was drawing from the fact that I have seen more pieces of news about Shark attacks than Jellyfish killings. And, that is a classic example of Availability bias.

Similarly, the world is more peaceful than it has ever been. And, yet, politicians and the media would love to have us believe that we are in constant danger. Hearing something regularly doesn’t make it true.

Thanks to my good friend Bill Gates for sharing this graphic (just kidding of course). And, congratulations to the Gates foundation for leading the charge in the fight against malaria and contributing to the decline of Malaria by 57% in sub Saharan Africa.

The hard thing about self worth

The hard thing about self worth is the presence of the word “worth.” Its presence primes us to look for numbers and comparisons around us. It feels natural to look at the races we’ve run and won, our place in the pecking order in our careers, the size of our car or house, and so on.

But, spending our time on numbers and comparisons is just a race to the bottom. There is just more unhappiness and insecurity to be found there. Everybody loses.

The challenge with self worth is measuring ourselves by who we are being today versus who we were yesterday. Are we living better? Have we been behaving in a manner consistent with our values? Are we taking good care of ourselves?

Again, that’s hard to do. After all, any kind of measurement prompts us to look outward.

Perhaps the biggest clue is in the word that comes first. Self worth is more about the self than the worth.