Time with yourself

As you get older, you spend a fair bit of time with your partner and a large amount with yourself. We know this thanks to data scientist Henrik Lindberg
who combed through results from an annual census from the US bureau of statistics.

The Quartz article also points out the difference between a small circle of quality relationships and a non-existent one as crucial. That makes sense, of course.

But, for me, the big takeaways are two-fold. First, your partner is likely going to be the single biggest influence on your life and personality.

And, second, it is worth developing a sense of self worth which, in turn, helps us love ourselves. Life can get very difficult if you are stuck spending all your time with someone you don’t love very much.

Power and brain damage

My favorite excerpts from a fascinating article on The Atlantic – “Power causes brain damage.”

Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, studies brains. And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.

Was the mirroring response broken? More like anesthetized. None of the participants possessed permanent power. They were college students who had been “primed” to feel potent by recounting an experience in which they had been in charge. The anesthetic would presumably wear off when the feeling did—their brains weren’t structurally damaged after an afternoon in the lab. But if the effect had been long-lasting—say, by dint of having Wall Street analysts whispering their greatness quarter after quarter, board members offering them extra helpings of pay, and Forbes praising them for “doing well while doing good”—they may have what in medicine is known as “functional” changes to the brain.

I wondered whether the powerful might simply stop trying to put themselves in others’ shoes, without losing the ability to do so. As it happened, Obhi ran a subsequent study that may help answer that question. This time, subjects were told what mirroring was and asked to make a conscious effort to increase or decrease their response. “Our results,” he and his co-author, Katherine Naish, wrote, “showed no difference.” Effort didn’t help.
This is a depressing finding. Knowledge is supposed to be power. But what good is knowing that power deprives you of knowledge?

The sunniest possible spin, it seems, is that these changes are only sometimes harmful. Power, the research says, primes our brain to screen out peripheral information. In most situations, this provides a helpful efficiency boost. In social ones, it has the unfortunate side effect of making us more obtuse. Even that is not necessarily bad for the prospects of the powerful, or the groups they lead. As Susan Fiske, a Princeton psychology professor, has persuasively argued, power lessens the need for a nuanced read of people, since it gives us command of resources we once had to cajole from others. But of course, in a modern organization, the maintenance of that command relies on some level of organizational support. And the sheer number of examples of executive hubris that bristle from the headlines suggests that many leaders cross the line into counterproductive folly.

No and yes. It’s difficult to stop power’s tendency to affect your brain. What’s easier—from time to time, at least—is to stop feeling powerful.

Insofar as it affects the way we think, power, Keltner reminded me, is not a post or a position but a mental state. Recount a time you did not feel powerful, his experiments suggest, and your brain can commune with reality.

This is a fascinating article for a bunch of reasons.

First, it explains a ton of behavior from powerful leaders that would make little sense otherwise. :-)

Second, while it is easy to brush this off as just relevant for people who are in obvious places of power, I think it is very relevant for all of us. Every one of us experiences power in small ways – leading an initiative, parenting a family, directing a side project, etc. And, in many cases, we are (or at least I have been) guilty of exhibiting behavior that this article describes.

The only solution found so far is to find ways to be grounded or “to stop feeling powerful.” That isn’t easy to do.

But, as with many good things, the first step is being aware of the issue and why it matters.

We shall overcome

When we were kids, we were taught the “We shall overcome” song. The song has a version in Hindi as well that we were taught along with the English version.

I didn’t know then that it was an anthem of the civil rights movement. I didn’t know what the civil rights movement was, either.

I chanced upon a video of Joan Baez singing the song at the White House yesterday and choked up as I thought of the significance and power of the song – especially the lines “we will not be afraid.”

Moments like this remind me of the difference between difficult, challenging and hard. Our lives are often challenging, occasionally difficult but never hard. Hard is when we have to fight for our existence. Hard is when we’re denied basic human rights because of how we look.

An absence of hard is the sign of a presence of privilege. And, for that, we must be grateful, be humble and feel responsible to make the privilege count.

In the absence of hard, we have more going for us at any given time than we realize.

B Complex

I felt an ulcer pop up all of a sudden the other day. I generally run all health problems, major and minor, with my mom. She is no doctor but she always provides great advice.

The moment she saw this, she said – “Vitamin B Complex is what you need.” She had experienced this before and the solution was simple in her mind.

So, I went to a Walgreens nearby and stopped at the consultation area for a second opinion. The doctor looked at it and said it was a result of heat or stress and I should either let it be or apply some dental numbing agent. I decided to ignore the advice and try the vitamin anyway. What followed was the closest thing to magic I’d experienced in a long time.

By the time I’d chewed the B Complex tablet, 95% of the ulcer had gone away. Amazing.

Diagnosis isn’t easy and doctors get good at it with experience. Most doctors don’t have enough of a breadth of experience in the simple ailments to get them right. This is where artificial intelligence could play a huge role in solving human ailments.

Imagine the following workflow – you take a photo of the ulcer, computer vision identifies it, artificial intelligence suggests a solution and you walk over to your pharmacy to get it.

(This is an example of a technology driven healthcare process )

All technology has two sides and the other side of the AI coin is what we’ll do with the humans who lose their jobs. That is why we need more experiments like the universal basic income pilots in Finland and Hawaii.

But, the positive of the AI era is that we will likely see a step change in the quality of healthcare available to people around the world.

And that’s a wonderful thing.

How to: ask for a cold call

The basic principles for asking for a cold call:

  1. The process has 3 stages – preparation (including the ask), the call, follow up
  2. Be courteous throughout the process and make sure the person feels thanked
  3. Showcase thoughtfulness where possible

Here’s how to think about each of these 3 stages.


  1. Be clear as to why you are asking for a call. Make sure you have a clear overall objective because calls are expensive in terms of the time it takes to do them. The worst kind of objective is “networking” where you do these calls to check some arbitrary box.
  2. If it is a quick question, would you consider doing it via email? Better still, are you open to sharing your question upfront? That way, you can allow the person you’re asking to decide if they’d like to do the call
  3. If you’ve decided to ask, ask really nicely. Let it be a request. “Could I please request a 30 minute call” works much better than “It’d be great to connect.”
  4. Make sure you get their name right. I’ve 2 instances in the past 3 weeks where people have addressed me by my last name despite having addressed me by first name when they first wrote in. Show that you care enough to get their name right.
  5. Make scheduling really easy once they say “yes.” Just give them all possible times in a 2 week period and allow them to choose. Make allowances for their schedule and don’t ask them to reschedule more than twice. Remember: they’re doing you a favor.
  6. Finally, there are always opportunity to showcase thoughtfulness. Add a note to tell people how you heard of them or, if you’ve come across their work, if it had an impact on you. If genuine, these notes add a lot.

During the call:

  1. Share your questions upfront so you can allow the person on the other side to sort them in an order that works for them.
  2. While you have them, ask for their perspective on broader topics. For example, if you are speaking to an alumni from your school who works at Google, don’t just ask for advice to get into Google. Ask them for their perspective on how to do a job search right. This moves the call away from a “I am speaking to you to get a job in your company” to “I’d like your advice.”
  3. Avoid being very pushy about getting referrals and asking for a favor. It may be the only option if you are desperate. But, most folks will willingly suggest a referral if they think you are a good fit or feel a connection. You don’t have to force it out of them.
  4. Summarize/synthesize what they said, share next steps and thank them.

After the call:

  1. Follow up with a thank you email with what you took away from the call.
  2. If you did promise to “keep them posted” about the results of whatever you are doing, do follow up and keep them posted. Almost no one does this and it is a big wasted opportunity to build a relationship.

A call is a wonderful opportunity to make a connection. I’ve done a fair share of requesting for them and have made a ton of mistakes. I’ve also been fortunate to learn from folks who do a fantastic job with this process.

I hope you find it useful.

Technology and Humanity

I have an essay on our duty to connect Technology and Humanity over on Medium and LinkedIn.

I am still reflecting on some of the recent news showcasing the rampant sexism in the industry. My sense is that this has a lot to do around a “moral code” of sorts that has encouraged blind faith in money (via valuations and exits), disruption and technology.

But, technology won’t solve our problems and help us be better humans.

Only we can do that.

What great educators do

Great educators…

  1. …inspire us to be students for the rest of our lives. They do this by encouraging our curiosity, filling us with a love for learning and demonstrating that approaching life as a student can be very fulfilling. This is why the saying “Nine tenths of education is encouragement” is both wise and true.
  2. …equip us with tools that enable us to make sense of the world. We walk away with the ability to think about problems critically, to empathize with the people in it and to work with each other to create a better world.

We all play the role of educators when we advocate for our products and ideas.

What if we consistently behaved like great educators?

Omitting privilege

Last week, I shared a post on how intention, effort and luck combine to create successful projects. I realize now that I missed something important – privilege.

Privilege accumulated over the years determines the opportunities that are open to us. Once you are born into a family with means or are born in a place with lots of opportunity or are fortunate to get a good education or work experience at a top tier firm or two, you see opportunities that others never will. Privilege also shapes our intention, effort and the component of luck whose probability increases with thoughtful preparation.

This is easy to ignore and forget because you take this sort of privilege for granted.

I clearly did when I wrote about what makes projects successful last week. My updated sketch would look like the one below with privilege being the platform on which most success is built.

With privilege should come humility and responsibility. And, a first step to both is being aware of the presence of privilege in the first place.

Picking watermelons – a lesson in choices

If you were picking watermelons for the first time, it makes sense that you’d pick one that looks like this.

The color is beautiful, the lines look great and it looks unblemished.

But, it turns out such watermelons aren’t the watermelons you should look for.

The best watermelons have ugly-looking bald spots. These tell us that the watermelon was picked after it ripened as watermelons don’t ripen once picked. White bald spots are good, yellow spots are better and orange spots are the best.

This is counter intuitive as the appearance could easily lead us to conclude that the watermelon is spoilt.

As humans, we rely on appearances to make quick judgments about objects and people. Our lizard brain uses these judgments to choose a fight, flight or freeze response.

However, these responses were designed for when we lived in forests as hunter gatherers. There was danger lurking all around and these quick responses increased our chances of staying alive.

That isn’t true anymore. Thanks to our pre-frontal cortex, we have the time to seek to understand, deliberate and make better decisions. We can override our lizard brain if we choose to and get over impulses that instinctively bucket things based on their first appearances. In Daniel Kahneman’s words, we have the opportunity to use our more logical “system 2″ to make better decisions.

And, of course, this applies as much to how we judge and pick people as it does to watermelons.

Writing about the same things

I was reflecting about yesterday’s post on the “Don’t Do” list. While that is a new experiment whose results, by definition, are uncertain, I wondered why I didn’t try it in earnest when I first wrote about it five years ago.

I realized it is because I haven’t written about it enough.

Ideas I really care about appear on this blog many times over the years. A search for “Circle of influence”  or “Focus on process” shows many posts over the years that explore the topic from various angles. I’m still not an expert in either. But, I certainly am much better by virtue of thinking about them often, experimenting, failing and changing my approach.

This idea is the key to any kind of personal change. We need to obsess about the change, commit to it, keep trying various approaches, and keep re-committing to it.

And, writing about it many times over is an obvious signal that I care enough to obsess over it.

Here’s to writing more about the same things.