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Posted on: Saturday, January 9, 2016 by Rajiv Popat

Brain Challenge: 52 New Books For 2016

After having finished a challenge for my body in 2015 where I ran two half marathons in the same month, the next goal I plan on setting for 2016 is hitting the gym at-least 4 days a week. But this post isn't about the body. It's about the mind.

Fitness and books; two things I spent my entire school life not liking and then as soon as I finished my school life and started my work life these exact same two things slowly became things that I fell in love with. I think this says something about our education system and how we introduce our students to topics like Fitness and reading but I'd rather not touch that topic today.

For the last few weeks I've been looking for something that challenges my mind and what would be more appropriate than a marathon for the mind after two half marathons for the body?

I've been looking this thread in Reddit and this post on Life Hacker about reading 52 books a year. We're not talking about skimming books. We're talking about reading a book cover to cover and relishing every page of the book. A book a week continuously for 52 weeks is nothing less than a marathon for the brain.

To make things even more interesting I will try to read all 52 non-fiction books which actively and creatively feed my mind with new knowledge, insights and information.

And I'll blog about most of what I read.

I do realize that a goal of this size is pretty similar and involved (if not more involved) than committing to running a marathon; which is why; as the year rolls over I've done considerable planning for this goal.

But how do you plan and prepare yourself for a fun goal like this?

Here's how:

  • You start by picking at-least 10 to 20 books that think you would love reading and put them on a list (personally I use a Google Keep checklist) - that way you have enough material to stop worrying about and constantly finding new books to read and you are good to go at-least for the first 2 to 3 months; which gives you enough time to find other connected books and add them to your list as you go.
  • You enroll either in library or find a source that would be able to provide you these books at a cheaper (or near free rate) with as little wait time as necessary. Preferably a library lets you carry two books at a time and keep them at-least for a period of two weeks. Or Kindle lending which again forces you to return the book in a week.
  • You need to budget for the books that you don't find anywhere if you plan on buying them; especially e-books and audiobooks. Save up for these books and keep that money aside so you don't have to think twice before buying books you can't find in a library or with cheaper Kindle sharing.
  • You need to start taking some active time out to do the reading.
  • You need to start carrying the books with you everywhere you go - either hard copies or start using your kindle or phone or tablet or your i-pod (for audio books) so that you can read in any idle time you find at work and in personal life.
  • You need to cut down on gossip time and learn not to take up useless commitments during the weekends.
  • You need to get into the habit of reading not just for the sake of reading but reading with deliberate practice so that you can learn from the book and then talk about the book. Read, learn, take notes, form opinions about the book,  share what you've learned from the book and practice active immersion as you try to put some of the ideas you pick up from each book into action in your own life.

Why take up a challenge of this sort? Well, this question has an answer which is very similar to how you would answer the question of why anyone chooses to run a half marathon, a full one or why anyone climbs a mountain.

It's hard, it's challenging and it has it's own intrinsic rewards.

When I committed to running a half marathon, I loved to run for a few miles every week. I've been doing that for years. For months I hesitated with the idea of committing to run a half marathon because I was scared that a commitment of that sort would take the fun out of running and turn it into a chore. On the other hand, what the goal actually did was completely different.

It made be a better runner. I learned how to push my body and my mind, to get myself out there and run on a schedule. I read about the science of running, the right forms, the right stride, the right techniques and I learned that sometimes, just pushing yourself to run, even when you are not in the mood, actually makes you feel really good once the endorphins, dopamine and serotonin kick in to take you through runners high.

By the time I hit the half marathon month, I was not focusing on finishing it but rather focusing on doing a good time and running better.  I ended up running two half marathons in two weeks rather than the one that I had initially planned. One was done with really good timing, the other wasn't all that great; but both were fun and both taught me things about my body and mind that I never knew before. From nipple chafing, to blisters, to cramps - as I tried to beat my own timings during practice, I learned the art and the science of respecting the limits of my body and then over-coming them slowly - not once, but twice in two week period.

I have both fun and serious goals and challenges set out for 2016. Reading 52 books in 52 weeks and learning something new from each of these books happens to be one of them. If you're an avid reader I encourage you to join the Reddit thread or any book club that does similar challenges and enjoy the pleasure of words as they transform your mind. If nothing else; I expect this challenge to be fun and to teach me things about my own mind that I never knew before.

What are some of your challenge fun challenges 2016? What are you planning on doing this year that is more than 'scratching the surface' of your capabilities and getting out of your house and your comfort zone? Hope you set high, interesting and fun-filled goals for the next year and you achieve more than what you actually set out to accomplish! Here's wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas and a very happy and prosperous 2016 ahead.

posted on Saturday, January 9, 2016 1:05:12 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Friday, August 14, 2015 by Rajiv Popat

The Fallacy Of Copying Successful People And The Outcome Bias.

Most of the self-help industry is built around a simple three step model:

  1. Find people who are insanely and consistently successful.
  2. Find out how they do things.
  3. Do what they do and do it exactly how they do it.

Put simply, use the "Monkey see, Monkey do!" approach to achieve success.

From 7 Habits of highly effective people to the Rich Dad Poor Dad; potentially any self help book that you bump into builds on the foundation of emulating or copying success from people who are hugely and consistently successful.

But success is not as simple as doing what others do. Author Rolf Dobelli describes this fallacy of copying successful people in his book "The Art of Thinking Clearly" which has huge sections dedicated on human fallacies. This specific bias is called the "Outcome bias" and it often results out of the fact that we tend to use outcomes to define and evaluate individuals and why they were successful. Rolf explains:

A quick hypothesis: Say one million monkeys speculate on the stock market. They buy and sell stocks like crazy and, of course, completely at random.

What happens?

After one week, about half of the monkeys will have made a profit and the other half a loss. The ones that made a profit can stay; the ones that made a loss you send home. In the second week, one half of the monkeys will still be riding high, while the other half will have made a loss and are sent home. And so on.

After ten weeks, about one thousand monkeys will be left—those who have always invested their money well. After twenty weeks, just one monkey will remain—this one always, without fail, chose the right stocks and is now a billionaire. Let’s call him the success monkey.

How does the media react? It will pounce on this animal to understand its "success principles." And they will find some: Perhaps the monkey eats more bananas than the others. Perhaps he sits in another corner of the cage. Or maybe he swings headlong through the branches, or he takes long, reflective pauses while grooming. He must have some recipe for success, right? How else could he perform so brilliantly? Spot-on for two years—and that from a simple monkey? Impossible!

The monkey story illustrates the outcome bias: We tend to evaluate decisions based on the result rather than on the decision process.

While there is nothing wrong in having role models and learning by emulating some of their approaches and styles it's also very important to realize that success looks very different in hindsight when it's backed by certainty of known past than it looks when it is clouded by the uncertainty of an unknown future.

It's easy for Steve Jobs to stand on a podium and connect the dots, and for us to listen in awe; even when he is connecting all the wrong dots!

It's hard to understand the fallacy of success and support logically stable approaches over the successful outputs. Rolf explains:

Another experiment: You must evaluate the performance of three heart surgeons. To do this, you ask each to carry out a difficult operation five times. Over the years, the probability of dying from these procedures has stabilized at 20 percent. With surgeon A, no one dies. With surgeon B, one patient dies. With surgeon C, two die. How do you rate the performances of A, B, and C? If you think like most people, you rate A the best, B the second best, and C the worst. And thus you’ve just fallen for the outcome bias.

You can guess why: The samples are too small, rendering the results meaningless. You can only really judge a surgeon if you know something about the field, and then carefully monitor the preparation and execution of the operation. In other words, you assess the process and not the result. Alternatively, you could employ a larger sample: one hundred or one thousand operations if you have enough patients who need this particular operation. For now it is enough to know that, with an average surgeon, there is a 33 percent chance that no one will die, a 41 percent chance that one person will die, and a 20 percent chance that two people will die. That’s a simple probability calculation. What stands out: There is no huge difference between zero dead and two dead.

Even when every probability 101 class teaches us that the odds of getting a heads remains 50% in each toss even if you are going to toss a coin a 100 times and the coin has already landed with a tails 99 times out of those hundred times; we still like to go back and look at past outcomes to forecast future performance of people, organizations and even our own endeavors when in reality, what we be doing is evaluating the approach to solving the problem; not the outcome. Put simply your systems are more important than your goals; and if your systems are correct, a failure or two hardly matters.

So the next time you pick up your favorite self-help book and the author plays the card of how he / she has studied successful people to write the book and how following the same approaches will bring you success, go on and read the book but take it with a grain of salt. Not because the author is full of crap, but because the well-meaning author has fallen prey  to a basic human fallacy and failed to understand success has too many variable components and even the people who are hugely successful don't understand the components that led to their success. Quite a few of these components, are, in reality, beyond your control.

In fact, the only two components of success that you can control, are: how you do your work and how much of it do you. In other words, place a lot of little bets and keep showing up!

By all means have role models and by all means emulate their behaviors if that makes you happier or more efficient. But when these role-models talk about the 'why' of their success don't take their speeches at face value because more often than not, even they don't know why they are successful! They're looking at success from hind-side and the story of success told from the perspective of hind-side often makes even a very successful story-teller fall prey to the outcome bias; irrespective of how well intentioned the story teller is. And when it comes to evaluating people - remember - you can fail at everything and still win big!

posted on Friday, August 14, 2015 7:13:12 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Thursday, July 16, 2015 by Rajiv Popat

Output Vs. Input

Your workplace has two kinds of people. People who provide inputs and people who produce outputs.

That extroverted manager who gives you opinions on the document you worked really hard to prepare; is giving you his inputs. Ask the same person to produce an output - an end to end project working prototype, a design document, working code --- anything and you'll see a blank face staring at a computer screen for hours.

For someone who has spent his or her whole life giving inputs, producing outputs is hard. These people aren't incompetent or idiots. Some of them are actually smart. But producing outputs require a completely different mindset compared to giving inputs. Smart isn't enough.

Inputs are unorganized; chaotic; random --- they are hit and miss. You can give us a hundred inputs and ninety-nine of those might be really lousy. When giving inputs you can get away with that because the guys producing the final output will edit out all your bad ideas and make your good ideas shine.

Outputs are coherent, edited and structured --- they are a reflection of a persistent mind and dedicated effort. To produce output you have to focus, work hard and edit ruthlessly. When you are producing output you will be judged by many (sometimes even millions) who will give you their random inputs.

Instant publishing is an input. A structured blog post - an output. Random ideas on design are inputs; a design implementation - an output. Audiences give inputs; Artists --- create output. The question is, what will you give to the world? Inputs or outputs?

posted on Thursday, July 16, 2015 9:24:13 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Saturday, July 4, 2015 by Rajiv Popat

The Power Of Pattern Recognition In Health And Wellness

What do you do you do when you find yourself sliding down the slippery slope of living an irregular life style where you have very little control over your own health and life? Or what do you do when you find yourself diagnosed with a disease that has the potential of killing you slowly and steadily if left completely ignored. What would you do if the doctor was to tell you in no-uncertain terms that you'd better change your life style or you will kill yourself in the long term?

Any sensible person with an iota of human intelligence would say - you change your life-style and do what the doctor is asking you to do. And yet, 9 out of 10 people who are given these warnings by their well meaning physicians return to their irregular life-style in less than 3 months and in doing so, choose death over change.

Change is hard; change is complicated and unlike traditional beliefs change doesn't happen by exhaustive use of will-power, which by the way is a limited resource to begin with. Change, is all about pattern recognition. As Nerds and computer programmers that should come naturally to us because pattern recognition is a part of what we do. Every time you write a loop in your code you've analyzed and found a pattern of instructions that can be repeated with variable elements thrown in the mix. Every time you write a base-class that a child class will inherit you've spotted a pattern. Every design pattern you use is in the right situation is a testament to your pattern recognizing brain. Recognizing patterns is what we do for a living.

If we can build systems that are powered by patterns and that run and control mission critical environments why can't we as geeks, see our own bodies as systems and take control of our own bodies and life-styles?

In his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Dilbert creator Scott Adams talks about his fight with Focal Dystonia:

My time windows for drawing were always compressed, which put a lot of pressure on my drawing hand. The overuse took its toll, and my pinkie finger started to spasm whenever I touched pen to paper, making it nearly impossible to draw.

I met with the doctor and he diagnosed me in minutes. I had something called a focal dystonia, common to people who do repetitive tasks with their hands, primarily musicians, draftsmen, and that sort of job. It wasn’t carpal tunnel. This was different.

"What’s the cure?" I asked.

"Change jobs," he said. "There’s no known treatment."

I walked out of the doctor’s office with my life demolished. My dream of being a cartoonist for the rest of my life was over unless I found a way to be the first person in the world to beat a focal dystonia.

What were the odds of that?

Scott goes on to describe his fight with the disease one round after another; for months; and how the disease seemed to win every round:

Realistically, what were my odds of being the first person on earth to beat a focal dystonia? One in a million? One in ten million? I didn’t care. That one person was going to be me. Thanks to my odd life experiences, and odder genes, I’m wired to think things will work out well for me no matter how unlikely it might seem.

At a follow-up visit, the doctor asked if I would be willing to try a few experimental treatments, joining some other human guinea pigs he was working with. I agreed. For weeks I tried various hand exercises, went to a physical therapist, tried meditation, galvanic skin-response feedback, self-hypnosis, and anything else that seemed like it made a grain of sense. Nothing worked, not even a little.

Meanwhile I tried to draw Dilbert left-handed, which I could do with a lot of effort. I’m mildly ambidextrous, but drawing is a high level of difficulty for the non-dominant hand. I could tell that drawing lefty wouldn’t be a long-term solution.

My drawings were extra terrible for a few months during that period.

I also tried strapping down my pinkie, but that had the odd effect of making the rest of my hand dysfunctional. And it hurt like crazy. I lost the ability to write simple notes using pen on paper, which was obviously inconvenient at my day job.

While the disease kept winning for months Scott, like any true nerd was trying hard to analyze the patterns of the disease. He tells his story of him trying to recognize patterns:

Oddly, the pinkie spasms happened only during the specific motions involved in writing or drawing. Otherwise my hand was 100 percent normal. Weirder still, when I drew with my left hand, the pinkie on my right hand would spasm, so obviously the wiring in my brain was the problem, not the architecture of my hand. My experience was consistent with the doctor’s research. None of the people who have focal dystonias seem to have anything abnormal in the structure of their hands. It seems to be some sort of short circuit in the brain.

And once Scott had started recognizing the patterns of the disease he set out to fight it by his very own little experiments:

At my day job, as I sat through endless boring meetings, I started practicing my drawing motion by touching my pen to paper and then pulling up before the spasm started. I tapped the page hundreds of times per meeting under the table on the notepad on my lap. My idea was to rewire my brain gradually, to relearn that I can touch pen to paper and not spasm. I was literally trying to hack my brain.

In the book Scott goes on to explain his on-going fight with the disease that was keeping him from being in profession he loved and how he eventually won the fight; not by will-power, not by positive thinking; but by systematically dissecting his own disease and persistently rewiring his own brain to overcome it. He explains:

Over the next several weeks I noticed I could hold my pen to paper for a full second before feeling the onset of a pinkie spasm. Eventually it was two seconds, then five. One day, after I trained myself to hold pen to paper for several seconds without a spasm, my brain suddenly and unexpectedly rewired itself and removed the dystonia altogether. Apparently I broke the spasm cycle and reinforced the non-spasm association.

And so I was the first person in the world to cure a focal dystonia, at least as far as I know. It’s entirely possible that I’m wrong about that, since I can’t know what everyone else is doing or what worked for them. Still, it was an unlikely result.

I went back to drawing right-handed, paced myself, and didn’t have a problem again for years. My hand doctor said I’m part of the literature on this topic now, although my name is not mentioned.

The book describes another fight that Scott raged with spasmodic dysphonia and how he managed to win that fight too using pretty much the same techniques.

I'm not suggesting that you try to fix your diseases yourself but as nerds, how difficult is it for us to see our body as a system, analyze and listen to the signals it gives us and dissect the underlying patterns? How difficult is it for us to hack our minds and re-wire our brains to cultivate habits of a healthier life-style? As nerds, when we can see our work life as a system with finite rules and we push those rules to their limits every day with our code, why can't we understand the patterns of our own bodies and push our own brains to their limits too? Are you overweight? Underweight? Struggling with obesity? High blood pressure? Diabetes? Cholesterol or... just simple stress? It's time to let the geek in you take charge; do the research and revamp your life-style to keep you fit, moving and above all --- happy. I wish you good luck.

posted on Saturday, July 4, 2015 7:08:22 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Thursday, June 18, 2015 by Rajiv Popat

Systems Vs. Goals.

Most self help gurus seem to give a lot of stress on the idea of setting Goals. The basic premise behind the argument being that if you don't know where you want to get to, how can you get there.

Most real life productivity however, doesn't work on goals. For instance, you don't wake up every morning and get ready to go to office because you want to go on that world tour with your family ten years from today.

You don't push yourself out of the bed because you want to live in billion dollar home twenty years from now. We get up and go to work because we have internalized a system; we know working makes us feel better about our selves, pays us and eventually moves us forward emotionally, psychologically and financially. Your holiday plans 10 years from now is a goal; your getting up every morning and showing up is a system.

While in some short term cases goals might be good; in more cases than not (particularly long term) goals are in-fact counter productive. Try to think of your salary and payouts every time you sit down to write code and I'll be surprised if you can get anything done.

A few years ago, in a small startup a couple of colleagues and I started out with a new client who would remind us before every sprint rollout, that if he slipped out timelines we would not get paid. That's when we realized how counterproductive your goals can become for you; especially if you are thinking about them all the time. To do awesome work you need a system that literally protects your daily work from the stress of your goals.

In his excellent, witty and well written book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams talks about the downsides of setting goals:

To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. That feeling wears on you. In time, it becomes heavy and uncomfortable. It might even drive you out of the game.

If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent pre-success failure.

In his book Scott draws a very interesting distinction between a goal and a system:

A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.

Language is messy, and I know some of you are thinking that exercising every day sounds like a goal. The common definition of goals would certainly allow that interpretation. For our purposes, let’s agree that goals are a reach-it-and-be-done situation, whereas a system is something you do on a regular basis with a reasonable expectation that doing so will get you to a better place in your life. Systems have no deadlines, and on any given day you probably can’t tell if they’re moving you in the right direction.

Needless to say that Scott, is a promoter of systems over goals and has very compelling reasons for promoting the idea of using systems over goals in your life. In his book he argues that virtually every success stories around the globe has a system supporting it; not a goal. Scott explains:

Consider Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. It’s apparent that his system for success involved studying hard, getting extraordinary grades, going to a top college—in his case Harvard—and developing a skill set with technology that virtually guaranteed riches in today’s world. As it turns out, his riches came quickly through the explosive growth of Facebook. But had that not worked out, he would likely be a millionaire through some other start-up or just by being a highly paid technical genius for an existing corporation. Zuckerberg’s system (or what I infer was his system) was almost guaranteed to work, but no one could have imagined at the time how well.

Warren Buffett’s system for investing involves buying undervalued companies and holding them forever, or at least until something major changes. That system (which I have grossly oversimplified) has been a winner for decades. Compare that with individual investors who buy a stock because they expect it to go up 20 percent in the coming year; that’s a goal, not a system. And not surprisingly, individual investors generally experience worse returns than the market average.

According to Scott, For something to be a system it needs to follow three simple criteria:

  1. You do that thing every day; so much so that it is internalized.
  2. It is carefully thought so that a reasonable person expects it to work more often than not - e.g. Working out daily is a system; buying a lottery ticket every day isn't.
  3. The system will generally take you forward and even though the velocity of the move can be drastically affected by luck; you generally keep moving forward while following a system; even without a lot of luck.

I've personally never liked the idea of setting goals; and in world where every business book out there seems to echo the same goal stereotypes, the idea of building systems over goals in nothing less than a breath of fresh air.

So the next time you are setting a goal for yourself try to replace that with a system. Who know, with a little bit of luck thrown in the mix you might go way beyond your goals; and even if you don't, you will be actually much more relaxed and much less stressed out compared to the sword of meeting goals within specific timelines pointed at you all the time.

posted on Thursday, June 18, 2015 7:24:16 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Friday, June 12, 2015 by Rajiv Popat

Busting Self Help Cliches with Data And Science.

Most self-help books contain scientifically non-verifiable advice of how to be successful in life dispensed by self-help gurus who became successful in life by dispensing advice that was --- scientifically non verifiable.

Over a period of time the Self-Help industry has created clichés that have often done as much harm as they have done good. I can't even begin to guess just how many entrepreneurs burn their hands trying out the whole 'follow your passion' cliché pushed out by self help books around the globe.

The power of positive thinking is another such cliché. Most self help books out there seem to recommend that readers should push negative thoughts out of their brains and focus on positive thoughts. It's one of those ideas that was articulately written in one self-help book; which sold a million copies because the audience liked the sound of it. Because it sold a million copies other self-help authors echoed the advice and very soon the entire self-help industry was pushing the cliché as an inevitable truth of the universe with very little science or evidence to support the hypothesis. 

In his rather scientific book, 59 seconds - Think a little, change a lot, Professor Richard Wiseman talks at-length the kind of negative impact these non-scientific feel-good hypothesis can have. He explains:

The problem is that the advice offered in some self-help books and courses is at odds with the results of scientific research. Take, for example, the power of positive thinking. Does the road to happiness really depend on people’s being able to simply push negative thoughts out of their mind? Actually, research suggests that such thought suppression may be far more likely to increase, rather than decrease, misery. In the mid-1980s Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner chanced upon an obscure but intriguing quote from Dostoyevsky’s Winter Notes on Summer Impressions: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Wegner decided to carry out a simple experiment to discover if this was true. Each person from a group of willing volunteers was made to sit alone in a room and told to think about anything, but NOT to imagine Dostoyevsky’s white bear. Everyone was then asked to ring a bell each time the banned bear sprang to mind. Within moments a cacophony of bells indicated that Dostoyevsky was right—attempting to suppress certain thoughts makes people obsess on the very topic that they are trying to avoid.

Richard goes on to explain how these ideas like forced positivity thinking (which are not tested, backed by science or any research what so ever) can actually end up doing more harm than good in the real world:

Other work has shown how this effect operates in real life, with one study, conducted by Jennifer Borton and Elizabeth Casey at Hamilton College in New York State, providing a dramatic demonstration of how it influences people’s moods and self-esteem.8 Borton and Casey asked a group of people to describe their most upsetting thought about themselves. The researchers then had half of the group spend the next eleven days trying to push this thought out of their minds, while the remaining participants were asked to carry on with life as usual. At the end of each day, everyone indicated the degree to which they had dwelled upon their upsetting thought, and rated their mood, anxiety level, and self-esteem. The results were conceptually similar to those obtained by Wegner’s “white bear” experiment. The group attempting to actively suppress their negative thoughts actually thought more about them. Compared to those going about their business as usual, the suppression group also rated themselves as more anxious, more depressed, and having lower self-esteem. More than twenty years of research have demonstrated that this paradoxical phenomenon occurs in many different aspects of everyday life, showing, for example, that asking dieters not to think about chocolate causes them to consume more of it and asking the public not to elect fools to positions in government encourages them to vote for George Bush.

The point here isn't that forced positive thinking can do you more harm than good. The point here also isn't that 95% of all self help books out there are bullshit. The point I'm trying to make is completely different.

As geeks we have an intimate relationship with data. We deal with it in huge quantities; we build tools to visualize it; we manage it, we gather it, we find it and we draw conclusions from it. As professionals we are also fairly scientific. We probably exercise more cause-effect relationship and pattern finding in our lives than any other group of professionals on this planet. Every conversation we have with our compiler through our code is built on this cause effect relationship. Every bug we debug builds on the same foundation.

Like it or not science and data are two best tools that we as geeks have at our disposal - even when it comes to our own personal development; and if you aren't using the best tools at your disposal by questioning every self-help book, tip or advice that you come across; how are you really developing yourself?

If asking questions has been the time-tested way of growing for human species, just why do we let our self help gurus off the hook by accepting and following advice that is neither true nor scientifically verifiable? Why don't we ask for evidence and proof of effectiveness for every idea that we adapt in our lifestyle?

After all, the general appeal, popularity or feel good factor of a typical, safe, well accepted idea has no direct correlation to it's correctness; and if we as geeks and nerds don't question the validity of the ideas thrown at us, who will?

So the next time someone throws an idea that you think of adapting in your life - don't forget to check what the science and data surrounding that idea tells you. As a geek that's not just your responsibility; it's how you live you life.

posted on Friday, June 12, 2015 6:22:00 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Wednesday, June 10, 2015 by Rajiv Popat

Fake It Till You Become It.

I've talked about how a lot of programmers and artists go through the imposter syndrome - or put simply, feel like phonies.

While it's easy to cringe at words like Phony or Fake which seem to carry inherent negative connotation; it's hard to ask more honest and introspective questions about the realities of being a phony or faking it.

Scientists for example know that the mere act of faking a smile by sticking a pencil between your teeth; makes you rate a cartoon funnier than it is. Social Scientists also know that synthetic fake happiness can be just as real as real happiness.

If Faking it is so beneficial, why don't we embrace it?

Amy Cuddy, talks about the science of faking it till you become it in her popular TED Talk but what is even more interesting than the science is her own story of faking her way to becoming successful in her academic career. She explains:

When I was 19, I was in a really bad car accident. I was thrown out of a car, rolled several times. I was thrown from the car. And I woke up in a head injury rehab ward, and I had been withdrawn from college, and I learned that my I.Q. had dropped by two standard deviations, which was very traumatic. I knew my I.Q. because I had identified with being smart, and I had been called gifted as a child. So I'm taken out of college, I keep trying to go back. They say, "You're not going to finish college. Just, you know, there are other things for you to do, but that's not going to work out for you." So I really struggled with this, and I have to say, having your identity taken from you, your core identity, and for me it was being smart, having that taken from you, there's nothing that leaves you feeling more powerless than that. So I felt entirely powerless. I worked and worked, and I got lucky, and worked, and got lucky, and worked.

Eventually I graduated from college. It took me four years longer than my peers, and I convinced someone, my angel advisor, Susan Fiske, to take me on, and so I ended up at Princeton, and I was like - "I am not supposed to be here!" - "I am an impostor!" - And the night before my first-year talk (the first-year talk at Princeton is a 20-minute talk to 20 people -That's it) - I was so afraid of being found out the next day that I called her and said, "I'm quitting." - and she was like, "You are not quitting, because I took a gamble on you, and you're staying. You're going to stay, and this is what you're going to do. You are going to fake it. You're going to do every talk that you ever get asked to do. You're just going to do it and do it and do it, even if you're terrified and just paralyzed and having an out-of-body experience, until you have this moment where you say, 'Oh my gosh, I'm doing it. Like, I have become this. I am actually doing this.'" So that's what I did.

In her video with an emotional end Amy describes how she not only used the "fake it till you become it" hypothesis for her own advantage but also used it to uplift another student.

It's easy to attach negativity to words like Phony and Fake - but it is when you embrace these words and dissect their true power and potential - that you realize how being a fake or phony can actually be empowering; especially if you keep showing up and continue to fake it till you become it.

posted on Wednesday, June 10, 2015 8:41:07 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Monday, June 8, 2015 by Rajiv Popat

Cookie Cutter Vs. Improvised Support

Why does every call center have to sound, look and feel like all other call centers? Why does ever support call from practically all companies out there, has to look, feel and sound like the support call from all other companies?

When Tony Hsieh started out with Zappos the idea was to build call centers with no scripts and empowered employees who would go out of their way to help customers even  in situations where they really didn't have to help. In his book delivering happiness Tony explains the power of having something as simple as a support team that would really support customers and be nice to them:

A lot of people may think it’s strange that an Internet company is so focused on the telephone, when only about 5 percent of our sales happen through the telephone. In fact, most of our phone calls don’t even result in sales. But what we’ve found is that on average, every customer contacts us at least once sometime during his or her lifetime, and we just need to make sure that we use that opportunity to create a lasting memory.

The majority of phone calls don’t result in an immediate order. Sometimes a customer may be calling because it’s her first time returning an item, and she just wants a little help stepping through the process. Other times, a customer may call because there’s a wedding coming up this weekend and he wants a little fashion advice. And sometimes, we get customers who call simply because they’re a little lonely and want someone to talk to.

In his book, Tony goes on to describe the kind of powerful experiences truly empowered support staff can create in the minds of the customers:

I’m reminded of a time when I was in Santa Monica, California, a few years ago at a Skechers sales conference.

After a long night of bar-hopping, a small group of us headed up to someone’s hotel room to order some food. My friend from Skechers tried to order a pepperoni pizza from the room-service menu, but was disappointed to learn that the hotel we were staying at did not deliver hot food after 11:00 PM. We had missed the deadline by several hours.

In our inebriated state, a few of us cajoled her into calling Zappos to try to order a pizza. She took us up on our dare, turned on the speakerphone, and explained to the (very) patient Zappos rep that she was staying in a Santa Monica hotel and really craving a pepperoni pizza, that room service was no longer delivering hot food, and that she wanted to know if there was anything Zappos could do to help.

The Zappos rep was initially a bit confused by the request, but she quickly recovered and put us on hold. She returned two minutes later, listing the five closest places in the Santa Monica area that were still open and delivering pizzas at that time.

Now, truth be told, I was a little hesitant to include this story because I don’t actually want everyone who reads this book to start calling Zappos and ordering pizza. But I just think it’s a fun story to illustrate the power of not having scripts in your call center and empowering your employees to do what’s right for your brand, no matter how unusual or bizarre the situation.

As for my friend from Skechers? After that phone call, she’s now a customer for life.

You would think that Zappos succeeding with this innovative idea for support would prompt other companies to step up and change their support centers; but in the larger scheme of things, support still remains a cookie cutter solution based industry.

I continue to be absolutely amazed at how really small startups who can support their customers with two cell phones; go out of their way to setup up these elaborate automated voice systems which leads their customers through countless 'Press X to do Y' options.

I continue to be amazed how not one support center actually has a well defined way to route your call to the same executive instead of having to repeat your problem / story to a different executive every single time you call up regarding the same incident.

What made Zappos support work was that it wasn't cookie cutter. It was improvised. But improvisation is hard. Improvisation takes serious effort. And improvisation is risky. Cookie cutter support however is easy; cookie cutter is well established; and cookie cutter is safe... which by the way are  exactly the qualities that make it, risker than risky

posted on Monday, June 8, 2015 7:49:16 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]