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Posted on: Tuesday, March 22, 2016 by Rajiv Popat

Knowing Yourself With Data - Part 1

When I finally patched together a couple of android applications with some custom code that would capture what I did with every minute of my awake time, push that information into a SQL database and then extract intelligent reports out of it, I was so darn excited that the first thing I did was show the system to my wife.

She smiles and thinks I am completely nuts and monitoring every minute of my life is a little too insane, even for a nerd like me. "Why would you want to monitor your time like that?" - she wonders. For me, as a geek though, the question isn't Why, the question is 'Why Not'. I love the idea of monitoring my time because:

  1. Now I can monitor how much time I spent getting ready to go to work, eating, working, watching TV, reading and even having fun. In the scheme of my life, time is one more dimension that I can now log into a system! How cool is that?
  2. I'm excited to find out what new insights and correlations about my life the data can provide me. For example, does the amount of time I spend in getting ready to get to work change based on when I wake up? If yes by exactly what percentage? What impact does that have on the amount of stress I experience when I start my day? What impact does that stress have on the number of productive pomodoro sessions I have for the rest of the day.
  3. I'm excited to find out how those insights will change me as a human being.

What can I say? I'm a typical nerd and I love my data.

My obsession with monitoring started with my very first endeavors with Fitness back in 2009 when an extremely skinny, underweight nerdy version of myself set a big hairy audacious goal of gaining 33 pounds of body weight in a year. It was about food and fitness logs back then. How much proteins was I taking in, how much cardio was I doing, how much strength training was I engaging in and how different combinations of cardio, strength, food and sleep were impacting my weight. I did eventually end up gaining 33 pounds in 11 months. Recently, when I started exceeding my BMI I used the same monitoring and lost 14 pounds in 2 months and have not gained the weight since. I discovered that as a nerd, what I can measure, dissect, read about, study and understand, I can improve.

My long life as a developer has taught me that big changes are all about profiling the right data and making small tweaks based on the insights the data provides. Almost every time you see a manager and a developer fighting over performance, the question to ask the developer is: Have you profiled your application? Do you know what's slowing down the system? OR are you just working on a hunch?

Hunches are great, when they lead you to an answer instantly. When they don't, they send you on a long trip to an infinite loop of random guesses. But collect enough data about your code, analyze it and you realize that the fix is usually a small change in a function which hits a database inside a for-loop or something really as simple as that. The fix itself isn't hard; gathering enough data about the issue and then deriving enough insights from that data that leads you to the fix, is.

For most Nerds, me included, it's the same thing when it comes to life.

Which is why when I started collecting data about my Finances and started recording every financial transaction in my life to the very last cent in a well designed system with apps and some basic reports I used on top of the data, my savings rate jumped by more than 50% in just 3 months.

Did my life style change significantly? Not really. We still eat out and we still spend money on things that matter to us. However, we realized that we were paying for over a hundred television channels me and my wife were never going to watch, that go-daddy was auto-renewing over 30 domains on my credit card that I never used and my bank was looting me by skimming off the interest rates of my investments. Well that and a dozen other holes that had been leaking hard earned money constantly for years.

They were all little things, but when the number totals up and you see those things add up to over 20% of your actual monthly savings, you have a reason to pick up the phone and cancel a few subscriptions. And when you do that and that results in considerable savings, you get the confidence to save more and then you defer buying that fancy new electronic toy that you don't really need by a few months - not because you can't afford it - but because it's not in your planned budget and you need to save up for it.

And then it gets exciting, because suddenly before you know it, you've added some new investment goals into the system and now you're tracking your progress towards those goals and your wife has also seen the data and is actively helping and supporting you in moving forward towards those goals, even when you are tempted to spend. That's what data does to you; especially if the insights the data gives you are clear and out in the open. 'I'm spending way too much on things I don't need' is nowhere close to as powerful as 'I'm spending x% of my income on things I don't need' especially when x is large.

Monitoring turns out to be so important that, Author Gretchen Rubin, has an entire chapter dedicated to monitoring in her book, "Better than before" (which happens to be book #3 of 52 books on my list this year) - where she explains the kind of impact monitoring can have on your behavior by giving her sister's example:

Elizabeth has type 1 diabetes, which means that her pancreas doesn't produce enough insulin. (In type 2 diabetes, which is far more common, the body produces insulin but doesn't react properly to it.) Without insulin, blood sugar can spike to dangerous, even life-threatening levels, so Elizabeth must give herself multiple daily insulin injections, and to inject herself correctly, she must know her blood sugar level.

For years, she'd tested her blood sugar by pricking her finger to check her blood, but she'd recently gotten a device inserted under her skin to monitor her blood sugar continuously. I wanted to know if she found the monitor effective.

"Monitoring is key," she said. "For years, I hated the idea of having a device attached to my stomach, but with diabetes, accurate tracking is so important that I finally caved. Now I can't imagine not having the monitor."

When she told me she was getting the device, I'd imagined that it might administer insulin directly, or tell her what she needed. Nope.

The monitor merely provides a continuous record of her blood sugar levels—but that information makes a big difference.

"Without a monitor, I might test my blood sugar ten times a day, but the monitor checks it constantly," she explained. "I know where my blood sugar is and where it's heading. Also, I know the effect of what I'm doing, so I can't kid myself. Like I was eating this frozen yogurt that claimed to be low-carb, but from the readings I got on my monitor, I know that can't be true."

"Even though the monitor doesn't actually do anything, seeing the numbers makes you behave differently?"

"For sure. Without a monitor, if I ate something questionable, I might unconsciously wait a few hours to test, so I'd get a better number, but that doesn't work with a monitor. I can't fool myself."

That's why the Strategy of Monitoring works so well: no more fooling ourselves. I decided to exploit it for my own habits. If I had a better handle on what I was doing, I could focus my habit-formation energy in the right place. I suspected that in certain areas, I was giving myself more credit for good habits than I deserved.

If you want to see the kind of impact real time monitoring can have, specially given the devices and the technology we have at our disposal today, take a look at Scott Hanselman's IoT demo on monitoring his sugar. Scott's excitement of the technology and the kind of insights that it can provide is a reflection of how any geek would react when he sees huge volumes of personal data analyzed to provide insights that you never had before.

As for my time monitoring system, I realized that the system still had a lot of manual entry points, which is why I wasn't consistent with it, but that failed attempt helped me monitor windows of my time that I really wanted to monitor and that in turn has actually made me a lot more productive than before. After all, some data is still better than none. And I am still working on a system that can monitor more and more of my time without me actively logging things.

The Point? Data collection on yourself and self monitoring isn't all about buying the hottest fitness band in market. It's about building systems which have the potential of providing you insights about yourself that you never had before. And then having the courage and conviction to change based on those insights.

In the posts to come in this series I'll try to document some of my efforts at monitoring my own life in near real time and showcase how I monitor aspects of my life, how I draw correlations between the data and how I tweak my life to bring about some of these changes.

Of course, in the larger scheme of things I'm just a data point of 1, I suck at Mathematics and I'm not even a social or a data scientist, but I hope these experiments inspire you to capture parts of your life that you feel are important and then tweak them ever so slightly to get huge benefits. That's what this series of posts is going to be about.

What aspects of your life are you monitoring actively with data? Of course if it's an area of your life that needs improvement you would know things are bad and if you know things are bad you can fix them, but sometimes, quantifying just 'how bad' things are is the nudge that we as nerds need to change things. And it can teach us things about ourselves that we thought we knew before, but we didn't.

After all, most of us aren't really as mindful as we think we are but we have the gift of data and of the many things data can do, one of the most powerful is brining you face to face with yourself.

posted on Tuesday, March 22, 2016 12:17:28 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Tuesday, March 8, 2016 by Rajiv Popat

Games People Play (Book 2 of 52).

I was introduced to Transactional Analysis by the book - "I'm OK. You're OK." - and after reading the book I was hooked and hungry for more information on the topic. Which nerd would not be interested in a branch of science that refers to verbal and non-verbal communication between people as transactions and then uses objective ways of analyzing these communications?

Games People Play takes off from where "I'm OK. You're OK." left off and is the natural "next read" of I'm-OK-You're-OK, specially if you're interested in Transactional Analysis as a topic.

Given the fact that  Eric Berne happens to be the father of Transactional Analysis, I had a lot of expectations from this book and this booked lived up to every single one of those expectations.

Apart from the concepts of the Parent Adult and Child (which I talked about in my previous post when talking about I-am-ok-you-are-ok) Eric covers the concept of pass-times that people indulge in and, as the title suggests, the games people play.

Games in TA are certain patterns of transactions (TA refers to both verbal and non-verbal communication between people as transactions) which recur repeatedly in every day life where the intentions of the transactions aren't very obvious.

Eric starts the book with an example of a game call NIGYSOB (Now I’ve Got You, You Son of a Bitch):

While his parents and their friends were drinking coffee at the kitchen table, Jonny, age five, ran in and out of the room, happily pulling his favorite truck behind. Suddenly, there was a crash in the living room, his mother found a glass vase knocked off the coffee table and shattered.

"Who did that?" she asked.

"Doggie," he replied.

Mother's neck reddened. She knew she had let the dog out five minutes before. Stepping forward she hit him saying, "I will not have a child who lies!"

It was obvious who broke the case. Consequently, Jonny's mother's question as to who broke the vase, while superficially an Adult request for information, was, at the psychological level, really an invitation for Jonny to lie - and he did.

As mother's neck reddened, she was switching ego states from Adult to Parent. Her payoff was a sudden surprise feeling of righteous wrath.

We would say that mother played the game of "Now I've Got You, You Son of a Bitch" (NIGYSOB). It should be noted, however, that she had not deliberately and consciously set out to "get" her son and to hit him.

On the contrary, she was quite distraught by the outcome. Jonny  for his part, played "Kick Me". If he had said, "I did it", there would have been no game.

The book goes on to describe not just dozens of games people play in every day life, but it gives each game an equally interesting name. The book makes you laugh, it makes you think and it makes you wonder about how predictable and similar we are as human beings. With every game Eric also talks about how you can choose not to play games and gives solid practical advice on building game-free relationships and eventually a game-free life.

While the book provides an entertaining insight into the games we play and even deeper insights into why we play them, it also nudges us to push the adult part of our brain to take control so that we can have a game-free mature existence.

All in all, a must read for anyone who is interested in becoming a better individual. A book that's much better than peppy self help books because it uses real life case-studies of people who have been given TA treatments to heal them and improve their relationships, personalities and life. If this was an Amazon Rating, I'd give this book a solid 4 out of 5.

posted on Tuesday, March 8, 2016 10:04:42 AM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Monday, January 18, 2016 by Rajiv Popat

I'm OK. You're OK. (Book 1 Of 52).

"I'm OK. You're OK" - was my very first book in the 52 book challenge for 2016. It was also my very first introduction to transactional analysis and to be honest, in-spite of the book being a heavy read, with a lot of theory, I enjoyed every single page of this book.

If you've never come across or read about transactional analysis this book is a perfect starting point to understanding what this branch of psychology is all about.

I personally found Transactional Analysis deeply interesting at different levels. I mean here is a bunch of nerds doctors referring to every interaction that happens between human beings (both verbal and non-verbal) as 'transactions' and then analyzing those 'transactions' to get deeper insights into the human mind, to build better relationships and to help individuals live a more balanced life. It's so... (for lack of a better word)... nerdy!

Here is a bunch of psychologists using cool and simple language to illustrate complicated aspects of the human brain that not just they, but their patients can understand. The following terms and words for example get a completely different meaning in transaction analysis:

  1. Parent - Unlike your biological parent, the word 'parent' in TA (transaction analysis) refers to the recording you as an infant or a baby captured from your parents and grown ups around you. These recordings can range from helpful things your biological parents and grown-ups around you taught you (e.g. 'Never tell a lie'), to your parent's own belief's and prejudices (e.g. 'all politicians are corrupt')  - things that your brain picked up when you were a toddler learning from your parents and grown ups all around you because you believed that 'they were ok; you were not' - the reason why you had to listen to them and learn so much from them. TA proposes that these recordings are deeply embedded in your brain and take over your interaction with others (i.e. your transactions) from time to time, throughout your life; sometimes in ways that are very subtle and even creepy.
  2. Child - Unlike your biological child, the word 'child' in TA refers to the part of your brain that is controlled by pure emotions. From that anger tantrum that you throw to that crazy hairstyle that you take up to revolt against authority, all constitutes the child taking over your transactions. The Child can be a ruckus creating personality that messes up your life, or the charming personality that attracts people towards you and sparks the fire of pure unadulterated fun!
  3. Adult - The 'adult' in TA, is the most interesting aspect of your mind. The peace maker between your parent and the child. The part of your brain that carefully and methodically examines the recordings in your parent, validates if they are right, modifies and accepts what is right and discards them if they have no relevance for you. e.g. 'Never tell a lie' is helpful because if makes you a better person but you will need to turn it to 'Don't lie unless its absolutely necessary'. On the other hand all politicians are not always corrupt and that fact was just a prejudice your dad had and will have to be tossed out. The 'adult' part of your brain does this validation and filtering. This part of your brain also has the capacity of making peace between your Parent and your Child; calming your child down and silencing your parent giving you a balanced healthy life. If your child can spark a relationship it takes an adult to keep the relationship alive for the long term. If your parent keeps you safe and unharmed it takes an adult, to calm down your parent and sometimes let your child play.

This Parent-Adult-Child (PAC) aspects of your brain are a major highlights of the book, which then goes into the positions your brain can take as different personalities of your brain take control of your transactions. For example:

  1. You're OK, I'm not - Usually happens when you are growing up; when your parents are telling you, 'don't do that!' - the book proposes that as a child, because the child has so much to learn while growing up, and because the grown ups / parents are teaching it constantly, it's very easy for the 'child' in an infant's mind to take the position - You're OK, I'm not.
  2. I'm OK, You're Not - As the infant grows up and matures the 'adult' in the brain starts verifying every recording recorded in the 'parent' section of the brain. If most of these recordings are validated as correct, the ones that are not correct can be easily overlooked as honest, well-intentioned mistakes and discarded. But if most of these recordings turn out to be wrong, the position changes to, I'm OK You're Not. Similarly in case of abusive parents, it's very easy for the child to move to a position of I'm OK, You're Not. The book describes some of the serious dangers of this position.

As the title suggests, the book is all about the adult part of your brain doing it's own discoveries and showcases rather interesting stories from the forefronts of psychological treatments where people slowly reach a state of mind where they are truly balanced; the - I'm OK, You're OK - stage. The stage of balanced existence where your mind is at peace with itself, with no inner conflicts and turmoil. A place where your Adult keeps your parent calm and lets your child play but in a very controlled safe environment.

This book is a classic example of why I personally like books on human psychology, behavioral science and neuroscience much more that typical self help books where the author assumes a 'you can do it' tone in a peppy pitch. The book has real life case studies, explanations of studies done in the area, examples, real conversations from real therapy sessions and practical advice on how each one of us can grow a more mature 'adult' that helps create peace and balance between the parent and child in our brain.

All told, It's a heavy read and you may need focused time to go through the book and take notes, but I personally highly recommend the book. There are some typos and grammar errors I picked up in the book, but the content of the book more that enough compensates for the mediocre editing. If this was an Amazon rating, I would give this book a 4 out 5 stars! All told, I highly recommend this book; especially if you are a nerd who likes to dissect and analyze data; dissecting and analyzing your 'transactions' with others can transformative!

posted on Monday, January 18, 2016 2:19:25 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
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]