Sunday, May 20, 2018

Clarity is action: My favorite mindfulness principle

"What should I do now?" is a question that pops up every now and then as we navigate this complex world. Many times we find ourselves in tricky situations with respect to relationships, parenting, career choices, investment decisions etc. In this article, I would like to explore one of my favorite principles on mindfulness “Clarity is action” which might shed some light on this dilemma. It is counterintuitive and quite different from what we experience every day. Let’s begin with a visual example.

Imagine you are walking through the woods where the path is paved with dried leaves. And suddenly you sense slight movement a few steps ahead of you. Most likely, you are going to stop walking and watch the path in front more carefully. To get an idea, please check the image by enlarging it and try to spot a snake. In case you spot a snake while walking, you are likely to alter your path. Even if you are a herpetologist who studies snakes, you might slow down and trade your path slowly in order to study the snake. When you don’t even hear any rustle, however, you would continue to walk the same way.

The clarity about the presence of a snake in your path instantaneously results in a different action. This is what the principle “clarity is action” is trying to point at. When the meaning associated with the current situation changes, the new meaning expresses itself in a different action. In this walk-in-the-wood example, the new action may mean stopping to walk and looking around for something fishy. The action may involve new movements inside the body e.g. increasing the heartbeat, secretion of some hormones etc.

Now, let’s look at what the hypothesis is not saying. One, it doesn’t say, “Clarity follows action”. i.e. it doesn’t say that a certain action leads to clarity. For example, it says that in the image of the woods above, if you don’t spot the snake at first, there is no specific action which can guarantee you see the snake. Of course, certain annotations in the picture may help one see the snake. But that is not guaranteed. That is true of all the optical illusions. A shift of perception happens, you can’t make it happen. Second, it doesn’t say, “Action follows clarity” i.e. It doesn’t say that first, you should have clarity and then you should ask a question, “What do I do next?” Once there is clarity, action has already begun.

Now, let’s extend the snake example to the no-snake situation. Let’s say we spot a couple of snakes on our way and now we are paranoid about seeing a snake every now and then. In fact, we might start seeing a snake where there is no snake. But if we are constantly thinking, “What if there is a snake here?” Then that would make the walk very difficult. It might paralyze us. The alertness while walking is useful but the panic that every small sound creates is dysfunctional.

Well, whenever we worry about a situation, say about faring poorly in an exam, then our situation could be similar to the no-snake paranoia situation. The worry is ultimately associated with the damage to the self-image in case of a poor performance – what will my parents say? What will society say? etc. The imagined presence of a snake is similar to the impending damage to the self-image. Unless there is clarity about what this self-image really is, our action may continue to be dysfunctional.

Hence, mindfulness is a process of learning to see what is real and what is not. There is no formula for learning. Every “snake” that generates fear in our mind is an excellent opportunity to learn and see clearly. And once the self-image is seen clearly for what it really is, then nothing further is needed to be done. Because that clarity expresses itself through appropriate action. So one way to resolve the question "What should I do now?" is to go to the source of the anxiety which underlies the question and look for the "snake". 

Notes:
1.      Image source: Snake hiding in the jungle was sourced from huffingtonpost.com.au. The article attributes the photo to Twitter / @SSSNAKEYSCI / Jerry Davis.

2.      I encountered the phrase “clarity is action” in the book “Commentaries on living” by Jiddu Krishnamurti, volume 1, Chapter 71 titled “Clarity in action”. Another phrase similar to this phrase is “Meaning is being” used by David Bohm in the article “Meaning and information”. It is also explored by David Bohm's interview by Renee Weber titled "A change of meaning is a change of being".

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Reading, fast and slow

I read books regularly, but I don’t consider myself a voracious reader. This year (2018), I have read two books so far. That means reading one book in two months.  That’s not a lot. However, when I teach a class or facilitate a workshop, it creates an impression that I read a lot. Sometimes after my session, some participants ask me for book suggestions. Occasionally, I get a question, “Can you give some tips on how to increase the speed of reading?” This has triggered following question: Is it really important to read fast? This is what we explore here.

I first realized the difference in reading speeds when I started using in-class reading material. Most of my workshop participants are working professionals with 10+ years of experience. They find it difficult to read a 20-page case study as a pre-reading.  Moreover, my teaching style does not require recreating the market context so I create two-three page caselets which participants read in the class. When some participants finish reading the case, a few others would not have finished even half. There could easily be a difference of 2 to 3x in fastest and slowest reader in every class. So, in some sense, reading speed matters. But how much?

When I look at my reading style, I see two modes of reading, fast and slow. When I read Easterine Kire’s “When the river sleeps” last month, it was read in the fast mode. However, when I read Isaac Newton’s biography last year, it was read in the slow mode. What exactly is the difference between these two modes?
Actually, the difference isn’t much while reading. Since I read both these books on Kindle, the slow mode involves highlighting and adding notes, a feature kindle provides. But what happens after I finish reading makes a bigger difference. For some books, I re-read part of the book; I write notes in a notebook and sometimes create mind maps. I check out the interviews of the author especially in the context of the book. I read what other reviewers are saying especially to see which part of the book appealed to them. I typically try to pen down anything that surprised me.

In the past few years, the two books which resulted in “slowest reads” are Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, fast and slow” and David Bohm’s “Thought as a system”. I read Bohm’s book four times in a span of one year. For both these books, I created detailed mind maps. Bohm’s book is a transcript of a weekend seminar and the audio recording of most of the seminar is available on the Internet. I listened to the 4 or more hours of audio 3-4 times. I have been listening to Kahneman’s talks / interviews since 2008 i.e. three years before “Thinking, fast and slow” was published. I have listened to Kahneman’s talk at UC Berkeley “Explorations of the mind” published on YouTube 10 years ago at least a dozen times in the past ten years.

In short, the slow reading involves a fairly deep reflection on what the author is trying to say. It usually means creating a few hypotheses that are contrary to the beliefs I have held so far. It further involves creating experiments to test and re-test these hypotheses. Slowly some of this gets added as teaching material in the workshop. I also end up writing multiple blogs when I am reading slow.
The boundary between fast and slow reading is not always that stark. The novel that I read sometimes puts me in a reflective mode without being aware of it. When the story doesn’t go out of my mind, I usually end up writing something about it.

Have you read any book in the slow mode lately?

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Why do we have more exit interviews than stay interviews?


Most of us are familiar with exit interviews. But how many of us recall a stay interview? It is an interview in which someone is curious about why you have been staying with the company for so long. Why do we have more exit interviews than stay interviews? Could it because we have an inherent bias for dark spots (areas where things are not working) as compared to the bright spots (areas where things are working)? If so, are we losing out on a valuable source of ideas? That is what we will explore in this article.

I have owned a data card ever since I started my independent consulting practice more than a decade ago. Initially, it came in the form of a flat card that I used to insert in the PCMCI slot on my laptop. After a few years, it changed its form and became a dongle to be inserted into the USB port. I stayed with the same telecom operator for over a decade and the only time I got a call from someone was when I switched my operator a few months back. The person on the other end was curious why I was leaving. I had already bought a wifi hotspot from their competitor and had no interest spending time in explaining things. All I was looking for was a hassle-free exit. What use was the exit interview?

Of course, not everybody may be like me. I am sure some exit interviews do yield valuable information. However, stay interviews could also be at least as valuable if not more. This bias for exit interviews could be a manifestation of a more general bias most of us have towards dark spots – problem areas. Bright spot principle is powerful and yet counter-intuitive. It says that there is likely to be a seed of the solution in the same area where there is a problem. It would mean following:
  • If customer attrition is a problem, then paying attention to staying customers may give a clue.
  • If lack of individual student attention is a problem, then there are some classes or some teachers who are within the same environment and paying more individual attention. How? That may give a clue.
  • If you don’t like your job (a problem) then those moments in your office which give you a joy (bright spots) may give you a clue where you may want to focus.

Here is an exercise with science degree college teachers where they explored solutions to the problem “How to give individual attention in the class?” The class size was large – 70 to 100 students. Some teachers felt strongly that in a class of such size it is not possible to give individual attention. However, when they were asked to list bright spot – things they are already doing at least in some classes, at least on a few occasions, a number of ideas came up. One can see the ideas in the picture below. Teachers realized that there is so much to learn from each other.



Some of the ideas that are listed here are:
  • Asking questions to students
  • Walking around in the class
  • Taking suggestions from students in making the class interesting
  • Listening to individual students about their previous class

To summarize, following a bright spot is a powerful principle which nudges us to pay attention to what is working already. It brings attention to what is possible and moves attention away from a feeling that it is not possible. Who knows? Perhaps all that matters in moving from inaction to action is this “possibility”.

Notes:

1.      Bright spot principle is at the heart of the psychotherapy “Solution focused brief therapy” and also the community intervention approach “Positive deviance”. It is also highlighted in the book “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath. You may want to watch this Dan Heath’s YouTube video (3:35 minutes) titled “How to find bright spots?

2.      “How to get individual attention in class?” problem was one of the challenges identified by science degree teachers of Government colleges at a design thinking workshop I facilitated in Agastya International Foundation’s Kuppam campus earlier this year.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A journey from resistance to acceptance of “what is” in the short film “Afterglow”

Many times we are resisting the current situation. Perhaps something has changed; we have lost something we are fond of. Or thought has imagined a scenario where we are likely to lose something and we don’t like this imagined scenario. Or someone said something to us which has hurt us etc. This resistance to “what is” manifests itself in different forms – sadness, anxiety, fear, blame, guilt etc. This continues for a while until the resistance drops off. Perhaps the changed or imagined situation is no longer that threatening. This is also referred to as acceptance.

The award-winning short film “Afterglow” directed by Kaushal Oza beautifully depicts this journey from resistance to acceptance. The story involves a widow coping with the death of her loving husband. It uses two symbols through which this transition from resistance to acceptance unfolds – paaghri (groom’s headgear) and the lamp which is welcoming the departed soul.

Sometimes a question gets raised, “Does acceptance mean inaction?” That’s not how I understand it. Acceptance involves dropping off of inner resistance. In Afterglow, there was an inner resistance to letting go of the paaghri. And then at one point, it drops off and that results in an act of giving the paaghri away to someone who would find it useful.

There are a few YouTube comments on this video where they ask, “Did she die at the end?” That is not my understanding. She didn’t physically die. However, it is a different kind of dying. She died to the idea that her husband or his soul must always be with her. This dying is accompanied by inner peace.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Rango's "Who am I?" journey from "I could be anyone" to "I'm nobody"



I have been fascinated by the concept of self-deception. I feel understanding self-deception is at the heart of mindfulness. Hence, I keep looking for metaphors depicting self-deception. This is one of my favorites.

Rango is a lonely lizard. However, he likes to imagine himself surrounded by friends and he always plays the hero. As luck would have it, Rango accidentally kills a hawk and actually becomes a hero. The town makes him sheriff and Rango begins to enjoy playing the real hero. 

Luck favors him for some time and Rango begins to believe that he is successful due to his effort and talent - a classic case of self-deception. Until one day his coward self is exposed by Rattlesnake Jake and Rango is asked to leave the town. This is a turning point for Rango and it triggers a process of awakening for him.

I don't know about you but I have been in situations where people around you start calling you successful. And it is so tempting to attribute the so-called success to oneself. Hence, to carry an awareness and, like Rango, see that "I am nobody" is difficult. However, that awareness is an essential part of being mindful.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Does “fail fast” contradict with “first time right”?

“Fail fast” is one of the principles I champion in my workshops on innovation and design thinking. “First time right” has been popularized by the quality movement, especially by the Six Sigma methodology. Hence, it is not uncommon to get the question: Does “fail fast” contradict with “first time right”?

To explore this question, it would help to understand “fail fast” and “first time right” better. Let’s start with “fail fast”. Does “fail fast” imply failing in any kind of way? No. To understand this better, let’s see the difference between a failure due to checklist-oversight and a negative result during hypothesis testing. Let’s borrow an example from Jeff Bezos of Amazon. In an interview, he said that if Amazon goofs up the opening of 19th fulfillment center where an operational history exists, then that would be poor execution. Let’s call this checklist oversight failure. It means a prior learning has been consolidated into a checklist and the failure occurred because the checklist was not followed rigorously. “First time right” uses all the available past data in constructing the process to be followed for delivery of a solution.

In contrast, let’s look at the following hypothetical assumption: Amazon will be able to deliver a book size packet reliably on the terrace of a ten storied building in Bangalore via drone delivery. Let’s assume Amazon has experience of this kind of delivery in countries like the US but not in India. And if the first attempt at doing this delivery fails, then it would be a failure of the second kind – hypothesis test failure. Note that this failure would result in some learning which can be incorporated in the second attempt and so on. Depending upon the difficulty encountered, the cost of each experiment and the importance of this use-case for Amazon, more attempts would be made to learn more about this use-case.

When I say “fail fast” I mean fast testing of the assumptions associated with an idea. Now, we can see that “fail fast” is quite complementary with “first time right”. If Amazon were to launch the drone delivery on the terrace and get it right the first time, then it would help to do as many tests in different contexts – weather conditions, building locations, different building structures etc. Thus it would help to fail fast to get it right the first time you go live.

“Fail fast” assumes that there are certain unknowns / risks associated with achieving the goal. If all the steps in achieving the goal are well understood, then “fail fast” would not be required.

In short, “fail fast” helps you deliver “first time right”. The riskier your project, i.e. the higher the cost of getting it wrong the first time, the more important it becomes to “fail fast” in order to get it “first time right”.