Sunday, May 31, 2015

Mindfulness on the go: My first workshop experience

Last month I got an opportunity to facilitate a half-day workshop titled “Mindfulness on the go: Meditation in the cycle stealing mode”. It was a first of its kind for me. The workshop happened as a response to a suggestion made by my friend Zunder Lekshmanan. The participants were Zunder’s team members / colleagues mostly in their 30s and 40s. The objective was to explore practices that may enable accessing stillness, a place from which creative potential may flourish. We were particularly interested in looking at ways which don’t demand dedicated time and space e.g. meditation 30 minutes in the morning in the corner of your bedroom. Most of the executives found dedicating such a time/space impractical. Instead, we focused on those few minutes which we can steal while we are waiting for the elevator etc. The presentation summarizes what we explored.

Saying ‘hello’ in the primary language of the land: Every terrain has a primary language. In Karnataka, it is Kannada. For some people it is a sign language and for software engineers, it is a programming language like C or Python. The primary language for the terrain which we explored is stillness and is found in the gaps between two consecutive thoughts. Hence, we began our workshop with a short exercise by getting familiar with these gaps.

The key challenge - thought: Upfront, we decided to confront the chief villain in our story – our thinking. The root cause of all of our suffering – worry, anxiety, anger, lack of creativity, relationship problems – is our thinking. What is wrong with thinking? Well, it creates & sustains powerful illusions – gaps between perception & reality. For example: (1) illusion of control: I can control my destiny or my organization’s destiny by taking certain actions. The action could be studying hard, following a moral code of conduct, going to temple, executing a strategy to defeat my opponent etc. (2) illusion of experience: We believe we know our experience. However, in reality, what we know are peak and end memories of our experience. And we routinely substitute the average of peak-and-end experiences as the whole experience.

Leprosy of mind: When I visited Anandwan last year, I witnessed a daily ritual at the leprosy hospital. At 6 o’clock in the morning there is a long queue of lepers to get their foot wounds dressed. The neural feedback mechanism that tells most of us how much pressure we are putting on our feet is damaged for lepers. Hence, a leper ends up putting too much pressure and damages his feet realizing it much later. Thought also creates & sustains a gap between perception and reality similar to a leper. Hence, sometimes our situation is called leprosy of mind.

Two states and three practices: All of us keep transitioning between two states of mind – relatively undisturbed state and disturbed state. Disturbed state is emotionally charged – due to emotions like anxiety, fear, worry, anger, guilt, blame etc. Relatively undisturbed state also contains thoughts but they don’t absorb us as much as the disturbed state. We explored the three practices: attention, alertness and acceptance that are useful in Relatively undisturbed state, during the transition from undisturbed to disturbed state, and in the disturbed state respectively.

Using metaphors: We used metaphors to get a feel of the practices. For shifting attention out of a stream of thinking, we used the metaphor of train and platform. It is like hopping off the train (of thought) on the platform and watching the trains come and pass by. Popular anchors which act like a platform are the movement of breath, abdomen, tingling sensations in fingers, surrounding sounds etc.

For alertness, we used the metaphor of “buttons”. Each of us has a few buttons, which when pressed, triggers a surge of emotions and transitions us to the disturbed state. A button could be a situation (lane cutting ahead of us), an accusation (“You don’t care about me”), an image (an accident), a thought (“I am a failure”) etc. Can we identify these buttons, become alert and catch ourselves transitioning from undisturbed to disturbed state? We called it playing a “catch me if you can” game with ourselves.

Acceptance feels like releasing your foot from the acceleration pedal. It is as if we stop feeding the fuel to the drama that is at the centre of our attention. The drama doesn’t vanish instantaneously. But it dies its own natural death just like the car slows down and comes to a half after you release the pedal. Note that releasing the pedal is more like going from effort to non-effort. Hence, acceptance feels more like non-action than action.

None of the content was original. It was borrowed from the teachings of various spiritual teachers like David Bohm, Ramana Maharshi, Eckhart Tolle, Mooji etc. The cognitive illusion related part was borrowed from Daniel Kahneman’s classic “Thinking fast & slow”. I stuck to only those practices which work for me. For relevant sources, please refer to the links given in the presentation above.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Confirmation bias: an innovator’s curse?

Take a look at the four card problem depicted in the picture above. Each card has a letter on one side and a number on the other. Now, the hypothesis is as follows: “If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other side.” The question is: Which cards do you need to flip over to validate the hypothesis? Before you go ahead, please take a minute to answer this question yourself. I have asked this question to many participants in my workshops. And most of them have a clear answer i.e. the cards with letter A and number 4. Right? Wrong. The real answer is cards with letter A and number 7. Why? Because, if you find a vowel when you flip “7” card, then you disprove the hypothesis.  But why do most of us think of flipping over the “A” card and not "7" card? Because all we are trying to do is to find data that agrees with the hypothesis. 

This tendency to find and interpret data such that it conforms to our beliefs is known as confirmation bias – sometimes referred to as “the mother of all biases”. Due to this bias, we also ignore data that proves our belief wrong.  I feel that confirmation bias is an innovator’s curse because it prevents him from seeing evidence that is contradictory to his idea and creates an illusion of “my idea works!” in spite of contrary evidence. How does the confirmation bias manifest in real life? What can we do to mitigate its effect? Let’s explore in this article.

Gyanesh Pandey is a co-founder of Husk Power Systems based Patna, Bihar. HPS is in the business of providing electricity to rural India, especially off-grid villages. When Gyanesh first thought of pursuing the challenge of electrification of rural India, he had an implicit assumption (see the story in detail here). Rural India is not electrified because the right technology is not available yet. For the next four years, Gyanesh experimented with cutting edge technologies in the field – polymer solar cells, wind energy, bio-diesel etc. None of these experiments yielded viable solutions. By chance, he met a supplier of gasification based electrification systems and he got the seed idea of HPS from that. The core technology of the gasification based electrification is more than half a century old. And that contradicted the core assumption Gyanesh started with. i.e. You need a cutting edge technology to solve this problem. Gyanesh recalls making such an assumption “a big mistake”. That is how confirmation bias operates in real life. Once you believe that cutting edge technology is needed to solve a problem, you will only “see” data that corroborate your belief.

A few months back I was facilitating a workshop at a start-up accelerator. All the participants had quit their jobs and started companies. At the beginning of the workshop, I asked if participants had any expectations. One of the participants asked, “I am looking for a tool that can help me predict the revenue of my company”. I realized that the entrepreneur had implicitly assumed that it is possible to predict revenue of his start-up. I tried to tell him that it is not possible to predict the revenue especially when you don’t even have a single customer. My guess is, if the confirmation bias is really active, he would ignore my comment and look somewhere else for the tool he is looking for.

Is there anything we can do to mitigate the effect of confirmation bias? Well, here is something I find useful. Every time I become aware of my belief, I ask, “Do I have data for this?” I call this belief-as-an-assumption perspective. Shifting perspective from belief-as-the-truth to belief-as-an-assumption is the first step. It creates an opening for truth to enter. The next step is take contradictory data seriously. I feel that the first step is the key. It needs an alertness to observe your own repetitive thought patterns.

As a co-author of “8 steps to innovation” book, I am likely to carry a bias to find and interpret data such that “8 steps” framework works. Hence, I consciously try to reflect on data that may show that it doesn’t work or at least part of it doesn’t work. Blogs such as ‘Is “8 steps to innovation” approach predictive or non-predictive’? are result of such reflection. Can you catch yourself arguing with belief-as-the-truth perspective?

Image source: Social Psychology class from taught by Prof. Scott Plous of Wesleyan University.