Monday, June 26, 2017

Mobile app upgrade as a metaphor for the virus in the thought process

Every time I turn on WiFi on my mobile phone, some application begins to get upgraded automatically. It doesn’t even ask my permission. Can this phenomenon help us learn about the virus in our thought process? That is what we will explore in this article.

When we buy a new phone, it comes with some default applications. For example, for an Android phone, Google Maps, Gmail etc. come pre-installed on the phone. We also download new apps e.g. Uber cabs as we see that they could help us in our day-to-day life. These applications are constantly getting upgraded. Sometimes these upgrades are fixing some problems with the apps, sometimes new features get added, other times the app gets a better protection against virus attacks etc. In short, these upgrades are trying to make our phone future-proof. 

In general, these upgrades should be happening when the phone is idle i.e. it is not being used for a call or a message or reading a mail or watching a movie etc.  Our phone, even when it is not busy making or receiving a call, is involved in checking if somebody is trying to call us or send a message. It also has many other sensors such as temperature sensor, accelerometer for speed / direction sensor etc. It is also constantly checking date and time and triggering alarms at an appropriate moment if they have been set.  In short, phone is a sensitive device, constantly engaged in scanning the signals and meaningfully responding to them.

Now, imagine a situation where the app upgrades become all important. i.e. the phone goes into a mode where all it is doing primarily is app upgrades and nothing else. It considers upgrading itself to be more important than everything else – even making / receiving a call etc. Even when somebody tries to call us, the phone rejects the call because it is busy upgrading itself. It is like the phone has lost its primary function. Who would like such a phone?

Now, let’s compare this upgrade mechanism with our life. Our attention is required to do what we are doing in the present moment – say eating, walking, driving, listening etc. However, these activities have become so automatic that the thought feels that it can do some upgrades while these activities are happening. So it starts running “What if” scenarios – “What if I don’t reach the meeting on time?”, “What if I lose this job?”, “What if people discover that I am really not that smart?” etc. We feel that these ‘what if’ scenarios help us take some actions that will reduce the probability of failure. In short, the thought process helps us in making our life future-proof, similar to a mobile app upgrade.

Now, imagine the thought process goes berserk perhaps due to some virus on the ‘what if’ simulations and grabs all the attention all the time for the simulation. Almost no attention is left for the present moment activities. We are eating our lunch but the attention is in the “upgrade” scenarios. We are driving a car but thinking about the upcoming meeting. When we are in the meeting, the thought is simulating the next activity etc. Effectively, we are not giving any activity its due attention. The future-proofing is happening at the cost of the quality of attention in the present-moment. In an overdrive mode, the thought process is also affecting the sensitivity to signals sent from the body such as hunger, sleep etc. and from surrounding such as feelings of the family members, team members, how we are treating nature etc. It is as though we have become insensitive to the reality and begun to live in the thought created future-proofing simulation.

Now, you might ask. OK, this is life, what to do? The first step is to watch this process and see if the upgrade simulations are indeed serving a useful purpose or they have become repetitive, compulsive and wasteful. You have been thinking about selecting the best school for your daughter for the past one month. How long do you want to keep thinking? This awareness can be powerful. Alternately, you can step out of the simulation for a few moments and bring attention to the present moment activity –breathing, eating, sitting, walking etc. Try it out for yourself.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Photo gallery: "Mindfulness on the go" at Agastya International Foundation, Kuppam

I got an opportunity to facilitate the 2-day workshop "Mindfulness on the go" for folks from Agastya International Foundation at the scenic campus in Kuppam on June 8-9, 2017. Here are a few pictures from the workshop. We had four long silent sitting sessions (between 30 minutes to 1 hour duration). Unfortunately, we don't any photo from these silent sittings because everybody had kept their phones away. We also had a silent walk around the campus on the evening of day-1 led by Mr. Nitin Desai.








We used following movies to illustrate the concepts, tools, practice / investigation process:

Some of the questions that got raised and discussed during the workshop are:
  • Why do we need to meditate?
  • How to control thoughts?
  • Is meditation connected with any religion / sect?
  • What is the difference between meditation, concentration and silent sitting?
  • How to differentiate between useful and wasteful thoughts?
  • What is the relationship between meditation and god?
  • How is this connected with enlightenment?
  • Isn't fear necessary for achieving our goals?
Photo credit: Subbu Shastri, Gauri Dabholkar

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

As Jeff Bezos says, are big ideas incredibly easy to identify?



In a recent interview, Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos made following statement (18:22): “The main job of a senior leader is to identify 2 or 3 important ideas and then to enforce great execution against those big ideas. And the good news is, the big ideas are usually incredibly easy to identify.” For anyone who has dabbled in innovation, this may sound like a strange statement. If identification of big ideas is really that simple, why isn’t everybody running with one? Is there a catch here? Or, was Bezos just joking? Let’s explore this in this article.

Here is the context. Bezos is answering the question, “Can you predict what Amazon will look like ten years from now?” He first points out that the observable Amazon could change quite a bit. Nobody could have predicted ten years ago that Amazon Web Services (AWS) would be a significant contributor to Amazon business. Then he mentions that hopefully the core approach involving customer obsession, willingness to invent and long term view (patience & accepting failures as a path to success) would remain the same. This is where he makes the statement that big ideas are incredibly easy to identify.

What are the three big ideas for Amazon consumer business? They are: Low prices, fast delivery and vast selection. Of course, that’s the dream of any retailer. And it’s known for a long time. Bezos stresses that “big ideas should be obvious.” Now, let’s de-layer this a bit.

First, let’s notice that when Bezos spells out these ideas, they get presented as questions. E.g. How do we always deliver things a little faster? How do we reduce our cost structure so that we can reduce our prices lower? etc. So what Bezos refers to as big ideas in this context, are actually big challenges. In fact, I would call them strategic challenges. And as Bezos says, they are usually stable over time. He is also quick to add following caveat: It is hard to maintain a firm grasp on the obvious at all times. Little things can distract from the obvious.   

I have been talking to senior leaders for the past decade. And I am not convinced that they know what their big challenges are. Or at least they haven’t been able to articulate them in a clear manner.  Perhaps, Bezos is right. Every senior leader knows the big challenges. However, the caveat, the little distractions, is creating a cloud of confusion. And leader is losing focus on the strategic challenges. I don’t know. What do you think?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Why does U G Krishnamurti say, “Thought is your enemy”?

I recently read U G Krishnamurti’sThought is your enemy”. UG, as he is popularly known, is one of the blunt spiritual teachers. This usually means there is no apparent common ground between UG and the reader (or the person conversing with him). “Thought is your enemy” is a compilation of discussions between UG and various seekers in India, Switzerland, Australia, Netherlands and UK between 1985 and 1990. In “Thought is your enemy”, UG is consistent in his position that thought is not an instrument that can help us in solving our problems; on the contrary, it only creates problems. Why does UG say that? Let’s explore it through three claims he makes in the book.

Thought destroys sensitivity: UG says, “The function of the brain in this body is only to take care of the needs of the physical organism and to maintain its sensitivity, where thought, through its constant interference with sensory activity, is destroying the sensitivity of the body.” We might be able to observe this in our daily life. When we are really anxious or stressed, we tend to eat more or sometimes eat less. Body is sending signals about when we should eat and when we should stop eating. However, the constant interference of thought is obscuring those signals. Hence, our eating habit may become abnormal. What happens to eating also gets extended to sitting posture, sleep and various others habits because our sensitivity gets diminished due to interfering thoughts.

Thought can only create problems, not solve them: UG says, “Thought is not the instrument for achieving anything other than the goals set before us by our culture or society or whatever you want to call it. The basic problem we have to face today is this: the cultural input, or what society has placed before us as the goal for all of us to reach and attain, is the enemy of this living organism. Thought can only create problems; it cannot help us to solve any.” Thought comes with a built-in program to create the next goal to be achieved – be it an educational degree, a house purchase, a promotion, a start-up, poverty alleviation or even enlightenment. Once one goal is met, another is generated automatically. Thought makes sure that happiness lies in the future, not in the present moment. How can such an instrument help us live a peaceful life ever?

Thought is fascist:  UG says, “Thought in its birth, in its origin, in its content, in its expression, and in its action is very fascist. When I use the word ‘fascist’ I use it not in the political sense but to mean that thought controls and shapes our thinking and our actions. It has helped us to create our technology. It has made our life very comfortable. It has also made it possible for us to discover new laws of nature. But thought is a very protective mechanism and is interested in its own survival.” Just like a Hitler believes in an ideology and makes it non-negotiable, thought believes in a value system and makes it non-negotiable. Whatever I value, be it a religion, be it a scientific principle or a business principle, once I make it non-negotiable, fascist nature is born. UG says, “You see, the value system is false.”

“Thought is your enemy”, like any other UG book, is not a light reading. It has no prescription. It is not meant to be understood. However, if you are open to reading between the lines, contemplate and perhaps ready to experiment with your own value system, then it may be a powerful companion.

image source: amazon.in

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Gabbar Singh and self-deception

Growing up as a school boy in the late 70s, it was hard to miss the famous Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan) dialogue from the movie Sholay – Kitney admi they? (How many guys were there?) It was popular among kids and a mandatory item during family gatherings. What I realized only recently about this dialogue is that it is a great example of self-deception, a phenomenon in which our thought process is fooling us and we are not even aware of it. How does Gabbar Singh dialogue demonstrate self-deception? That is what we will see in this article.

The dialogue has three of Gabbar’s gang men – Kalia and two others - sheepishly standing because they have come back empty handed – without any loot. Moreover, they were driven away by two young men. Gabbar is really upset. He tells them that the government has put up a huge prize for catching Gabbar. In fact, every mom living several miles away is telling her child to be quiet while putting her to sleep. “Otherwise Gabbar Singh will come,” she says. And these three men with their cowardly act had tarnished Gabbar’s image. The dialogue ends with Gabbar killing all three and finally proclaiming his team’s core value – “Jo darr gaya samjho mar gaya” – Once afraid, as good as dead.

“Living in fear is not worth living” is quite a profound statement. One can easily misattribute it to some spiritual teachers like J. Krishnamurti or a Zen master. However, Gabbar appears to be a living embodiment of that value. Or does he?  On a closer look, we can see that there is a self-deception going on. Actually, Gabbar is also a fearful man. What is he afraid of? Gabbar is afraid of his self-image getting damaged. In fact, deep down he knows that his image is not that secure. He can’t bear the thought of such a downgraded image. However, the most interesting part is that Gabbar is not even aware that he is also a fearful man. A man who goes to the extent of killing his team members for a value is not even aware that his own behaviour is contradicting the same value. That’s why this phenomenon is called self-deception.

What is self-deception? It is a process in which our thought process misperceives reality and mis-attributes cause and effect. For example, it perceives that the person in front has said something insulting and it has resulted in a feeling of hurt. Then it attributes the cause of the hurt feeling to the person in front. Thought concludes the person in front has caused the pain. Similarly, Gabbar concludes that Kalia and team are the problem and he needs to get rid of it. He doesn’t see that if being fearful is the real problem then he is infected with the same problem.

The real cause of the hurt feeling isn’t the so-called “insulting” words. The real cause is yet another thought stored in our memory in the form of a belief that insulting words are bad for us. Thought treats it similar to someone throwing dirt at us. This belief springs into action from memory when the insulting words get interpreted and automatically creates a feeling of pain. So the real cause of the pain is one’s own belief. If, for some reason, the belief is altered e.g. if somebody says, “I am bad” that doesn’t make me bad, the same insulting words would have a different effect.

When one pays attention to the thought process in situations which upset us, one may begin to see how thought is running the business of managing self-image. And it may unravel the self-deception. Perhaps one may be able to stay with the feeling of diminished self-image without reacting. And then a different reality might unfold. Until one experiments in real scenarios and sees the process in action, just the knowledge that there is self-deception, is really not of much help.

Hope you get to experiment with your negative emotions and see if there is any self-deception in action. Like Gabbar, you don’t want to end up “killing” the innocent guys, do you?

image source: rediff.com

Further reading on self-deception:

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman talks about self-deception in his interview with Sam Harris “Thinking about thinking” (see the last question – To what extent do you think true self-deception, as opposed to simple bias, exists?)

Jiddu Krishnamurti talks about it in chapter 18 of “First and last freedom” titled Self-deception.

David Bohm has written as article titled “On self-deception in individual, in groups and in society as a whole”.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Before-and-after storyboard: A simple template

A storyboard may sound like a simple or perhaps kindergarten kind of tool. However, an idea depicted through a simple storyboard may evoke powerful emotions, gossip and constructive criticism. Moreover, a simple storyboard can be drawn in less than an hour, sometimes within half an hour. I call it a candidate for building 1-hour feels like prototype. In this article, we look at a simple template that may be helpful in creating a storyboard.

Example-1: An idea related to a cafeteria experience in IIM Bangalore.



A few checklist items which I find useful in the storyboard are: 
  •  Does the storyboard contain people? This may seem like a silly question. However, I have seen engineers drawing detailed architecture diagram with no people. Architecture diagrams are useful but not in storyboards. A story is typically human centric.
  •  Are thoughts expressed through cloud bubbles?  To the person drawing the storyboard, the story is in the head. However, when thoughts are expressed through cloud bubbles, they help the reader understand the story better.
  • Is the place of the events clear? In the second frame in the “before” scenario of the example above, the event is happening in the cafeteria. Context helps us understand the story better. Unfortunately, the context is missing in the “after” scenario. It is not clear whether the ready-to-eat chole are warmed up in the hostel pantry or in the cafeteria. That would have helped.
  •  Does the “before” scenario bring out a pain? “Chole tasted like sambhar” – this expression brings out the pain in this case.
  • Does the story bring out a unique feature of the solution? “Ready to eat chole in 5 minutes” is presenting a unique feature of the proposed solution. Note that this point could be debated. One may argue that such products are available. And this would be an opportunity for the idea author to elaborate in what way her solution is unique. Or perhaps re-think of the solution or even problem definition.

Example-2: Here is another storyboard where an intelligent tool might help a marketing manager launch a Black Friday promotion campaign. 



A room or a wall with storyboards can come alive and attract a lot of attention and responses. Try it out and see it for yourself.

Friday, April 21, 2017

3E’s of Design Thinking: Experience, Empathy and Experimentation

“Can you tell us what Design Thinking is in five-ten minutes?” I get this question often these days. Sometimes I am participating in a conference call and the participants want a gist of DT in a short time. In such situations I prefer to talk about the 3 E’s of design thinking: Experience, Empathy and Experimentation which address the three questions: What are we designing in DT? Where do we begin? And; How do we course-correct? Let’s look at each of them briefly.

Experience: Design Thinking is about designing experiences – ideally end-to-end experience. My father applied for a new passport a few weeks back as his current passport is about to expire. He was out of the passport office in half an hour. Before he could reach home, he began to get SMS messages telling how his application is progressing. His new passport arrived home in three days. This experience was radically different from what he had gone through when he applied for his passport for the first time twenty years back. Whether it is a movie, restaurant, grocery shopping, taxi, commute to work, performance appraisal, one-on-one meetings, we remember events in terms of experience they create for us. In particular, we tend to remember emotional highs and lows. Hence, design thinking focuses on the design of peak emotions – positive and negative. In my father’s case, the progress reporting of the passport application through SMS worked as an anxiety suppressing tool. And the delivery in three days of the new passport created a delight.

Empathy: Our emotional responses are strongly correlated to our anxieties and aspirations. In fact, a large part of our emotional response is supposed to be automatic – almost like a button press. Hence, DT suggests that we start with empathy, by understanding the anxieties and aspirations of our customers. This is not easy for multiple reasons. One, as Kiran Bedi realized on her first day as Director General (Prisons) at Tihar Jail in 1993, people may not trust you and hence they may not reveal what they feel. Second, people themselves may not be aware of their deeply held beliefs and Three, you may not know who your customer is.  Hence, DT suggests that we do immersive research, which involves observing potential customers them in action in their own context, focus on gaining trust before going further in the interview process and if possible, try to live like them – at least for a few days. This may lead to deeper insights which further help in framing the right challenge.

Experimentation: No matter how much one tries, one can never be confident that you have framed the right challenge. Moreover, a technologist may start with a solution – a mobile app or a new measurement device. In either case, DT suggests that you test your assumptions as often as you can by going back to the customers. This principle is called – fail early, fail often and fail inexpensively. In a complex environment, only rapid iterative experimentation can lead to the understanding of right problem and hence a better solution. Hence, rapid prototyping is given a lot of emphasis in DT. If you are thinking of a new mobile app, can you quickly design screen shots and show to a few people and get their feedback? The rate of experimentation is considered very important. Hence, we look at ways of doing 1-hour, 1-day and 1-week prototypes.

In short, Design Thinking is about designing Experiences, Empathizing with customers and rapid and iterative experimentation.

Monday, April 10, 2017

What if implicit order is more fundamental than explicit order?

We all carry some notion of order in our everyday life. For example, when our room is in a mess, we say that it is disorderly. Alternately, if the dinner table is arranged properly with the plates, spoons, glasses, we say, things are in order. When we refer to order (or disorder) we are mostly referring to only one type of order – explicit order – order perceived through our senses. There is another type of order which is called implicit order. When we see a seed sprouting, we assume that the tree-ness – with all its characteristics of the shape, color, size - was implicit in the seed. Otherwise, how would it know what kind of a tree it should turn into? That information about tree-ness which is embedded in the seed is an example of the implicit order. Sprouting of the seed is an example of how an explicit order (the tree) comes out of the implicit order inside the seed. When the tree bears a fruit containing a seed, the explicit order gets transformed into an implicit order. So in nature, things are going back and forth between implicit and explicit order. Traditionally, science has assumed that explicit order is more fundamental than implicit order. But what if implicit order is more fundamental? That is what we will explore in this article.

Let’s first try to get a better idea of what an order is. David Bohm defines order as similar differences and different similarities. For example, when we classify all living organisms into animals and plants, we are observing different similarities – animals and plants as different among similarity of living organisms. And when we see that one principle such as the law of gravity governing so many types of motions, we are observing similar differences – law of gravity as similarity among different types of motions.

When we fail to observe any order, we call it disorder or randomness or chaos. Sometimes, what appears to be random has some order implicit in it. For example, computers are known to generate random numbers. However, what is underlying this random sequence of numbers is a program that generates this sequence. Thus, if you know the program and the input it takes (called seed), then the sequence is no longer random. Similarly, when we observe a coastline in a map, say that of Mumbai, it may appear random. However, it is known to carry the property of a fractal dimension – an order, an example of similar differences, implicit in it.  Thus what is random in the explicit world, may have an order in its implicit counterpart. For a cool demonstration on how explicit order turns into implicit order and vice versa, check out this video on ink droplet in glycerin experiment.

For the past several centuries, especially since the scientific revolution of 16th century with discoveries from Galileo, Newton, Descarte and later Darwin, Einstein, Watson-Crick etc. science has considered explicit order as primary. But, what if the implicit order is really more fundamental? And the explicit order is just a reflection or unfolding of an implicit order – like the tree-ness in a seed unfolding into a tree? Science, after all, hasn’t cracked the theory of everything yet, has it? So, it is possible that implicit order is more fundamental. If so, what is its biggest implication?

The biggest implication is that knowledge is always incomplete. Why? Because, it is always based on explicit order. Any knowledge is similar to knowing some characteristics of a tree based on its outer features without knowing the underlying program that generates the tree from a seed. By design, we won’t know implicit order, EVER.

If you really see what this means - i.e. knowledge is always incomplete, then it may come to you as a rude shock. Because it would mean there won’t be a theory of everything, EVER. Moreover, EVERYTHING that you know or believe, especially values you cherish as absolutely true, in science, religion, arts, society, in family relations is incomplete. It is tentative. It may be relevant in your current context, but it may be irrelevant in some other context.  If you really see that every knowledge as tentative, why would you ever be upset about anything?

All this is true, if implicit order is more fundamental than explicit order. Of course, explicit order may indeed be more fundamental than implicit order. Then, fighting for my knowledge, what I value, may be really worth it.

Hope you at least consider the question open: What is more fundamental, implicit or explicit order?

Sources:
For more information on implicit vs explicit order (or implicate vs explicate order), check out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Implicate_and_explicate_order

Monday, March 27, 2017

“But, cats can’t tell time” and the human state of missing the main point

We are all busy solving what appear to each of us to be the important problems. For example, for some of us, making more money may be the most important thing, for some others, solving social problems like poverty, inequality, corruption, terrorism, lack of education and healthcare may be the most important thing. But what if, we are all solving the wrong problems?  What if, we are all missing the main point? That is the hypothesis I would like to explore in this article. And I would like to use an analogy mentioned by David Bohm of his dream involving two cats. Let’s start with the dream.

David Bohm was interviewed by Nobel Laureate Maurice Wilkins for American Institute of Physics in twelve sessions over a ten month period from June 6, 1986 to April 16, 1987. In the interview session 5 which took place on October 3, 1986, Bohm narrates following dream which he had during the last phase of his tenure in Princeton in 1950-51:

I was staying in a certain house where they had a cat, and in this dream, I came into the kitchen, and I saw the cat talking to another cat, and making a date to meet at a certain time. I said, there must be something wrong here. I wonder what it is. So I thought about it for a while, and I said, oh yes. I know (what’s) wrong. Cats can’t tell time. So I said to the cat, “You cats are not able to tell time.” The cat answered me back and said, Of course we can tell time. And I said, “Well, look at the clock. What time is it?” It was about three o’clock. It said, A quarter past eight, five past nine. So I said, there (you go). That proves that cats can’t tell time. And then I woke up laughing. 

And what did this dream mean, according to Bohm? He says - I simply took it for granted that cats can talk. And I said, “That’s very mysterious.” How in the world can they tell time? They don’t have the equipment for telling time. They never heard of time. So the meaning of the dream was that something similar must be happening in society, that people are arguing about small points, and they’re taking for granted some very obvious point that should be staring us in the face.

So, what Bohm is saying is that when we argue about or try to solve the problem of whether cats can tell time, we miss the main point. That is, cats can’t talk. Are we all arguing about “how cats can’t tell time”? We possibly are. Let me try to illustrate this using one of my recent meetings with a friend.

I met this friend; let’s call him V, last week. V was disturbed about the recent appointment of saffron clad firebrand Yogi as the Chief Minister of the largest state in India. Why should this disturb V? Because, he feels that events such as this are indicating that India’s secular image is crumbling and V is concerned. V has tried to convince his friends that India is heading in the wrong direction. But his friends haven’t bought his argument. So V is kind of lost. He doesn’t know what to do.

Is V’s argument a kind of “cats can’t tell time” argument? It is. So what is the main point V is missing? The main point is that the sustained disturbance in his mind is an indicator that his perception is muddled up. If V can’t see things clearly, how can he frame the correct problem? Even flights don’t take off when the visibility is low, in spite of the sophisticated guiding software.

So the main point is, are you able to see things clearly? Do you have perceptual clarity? If not, chances are high, you are solving the wrong problem, no matter how noble the problem is. How do you know if you have perceptual clarity? Well, every sustained negative emotion, be it anxiety, stress, anger, blame, guilt, envy, is an indicator that there is lack of perceptual clarity.   

So what should one do? Well, the first step is to recognize that I may be missing the main point every time I am upset. That creates an opening through which intelligence may flow through and it may show us what is going on that is muddling up the perception.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

3 surprises from Isaac Newton’s biography

Recently I finished reading “The life of Isaac Newton” by Richard Westfall. It is a fairly detailed account of Newton’s life. We study Newton’s theories from our school days. We would have heard the story of “falling apple” multiple times. Newton’s fight with Robert Hooke and his friendship with Halley was familiar with me. So I wasn’t expecting any major surprises from this biography. And yet, I realized there were several surprises in store for me. Here are 3 major surprises:

Systematic challenge book: Nineteen year old Newton left his hometown Lincolnshire to join Trinity College at Cambridge as a student in June 1661. Barring two extended visits during the plague years, this was to be his home for the next eighteen years. Soon Newton started reading the work of intellectual giants of his time like Descartes, Galileo, Boyle and many others. However, he didn’t stop at just reading. Sometime in 1664, Newton created 45 headings in a notebook under which he would categorize the notes from his reading. The headings included – nature of matter, place, time, and motion, cosmic order, tactile qualities such as rarity, fluidity, softness, violent motion, light, colors, vision etc. He titled the book “Quaestiones quaedam Philosophaea” – “Quaestiones” for short. His notes would not be just copies of the interesting lines from the books he read. They would have a questioning tone.  For example, he would ask “Whither ye rays of gravity may bee stopped by reflecting or refracting ym, if so a perpetuall motion may bee made of these two ways.” He considered “Quaestiones” important enough that he later composed an index.

By the winter of 1664-65, Newton made a list of “Problems”. Initially he put down twelve and then modified the list to make it twenty two problems put under five categories. This list would occupy Newton for the next year. What surprised me is the systematic manner in which Newton created and maintained his challenge book.

Universal gravitation as a slow hunch: The story of falling of an apple and how it led to the discovery of the universal law of gravitation is one of the most famous stories in the history of science. It shows how a simple observation can lead to a deep insight. Westfall goes to some length in the book to dispel the myth behind the story. Yes, Newton did possibly have an insight when he observed a falling apple in 1666. However, he worked on the theory of gravitation for almost next twenty years. In fact, he systematically extended the scope of gravitation to moon, then to other planets, then to comets and then to everything.  By 1680, Newton still held the view that the gravitational force is specific to the solar system which contained related bodies.  He corresponded with Flamsteed, Director of Royal Astronomical Society, and obtained data about the motion of Jupiter’s satellites, on the effect of the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn and also on the comets. For two years, between 1684 to 1686, he almost locked himself up to focus on the problem of gravitation. Eventually, he was convinced of the universality of the law and he finished writing Principia in 1686. What surprised me in this case is the way Newton step-by-step extended his theory to include more and more objects by using real data from observatory over two decades.

Obsession with self-image:  Newton didn’t like criticism. And he fought with almost everyone who questioned him.  Once he believed in an idea, he went all out to get whatever he can to show that he was right. If it meant stealing data so be it. Once he considered a person to be his enemy, he made life very difficult for the person. This became even more prominent once he became the President of Royal Society and the manager of the Mint. For example, he stole data from Flamsteed’s astronomical observations and didn’t let anyone else access it for years. During his later years, he became obsessed with getting his portraits done. As a President of the Royal Society, he established a practice that the mace (a spray) be placed on the table only when the president was in the chair. Newton’s obsession with his self-image surprised me.

Reading the biography, I wondered if Isaac Newton was a beautiful mind with creativity, madness and no awakening. Who knows?

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Three characteristics of a good challenge book

Step-2 of our “8-steps to innovation” book is “Create a challenge book”. When I visit any organization, one of the first things I look for is a challenge book. Unfortunately, very few places that I have visited were able to articulate top few challenges clearly. Some of them discover in a leadership meeting that they don’t know what the top challenges are or at least there is no consensus on what the top challenges are. Without this clarity, it is difficult to focus innovation efforts. What are the characteristics of a good challenge book? Here are three:

    1.      Current-ness: What’s the point in making a list of challenges in an off-site and not updating it until the next one? In fact, a challenge book should be current like an airline arrival/departure list. OK, perhaps not that current. But it should be current within at least a few weeks. It is possible that the few top challenges may not change within weeks. It also helps to retire challenges which are not relevant any more.

     2.      Prioritization: Earlier this week, I got an opportunity to meet the manager of a new product development team of one of the largest e-commerce companies in India. The product manager was candid enough to articulate some of the tough challenges he and his team is focusing on. However, his team is relatively small – ten people. I asked him how he prioritizes his challenges. He said that he is still learning. The team used to change the priorities every day a few years back. Then they learnt to hold the priorities for at least a month. Now, the team is learning to set priorities for a quarter. Without prioritization or with rapidly changing prioritizing the team can be lost. Besides the toughest challenges don't vanish in a day or two, perhaps even in a quarter or two.

3.      Championing: This characteristic marks the difference between action and inaction on the challenge. A challenge either finds a champion or gets buried. A challenge is unaddressed doesn’t mean it dies. If a restaurant doesn’t respond to “home delivery through mobile app” trend, it may suffer its consequences eventually. But every tough challenge would need a person in a leadership position to champion it. This means she would put her weight behind the challenge, put a few resources together to study the issues and experimentation on the topic. A challenge book should indicate who the challenge is championed by in case it indeed has a champion. Number of challenges championed by people with senior positions is one of the important health indicators of its innovation initiative.

In short, current-ness, prioritization and championing are the three characteristics of a good challenge book. Hope this helps you to improve your challenge book.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Three symptoms of empathy deficit


“Please listen to me” or “Please let me complete” are common requests in our day-to-day conversations. It is not uncommon to be in a meeting where you feel that the other person is just not listening to you. In fact, you start wondering if anyone is listening to anybody else. But don’t be surprised if the person on the other side is also feeling the same way about you. All of us have an agenda and we are all focused on driving that agenda. Is it possible that we are witnessing an empathy deficit everywhere? I don’t know. But in this article I would like to present three symptoms which I feel indicate an empathy deficit.

Urge to label:  Whether it is the drivers on the street or the teachers in the school or the colleagues at work, we carry an urge to label them. We are convinced that they are doing something obviously wrong or crazy. However, one thing gets lost once we label someone or something – our ability to learn more about that something or someone. Empathy is primarily about accessing our own ignorance. And when we approach a situation from “I know it already” perspective then it leaves little opportunity for us to access ignorance. Thus urge to label indicates lack of empathy.

Urge to preach: Sometimes we take on a mission – say of sustainability. And then everybody whom we come across as careless about environment e.g. waste management becomes a candidate for preaching. We start giving sermons on A-B-C of sustainable living. If I am lucky, the other person listens to me. However, more often than not, these unwarranted sermons are received with apathy and pain-in-the-neck reaction. And that is not surprising because a sermon is being delivered without understanding the interest of the listener. Thus urge to preach indicates lack of empathy.

Lack of listening: Listening is such a common experience. However, quality of listening can be very different in different situations. Moment I hear something I don’t agree with, a voice in the head gets triggered and it generates so much noise that it is very hard to actually listen to the other person. This is especially true when the topic is close to my heart – say my religion or my favourite idea or even my car etc.

Urge to label or preach or lack of listening are easier to observe in others. However, it is quite powerful if one can observe it in oneself. This may be the beginning of accessing the illusion we have been living under all the time. Why don’t you try and test?

Saturday, January 14, 2017

From ocean-wave to dancing droplet: Comparing two metaphors for human existence

Ocean-wave is an ancient metaphor used to explain the nature of human existence especially in non-duality literature1. According to this metaphor human life is as independent as a wave on the ocean. Ocean is the invisible vastness and the waves are you, me, tree, table and every form that arises and goes back to the ocean of vastness just like a wave does. Most of us find it difficult to relate to this metaphor. In the past few years, another phenomenon called dancing droplets is creating ripples among two communities in physics: hydrodynamics and quantum physics. In this article, we will explore if this dancing droplet phenomenon does any better as a metaphor to communicate the non-dual nature of existence.

First, let’s see a few reasons why we find it difficult to believe the ocean-wave metaphor.

1.  As I walk around the room, there is a distinct sense that I am an independent entity called “Vinay” which is choosing to walk around. Wave, on the other hand, is so tied to the ocean, it hardly seems to have any independence.

2.  I remember past events. E.g. I can remember how I walked around in the house say from a sofa to the kitchen to the dining table etc. If I wanted I could retrace the path as well. It doesn’t appear as though wave carries any memory and I am not aware of any waves that can reverse their paths (go backwards).

3.  I am responding meaningfully (at least I am trying to) to the situation all the time. For example, if the doorbell rings, I go and open the door. This is going on all the time. It is not clear whether wave derives any meaning out of the situation and responds to the situation meaningfully.

In summary, lack of (1) independence (2) memory and (3) meaningful response seem to differentiate “Vinay” from a wave. And that is why it is difficult to believe that life is like a wave on the ocean. Perhaps there are more differences. But for now let’s stick to these three. Now, let’s turn to dancing droplet and see if it can do any better than ocean-wave metaphor.

To appreciate the dancing droplet metaphor, it would help to watch this video titled "Is this what quantum mechanics looks like?". It uses jargon from physics. But don’t worry, we don’t need the physics jargon to appreciate it as a metaphor.



In the video we can see that there is an oil bath which is vibrated by a speaker. Using a toothpick, Derek Muller is generating droplets. Now, these droplets don’t seem to recombine with the oil bath immediately and keep bouncing. This happens because of a layer of air between the droplet and the oil surface which doesn’t become small enough size for it to recombine. Here are a few facts about this experiment that are of interest to us:
  •  The droplets don’t seem to stand in one place but seem to walk around (under certain conditions). And they can do that for a long time, sometime for days. It is as though the droplets have a life of their own
  •  Every bounce of the droplet on the oil bath creates a wave. Thus, the droplet gives form to the wave and hence the wave can be called in-form-ation wave. And at any point of time, the resulting wave after a bounce is a combination of all the waves created by the previous bounces of the drop. Thus, the resulting wave contains the information of the previous bounces. i.e. it has memory. Does it mean the droplet can retrace its path? Yes. We can reverse the direction of the vibrating signal and the drop retraces its seemingly random walk. It is similar to I retracing my walk from the dining table to the kitchen to the sofa. Check out this video titled “Turing machine with wave memory” for how the droplet retraces its path.
  •  A droplet seems to walk around in a random manner. However, on close examination, it becomes clear that the direction of the bounce of the droplet is dependent on the slope of the wave where the bounce happens. If the drop bounces on the upward slope, it bounces backwards and if the bounce happens on the downward slope, it bounces forward. The drop seems to be guided by the wave. In other words, the drop responds to the situation which is determined by the shape of the wave at the bounce.


Note that the information field created by the successive bounces of the drop is active. It pushes the drop around. This notion is different from the situation when information is stored in memory but not active. In fact, we can say that the meaning of a situation at any point of time for the droplet is the activity of the information2. i.e. slope of the wave is the meaning.

Now, let’s ask, does this droplet have an existence independent of the oil bath?The answer is “no”. A droplet’s “life” is determined by the information field which, in turn, is created by the history of the bounces. However, if we magically make the information wave invisible then it may create an illusion that the drop has independent existence. Now, let’s see how this dancing droplet phenomenon compares with human existence.

When we respond to a doorbell, we are responding to the information field influenced by another person who pressed the bell, which in turn, could be result of an online order I made on the click of a button earlier. In fact, we can say that our daily activity is guided by the information field around us. Emails, TV, WhatsApp, Internet, newspaper, people are contributing to the vast information field and the field, in turn, is guiding us. This information ocean remains largely invisible to us except for the ripples which show up in the form of TV news, WhatsApp messages, cars passing by, doorbell ringing etc.

Now, let’s look at the similarity of meaning as the activity of information for the droplet and for us. Let’s consider our thought as a system of conditioned and shared reflexes. If the doorbell situation appears threatening to me then a set of reflexes are fired (say, of conversing across the closed door to find more about the visitor). On the other hand, if it means “not dangerous”, then another set of reflexes would be fired automatically to open the door. Thus what appears to be a “choice” seems hidden in the programmatic nature of the conditioned reflexes. Thus information field is constantly acting through a set of reflexes, which in turn, is conditioned by experiences. In short, each of us is bouncing and influencing the vast information ocean and that information ocean, in turn, is guiding us.

Now imagine that the droplet becomes conscious – i.e. it gets a sense of “I am”. Moreover, let’s imagine that the oil bath is largely invisible to the drop. And it mistakes this awareness of “I am” with its own boundary (a drop of 1mm radius). So it might “think” that it is independent and making “choices” about where to go next depending upon the situation. We are doing the same.

Notes:

1. Reference to ocean-wave metaphor is found in Ribhu Gita, one of the ancient Hindu scriptures. Ribhu Gita was advocated by Ramana Maharshi, a 20th century spiritual teacher from South India. Reference to ocean-wave metaphor can also be found in “I am that” a compilation of talks with Nisargadatta Maharaj, a 20th century spiritual teacher from Mumbai.

2. If you want to read further on “Meaning is the activity of information” I suggest the article: “Meaning and information” by David Bohm.