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.


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.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Four hurdles in self-discovery

It is widely accepted in cognitive sciences (psychology, neuroscience) as well as in spiritual literature that our thinking process sustains various forms of illusions. Self-discovery is a process of learning through introspection about the process of thinking especially about how it creates and sustains cognitive illusions. It has been emphasized in some form or the other by various spiritual masters such as Buddha (Mindfulness), Jiddu Krishnamurti (self-investigation), Ramana Maharshi (self-inquiry) etc. If the learning process has been around for a few thousand years, why are most of us still trapped in conflicts, be it personal, religious, global? While it is easy to get started into self-discovery journey, anyone who has dabbled in this would know that the approach has several challenges. In this article I would like to mention, from my experience, what the top four challenges in self-discovery are.

Lack of urgency: Every day we are tackling so many tasks at home and at work that keep us busy.  In the midst of all this, self-observation doesn’t appear that urgent. At times, it feels as though it may be important but then something urgent comes up and self-discovery takes a backseat. Every day we are navigating life by evaluating dangers associated with various events – some real ones like a possible car accident while crossing the street or some imaginary ones like losing the job etc. We perhaps also sense a danger associated with cognitive illusions such as illusion of understanding. However, we don’t see that it the cognitive illusion is THE danger we are facing every day, perhaps every moment. To use Jiddu Krishnamurti’s words, we don’t see that it is like having your house on fire. He refers to it as a “skill” to see the danger. Unless we see the largeness of the looming danger associated with the cognitive illusions, there is no urgency in self-discovery.

“In order to” attitude: Every day we see unfairness around us – poverty, corruption, social injustice etc. We also see our own deficiencies or inadequacies – our inability to help or our mistakes that may hurt us or others etc. We are also busy safeguarding our interests – security, health etc. Every activity we do, we are doing it “in order to” improve things – my health, wealth, social inequality etc. We carry forward this “in order to” attitude to self-discovery and say that I want to pursue self-discovery “in order to” become better, perhaps enlightened. However, we don’t see that “in order to” attitude may be preventing us from learning about the thought process. It is like using an anti-virus software to locate the virus on your PC and not seeing that the anti-virus program is also infected with the same virus that you are trying to locate. If “in order to” is not the right attitude, then what is the correct attitude? The right spirit is that of “learning”. Learning for the sake of learning, not for improving or changing anything. However, the “process of becoming” is so deeply embedded in us that we easily slip into “in order to” mode.

Electrochemical smog: Imagine driving in dense fog. You can’t do it safely even if you are driving a BMW with all its navigation technology. Unless we see things clearly, it is difficult to get our act in order. Unfortunately, our thinking process is generating huge amount of smog – electrochemical smog – that is preventing us from seeing what’s going on. Why does the brain create this smog? Because it is operating on pain-avoidance principle and not on correctness principle. All addictions are of this nature. Overeating, anxiety or even addiction to positive thoughts is of similar nature. Positive thoughts secrete endorphins which cover up the pain receptors. “I will work hard, then I will get promoted, then I will buy that house… Aha…it feels good.” Even meditation may also generate smog, “I will meditate, then I will have an awakening experience, then I will reach a state of Turiya.” And that releases endorphins to cover up the pain caused by the sense of incompleteness. The first step is to learn to stay with the pain and say, “Let’s see if we can investigate the source of the pain.”

Fear of uncertainty: There are times when thinking process isn’t generating dense smog. The vision starts to get some clarity. But then what we see may be scary. For example, we may have lived all along with a self-image and its associated elements like educational degree (say a PhD) or the job title or the wealth etc. And suddenly the clarity of vision may show that these are not important. It may feel like somebody is pulling the rug under our feet. Out of fear from seeing “what is” we go back to the smog world. It needs some kind of resolve to see “what is” no matter what.

In summary, we need to see that our house is on fire (urgency), we need to learn about the thought process for its own sake and not in order to get somewhere, we need to stay with the pain and locate its source otherwise we are generating the smog and finally we need a resolve to see “what is” no matter how fearful it looks.

image source:

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Five minutes innovation manager

In my innovation workshops with managers, one challenge that shows up consistently is that of “no time”. Managers genuinely feel that their plate is full and they find it difficult to get time to do additional activities that might enable innovation in their teams. As a response to this situation, I started facilitating a short exercise a few years back which I call “Five minutes innovation manager”. The idea of this exercise is to suggest that you don’t have to dedicate a lot of time for innovation, just five minutes a week is enough. There are always a few participants in each session for whom this is the key takeaway.  What can you do in five minutes to enable innovation? Let’s explore in this article.

Here is what I tell the participants: Suppose you have to budget five minutes of your time every week to foster innovation in your team. What would you do? Mention What, When and Where. Their responses can be put into following categories:

1.      Publicize a challenge-book: One of the most effective interventions is to identify your team’s topmost challenge and write it in a prominent place – say the whiteboard in your office, the wall in your corridor, or the intranet page of your team. And do nothing else. A challenge which gets due attention has a life of its own. You can also solicit challenges from your team members which you can collate and publicize.

2.      Listen to ideas: You can budget five minutes a week to listen to at least one idea / proposal from one of your team members. If nobody comes to you, you can walk around and poke them. Make sure you don’t look at the watch while the team member is talking about her idea. Listening is hard, especially for managers. One response which helps the idea authors is, “Good idea, show me a demo.”

3.      Solicit ideas: In your weekly team meeting, you can dedicate five minutes for brainstorming on a specific challenge. You will be surprised how many ideas get generated in five minutes.

4.      Appreciate the effort: It doesn’t take much time to mention in the team meeting that you appreciate a prototype built (or demo shown) by one of the team members or a blog or white paper written by someone.  It can send a subtle message that these activities are appreciated.

You might think that activities like these done in five minutes may not make much of a difference. But you won’t know this until you try. Once you realize that it is not so difficult and doesn’t eat too much of your bandwidth, you may extend the time.

This method is inspired by a chapter called “Shrink the change” in the book “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath. The Heath brothers give several examples to illustrate that a five minute regime can go a long way bringing about a change.

Why don’t you give it a shot and see?

Friday, December 9, 2016

Empathy as understanding the assumptions behind the rigid reflexes

Do you get upset about somebody’s behaviour? Say, a public figure such as a politician or someone close to you, your spouse, kids, parents, friends? Then that is an indication that you haven’t empathized with the person enough. Well, that is the hypothesis I would like to explore in this article.

Easterine Kire Iralu’s book “A terrible matriarchy” begins with a childhood memory of the protagonist, Dielieno, a girl coming of age in Kohima, Nagaland, an eastern state in India. She remembers an incident when her granny is serving chicken curry to Lieno and her brothers. Lieno, who is four-five years old, tells her granny, “I want a leg piece”. Granny says, “Who is asking you, stupid?” and serves the leg piece to Lieno’s brother. Then comes the sermon from granny, “Leg pieces are for the boys, girls should eat the other pieces.”

When Lieno is six/seven years old, she is sent to stay with her granny who continues to make Lieno work hard, e.g. fetching the water from nearby stream, getting the stove ready, feeding the chicken etc. Granny believes that girls don’t need education or affection or time to play or even a good piece of meat with gravy! They need to become docile and hardworking in order to become good housewives. More importantly, on every opportunity, she makes it a point to tell Lieno that boys are more important than girls. Naturally, Lieno grows up hating her granny.

After Lieno’s granny expires, for the first time, Lieno talks to her mom about granny’s tyrannical behaviour. Her mom feels bad about it but also gives the background as to why granny would have become like that. Granny’s mom didn’t have a brother and she had to lose all the ancestral property to other relatives because only boys inherited property. That had a deep impact on her and she favoured boys all her life. After hearing this story, Lieno felt that she understood granny better. Her grudge turned into compassion. That is the beginning of empathy. What exactly is happening here?

To understand this process of empathizing, it helps see thought as a system of conditioned reflexes. A reflex fires automatically when touched. When the knee bone is hit, it jerks. That’s an elementary reflex. When the vehicle in front slows down, we break automatically. That’s a reflex. Our thought process is governed by millions of such reflexes that help us carry out our daily activity. As we learn new skills such as driving or form new opinions, we form new reflexes and over a period they fire automatically.

Some reflexes carry a special property of “necessity”. For example, we assume that the ground will hold firm as we walk or the cycle will turn left when we turn the handle left. However, sometimes the result doesn’t match our expectations. For example, a cycle may turn right when we turn the handle left. And then we realize that we can’t ride the cycle (check out the video “The backwards brain bicycle” above). Because the reflexes fire automatically, we turn the handle in the same direction where we want the cycle to turn. This happens in spite of the knowledge that we ought to turn the handle the other way for this cycle. Destin had to practice riding the backwards-brain cycle every day for 8 months to change the reflex. That’s the power of a conditioned reflex.

Some of our beliefs and assumptions are far more deeply and tightly ingrained than the cycling reflexes. For example, for Lieno’s granny, boys are more important than girls is one such assumption that has become a rigid reflex. So, no matter how much you try to explain to her, she will resist changing her opinion. Granny has almost no choice in her behaviour in this matter.

Once we see that the behaviour of a person is a result of almost mechanical and rigid reflexes, it becomes difficult to sustain grudge against the person. You don’t get angry with a computer or a car, do you? Empathy is that understanding of rigid reflexes. Empathy doesn’t mean you agree or like the behaviour. When Lieno felt she understood granny better, she still didn’t agree with her behaviour. She just didn’t feel the need to hold a grudge, that’s all.

Whenever you feel upset about somebody’s behaviour, you may want to ask yourself, “Could this behaviour be a result of a rigid reflex? If so, what might be the assumption(s) behind such a reflex?”

Thought as a set of conditioned reflexes is explored in detail in David Bohm's "Thought as a system"