Wednesday, December 30, 2020

No man can walk out on his own story

I watched this scene from one of my favorite animation films “Rango” perhaps for the 15th time (see the video clip below). The scene ends with Rango getting a piece of advice from the Spirit of the West – No man can walk out on his own story. What does it mean? Here is an attempt.

Rango, the protagonist, is a lonely lizard. He knows how to cook stories about his past adventures to impress people around him. Rango accidentally kills a hawk, becomes a hero, and eventually the sheriff. But deep down he knows that he was really scared during those heroic stunts and luck played a huge role in his survival. But the act of self-deception keeps the game going. Until one day, Rattlesnake Jake exposes Rango’s phony nature in front of everybody in the village. And Rango is asked to leave.

“I am nobody”, Rango admits to himself for the first time in his life. And finally arrives at a place where he meets the Spirit of the West. Here is the dialogue between the two in the scene:

Rango: I am a fraud, I am a phony. My friends believed in me. But they need some kind of a hero.

Spirit: Then be a hero.

Rango: Oh, no, no. You don’t understand. I am not even supposed to be here.

Spirit: That’s right. You came a long way to find something that isn’t out here. Don’t you see? It’s not about you, it’s about them.

Rango: But I can’t go back.

Spirit: Don’t know that you got a choice, son. No man can walk out on his own story.

Walking out on one’s own story is so tempting. Walking out of relationship, out of a job, leaving everything and going to Himalayas. Isn’t that a good recipe for a bestseller? But, what about the story? I am a hero, a phony, a consultant, an author, a mindfulness guru? How do you walk out of your story?

I like what Nisargadatta Maharaj told a visitor – “The dream is not your problem. Your problem is that you like one part of the dream and not another. Love all, or none of it, and stop complaining. When you have seen the dream as a dream, you have done all that needs to be done.”

An attempt to walk out of the story just changes the characters and scenery. So long as the story is seen as real, so long as the story is taken seriously, not much changes. There is no need to go anywhere, just investigate whether the story is real.

Image source:

Nisargadatta Maharaj quote is from “I am that” chapter 29 titled “Living is life’s only purpose”, page 117 of third printing.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Perception as prediction error minimization

Perception is not just a kind of prediction but “prediction error minimization is all the brain ever does” says Jakob Hohwy in the book “The predictive mind”. The predictive processing paradigm inverts the traditional sandwich perspective of perception-cognition-action by bringing prediction to the center stage. And Hohwy’s book gives an excellent introduction to various dimensions of the predictive processing paradigm. In this article, we first look at perception as Bayesian inference. And then explore the question – what is prediction error minimization? We will use Hohwy’s favorite example – binocular rivalry to illustrate the concept.

Perception as Bayesian inference: How do we perceive the world? According to this framework, we keep a model of the world that predicts the generation of observable data. Based on this model, we have prior hypotheses about the causes of our sensory input. As we receive new sensory input, the brain computes the posterior using the Bayes rule – posterior is proportional to likelihood times prior. The winner, the hypothesis with the maximum posterior, is declared as the cause of the sensory input. Thus perceptual inference involves updating the internal model of the world consisting of a set of prior beliefs based on incoming sensory information. See 3Blue1Brown and Veritasium videos for more details on Bayes theorem. Now, let’s see what happens when we try to trick the brain.

Perceptual inference in binocular rivalry: Binocular rivalry is a phenomenon that has been documented for over four hundred years. If you show two different images to the left and the right eye – say a face and a house – then you don’t see a mixture of the two images say a face-house. Instead, you either see a face or a house. Moreover, what you see keeps alternating even when the images are held constant. The following picture from the book gives a possible explanation of this phenomenon using perception as predictive error minimization.

The likelihood of face+house (F+H) sending such sensory input is higher than just face or just house hypothesis. However, the prior probability of F+H i.e. we ever seeing such a thing as a mixture of a face and a house is very low. Hence, when you multiply the two – i.e. prior and likelihood – the face-only or house-only hypothesis wins over the face-house hypothesis. And that’s what you see.

Now, how do you explain the alternating images in the binocular rivalry? As you see one of the two images, say the face, the prediction error resulting from the sensory input from the house is explained-away. Over time, the prediction error builds up and the brain is not able to explain it away. And the brain chooses the competing hypothesis which is the house-only image. This is a hand-wavy explanation. It is heavy-duty mathematics at play. If you are curious, check out Hohwy’s paper “Predictive coding explains binocular rivalry”.

What if you are able to bias the prior in favor of one of the images? Hohwy talks about a variant of the binocular rivalry experiment in his book where one eye is shown text markers and the other eye is shown roses. Then olfactory evidence was added and participants smell roses. As predicted by the Bayesian rule, the participants consequently spent more time perceiving the role image. 

Isn't perception just one of the processes at play in the brain? What about action, attention, learning? And what about various biases? Well, the book shows that the predictive error minimization framework is quite ambitious in its goal and does a good job of attempting to explain various phenomena using the framework. 

To understand the free-energy principle, the core principle behind prediction error minimization, in its full depth, one would need to go into statistical mechanics, self-organization, dynamical systems theory, information theory. However, the book lays a good ground for the curious. And the theory is in its infancy and an active area of research right now.    

Image source

book image is from, the binocular rivalry image is from Hohwy’s paper Predictive coding explains binocular rivalry” and it is very similar to the image in the book.


Thursday, December 24, 2020

Doing the last experiment first: illustrated through Alex Honnold’s El Capitan free-solo

Last month, Reserve Bank of India issued an order to HDBC Bank stopping all launches of the digital business generating activities planned under its program Digital 2.0 and sourcing of new credit card customers. Reason? HDBC Bank suffered major outages in Internet banking and payment system due to a power failure in the primary data centre. These are temporary restrictions but such incidents could damage company’s brand. Question is: are such data outages avoidable? And could “doing the last experiment first” be helpful in such situations? Let’s explore these questions in this article.

“Doing the last experiment first” is one of my favourite levers of building margin of safety. We have mentioned the concept in our book “8 steps to innovation” and we borrowed the term from A. G. Lafley, ex-CEO of P&G. Doing the last experiment first involves validating the leap-of-faith assumption associated with an idea. What is a leap-of-faith assumption? An assumption that is (a) critical to the success of the idea, and (b) there is very little evidence available to support it. How does Alex Honnold’s El Capitan free-solo illustrate this concept? Let’s look at it next.

Alex Honnold is an American rock-climber. In 2017, he became the first rock climber in the world to free solo 3000-foot wall of El Capitan in California. If you want to get a feel of what that means, check out this 5-minutes video showing Alex’s free-solo climbing scenes. To us Alex’s endeavour appears almost like a suicide attempt. And Alex says the same thing in his TED talk, “Seems scary? Yeah, it is” (1:13). However, he says something strange immediately after, “But on the day that video was taken (i.e. his free-solo), it didn’t feel scary at all. It felt as comfortable and natural as a walk in the park.” Walk in the park? Was Alex serious or joking?

Alex explains in the TED talk his years of systematic effort in preparing for such a climb. But the part that is of interest to us is related to what Alex calls the most difficult part of the climb – the Boulder problem (8:06).  “It was about 2000-feet off the ground and consisted of the hardest physical moves of the whole route. (It involved) long pulls between poor handholds and with very small, slippery feet.” This manoeuvre culminated in a karate kick with left foot over to the inside of an adjacent corner. This required “high degree of precision and flexibility”. Alex had been doing a nightly stretching routine for this move for over a year (8:35).

Ability to navigate the boulder problem including the karate kick comfortably is an example of the leap-of-faith assumption in Alex’s climb. If he didn’t want to be a lucky climber, then he had to master the solution of the boulder problem. In this video, “What if he falls? The terrifying reality behind filming free-solo”, we see Alex practicing on the Boulder problem (6:00). And we see him practicing with a rope and actually falling in the process (6:07). What that means is that Alex would have experimented with his ideas to navigate the Boulder problem with rope first. And he would have failed in many of these attempts and learned valuable lessons on what may work. This is an example of doing the last experiment first.

Can Boulder problem be re-created in an indoor environment? Yes. You can see how an indoor wall climbing center VauxWall recreated the Boulder problem in this video. And see how Alex’s climb feels like a graceful dance on the wall here (10:50). I don’t know if Alex actually practiced in an indoor setup like this. But the point is it is possible to re-create a difficult situation in a controlled environment so that one can practice more easily, more often and at lower cost.

What would “doing the last experiment first” mean in the context of data centre outages in HDFC Bank? We can get a clue from what Dr. Werner Vogels, Amazon CTO says they do at Amazon. They started what was later called “Game days” where they pulled the plug from a data centre and see how their site held on. And like the indoor gym recreating the Boulder problem perhaps such experiments can be performed in a more controlled environment as well. At least it is worth considering it because the consequences of failure could be grim.

image source:

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

My 4 takeaways from “Getting people to talk: An ethnography and interviewing primer”

Getting people to talk: An ethnography and interviewing primer” is a 30-min-long video created by two students, Gabriel Biller and Kristy Scovel, of IIT Institute of Design, Chicago, USA. For a student of design thinking, it gives a good perspective on what empathic interviewing means. Here are my key takeaways from the video. The timestamps give a reference in the video.

1.      Different types of interviews: The primer differentiates between different types of interviews – ethnographic interview, hypothesis-driven interview, extreme user interview, and expert interview. The key attribute of an ethnographic interview is – (5:51) – “Whatever knowledge I am going to gain from people, I am going to try to understand and represent it from other people’s perspective.” Sometimes you carry a framework or a hypothesis with you while interviewing. In which case, “The way I represent that (knowledge) is not from their perspective.” (6:50). I would call this hypothesis-driven interview and it would be relevant in validating your ideas.

In an ethnographic interview, the focus is not so much on what people are saying but who they are (8:45), their attitudes, behaviors, environments, artifacts that exist around (9:16).

An extreme user interview is a lot more about observing the extreme users doing stuff (10:25). You try to become an invisible observer, like a fly on the wall. An expert interview, on the other hand, is more verbal, sometimes happens even through emails. Here what the expert knows is more important than who they are (12:10).

2.      How do we actually do it? “It is not about asking the questions on your list, it is about the rapport that you establish.” (18:25) For example, check if they are comfortable with audio/video recording (13:50). The recording could be intimidating (15:00). Choose an appropriate location – ask them which location is comfortable (15:22). It helps if one is talking about jeans surrounded by jeans (16:00). In an environment with lots of artifacts related to the person being interviewed, you can ask questions related to the artifacts – “Tell me about your grandkid” (16:25). In such an environment, they are showing you stuff 80% of the time (16:35).

It is important that you are genuinely interested in what they are saying (18:31). It is about listening to 12 different levels so that they are going to answer you at least 8 of those 12. (18:38).

3.      What makes a good interview (24:30): In a good interview, good stories come out. They become open and carefree (25:10). They say, “Never told anyone that before”. Sometimes they are literally whistling and singing. Sometimes they get emotional – at a deep level, cry, narrate horrible stories (28:00). They get a feeling, “They can sing for you and not going to be judged.” (28:25).

“If you convey to that person that the moment that you are standing there, sitting there, interacting with them is the most important moment in the world, that makes everything happen.” (28:50)

4.      Common mistakes (19:00):  Showing a big surprise e.g. “You are 24?” (10:10) can be distracting. Nodding too much and saying phrases like “Aha, Yeah, Thanks a lot, That was great” could be distracting (23:10). Asking leading questions or compound questions are common mistakes (23:30).

I have watched this video at least half a dozen times and I have learned something new each time I watched. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in design thinking and learning empathic interviewing.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Mindfulness on the go: Webinar series Sept 26 to Nov 14, 2020

I got an opportunity to collaborate with a number of friends to offer a webinar series "Mindfulness on the go" from September 26 to November 14, 2020. In each of the 8 sessions, I and my co-host discussed one of the 8 chapters from my book "Mindfulness: connecting with the real you". Video recordings of all 8 sessions are available on YouTube. Here is the playlist. Link to an individual session can be found in the table below.



Session (videos)



Sept 26

Balancing the bicycle of life (PDF of the first chapter)

Shalini Goel


Oct 3

Listening to the mental shotgun

Gauri Dabholkar


Oct 10

Stepping out of the train of thought

Dr. Kavita Desai


Oct 17

Recognizing wasteful thoughts

Vipul Mathur


Oct 24

Watching the dance of necessities

Vivek Dabholkar


Oct 31

Investigating the shooting game

Nitin Desai


Nov 7

Searching for the real hero

Ashwin Patil


Nov 14

Dying to self-image every moment

Padmaja Parulkar

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Design Thinking resources #2: Empathy

Three years ago, I wrote a blog “Design Thinking resources #1” where I presented a set of resources (articles, books, videos) related to the overall design thinking process. In this article, I would like to extend the list with resources related to an important element of design thinking – empathy.

1. Getting people to talk: An ethnography & interviewing primer (30 min): This video is created by two students of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) Institute of Design in 2008. It gives a very good perspective on what it means to interview a stranger. It highlights the difference between an ethnographic interview and a hypothesis-driven interview. It tells you about extreme user interviews and expert interviews. It brings out the key aspects of a good empathic interview (curiosity, listening, establishing a rapport, narration of stories). It also points to the common mistakes during interviewing – too much nodding, saying, “Aha, Ya, Thanks a lot, That was great, That’s interesting” which could be distracting, compounding questions, leading questions. Overall, I feel this is an excellent primer for interviewing.

2.  How to do a user interview (from Google Ventures) (6 min): Many times you have a hypothesis about what the user wants. And you might have created prototypes (paper/plastic models or wireframes) and you want to validate the hypothesis. This video presents a good illustration of this process. It demonstrates 5 acts: Friendly welcome, context questions, introduction of prototypes, tasks and quick debrief. The video demonstrates that when the user actually uses your prototypes, the interviewer mostly just watches and only occasionally asks questions.

3.  3 essential elements of an empathic interview: In this article, I present 3 elements which I consider important in an empathic interview – listening, appreciation and elaboration.

4.  What is an empathy map? (5 min): Empathy map is an important tool to organize data gathered through design research (interviews, observations). This short video introduces us to a basic Say-Do-Think-Feel empathy map.

5.  Lego story: What the company learned from its mistakes (5 min): In this short video, the then CEO of Lego company, Soren Torp Laursen presents the difference between listening and really listening. He tells a story of how despite focus group interviews with kids, the company heard what it wanted to hear. This shows how the power of biases can act through the well-intentioned interviewing process.

6.  Sonu Nigam – The roadside ustaad (6 min): Try method – i.e. trying to live like another person is a powerful empathy method. In this short video, a popular Bollywood singer Sonu Nigam is shown to spend some time singing on the street walkway dressed like a beggar. The camera captures the responses of the passers-by. And Sonu also gives his perspective later in the video. Companies like Tesco make it mandatory for executives to work behind the checkout counter a few days in a year. I learn a lot while walking on the street with my 83-year-old mother who is severely arthritic. 

7.  Amazon CTO Dr. Werner Vogels highlights listening to customers: This is an hour-long interview of Amazon CTO Dr. Werner Vogels. However, the part that is relevant for empathy comes around 14:00.  Here Vogles articulates his role as an external-facing CTO. And he highlights the importance of listening to customers while evangelizing the technology they are developing. He says, “95% of our new features and services are a direct response to customer requests.”

Are there any empathy tools that are missing from this list? One is journey mapping. Let me see if I can find one or create one if I don’t find a satisfactory resource.