Wednesday, March 20, 2019

How Carlo Rovelli dismantles the order of time

Time is so fundamental to our perception of reality that it is hard to imagine that it could be similar to Santa Claus – just an abstraction. And this is exactly what physicist Carlo Rovelli attempts to show in his lecture titled “The physics and philosophy of time” delivered at the Royal Institute in April 2018. In this process of dismantling the notion of time, Rovelli takes five properties of time and tries to show how each of them could be an approximation relevant in a context and meaningless beyond it. Here are the five properties:

Synchronized clock-time:  (9:35) We know that clocks measure time. And in our business meetings with participants from different continents, our clocks are usually synchronized. However, that is an approximation. Rovelli says we live in the “Netherlands” of space-time region – which is very flat. And even in this region, atomic clocks with an accuracy of 10-17 second show that one atomic clock placed 40-50 cm above the other runs faster than the one below.  The conclusion is staring at us: Our head is older than our feet. And there is no such thing as synchronized clock-time.

We both have the same NOW: (14:00) When we watch a live telecast of a match, we know that everybody is watching the same thing. But are we watching it NOW? No. We are watching it with a delay of a few seconds. If you are visiting Mars and I am on Earth, our NOWs are separated by 3 minutes. And we have not even taken our relative speeds into consideration. In short, Rovelli points out that there is no universal NOW. We all live in a local NOW bubble which has a length given by the speed of light.

Disorder grows in the future: (20:45) Second law of thermodynamics says that entropy which in layman terms means disorder grows in the future. For example, if we have a box with green balls on one side and red balls on the other side, we would call it order. And then if we mix them, we could say that the disorder has increased. Rovelli asks, “But, what if a colour blind person watches this transition? Would he say that the disorder has increased?” Perhaps not. Rovelli points out that if the universe looks more ordered in the past, it doesn’t mean the perceived order is a property of the universe. It just means we, the observing sub-system, has chosen a set of variables that makes us see it more ordered in the past. What could be that perspective from which disorder may not grow in the future? That leads us to the next property.

Time is continuous: (33:05) What Rovelli’s research in Loop Quantum Gravity (LQG) suggests is that if we look at the time at sufficient granularity i.e. divide time in small intervals, say of 10-44 second each, then time is no longer continuous. Every unit of this granular entity is independent. If a stone seems to carry the same structure over a long period, then it means the quantum process at each event of this granularity is expressing itself in a similar way at least as far as our perception is concerned.

Experience of time flowing: (44:15) Towards the end of the talk, Rovelli turns to the question, “All this is fine, but what about the flow of time I experience?” He considers the possibility that perhaps all these properties physicists study don’t capture something about time which creates a flow of experience. This is where he steps outside his field of expertise to neuroscience. He suggests a possibility that the flow of time is an outcome of neurological processes. Perhaps the human brain is a time machine which creates an emotional fog around the memory traces it weaves and calls it life and that fog doesn’t allow us to see the real nature of time. In fact, he interprets Buddhism’s second noble truth which emphasizes impermanence as “time is the source of human suffering”. After all, we lose things because of time. And what we are most afraid to lose is oneself – i.e. death.

As a student of mindfulness, the illusion of time has been an important area of exploration for me. The talk shed light on some aspects of time which were new to me especially I found the perspective on the second law of thermodynamics insightful.

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Watch the talk on YouTube: 

Saturday, March 16, 2019

My 3 takeaways from “Metaphors we live by” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Metaphors we live by” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnsen was in my to-read list ten years ago when I read about metaphors in Chip & Dan Heath’s “Made to stick”. However, I never got around to reading it until recently. During last decade metaphors, for me, went from being a useful communication tool to a dominant ever-present lens. “Metaphors we live by” was published in 1980 and it explores the roles metaphors play in shaping our thinking process. Here are my three takeaways from the portion of the book I have read so far.

Our thinking is metaphorical: Traditionally, we look at metaphor as a linguistic concept – perhaps more relevant to poets and writers. The book makes a bold claim quite different from this belief. It says, “The most important claim we have made so far is that metaphor is not just a matter of language, that is, of a mere word. We shall argue that, on the contrary, human thought processes are largely metaphorical.” That means metaphors are deeply ingrained in our thought process. For example, if we believe “life is a journey”, then we would use expressions like – This is an important milestone for me, I am stuck, It has been a long bumpy road, I am at a crossroad etc. However, if we believe “life is a gambling game”, then the expression used could be – We’ll have to take our chances, I am betting big on this, The odds are against me, Play your cards right, He is keeping it close to his chest. Lakoff and Johnsen write, “The way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor”.  

Metaphors provide experiential understanding: Lakoff and Johnsen say that the primary function of a metaphor is to provide a partial understanding of one kind of experience in terms of another kind of experience. My favourite example is the way Dr. Venkataswamy, founder of Aravind Eye Care, framed the challenge while starting an eye hospital in Madurai more than forty years ago. Dr. V asked himself, “How might we make eye care delivery as efficient as McDonald's?” Many of us have some experiential understanding of the efficiency of McDonald's. We don’t associate a hospital visit to a visit to McDonald's. But by asking this question, you start associating a known experience to a new experience you want to create. This example also highlights how we use metaphors – by highlighting one aspect of the experience (efficiency) over other aspects (say, product, business model or marketing).

Metaphors can create a new reality:  “Time is money” is how most of us think. We invest time, waste time, save hours by working from home, spend time judicially, run out of time etc.  The authors say that the Westernization of cultures throughout the world is partly a matter of introducing the TIME IS MONEY metaphor into those cultures. Some of the tribal cultures even today don’t think in terms of investing, saving time etc. Perhaps for some “Time is a river” – ever flowing, ever new. When I first considered “Human life is like a wave in the ocean” as a serious possibility more than twenty years ago, I was deeply shaken. It had serious implications on some of the core concepts like progress, success, death etc. I had to explore further to see what emerges as a new reality. Hence, some metaphors are called “generative metaphors”. They help you ask new questions you hadn’t asked before and they help you see a new reality not perceived by your senses.

To summarize, we looked at three aspects of metaphors. Our conceptual system is permeated with metaphors, metaphors try to express one experience in terms of another, and metaphors have the power of creating a new understanding. The book is concept-heavy. However, it uses plenty of examples to illustrate the points. “Metaphors we live by” is potentially an eye-opener.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2019

3 essential elements of an empathic interview

An interview forms an important experiential element in my design thinking workshops. Sometimes participants interview strangers on the road, in a mall or on the campus etc. Other times, they interview other participants. Are there any core elements of an empathic interview? Let’s explore in this article.

Listening: Sometimes, we have paired interviews in the class. Partner-1 interviews partner-2 for 5-10 minutes and then they switch their roles. This is where I notice confusion in some participants. They lose track of their roles as an interviewer or an interviewee. And the interview turns into a discussion. Listening is perhaps the most important element of an empathic interview. Many times the interviewer also has knowledge and opinions on the topic (s)he is interviewing on. And hence, the interviewer also starts sharing his own experience. This is likely to influence the interviewee’s response. Hence, the interviewer should focus on listening. I suggest 80-20 rule i.e. interviewer should talk 20 percent of the time, and interviewee 80 percent. But the urge to speak is sometimes very powerful. Moreover, interviewer’s listening can be hampered if the voice in the head is constantly judging what is being heard. It needs watchfulness or alertness.

Appreciation: Imagine two executives in formal dress interviewing a security guard near the security gate of their office. The interviewers may have good intentions of understanding the security guard as a person and nothing beyond that. However, the security guard might feel vulnerable. A complaint from any of these interviewers and he could lose his job. What is the chance that he would speak from his heart? Very low. Hence, it is important to try to make the other person feel comfortable. How does one even attempt to communicate that, as a human being, the security guard has as much dignity as anyone else? It is not easy. However, one way to begin this communication is by spotting something about the person noteworthy and appreciating it.  For a security guard, it could be his vigilance ability, or his ability to stand under the hot sun or his ability to work long hours etc. For a person who might be feeling, “I am not worth much”, this ability-specific appreciation could go a long way in restoring self-confidence. Whether it is a security guard or a CEO or a struggling student, everybody carries bright spots – things that are worth appreciating. The interviewer needs to develop the skill to spot these areas and appreciate them.

Elaboration: Imagine you are interviewing a senior manager who is very busy. She is struggling to give quality time to her family. She mentions that she has registered for an online course to learn “Machine learning” but she is falling behind in terms of class schedule. Now, she is articulating this story with a bit of frustration. However, it would be good for the interviewer to see her willingness to learn despite being busy as a bright spot worth appreciating. However, appreciation is not enough. This is an area where there may be important information about how this person finds time for online learning despite her busy schedule. Does she listen to her lectures during commute time? Or late at night? Does she have buddies at work for this course? Does she get time to read the textbook? Is her spouse supportive? Every bright and dark spot offers an opportunity to learn more and hence elaboration plays an important role in empathic interviews. This can be looked upon as a context discovery process. When she is learning, what is the surrounding context that is enabling the learning process?  People, devices, processes etc. Thus context curiosity is critical for elaboration.

In short, we looked at three core elements of an empathic interview: listening, appreciation and elaboration. Perhaps you can use this as a checklist while interviewing.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Could listening be the biggest source of ideas?

“No, no, that’s not possible”. One participant in my workshop was telling another. Both of them had more than twenty years of experience. So they were experienced senior managers. However, what was conspicuously missing in their conversation was listening. And I would like to explore here if listening could be the biggest source of ideas.

The two gentlemen arguing with each other were responding to the idea of remotely monitoring a large power station located in a remote hilly area. The person proposing the idea was saying that it is already implemented in other parts of the world. The other skeptic was firm. He said, “It won’t work in our organization”. They were both from a Public Sector Unit (PSU) and the skeptics were confident that the culture of the organization doesn’t allow such an idea to be implemented.

Perhaps the skeptic was right. Maybe the idea won’t work in their company. However, there was no harm in considering it as a possibility at this early stage. There was no serious study done yet to the best of their knowledge and no experimentation was carried out. What lacked at this stage is listening with “It’s possible” attitude. And perhaps by honing the openness in listening one may access a large pool of ideas.

The situation where one defends one’s ideas and rejects others’ ideas is something I witness in every workshop. The teams have hardly done any experimentation in building their case and yet they are ready to take a position and defend their idea. Instead of defending, if they could just listen and make of note of various comments and suggestions, they would have access to so many more ideas.

A decade ago I wrote a blog “Do ideas float in the air?” It was inspired by an article in New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell titled “In the air: who says big ideas are rare?” The hypothesis here is that big ideas are floating in the air and are just waiting to be listened to. If your listening antenna is sharp enough you will catch it. It needs “it’s possible” attitude while listening. And it looks like this attitude doesn’t come naturally to many of us.

In 1878, Prof. Barker of University of Pennsylvania suggested to Thomas Edison that he should subdivide electric light so that it could be got like small units like gas. And he listened. Hundred years later (1976) Mike Markkula wrote a document called “The Apple marketing philosophy” and suggested to Steve Jobs that the first tenet of marketing should be empathy, an intimate connection with the feelings of the customers. And Jobs listened.

Today we get to hear ideas not only from personal interactions but also from podcasts, TED talks and other sources of social media. Perhaps all it needs is listening with “it’s possible” attitude and discipline of noting down ideas that interest you. How can your idea pipeline be dry if you listen?

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Monday, December 24, 2018

Confession of a fake guru: A soliloquy from “Tujhe aahe tujpashi”

Any teacher, especially a spiritual teacher needs to be alert about the process of self-deception. Hence, as a facilitator of mindfulness workshops, I find the following confession of a fake guru appealing. It is a soliloquy from the Marathi play “Tujhe aahe tujpashi” (You have your stuff) by P. L. Deshpande.
Beginning of soliloquy-- Who? Who made me a guru? In my youth, I jumped into social service inspired by patriotism. Navigating this stream was tiring. However, it felt as if the entire society was standing at the banks with sticks. And they would push me back in the water the moment I would reach the shore.  They would say, “Guruji, you have to fight for us!” Getting off at the shore became impossible. 
To go from monkhood to family life would have been far worse than becoming a thief! People would have laughed mockingly. A son of a monk could get a buffalo to recite Vedas. However, he had to face the mockery from society. I was scared of that throughout my life. This monk didn’t have the courage to drop the robe to become a common man and face the social stigma. I was giving discourses on the importance of fearlessness. But I was always scared inside. I was giving talks in high pitch so that I don’t hear the sound of my fear. Slowly it became a habit.

I neither got the respect of a monk nor enjoyed the peace of a common man. I also realized people would forget me if I go in the background. Thus began a constant struggle to remind people of my existence through talks, attending conferences, interviews, fasts, propaganda of mind purification tenets etc. This became my life.   

I didn’t win over the desire. On the contrary, I tried to bury it under layers of pompous words. The other day I was reflecting on my life at the banks of the river Kshipra. Kshipra flows peacefully distributing peace. She is able to instill peace in people because of the stillness she carries inside. Whose life have I made happier? Who is genuinely concerned about me in the Ashram? Whenever opportunities for better positions came, my colleagues left the Ashram. I had a strong ego. And they also needed a guru to salute. When they massaged my feet once in a while, both of us felt good.

I carried the ambition of returning the ocean waves with a broom. Buddha, Christ did it, I also got enamored. But each was like a lighthouse. It carries the strength to stand still under a tempest. We are like ships. We should navigate under the guidance of a lighthouse. This poor body began to feel that it is a lighthouse. With every little storm, the ship began to lose its way, got crashed again and again and became a pitiable object. Finally, this guru became a sorry figure. -- end of soliloquy.

Self-deception is relevant not only for spiritual teachers but for any person who carries a position of respect and power. It could be in a family or at work or in society. Fear of falling off from the position is so strong that maintaining the self-image becomes a full-time job. In the process, one loses track of one’s true nature. It is not surprising that the question “Who am I?” carries so much importance in spirituality.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

What to do when boss says “Be more innovative”?

“What do I do?” asked a participant in a one on one conversation during a coffee break in one of my workshops. He felt he had been doing all he could on the innovation front. And yet his boss told him, “Be more innovative”. He was a bit upset. What could he do? Here are a few tips.

Listening: In my opinion, the most effective response is perhaps the most difficult one as well. i.e. to listen. Perhaps the boss has some important point to tell. At the very least, everybody carries a need to be listened to. Boss is no different. It could also be an opportunity to understand what innovativeness might mean to the boss. Sometimes the crux lies in the subtle differences in meanings. And an abstract concept like innovativeness can carry so many shades. Hence, I feel the most important thing to do is to listen and understand what boss means by “more innovative”. Perhaps ask questions so that he can elaborate it with examples.

Communication: Sometimes one is doing a number of things related to innovation – identifying new challenges, generating ideas, involving team members, building prototypes etc. However, one area which is sometimes overlooked is communication. Communicating innovation efforts may involve a short write up, a dashboard, a presentation, a demo or a combination of these. I would at least check if the innovation efforts are communicated regularly to the boss.

Challenge seeking: When boss says, “be more innovative” it could also mean following. Some of the key challenges that are important to him are perhaps not getting adequate attention. Hence, it may be a suggestion to prioritize the challenges that are given attention during the innovation efforts. Hence, it may help to probe and find out what according to him are the key challenges worth addressing. When the challenge comes from the boss, there is a higher chance of getting sponsorship for a promising idea.

In short, we looked at three things one can do when boss says, “Be more innovative” viz. listening, communication and challenge seeking. Will it always work? No. But carrying a grudge in the mind is not known to work either.

Friday, November 9, 2018

2 reflection moments from Zoya Akhtar’s “Luck by chance”

Movies sometimes create mirrors where there is an opportunity to see oneself and associated self-deception. In this article, I would like to look at two such powerful reflection moments from the film “Luck by chance” (2009) written and directed by Zoya Akhtar. In fact, it was her directorial debut. Spoiler alert! The plot is being revealed. 

Did he thank you? A struggling actor Vikram (Farhan Akhtar) gets a lead role in a big banner film and that launches his career. Earlier the role has been rejected by many leading actors and the director finally decides to cast a new face for the lead role. Vikram gets shortlisted among hundreds of photographs followed by several rounds of interviews. And a lead role with an established director means a defining moment in Vikram’s career.

At a time when Vikram’s picture is being flashed everywhere as part of the film promotion, Vikram attends a party1. Here Vikram meets Zaffar (Hrithik Roshan), the previous lead for the film who left it after he got a better role in another film. After a hi-hello, Zaffar wanders off and meets Karan Zohar. Karan asks him, “Did he thank you?” Zaffar asks, “No, why should he?” “Oh, it is because you rejected the role,” clarifies Karan, “that Vikram got it.”

Behind every success (and failure) there are non-events – events that didn’t happen but could have happened. Vikram got a break because seven other actors rejected the role. Karan explains that many actors like Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan got a break in the film industry because several leading actors at that time had rejected the roles they got. When a new client reaches out to me for work, sometimes it is clarified that they are looking for someone because their current vendor is not available.

I am sitting here writing this blog because there are so many things that could have happened didn’t happen. I could have been sick, could have been out walking, could have been not in a mood to write, could have been knocked-off by a car in the morning while crossing the street. I am doing what I am doing partly because there are zillions of events which could have happened didn’t happen. And I had no control over these events. And hence to say, “I am in control of my life. I am a self-made man.” looks flimsy, doesn’t it?

Mindfulness is awareness of non-events while creating a story in the head2.

No fault of yours: This is one of the last scenes of the movie3. Vikram has become a big star. He has forgotten his friend Sona (Konkona) who supported him during his struggling years and it was she who had given Vikram’s photographs to one of the directors she knew. In the meantime, after struggling for a few years in the film industry, Sona gets a break in TV serials and makes a mark. One day, Vikram feels guilty for how he treated Sona and he visits her, apologizes her for his mistakes and requests her to become an anchor in his life. Finally, he asks her, “You don’t trust me?”

Sona tells him, “I know you are saying the truth because you are really that selfish. I was listening to you carefully. How I was part of your life. How I supported you. How I can be a support for you. This whole thing is about you, Vikram. Where am I in all this?” Finally, she adds, “It’s not your fault. What can you do? That’s who you are.”

When I feel that I love someone, is it a disguised form of selfishness? Is it just a bunch of expectations so that I can get somewhere in my career or life? To recognize that what I call love or care is a disguised form of selfishness needs alertness.

What Sona demonstrates is also a form of heightened awareness. She is not upset with selfish Vikram. She sees that he can’t help being selfish. That’s who he is. Of course, she doesn’t go along with him but she doesn’t carry any bitterness against him. The world around us is largely selfish. The selfishness gets expressed in various forms – love, social service, employment benefits, discrimination, corruption etc. Can we become aware of the compulsions which drive these behaviours? Then there is no hurt. That doesn’t mean corruption shouldn’t be punished. But is there a need for anger or bitterness?

Mindfulness is awareness of compulsions which drive people to do things4.

In short, the two scenes mentioned here create opportunities for us to see the non-events which always exist as possibilities every moment and to see the compulsions which drive people to act, sometimes in crazy ways. When I carry this awareness, why would I take credit for a successful outcome? And, why would I be upset with anyone for a crazy looking act? 

  1. The party scene is around 2:04:00 in the movie.
  2. Daniel Kahneman says following about non-events in his best-seller, “Thinking, fast and slow”: Human mind does not deal well with nonevents, (Chapter 19, Illusion of understanding).
  3. “No fault of yours” dialogue is around 2:23:35 in the movie.
  4. Perhaps the word "compulsion" is used in Buddhist literature as sankhara and in Upanishads as samsakara and in Spinoza-David Bohm literature as "absolute necessities".