The meaning of life is unthinkable

What’s the meaning of life?

This question has haunted me for as far as my memory goes. Fourteen years ago – in 2005, when I was 18 – I wrote on my blog:

Purpose/Aim of life

First things first. Everybody says one should have some definite aim in life. But I consider living life to live, nothing else. Consider this, nobody lives after their death. So why waste ur whole life chasing an aim? Even if you get there. I mean even if you achieve so called aim, what next? Enjoyment or yet another aim? Enjoyment is OK. But there are many other ways in which u can enjoy ur life without wasting ur life in chasing an aim. No matter what, U are going to live. I don’t know if I am making any sense. But it is what I want to convey. ...  Read the entire post →

What Gita Teaches Us and What It Doesn’t

1/ I recently finished Menon’s translation of Bhagavad Gita, the holy book of Hindus. There’s a lot to like about it, but it leaves a few issues unresolved.

Here are my notes.

2/ The story revolves around the warrior Arjuna who faces conflict during a war with his cousins. He simply cannot bring himself to kill the people he grew up with. So he tells his charioteer, Krishna, that he’d rather die than go to war.

3/ This conflict is used as a backdrop by Krishna, who actually is an incarnation of God, to reveal the truth of the world to Arjuna. The ideas and concepts in Gita are consistent with other Hindu philosophies and ideas.

4/ The key philosophical teaching in Gita is that the human soul is one with Brahmana, the ultimate God. However, that soul is embodied and unaware that it is one with God.

5/ So, the body must go through Samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth until it realizes its oneness. Gita stresses that the real condition is of non-separateness. That only Brahmana exists that’s beyond time, space and quality.

6/ It’s only because of Maya, the illusion, that it seems reality consists of separate beings (souls). This idea was expressed in Ramayana as well when Hanuman meets Ram.

7/ Krishna tells Arjun that each soul has a karmic accounting going on. If after death, there’s positive karma, souls are sent to heaven where they enjoy until they end up using all their balance and then they’re sent back to the Earth.

8/ If the karmic balance is negative, souls get reborn as ‘lower’ creatures.

9/ The only way to get free of this constant cycle of birth and rebirth is by

seeking a zero balance of karma while being alive ...  Read the entire post →

What is truth?

A tweet-thread like micro-blog on a topic that I’ve been obsessing over lately.

1/ Whenever someone says “this is true”, or “I’m a truth-seeker”, ask them to first define truth. (Or if you’re asking this question, answer what evidence will constitute truth for you).

2/ Getting a hold of the definition being used for truth is especially important when talking about complex systems like business, politics, economics, ecology or essentially any field where you usually can’t just read error-free data from a well-isolated system.

3/ This privilege of substituting data with the truth is mostly available only to physicists. But even there, interpretations of truth can be widely debated – is 5-sigma a good enough threshold for declaring the Higgs boson to be true? Well, it’s anybody’s guess.

4/ The word ‘truth’ is bothersome because it’s ill-defined. If something is ‘true’, it won’t be debated. If something is debated but is ‘true’, how would you differentiate ‘truth’ from ‘falsity’? You’d use your subjective judgment to assess the evidence and then make that distinction. If you’d do that, so will everybody else and they can arrive at an opposite conclusion. (Much to your chagrin, they usually do). How can your truth be different from someone else’s truth?

5/ As you can see,

this ‘truth’ business is a slippery slope. I’d much rather prefer to use the word ‘satisfaction’ ...  Read the entire post →

You cannot plan for happiness (but you can discover it)

Most of our waking moments are spent either doing things that we expect will make us happy or trying to be happy. It’s like happiness is a currency and we want to hoard it as much as we can, as fast as we can. But the more we chase happiness, the less we’re able to get it. Yet if we momentarily forget about our desire to be happy, we find ourselves to be happy.

Before dissecting this contradictory nature of happiness, it’ll help to first define happiness. Everyone has their pet definition of happiness and each dictionary will define it in its own way. There’s no United Nations mandate specifying ingredients for happiness. It seems that happiness is hard to pin down and, as you’ll see, that’s precisely why you cannot plan for happiness.

The happiness paradox

Happiness is fundamentally an emotional feeling. You see, we feel happy. If happiness was a physical object located somewhere in our 4D spacetime, we could have sent space missions to find it and bring it back to us. If happiness was an idea, we could have ordered a book on Amazon and wrote reviews about it. If happiness was a person, we could marry it and be done for life. But happiness is none of it. If we knew what happiness was and how to get it, the entire self-help industry would have been long bankrupt. Yet the market for heres-how-you-get-happy is thriving because we’re suckers for happiness.

What I find most paradoxical about happiness is that we often think about it. Thinking is a process where we state some assumptions and work through their implications. Thinking is full of biases and is limited in its capacity (we aren’t able to store more than a couple of assumptions in our working memory). Thinking works best when there are a few variables involved. You’re fine thinking about whether Socrates is mortal (or discovering quantum mechanics), but you’re not ok thinking about how the future will unfold because it has far too many variables than what you can hold in your head.

Emotional feelings like love, disgust or happiness are a product of millions of years of evolution of our mind. There’s no single thing or principle that makes us happy. There’s no grand unified theory of happiness. Yet, we deploy our thinking hats trying to plan for a happier life. Thinking is significantly underpowered for this simulation: how our body and mind will react to billions of combinations of ingredients that make up our daily life and its context.

Miswanting: wanting things that won’t make you happy

There’s an idea in psychology called miswanting. It’s the difficulty we have in predicting what’ll make us happy. Here’s a simple example to illustrate miswanting. Suppose you think a beach holiday will make you happy. Since thinking is linear and full of biases, what leaps to your mind is pristine beaches, sun, beer and perhaps good food. Feeling pleasant and excited, you book your tickets. When the day arrives, you discover that the flight is delayed, or there was a cranky baby in the flight. Or when you reach the hotel, you find out that you forgot to pack sandals. On the beach, you get irritated by all the sand that’s stuck on your feet. There are tourists everywhere. It’s loud. Sun is harsher than you thought.

When you’re planning for a holiday (or any other experience you expect to derive happiness from), you obviously cannot think of all the nuances that’ll ruin the experience you planned for ...  Read the entire post →

Why do introverts get depressed easily?

Earlier I’ve written about building mental immunity to prevent depression. Lately, I’ve been very interested in the predictive processing theory of mind, and trying to build has intution about how gets depression takes shape.

I connect a few concepts from evolutionary psychology and predictive processing theory to explore why introverts are more susceptible to depression. Watch the 10-minute video essay below.

In case you prefer text, I tweeted the main ideas from the video as a thread.

Hope you enjoy the video. As always, I’d love to know your feedback.

Simpson’s paradox, or why your intuition about averages is probably wrong

I came across Simpson’s paradox in Judea Pearl’s book The Book of Why. It completely changed the way I thought about average statistics such as mean, standard deviation and correlation.

Inspired by that, I explored Simpson’s paradox in a 10-minute video.

I hope you enjoy the video. Leave your comments on Youtube (or on an email to me) if you have feedback.

Your company’s org chart is more important than you think

Startup founders have many biases. Some are classic cognitive biases that impact decision making, while others are specific biases that impact their product thinking.

There’s yet another founder bias whose impact is not felt for a long time. It occurs when founders assume employees think and act like them. The often repeated advice that “early startup employees wear multiple hats” is an implication of this bias. I remember I assumed that just because I was able to do multiple things (coding, design, marketing, etc.) I expected our sales folks to make their own presentations and engineers to think of new product features.

It was a bad idea.

Wearing multiple hats is dangerous

Founders are all about breadth. Early in a company’s history, when the team size is just 2 or 3 people, everyone has to do multiple things. However, as the company expands and new people come onboard, the hangover of everyone doing multiple things remains. The first marketer does everything: from AdWords to writing blogs to web analytics to developing brand guidelines. Similarly, the first salesperson is expected to find leads, qualify people’s interest, setup meetings, give demos, negotiate, write RFPs and then try converting interested prospects into customers.

New employees who’re asked to do multiple things settle into these broad roles and give some level of performance. However, this performance is mediocre and a source of frustration early on, when either you’re not growing or you’re growing, but there’s chaos and confusion all around.

This is a terrible way to grow as a company

A founder has to realize that her org chart determines the limits on her company’s growth. People give an amazing performance when they’re given one well-defined thing to do. In a company’s early days when the hiring budget is limited, I understand that the temptation to hire for generalists is ever present. But generalists don’t give you growth (they’re great at experimentation though). Real growth kickstarts when specialists are brought on to do killer execution on things that your company can benefit most from.

Org chart should implement your strategy

Right from the start, the CEO/founder should constantly be thinking about the organization design that’s required today and may be required one year after. Nobody else would do this. No employee will come and say fire me, hire a specialist instead. A CEO/founder only has few jobs to do, and one of them is company strategy and by implication, designing the company’s org chart.

I define organization design as:

What roles should be there in the company and how those roles should be related to each other.

From my experience, many entrepreneurs and CEOs (blindly) follow industry norms in hiring and so their organization chart takes a standard shape that’s indistinguishable from their competitors. That’s inefficient because each company has an essentially unique strategy and hence deserves a unique organization design that implements that strategy effectively.

In some cases, org design happens by accident because there’s no well-thought growth strategy (“we will do better than competitors” isn’t a strategy, but this is a topic for another post). A prerequisite for doing org design is clarity on strategy because if there’s no clarity, whatever org you have will automatically start determining what your strategy.

Common mistakes in organization design

To be a good organization designer, you have to be a good psychologist. You have to first learn what conditions bring out stellar performances in individuals and then design a structure where people can find themselves in such conditions. Effective org design is difficult because the temptation to underinvest and the fear of bloated org always exists.

(I’ve learned a lot on org design from this blog)

Common mistakes:

  • Underinvesting in specialist roles. I heard someone say that you don’t realize how much better a job can be done until you’ve seen someone do it 10x better. This means that for every role in your company, there are people who can do parts or entirety of it 10x better than existing people. You don’t need a good marketer, what you need is someone who’s killer at AdWords when it comes to your industry. You don’t need a frontend engineer, what you need is frontend performance engineer who can speed up your app 10x and hence considerably impact user satisfaction. If there’s a job worth doing well (from the perspective of your strategy), hire a specialist.
  • Having quality functions report into quantity functions. Functions such as QA and development should always be parallel in org chart and not report to one another. If you report quality oriented functions into quantity oriented ones, quality will suffer. If you report quantity into quality, speed will suffer.
  • Having long-term initiatives report into people accountable for short term. Doing this is the reason why big organizations usually cannot innovate when it comes to completely new initiatives. For people who’re tasked with short-term targets, long-term initiatives are a distraction because at the start they’re simply too small or too risky to get meaningful attention or resources. Since they’re measured on short-term targets, the big and the scaled up is where their interest goes. This lack of early nurturing causes long-term initiatives to fail early, creating a vicious cycle of stagnation. To solve this, long-term initiatives (such as strategy, R&D lab or brand building) need to be put into a separate place in the org chart (perhaps under a leader who reports directly to the CEO).
  • Not eliminating outdated roles and functions fast enough. The org chart should change as the strategy of the organization changes, which happens automatically as the company grows. Org chart implements the strategy, so not changing it frequently means your company will keep attempting to grow via the old ways (which may not work because market shifts constantly). So one of the jobs of the CEO and the board is to frequently assess if the org chart is aligned to strategy. This is why there are about a gazzilion books on change management because people don’t like their roles to be redefined or getting a new boss or, in the worst case, their job being replaced or made redundant.
  • Promoting high performers to be managers and leaders. Super-hard to avoid in reality, but when individual contributors who’re high performers are promoted, the organization gets damaged twice: one, the person who does the specialist job really well isn’t there to perform it, second, you have a manager who is probably a mediocre one (when you could have gotten an experienced manager). If you promote your best performers to managers, ultimately your org will be full of mediocre managers. Too often org charts revolve around the availability of people (and the fear of losing high performers). The right way, however, is to be clear of what roles exist in the org chart and what types of people will perform those roles best. Don’t fit roles into people, fit people into roles.
  •  ...  Read the entire post →

    Evolution explains everything

    I love evolution. It’s hard to not get awed by a process that took Earth, a big rock full of chemicals, and gradually chiseled it to create humans, creatures full of complex emotions and behaviors. Impossible as it may seem, the mind-bogglingly diverse human behavior can be explained via evolution.

    Let’s take our sense of boredom. We dislike doing nothing so much that sitting still during meditation requires active concentration. We have this anti-boredom drive because our ancestors who were action-oriented survived longer and had more babies, ultimately outnumbering our ancestors who were happy chilling and doing nothing.

    Or take our compliant nature. We like authority, we believe in things that good orators say, and we take part in superstitions because, evolutionarily speaking, being unpopular is much worse than being wrong. Our ancestors who believed in true things that made them unpopular got less sex than the ones who happily became part of whatever falsehood bonded the society together.

    Lastly, take our worrying or anxious nature. Gautam Buddha called dukkha (or dissatisfaction) a core part of our moment to moment experience. This insight that we’re generally unhappy or dissatisfied with whatever we have also makes sense in an evolutionary light. Our ancestors who worried constantly and overplanned for even rare contingencies survived better than the ones who were complacent and happy-go-lucky.

    The book The Elephant in the Brain dives deeper into the topic of human behavior from an evolutionary perspective – here are my notes from it.

    We’re adaptation executors, not fitness optimizers

    Some people have the misconception that evolution optimizes an organism’s fitness. In reality, evolution couldn’t care less about you or me (as it’s evident by the constant dukkha in our lives). Evolution is a blind process that over time increases the incidence of “greedy” organisms that survive longer and have more babies by whatever means necessary.

    During evolution, small and random changes accumulate over several generations of organisms. These result in organisms with various sets of traits and behaviors. Some organisms may end up having a propensity to worry, while may be inclined to do nothing.

    Ultimately what trait ends up spreading in the population is determined by who survives longer and has more babies ...  Read the entire post →

    Thinking in analogies is dangerous

    From your high school classes, do you recall the image of an atom where electrons revolve around the nucleus (just like planets go around the Sun)? I’m talking about images of this sort:

    A completely misleading diagram (via here)

    This analogy of electrons as tiny planets is so common that most people imagine electrons to be like tiny spheres. This bothers me because it’s utterly wrong. Electrons are not tiny spheres. Instead, they’re like a cloud spread around the nucleus. In fact, even the cloud analogy is wrong. Human intuition never evolved to understand things at that scale, so the most accurate picture of an atom is given by the Schrödinger equation. Note that the quantum mechanical equation is not just a mathematical description, it is what an electron really is. By the way, here’s a photo of an atom that was taken recently.

    Notice any tiny spheres? Me neither.

    Thinking in analogies is dangerous because

    they usually contain words that were originally defined in a totally different context ...  Read the entire post →

    Building mental immunity against depression and anxiety

    Mental health issues were the primary cause of the recent deaths of famous celebrities such as Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Avicii and Chester Bennington. I wish peace to their families and friends.

    I hope that these deaths don’t go in vain but serve as a wake-up call for the rest of us. Across one’s lifetime, there’s a very high likelihood of going through a mental health issue. Studies suggest that about 25% of all people suffer a mental disorder in any 12 month window. This means that it’s likely that one in four people you know have recently gone through a depression or an anxiety episode.

    This figure is shockingly high and doesn’t seem to match with our everyday experience. For the most part, our friends, family, and co-workers seem to be their normal selves and sometimes even happy. You surely think you would have noticed when people you know were mentally not well.

    But, would you really have?

    Depression and anxiety are these weird invisible monsters that usually only the sufferer can see. Talking about these things in public is an unfortunate taboo that I wish goes away. People going through an episode usually come up with valid-sounding excuses to avoid social situations and when they’re forced to attend, they’ll put up a smile so you wouldn’t notice. In fact, in my experience, people who are hilarious in social situations are often anxious or depressive in their private lives. Humor and depression may be related.

    For those who don’t know what depression feels like, I found Hyperbole and a Half (Allie) depict it with haunting accuracy in this twopart series.

    Yep, that’s the feeling. (via Hyperbole and a Half)

    Anxiety is a different monster. While depression is a complete lack of motivation to do anything, anxiety is that constant churning of worst case scenarios in your head. What if you die? What if you lose all your money? What if your loved ones die? What if the plane crashes? And so on.

    Relatable? (via College Humor)

    Note: before I dive into the rest of the post, let me mention that I’m not a practitioner. A lot of what I write in the post is my personal experience, and may or may not be corroborated by scientific research. If you’re going through a depressive or anxiety episode, please consult a medical professional now, or at least read this article. At the lowest points of life, when motivation is low and reasoning is clouded, you just have to rely on faith and trust. So, trust me, go see a psychiatrist or a psychologist. You will get better, as almost everyone going through this does. The only decision you have to make is to see a doctor.

    Brain as a prediction machine and depression is when it predicts that actions don’t matter

    The decrease of neurotransmitter dopamine is linked to depression and

    dopamine is associated with brain’s prediction of a reward in the environment ...  Read the entire post →