Incumbency

Exhibit 1: Clayton Christensen. His book The Innovator’s Dilemma is a celebrated one. He talks about how companies lose out on great opportunities because they stay focussed on where they earn most of their profits from today and hence sidestep what is new, promising but perhaps too small today.

Exhibit 2: Jonathan Ive, in many interviews and in his tribute speech to Steve Jobs explains that Steve had a lot of respect for fledgling ideas. He knew that “while ideas ultimately can be so powerful they begin as fragile barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily dismissed.

I could several stories about how large, incumbent companies have been overcome by new, smaller ones but I will skip that part because what I would like to do is extend this to our lives as well.

Most of us have an idea of what we want to do when asked to define a no-holds-barred ambition. I, for instance, want to a) make a product that is used by millions of people everyday b) want to make the world smaller by being able to travel with the same kind of planning that we do for making coffee c) want to learn programming again and experience the joy of building something that others use.

I am sure you have your ideas too, perhaps even more fun than the above :) But the one thing I often hear myself (and also others) say is that they are too invested in their current lifestyle, commitments and they have responsibilities they must respect and a combination of these greatly affects their ability to pursue their dream.

I suspect the reality of how we operate is totally different. I say so because while we all have stuff to pursue, the action really happens on a microscopic, everyday level when we wake up and make a decision to work on X or Y. Let’s say you want to learn gardening (or programming for that matter, in my case). The time you invest in learning the new skill doesn’t give returns right away and your mind sub-consciously continues to fight the low probabilities of success of this new venture against the assuredness of the current. We’re conservative beings, risk-averse and wanna maximise on what we know. I think this is what our brains do because of how they’ve evolved. Self-preservation, if nothing else for a fancy word.

The fact however is that you change your probabilities of success by sheer hard work and perseverance. You have to, you *must* fool your brain at those giving-up moments to somehow circumvent the doubts during this transition from low-success probability to a higher-success one.

Fight the incumbent, preserve-the-current thoughts in your mind and tell yourself that you will put in the hours to do what is required without even thinking of results for a fixed time every day.

PS: I’m trying to do this these days to learn programming. I’ll let you guys know how far I reach :)

orion-2

The story that Betelgeuse will tell

I got curious about stars when I could first see a lot of them in the sky. This happened when I lived away from  Delhi for the first time. We urban sissies hardly see 20 stars on a good cloudless night while at least 100 are visible at a good star viewing site within the circle you can make with your thumb and index finger.

Star gazing is the most humbling hobby. Every time I walk at night when I can see some stars, I can’t help noticing the familiar ones. They’ve remained there as I have changed cities, grown up, gone through the ups and downs of life. Most of these stars are so far away that what we observe today is where the star was tens, hundreds or thousands of years ago.

In the northern hemisphere (where most people live anyway), you can’t miss Orion that looks like this in citylight:orion-city

 

In rural areas, it might look like this:
orion-2

 

The shape and the star names are in this image:
orion-full

 

I like to think of stars as witness to our world, and they actually see what our world was like back then and even now! Consider the top left star on Orion,  Betelgeuse – which is pretty bright and is slightly red-ish. It is 427 light years away. That star, when you see it today was at that spot back in 1587. In that time, Delhi looked *very* different. It was when Akbar was the 45 year old ruler of pretty much most of what is India and Pakistan today.

Think about what Betelgeuse will tell a future generation about you in 2441 AD, 427 years from now.

What do you think will remain of you then ?

The Car UI

The cars of olden days were all born with manual gear change. The Ambassador as I remember also had a pedal to the right that dimmed the headlights. The dipper, you know.

The four foot pedals were ABCD, that is:
Accelerator
Brake
Clutch
Dipper

In that order. Makes it easy to remember no?

I wonder if the current cars have any such smarts and simplicity…

Talking / Trusting

Today on a ride back from the beach on the auto I had to stop at an ATM because money was short. I asked the auto guy to find an ATM and he stopped at one enroute.

It was dark when we started so I’m pretty sure neither of us recognized each other enough to spot in the crowd. I got down, walked to the ATM and wondered how I would find him if I did lose him in the crowd. Never mind that for now because it deserves another post (it is an auth and identification problem similar to a browser handshaking a banks’ server).

I walked in the (right) auto and didn’t say a word and got dropped at the hotel. I loved that. Yes, the part where I didn’t have to say a word. You can sure ho ahead with how-unsocial-I-must-be sort of jokes but here is why I liked it: the unspoken trust between two individuals is priceless.

A gazillion wasteful processes exist in our world to compensate for the lack of trust between people. Bus conductors, preventive litigators, currency notes, airplane boarding passes, gates, window grills.
All that is a bloody waste because people can’t trust each other.

We’re born myopic. Let’s fix it.

Evolutionary improvements over the past few eons have taught our brains to detect and identify any immediate changes around us. You might have noticed that at times when you are not even focussing at the corner of your eye, the slightest movement catches your attention. This is remarkable by the way and very specialized processors and sensors (rods in the eye and the hippocampus in the brain to be specific) help you achieve this feat. Think of it like low-power natural language processor built in the new Moto X. Evolved, just to do one thing really good.

Such hyper-efficient systems are myopic. As a result, our brain loses out on noticing long term changes around us. If I were to change the colour of this text one point on the RGB scale at a time chances are you that will not notice it till some time has passed. I am talking about changes that your eye CAN detect, but your brain refuses to acknowledge – like the gradual scaling of paint on a wall over seasons or the tree adding a new branch. Big changes – that we do not ‘see’.

I believe that we should inculcate the same approach in our short lifespans too. This hyperopic approach will force you to compensate priorities for something you did not before. Long term changes are arguably enormously more powerful than short term changes.
Consider the skill of language: Our ability to pass on unique information we learn to our children (this is the basic skill of language that only a few species have). It allows us to teach our children to ward off new dangers and point to new resources. Over time this makes us insanely more powerful than any other species.Consider however the time it would have taken to evolve speech, hearing and language from the point where we didn’t have it. I don’t know the exact years, but safe to assume it was more than 100,000 years. While that looks like an awfully long time to one generation, it is a blip for the entire species in its’ evolutionary story. That ‘blip’ however completely differentiated these ‘speaking’ species from others to a point where you simply don’t look back ever !

As a case in point, here are two ways you could think of this in your work life.

Your active, contributing working life is somewhere between 40 to 60 years in which many of us end up in a learn-everything-by-going-to-college-then-work-all-your-life approach. Don’t you think punctuations for picking up additional skills is a much better thing to do ? Or perhaps a six month period every 5 years where you only improve on a specific area of yours that you wish to make better on ?

Or think about your goals at a 40 year scale; I think that having a personal brand that clearly stands for what you imbibe is so much more important than the immediate promotion or a salary hike that you’d been vying for and perhaps even losing sleep over. Trust, I have always believed is much harder to earn than money and takes a much longer investment to achieve. It is much harder work than say, closing a sale or writing a program to solve 2048.

And the above examples are just the onset of a way of thinking – What’s stopping you from thinking about other aspects of your life in this way ? Perhaps all your key decisions like the choice of the city you grow up in, the spouse you chose, the books you read would be influenced by this thought process.

I look forward to hear how you think the world would operate differently if everybody became hyperopic :)

How old are you ?

20140323-233349.jpg

I just learnt that Shaheed Bhagat Singh, who hanged for fighting for Indian independence on March 23rd, 1931 was all but 23 years old at that time. Twenty three and a half. Think about it. That’s younger than young. And he had a mission in his mind so clear that he was happy to sacrifice his life for it too.

What purpose he had in his life! One that lived way beyond his life even! What an amazing soul!

Parking at the airport

20140318-214321.jpg
At the Delhi airport parking you pick up a ticket on your way in from an automatic dispenser, pay and then insert into an automatic reader on the way out within 15 minutes of the payment. Parking charges are in three buckets: 0-30 minutes, 30 minutes to 2 hours and then full day charge. All parts except the ‘pay’ one are automated. They perhaps avoided automating it for the cost of interchange. Also I don’t like it because it creates a wait for a bit too long and would only get worse when lots of people get out together from arrivals (3 am on any given day is perhaps the busiest at DEL).

Anyway, I am writing today about something else. The ’15 minute’ part. Once paid, a new ticket is printed and provisioned to work for the next 15 minutes – which leaves enough time for people to find their cars and leave.

I think however that this (15 minute constraint) is unnecessary and easily avoidable at no extra cost. My impulse to think about this came from the long wait I have to do when I have some luggage with me and want to quickly head back to my car and to my way home ASAP. If only they allowed people to pre-pay their parking fee, it would be so much better. The benefit of removing the 15 minute constraint would be that the queue on the human-powered pay counter would drastically reduce because people can pay any time between entry and exit.

Here is how:
The printed ticket is a bar coded paper card that is machine readable and carries 20 digits. Right now it carries a unique number that is allowed to open the gates for the next 15 minutes after which it expires. These systems are pretty similar to prepaid calling cards and recharge cards that telecom operators have used since eons. They are primarily designed to avoid fraud so nobody can print them at home.

Instead, these twenty digits could be split into two: one part the expiry date+time and the second part a unique number that ensures it is protected from fraud. This combination of expiry time and the unique number could further be encrypted so it isn’t easy for anybody to predictably print new ones.

Do you reduce the security by now using lesser number of digits than before for the unique number ? Yes 12 digit uniques are less secure than 20 digit ones but by a practically irrelevant amount. Moreover the combination of these two parts can also be jumbled together to raise security even further.

Now the automated reader at the exit would know to look for a valid expiry time along with a check to make sure it is not a fraudulent ticket.

The change required is purely in software which is the kind of change I always consider equal to buying real estate. Done right, it is one-time investment that never stops giving returns.

The benefit would be a lesser queue and possibly lesser people required at the pay counter. Happy passengers, happy car-parkers, happy pay counter staff. It is truly a situation where the total amount of happiness in this universe will increase.