Moonshot Thinking & the film “The Edge of Tomorrow”

I got around to watching the new Tom Cruise sci-fi film “The Edge of Tomorrow” this long weekend. While I will do my best to avoid sharing any spoilers, I certainly enjoyed the movie for its portrayal of a fresh perspective and I’d like to figure out if I can share my thoughts as coherently as the movie itself.

The movie’s basic premise is that the world’s gripped by crisis. It has been overwhelmed by a technologically superior alien species known as the mimic, that wants our planet for itself. Europe has been lost and a press officer Major William Cage (played by Tom Cruise) has been reluctantly drafted to the front lines in a major counter-offensive. Unprepared, he dies on his first day of battle and wakes up to a unique phenomena.

Just like in a video game, every time Cage dies, his death allows him to re-spawn back in time to the point where he joins the other troops a whole day before the battle begins. The rest of the movie is about his desire and discovery of the abilities to win the war for humanity. Without spoilers, here’s what I think a summary of the story ought to be.

We can’t be absolutely prepared in skills, resources or else for any worth-while challenge.
As we take the only active steps we know to face it head on,
we discover that our initial anxieties about the challenge are unfounded.
We try and try again only to lose our way and find our way back in to this game we’ve created.
Eventually, our ability to rise above the challenge transcends odds and circumstances alike.

If by now you haven’t already figured out the metaphor, I believe the movie is alluding to moonshot thinking.

As goals go, the premise is that we’re bad at distinguishing between what’s truly impossible, and what’s hard but only just beyond our current means.

An apt example of this is where the word moonshot comes from, the US Apollo missions to the moon. At the time of the first moon landing, there was no precursor to the moon mission. Peter Thiel referred to the idea of simply ‘reaching the moon’ as the ‘Calculus metaphor‘, arguing that ‘a spaceship can’t ride on probabilistic thinking’.

Fittingly, this past week India managed to reach Mars on its first attempt, a first in itself. There’s more.

Today we’re gripped by an irrational exuberance with respect to the proliferation of personal technology in India. This is the same exuberance as I’d experienced in the past. It’s more certain now that smartphones can bring about technological parity between every Indian, regardless of his demographic and even education. In Android, Google knows it has the best chance to achieve this with what will be the next 300Mn Indians to go online.

Now is the best time to reset what we know and otherwise to welcome this transformation.


What Exactly Does Adequate Attention Mean?

Sourcing good ideas is hard. The challenge manifests when attempting to source ideas from within and even from a slightly larger group of people. In all such cases, optimizing attention along a sensory dimension can help.

First, a few basic ideas. Sensory attention employs the sense organs. Abstract attention on the other hand, is attention that is independent of sensory input. At any given point of time, you’re applying both cognitive processes to various degrees.

When we’re a part of a novel or challenging experience, our abstract attention isn’t a priority. Let’s say you’re getting ready for a presentation. On standing up and presenting out loud to an audience, you’re optimizing on your aural as well as visual attention. In other words, you’re paying attention to a feedback loop that’s not just inside your mind. If on the other hand, you’re putting together slides seated at your desk – you’re engaging the presentation in a more abstract sense.

Here’s the catch. Abstract attention alone isn’t as sustainable, or effective in introducing contextual breakthrough as sensory attention is. Anyone who’s experienced school in India will identify with a scenario where the teacher’s yelling out “pay attention to the blackboard!”

This makes for some simple and odd-sounding solutions possible.

Do you think it’s possible for a brick-building game such as LEGO to foster team and business building? Maybe even change success rates in an educational environment?

LEGO Serious Play (wikipedia) claims all of the above. Teams are encouraged to collaborate and create projected story lines of their business, team or any concept as a 3D LEGO model. As you build it out, you’re paying attention to your hands employing both touch as well as visual attention. In a collaborative environment, you’re also unconsciously reading body language and employing empathy.

Switching contexts, when brainstorming on a startup idea, its easy to disregard an idea as unworkable without actual customer data, or contextual input to show that it’s promising. It’s also easy to overestimate the value of an idea based on what you’ve seen or heard. The challenge with an infant idea is that it’s an abstraction with potentially many inner ideas that could be rearranged for greater effectiveness. What’s needed is resolution before decision. This is certainly an area where increasing sensory attention beyond the average business model framework or story map can play a role in encouraging deeper thought and better decision-making.


Celebrating Minecraft’s Creator

Build what you want! Have you heard that one before?

Minecraft began as an idea in the mind of Markus “Notch” Persson. He released an early version of it in May 2009 after creating it in his spare time from home.  They’ve sold 54 million copies since! In September 2014, Mojang – Minecraft’s current owner sold out to Microsoft for $2Bn.

Minecraft’s a unique story that highlights two promises of our age – the ability for anyone to write software and instantly ship it to users at scale. If you’ve got the ingredients right, the sky is the limit.

The build cycle starts out with toying with several ideas, good and bad. The one that’s interesting is the one that gets built. As the very first user of what’s being built, the creator enjoys the advantage of the shortest possible feedback loop before users were to even get involved.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of thought over this bit of the loop. I’ve come to realize that attempting to give away the responsibility of this bit loses the entire point of the cycle. Communication is inherently lossy! Pleasant, unintended side effects of doing it oneself- keeping in only those features that are absolutely necessary and depriving naysayers altogether.

Sharp build skills have another amplifying side-effect. When you notice a workaround or a gap, you’re less likelier to turn to a lesser solution. Instead, you’re likelier to think “… that’s interesting, I can build that tonight.”

It’s also the only sure way that I know of dropping the many biases we carry. And yes, you’re going to get some ideas that suck.

This is to wish Markus well! His faith in ‘Build what you want’ is inspiring.

 

Build What You Want


How We Lost Microsoft India

It’s rare to experience two very different perceptions around the same central idea, on the same day.

Those of us from Pune will remember that Microsoft India at one point (~ 1998) did consider setting up operations in Pune. This weekend I had two different conversations with colleagues of mine from Pune around Microsoft’s role in our eco-systems.

Both of them were well-educated individuals from different cultural backgrounds. I hope they’ll forgive me for using the content of our conversation here on my blog. But there’s an overarching purpose which our conversations illustrated. I happen to simply be the medium to have spotted the content of both these conversations.

My purpose of relating it here is to encourage thought around what is soil to a farmer?

One of them highlighted how important it was to bring products-led thinking and technology to India’s IT leadership efforts. He said, and I paraphrase – the work in Microsoft India, Hyderabad is hardly the kind that an IIT’ian would aspire to.

Without focusing on the truth or otherwise of this statement let’s move on to the next one.

The other one highlighted how sad it was that Pune lost out to Hyderabad in bringing Microsoft to India. He asked, what is it that we’re missing that Hyderabad has? We have the talent, educational institutions and so on.

In my own journey, I’ve travelled to the United States and studied, worked there in the hope that their culture will influence me enough to give up on any unnecessary habitual ways that I’ve acquired from the culture that I belong to. This is true of an ongoing trend of so many thousand students who make the journey every year.

I’ve also seen first-hand how brilliant migrants from tier-II, tier-III cities aspire for different lives in tier-I and metro cities of India.

For both of these migrants, their journey is essentially the same. Some stay, some don’t.

In order to build a product eco-system with self-belief, we’ll need many, many Satya Nadella’s who can find work to aspire to and in the process, find themselves in Pune. Of those many, perhaps one will build a Microsoft that Pune can call its own. Then both queries will be satisfied.


Meaning Meaningless

“What’s happening?” Have you ever had anyone ask you that?

As a beginner in meditation, I’ve often struggled with both sides of the question. At times, I’ve felt that my practice has resulted in a whole lot. From deep insight to even the occasional hallucination. At other times, its nothing at all. Perhaps reality is somewhere in between? You are just sitting down, watching the mind. And then again, there might just be something happening. Like a glacier scraping down a mountain side, its fingerprints are everywhere and its easy to miss recognizing what’s changing the landscape.

Three years down the road, I’m only now getting to a stage where I can occasionally turn my attention to the physiological state of the body to sense how far along I’ve come in a meditation session. In the beginning, the mind is stormy, tumultuous and ragged. Twenty minutes in, I discover the body is at peace, stable, quiet. Needless to say the mind follows.

And then there’s the pace of technology.

When I first saw the Muse headset at Le Web, I was blown away as it had the potential to marry metrics (a favorite subject) with the mind (another favorite subject).

I wasn’t the only one thinking along those lines. The team of Mindfulness Inc. saw that too and have recently shared their invention with the Kickstarter Community. I learned about it through a friend who tweeted it out. A lotus that blossoms with changes in you brain waves. Wow?! Talk about great design. That was way better than I’d imagined it.

The Lotus is a great idea for someone starting out like me. This is what meditation actually does and you can see it happen better this way than any other inorganic method. Meditating with the Lotus can realistically improve your chances of staying on the wagon. Although I do wish it were to come with a warning. If you’ve come so far as to start a practice in a search for answers, I’d share that getting past that mindset instantly is exactly what this is all about. The earlier you deal with this question, that much better for your practice.

As a Zen master once referred to the mystery of meaning,

“If we are looking at something, it can vanish from our sight, but if we do not try to see it, that something cannot vanish. Because you are watching it, it can disappear, but if no one is watching, how is it possible for anything to disappear? If someone is watching you, you can escape from him, but if no one is watching, you cannot escape from yourself.”

- Shunryu Suzuki.


Beyond Giving Up

What you do after giving in is a true window into character. If you think you’re going to get back on track, here’s a few thoughts from different books I’ve read over the past year that will help you on your way.

Do you know why you’re giving in? The key is to know the difference between a temporary setback from one that’s permanent. Often this clarity is elusive when unexpectedly overwhelmed.

Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” describes an experiment where researchers gave guests puzzles to solve while measuring the dilation of pupils, heart rate. As the challenge level rose, they’d watch the pupils dilate as much as 50% and the heart rate go up by as much as 7 beats per minute. These physiological indicators were reliable enough to tell when the guest has given up,

During a mental multiplication, the pupil normally dilated to a large size within a few seconds and stayed large as long as the individual kept working on the problem; it contracted immediately when she found a solution or gave up. As we watched from the corridor, we would sometimes surprise both the owner of the pupil and our guests by asking, “Why did you stop working just now?” The answer from inside the lab was often, “How did you know?” to which we would reply, “We have a window to your soul.”

- Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow (Get the Kindle edition on Amazon).

Did you get the challenge-level right? If it is a temporary setback and you’re keen on getting back on – revisit the challenge level. Think about what might make it easier for you to get into the flow of things.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on happiness describes a spontaneous process of immersion in  work that can only be achieved if you’re able to balance the challenge and skill level. Too great a challenge and your likely to be disillusioned. Too little and you’ll be bored.

flow model

Flow Model, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

- from Mihaly’s talk and book “Flow”, (Kindle Edition on Amazon).

Slow things down. One way to reduce the challenge level without compromising on the opportunity to learn and fix is to slow things down. Deliberately practice your steps so that you can do them correctly. With the help of repetition and stress on smaller steps you’re more likely to figure out what you need to do correctly.

In “Talent Code”, Daniel Coyle refers to deliberate practice as ‘deep practice’, breaking down a complex skill in order to learn it. He relates how students in various talent hotbeds first watch the skill in action as a coherent entity; slowing your own practice down to break down the moves into its component steps and imitating each one correctly over and over again.

At Spartak it’s called imitatsiya—rallying in slow motion with an imaginary ball. All Spartak’s players do it, from the five-year-olds to the pros. Their coach, a twinkly, weathered seventy-seven-year-old woman named Larisa Preobrazhenskaya, roamed the court like a garage mechanic tuning an oversize engine. She grasped arms and piloted small limbs slowly through the stroke. When they finally hit balls—one by one, in a line (there are no private lessons at Spartak), Preobrazhenskaya frequently stopped them in their tracks and had them go through the motion again slowly, then once more. And again. And perhaps one more time.

Daniel Coyle. The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown (Get the Kindle Edition on Amazon).

The questions these excerpts will raise ought to be valuable for anyone who’s experienced the frustration of giving up on any objective. Fail and fail smart!


What is Water?

goldfish

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

- David Foster Wallace in ‘This is Water

This isn’t the first time the question “What is Water?” is used in a way to point to our beliefs. The central idea is that we all possess beliefs which may or may not be founded in true experience. For individuals, this is the same as living an aquatic life not knowing what water is. We don’t know of the existence of these beliefs. And yet we act on the basis of them. These beliefs are the source of our identity.

What do you do to learn what water is for you?


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