There’s some thing strange about waking up at 5am every day. It’s an hour where you’re truly alone. A daily opportunity to not speak and allow the routine turbulence of thoughts to clear out.
A long time ago, I started waking up at 5am out of necessity. I was in the Pacific timezone and I’d recently signed up on a project that required interaction with a team back in New Delhi, India. Due to time zone differences, I’d wake up early work on the project and then go on to my day job at 9am. I did this for about three months. The morning project would go on to become bookeazy.com, a venture that changed my life forever.
Back then, it was easy getting up early. I was single and was absolutely electrified by the idea of creating a service that would go on to change how movie-goers would buy movie tickets.
Now I get up early in the morning because I believe it’s a great way to work on things that have the promise to be transformational. If you don’t have a side project, you get to choose if you want to work on your health, wealth or anything else that you have in mind. I like to think of this as the ‘abnormal gear’, a mode that you can rely on to break out of routine quickly.
It’s also an opportunity to plan and prepare. I find my world to have many activities that beg for time with the promise of no return. Spotting them isn’t easy if you don’t plan. It’s easier to decide what you want from your day and then spotting distractions and side-stepping them is easy.
It’s difficult, but trust me on this one – 5am is where you have a say in what change begins and sticks.
The good news is the world’s just gotten smaller thanks to the information age. The bad news is that we’re still using second-best crutches to make decisions.
As an entrepreneur, I’m faced opportunities to make a terrible decision if I simply go with the fact that they’re available to me now. This applies to fundraising, who to partner with, who to hire, what technology to go with and more.
The underlying phenomena is easily explained when you look at how timing can sabotage the best laid processes. Let’s say you’ve just started putting together your business plan and haven’t yet gotten around to hiring just yet. Someone writes to you on having visited your website. Her credentials are definitely above average. Do you decide to hire her or not?
If not, you’re losing out on someone with intent to join you. If yes, you’re losing out on the other several hundred better potential hires.
What will you do?
The disciplined approach to avoid this bias is to be decisive about your position. For instance, ycombinator advises founders to think as follows “Either you’re fundraising, or you’re not”, “Either you’re hiring or you’re not.” and more. Most entrepreneurs won’t make this error if each step they take is thought out in terms of definitely timelines allowing them to reiterate if the previous round was inefficient.
Wish you dear reader a brilliant new year 2015!
Thought experiments rely on the idea of immersion to allow you to explore conceptual frontiers. I’ve stumbled upon one such experiment in Sam Harris’ book Waking Up that helps to ascertain important ideas around our notion of the past self. While the experiment is useful to review the impermanence of that notion, its also incredibly valuable to ask associated questions around why we choose who we are.
Philosopher Derek Prafit in his book, Reasons and Persons relates the idea of a teleportation machine. When our subject steps into the machine he is ‘teleported’ across to Mars as follows. First, a replica is built that’s identical atom by atom at the destination machine on Mars. Second, on confirming the success of the replica, the original is destroyed. If this machine exists and you’re friends urge you to try the machine, what thoughts go through your mind then?
This isn’t a new idea. You’ll recognize this experiment to be the same as the question behind the Ship of Theseus. Philosopher-film maker Nolan’s explored the same idea in his movie ‘The Prestige’. In the book I’m reading, the experiment is used to illustrate how our perception of daily life (ordinary survival) can get outdated a lot quicker than anticipated.
We sleep, we wake up. We make assumptions about who we are. If you re-read this blog post a few months later, our idea that we’re really the same reader is no longer the same. That’s undeniable. So why this idea of a permanent self? Why continuity? Why would you hold on to an idea on Mars which is nothing like Earth?
Perhaps continuity is indeed important for us to function. I imagine that it’d be crazy to rebuild every assumption from the very beginning. I’d be forgiven for thinking that this burden is only a privilege for the innovator*.
And yet, this process of allowing context-altering teleportation is necessary. Even in an average world, this is still true when we face life-altering situations such as the loss of a job, or any crisis that demands teleportation. We call for presence of mind so that we can begin to search for a solution. Its simply perception of the exceptional nature of crisis that attempts to separate continuity from the mindset at that time.
Its precisely that same shift that drives excellence.
A lot has been written and said about why Brain Games, or Brain Training works  and doesn’t work. If you listen to what Jane McGonigal  has to say, she says that games are a panacea for many of our ills, including productivity . Where does the truth lie? I would think claiming to be a panacea is a skeptical one at best. I would really like to investigate more before I make up my mind.
Anyone would be forgiven for thinking that by performing a set of actions repeatedly with a game on a device, you have a close to random chance of enhancing your mental abilities.
Immersion is an intriguing quality of the mind. It is the capability of every mind to make a scenario realistic by filling in the blanks, to allow itself to wholeheartedly engage with a scenario that isn’t real.
We’ve been playing fun games with our three-year old boy. One of these games involves running a pizzeria where my son is a pizzeria owner and he’s responsible for everything from taking orders, baking the pizza to specifications and finally delivering it to observe the delight on the customer’s face. It gives my son the opportunity to practice recalling the toppings we chose and who ordered what. The game is greatly inspired by Papa’s Pizzeria  and the only change we’ve made is to play it in real life using building blocks for toppings and hardboard books for pizzas. Moreover, we’ve been playing it together with him; my wife, his nanny, grandparents and me. It gives us all an opportunity to interact with each other and him.
Through immersion we get an opportunity to directly engage processes that govern our response to specific scenarios. It seems reasonable to think of it in this way. Then games are simply an inert medium or a psychological mirror. Similar to games, is the framework for the pizzeria.
Immersion is pretty valuable, it encourages visualization of a future that doesn’t necessarily exist just yet; it’s the reason why Mathematicians can claim that Math is the closest we can come to the language of the Gods; it allows the writer to communicate scenarios to his readers in words; it’s the key to a meditation session; it allows this blogger to think someone will read what he has to write :-).
Immersion also allows for some strange things to happen.
Using VR, experiments have shown that pain can be communicated without directly hurting the observer . The opposite is also possible, phantom limb pain in amputees can be reduced and altogether eliminated through the use of a simple mirror . This shifts the very idea of what we’re intending to treat.
What else can immersion solve?
Care to hazard claim as audacious as everything? I wouldn’t do so simply on the back of the idea that we don’t understand immersion completely. But it is certainly applicable to every problem, and valuable to try where there isn’t any other effective medicine.
“The Mind Makes it Real”
 Brain Training 101, readwrite.com.
 Jane McGonigal, author “Reality is Broken”.
 Jane McGonigal on Productivity, School of Life.
 Papa’s Pizzeria To Go! Itunes.
 The Magic of the Unconscious Mind.
 VS. Ramachandran’s Mirror Box.
This weekend brought with it an opportunity to background-think over the contents of design thinker Manoj Kothari’s talk to my SLP class.
We understand and appreciate innovation thanks to its promise of improbable outcomes. Occasionally, an entrepreneur’s first attempt hits the mark as a wild success. The norm is that entrepreneurs wish to learn to repeat the innovation process through practice.
No one’s done more work to dispel the hero myth than Richard Bach. As I mulled over what I’d learned, I made an odd connection back to a parable* written by him. It is a parable I’ve enjoyed telling myself over and over again which adequately explains how innovation suspends existing beliefs, allowing the re-imagination of the old as new.
The story is a short story of a creature that lives in a colony at the bottom of the river bed. Through the story, I believe the author wishes the reader to observe directly the nature of change; pay as little attention to the emphasis on the apparent heroism and other words that bring with them the unknown, or mystery.
Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river. The current of the river swept silently over them all — young and old, rich and poor, good and evil — the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self.
Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current was what each had learned from birth.
But one creature said at last, “I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.”
The other creatures laughed and said, “Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed against the rocks, and you will die quicker than boredom!”
But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks.
Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.
And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, “See a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the messiah, come to save us all!”
And the one carried in the current said, “I am no more messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.”
But they cried the more, “Savior!” all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone, and they were left alone making legends of a savior.
– From Illusions, Richard Bach.
When explaining a concept, a teacher’s intent is to share a complete understanding of the idea with the student. They often risk over simplifying it, or over exaggerating it and putting it out of reach of the student. I’d love to know how you felt about any insight that you receive through the parable.
* Parable’s are simple stories that I’ve found extremely useful in capturing wisdom and its context.
Contradictory thoughts appear to be cul-de-sacs, promising nothing of value. Counter-intuitively, the introduction of doubt is a key ingredient in evolving outcomes that are beyond simply predictable. Design thinkers are often encouraged to shift or overturn values in order to explore new outcomes*.
This weekend’s Startup Leadership class involved a discussion with Manoj Kothari of Onio Design. He touched upon this important point and highlighted how the mind is a natural synthesizer. Being with contradictory thought allows for the resolution of conflict with time. Time here could be anything from a single night’s sleep, a couple of days or more.
The key is recognizing the cessation of the background, mental ping-pong process on hitting a contradictory thought. At that point, motivation to investigate the thread further, to place your thoughts in a constructive framework, or to seek out additional stimulant is on the low end.
Take the intuitive definition of the word “problem”. It can vary dramatically depending on the specific outlook, or attitude at that given point of time.
In recent customer trials for a product I’m working on, I interviewed parents of students from local private schools that employ English as a medium of instruction. Interviews with two parents of overachievers nudged me towards a discovery. Before the interviews, it never occurred to me that overachievers might have a problem. My predominant thoughts stayed with the visual of class laggards struggling to keep up.
It turns out overachievers do have problems as well and might be more inclined to address them.
My interviews culminated in the following problem statement around second-language acquisition, a well-researched problem:
We acquire our first language by learning from our environment. During that time we’re literally exposed to over a million new words thanks to our parents and caretakers. Acquiring a second language is left to schools that can at best provide an abstract learning environment. For instance, learning to speak the word “water”, or “mother” wouldn’t be valuable if there wasn’t a recognizable, real reward attached. Overachievers who hunger for this same environment are bound to discover richer rewards through participation in debate and other social events in that second language.
Good designers typically seek satisfaction beyond that required by stakeholders in the problematic situation being addressed. By applying values or criteria not usually applied to a situation or experience, designers may find an unanticipated outcome. By shifting values, even contradicting those they might normally apply in a situation, designers can sometimes arrive at totally unanticipated and creative outcomes. Being highly independent in their judgment creative designers are not usually responsive to group standards and control; they often suspend or override judgment in their search for originality.
Downshifting is a noticeable worldwide trend, one that I’ve experienced with myself, in my own personal network of 30-somethings and fellow startup founders. The first principle for downshift thinking is to be eager to trade in money for time.
Listing out the classic traits I’ve directly observed in downshifters:
- Reducing the amount of time spent on apps, especially social networks such as facebook, twitter and trading that time in for face to face interaction and groups.
- Making it imperative to avoid long commutes. Staying close to your workplace.
- Investing time and effort in locating an irregular, or non-mainstream job position that may compromise on career growth but is rewarding in personal freedoms*.
- Paying greater attention to pressing social issues, especially those that most people would be apathetic to.
- Proactively investing time in kids, family, health, wealth, hands-on skills, creative endeavors.
- Seeking time-tested methodologies that allow you to address the stresses of city life.
- Making time and space to be with one’s self.
- Seeking wisdom, answers to existential questions, or lasting purpose.
I wouldn’t laugh at this trend. Its growing and the startup world has taken to it in a big way. The corporate world will in time learn to acknowledge what’s happening here.
A note of caution, startup culture still promotes the image of the hard at work, 24×7 working founder, or fast cash-burning startup that makes it seemingly incompatible with personal behavior changes that come with downshifting. As always, I’d say to that “go your own way”. There’s plenty of exceptions out there.
* I’ve just discovered an intriguing book on “God’s Own Office“, the story of James Joseph, a Microsoft professional who sets up his home-office out of Kerala while continuing to work for Microsoft. You can get it in hardcover here on flipkart.com and kindle edition on amazon.com.