Sunday, May 8, 2022

The First Feminist in My Life

As usual on mothers' day, my WhatsApp is filled with images that romanticize the systemic oppression of people who become mothers. Photos of mothers who are at work with children, of "caring", "loving", and "sacrificing" mothers, of mothers carrying children on their back (including photos from animal kingdom), and so on.

While I find it fair to thank those people for such forced "selfless service", I find it arrogant and violent to continue stereotyping and socially enforcing such gendered and oppressive practices.

I often think of the privileges I must have had to enable me to see systemic oppression as it is. And one of the greatest privileges I've had is to have a feminist mother.

I've never heard the word "feminism" from my mother. And that's probably why it took me forever to realize she is a feminist. Fortunately for me though, the lessons of feminism did come through all my childhood albeit without the label.

To begin with, my mother is a teacher. And she puts work at par with, if not higher than, family. She has a very clear idea of her role as a teacher and very meticulously carries it out. She has withstood social pressure to ignore her profession or to ignore becoming better at it.

The way she deals with my father is more illustrative of her feminism. She never backs down in an argument. And there are plenty of arguments that she has with dad. When I was younger, I didn't really understand who was right in those arguments. And because I was closer to dad, he would often convince me that he was right. But today I realize that my mom was right and continues to be so in many of the arguments that she has with the dad and with society. She still speaks up, unweathered.

She has always demanded better and just treatment from others. Because she sees the injustices that are being meted out to her. But more importantly, she never waits for anyone to treat her better. She is independent and continues her own life with not much regard to all that. She does not let people develop a savior complex.

There are far too many details in my childhood. But to summarize, there are many privileges of being male in a patriarchal society and my mother "exposed" many of them to me all throughout my childhood. 

That's why I call my mother the first feminist in my life. And I've got to thank her for that every day.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Finding Direction When Being Pragmatic

You remember how I embraced pragmatism and started chasing power? There was one problem. When you start chasing power with the idea of wielding it for social justice, when and where do you stop chasing power and start wielding it?

Take Praveen's comment for example

Screenshot of text chat. Pirate ‍ Praveen (he/him) quotes asd's message "Context:" and comments "Though this is a slippery slope and one which usually results in concentration of power eventually in most cases, there are exceptions though. When you start making compromises, where do you draw the line? That is not easy." asd: "Hmm. I know that is a valid criticism."  Pirate ‍ Praveen (he/him): "Usually the short term power and sustaining becomes the primary goal and everyone forgets the initial goals. Look at any political parties." 

One possible answer can be that you start wielding power while you start chasing power - and you chase less and wield more as you go forward.

Graph that shows on y axis time, x axis "amount of effort in". As time goes forward "chasing power pragmatically" decreases and "using power to reach ideals" increases.

But going by this, today I should spend lesser effort in chasing power than I spent yesterday. And tomorrow, even lesser than today. That doesn't quite fit with the idea of chasing power first. Perhaps there is a threshold of power which I should reach before I start using power. Perhaps the graph is more like:

Similar graph as above. X axis is time. Y axis is amount of effort spent. Towards the beginning on the X-axis of time, the Y axis is completely occupied by chasing power pragmatically for a while. At one point using power to reach ideals starts and then correspondingly chasing power decreases.

Perhaps that threshold is what is called "the line". The line that determines when you stop (or decrease effort in) chasing power and start using that power to reach ideals. Drawing the line becomes important once again.

Let us then try drawing that line.

How much power is enough power? Is a PhD enough academic power? Is a 20 person company that operates in profit enough entrepreneurial power?

Read my poem (?) about career advice. Any goal you accomplish will be dwarfed by a bigger goal. No matter how much power you gain, there will be someone more powerful than you.

Which means that there is no clear way to draw the line on when to stop chasing power.

But there maybe an alternative that requires us to not draw a line. One in which we can chase power and use power simultaneously with the same effort. That alternative requires us to reconcile pragmatism and idealism. 

You find a hack to chase power through your ideals.

That is extremely slow though. Slow and excruciatingly boring.

Which is why it has to be extremely personal. You have to be very selfish in what you are doing and craft the journey to your likes and desires. Only that can sustain the boredom of that chase.

(It was Varsha who told me first about entrepreneurship being a very personal journey. This maps on to that. Life is a very personal journey.)

That also solves a long-running question in my mind. How do you find what direction to go in when you are being pragmatic? What's the principle with which you make pragmatic decisions?

The answer is to listen to yourself. To do what feels the most right to you. I know that sounds like profound bullshit (something that internet gurus would say). But it is based on neuroscience and philosophy of knowledge.

The brain is a rather complicated organ. We can process many more signals than we are conscious about. Even when we think we make decisions rationally, we make decisions based on very many things that we haven't consciously considered. Read Scott Young's Unraveling the Enigma of Reason to read more about how our reasons are always post-facto rationalizations.

And this is tied in the external world to intersectionality. There is no decision on earth that lies on a single dimension. Everything affects everything else and nothing is clear-cut.

And thankfully these are complementary. It is only a decision making machine vastly complicated like our brain that can consider all the thousand factors that intersect on a decision in the human world. (I express similar thoughts in the earlier post on living with opposition)

It also means it is difficult to rationalize some of these decisions and generalize them into principles. Pragmatism is the acceptance of this fundamental difficulty and the decision to live within that framework of uncertainty.

Of course, one has to be widely reading and learning to offset the risks of trusting an uninformed brain. One must be open to unlearning and relearning, criticisms, etc as well. These are the things that will protect the pragmatic person from going in the wrong directions.

tl;dr? Trust your gut.

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Sunday, November 21, 2021

Why I am Back on WhatsApp

Long time readers of this blog knows that I have a very strained relationship with WhatsApp. When I deleted my WhatsApp account a couple of years ago, I was at a place where personal productivity was the most important to me. For example, I wrote this:

Thirdly, and most importantly, people are unable to work on hard problems with their mind into it because that requires focus and peaceful mind. I have a very big hunch that this is the biggest reason why economies world over are failing - because people simply aren't productive any more.

I am in a very different space now. Embracing pragmatism has come to mean more important than sticking to ideals. And gathering useful power is also a priority. All of this helps in bringing action to words.

In that context, in the space of primary healthcare, WhatsApp is a very useful communication tool.

It allows me to collaborate with a very diverse group of people. It allows quick and effective communication especially in socially tricky situations. Just today I could effectively use WhatsApp to organize two meetings. The most important feature, perhaps, is the ability to forward messages quickly.

In all, I still value productivity. But productivity, now, for me is not just about me, but about the teams that I lead or am part of. Like in the case of shaving beard, WhatsApp has become important to me now.

And that's why I am back on WhatsApp.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Asking For Help

Many days ago, in a discussion with some of my colleagues, I realized two things. I trust less on others (compared to how much I trust on me - even in things I have no clue about) and I rarely ask for help. It probably is also true that the latter is because of the former.

I had made a resolution that I would start asking people for help thereby building trust in the process of trusting others.

Life sent me a reminder in the form of a tweet.

I had to do something. I did make a start this week.

Okay, maybe it doesn't really count as "asking for help" because I've still framed it in a way where I am in control. Nevertheless, I believe it is a good start.

I got four people responding to that. I got on a phone call with three of them. One of them helped me finish a project that was pending for 9 months and I could also connect them to two other opportunities. Another person has very many shared interests and we're looking at several academic collaborations.

One of the myths I had in my mind was that I am selfless and everyone else is selfish. That people won't respond to my call for help - unless I can give them something of great monetary value.

There are many things wrong with those thoughts. One, people are inclined to help rather than reject requests for help. It's in human nature to help others in need. Two, many people find many things other than money valuable.

Note to self: I should give the world a chance before judging the world.

Considering I know very little about the subject of using help to advance causes, I decided to get a bit more scientific about this. I did a YouTube search for "entrepreneurship". The second video was this wonderful talk by a person named Ankur Warikoo.


The 3 rules of life Warikoo mentions are:

  1. Spend time with people who are nothing like you
  2. Don't feel entitled at any moment of your life
  3. Don't get comfortable

I understand all 3 of them. I think I'm good at #2. I'm trying to make a difference in #1. I suck at #3.

And that's where "asking for help" comes in.

Asking for help is uncomfortable for me at the moment. It helps me break out of comfort zone, and it also increases my chances of finding new people with different stories and experience ("diversity" as RK Prasad puts it).

I went ahead and started listening to Warikoo's podcast. He puts immense stress on "cold emails". Connecting to people and asking for help is very powerful indeed, even if the person whom you're asking help from does not know you. In one of the episodes titled "How May I Help You" he talks about how information, advice, and help are three different things. I highly recommend you listen to that episode.

It is a similar aspect of asking for help that Derek Sivers pointed out which makes it such a powerful instrument. When you ask for help, you are forced to think clearly. You put an effort into finding what exactly it is that you need. Sometimes, all you need is information and you're able to find it on your own. At other times, the act of asking for help advances your thinking to a large extent. And often, you end up receiving help which is useful on its own too. 

Help will always be given at Hogwarts on this planet to those who ask for it.

PS: I track the project opportunities that people can engage with in the opportunities gitlab repository. If you feel particularly kind, feel free to check out some of those ideas and offer help. (I know, this doesn't count as asking for help)

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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Be Irreplaceable Workers And Replaceable Leaders

A good worker is someone who produces so much value that they become irreplaceable.


As Cal Newport writes in the book "So Good They Can't Ignore You" knowledge workers who have the most satisfying careers don't just "follow their passion". Instead, they build rare and valuable skills that they leverage to negotiate better career positions.

If you want a satisfying career, become so good at what you do that they cannot ignore you and they cannot replace you. Become irreplaceable.

But when you are a leader, you need to think differently. Leaders do whatever it takes to achieve their vision and make an impact. And one of the things that they have to necessarily do is to make more leaders and make themselves replaceable. If a movement has a single leader - a single point of failure, a bus factor of 1 - that movement is poised to fail when that leader falls. And like all humans, leaders fall.

Good leaders don't wait for their own end to think about replacing themselves. Good leaders think about replacing themselves from day 1. Because that's the most sustainable way forward. That's the way things scale out of control.

If you want a successful movement, become replaceable and replace yourself as soon as you can.

PS: I've deliberately not talked about the intersection between leaders and workers. I believe good leaders have to necessarily be good workers. That's an implementation detail I will cover in a future blog post.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Why I Shaved Beard

Well kempt, clean shaven man dressed in a coat, pant, shoes, and a tie. That's the typical figure of leadership. Anarchists hate that. Feminists hate that. Why should leadership look a certain way and act a certain way? Who is excluded from the ideal image of a leader?

In medical school, for example, it was me against the white coat. I hate white coat for it is a symbol of power. For those who think there are practical advantages of white coat, I am talking about the white coat that doctors wear in out-patient consultation rooms, for photo-ops, and even for doing theory lectures. Why should doctors use this uniform of power in such situations?

They are building on stereotypes. The white coat has certain stereotypes associated with it. That built by generations of doctors who have lived earlier. By wearing a white coat they're saying - "I am a part of this legacy. The respect you have for this legacy, give me that."

But stereotypes (biases) are the reason why the world is full of problems. Sexism, casteism, racism, colonialism - everything is built on stereotypes.

How do you tap into the benefits of stereotypes on one hand (reinforcing those stereotypes while doing so) and yet fight these large issues on the other hand? It is a contradictory position. Which is why activists (anarchists, feminists) make political statements with their body. Women cut hair, men grow long hair. Those who can grow beard, grow it long. They wear chappals. They wear Burka. They show up in places where they are not expected. They show up in ways that break stereotypes. Because breaking stereotypes is a political tool.

I too found the logic that a doctor should present themselves as "smart" (by shaving clean, etc) unreasonable. Why should doctors care about the biases of the patient? More importantly, if that's the direction we go, then what about patients who are biased against women doctors, or black doctors, or Dalit doctors?

One of the biggest arguments against this all-or-nothing fight against biases is that there are things one can control and things one can't - I can't change which family I was born into, but I can shave my facial hair - and that only the biases against things one can't change need to be removed from society; that it is fair to be biased against things that are in one's control.

Fat shaming is a grey area then. Some people can't grow thin and it is out of their control. For some it might be possible, but how do we know it is possible?

What about clothing? Is it in one's control? Does everyone have access to all kinds of clothing? That's when some people say that dressing smart is not about wearing expensive clothes, but about wearing clothes smartly. They are thinking about leaders who wear cotton kurtas or saris.

Nevertheless surely, everyone can afford a shaving blade, a mirror, and some water, right? So it is in one's control? What about those who have religious beliefs against shaving?

Suffice to say, I'm not completely convinced by the separation between biases based on controllable features and uncontrollable features. For one, biases aren't always nuanced. A bias doesn't take into account the background of the person whom you're biased against/for. A bias is difficult to reason with.

To me, this is sufficient reason to fight against all biases.

But that's where pragmatism entered my life. Sure, we should fight against all biases. But, is personally breaking stereotypes the most effective form of fighting biases? Also should we only do bias-fighting? Aren't there other battles too?

When one looks at this larger picture, the problem becomes more about what our goals are and what the most ethical and effective ways to reach our goals are.

And therein I have to measure on a balance the pros and cons of using individual attributes to harvest biases vs the pros and cons of breaking stereotypes using body politics.

That's how I decided to shave beard.

PS: See also the clothing choices of BR Ambedkar and MK Gandhi

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Monday, October 11, 2021

How To Live With Opposition

There are enough number of people in the world who will tell you that the world is becoming "increasingly polarized", that respectful political debate is "a thing of the past", that people talk past each other "all the time".

You will also be forced to pick a side. "You're either with us or against us."

These ideas come from a binary understanding of the world. By looking at things from a single dimension. Even in that dimension, the middle ground is stripped and only the two extremes remain as options.

How do I know? Because I've straddled that path, found it unlivable, and found a better alternative.

I must thank Adam Grant for the book "Think Again" which helped me with timely insights while I was going through this journey. And I would recommend it to you (along with Eugenia Cheng's x + y).

So, what's the answer?

The short answer is that you shouldn't worry a lot.

The long answer is fairly complicated. Let's first go through some axioms.

The human world is complex and chaotic

Chaos meaning nothing is predictable. And complex meaning we don't yet know what to make of things. Economists, sociologists, stock market analysts - people who work very closely with the human world - are the most successful if they embrace this complexity and chaos. Adam Grant gives the example of the election forecaster who predicted that Donald Trump would become President of the United States much before anyone else did. The reason?

"The single most important driver of forecasters’ success was how often they updated their beliefs. The best forecasters went through more rethinking cycles. They had the confident humility to doubt their judgments and the curiosity to discover new information that led them to revise their predictions."

This is so because the world is very chaotic and unpredictable. At best we can predict things just before things are going to happen - only if we are constantly holding our beliefs to scrutiny.

It is not that nothing can be predicted. There are several things which will follow patterns - but in controlled settings, where all the confounding variables have been controlled. And we can't isolate all confounding variables in the real world.

This is the reason smart people in public health research use tools like realist evaluation framework.

This is why it is useful to think of the world in terms of complex adaptive systems.

Simple, pure points are rarely correct

Even if Twitter didn't have character limits, people would choose simple straightforward "pure" intellectual positions. These are easier to articulate, easier to think about, and easier to argue for/against.

But if a point is being made about the real world and it doesn't capture the nuance of the chaos and complexity then chances are high that the point is incorrect or at least incomplete.

Almost all perspectives are correct

This doesn't contradict the previous point. Different people look at things from different perspectives. The human brain is amazingly capable in that it sums up all the experiences it has had in the past when looking at an issue - and it does this automatically. Each perspective that a human brings to any conversation is a summary of that person's entire life experience - even if they aren't conscious of it.

The secret is in finding the convergence of differing viewpoints. Before we discuss that, we will discuss the reason why there seem to be irreconcilable differences.

Brain's ability to reason and articulate such reasons is far too limited

Our brain produces incredible insights through "gut feeling". But when it comes to explaining these or articulating the exact feeling, it falters. This is based in neurobiology. Reasoning is a brain function that is different from the decision making function. Therefore, while our brain maybe excellent in making certain decisions, it could be very poor in articulating the reason for those decisions. This is not just a deficiency of language. It is also a symptom of how nuanced our brain's responses are - and how it summarizes one's life experiences. It is much easier to do things than to explain why. Even if one beautifully explains why, the explanation would probably not have captured the complete picture.

Disagreements result from lack of nuance

When different perspectives are seemingly irreconcilable, the reason is that they're articulated in simple, pure ways which conceal the underlying (reconcilable) shared values. If people are able to pour their insides out, they'll find that everyone is looking forward to achieving essentially the same things. One perspective might consider an "obtuse point" as "checks and balance", while another perspective considers those checks as the "main thing".

Also, everyone doesn't have the same set of life experiences. Therefore, one person's nuance will be missing in another person's nuance. It is often helpful to figure out the life experiences that someone brings in which leads them to a particular nuance. Because when you put several different experiences together (and experience those, even second hand), you get to produce better nuanced positions.

What to do with these axioms?

Think like a scientist. Adam Grant uses these exact words. But that's also what MK Gandhi used to do. Think like you're perpetually seeking the truth. Look for answers everywhere. Take every perspective as an empirical observation. And expand your theory to fit those observations (bring nuance). Everyone has theories about the world (that's how our brain works). Make your theory all encompassing. That way, you won't have opponents at all - you'll only have a theory that accounts for nuances. Don't be scared to get into debates. But get into debates with an intention to expand your view. (Of course, social conventions apply.) Watch other people argue and while you grab popcorn, also grab your microscope to analyze why different people are saying different things. Ask clarifying questions. Make it not about you or them, make it about the "truth". And remember that the truth is probably more nuanced than anyone can ever understand.

PS: This view of nuance unsettles a lot of people with strong opinions. They get scared that such "pragmatism" means a corruption of morals and politics. But, what I've experienced is that it is possible to fight a stronger fight when you're able to find flaws in your own political positions - and address them proactively. It also helps in building bridges with "opposition" - because you would not have a large number in the opposition anyhow. It is also severely practical. It accomplishes a lot more than a purist politics.

I'm sure you have something to add. Comments are welcome. I will add the nuance you bring into my theory :D

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