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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Sunday, October 10, 2021

On Leadership

One can be a leader only when one desires something to happen in the world. This something can be called "change". Leaders want to change the world (or a part of it) in some way.

The change that a leader wants to see in the world - the impact they want to make - that is their vision.

Having a random vision isn't very helpful. A successful leader has a vision that is borne out of the needs and wants of the humans around them. A vision that is rooted in humanity. One that benefits the human kind.

A leader effectively communicates this vision to others, in an attempt to inspire others to work towards the same vision. The quantity of how much a leader is able to inspire action could be the measure of someone's leadership.

Such communication can occur in many ways - through talking (sometimes even story-telling), writing, or through setting examples. When a vision is completely new, leaders are forced to communicate more verbally. But when the vision has already been articulated (by other leaders, for example), leaders can inspire by setting examples through their own work.

Change requires work (often hard work). One person can only do so much work. Leaders create coalitions with people to get more work done towards their vision. These coalitions can look like organizations, companies, networks, groups, actual coalitions, etc. We could call them movements. Leaders lead movements.

Movements may have strategies, planning, coordination, structure. And these keep evolving with time, based on the real world position of the movement.

At this point, one may ask, is leadership hierarchical? Should there be one leader (or a hierarchy of leaders) for one movement?

Before we answer that we will have to answer a related question - Is everyone a leader?

The romantic answer to this question is that everyone is a leader. But that's similar to saying all human beings are equal. Everyone can be a leader given the right circumstances. And everyone should be a leader. But everyone is not a leader. One becomes a leader only when one is able to accomplish a vision through leadership as stated before.

When one looks at leadership with such raw sincerity, we will see that the stronger leaders automatically are able to get more work done and a hierarchy is inevitable no matter how hard we try to avoid it. Saying this hierarchy doesn't exist is like erasing caste/race/class from our society.

A slightly more romantic way to look at it is by imaging every individual as a leader of their own movement - where movements overlap with each other significantly. Each individual can be thought of as a celestial body with their mass (leadership capacity) determining how much gravitational pull they exert towards their vision on the people around them. The most massive leader will have the strongest pull.

Consequently, if everyone are equal leaders, there would be no hierarchies and vice versa.

There are social, economic, and political determinants for any individual's leadership mass. Someone born with privileges - of caste, gender, sexuality, class, race, disability, and others - might find that their leadership mass is already greater than someone without those privileges. In many situations, for example, money speaks. And someone with money - or access to money - might have it easier to "lead" others. Social capital is another example.

Leadership mass can increase (and decrease) over time. This can happen through education, scholarship, credentials, affiliations, positions, jobs, work, association, mobilization, agitation, talking, writing, creativity, relationships, etc. Even gaining a follower base on Twitter can increase someone's leadership mass (through psychology of mass appeal).

This leadership mass is called "power" in the formal language. While vision determines the direction a leader pulls people in, power determines how strong the pull will be. It is impossible to be a leader without power (of some or the other kind).

This is where things get intensely human and psychological. Power works through human emotions. Fear, love, hatred, joy, laziness, anger, sorrow, confidence, trust, aggression, etc. But not every human has the same emotion when confronted with the same stimulus. An anti-establishmentarian will look at you with scorn when you tell them that you're from the ministry (of whatever) whereas someone who is awed by such positions will be psychologically receptive to what you want to say. It is safe to say that most people will be pulled by mainstream sources of power (because majority acceptance is what makes these sources mainstream).

Effective leadership thereby also becomes a performance. Like doctors need to be chameleons and be the doctor that each patient needs, leaders will have to be the leader that each individual needs. If someone is motivated by solving complex challenges, the leader can get them excited by presenting their vision as a complex challenge. If someone is interested in creative expression, leader can find avenues for creative expression that advances their vision.

At this point, the conscientious reader will ask whether leadership is emotional manipulation.

Manipulation has negative connotations. Perhaps "emotional guidance" captures the nuance of what leadership does with emotions. Leadership is about emotionally guiding people. There can be effective leaders with selfish motives and they can turn this into manipulation and abuse. But you can't blame any individual for being too sincere towards their own vision, albeit a bad one.

Also, the human mind is trapped such that it can never be free of influences. Everything that happens, every interaction, every thought, every idea - everything changes the mind. And therefore, the only way someone can never "manipulate" your thoughts is by never coming in contact with you.

The same reader will also ask whether this view of leadership considers people (followers) as lacking agency (autonomy).

In this world, nobody has complete agency. Every human is delicately dependent on other human beings in this society. Complete independence is not possible for any human. And therefore, a transactional view of individual relationships where every relationship is that of giving and taking models the society in a better way.

Considering the sensitive nature of the relationship that a leader has with others, it is very important that leaders are empathetic and emotionally intelligent. Leaders must be quick to identify an emotion, to label it, and to address it. That includes self-awareness and awareness of one's own emotions. They need to think of things from the perspective of multiple others and bring those perspectives together in their vision.

This empathy also gives leaders humility. That they do not know all the answers, and that their answers have to include all the perspectives from people around them. That if the answers did not entrench empathy this way, they wouldn't be able to achieve their vision. That it is unlikely that one human being's vision is greater than everyone else's.

An intense desire to create more and more powerful leaders around them arises in leaders from this humility. They see that the world is better served by a multitude of visions and that for each vision to succeed there must be leaders taking those visions forward. They strive to turn people around them into leaders who can pull weight. That's how the best leadership is scalable - by being infectious.

When enough leaders pull weight in the same direction, no vision is too far to achieve.

Why does the world need leaders to pull though? Can't well articulated vision statements automatically attract people?

Inertia is the problem. Human beings are resistant to change - individually and as a society. It might be explained by evolutionary psychology. Human beings have evolved past the stage where they need to be held hostage by biology, yet we are biological beings. And we are not rational beings by design.

If we were rational we wouldn't have problems like global warming, poverty, and war in our world.

Leaders appeal to both the irrational and the rational sides of human beings at once. That's how they pull people out of their inertia. Once people are moving, systems move too. Especially if you pull the heavier people.

Leaders, hence, are balancing-artists. They have to handle conflicts all the time and find balance. There is strategy, but there is vision. There is rationality and irrationality. There is movement and there is stasis. There are tensions and counter-tensions. There is pressure to lead and pressure to follow. Leaders make judgement calls all the time. They can go wrong many times. And over time the number of right calls decide whether they become effective leaders or not.

Is leadership a teachable/learnable skill?

Leadership requires a lot of practice. But it is also important to know what to practice. That is where the learning/teaching part of leadership lies. There are plenty of books written about leadership. Plenty of stories to read and learn from. Concepts like "ownership", "thinking big", "delivering". Almost every major (successful) organization has leadership principles which have been documented. Exposure to leadership philosophies can accelerate someone's growth as a leader. Consuming content about leadership helps think in different ways and gain new perspectives.

What now?

Think about whether you have a vision for the world. Think about how effective you are as a leader in taking the world towards that vision. Talk to people around you about leadership. Read. Find avenues for your own growth as a leader. Find people with similar values and vision. Grow each other. Grow yourself. And change the world.


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Saturday, September 4, 2021

Power is Useful

In my post about giving up ideological purism, I talked about how it felt like activism was weak resistance, and not something powerful. I still hadn't discovered an answer as to how to engage with and change the system powerfully. I have an answer now.

Power.

To make powerful change, one has to have power. Thinking about power as an anathema is not helpful.

The first place I saw this articulated unambiguously is in a tweet thread by Jonathan Smucker. Jonathan talks in no uncertain terms about how "Knowledge of what is wrong with a social system and knowledge of how to change the system are two completely different categories of knowledge."

That's true. And that's where I was wrong too.

What's wrong with the system (from my perspective) is concentration of power in the hands of a few. My naive solution to this was to fight power itself. To not pick up power. To disown and discredit power. But it was indeed naive. One can't defeat power structures by shying away from power.

The rest of Jonathan's thread is about how to organize politically and gain power. There was an article linked by someone else in reply about how to use words like "Power" and "Money" with transformational meaning.

From the little I know, Ambedkar also was a proponent of this method. Ambedkar asked people to "educate, agitate, organize". Ambedkar was essentially laying down the blueprint on how to change the system.

Today I had a chat with Prashanth on these same topics. Through many examples, daktre articulated the same idea, although daktre used the words "legitimacy" and spoke through the field of academics and the power that academic work lends you.

Daktre could also identify what was holding me back. The ambition of wanting to make large impact AND be perfect at the same time. The desire to make huge changes to the world (savior complex, but in an extreme scale) is fine. But the desire to be perfect while doing so is what causes problems. What if one is willing to let go of the want to be perfect? What if one is ready to make compromises in return of accomplishing a larger goal? One might personally become "blemished", might get called out for being a hypocrite. But in the larger picture, one might be able to accomplish more.

Yesterday Swathi and I were having a conversation over our lives and Swathi mentioned how it is screwed up to think that we can make large impact, that we can accomplish all we want. I was resisting by saying that we can indeed make large impact, we just have to find a way.

I think the path in front of me is clear. Embrace pragmatism. Gain power. Wield it carefully. Be willing to make compromises (and be called out by others for it). Helpful to keep a group of close friends who can call out quickly. Don't think of myself as the complete and perfect solution. Think of myself only as a piece of a larger solution.

Now I know why Anivar was asking me to get a PhD. I think I won't take the academic route to power. I'm looking towards the entrepreneurial route. Let us see where we reach.


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