Reflections after a broken pipe

 One of the pipes below our apartment broke yesterday. As it’ll be Monday before it is fixed, all our access to water is temporarily restricted to one tap and one shower. I had two reflections from the experience.
 
First, as is generally the case, we only realize the value of something when it is taken away. And, we’re definitely finding how inconvenient it can be to clean, cook, and do things we’d not have given much thought to. It is so important that we look around and remember to be grateful for what we have. Every one of us has more things to be grateful for than we know.
 
Second, we are fortunate that our inconvenience is temporary. This made me think about the millions of people on the planet who don’t have easy access to water. And, in many of these cases, despite the lengths they go to, they don’t get to access clean water. For the many of us who live in places where we take both the access and purity of our water for granted, it is hard to even imagine the worlds of pain they go through.
 
Luckily, there are ways you and I can help. I started a recurring monthly donation to Charity : Water a few months back thanks to a wise friend who is a big fan. I love their model – 100% of what you donate goes straight to helping provide people access to clean water. Their operations and costs are funded by a few large donors. So, a small monthly amount from you can go a long way.
 
It is hard to focus on education and productivity if you don’t have access to the basics. Access to water is definitely one of those. Here’s to organizations like Charity : Water who’re working toward that mission.

The monks and the woman

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her cross to the other side.

The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman.

Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and carried on his 
journey.

The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After rejoining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without a word between them.

Two more hours passed, then three, finally the younger monk could contain himself any longer, and blurted out “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river, why are you still carrying her?”


I think about this story from time to time when I find myself carrying hurt or annoyance of any sort. It doesn’t mean I always manage to overcome it. But, this story definitely goes a long way in reminding me that the only person we hurt by carrying past hurts is ourselves.

Now is all we ever have. And, how we treat now is the best way to ensure we feel better tomorrow.

Working through plans A-Z

I recently spoke to someone I met thanks to this blog about his hopes of making a career transition to a company in a different location. He had his thought process nicely laid out. I think my only value add to his process was asking him what plans B, C and D were.

I think of nearly everything I do in terms of projects. Some projects last a long time while others are shorter. And, over the past few years, I’ve had various career related projects involving attempted switches of companies, functions and locations. Some of these involved nested projects – e.g. going to graduate school to make the location change process easier or involved sorting immigration issues. Some of these projects worked. Some didn’t.

Every time I reflect on this journey (and speaking to him definitely made me reflect on it) and find myself thinking about the journey ahead, I am reminded of the quote – “If plan A doesn’t work, remember there are 26 letters in the alphabet.”

That quote has been very representative of how my journey has unfolded. Plan A has rarely worked. But, I’ve done my best to work through plans B, C, D and so on.

Just this morning, I learnt that a project I’d been working on for a while didn’t work out. It is, without question, a bummer. But, going through the process taught me a lot. I was grateful for the incredible support I received from many wonderful folks through the process and felt I’d given it my best shot. It is a reminder that there’s a lot outside our control and that that good processes don’t always lead to good results in the short run.

But, as I look back to the past decade, I feel confident about the long run effect giving processes you commit to your best shot. And, I’ve also learnt that a key part of running a good process is making sure you are preparing for and working through plans A-Z.

On days like this, I feel grateful for having the privilege to write here. There are the days when the tag line of this blog – “Never failure, only learning” – comes to life. It reminds me that we never know if a good day is a good day. All we can do is keep plugging away.

And, I definitely intend to do that.

Bruises

We’ve all likely walked around with a bruise. That part of our skin feels exposed and uncomfortable.

In this day and age, we don’t walk around with physical bruises as much as as our ancestors did. Instead, we deal more often with mental ones. This could be because we’re facing a difficult situation, awaiting an important result or just stuck in circumstances that has us feeling insecure about our capabilities.

When I feel bruised, I know I’m more controlling than usual, more annoying than usual and more “on edge” than usual. It doesn’t feel pleasant. As a result, I don’t radiate pleasantness either.

I’ve learnt that there’s no easy solution to overcoming a bruise. We have to give it time. Until then, it helps being aware of the feeling so we can upfront with ourselves about it and try and deal with our reactions more patiently. A few guilty pleasures and more rest definitely doesn’t hurt.

We should worry if such phases last longer than a few days at most or a couple of weeks at a time in extraneous circumstances. If they do, it might be time to make a wholesale change in some part of our lives.

But, that aside, I think of bruises as normal service. It is part of being human and we learn a lot about our ourselves in the process of dealing with them.

Hypotheses and the synthesis process

I started this mini-series on synthesis with a post on moving from summaries to synthesis. This was the excerpt of the post that talked about the difference.

When we write a good summary, we ask ourselves the question – what were the main points of what I read/heard/saw? A good summary boils what we read, heard or saw into a few bullet points that outline the central thesis.

A good synthesis, instead, involves asking the question – how do I make sense of what I read/heard/saw? This is a fundamentally different exercise because a good synthesis involves combining ideas to form a theory or point of view.

But, this post raised the obvious question – how do we synthesize? Or, put differently, what tools can I use to transition from summaries to synthesis? We touched on the first tool yesterday – theories. A theory is an idea or a system of ideas that are intended to explain something. Theories aren’t intended to explain everything about the topic. But, they explain enough for you to understand it. I mentioned that theories are one of the tool good synthesizers use.

The other more dominant tool is a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for the next investigation. The synthesis process typically involves tons of hypotheses because it isn’t easy going from something you just read/heard/saw to a theory. Hypotheses bridge the gap. Below is what the process looks like.

Let’s work with a live example. I saw a talk with Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson on their new book – “Altered Traits.” Altered Traits is about what they’ve learnt from a lot of the scientific research on meditation. I’ve thought of and tried practicing meditation for over a year. When I reflected on both what I read about meditation and my experiences around meditation, there were 3 hypotheses that emerged –

  • Meditation feels like a route to mindfulness and equanimity
  • Writing every day feels like meditation to me
  • There are multiple ways to meditate or get to mindfulness – we should find a way that works for us

Ever since the hypotheses emerged, I’ve been looking for various ways to test these hypotheses. And, as I listened to the two authors speak, I found my hypotheses to be consistent to how they described the benefits of meditation. I expect to continue to find ways to test these hypotheses (I am in no hurry for now, of course). Over time, I’d expect a theory around meditation and mindfulness by writing to come together.

A hypotheses driven approach to life sounds, on first glance, like something that would only work in a lab. But, in truth, our life is the grandest experiment we run. Like all grand experiments, it is the sum and product of many small, daily experiments. We can choose to unintentionally stumble through them or do our best to be intentional about them.

And, should we choose to be intentional about them, it is critical to go into experiments with a hypotheses and learn from them. That’s what the process of synthesis helps us do.

That is also why it is a very powerful habit in the long run.

Grit and Theories – Synthesis tools

In her book Grit, Angela Duckworth lays out 3 theories.

Skill = Talent x Effort

Achievement = Skill x Effort

Grit = Passion + Perseverance

A theory is an idea or a system of ideas that are intended to explain something. Theories aren’t intended to explain everything about the topic. But, they explain enough for you to understand it. Theories are a classic tool for better synthesis of ideas.

In this case, Angela Duckworth helped us synthesize plenty of literature around skill, achievement and grit into 3 simple models. Again, they’re necessarily imperfect. But, they are very instructive all the same. Theories are a great example of what makes synthesis incredibly powerful. And, they are one of the two powerful tools that good synthesizers use.

(Hopefully that’s enough intrigue in advance of tomorrow’s post :-))

From summaries to synthesis

We learn by developing mental models. And, a technique to fast track the creation of mental models is to move from summaries to synthesis.

When we write a good summary, we ask ourselves the question – what were the main points of what I read/heard/saw? A good summary boils what we read, heard or saw into a few bullet points that outline the central thesis.

A good synthesis, instead, involves asking the question – how do I make sense of what I read/heard/saw? This is a fundamentally different exercise because a good synthesis involves combining ideas to form a theory or point of view. The ideas you drawn on for synthesis need not even be from the from the material you are synthesizing and could be from prior experiences or lessons.

As you can imagine, summarizing is easy. It is like riding a bike on training wheels. It takes all the risk away. But, in doing so, it takes away all the reward as well.

So, how do we move from summaries to synthesis? Just like we move from riding a bike with training wheels to riding without – ditch summaries. Synthesis takes effort and requires us to pause, reflect and bring together ideas in our heads. It is, by nature, risky.

But, it is only when we take that risk do we allow ourselves to fall and learn.