Philosophy


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Ani Pema Chodron, the author of the book, gave a commencement address to the 2014 graduating class of Naropa, University of Boulder, Colorado. She did so, to keep her promise with her grand daughter, who was amongst the graduating class. The speech went viral on the net and this book is an offshoot of it. It contains the full text of the speech and a Q&A session. The title of the speech and hence the book, is inspired from a quote by Samuel Beckett. 

The author says that she had received one of the best pieces of advice, while learning how to teach.

I was being taught how to teach, as many of us were. And the instructions I received were to prepare well, know your subject, and then go in there with no note cards. Honestly, that is the best advice for life: no note cards. Just prepare well and know what you want to do. Give it your best, but you really don’t have a clue what’s going to happen. And note cards have limited usefulness.

The crux of the speech is author’s take on how to fail ? Most of the strategies that we adopt when faced with failure fall in to two categories. We either blame it on something external or become excessively critical about our self. How does one handle a failure ?

The author says,

We move away from the rawness, of holding the rawness of vulnerability in our heart, by blaming it on the other. Getting curious about outer circumstances and how they are impacting you, noticing what words come out and what your internal discussion is, this is the key.

So sometimes you can take rawness and vulnerability and turn it into creative poetry, writing, dance, music, song. Artists have done this from the beginning of time. Turn it into something that communicates to other people, and out of this raw and vulnerable space, communication really happens.

It’s in that space-when we aren’t masking ourselves or trying to make circumstances go away-that our best qualities begin to shine.

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This book can be savored by anyone who loves silence and solitude. Solitude, in most of our lives, visits us when we are least prepared – unexpected work assignment to a different city/country, sudden hospitalization for an extended period of time, death of partner, break up etc. Most of us are ill-prepared to handle the sudden intrusion of solitude. This coupled with our childhood experiences of hyper protective parents questioning us – “Kid, you are very silent. Is everything OK with you?”— creates an unhealthy attitude towards situations where we are silent and alone.

For most part of my life I have lived alone and have enjoyed it. My life has played out in a way such that there have been prolonged periods of solitude, punctuated by skewed mix of necessary & unnecessary interactions with others. Having lived such a life, I think my mind loves anything that celebrates silence and solitude. No wonder that I could not put this book down, even while attending a conference. I took an immense liking to the book that I took every opportunity during the downtime between the talks at the conference, to lose myself in this book. One goes to a conference, not only to listen to what other people are doing in a specific field, but also to socialize. Just silently absorb the content of the talk and reflect on them. Somehow I found a strange kind of comforting feeling sitting amidst a random set of geeks and not talking to anyone. In this context, I remember something from the book Quiet, where Susan Cain says, her well groomed, well laid out office room that she had carefully prepared proved rather ineffective for writing. Instead, Starbucks outlets helped her in writing numerous drafts of the book. She says Starbucks has a unique feature, i.e. it is a place that is constantly buzzing with activity that gives a sense of community feeling and at the same time each one is minding one’s own work.

I read this book out of curiosity of finding out – What does a person who has been staying alone for twenty years got to say about solitude?

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Sara Maitland’s house(a region of Scotland with one of the lowest population densities in Europe)

The author refers to her previous work “The Book on Silence” and says that she had mentioned a few things relevant to “Solitude” in it. She says that she has written this book mainly to expand those thoughts. Indeed silence and solitude healthily coexist. But there are situations where you are in silence without solitude / when you experience solitude without silence. 

Being Alone in the Twenty-first century:

The first part of the book makes a case against the popular notion that seeking aloneness is not a pathological condition. Society tries to brand a person seeking alone time for an extended period of time as “sad, mad or bad”, or all the three at once. For a woman, it is even worse.

In the Middle Ages the word ‘spinster’ was a compliment. A spinster was someone, usually a woman, who could spin well: a woman who could spin well was financially self-sufficient – it was one of the very few ways that mediaeval women could achieve economic independence . The word was generously applied to all women at the point of marriage as a way of saying they came into the relationship freely, from personal choice, not financial desperation. Now it is an insult, because we fear ‘for’ such women – and now men as well – who are probably ‘sociopaths’.

Rebalancing Attitudes towards Solitude

The second part of the book gives a few ideas to strengthen your desire for and reduce your fear of solitude, ways in which you might, in practice, develop your taste for and skill at it. There are many people who actively avoid solitude. The two most common tactics for evading the terror of solitude are both singularly ineffective. The first is denigrating those who do not fear it, especially if they claim to enjoy it , and stereotyping them as ‘miserable’,‘selfish’,‘crazy’ or ‘perverse’ (sad, mad and bad). The second is infinitely extending our social contacts as a sort of insurance policy, which social media makes increasingly possible.

The book contains a set of guidelines that can be helpful in overturning negative views about solitude and developing a positive sense of aloneness and true capacity to enjoy it.

  • Face the fear
  • Do Something enjoyable alone : Have a balance between work time, maintenance time and leisure time.There is a good deal of anecdotal evidence that doing things alone intensifies the emotional experience; sharing an experience immediately appears to dissipate our emotional responses , as though communicating it drained away the visceral sensation.
  • Explore Reverie
  • Look at Nature
  • Learn something by heart

Wordsworth’s famous poem ‘Daffodils’ would have a very different effect if it ended:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
I have to rise and go and search
On Flickr, Google or YouTube.

The capacity to be creative is profoundly linked to the ability to remember: the word ‘remember’ derives from ‘re-member’, to ‘put the parts back together’. What we have memorized, learned by heart, we have internalized in a very special way. The knowledge is now part of our core self, our identity, and we can access it when we are alone: we are no longer an isolated fragment drifting in a huge void, but linked through these shared shards of culture to a larger, richer world, but without losing our ‘aloneness’. For many people this resource, this well-stocked mental larder, offers food for thought, for coherence, for security, and must be one of the factors that turns ‘isolation’ into creative solitude. This is a kind of cultural engagement that you cannot get from the web or from reading.

  • Going Solo : The author is not suggesting those “extreme adventures” that you can brag about to people around you. But something else. Read the book if you are curious.

The Joys of Solitude

The author writes about a few rewards that people who seek and experienced solitude have found :

  • A deeper consciousness of self: Behind the heavy sounding words, all it means that in solitude you know yourself better. Stripped of human interaction, you tend to be aware of your own feelings, thoughts, moods . How you deal with it is a different matter, but the very fact that you start noticing is itself a reward. People sometimes take all kinds of weird steps to experience conscious solitude in their lives. Here’s one such example of author’s friend, Jill Langford.

About twenty-five years into my marriage, with seven children, I asked my husband for a one-man tent for Christmas. A little taken aback, perhaps, he nonetheless granted my request and bought me a super little army tent or bivouac shell that you honestly couldn’t squeeze two people into. You erect it, quite easily and quickly, crawl in on your belly, then turn over onto your back, clutching a sleeping bag, raise your knees and wriggle your legs, then bottom, then torso into it. Et voilà. You stay in that position till morning, then you do the same in reverse. There is no room to sit up and you’d be a fool not to have a wee before retiring, since the whole procedure is well-nigh impossible in the middle of the night. I use this little tent just whenever I feel the need to take off, alone, for whatever reason. For me, it works like a battery charger when I feel weighed down by the burdens of living in community and am dragging my feet. Actually I don’t use it very much, but knowing it’s there to use if I want to is sometimes enough in itself to bring a spring back into my step.

  • Attunement to Nature: Over and over again individuals report these extraordinary, mystical experiences when they are alone in nature. It never seems to happen if you are with anyone else, perhaps because we all have a deep inhibition against exposing ourselves so nakedly to another, even a beloved other.
  • Relationship with God: If you are an atheist, it could just mean an entity beyond your sensory perception. There is no major religious or spiritual tradition that does not recognize solitude as a part of the necessary practice for revelation, intimacy and knowledge.
  • Creativity: We all have experienced at some point or the other—creativity somehow seems to go up when we are do things alone. We understand things better. We learn and experience things more deeply in solitude. Solitude is a well-established ‘school for genius’, and the outpouring of creativity is one of its promised joys. In learning to be solitary and happy with it, you can prepare yourself for this sort of creativity.
  • Freedom: There are two types of freedom, 1) “freedom from”, 2), ”freedom to”. In our society, the former is increasing becoming possible like freedom from poverty, pain or fear, financial insecurity etc. Solitude is associated with the latter kind of freedom

In The Stations of Solitude, the philosopher Alice Koller defined freedom as ‘Not only having no restraints, but also being self-governing according to laws of your own choosing … where your choices spring from a genuine sense of what your life is and can become.’ In this short passage she moves from ‘no restraints’ (freedom from) to being ‘self-governing’ (freedom to). In order to achieve this second sort of freedom she suggests that you need a ‘genuine sense of what your life is and can become’. That is to say, you need a consciousness of yourself, and we have already seen how solitude enhances and develops that self-awareness which is the first step towards being self-governing.

Being solitary is being alone well : being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than of the absence of others.

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This book is a TED book, i.e. a book paired with a TED talk so that ideas mentioned in the talk are explored in a little more detail. At the same time, TED books are intended to be short so that one can comfortably read it one sitting. This book is about 75 pages. The author gives various anecdotes from his life and encourages the reader to find “Nowhere” in one’s daily/weekly schedule so as to practice “Stillness”.

It’s only by taking myself away from clutter and distraction that I can begin to hear something out of earshot and recall that listening is much more invigorating than giving voice to all the thoughts and prejudices that anyway keep me company twenty-four hours a day. And it’s only by going nowhere — by sitting still or letting my mind relax — that I find that the thoughts that come to me unbidden are far fresher and more imaginative than the ones I consciously seek out. Setting an auto-response on my e-mail, turning off the TV when I’m on the treadmill, trying to find a quiet place in the midst of a crowded day or city – all quickly open up an unsuspected space


When friends ask me for suggestions about where to go on vacation, I‘ll sometimes ask if they want to try Nowhere, especially if they don’t want to have to deal with visas and injections and long lines at the airport. One of the beauties of Nowhere is that you never know where you’ll end up when you head in its direction, and though the horizon is unlimited, you may have very little sense of what you’ll see along the way. The deeper blessing is that it can get you as wide-awake, exhilarated, and pumping-hearted as when you are in love.

— Pico Iyer

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For those of us who are born before 1985, it is likely that we have seen two worlds; one, a world that wasn’t dependent on net and another, where our lives are dominated/controlled by the web and social media. The author says that that given this vantage point, we have a unique perspective of how things have changed. It is impossible to imagine a life without print. However before the 1450’s Guttenberg printing press invention, the knowledge access was primarily through oral tradition. Similarly may be a decade or two from now, our next generation would be hard-pressed to imagine a life without connectivity. There is a BIG difference between the Guttenberg’s revolution and Internet—the pace. Even though the printing press was invented around 1450’s, it was not until 19th century that enough people were literate, for the written word to influence the society. In contrast, we have seen both the offline and online world in less than one life time.

We are in a sense a straddle generation, with one foot in the digital pond and the other on the shore, and are experiencing a strange suffering as we acclimatize. In a single generation, we are the only people in the history experiencing massive level of change. The author is not critical about technology, after all technology is neither good nor bad. It is neutral. Firstly something about the word in  title—Absence. It is used as a catch-all term for any activity that does not involve internet, mobile, tablets, social media etc. Given this context, the author structures the content of the book in to two parts. The first part of the book explores certain aspects of our behavior that have dramatically changed and we can see the consequences of it all around us. The second part of the book is part reflection, part experimentation by the author to remain disconnected in this hyper connected world. In this post, I will summarize a few sections of the book.

Kids these days

Increasingly the kids are living in a world where the daydreaming silences in the lives are filled by social media notifications and burning solitudes are extinguished by constant yapping on the social networks/phones and playing video games. That said, what is role of a parent? The author argues that we have a responsibility of providing enough offline time to children.

How often have you seen a teenager staring outside a window and doing nothing but be silent? In all likelihood parents might think that there is something wrong with their kid—he had a fight over something with a sibling, something in the class upset him/her, someone has taunted their kid etc. If the kid is typing something on his mobile or talking over the phone texting, playing a video game, the standard reaction of a parent is – Kids these days—and leave it at that. Instead of actively creating an atmosphere where downtime becomes a recurring event, parents are shoving technology on to kids to escape the responsibility. How else can one justify this product (iPotty)?

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One digital critic says, “It not only reinforces unhealthy overuse of digital media, it’s aimed at toddlers. We should NOT be giving them the message that you shouldn’t even take your eyes off a screen long enough to pee.”

Many research studies have concluded that teenagers are more at ease with technologies than one another. The author argues that parents should be aware of subtle cues and create engineered absences for them to develop empathy for others via the real world interactions than avatars in the digital world.

Montaigne once wrote, “We must reserve a back shop, all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude.” But where will tomorrow’s children set up such a shop, when the world seems to conspire against the absentee soul?

Confession

The author mentions the Amanda Todd incident—a teenager posts a YouTube video about her online bully and commits suicide. Online bullying is a wide spread phenomena but the social technologies offer a weak solution to the problem—flag this as inappropriate / block the user. Though the crowd sourced moderation may look like a sensible solution, in practice, it is not. The moderation team for most of the social media firms cannot handle the amount of flagging requests. The author mentions about big data tools being developed that take in all the flagging request streams and then decide the appropriate action. The reduction of our personal lives to mere data does run the risk of collapsing things into a Big Brother scenario, with algorithms scouring the Internet for “unfriendly” behavior and dishing out “correction” in one form or another. Do we want algorithms to abstract, monitor and quantify us? Well, if online bullying can be reduced by digital tools, so be it, even though it smells like a digit band-aid to cure problems in digital world. The author is however concerned with “broadcast” culture that has suddenly been thrust upon us.

When we make our confessions online, we abandon the powerful workshop of the lone mind, where we puzzle through the mysteries of our own existence without reference to the demands of an often ruthless public.

Our ideas wilt when exposed to scrutiny too early—and that includes our ideas about ourselves. But we almost never remember that. I know that in my own life, and in the lives of my friends, it often seems natural, now, to reach for a broadcasting tool when anything momentous wells up. Would the experience not be real until you had had shared it, confessed your “status”?

The idea that technology must always be a way of opening up the world to us, of making our lives richer and never poorer, is a catastrophic one. But the most insidious aspect of this trap is the way online technologies encourage confession while simultaneously alienating the confessor.

Authenticity

The author wonders about the “distance” that any new technology creates between a person and his/her “direct experience”. Maps made “information obtained by exploring a place” less useful and more time consuming, as an abstract version of the same was convenient. Mechanical clock regimented the leisurely time and eventually had more control on you than body’s own inclinations. So are MOOCS that take us away from directly experiencing a teacher’s lesson in flesh and blood. These are changes in our society and possibly irrevocable. The fact that “Selfie stick makes to the Time magazine’s list of 25 best inventions of 2014” says that there is some part of us that wants to share the moment, than actually experiencing it. Daniel Kahneman in one of his interviews talks about the riddle of experiencing self vs. remembering self.

Suppose you go on a vacation and, at the end, you get an amnesia drug. Of course, all your photographs are also destroyed. Would you take the same trip again? Or would you choose one that’s less challenging? Some people say they wouldn’t even bother to go on the vacation. In other words, they prefer to forsake the pleasure, which, of course, would remain completely unaffected by its being erased afterwards. So they are clearly not doing it for the experience; they are doing it entirely for the memory of it.

Every person I guess in today’s world is dependent on digital technologies. Does it take us away from having an authentic or more direct experience? Suppose your cell phone and your internet are taken away from you over the weekend, can you lead a relaxed / refreshing weekend? If the very thought of such a temporary 2 day absence gives you discomfort, then one must probably relook at the very idea of what it means to have an authentic experience. Can messaging a group on WhatsApp count as an authentic “being with a friend” experience? All our screen time, our digital indulgence, may well be wreaking havoc on our conception of the authentic. Paradoxically, it’s the impulse to hold more of the world in our arms that leaves us holding more of reality at arm’s length.

The author mentions about Carrington Event

On September 1, 1859, a storm on the surface of our usually benevolent sun released an enormous megaflare, a particle stream that hurtled our way at four million miles per hour. The Carrington Event (named for Richard Carrington, who saw the flare first) cast green and copper curtains of aurora borealis as far south as Cuba. By one report, the aurorae lit up so brightly in the Rocky Mountains that miners were woken from their sleep and, at one a.m., believed it was morning. The effect would be gorgeous, to be sure. But this single whip from the sun had devastating effects on the planet’s fledgling electrical systems. Some telegraph stations burst into flame.

and says such an event, according to experts, is 12% probable in the next decade and 95% probable in the next two centuries. What will happen when such an event happens?

Breaking Away

This chapter narrates author’s initial efforts to seek the absence. In a way, the phrase “seeking the absence” is itself ironical. If we don’t seek anything and be still, aren’t we in absence already? Not really if our mind is in a hyperactive state.

One can think of many things that demand a significant time investment, well may be, an uninterrupted time investment, to be precise. In my life, there are a couple of such activities – reading a book, understanding a concept in math/stat, writing a program, playing an instrument. One of the first difficulties in pursuing these tasks is, “How does one go about managing distractions, be it digital / analog distractions”? About the digital distractions- constantly checking emails/ whatsapp/twitter makes it tough to concentrate on a task that necessitates full immersion.

Why does our brain want to check emails/messages so often? What makes these tools addictive? It turns out the answer was given way back in 1937 by the psychologist, B.F Skinner who describes the behavior as “operant conditioning”. Studies show that constant, reliable rewards do not produce the most dogged behavior; rather, it’s sporadic and random rewards that keep us hooked. Animals, including humans, become obsessed with reward systems that only occasionally and randomly give up the goods. We continue the conditioned behavior for longer when the reward is taken away because surely, surely, the sugar cube is coming up next time. So, that one meaningful email once in a while keeps us hooked on “frequent email checking” activity.Does trading in the financial markets in search of alpha, an outcome of operant conditioning? The more I look at the traders who keep trading despite poor performance, the more certain I feel it is. The occasional reward makes them hooked to trading, despite having a subpar performance.

Try reading a book and catch yourself how many times you start thinking about – what else could I be doing now/ reading now?—Have we lost the ability to remain attentive to a given book or task without constantly multi-tasking. BTW research has proven beyond doubt that there is nothing called multitasking. All we do is mini-tasking. It definitely happens to me quite a number of times. When I am going through something that is really tough to understand in an ebook ( mostly these days, the books I end up reading are in ebook format as hardbound editions of the same are beyond my budget), I click on ALT+TAB –the attention killing combination on a keyboard that takes me from a situation where I have to actively focus on stuff for understanding TO a chrome/Firefox tab where I can passively consume content, where I can indulge in hyperlink hopping , wasting time and really not gaining anything. Over the years, I have figured out a few hacks that alerts me of this compulsive “ALT+TAB” behavior. I cannot say I have slayed ALT+TAB dragon for good at least I have managed to control it.

The author narrates his experience of trying to read the book, “War and Peace” , a thousand page book, amidst his hyper-connected world. He fails to get past in the initial attempts as he finds himself indulging in the automatic desires of the brain.

I’ve realized now that the subject of my distraction is far more likely to be something I need to look at than something I need to do. There have always been activities—dishes, gardening, sex, shopping—that derail whatever purpose we’ve assigned to ourselves on a given day. What’s different now is the addition of so much content that we passively consume.

Seeking help from Peter Brugman(18 minutes), he allots himself 100 pages of “War and Peace” each day with ONLY three email check-ins in a day. He also explores the idea of using a software that might help him in controlling distractions (Dr. Sidney D’Mello , a Notre Dame professors, is creating a software that tracks real-time attention of a person and sounds off an alarm) . In the end, the thing that helps the author complete “War and Peace” is the awareness of lack of absence which makes him find period of absence when he can immerse himself. I like the way he describes this aspect,

As I wore a deeper groove into the cushions of my sofa, so the book I was holding wore a groove into my (equally soft) mind.

There’s a religious certainty required in order to devote yourself to one thing while cutting off the rest of the world—and that I am short on. So much of our work is an act of faith, in the end. We don’t know that the in-box is emergency-free, we don’t know that the work we’re doing is the work we ought to be doing. But we can’t move forward in a sane way without having some faith in the moment we’ve committed to. “You need to decide that things don’t matter as much as you might think they matter,”

Does real thinking require retreat? The author thinks so and cites the example of John Milton who took a decade off to read, read, and read, at a time when his peers were DOING and ACCOMPLISHING stuff. Did he waste his time? Milton, after this retreat, wrote “Paradise Lost”, work, a totemic feat of concentration. Well this example could be a little too extreme for a normal person to take up. But I think we can actively seek mini retreats in a day/week/month/year. By becoming oblivious to thoughts like, “what others are doing?”, “what else should I be doing right now?”, “what could be the new notification on my mobile/desktop related to?” , I guess we will manage to steal mini-retreats in our daily lives.

Memory

The word memory evokes, at least amongst many of us, a single stationary cabinet that we file everything from whose retrieval is at best partial( for the trivia that goes on in our lives). This popular notion has been totally invalidated by many experiments in neuroscience. Brenda Milner’s study of Patient M is considered a landmark event in neuroscience as it established that our memory is not a single stationary cabinet that we file everything. Motor memory and Declarative memory reside in different parts of brain. Many subsequent experiments have established that human memory is a dynamic series of systems, with information constantly moving between. And changing.

Why does the author talk about memory in this book? The main reason is that we are relying more and more on Google, Wikipedia and digital tools for storing and looking up information. We have outsourced “transactive memory” to these services. In this context , the author mentions about timehop , a service that reminds you what you were doing a year ago after aggregating content from your online presence on Facebook, twitter, and blogs. You might think this is a cool thing where timehop keeps track of your life. However there is a subtle aspect that is going behind such services. We are tending to offload our memory to digital devices. Isn’t it good that I don’t have to remember all the trivia of life AND at the same time have it at the click of a button? Why do we need memory at all when whatever ALL we need is at a click of a button ? There is no harm in relying on these tools. The issue however, is that you cannot equate effective recall of information to “human memory”. Memorization is the act of making something “a property of yourself,” and this is in both senses: The memorized content is owned by the memorizer AND also becomes a component of that person’s makeup. If you have memorized something, the next time you try to access the memory, you have a new memory of it. Basically accessing memory changes memory. This is fundamentally different from “externalized memory”. In a world where we are increasingly finding whatever we need online, “having a good memory” or “memorization” skills might seem a useless skill. This chapter argues that it isn’t.

How to absent oneself?

This chapter is about author’s experience of staying away from digital world for one complete month—he fondly calls it “Analog August”. He dutifully records his thoughts each day. At the end of one full month of staying away, he doesn’t have an epiphany or something to that effect. Neither does he have some breakthrough in his work. When he resumes his life after the month long sabbatical, he realizes one thing—Every hour, Every day we choose and allow devices/services/technologies in to our lives. By prioritizing them and being aware of them is winning half the battle. By consciously stepping away from each of these connections on a daily basis is essential to get away from their spell.

imageTakeaway:

How does it feel to be the only people in the history to know life with and without internet ? Inevitably the internet is rewiring our brains. Internet does not merely enrich our experience, it is becoming our experience. By thinking about the various aspects that are changing, we might be able to answer two questions: 1) What will we carry forward as a straddle generation? 2) What worthy things might we thoughtlessly leave behind as technology dissolves in to the very atmosphere of our lives? . Michael Harris has tried answering these questions and in the process has written a very interesting book. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this book amidst complete silence. I guess every straddle generation reader will relate to many aspects mentioned in book.

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The book is a take on how we look at the world and brand something as an advantage and something as a limitation. The things that we attribute as advantages sometimes become limitations and vice-versa. There are three parts to the book and each part has three stories.

Part I: The advantages of disadvantages (and the disadvantage of advantages).

The three stories mentioned in this part of the book go on to illustrate that we are often mislead about the nature of advantage. We think of things as helpful that actually aren’t and think of other things as unhelpful that in reality leave us stronger and wiser.

  • Vivek Ranadive : A computer nerd who trains a basketball team (David) to play against strong teams that play conventional basketball( Goliath). By combining unusual strategies that sometimes ONLY suit a disadvantaged, his team goes on to win many matches against supposedly strong teams.
  • Shepaug Valley School : A story that illustrates the inverted U principle. Something that we think of an advantage beyond a point becomes a disadvantage. I think this is applicable in quite a number of situations like more money is good for success, but beyond a point, it is actually detrimental for the success. In a similar way shrinking large class sizes is good but beyond a point it is in fact negatively correlated to academic achievement. Being born in a middleclass family is actually better than being born with silver spoon. A similar sentiment is echoed in Geet Sethi’s book, “Success Vs. Joy” where he says that his middle class status actually was one of the reasons that motivated him to practice more than usual hours. Had he been born in a super rich family, he says he would not have become a world class billiards player.
  • Caroline Sacks: This is a story of a girl who was interested in science, ends up choosing a prestigious institute instead of a second rung institute, thus choosing to be a small fish in an ocean than a big fish in a pond. What was the consequence? She drops out of science and decides to graduate in a different field. The book gives the reason as “relative deprivation”. Gladwell cites a raft of research that says that it’s how smart you feel relative to others in your classroom that matters. The bottom quartile/decile of top universities has been found not to be as productive as top quartile/top decile of fairly average university. Going by pure academic achievements and IQ levels, it should not be the case. But it is. I think this small fish vs. big fish is a valuable thought to be kept in mind while choosing many other aspects in our lives – Where do you go to school? / Where do you choose to work? / What do you choose to work on? etc. While taking these decisions, we inevitable weigh the advantages and disadvantages of various options. In that process what we think of as an advantage might actually be a disadvantage and vice versa. Let’s say a good reason to work in well known company is the money, the infrastructure, the prestige etc. that come with it and one might think that it is a great advantage to keep working in that company as a small fish. It might be beneficial for certain type of people, but for some, a smaller firm with constraints on money/ infra and loads of uncertainties, can actually spur them in to doing creative stuff.

Part II: The theory of desirable difficulty

The three stories mentioned in this part of the book illustrate that we are often mislead by what we perceive as disadvantages.

  • David Boies(Successful trial lawyer), Ingvar Kamprad(IKEA)Gary Cohn(Goldman Sachs) : All these people have one common thread. They were dyslexic. Gladwell talks about “compensation learning”, a technique adopted by those who cannot pursue “capitalization learning”, ( work on what’s one good at and keep working at it). All the stories illustrate one message those who have inherent disadvantages in the traditional education/career setting can actually force them to develop skills that might otherwise have lain dormant.
  • Emil Jay Freireich : A story of a man, who had a troubled childhood, never grew in an environment of empathy, and turns out to be the inventor of a successful cure for a certain type of cancer. When we see an orphan or a child who has lost his parent(s), we might think they are disadvantaged. Gladwell argues that these types of people are what he calls,”remote misses”. The fact that a person has lost his parent and has survived a bit brings in him a sense of accomplishment and that in turn feeds in to growing cycle of courage and self-confidence. There are a number of research findings that say that most of the successful people had lost one or both of their parents in their childhood. Something that is an obvious disadvantage for having a happy childhood can actually be beneficial.
  • Wyatt Walker :   A story that illustrates that disadvantaged, sometimes have nothing to lose and go all out and achieve extremely improbable events

Part III – The limits of power

The three stories in this part of the book illustrate the inherent weaknesses of power. The same inverted U principle applies to power too. British army assumed that too much of power would make insurgency go away; however power, after a certain point in time goes from being effective to ineffective. There’s a story of Joanne Jaffe, a police officer who transforms Brownsville using not more power but less power. The story of Mike Reynold shows that an aggrieved parent can marshal forces to have an entire law enacted, in this case, a law called “Three Strikes Law”, which looks good on paper but fails completely over the long run. As a parallel story, Gladwell cites the example of another aggrieved parent, Wilma Derksen, who chooses a completely different path, and the outcome was a happy outcome.

image Takeaway :

If you are a Gladwell fan and like his way of writing, this book is a nice treat peppered with 9 stories that revolve around the theme – “There are things that we might think are helpful but actually aren’t and there are things that we might think are unhelpful but in reality leave us stronger and wiser”.

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The authors of this book run “Uncommon Schools”, a network of 32 charter public schools across Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. The first author, Doug Lemov , is also known for his earlier book, “Teach Like A Champion” that is exclusively geared towards teachers to improve their effectiveness. This book is also, in a way, aimed at teachers, educators, etc. though  the authors suggest that some of the techniques are more general in nature that can be be applicable to any field.

In the introduction , the authors verbalize the thought process behind the book,

What does effective practice look like? What separates true practice from repetition or performance? And what were the key design principles to ensure that practice truly made performance better? And so we arrived at the work before you: a collection of 42 rules to shape and improve how you use practice to get better.

The book, as it clear from the subtitle, talks about 42 meta rules( getting better at getting better) framed by the authors based out their years of experience in running “Uncommon Schools”.  These 42 rules are categorized in to 6 sections, i.e “Rethinking Practice”, “How to Practice?”, “Using Modeling”,”Feedback”, “Culture of Practice “ and “Post Practice”.   Let me list down a few rules that I felt were applicable in a broader context

Section I – Rethinking Practice

Rule 1 Encode Success :
The idea behind this rule is that “Practice makes permanent”. So if your method of practice is wrong and you log in a lot of hours practicing, performance is going to be mediocre. The rule says that we usually romanticize failure that lead to success. While failure may build character and tenacity, its not  good at building skills. Practice should entail working in such a way that there is a sequence of mini-successes along the path. This rule is different from what one generally gets to read where practice involves constant struggle and failures. This mindset will make one fix the problem right away, thus ensuring that there is a success element before moving on. In the context of teaching or learning math, this becomes crucial. Every concept be it an axiom or a theorem or an equation needs to be followed up by a quick test to check whether the students are getting it or not.

Rule 2 Practice the 20 : 
The idea behind this rule is to focus your time on 20% of things that drive 80% of the success. In a school setting this would mean that a teacher should customize the quizzes/ lessons so that each student works on his strengths and does not dissipate energy on things that will he/she might become merely good at. Being great at the most important things is more important than being good at more things that are merely useful. No wonder the online courses are a big hit amongst the students. You learn according to your strengths rather than some predetermined syllabus.

Rule 3 Let the Mind Follow the Body : 
Once you have learned a skill to automaticity, your body executes, and only afterwards does your mind catch up. This is evident in sports, music and I guess in many other domains where there is a premium placed for speed , fast innovation.

While you are executing a series of complex skills and tasks that were at one time all but incomprehensible to you, your mind is free to roam and analyze and wonder. If you use practice to build mastery of a series of skills, and if you build up skills intentionally, you can master surprisingly complex tasks and in so doing free your active cognition to engage with other important tasks.

Rule 4 Unlock Creativity . . . with Repetition : 
The more you can do something in autopilot, the more your mind can wander , analyze and make surprising connections. Once you put in a lot of practice and do some of the complex tasks in auto-pilot mode, you can learn stuff more deeply.

Rule 5 Replace Your Purpose (with an Objective) :
Quantify your work , i.e. develop your own metrics to track your practice sessions.

Rule 6 Practice “Bright Spots”  : 
Drawing from Dan and Chip Heath who coined the term “Bright Spots” (overlooked and under leveraged points that actually work), the rule says that it is crucial to keep track of what’s working for you. Let’s say you understand something well by seeing a visual, then its imperative that you look for such kind of visuals to aid your understanding. To be specific, for a long time I had difficulty understanding conditional expectation of a random variable given another random variable. Well, conditional probability is something that is intuitively easy to understand. But conditional expectation is a vastly different animal. Years ago I came across a visual that just made the concept clear and it has stuck firmly in my mind.  Since then, I have always tried to visualize any type of operator / random variable / formula in terms of pictures. Once I can associate a good visual with a definition/theorem/proposition, things stick in my mind. I guess one must keep observing ourselves, to note these “bright spots” in various contexts.
In essence , the rule says “practice strengths”

Rule 7 Differentiate Drill from Scrimmage : 
Understanding these terms are essentially to understanding this rule. A drill deliberately distorts the setting in which participants will ultimately perform in order to focus on a specific skill under maximum concentration and to refine that skill intentionally. Pick any thing you want to master, isolate one specific aspect of the process and practice. One can easily relate a “drill” in the context of playing an instrument. Suppose you are playing a set of notes on 16 beat cycle(Teentaal). Playing it on a 12 beat cycle(Ektaal) and then playing the same notes on a 10 beat cycle(Jhaptaal), would be qualify as a drill. Or keeping the same taal and increasing the tempo of the notes would also qualify as a “drill”. In a sense you are creating an artificial environment of varying taals for the same set of notes/swaras. No one does this in real performance. Usually the beat cycle remain constant for a specific rendition. But the “drill” makes you focus intensely on mastering those specific notes. A scrimmage, by contrast, is designed not to distort the game but to replicate its complexity and uncertainty.  In the context of music, this would mean giving a playing in front of your friends / a small group of people so that you are ready to face the actual audience. Both are essential but the authors say that “drill” matter more than “scrimmage”.

Rule 8 Correct Instead of Critique How to Practice
Practice is about inscribing habits on the brain through repetition with variation. What makes you execute an action in performance is having done it in practice. So critique— merely telling someone that she did it wrong— doesn’t help very much. Only correction, doing it over again right, trains people to succeed. This rule says that a mistake should be followed up by at least 4 to 5 times of doing it the right way. The rule says

It may be worth reflecting that the body’s neural circuits have very little sense of time. If you do it right once and wrong once, it’s encoded each way equally in your neural circuitry. It may matter little which one happened first. The ratio is one to one. If you are correcting, then, correct in multiples.

Section II – How to Practice?

Rule 9 Analyze the Game :
“Moneyball” is a great success story for a short period of time. Soon the model was quickly replicated by every club and it did not become a differentiating factor. The authors hypothesize that Billy Beane, the manager of Oakland A’s was in fact wrong in his thinking that skillsets are pretty much fixed and all one needs is to trade off one player against the other , much like trading stocks. The rule takes a dig at such an assumption and says that, had Billy Beane gone one step ahead and analyzed the reasons behind players’ superior performance, may be he would have turned Oakland A’s in to a talent hotbed. So, mere analysis of the game is not enough. As a coach, you have to describe those skills to others so that they are given some sort of a map.

Rule 10 Isolate the Skill  :
When teaching a technique or skill, practice the skill in isolation until the learner has mastered it.

Rule 11 Name It :
Naming a specific skill or technique becomes a powerful shorthand for talent development.

Rule 12 Integrate the Skills :
Simulate the performance environment so that you can judge how your skills work together.

Rule 13 Make a Plan :
Quantify your practice plan. The more thought you put in to preparing the plan, the better the practice session turns out to be.

Rule 14 Make Each Minute Matter :

Get a metaphorical whistle , so that you know when you are wasting time and doing something that is taking away from your valuable practice time.

Section III – Using Modeling

Most of rules in this section are too specific to teachers in a classroom environment, except possibly Rule 19.

Rule 19 Insist They “Walk This Way”  :
Sometimes replicating the action as it is, might be beneficial than trying to customize the implementation.  The various steps in activity might have a deeper meaning and you miss by customizing it. To give a specific example, let’s say you are trying to prove a theorem in a math text. You wander for while, you start out with a few definitions, lemmas but let’s say you get nowhere. It is sometimes better to follow the exact proof that is followed in the text,backtrack and then see what all paths the author has used to prove something. This way the learning is more comprehensive than “somehow” proving the theorem.

Section IV- Feedback

Rule 23 Practice Using Feedback (Not Just Getting It)  : 
The authors quote Joshua Foer’s book “ Moonwalking with Einstein”, that says “People often arrive at an “OK Plateau,” a point at which they stop improving at something despite the fact that they continue to do it regularly. The secret to improving at a skill is to retain some degree of conscious control over it while practicing  is to force oneself to stay out of autopilot.” The process of intentionally implementing feedback is likely to keep people in a practice state of increased consciousness and thus steeper improvement. The Rule says that we all get feedback but few of us use it to improve themselves.

Rule 24 Apply First, Then Reflect :
Once you get a feedback, try to work on it asap, instead of discussing and debating about the feedback. The sequence that practice should generally follow is 1. Practice 2. Feedback 3. Do over (repractice using the feedback) 4. Possibly do this multiple times 5. Reflect. This is different from the sequence that most people are naturally inclined to follow: 1. Practice 2. Feedback 3. Reflect and discuss 4. Possibly do over

Rule 25 Shorten the Feedback Loop : 
Speed of consequence beats strength of consequence pretty much every time. Give feedback rightaway even if its imperfect.Remember that a simple and small change, implemented right away, can be more effective than a complex rewiring of a skill.

Section V – Culture of Practice

Rule 31 Normalize Error :

The book mentions a skier’s story to point out that importance of the attitude that we take toward failure. In this context, the book mentions Joshua Foer’s (Moonwalking with Einstein) illustration of the OK plateau

When first learning, we initially improve and improve until we ultimately reach a peak of accuracy and speed. Even though many of us spend countless hours typing in our professional and personal lives, however, we don’t continue to improve. Researchers discovered that when subjects were challenged to their limits by trying to type 10– 20 percent faster and were allowed to make mistakes, their speed improved. They made mistakes, fixed them, then encountered success.

The authors give specific examples of classroom situations where teachers use specific words and body language. They are relentless in ensuring that errors don’t go unaddressed and become more inscribed. They correct warmly and firmly. They prefer the rigor that self-corrections provide (as by having a student reread a challenging passage and fix her own mistake) but are direct when necessary (“ That word is pronounced ‘diagram’”).What is the relationship between the need to practice success and the need to normalize error? What you do in practice is practice succeeding. But when practice is well designed, you can also use it to isolate failure. This allows people to take calculated risks in order to improve at a particular skill. When failure happens in your organization, you want to have built a culture that embraces it. When you effectively normalize error, what starts with failure reliably ends in success. The process of encoding success is what makes failure safe.

Rule 32 Break Down the Barriers to Practice :

Practicing what we already know is sometimes boring to our mind that craves novelty. The chapter describes a few ways to overcome it

Rule 33 Make It Fun to Practice :
I think this is a very important aspect of practice. Unless you have this mindset, it is difficult to sustain practice for a long time.

Rule 37 Praise the Work Post-Practice :
Carol Dweck has studied the impact of praise on student achievement. Her work has demonstrated that when you praise children for a particular trait (for example, being smart) instead of a replicable action (for example, working diligently on a challenging set of math problems), students may actually underperform because they don’t see their achievement as being within their control. Praising traits leads students to believe either “I’m smart” or “I’m not,” whereas praising actions leads them to believe they can change their behavior to influence outcomes. We should learn from Dweck’s work when working with both children and adults in practice. Praise the actions that you want to see from your players, your children, or your employees, and these actions will multiply.

There are a ton of examples used in the book like,

  • Lionel Messi and his way of practicing that involves isolating a specific aspect of the game and just working on that aspect for hours together. Even if one does not understand the game, one can seek out the same kind of mindset in one’s work
  • Xavi Hernandez ,one of the top soccer midfielders in the world practices “rondos”, a specific soccer activity every single day. This example bluntly asks the reader , “Are you doing something every single day ?”. If not, may be you need to reevaluate your practice sessions.

Conclusion

The authors end the book with a section called “ The Monday Morning Test” . It talks about concrete actions and approaches that can be applied in an array of settings and that one can start using as early as Monday morning. In one of the scenarios, they reemphasize specific rules that suggest how one might use these rules as an individual in the quest for success in any endeavor.

Rule 17: Make Models Believable Seek Believable Models
As an individual you need to seek out believable models, people who are doing the same work you are doing, in a similar context. Don’t just go to the symphony to hear the greats perform; go behind the scenes and watch how they practice— the process by which they get better. You don’t have to live near a concert hall to be able to do this. YouTube is an amazing tool for practice. Use it to see how the greats practice.

Here’s a link mentioned in the book that emphasizes practicing slowly and practicing for about 5hrs max in a day.

Rule 23: [Seek and] Practice Using Feedback
Learn from Atul Gawande and seek out a coach. It doesn’t have to cost you anything. Ask someone, even a peer or colleague in your field, to be your “extra ear.” Practice using the feedback you receive from your coach. Don’t just nod your head in acceptance; immediately try out your coach’s suggestions to incorporate them into your practice.

Rule 4: Unlock Creativity
Identify those skills in your profession or hobby that are weak, thus preventing you from being more creative. Practice these skills again and again until they are committed to your muscle memory. This will allow you to free up more creative space and reach new heights, whether you are sitting at a piano, delivering a speech in a boardroom, or teaching math to 30 sixth-graders.

Rule 31: Normalize Error
Be willing to push yourself a little bit harder, out of your comfort zone, and take calculated risks in the name of improvement. Maybe that means practicing a difficult conversation that you never thought you could have with your boss about your career development, speaking with conviction and persuasion. Or perhaps it means practicing your violin solo with the metronome four ticks higher than you normally would. Push yourself to make mistakes in the name of improvement.

 

image_thumb2 Takeaway :

It should come as no surprise that most of the situations mentioned in the book are from a class room environment , as the authors run academic institutions.  Having said that, a persistent reader will find a few gems in the book that will help him/her in improving her practice, be it practicing an instrument, learning a new language , playing a game etc.

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Cal Newport wants to find out an answer to a nagging question in his mind, Why do some people end up loving what they do, while so many others fail at this goal ?. Researching on this question leads him on to a path where he finds rather unconventional answers. Through this book , he shares his findings.

Most of us have equate “passion” as intense love affair with one’s work. There is a also a belief that “passion” is a necessary condition in finding THE RIGHT work. In the first part of the book, the author debunks Passion Hypothesis. What is Passion Hypothesis ? The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.

In interviewing a lot of people, watching interviews of successful people and doing a lot of field work, the author comes to a conclusion that “passion hypothesis” is a myth and says,

  • Passion Is Rare : The more you seek examples of the passion hypothesis, the more you recognize its rarity.Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion. “Working Right” trumps finding the “Right Work”.
  • Passion takes time : Most often a person being passionate of something is usually a consequence of his spending a lot of time honing and improving skills in a particular field.
  • Passion is a side effect of Mastery

If “follow passion” is a wrong advice, and people who love their work usually follow non linear paths, what makes people love what they do ?

In the second part of the book, the author argues that it is skill that matters and passion automatically follows you. Some of the points mentioned in this section are :

  • Craftsman mindset : Referring to all those situations where people crib about their workplaces , the author talks about the mindset that most of these people have. The “Passion mindset”. It is a mindset where one focuses on what the world can offer you. The author takes the side of “craftsman mindset” that focuses on what you can offer to the world.
  • There’s something liberating about the craftsman mindset: It asks you to leave behind self-centered concerns about whether your job is “just right,” and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good. No one owes you a great career; you need to earn it— and the process won’t be easy.
  • The traits that define great work are rare and valuable. Supply and demand says that if you want these traits you need rare and valuable skills to offer in return. Think of these rare and valuable skills you can offer as your career capital. The craftsman mindset, with its relentless focus on becoming “so good they can’t ignore you,” is a strategy well suited for acquiring career capital. This is why it trumps the passion mindset if your goal is to create work you love.
  • Deliberate practice is the key strategy for acquiring career capital

The book then talks about a very important thing , “Control Trap”. We often feel see people saying that they are going to start a firm because they are frustrated with their work.  The author says it is a trap. Starting you company with out developing skillsets, most often, doesn’t work. We are all blinded by the survivorship bias. We see firms started by people and who take control of their lives. However there is a huge unseen cemetery  of screwed ups, who start companies with out developing  valuable and marketable skills. This kind of advice is very useful to people who are “over enthusiastic to start a company and take control of their lives”. In fact most of the success stories we get to hear are somewhat biased in their narrative. Suddenly someone decides that enough is enough. He starts a firm and then becomes successful. However what is often left out in the story is the background preparation that the person would have done, the non linear paths the person would have taken to develop a certain skillset etc.  So sometimes turning that promotion down might be good idea as it will give you time to hone your skillsets. Instead of exercising control in the wrong environment,you are preparing diligently to take control in the right environment.

The book ends with the author applying these points in his own life. So, its not just preaching but he has applied the fundas to his own life.

What I really found interesting about this book is, the careful and well built argument against “Passion hypothesis”.  Most of us see successful entrepreneurs and think that one should start a venture, thinking that it will give them control, solve all the problems that they are facing at work and somehow magically transform them lives from a “cubicle dweller” to a visionary. It’s a Fairy tale. In reality, unless you have acquired some valuable and marketable skillset, finding the work that you love will be a mirage!

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I liked Daniel Coyle’s “Talent Code” that talks about the importance of “deep practice” in achieving mastery in any field.  Not for the message of deep practice as it was already repeated in many books/articles, but for the varied examples in the book.

Here comes another book on the same lines by the same author. This book is a collection of thoughts and ideas from author’s field work, packaged as “TIPS” to improve one’s skillset.  These tips are categorized in to three categories, “Getting Started”, “Improving Skills”, and “Sustaining Progress”.

I will just list down some of the tips from each of the sections, mostly from the perspective of someone wanting to improve his programming skills.

Getting Started:

  • Spend fifteen minutes a day engraving the skill on your brain : In these days of abundant online instructional video content, one can easily watch an ace programmer demonstrating his hacking skills. May be  watching such videos daily, will engrave the skill on the brain. Also one can think of revisiting codekata from time to time.
  • Steal with out apology : Copy other’s code and improvise. The latter part of learning and improvising is the crux.When you steal, focus on specifics, not general impressions. Capture concrete facts. For me reading Hadley Wickham’s code provides me with far more feedback than any debugger in the world.
  • Buy a notebook  : Need to do this and track my errors on a daily basis
  • Choose Spartan over Luxurious : Spot on.
  • Hard Skill or a Soft Skill : I think a skill like programming falls somewhere between. You got to be consistent and stick to basic fundas of a language. But at the same time. you got to constantly read , recognize and react to situations to become a better programmer.
  • To build hard skills, work like a careful carpenter : Learning fundamentals of any language may seem boring. When the novelty wears off, after some initial few programs, a programmer needs to keep going, learning bit by bit, paying attention to errors and fixing them.
  • Honor the hard skills : Prioritize the hard skills because in the long run they’re more important to your talent. As they say, for most of us, there is no instant gratification in understanding a math technique. However you got to trust that they will be damn useful in the long run.
  • Don’t fall for Prodigy Myth :  In one of Paul Graham’s essays, he mentions about a girl who for some reason thinks that being a doctor is cool and grows up to become one. Sadly she never enjoys her work and bemoans that she is the outcome of a 12 year old’s fancy thought. So,in a way ,one should savor obscurity till it lasts. Those are the moments when you can really experiment with stuff, fall, get up and learn things.

Improving Skills:

  • Pay attention to Sweet Spots : If there are no sweet spots in your work, then that says your practice is really not useful.  The book describes a sweet spot sensation as, “Frustration, difficulty, alertness to errors. You’re fully engaged in an intense struggle— as if you’re stretching with all your might for a nearly unreachable goal, brushing it with your fingertips, then reaching again.” As melodramatic it might sound, some version of that description should be happening in your work, on a regular basis.
  • Take off your watch : Now this is a different message as compared to what every body seems to be saying (10000 hr rule).  The author says, “Deep practice is not measured in minutes or hours, but in the number of high-quality reaches and repetitions you make— basically, how many new connections you form in your brain.”  May be he is right. Instead of counting how many hrs you spent doing something, you got to count how many programs you have written or something to that effect. Personally I feel it is better to keep track of the time spent. Atul Gawande in his book, “Better”, talks about top notch doctors who have all one thing in common, they track the things they care about, be it number of operations, number of failures etc. You have got to count something, have some metric that summarizes your daily work.
  • Chunking : This is particularly relevant for a programmer. The smaller the code fragment, the more effective and elegant it works
  • Embrace Struggle :  Most of us instinctively avoid struggle, because it’s uncomfortable. It feels like failure. However, when it comes to developing your talent, struggle isn’t an option— it’s a biological necessity.
  • Choose five minutes a day over an hour a week :  With deep practice, small daily practice “snacks” are more effective than once-a-week practice binges. How very true.
  • Practice Alone : I couldn’t agree more.
  • Slow it down (even slower than you think): This is a difficult thing to do as we programmers are always in a hurry. Seldom we look back at the code that works!
  • Invent Daily Tests : Think of something new daily and code it up. Easier said than done. But I guess that’s what makes the difference between a good programmer and a great programmer

Sustaining Progress:

  • To learn it more deeply, teach it : I would say at least blog about it.
  • Embrace Repetition :  It seems obvious at first, but how many of us actively seek out repetition in our lives. We always seem to want novelty!
  • Think like a gardener, work like a carpenter :  Think patiently, without judgment. Work steadily, strategically, knowing that each piece connects to a larger whole. We all want to improve our skills quickly— today, if not sooner. But the truth is, talent grows slowly.

Out of the 52 tips mentioned in the book, I am certain that at least a few will resonate with anyone who is serious about improving his skills.

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It has been a long time since I have read any fiction book. So, thought of reading one, on this weekend to take a break from stats, programming and the usual routine. It took me about 9 hours to read the entire book and I must say that there was not a single instance during those 9 hours that I felt like taking a break. So, the book has a smooth flow of prose with just enough characters that you don’t lose the story or get bored anywhere. The plot has about 15 characters , including one played by the author himself, Somerset Maugham but not all 15 characters get the same footage(obviously) .The protagonist of the story is Laurence Larry Darrell who goes on a spiritual quest and the book tries to weave a story around that quest. The other 13 characters come and go in with varying periodicity through out the book. Besides Larry, the main characters in the story are Isabel who loves Larry but ends up marrying Gray Maturin, Elliott Templeton, Isabel’s uncle whose sole purpose in life is to socialize and be at parties, Sophie MacDonald, a poetess turned whore turned dope addict, whom Larry almost ends up getting married, but thanks to a Isabel’s devious plan, never does so.

The story starts off with Larry being engaged to Isabel. After a stint in the army, Larry is a changed man. He wants to understand about God, Evil, role of knowledge in salvation and whole lot of things that any spiritually inclined person would seek. The difference though is that many of us, answer or seek answers to these questions, while keeping a day job, holding the responsibilities of a spouse, a parent etc. Not Larry. He has no intention to work and he tries to argue with Isabel, that in his meager income they can live a decent life. Despite Isabel deeply in love with Larry, she rejects him. I guess for some people, economic considerations weigh far more than matters of the heart, when it comes to settling down with somebody. Isabel gets married to a business magnet,Gray Maturin. Larry then goes on a quest that takes him to Germany, Spain and India. He finally gets some clarity after staying in India at an Ashram for a few years and meeting some spiritually inclined people in India.

The book does have a dose of aspects from Hinduism like karma, renunciation, rebirth, etc. But the author makes it clear that he never intends of summarizing or even talking at length about such aspects in his book. He is clear about his role, i.e a storyteller. I must say he has played his role as a character and as an author with perfection , as he make spiritual elements, the various locations , a dozen characters as props to show the conversion of an atheist Larry to a devout spiritual person by the end of the book. No wonder this book is rated as one of the finest works of Somerset Maugham. However the movie adaption met with a commercial failure.

Some quotes / conversation that I found interesting amongst the various characters in the novel are :

  • I have been reading Spinoza the last month or two. It fills me with exultation. It’s like landing from your plane on a great plateau in the mountains. Solitude, and an air so pure that it goes to your head like wine and you feel like million dollars
  • What are you do going to do with all this unnecessary knowledge which you call wisdom ? It I ever acquire wisdom I suppose I shall be wise enough to know what to do with it
  • I wish I could make you see how much fuller the life I offer you is than anything you have a conception of. I wish I could make you see how exciting the life of spirit is and how rich in experience. It’s illimitable. It’s such a happy life. There’s only one thing like it, when you are up in a plane by yourself, high, high and only infinity surrounds you.You are intoxicated by the boundless space. You feel such a sense of exhilaration that you wouldn’t exchange it for all the power and glory in the world.
  • Unfortunately sometimes one can’t do what one thinks is right without making someone else unhappy
  • What’s the good of knowledge if you are not going to do anything with it ? Perhaps it will be sufficient satisfaction merely to know, as it’s a sufficient satisfaction to an artist to product a work of art. And perhaps its only a step towards something further
  • Love isn’t a good sailor and it languishes on a sea voyage. You will be surprised when you have the Atlantic between you and Larry to find how slight the pang is that before you sailed seemed intolerable
  • Most people when they are in love invent every kind of reason to persuade themselves that its only sensible to do what they want. I suppose that’s why there are so many disastrous marriages
  • I had not the heart to laugh at Elliott any more, he seemed to me a profoundly pathetic object. Society was what he lived for, a party was the breath of his nostrils, not to be asked to one was an affront, to be alone was a mortification; and, an old man now, he was desperately afraid. It made me sad to think how silly, useless and trivial his life had been. It mattered very little now that he had gone to so many parties and had hobnobbed with all those princes, dukes, and counts. They have forgotten him already.
  • Art is triumphant when it can use convention as an instrument of its own purpose
  • Advaita doesn’t ask you to take anything on trust; it asks only that you should have a passionate craving to know Reality. It states that you can experience God as surely as you can experience joy or pain.
  • In later ages the sages of India in recognition of human infirmity admitted that salvation may be won by the way of love and the way of works, but they never denied that the noblest way, though the hardest, is the way of knowledge, for its instrument is the most precious faculty of man, his reason
  • We are all greater than we know and the wisdom is the means to freedom. For Salvation, it is not essential to retire from the world , but only renounce the self. Work done with no selfish interest purifies the mind and that duties are opportunities afforded to man to sink his separate self and become one with the universal self.

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Yesterday was a rather unpleasant day for me. Whenever I am in a bad mood / I become restless I pick up this book by Anne D LeClaire, titled, “ Listening below the noise”. For some reason this book has been my best companion over the past few years. I reread parts of this book from time to time. This time around, I thought I should blog about this and write a few words about the book.

The author starts off by saying, “Like too many of us, I mistook a busy life to a rich one”, and cites her mid-life emptiness as one of the reasons for exploring “silence”. While strolling on the Cape Cod Beach on a warm afternoon in January 1992, she suddenly realizes that “silence” is the missing element in her life and decides to consciously inculcate it in her daily life. She then begins, as a whim, a unique ritual, i.e, maintaining a day of complete silence every other Monday.

clip_image002 Entry :

On the first day of silence, she realizes that her energy levels and productivity levels are far better than a normal day. She begins to wonder whether turning away from outside world is the first step to nourishing the inner world that is so very vibrant in every one of us. The first thing she realizes that silence and mindfulness reduces the habit of multi-tasking things in life. When we are doing something, i.e mindfully doing something, we cannot multi-task. Silence makes one realize that single-tasking is the way to do any work and is a far better and a peaceful alternative to multi-tasking. Is silence necessary for creativity? The author’s first brush with silence makes her feel that silence/solitude is probably a necessary condition to do creative work. In Silence, Our minds are more tuned to the creative energy that lies within us.

Staying in complete silence is not an easy practice, as everyone would agree. The author reflects on one such day when she has an immense urge towards breaking her “silence” tradition. She reveals one of her tricks, i.e, strike a bargain with oneself that it would be only a couple of hours of silence instead of maintaining one full day of silence. This little trick  sometimes becomes useful in centering her. However these bargains are only helpful for a temporary period of time. The quieter we become, the more we hear. What we hear might be unpleasant at times and hence there is a tendency to fill up the silence with noise, i.e songs/TV/Soap-opera/movies/empty chatter. On some level, we are afraid of what we will hear.

When we are in silence, there is one thing we definitely become aware, at least most of us I guess. There is a muddy messy space our inner garbage heap where we toss scraps too painful to consider or confront, the loss, pain, grief and disappointment that are all too real. When we weed out extraneous stimulation and let go of the reins of control, these things claim our attention. And it is silence that allows us the space and stillness in which to think about our motives, to examine our behavior, to see where we’ve fallen short. It is only when we drag our smallest, shabbiest parts into the light that we can move toward becoming whole. We are massively afraid of dealing with this compost. So, in that sense this is the reason we fill our lives with distractions so that we don’t get to meet this compost. However the wise thing to do is to actually confront this compost, to turn it over. For within the same mounds lies the fertile matter out of which new life arises and is nourished.

clip_image002[4] Cultivation :

It is also sometimes necessary to create boundaries in life for silence to walk in to our lives. May be cutting down on TV/ avoiding the idle chatter with someone, consciously weeding out distractions, etc are bare minimum steps that one must take for the silence to make presence in our lives. There is no guarantee that these restrictions on external stimulation would help one to remain silent as there is sometimes that internal chatter that drives away the silence ruthlessly.

Silence is Janus-faced. Like the Roman god Janus, silence holds two faces. To be silenced is not at all the same as choosing not to speak.A chasm lies between the two, as wide as that between fasting for a purpose and starvation. To be silenced is crippling, belittling, constricting, disempowering. Chosen stillness can be healing, expansive, instructive.

Let’s say you decide to have one day of complete silence. What if others in your family pick up a fight for some trivial reason ? The fact that you have chosen not to respond might fill you up with more resentment as you cannot vent out feelings. So , is the silence painful in such situations ? Well, not necessarily says the author narrating one such incident when silence helped in not messing up a situation and thus was invaluable in providing time and space to defuse a situation.

Silence enhances listening ability, i.e, listening to things that are left unsaid. Bird-watchers, Naturalists typically develop a keen sense of listening. One colleague of mine is so excited whenever he sees tigers/butterflies/birds etc. whenever he goes for a Jungle safari. To observe/spot/infer the kind of bird/butterfly, it demands a sense of stillness from a person. Unless you are fully present in the NOW and develop a keen ear, going on a Jungle safari is practically useless. Ability to remain Silent is a great skillset to have in such activities. Similarly even in our daily lives unless we are silent we cannot truly listen to others. We are merely talking and waiting to talk. We engage in chatter, not conversation, and our chatter reveals our egos’ needs: Love me, admire me, envy me, fear me, help me, see me. There is little space for truly hearing others. Silence in that sense enables true conversations to take place.

clip_image002[6] Fertilization :

Silence is the first essential for most of the creative endeavors. Even a creative act like choreography might need the choreographer to visualize the steps in silence and then make his/her troupe follow those steps. Personally I find silence very stimulating , be it for programming something, be it for writing a blog post , be it for practicing music. The attention we can give to work, complete and undistracted concentration does enable us to bring the best with in all of us. Like the solitary spider who busily weaves her web in perfect silence, we need to be alone and quiet for our subconscious to spin its creations. Stillness focuses the brain. And like the tensile strength of the spider’s strands, it buttresses and strengthens creativity. Another beneficial aspect of silence is it produces marked improvement in physical and psychological health. At what age, do we develop a low tolerance for quiet time? When do we begin to call it boredom? When do we begin the excessive yearning for entertainment and diversions? The prospect of loneliness can make us fear solitude and silence. The paradox is that those are the very measures that can heal us. The author concludes this section by pondering over her experiences of remaining silent for an entire week.


clip_image004 Harvest :

After 9 years of practicing this ritual, the author develops sudden resistance to this ritual. She has this intense urge to put an end to this ritual but finally bargains another 2 months with herself. During these two months, she reflects on the benefits of silence through the years . She also remembers her yoga teacher’s words:

Sometimes we go through a time  that looks like a setback but in reality that time is a place of preparation. A resting space. A gathering of energy. Like an archer pulling back the bowstring so the arrow can shoot forward.

She also realizes another benefit that silence bestows on people who practice it, i.e, the inner strength that it provides.Trees growing in a forest are fundamentally weaker and less able to weather wind and storms than ones that stand alone, because the solitary trees, without the shelter provided by the others, develop stronger, deeper roots. After two months of the bargain period, the author realizes that silent-day experiences have helped her develop a  spiritual way of living and is no longer a mere ritual. So ,she decides to continue the practice(till date).


clip_image006 Sowing :

In the final section of the book, the author provides a few ways to incorporate silence in to our daily lives.

I have read this book at least half a dozen times till now and every time it has made me appreciative of the importance of silence and solitude in one’s life. Sometimes when I am restless, I just pick up this book and read a random paragraph. The writing is so beautiful that it brings my restless mind to calmness and allows me to focus on my work.

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