The passionate introvert

This TED talk really surprised me.

The content was great, but it was Brian Little’s delivery that really made me go “wow!”

So many times during the talk it felt I wasn’t listening to him talk on the subject of “personality” but rather his grandchildren. His passion was evident, and his joy contagious. I couldn’t help but give him a personal standing ovation at the end.

It is with this sort of passion that we should approach our careers; our lives.

Deciphering Fake

This was supposed to be a post on radical transparency.

But an article bashing radical transparency just left me feeling so outraged with its lies and misleading statements that I just spent the last four hours of my life writing this warning to all of us media-consumers out there: Don’t trust all you see, even if it says “research”, links to academic papers, and cites its sources!


The first time I heard about radical transparency was from G.

And though I hadn’t heard the term before then, it was something I felt that I could really relate to; something I already did.

Not because I thought that it brought the best outcomes, but because my mind was just wired that way.

I’ll tell you why in the post on radical transparency I eventually do write (maybe next week?), but hint: it’s got to do with having an awful brain for lies.


For today, let’s talk about the article that enraged me.

I found it while reading up on radical transparency for the post I had intended to write: Radical transparency sounds great until you consider the research.

I looked forward to reading it just based on its title, as it was perhaps a warning I needed to heed: maybe I ought to be a little less transparent with my dealings with people?

The word “research” also appealed very much to the scientist in me, giving it more weight than it would have had without.

Almost immediately though, within the first paragraph, a red flag was raised.

Here’s what it said:

Radical transparency is an old management approach with new branding. Previously called micromanagement or snooping, this approach supposedly creates higher performance and trust by letting everyone know what’s on the table.

You see, I’m an amateur rhetorician (well, not really, but I am currently reading Jay Heinrichs‘ book Thank You for Arguing) and smelt a rat: I knew radical transparency wasn’t synonymous with “micromanagement” or “snooping”, or even remotely analogous.

My rhetoricsense tingled. Something was up but I didn’t quite know what. So I did a quick search on logical fallacies, and identified what was wrong: the author was guilty of a false comparison!

Snooping, micromanagement, and radical transparency were qualitatively very different things, and there was no “new branding” apparent to me whatsoever.

  • Snooping to me implies trying to find out information others deem to be private and not expect to share;
  • Micromanagement to me implies a person in authority dictating to a worker how to do a job without giving the worker much or any degree of autonomy;
  • Radical transparency to me implies making what may sometimes be deemed private open to everyone, but making sure everyone knows it is no longer private.

I could live with micromanagement, to a certain extent. I could live with radical transparency (I think). But I would probably not be able to take snooping very well.

You can’t really club them together.

Was the author trying to mislead his readers by saying they were the same except for rebranding?

Whatever the case, I continued, albeit with caution.


Then I came across this paragraph, which appeared filled with juicy insights:

But research about human judgement suggests that relying on such data is a mistake. People are terrible at assessing trustworthiness and most skills. Assessments are driven not by real actions, but by appearance and personal situation. On top of these potential inaccuracies, labeling someone as untrustworthy or poor in certain skills has a corrosive effect on collaboration and morale, perhaps one of the reasons why Bridgewater has in the past had very low retention rates that costed the company tens of millions of dollars a year.

The links in the quote above were found on the original article. I clicked on every single one of them to learn more.

(And boy did I learn. I learned that if you take an author’s word for it at face value, despite the authoritative-looking links you’d be hoodwinked quicker than you can say “radical transparency”.)

Here’s my commentary on each of the links in the paragraph shared above:

  • “terrible at assessing trustworthiness”
    • This link brings you to a paper talking about assessing trustworthiness from facial cues. The experiment involved asking strangers to play a game to see if people would invest more money in faces that appeared more trustworthy. If radical transparency involved asking you to rate your colleagues, an hour after you got to know them, on trustworthiness based on how their face looked, then yes, this is relevant.
  • “most skills”
    • This link brings you to a paper talking about the JDS or Job Diagnostic Survey tool, which basically assesses the fit between workers and their jobs. The paper surmises that the tool works, though warns that it is easily faked. But for it to support the premise that “people are terrible at assessing most skills” is ridiculous, because the paper actually doesn’t say that.
  • “appearance” and “personal situation”
    • These two links are paywalled, but based on the abstracts these are related to people assessing people in TV commercials (for the first link) and strangers (for the second). Like the experiment in the “assessing trustworthiness” link above, this is about assessments of people whom you know very little about. Radical transparency isn’t about assessing strangers one-off. Again, I don’t see the relevance.
  • “has a corrosive effect on collaboration and morale”
    • Paywalled. The first sentence of the abstract? “Four studies examined the relation between trust and loneliness.” I’m curious to know what the article is about, but given I don’t know enough I’m not going to judge on this one.
  • “very low retention rates”
    • This link brings you to an interview with an author who wrote about Bridgewater’s radical transparency. The author actually praised its implementation at Bridgewater and was extremely supportive of it. Though it was mentioned that there was a 25% turnover rate, there was no mention of it costing “the company tens of millions of dollars a year”. Also, assuming that it does cost the company tens of millions of dollars a year, could the benefits outweigh the costs? If being radically transparent brings in more than the “tens of millions of dollars a year” that it  hypothetically costs, it’d still be worth it.

I’d always been extremely curious as to the effect of knowing my peer’s salary, and them knowing mine.

I’d even considered moving to a company that did just that for just this reason because I personally thought it was a great idea.

So when I came across the following that the author wrote, it came as quite a surprise:

Publishing individual salaries has negative consequences. While companies should never prevent people from sharing their compensation (and in many states it’s illegal to do so), publishing these numbers for all to see psychologically harms people who are not at the top of the pay scale. Research shows that this directly reduces productivity by over 50% and increases absenteeism among lower paid employees by 13.5%, even when their pay is based exclusively on output.

The first link talks about income disparity and its negative effect on happiness, a common finding in psychological research.

That the author worded it in this way (i.e. “top of the pay scale”) seems deliberately misleading. There’s a lot of dependence on the “reference group” – e.g. a junior employee, despite earning far less than the CEO, would generally not be too concerned. Also, full individual salary disclosure isn’t necessary for radical transparency; compressed payscales and other forms of salary disclosure could be used instead.

The second link was the one that I was more interested in: could salary disclosure really lower productivity and increase absenteeism, even when pay was based on output?

The author said yes.

I read the paper and found otherwise.

What the study found was that it was perceived fairness that had the greatest negative effects, not the disclosure of salary information per se. Where there was wage disparity and output was not easily observable (i.e. there was no way to tell which worker “deserved” the most), those who were paid less than their peers were the most negatively affected, as they would have perceived it as unfair.

And in a world of radical transparency, I’d think that “output” information would also be something that would be freely shared, reducing any perceived unfairness.


I don’t know what led the author to write what he wrote. I was very close to just taking what he wrote at face value, and if it wasn’t for me being a little perplexed and curious at some of the claims that were cited I’d never have uncovered the deceits.

To be clear, I’d just like to add that there is a chance that there was no malice involved, just sloppy research and misinformed conclusions.

But whatever the case, it made me realise how much we take good, honest writing for granted.

We shouldn’t.

And for me, not any more.

Getting the most bang for your charitable buck

I just received a mailer from Effective Altruism, via which I do a monthly donation to charity. The mailer asked me to rate from 1 to 10, with 1 being least likely and 10 being most, how likely I would be to recommend Effective Altruism to a friend. I gave it a 10.

And since we’re all friends here on edonn.com… I recommend Effective Altruism if you’re looking to make your charitable dollar do as much as it can.


Effective Altruism is an organisation that’s, in their own words: about answering one simple question: how can we use our resources to help others the most?

I first learned about them through a book called Doing Good Better (loved it; it absolutely changed the way I thought about giving – especially the part talking about the careers we ought to pick for maximum societal impact: should we pick the higher-paying career where we have little opportunity to positively impact society, e.g. an investment banker; or the lower-paying career where we can make a positive, direct impact on society, e.g. a social worker? The book argues that it is the former that we can do more good, if we direct the funds we earn to charitable causes).

Its basic premise is this: all charitable interventions should be scientifically tested to determine how effective they are, and money should only flow to those that are more effective.

The more good an intervention does for a given amount of money, the more effective it is deemed to be.


How much “good” an intervention does is determined by the amount of QALYs and WALYs. This is a very interesting concept that I’d not heard of before coming across Effective Altruism.

A QALY stands for “quality-adjusted life year”, defined as (from Wikipedia):

[A QALY] is a generic measure of disease burden, including both the quality and the quantity of life lived. It is used in economic evaluation to assess the value for money of medical interventions. One QALY equates to one year in perfect health.

A WALY, on the other hand, stands for “well-being adjusted life year” (from the US Institutes of Health website):

[A WALY] is a measure that combines life extension and health improvement in a single score, reflecting preferences around different types of health gain.

In essence, the amount of good relates to how much life and life improvement it brings. The benefit of of using QALYs and WALYs is that they are fungible, and are therefore able to act as very versatile measures of charitable intervention.  A little like good old money.

For example, if you want to take up a new job, it’s extremely convenient to start thinking about the benefits in terms of money, even when some of the benefits are non-monetary. If you get more vacation time, how much more is an extra day of vacation worth to you? If the working hours are less, and you are planning to spend this extra time with your kids, how much more is this worth to you? And so on.

It helps us make apples-to-apples comparisons between two very disparate things, like deworming vs. microfinance.


Effective Altruism thus looks at the quality of all interventions, and aims to focus funds toward interventions that are the most effective. And though it may not be perfect, I find that it gives me peace of mind.

It allowed me to finally get past paralysis by analysis, making me comfortable with giving more money than before.

I still do give to random strangers on the street because it feels good; but for regular and systematic giving, the kind that I think will do far more good, this will be my avenue of choice.


And to those who ask: Is this “too scientific”? Shouldn’t giving be from the heart?

My answer is: No to the first question; and yes to the second.

The science and experimentation behind Effective Altruism helps to ensure accountability – charities that are deemed ineffective tend to be ineffective for very good reasons, and every dollar given to an ineffective charity is one less dollar given to a more effective one. Why should less effective charities, even those with the best of intentions, take money away from those that can do more good?

To be honest, I did have some concerns about how newer interventions or charities would be handled by them – many charities and interventions start out less effective than the most effective ones and need to be given a chance to grow and show their worth, and may eventually become as effective than the most effective ones or even more so. However, Effective Altruism does take care of some of that by having a dedicated allocation of their fund that looks at just these “promising charities”, which introduces a little bit of randomness into their portfolio of current strong performers.

On giving from the heart, to be honest I never really found a “logical” reason for giving, nor have I looked for one. Giving to me has always just been something we should do to be thankful we have what we have, that we are who we are.

Anticipation, proactivity, and the Invisibles

Just read an article via Slashdot on this thing called “Tab Warming” that the Mozilla team is testing for the Firefox Web Browser.

I won’t go into the details, but in essence what Tab Warming does is that it anticipates whether or not you’ll click on a link, and if it does it “paints” the page in the background saving you milliseconds of loading time when you eventually click on it.

Despite the seemingly very small difference in absolute time, (I mean, really, milliseconds?) it has the potential to be the difference between somebody thinking about the page loading versus somebody not thinking about the page loading at all and purely on the content of the page.

And that’s huge. Isn’t the ultimate aim of interface usability to become invisible, after all?

This reminded me of how the best people I’ve worked with are those who pretty much do this all the time: they anticipate what I may need, and even before I’d mentioned it they’re bringing it up and telling me it’s already done.

And to me, despite my never thinking about them (because I don’t have to!), they’re the ultimate stars in our work lives.

To the invisibles: Thank you.

Doing the right thing poorly

I was halfway through reading the book Flying Without a Net by Thomas J. when I came across the following brilliant insight: in order to improve a particular skill, we have to first start by recognising that however we are performing that skill may not be the best way of doing so, and that to improve some changes may need to be made.

In short, to do the right thing well we may have to start first with doing the right thing poorly.

DeLong used the story of Tiger Woods to illustrate this idea very well:

Tiger Woods won the 1997 Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, by twelve strokes. It was such an overwhelming victory that Augusta National redesigned its course to increase the odds that Woods would not repeat the feat. Yet after woods won the tournament, his coach, Butch Harmon, told him that, while he had played superb golf for four days he had a problem with his swing. He suggested that Woods needed to rebuild his wing from the ground up. Harmon admitted that woods could win sporadically without a change but would never challenge the greats like Jack Nicklaus.

I remember that incident well. Back in the late 90’s, Woods was a rising superstar. Being young and extremely dominant in the sport of golf he single-handedly made golf “cool” — and like many other younger golf fans, I started watching golf because of him.

When Harmon made those comments, many sports journalists were critical. Changing a winning formula? You got to be kidding!

I, too, felt that change was the last thing Woods needed.

In the months that followed it seemed as if the changes that Woods was making did more harm than good, and I wondered when he was going to say, in effect, “screw it!”, and get back to playing great golf again.

But he didn’t.

He soldiered on and went on to win a great many more tournaments, becoming even better than before. (Until his relatively recent marital problems, which has had a detrimental effect on his performance and career.)

Here’s the diagram that DeLong shared in the book:

We start from the top left-hand quadrant. This is our comfort zone; it’s whatever we’ve been doing and things we’re probably already pretty good at doing. In the context of work, it’s going to be whatever we’ve been doing to get to wherever we are at.

Sometimes, the outcomes from doing these “wrong” things aren’t that bad. But in this context, we’re really looking at peak performance. Often, we know that the outcome may not be optimal, and we suffer anxiety because we fear we’re losing our edge.

In order to get to the quadrant of “doing the right thing well”, i.e. the top-right, we have to move down to doing the right thing poorly. This is where it takes “courage and vulnerability”. When we first start changing the things we do, we’re probably not going to be particularly great at it.

We’re going to need to ignore the naysayers and just grind it out, continually practising our new behaviours. Eventually, all that practice will lead us to start performing these right things well.

The problem many of us have is that when we’re doing the wrong thing well, and getting results that may not necessarily be considered “poor”, changing isn’t always easy. The courage and drive to want to get into the next level of performance needs to be stronger than the anxieties we may face to maintain the status quo, especially since short-term results are likely to be poorer.

I did some analysis on my life through my writings from the early 2000’s till present, both personal and public, to see if I had encountered this anxiety-regression-progression movement, and I found that I had.

Whenever I’m trying something radically new like starting my national service in the army,  studying overseas, starting my Master’s degree, changing jobs, getting married, or having a child, I’m always in a state of high anxiety.

During this period I’m constantly asking myself if this is the life I want, wondering what’s going to happen, or second-guessing my job or university choice. What follows though, if I lean into these challenges or life changes, are often periods of my greatest personal and professional growth.

The things I fear the most often turn out to be the very things that shape who I become.

(PS: If you’re interested in Woods, read also this article on swing changes that Tiger Woods had made over the years. The “Harmon” change wasn’t the only one.)

The difficulties of doing “deep work”

These past two weeks I’ve been on leave, staying at home and being a dad to my 2-year-old son.

He’s got quite a standard schedule: the wife and I bring him out in the morning to let him “see the world”, have breakfast, and/or visit the grandparents etc.; he comes back around noon, takes a snack, sometimes a full lunch, then goes to bed for his afternoon nap.

Depending on how tired we manage to get him before his nap, he’ll wake up between 5-6pm. Sometimes though, he surprises us and wakes up at 3pm or earlier. It’s happened enough times for us to unconsciously be in a constant state of high alert throughout his nap, hearing out for his cries.

(I wonder if it’s something akin to gambling addiction, where the release of dopamine is increased when winning is intermittent or unpredictable. Just in this case, it’s more of the opposite in that we’re always in fear that the boy wakes up before schedule!)

What I realised was that during this “high alert” phase, I’ve always found it hard to do anything that requires more than a cursory time commitment, anything that would not be considered “deep work”.

Deep work – the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.

Deep work requires a commitment of uninterrupted time. Going into a cognitively demanding task and then being interrupted halfway through often means that whatever you’d done up till then is wasted, or at least any progress made set back considerably.

I remember once making good progress on a machine learning project I was doing for work. Suddenly the boy cried and I had no choice but to stop. When I resumed my programming in the night, I found it almost impossible to resume where I left off. What made so much sense just 8 hours earlier made little sense now, and getting back up to speed was a slow and painful process.

What this means is that when I’m in the midst of “expected interruption” I’m gravitating toward activities that are not subject to such a regression. For example:

  • Instead of reading complex works of non-fiction, I’m reading “lighter” books that I can easily dive in and out of, especially great are those where the chapters are short or where stand-alone ideas are wrapped up within a couple of pages.
  • Instead of practicing my technical data science skills or actually writing code, which tends to require a heavy commitment of uninterrupted time, I’m practicing typing on typeracer.com, where within seconds I’m racing against my typing peers and getting an instant hit of dopamine since I win so much but not all the time (see: above link on “gambling addiction”!)
  • Instead of setting my goals for the new year and how I’m planning to achieve them, I’m thinking about what I feel like having for dinner and how to cook it.

Though I always knew this problem also existed at work, I’m now more aware of the impact it might have.

For those of us constantly barraged by “urgent minutiae” or unscheduled projects (i.e. pretty much all of us I bet), the lack of a system or structured approach toward addressing interruptions could lead us to a lifetime of firefighting at the expense of actually doing the impactful, deep work we were brought on board to do.

Personally, these are the things I do to prevent myself from drowning in urgent minutiae:

  • Relagating of e-mails to an hourly or two-hourly affair, which helps you avoid being interrupted mid-thought or while putting the finishing touches on your magnum opus.
  • Scheduling of a “meeting with yourself”, which blocks your calendar and allows you to work, guilt-free, on your most important tasks.
  • Addressing anything that takes 2 minutes or less immediately, which frees the mind of unnecessary clutter, something I picked up while implementing the wonderful Getting Things Done methodology.
  • Focusing on your highest priority tasks while ignoring everything else for the day, which is dangerous but oftentimes necessary.

(PS: To date I haven’t quite found a “hack” for myself at home, though. My kid doesn’t respect my calendar, nor does he bother with e-mails, and he’s just about impossible to ignore.)

(PPS: Above definition of “deep work” found on Cal Newport’s website, whom I *think* coined the term. The term itself came into my consciousness after it was first mentioned to me by S on my team at work.)