Do not give me a gift of which I desire

A little note about happiness, from the book Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari:

If I identify happiness with fleeting pleasant sensations, and crave to experience more and more of them, I have no choice but to pursue them constantly. When I finally get them, they quickly disappear, and because the mere memory of past pleasures will not satisfy me, I have to start all over again. Even if I continue this pursuit for decades, it will never bring me any lasting achievement; on the contrary, the more I crave these pleasant sensations, the more stressed and dissatisfied I will become. To attain real happiness, humans need to slow down the pursuit of pleasant sensations, not accelerate it.

When I read the passage above, it reminded me of something I told my wife not too long ago, that “the more I have, the more I want.”

If I feel happy just thinking of purchasing something I long for, especially one that I can easily afford, why would I spoil it with an actual purchase?

You see, the moment I make that purchase, the want is taken care of; the moment that want is taken care of, something else would take its place; and if that something is not something I can easily afford, the “more stressed and dissatisfied I will become.”

So, my dear, no, I do not want you to give me a gift of which I desire (and which money can buy).

I’m happy to stick to the simple joys of your company; our son; and our daughter.

Supposedly Irrelevant Factors

I’m halfway through reading one of the best books I’ve read in a long while: Misbehaving, by Richard H. Thaler.

One of the things that most stuck with me was that of “supposedly irrelevant factors“, which refers to something that, in theory, should not affect or influence the thinking of a rational person but does.

Thaler has also written about this in an article for the New York Times. The example that Thaler shared in the article is that of the grading of the notoriously difficult midterm exam that he gives, which he uses to separate his really good students from the rest.

As per the usual practice in academia, the maximum marks you could get in that exam was a hundred. But this posed a problem. Because of the difficulty of the exam, his students were averaging only 72 out of a possible hundred.

Though it didn’t affect the overall grades the students got, since their relative scores were more important than their absolutes (see: bell curve), they didn’t quite like getting such low marks and many complained.

Thaler got worried that the complaints might eventually lead to the loss of his job. So he made a change: instead of having the exam be out of a hundred marks, he made out of 137.

This change had a couple of things going for it: firstly, it made it more difficult to calculate a percentage score; at the same time, it allowed him to give students higher marks, closer to what they would have got on the usual, less challenging exams.

Students were on average now scoring 96 instead of 72, with some delightfully achieving scores above a hundred. Despite the lower percentage scores his students were getting (70 now instead of 72!) his students were happier.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. But it did.

To him, test scores were a supposedly irrelevant factor. To his students, they were anything but.

The concept of supposedly irrational factors really appeals to me because it’s something we tend to forget, especially in a work setting (because everyone’s somehow less human!) and yet something that may have large consequences.

Imagine this conversation between you and your boss:

Boss: Run this report for them every day by noon.

You: Why? They shouldn’t need to see the numbers at that high frequency – no actions can be taken at this late stage that will change anything anyway.

Boss: Just do it.

How would you feel? Would it make you a little more likely to be unhappy? To consider quitting and doing work that feels more worthwhile?

The knowledge of why could be seen as a supposedly irrelevant factor.

Knowing why you’re doing it wouldn’t really change anything – doing what your boss tells you is part of your job. Maybe she knows something you don’t.

But still, it just doesn’t feel right and the knowledge that there might be a purpose that isn’t shared doesn’t make you any less unhappy.

But what if your boss said this instead after you’d asked “why?”:

Boss: Maybe it won’t change anything. And I know it seems pointless from an actionable point of view. But what I know is that it helps calm their nerves; it helps calm their boss’ nerves. It’s not easy being in their shoes – they’re currently under immense pressure, and I’m hoping to support them in whatever way we can.

How would you feel now? If it were me, I’d actually feel even more empowered than before, and that I was making a positive difference in people’s lives.

The simple knowledge of why changes things quite a bit, though it really shouldn’t.

We’re not quite the uber-rationals we think we are.

Some interesting “supposedly irrelevant factors” examples that I’ve come across:

  • Choice architecture, and the default option – we go for default options more often than would be expected, even if the default’s the worst option available
  • Decoy pricing – Classic experiment done by The Economist where the introduction of a third, obviously poor subscription option made the most expensive option much more appealing
  • The Endowment Effect – Owning an item makes it seem much more valuable than it was before ownership came about

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.

The Run

We act very much as if we were on a voyage. What can I do? I can choose out the helmsman, the sailors, the day, the moment. Then a storm arises. What do I care? I have fulfilled my task: another has now to act, the helmsman.

If the weather is bad for sailing, we sit distracted and keep looking continually and ask, “What wind is blowing?” “The north wind.” What have we do to with that? “When will the west wind blow?” When it so chooses, good sir.

– Epictetus

I went out for what was supposed to be a short run today.

Didn’t feel like it. It was a long day; I was tired.

But the run was scheduled. “Not my problem,” the schedule seemed to say.

You don’t fight schedules. They don’t listen.


Shoes on, I walked out the door.

Took a step; then another; then another.

A slow trot. Then quicker.

It’d rained earlier; the air felt fresh and cool.


Reached a fork in the road.

Turn left as planned and in 30 minutes I’d be home.

Turn right and in 30 minutes… in 30 minutes I’d be 30 minutes from home.

I looked left. Turned right.


29 minutes in and my legs were feeling good.

One-two-inhale; one-two-exhale. The rhythm felt like poetry.

But my mind — it disagreed.  “You can’t keep this pace,” it said. “Slow down.”

I feared it was right. Last time I ran this quick I fizzled out at 30. Which was… now.


Then I remembered Epictetus.

My mind chose this route; this pace; this moment. It’s job was done.

My legs didn’t think there was a problem and neither did my lungs. They were fine; they were strong.

“Trust them,” I told my mind. “Trust them to do their job. If I collapse, I collapse.”


Until then, I run.

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, 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.)

Feeling good about one’s work

I was just “thinking about things” when this thought came into my head: To feel good about one’s work, there are two sides of validation: the internal and the external.

  • External validation: somebody tells you, “you’ve done well. This is excellent!”
  • Internal validation: you tell yourself, “you’ve done well; you’d set out to do something well and you did it.”

This past year I’ve had a lot of positive feedback on my work. Still, something was missing.

“This is great work,” they’d say, and I’d smile.

Was it really? I’d think, feeling less than satisfied, tinged with impostor syndrome.

Luckily the opposite was true, too.

The work my team and I do are quite regularly behind-the-scenes “enablement” work. Nobody but us knows; no rah-rah; no fanfare.

They’d say nothing, even after I’d done something I thought was remarkable.

Still, this is awesome! I’d think.

And I’d be satisfied. Almost happy.

Winning first place without ever being first

Or: what I learned from playing too much DiRT Rally (one of my favourite rally racing games.)

So here’s the context: I’m playing “career mode”, in which I buy a car, hire a couple of engineers, and go out to race. In order to win the championship, I have to have the best time across six “stages” or legs. Each stage is located in a different place so they all have their peculiarities: different areas of easy and difficult sections, some more suitable to the car’s set-up than others.

The thing about the game is that unlike real life, you have an unlimited numbers of do-overs – if you crash your car or get a time you don’t fancy, you can simply restart the stage.

When I first started playing this game that’s what I did. A lot.

I was intent on always finishing first for each stage. If I didn’t manage to finish first I would restart the stage. At times I found myself playing each stage close to 30-50 times; some stages I would spend an hour or two on and still not have the fastest time.

Then one day there was a stage in which I just couldn’t be the first for no matter how many times I tried.

I gave up. For that stage I ended up 5th and I accepted it*. The following stages were not much better either, with me ending up no better than third.

* (Side-note: actually my saying I “accepted it” is not really true. It was more of just getting the championship over, closing this chapter of my life, and uninstalling the game.)

Of all six stages of the championship, I ended up winning none.

And yet *drullroll please* I won the championship.

“But how?” I asked myself. “How??”

I couldn’t quite believe it but the overall time I had was faster than all my competitors. I won by virtue of consistency and not completely fouling up. Those who had won a stage had performed poorly for at least one of the others.

To me this was revolutionary and extremely zen: I won by not winning.