Sorry, Paulo

“When you want something, the universe conspires in helping you achieve it,” wrote Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist. Well, not really true. Instead, it is your unconscious thoughts that shape much of your conscious being, which does the actual work of getting you there. So the only part of the universe that is conspiring to help you achieve it is the back of your mind. That is until you share your dreams with others who care about you, and maybe then a greater part of the universe conspires with you. Just wanting something won’t get you anything.

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“I’m onto something”

We live in a cruel world. We are awash in information, and yet it never feels as if we have all the information we need to make those big life decisions. What perhaps makes this worse is that these decisions need to be made starting at a very early age.

Would those high-school subjects help me maximise my skills and talent? Will this college degree help me find the things I would love to do? Is that job really something I can spend all my waking hours caring about? Am I marrying a person who will be the soulmate I’ve always been looking for?

Choosing the “best” microwave for your home might be easier today than 20 years ago, but that decision wasn’t a very hard decision even then. The hard decisions remain hard because of an information asymmetry problem. You will always have far less information than you would like to make these decisions.

This is where our gut instincts help. It is not easy to explain why we get that tingling feeling of “I’m onto something”, when we get close to an answer we’ve been looking for, but that feeling is the best indicator that we have of being on the right path.

The trouble with gut instincts is that they feel too flimsy to base important decisions on. But the information asymmetry problem is never going away, and so it is perhaps better to hone our gut instincts through practice. You will fail but you will also learn and thus trust yourself more in this unpredictable world.

It is easy to keep postponing life’s big decisions in the hope that one day we may have all the information we need to find the answer. But if you’re sure you want an answer, just look for the “I’m onto something” feeling and take the dive.

Image by shinealight. CC-BY-SA.

Change is good—we know it, but we hate it

On my last trip home, for the first time since I left the country six years ago, I spent a whole month in India. It gave me the opportunity to think about some things more deeply than I have been able to on previous trips. One realisation was that most people don’t change very much at all. Their habits, thoughts, views, opinions, arguments, dressing style, preferences…. remain surprisingly unchanged.

For certain aspects of a person that is a good thing. But overall such an attitude has more negative consequences. I think it stops people from living happier lives that they are perfectly capable of living.

I don’t know why this is the case. Of course change is hard, but surely people would have figured out that it is also disproportionately rewarding and totally worth the occasional failures. If humanity hasn’t figured out that yet, then it is the failure of the collective that desperately needs fixing. And I am not the first one to recognise that.

One solution to the problem of enabling change is to use technology. Take the Coach.me app (previously, Lift). It lets you set goals and then helps you to reach them. It does that through social engineering and simple digital nudges.

The social engineering aspect involves the offer of live coaches or encouragement by strangers. Your goals are public and, if you’re friends use the app then they can look at how you’re doing and perhaps give you that much needed push. The digital nudges are reminders and simple tutorials to help you in your goal to, say, meditate daily.

Coach.me is not the only app. But what any of those apps do is provide a solution to the people who are already convinced that changing is important. That is a tiny slice of smartphone-using humanity.

What if we want to spread the message “change is good” and convince a much larger part of humanity? Education? Celebrities? Social media? How do you convince yourself to change? What do you do to make it happen?

Image: arthurjohnpicton CC-NC.

Why read the news

It is easy to make fun of journalism as a profession or even claim that “news is bad for you.” But journalists continue working even when the news gets too depressing to cover. They are driven by a purpose, which an editor explained to me in my early days of journalism is to inform and entertain.

To some, however, informing and entertaining are goals that do not provide enough motivation. The right information delivered to the right audience at the right time can be powerful. News can have impact, and to the remaining few journalists it is this “impact” that makes the struggle worthy of the effort.

Such impact, however, is hard to measure. Unless you are working on a story such as the Edward Snowden leaks, it is difficult to find out what kind of impact your story about about jellyfish swimming can have on the real world.

Fortunately, every so often there is a reminder why good journalism is important even if “impact” is not always visible. Consider what Harvard University economist Sendhil Mullainathan wrote in the New York Times on racial bias:

“Even if, in our slow thinking, we work to avoid discrimination, it can easily creep into our fast thinking. Our snap judgments rely on all the associations we have—from fictional television shows to news reports. They use stereotypes, both the accurate and the inaccurate, both those we would want to use and ones we find repulsive.”

We are shaped by the thoughts that surround us. Good journalism plays a vital role in providing those thoughts. So don’t feel too bad about spending some of your time every day reading bite-sized news pieces, even if Mark Zuckerberg would like you to read a book instead. Just make sure that you are selective about the journalism you are reading.

Image credit: pslee999 CC-BY

The best hack to be productive

Summary: To do more in less time, spend more time doing less. 

The summary is not a paradoxical statement. Given how busy everyone’s life has become and how being busy brings social prestige, to do more in less time people have to multi-task. But multi-tasking is the enemy of getting stuff done and the thief that steals our happiness.

Elizabeth Dunn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, told The Economist, “Multi-tasking is what makes us feel pressed for time. No matter what people are doing, people feel better when they are focused on that activity.”

When you feel better doing what you do, you get more stuff done and walk away happier. So if Dunn is right, it is better to do one thing at a time, which may inevitably mean spending more time doing less but still getting more done.

Some of the best friends I made at Oxford are those that are part of the Oxford Ideas Group. Our similar interests brought us close and they keep us close despite going down very different career paths.

One of those common interests was to find hacks to become more productive: to do more in less time. The “more” was not just for greater quantity but also for better quality. So after a few years of real-life experience, when two members of the group arrive at the same idea about productivity, there must be some “truth” to the revelation. For instance, Christo recently wrote that his “new secret for having more time” was to do less. My new year resolution is to gain more time by doing fewer things with greater focus.

This is a post in the best hack series, where the aim is to find small ideas that have a big impact in improving everyday life.

Image credit: ryantron under CC-BY-ND.

A birthday wish

It’s my birthday. If you were to grant me a wish today, I would ask you to read something I write. Do you like science? Try this. Do you not like science? Give me an opportunity to change your mind, try this.

One of the weirdest thing about being a writer is that most of the time you are unaware of who it is that is reading your work. That, I realise, is an inevitable outcome of choosing this profession.

But I don’t know a single author who wouldn’t want to know who reads them. For instance, if by some good fortune, someone finishes reading my work and smiles, I would love to know that my writing gave them that smile. Perhaps that smile meant a lot more. Maybe it was someone who was reading it in a crowded bus back home after she had had a bad day at work.

The aim, however, is not to collect such lovely anecdotes that will stroke my vanity. Instead, having friends read your work can be a serious advantage. Your feedback can and will help me improve. If I write something that is rubbish, the internet will tell me. However, if I write something that can be improved, it is only friends who will point it out to me in a constructive way.

So as a birthday wish, give my writing a try. The best way to do this would be to subscribe by email, where you’ll get my articles delivered straight to your inbox twice or thrice a week. If what I write is not your cup of tea, you can unsubscribe at any point and I will still buy you an actual cup of tea the next time we meet.

Thank you, dear friends and new readers.

My year with the real wonks: how academia enriches journalism

I stepped out of a chemistry lab to receive a shiny doctorate a little more than two years ago. Then, against the wisdom of many, I decided to become a journalist. That decision was made not because I despised academia, but because it seemed to me that journalism was where my strengths would give me the best chance to succeed.

In doing so, I was leaving behind a world that I had tremendous respect for. Dedicating one’s life to pursuing hard questions in a narrow field of knowledge enriches the world in countless ways. That enrichment is the result of two things: production of new knowledge and new knowledge-bearers (ie students). What you read in popular press about universities is mostly what new research has found about the world. A less talked about, and perhaps greater, contribution that universities make is in educating new students.

Teaching the same course year after year sounds boring to me, but I’ve been assured by many that it is one of the reasons they enjoy being academics. This yearly practice of coming up with new and better ways of explaining fundamental concepts combined with the struggles on the edge of knowledge in a particular field gives these academics the power of conveying the meaning of complex concepts in simple and powerful ways.

A new experiment

If I were asked to give one reason for choosing science journalism, it would be that I get to learn new things about the world all the time. Hardly a days goes by when there isn’t something awesome in science news to read and write about. That is why when I was offered, a year ago today, to be the launch editor for the science and technology section of The Conversation’s UK edition, I wasn’t going to let the job go.

But there was another reason why the job appealed to me: the idea was to get academics to write for the public. The hope was that, with their expertise and skills at explaining ideas, they would help put news in broader context and convey the “meaning” of events to help improve public dialogue on important topics.

While the scientist in me was dancing with joy, the journalist was sceptical. What academics usually write is meant for fellow academics. Their use of passive tense and jargon can put off even the most interested non-experts. They also work on vastly different timescales. Journal articles can take from months to years to get published. News articles usually take only few hours or days to get to the reader.

Marrying the two professions for a public service project was a great idea, but would it work? Could the third major contribution of universities be educating the public (not just a promise, but a reality)?

Is there demand?

“Professors, we need you!” said Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times. The Conversation Media Group, founded in 2011 in Australia, got to work before Kristof made the public demand. By the time it launched in the UK in May 2013, it had shown that the Australian public had an appetite for this experiment.

The success down under was swift for one more reason—The Conversation represented a “third choice”. Until 2011, most newspapers and online news websites were owned by either Fairfax or News Corp, which allowed The Conversation to tap into a readership eagerly looking for alternatives.

The UK was different. It had (and still has) some of the most respected publications in the world. There was plenty of choice for an average reader across the political divide. Yet, it seemed that The Conversation stood a chance. Many of the best publications were under financial constraints, cutting staff, especially specialist reporters in science, environment and health. There was scope for explaining news better, and bringing new stories that journalists missed or didn’t have the time to cover.

Readership figures show that the experiment has been successful so far. For the last few months, which is less than a year since launch, the UK edition alone has been reaching more than 2 million readers, and that number is growing quickly. All this with a small team (seven editors at launch, then 14 since February) and no marketing budget.

As a Creative Commons publisher, The Conversation’s authors and their articles have featured in some of the top publications worldwide, which have different aims and leanings—The Guardian, Washington Post, New York Times, The Independent, The Hindu, Daily Mail, New Statesman, The Week, The Atlantic, Quartz, Business Insider, Scientific American, Popular Science, Discover Magazine, Ars Technica and Slate, among others.

Much of my scepticism about this job was reasonable. But, right from the start, I was pleasantly surprised at the both the quality and the speed of writing. When given a brief and a deadline, academics usually delivered. Sure first-time authors needed (and still need) lots of help, but most of them were also prepared to learn and improve in this form of communication. What surprised me the most was their enthusiasm. Whoever thinks academics don’t like to engage with the public should spend just one day in our office.

For the first few months, about four in five stories were those where I had to approach an academic with an idea and commission them to write an article. But as The Conversation’s name started spreading, I started getting in more pitches. This was what I was waiting for. Academics who understand what The Conversation does, who get what the public reads, and who were willing to spend the time to write such articles. These academics were bringing through new stories or new angles to old stories, all of which journalists had missed. Here, I realised, were the true wonks.

What is true wonkery?

Recently Felix Salmon of Reuters asked, “Is there a wonk bubble?” In answering that question, he mainly referred to the launch of two websites Vox.com, which wants to “explain the news”, and FiveThirtyEight.com, which wants to use data to tell news stories. I agree with Salmon that both these experiments are great for journalism, but I don’t think that they represent “wonkery” in the true sense.

The new publications are being built on the back of the wonkery of its Editors-in-Chief: Ezra Klein (politics and economics wonk) and Nate Silver (data wonk). The rest of the editorial staff, while quite capable and of high calibre, can’t all be classed in the same category as wonks, definitely not in Salmon’s narrow definition of journalists who know their subject really well and built their reputation through blogging (mostly about policy and politics).

Wonk’s definition as “a person who is obsessively interested in a specified subject” is actually much more accurate for academics (or even PhD students). That is why I class them as the true wonks. Being able to tap into this wonkery, or expertise (as most people would call it), can bring through stories that journalists would just not find on their own.

Economists such as Tyler Cowen, Paul KrugmanSimon Wren-Lewis and David Blanchflower command large audiences already. Scientists have had a long tradition of popularising science, be it Carl Sagan or Brian Cox. Now, beyond promoting the good work of already engaged academics, what The Conversation provides is a platform for new and diverse voices with fresh ideas, which would have otherwise remained in the ivory towers. More than 11,000 academics from over 700 institutions have already contributed to this new conversation.

To give you a flavour of what I mean, I have selected some of my favourite science stories on The Conversation from the past year. They have been split into four categories: the first is explanatory (The Contextual) and the other three are stories that journalists missed or couldn’t dig up  (The Newsworthy, The Amazing and The Strange). I trust you can judge for yourself whether the experiment is worth it.

The Contextual

The Newsworthy

The Amazing

The Strange

Image credit: Lucas Warren