Ideas and execution

Sometimes ideas are very powerful but very hard to execute. If brute force gets you somewhere that is a killer start, but, not too soon after that, it is important to partially shift focus on to elegance. For elegance is a key ingredient of the long-game. If you don’t pay attention to elegance, someone else will come along and do it better than you.

Redefining the notion of a book

Two months of failing to fulfill my reading goals towards the #100bookschallenge has made me rethink the purpose of taking up the challenge

Less than a decade ago, it was easy to recognise a book. It was anything that could be printed, bound and put on shelf of a library or a store. Now, though, things have gotten messy.  There are ebooks, Kindle singles, Atavist originals, Matter stories, and the list goes on.

In many parts of the world, digital has become the primary platform for the written word. The advantages are plenty and this trend towards digital is no surprise. But it disrupts how ideas get shared, and sharing ideas was the main reason for books to come into existence.

While it was with the classical definition of a book that I began my #100bookschallenge, the main reason behind taking up the challenge was to be able to learn about the greatest ideas out there. These are increasingly being communicated not just in books. A lot of the ideas are long conversations that have been running on a blog, or those that appear in longform writing/journalism like the New Yorker or The Economist’s special reports.

Thus I’m revising the definition of a (non-fiction) book that can count towards my challenge of 100 books. Apart from the classical definition, all pieces of writing that will fulfill all the conditions below can be counted towards my target:

  • Longform writing that has a clear-defined message or explores a topic in a significant amount of detail or has a central theme.
  • Has been written by a single author (‘classical’ books may have more than one author).
  • Is more than 10,000 words long as a single piece.
  • A series of blog posts won’t count if at least one of them is not close to 10,000 words long and explains the main idea of the series.
  • The writing should be so dense (full of ideas) that I cannot stop myself from writing a review of what I read.
  • (UPDATE) The work should be not just newsworthy ie it should still relevant and worth reading after, say, many months or sometimes years.

As to why just 10,000 words? Because it’s not too short and it feels like the right length to have a comprehensive look at a topic. I’m open to revising my definition, so please feel free to make suggestions.

The virtues of restlessness

As a kid I was infamous for my mischievousness and the ability to not get tired. More often than not my parents’ visits to friends or family ended with apologies for my pranks. I got told off many times, but it made little difference. There was just so much to do and so little time.

My mum tells me that there was a point where she didn’t know whether her love for me was making her too soft. That she feared that wasn’t doing a good enough job in making sure that I behaved as most kids of my age did. That by then she should have been successful at instilling some civility in my actions. But it hadn’t happened. My restlessness was baffling my parents.

I don’t think I have changed much since then. Of course, I am lot more civil now. But I am still very restless. The only thing that has changed is that I have become aware of what it means to be restless. After realising that I could do little to reduce my restlessness, I started thinking of ways in which I could harness the power in someway. Now I think I’ve managed to do that, at least to a certain extent.

Today my restlessness helps me achieve many things. The simplest one is when I know I should stop doing something. In any activity there comes a point beyond which being involved in it is usually a waste of time. It is a tricky thing to know when that point comes. But somehow, over many years, I have found that when I notice my mind getting restless, it is probably the time to take notice of whether what I am doing is useful or not

Restlessness also forms the very basis of the creative process for me. For instance, when writing an article there are three stages: spark, research, writing. The spark usually occurs when I come across an idea that seems too cool to ignore. Then, if the idea hasn’t already been used by someone else, I spend time researching. It involves reading papers, gaining background knowledge, interviewing relevant people and feeding my brain with more ideas. Now before I start writing, I need to form a plan of how I am going to write that article. This is where my restlessness helps me. In my head I have this primordial soup of ideas, each struggling to make it to the top. This period is a very cumbersome yet enjoyable experience. My restlessness pushes me, and hopefully before I get exhausted I have picked out the relevant ideas and started writing the article.

One other thing that features on this blog quite often is finding sources of motivation. My restlessness, it turns out, is definitely one such source. I am rarely at peace with myself if I don’t have something that I am working on. It could be a long-term project like finding a job, or a short one like understanding a scientific phenomenon. My restlessness makes sure I have something to care for all the time and that helps me wake up every morning to go out and do something I can be proud of.

Vipassana center in Igatpuri

There are limitations too, though. Before I understood how to tame this beast, it has put me in trouble many times. Even today there are times when I can’t do anything about my restlessness and I end up being utterly exhausted. Another thing I’ve had to battle is balancing my restlessness with giving up. In someway it has made me become a lot more determined at finishing things than I remember ever being.

Something that helped me learn how to maneuver my restless mind, and it won’t come as a surprise to many, was learning how to meditate. I went to a ‘vipassana shibir’, Marathi words for meditation camp, when I was about 12 years old. It happened in Igatpuri, one of the most underrated hillstations in Maharashtra, at a beautiful monastery. For three days no one at the camp spoke a single word. No writing or reading either. Everyday we spent hours meditating or thinking. Any form of communication was restricted to gestures, including living in a dorm with many kids of the same age (boys at that age end up fighting quite a lot and these fights had to be without words, too). To me it opened doors to a new world, one where my mind could be made to focus on a single point on the horizon.  (For adults they do a 10-day course of this kind. Whenever I get 10 days of free time to spend in India, this is going to be on the top of my list of things to do.)

Because being restless isn’t always a joyful experience, it forces me to seek moments of peace. For example, one of the best things about writing non-fiction is the time I spend researching. I have this freedom to dive as deep as I like into something and stay there for as long as my curiosity drives me for. I can jump from one pool to the other, and even connect them if that’s what I want to do.

Restlessness gets a bad rap. It is a double-edged sword, and, rather than fearing it, we must learn to wield it in battle. It has done wonders for me, and I am sure I am not alone.

Photo credit: wargecko

On Speaking

I have a fear of public speaking. It is not a debilitating phobia, but when I have to speak to an audience I prefer to have time for preparation (not just for practicing but also to gather some courage). Even with that preparation, it turns out, I say “um” a lot and get a little thrown off by unintended pauses.

As a writer, I decided that I need to get better at speaking. Any effort put into bettering my speaking abilities will only help me improve my writing skills, I thought. After reading Paul Graham’s essay on Writing and Speaking, I have changed my mind. I still want to get better at speaking but not as much as I want to get better at writing. Here’s why:

Having good ideas is most of writing well. If you know what you’re talking about, you can say it in the plainest words and you’ll be perceived as having a good style. With speaking it’s the opposite: having good ideas is an alarmingly small component of being a good speaker.

Getting better at speaking needs improving your showman skills more than your thinking skills. It is true that remarkably good speakers don’t memorise their speeches. They have few points, written down or mentally noted, on which they expand while speaking. To do that the speaker relies on ideas that he has previously thought of in some depth. A certain amount of clarity in thought is needed to be able to speak well, but it would be rare to refine ideas and rarer to think of new ones while giving a speech.

It is more important for a good speaker to engage the audience which can be done through not just good ideas but also anecdotes and jokes. The speaker can tap into mob psychology which make jokes seem funnier in an audience than alone. Graham hasn’t taken it too far when he says:

As you decrease the intelligence of the audience, being a good speaker is increasingly a matter of being a good bullshitter. That’s true in writing too of course, but the descent is steeper with talks.

So are talks useless? Graham says:

They’re certainly inferior to the written word as a source of ideas. But that’s not all that talks are good for. When I go to a talk, it’s usually because I’m interested in the speaker. Listening to a talk is the closest most of us can get to having a conversation with someone like the president, who doesn’t have time to meet individually with all the people who want to meet him.

Talks are also good at motivating me to do things. It’s probably no coincidence that so many famous speakers are described as motivational speakers. That may be what public speaking is really for. It’s probably what it was originally for.

This lamentation has been about public speaking, of course. One man talking others listening without much engagement from the audience. I’m a fan of another form of speaking which involves engagement – conversations, that is. Many of which have led to the most fascinating learning experiences. With the right set of people, conversations can go to bizarre places and still feel familiar.

Some of the best conversations are those without structure. They tend to flow with an aim to seek the truth, but remain content in not reaching the end. They can sometimes feel like a mental dance involving two or more. Rhythm is set by the pace of thoughts, music by the ideas and notes by the words.

Conversing, like public speaking, requires the ability to communicate with clarity, but beyond that it also needs additional skills such as engaging conversational partners without being overbearing, redirecting the flow of ideas but allowing others to do the same, and creating an atmosphere that encourages new ideas.

Good conversations leave me with the feeling that I get after enjoying a fantastic meal. Instead of a good aftertaste, I am left with some very satisfying thoughts. They also come with a bag of goodies that contain new ideas and new perspectives.

Even with all that love for conversations, I don’t treat them as my way out of a difficult problem. Sometimes two or more brains with the same amount of motivation are able to solve problems that either brain alone would find unsolvable, but synchronisation of that kind leading to synergistic effects rarely happens in conversations.

So when a friend of mine said, “I think by talking about things”, I had my eyebrows raised. She tends to use another person as a mental stage to begin the thought process. Speaking to her, it seems, is thinking. I find that odd and limiting, but that might be an extreme case.

Therapists ask patients to ‘speak’ their mind. Talk therapy is powerful and is known to release chemicals in the brain altering, very literally, the state of a person’s mind. Therapists enable a conversation with oneself by removing mental blocks and/or directing the flow of thoughts in the right direction.

Speaking may be a good way out of difficult emotional problems but it isn’t the best tool for problem solving. Speaking can be uplifting to the depressed and invigorating to the dull. It can be a motivational tool or a way to admire heroes. It can also be a thinking tool in difficult scenarios, but for problem-solving and a daily dose of new ideas writing is a better option.

The Two Ideas Deal

It seems that whenever I read/hear/watch anything interesting (eg. TED talks), it is usually full of many ideas. In them, almost always, few ideas are completely convincing to me, many I feel need more exploration to be convincing and some completely repel me.

There isn’t always enough time to be able to explore all the ideas that get thrown at me, of course. But in the spirit of being able to still absorb something of value from the time spent in being immersed in those ideas, I’ve thought of signing ‘the two ideas deal’ with myself.

According to the deal, of the many ideas that came my way in that time, I will incorporate/share/use one idea that completely convinced me and I will debate/explore/learn about one idea that completely repelled me.