Write!

In my Utopian world, there would be a mandatory qualification to appear for job interviews in college.

You should have been writing at least thrice a week since you got into college. Minimum. This writing should be freely accessible online. Without this writing, you don’t get to sit for job interviews.

What, you might ask, should you be writing about?

Here’s one way to think about it: what are you most curious about? What broad subject, topic or concept do you wish to learn about the most? Write about that. Then write about the an aspect, a nuance, an offshoot that you thought about while writing that first post. Trust me, there is no way for you to write about something – anything – without having thought about something else to write about. I guarantee it.

And continue writing. As I said, at least thrice a week.

Writing often happens in bunches. By that I mean that it is possible that you will write three posts all in one day, and then not write for a week. That’s fine – in fact, that’s great. At the end of the month, you should have 12 posts up, at a minimum.

If you have questions about the length of the post, which blogging service to use, which template to use for your blog – and other questions of this nature, you are procrastinating. And that’s fine too. Nobody procrastinates better than me. But at some point of time you’ll have to acknowledge to yourself that you are procrastinating – and as Seth Godin puts it, you’ll have to start shipping.

Does it have to be in English, you ask? Dear god, no. Any language will do. It just has to be thrice a week.

Your first few posts will be horrible. They will be long drawn, rambling posts that show confused thinking, an unclear grasp of concepts and a hesitancy to call a spade a spade. That’s fine. It’s like the first few weeks at the gym. You can’t help but stare in wonder at the regulars and the effortless ease with which they get through their gym routine.

But just like in the case of going to the gym, stick at it long enough, and things will start to get better.

Your sentences will get shorter. Your grasp of concepts will become clearer. How could it not? Once you realize, through your writing, what you do not know, you can’t help but want to change the status quo.

And once you are sure footed in terms of a grasp on the concepts, you will begin to call a spade a spade too.

The bad news? All this doesn’t happen without showing up regularly.

The good news? Stick to it, and you have a body of work that allow you to sail through your interview.

Write.

Please, write.

Maximizing Soul

I wrote this essay yesterday, and spent all day on it. I didn’t get anything else done. And in terms of the week coming up, that was an expensive thing to do. But as will become clear after reading this essay, I do not regret it one little bit.

David Perell on The Microwave Economy

David Perell’s latest essay resonated with me, and for multiple reasons. The essay is centered around a point that I have been playing around with for a while: we live in a society that overrates efficiency.

He uses the metaphor of a microwave meal in this essay. Not the kind of microwave meal that Krish Ashok has in mind, but rather the kind of microwave meal that a large number of urban Indians are increasingly familiar with. Cut packet, dump in a bowl, nuke and eat. That kind of microwave meal.

This is a meal robbed of its soul. It is functional, yes. It is, in its own way, nutritious enough. One could argue that it is tasty enough. But there is no romance, originality or effort in it. As Robert Pirsig might have put it, it is bereft of quality.1

Perell’s essay extends this point about the microwave meal to the economy.2 Most of what we do in our lives today is centered around the same misunderstanding of convenience that gave birth to the idea of a microwave meal. The result, as Perell puts it, is “an economy that prizes function over form and calls human nature “irrational”—one that over-applies rationality and undervalues the needs of the soul.”

What if, for example, I and my family decided to drive down to Goa for a holiday? Which route should we take? We would do exactly what every right-thinking person in our place would do: look up Google Maps. Whatever route Google Maps suggests is the one we will take. 

Here’s a quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the first of Pirsig’s two books:

“The best ones connect from nowhere to nowhere, and have an alternative that gets you there quicker.”

He wrote this line in the context of learning which roads in America were the best for motorcycle riding, and the next two to three pages are lessons on how to ignore Google Maps. Google Maps wasn’t even on the horizon when the book was written, of course. It is just that Google Maps is the modern day evolution of the idea that Pirsig was battling when it came to choosing roads to ride on. 

That idea being efficiency.

A long, rambling drive through quiet serene countryside might mean an extra day, sure, but isn’t that a price worth paying – at least  worth considering? Pirsig isn’t arguing for never getting there, wherever “there” may be. He is saying the same thing that the poet did, years and years ago. We have lost the desire to stand and stare. The monk said the same thing when he spoke about the journey being as important as the destination. Getting there is important, of course it is. But how you get there is equally important, and we live in a society that doesn’t care about the journey anymore. 3

Our society over-applies rationality and undervalues the need of the soul. Pirsig knew this, of course. It is why the last part of his sentence speaks about an alternative that gets you there quicker. He knew the coming of Google Maps was just a matter of time.

Perell’s essay is a lament for what might have been: a world that prioritized the soul and not the other way around. There is a lot of truth in it, and I have absolutely no quarrel with Perell’s solution. But his essay helped me concretize something that I have been playing around with in my mind for quite a while, and that is what this essay is about.

Minimization, not Maximization

“We’ve overwhelmingly used our wealth to make the world cheaper instead of more beautiful, more functional instead of more meaningful.” 

That sentence, to me, is the core focus of David Perell’s essay, and I couldn’t agree more. In fact his argument grows even stronger on reflection, because I think the word cheaper is applicable to more than just prices. 

We have also used our wealth, for example, to make the world cheaper in the case of time.

I read more today than I did about ten years ago, but the reading is infinitely more bite-sized in comparison. I much prefer essays to books, blog posts to essays, and tweets to blog posts. 4 And I suspect I am not the only one. I can make the same argument in the case of sports. We as a society have deliberately and consciously chosen ODI’s over test matches, T20’s over ODI’s, and now of course we have The Hundred. Another argument: of all the hours that you have spent staring at video content across all devices, how many hours were spent in watching movies – as opposed to TV series, documentaries, YouTube videos or TikTok? 

When David Perell says that we have made the world cheaper, what I think he is saying is that we have figured out ways to cheapen the effort that we are willing to put into the act of consuming something. That something could be a meal, but it could also be extended to reading, viewing, or listening as well – and more besides. 5

The world has also been made cheaper in terms of effort.

I base my buying decisions on the buying decisions that others have made. My PowerPoint templates are standardized ones that Microsoft offers me. My tables in Excel are formatted as per the default mode, or based on the templates made available within the software. What to eat tonight is a function of an algorithm, the title of which is “popular in your area”. Relying upon my own research, or on serendipity is either a lost art, or has become one that is looked down upon.

I teach economics for a living, and the best definition of the subject that I have found comes from a textbook written by Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen:

Economics is the study of how to get the most out of life.

The word “most” in that sentence necessarily implies optimization. And optimization necessarily implies maximizing something, or minimizing something. Getting the most out of life can be thought of in two ways. It could mean living life to the fullest (however you might define this for your own sake). It could also mean getting the most out of life by minimizing time, effort and cost spent on any activity. 6

Consider an example from my life. I love eating good food. In fact, the point of life, if you ask me, is to have as many good meals as possible. How can we apply the points in the paragraph above to my life?

A good meal on a Sunday, for example, could mean spending all day researching the best version of a recipe for a dish I have in mind, then walking to the market to get the best, freshest ingredients possible, then lovingly preparing them, and then getting the whole dish together, so that friends and family can have a wonderful, relaxed meal together.

I’d call that living life to the fullest. It is all but a guarantee that I get nothing else done on that Sunday, but I have maximized contentment.

On the other hand, I could just order the dish from a restaurant whose version I really like. Or I could decide that this particular dish is too expensive, and just make myself a sandwich instead.

I’d call this getting the most out of life by minimizing time, effort and cost. I haven’t maximized contentment, of course, but I have saved time and effort.

And as you may have guessed, I end up doing the latter far more than the former.

And this for something I really and truly love: eating. We feed our passions, even, by minimizing time, cost and effort, instead of maximizing contentment. Our necessities don’t stand a chance.

That is what we have become: a microwave economy.

The Rajan Economy

Chef Rajan is the chef de cuisine at the JW Marriott in Pune. He has, over the years, become a really good friend. By rights, he ought to be best friends with my doctor. For Chef Rajan has ensured over the past seven years or so that there are far too many inches on my waist. But it is for that very reason, of course, that he and I are such good friends. The man loves to feed people, bless him. 

The Rajan economy is his fiefdom in the JW Marriott. This fiefdom is the 24-hour restaurant in the lobby, called Spice Kitchen. 7 Procurement, staffing, menu design, day-to-day operations and customer relationship management – Chef Rajan is involved in all of these in one way or the other.

I, my extended family and a lot of other people in Pune are frequent visitors to his restaurant for a variety of reasons. There’s the attention to detail, the friendly customer service, the frequently changing menu and much else besides. But there is one non-negotiable rule that I’ve never broken, and he won’t consider breaking.

There’s never been a question about a discount on the bill.

Chefs who used to be in charge of the restaurant before him have waived off the bill on a couple of occasions – maybe a birthday being celebrated there, maybe some other occasion. Not, let me be clear, because I asked for it. It was their way of deepening the relationship with a customer. And once offered, of course, I was going to take it. Why wouldn’t I?

But ever since Chef Rajan has been in charge of the kitchen (which, if memory serves me right, was in 2015), there has never once been the suggestion of a discount. Not once.

And that has left me even happier as a customer over these past few years.

Because the Rajan economy is not about cost minimization. It is, instead, about maximizing customer delight. 8 The Sunday brunches, or brunches on special occasions such as Christmas day, are expensive affairs. 9 But I doubt anybody can walk away from that spread thinking that they did not get their money’s worth. The extent of the spread, its presentation, the quality of the ingredients, the number of times that freshly prepared batches are brought out of the kitchen – all of these speak to the quality of the restaurant. 10

Chef Rajan’s philosophy at the Spice Kitchen isn’t about cost minimization, it is about maximizing customer delight. Never once have I sat down for a meal at the Spice Kitchen and not been sent a little something that is over and above whatever is on the menu that day. If it is a special occasion, the little something could be quite elaborate. On other days, not so much. But there will always be a little bit more than expected, or a little bit more than is part of the stated deal.

You will pay full price, in other words, but you will get more than you bargained for.

I signed on for an online course conducted by Amit Varma last year, called The Art of Clear Writing. 11 It was a wonderfully organized course, and was slated to last a couple of months or so. But it is still not over! There is a community that has been formed of present and past students. Talks about writing are organized and a newsletter is in the works. Regular writing prompts are handed out to those who wish to continue practice writing. This writing regularly receives community-based feedback. Again, the price of the course is non-negotiable, but you will get more than you bargained for.

There are two ways to live life and conduct business, when thought about from the framework we have been dancing around in this essay so far. Charge the bare minimum and provide the bare minimum is one of them.

There is an argument to be made to go the Rajan/Amit way instead.

Soul Satisfaction is the Opposite of Cost Minimization

One of my favorite books to read was Anti-Fragile, by Nicholas Nassim Taleb. The key point in the book for me was that there are certain things in the world that don’t do well when exposed to risk. These things we call fragile. There are other things that don’t do badly when exposed to risk. These we call robust. 

Antifragility isn’t about not doing badly when exposed to risk. It is about getting better because of exposure to that risk. Or as he puts it in the book, robustness isn’t the opposite of fragility – it is antifragility.

In a similar vein, I think we have prayed for far too long at the altar of cost efficiency. We have focussed so much on ridding ourselves of inefficiencies in our society that we have killed off the idea of satisfying the soul.

But there is a very good reason for this – our ability to measure everything, everywhere. It may have been a blessing at one point of time, but today, I would call it a curse.

There is this part in a conversation between Tim Ferriss and Seth Godin in which Tim asks Seth about meditation. After Seth’s answer, Tim has a follow-up question about the length of time that Seth spends in meditating, and if Seth has a preference regarding time of day. Seth’s answer is worth quoting in its entirety:

“No. I don’t quantify that stuff. I quantify almost nothing in my life”

Our ability to measure and therefore quantify every single aspect of our lives is increasingly becoming a problem.12 The reason it is a problem is because quantification gives us the satisfaction of having done something about the task ahead of us – whatever that task may be. We have quantified our effort, and analyzing said quantification allows us to become “better” over time.

Let’s use a concrete example: I can measure the amount of time I spend staring at my phone daily. Apps that allow one to do this are freely available on, or even baked right into, all popular mobile operating systems. The reason I want to do this is because I have a lot of work to do in this quarter, and I want to minimize wasted time.

After a week of logging in the data, I can then decide how to either allocate my time on the phone better (more Kindle app, less Facebook), or reduce the number of minutes I spend on the phone daily. 

I might even get good at this. Maybe, after a month, I now spend markedly less time on the phone, and what little time I spend on it, I spend on “good” apps. The problem, however, is that I now have one more thing to do – track, analyze and optimize how I spend my time on the phone. 

That is, because I could measure time spent, I optimized it. The point, however, was to do more work this quarter, not analyze how I am spending my time instead. The quality of the work – what I refer to in this essay as soul satisfaction – is inherently immeasurable. And so we optimize the measurable, and continue to ignore the immeasurable.

It is, unfortunately, the immeasurable that is important.

Now you could, of course, attempt to measure the immeasurable. Chef Rajan, or somebody else at the Marriott could conduct a survey to find out how satisfied the customers are. Amit Varma might circulate a Google Form to find out how satisfied his students are with the course. 13

But even if this was attempted, the wrong thing would be quantified. 14 The customer’s satisfaction would be (imperfectly) measured. 

What we really want to measure is how soul-satisfied are the creators with their work, and measuring this is pointless: the creator already knows.

In our rush to find something to measure in order to prove that we are efficient, we measure, analyze and perfect cost, time and effort minimization. And we therefore fail to do what we set out to in the first place: good, high-quality work.

If you will forgive a lengthy extract in an already lengthy essay, David Perell points this out in his essay as well:

As Mumford observed almost a century ago, the world loses its soul when we place too much weight on the ideal of total quantification. By doing so, we stop valuing what we know to be true, but can’t articulate. Rituals lose their significance, possessions lose their meaning, and things are valued only for their apparent utility. To resist the totalizing, but ultimately short-sighted fingers of quantification, many cultures invented words to describe things that exist but can’t be defined. Chinese architecture follows the philosophy of Feng Shui, which describes the invisible — but very real — forces that bind the earth, the universe, and humanity together. Taoist philosophy understands “the thing that cannot be grasped” as a concept that can be internalized only through the actual experience of living. Moving westward, the French novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” And in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig describes how quality can’t be defined empirically because it transcends the limits of language. He insists that quality can only be explained with analogies, summarizing his ideas as such: “When analytic thought, the knife, is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process.” All these examples use different words to capture the same idea.

https://perell.com/essay/the-microwave-economy/

But a headlong rush to measure, analyze and optimize the measurable has resulted in us losing sight of the big picture. We have become a society of optimization through minimization. We’ve become very good at extracting the very last bit of juice out of a lemon. So good, in fact, that we’ve forgotten all about growing more lemons. 15

The point was to be as content as possible. We’ve settled instead for being as content as we possibly can be after minimizing costs, time and effort.

Soul Satisfaction Maximization

It is a mouthful, I’ll be the first to admit. And if anybody reading this can coin a better phrase, I’m all for using that one instead. But call it what you will, it is the idea that I am focused on, not its name. We need to move away from minimizing that which we can measure, and try and move towards maximizing that which we can’t.

Cowen and Tabbarok’s definition remains perfectly valid. Economics is indeed about getting the most out of life. All of us are often unclear about what we are optimizing for in life. Is it a fulfilling family life, or is it income, or is it something else? Every economics professor will sooner and later ask her student: “what are you optimizing for?”

I’d suggest a follow-up question: how are you optimizing for it?

And by way of example, let us return to my favorite thing to think about: food.

If, on a Monday night, you are wondering what to cook, don’t think about which recipe can be made as quickly as possible. That would be time, effort and cost minimization.

Choose instead, the recipe you want to make, and cut out everything else in your life that stops you from making that recipe. And if this still doesn’t give you enough time, then try to see if you can eliminate certain steps in the recipe. See if certain steps can be done in advance. See if hacks can be used to accelerate certain processes.

In other words, what you want to maximize is non-negotiable. Don’t give up on your dream. But compromises in order to achieve that dream – well, that is inevitable. 

Let me put it another way. Consider these two statements:

  1. This is all I have to give. Under these circumstances, which dream is most attainable?
  2. This is my dream. Given my circumstances, what do I need to do to attain it?

I argue that we have, as a society, grown far too comfortable with the first idea, and we need to learn to do more of the second.

But whatever you do, don’t microwave a meal. 

  1. I am a huge, unabashed fan of Robert Pirsig, and so is David Perell. Pirsig will make numerous appearances in this essay: consider yourselves warned.[]
  2. I’d go a step further and say that it is equally applicable to society at large. But I’d rather not go down the rabbit hole of teasing apart the differences between an economy and society in this essay, so I’ll use society from here on in, unless I’m quoting from Perell’s essay.[]
  3. NH4 until Kolhapur and then turn right for Amboli is what we usually do, in case you were wondering.[]
  4. “Prefer” here is used in the context of what I end up actually consuming of each, as opposed to what I claim to prefer.[]
  5. Perell’s essay has a lovely section on the music bit, especially. Do read it.[]
  6. And it could, of course also mean both at the same time. But even in this scenario, which of the two one focuses on the most is going to get us back to the point of this essay.[]
  7. His role has changed over the years, of course, and is greatly expanded today. For the purpose of this essay, I will focus on just the one restaurant.[]
  8. Which, over the long run, ought to lead to true profit maximization. But this footnote is another essay in the making, so we will leave it at that.[]
  9. By Pune’s standards. They are cheap compared to what’s on offer in Bombay.[]
  10. Taste is a subjective thing, and so I’ve left it out of the discussion here.[]
  11. Any shortcomings in this essay are down to me, of course, not Amit![]
  12. I can measure my pulse rate, my O2 levels, my hours of sound sleep, the number of steps I have walked, the number of calories I have consumed, the number of minutes I have spent looking at my phone (and with drilldowns to boot) and a dozen other things with just a smartwatch and my phone. And then tabulate it, analyze it and improve upon it.[]
  13. Neither of them have done any such thing.[]
  14. And it would be imprecisely quantified, but that is a story for another day[]
  15. And if I may be permitted to squeeze every last bit out of this analogy: or growing mangoes instead.[]

A very short, but also a very painful post

Seth Godin wrote a post that was painful to read for me, and if you’ve been reading my posts recently you’ll know why. The title of the post was “What does it mean to do well in school?“:

Is it the same as “doing well on some tests”?
Because that’s what we report–that perhaps 240 times in a college career, you sat down for a test and did well on it.
That’s hardly the same as doing well in school.
Where do we look up insight on your resilience, enthusiasm, cooperation, curiosity, collaboration, honesty, generosity and leadership?
Because it seems like that’s far more important than whether or not you remembered something long enough to repeat it back on a test.

https://seths.blog/2021/02/what-does-it-mean-to-do-well-in-school/

Yes, so much yes. But of course, those of us involved in running academia excel at designing tests. The other things, not so much.

And then, to add injury to insult (not a typo), this Twitter thread:

Education as we know it is changing in front of our eyes, and for the better, but it is happening in spite of colleges, not because of them.

And nobody seems to care.

Nilay Patel interviewed Marques Brownlee, and I took notes. Lots of notes.

I’ve been watching MKBHD videos for a while now, but a favorite activity for my daughter and I this past summer has been to watch them together.

As anybody who has watched them will attest to, they’re impeccably produced, and always manage to strike that perfect balance between being fun and informative. And trust me, getting that balance right is hard. But my daughter, who notices these things much more than I do, also points out his (Marques Brownlee‘s) diction, the way he sets up his backgrounds (or set, or whatever you call it) – and also how much better his voice seems to be than in other videos.

And since she’s mentioned it, it’s hard to ignore. It’s clear that a lot of work goes into producing these videos – and to put out over a hundred of them in one year is seriously impressive – which his channel did last year. What’s even more impressive is the fact that he plans to launch more channels this year, let alone videos.

I got to know about this in a very well done podcast, in which Nilay Patel spoke with Marques about what I wrote about in the preceding paragraph, and a whole host of things besides. Reading the transcript as an economist was interesting, for a lot of things resonated with concepts we teach (and don’t, but should) in class. They weren’t referring to the concepts, of course, for both are (probably) blessedly unaware of boring ol’ econ texts – they were just solving, or thinking, about the challenges they face in the course of their work.

But if you’re somewhere between the age of 18 to 24, and wondering where the hell (and how) to apply things we teach you in your classes – well what better way to learn than this? Ec101 applied to MKBHD videos – whatay way to learn, no?

Notes and brief explanations follow:

  • “You’ve got to embrace uncertainty.”

    A point that both of them agreed upon, and the context was noise in the background. As a statistician, when I think noise, I’m thinking randomness, and that makes this quote even better. You can have the most refined system in the world for doing stuff, but you have to make leeway for unanticipated stuff. Things can go wrong, pandemics can spread, neighbours can make lots of noise. Anticipate it: embrace it!

    The larger point, in simpler words: make a plan, of course, but budget for chaos. It’s always there.
  • “I couldn’t believe I was finding something that I didn’t see in those other videos. So I was like, the obvious answer is to add to that collection of information, so when someone else is choosing what to buy, they can make a better choice than I did.”

    Scratch your own itch is advice that you often hear in entrepreneur world, and Marques is speaking about exactly that over here. Except of course, he isn’t just speaking about it, he is quite literally doing it. In fact, he did it 11 years ago, and has just kept at it ever since. That’s a pretty good business model, if you ask me.

    Teach like you wish you had been taught is what I want to do in life, by the way, although I cannot claim to have come anywhere close to figuring a business model out.
  • “So there’s a lot more going on, but I think the teamwork of it all is something that can be pretty underrated.”

    Marques says this in the context of how he plans to scale up his work this year. Here’s the thing – learning how to do something (assuming you want to learn it in the first place) is a lot of fun. Teaching others how to do it is also a whole lot of fun.

    Building a team of such people, and getting them to do what you want to get done – and that too, just so – that is oh-my-god-hard. “Pretty underrated”? That’s pretty understated!
  • “We have a big cast of characters at The Verge. MKBHD, that’s just you. You are a pretty unscalable property. That group of people you’re bringing in and hiring, is that to help you spend more time in front of the camera or is that an attempt to scale you in a different way?”

    Marques’ answer is pretty instructive, but if you’re looking to start a business, and looking to scale it, one challenge you will face is getting folks to do what you want them to do, plus anticipating the fact that in businesses such as this one, Marques himself is the biggest draw. Imagine The Seen and the Unseen without Amit Varma, or Mark Wiens’ videos without Mark Wiens. You have two choices: plan on not scaling, or fight a very hard battle. It’s easy to draw a diagram that teaches you the theory of scaling – doing it in the real world is bloody hard.
  • “You were just intently focused on completing a motion graphics course that you had been taking. And now it’s several years later and you’re not that deep in the weeds. You’ve just hired a motion graphics person and you’re talking about scaling your business and using your facilities in a different way.”

    That’s part of a question that Nilay asked Marques, but if you’re not thinking pin factory, your econ prof and you need to talk. One important part of scaling is what Adam Smith referred to as the division of labor. You can’t – nobody can – do every single thing in a business. Some parts of it need to be outsourced to lawyers and PR firms, as they speak about in the interview later, some parts to motion graphics persons – whatever.

    But you have to let certain tasks go. Which tasks? To whom? How to recruit the most perfect person possible? How to get that person to stay? How to get that person to work with the other folks on the team? Pretty underrated indeed!

    Oh and by the way, this part we don’t teach you in college. We should, if you ask me, but we don’t.
  • “We’ve basically shot all of our videos with my directors on Zoom and I’m just like, “man, this is not even close.” It’s very fun, and then that novelty fades and you just miss having everybody there.”

    This might not be true (hopefully!) after 2021, but if you’re looking to intern this summer, or start work this year, this is a real problem. Americans have this thing they call “watercooler conversations”. If you’re Indian, we’re talking about chai/sutta breaks. Doesn’t matter if you’re a smoker or not, that’s not the point. Conversations in a more relaxed environment after you’ve been in the heat of battle together is where informal debriefings happen, and that is going to suffer this year. There are businesses trying to virtualize this – but color me skeptical. In person is always better, and that’s the worst part of graduating in this of all years.
  • “One question from our video team that I thought was really interesting: as you’ve been on the path of growing bigger and bigger, you haven’t had a boss. How do you grow and improve when the audience is overwhelmingly telling you that you’re great? Where do you find the incentive or the self-criticism to improve? You’ve obviously wildly improved over time, but where does that really come from?”

    Marques’ answer to this question is worth reading in its entirety, but the larger point is that you need people who have the ability to give you frank feedback. That’s hugely underrated. A spouse, a friend, a significant other, a business partner, a junior – whoever. But you need it!

    This reminds me of a reply that Seth Godin gave to a question Tim Ferris asked him in a podcast some years ago:

    “But the other kind is so rare, so scarce, so precious I only get little dribs of it now and then. Which is someone who gets you, someone who can see right through to your soul who, with generosity and care, can look you in the eye, hand you back something and say: I think this would be better if you did it again. I had a business partner, Steve, who was like that in 1979 and ’80, ’80 and ’81. And finding that again in a consistent way is really precious and really hard.”

    (It goes without saying: listen/read the whole interview. Just wonderful.)
  • “We’ve never really set view count goals, but we did have a goal to make 100 videos in the calendar year and we did end up doing that, which is great. A lot of that stuff that we’re aiming for is more, I guess qualitative is the word, but it’s hard to define.”

    What are you optimizing for? This is related to yesterday’s post, and it ought to be a question you ask yourself everyday. I don’t ask myself this question everyday, but I wish I did. It really and truly helps, because if what you are doing isn’t helping what you’re optimizing for, then you shouldn’t be doing it.

    Marques isn’t optimizing for views. He’s not looking to maximize hits, views or any of those metrics. He’s setting a target for quantity, as he says in the quote above, but he also is (implicitly in the quote, but trust me explicitly in his work) optimizing for quality. As I said towards the end of yesterday’s post, get the process right. The rest takes care of itself. (See also: Goodhart’s law)

    Also read this excerpt from Tyler Cowen’s interview of Jimmy Wales:

    “When we think about things at Wikipedia — for example, we could probably increase engagement if we use some of the very basic machine learning techniques to start showing people random promotional links to other things than Wikipedia and then have the machine learn over time how to show you links that are more interesting so that you end up staying on the site longer.

    Now, it might turn out that that’s completely normal and thoughtful, in fact, if you go to a well-known economist, that it turns out that the way to keep you on the site longer is to show you other concepts of economics and economic theory. But it might turn out, and probably would turn out, the best thing to do is, when you go to look up Tyler Cowen, to show you on the sidebar links to Kim Kardashian, Donald Trump, whatever the hot topic of the day is and so on, which is not really what you want from an encyclopedia.

    When we think about that, our incentive structure at Wikipedia is not to optimize time on-site. It’s to say, look, every now and then, normally at the end of the year, we say, “Hey, would you donate some money?” Nobody has to donate. The only reason people do donate — and this is what donors tell us — is they think, “This is meaningful. This is important to my life. This should live. This should exist.”

    Bottom-line: If you are not clear about what you’re optimizing for, you will struggle. Get that clear, for yourself, and be ruthless about sticking to it. (It’s easy for me to say this, but it is very difficult for me to do it. Just so we’re clear!)
  • “I live inside of Google Calendar and Google Tasks. I would be a lost human without those things. I kind of think about this a lot — how much time I spend doing the thing versus managing how we make the thing. And it turns out that the management part has become a lot more of my job, but almost necessarily, to make it a better thing.”

    Managing time is hard. It is really, really, really hard. I have tried I don’t know how many different things, apps, methods and what not, but it is hard. If you are going to make a plan (for spending your day, for studying for your exam, for starting a business, whatever) budget twice the amount of time you think you will take to do something, because you will waste time. That, I am sad to say, is my lived reality.

    Nilay’s next question is about exactly this, by the way.
  • “I think I tweeted a couple of weeks ago how many emails I get that are just like, “Hey, this is us. We’ve got this idea. When can we hop on a call?” But I don’t really want to do that. If you can’t get your idea down in a couple sentences in an email, it’s probably not a good enough idea.”

    Something that I have started to do over the last two years or so: whenever I have to give an assignment, it’s usually along these lines.

    “Write in fifteen sentences (or lesser) your understanding of [whatever it is that they’re supposed to write about]. No conjunctions, no colons, no semi-colons.”

    It is fascinating to me how what seems to be good news to the students turns out to be a problem, because Pascal.
  • “We say no to 99 percent of the things that we get offered to do. But that last 1 percent of things, we think very deeply about, and work with a lot of people to try to make the right decisions and pull it off well.”

    Derek Sivers has an interesting book about this.
  • “If it’s a bad product, it’s not worth doing it at all, even if we would’ve made a ton of money. If it’s a bad integration or if it’s a bad company to work with, I have to say no, because it just doesn’t fit. So that fit is often more important than the math of the per-minute or per-project basis.”

    The preceding questions (to this quote) are about what metrics Marques uses, and you should read about it if you are in this business, but the larger point is what Marques is saying here – and this was referred to earlier in this post as well. Metrics are all well and good, but do the work – and work means quality work. The rest follows.
  • “I know celebrity culture is different in everyone’s heads, but I look up to Michael Jordan the athlete and nothing else about him.”

    My personal opinion, but that is exactly how it should be. But that is a separate post in its own right.
  • “The way I see YouTube is, it’s kind of like driving for Uber. If you stop driving for Uber for a week, you won’t make any money that week. And I think adding more people to this team makes it feel like putting that Uber on autopilot so I’m not doing quite as much of the lifting, but it still has to drive.”

    Read The Four Hour Work Week.

Up until the last bullet point above, this post was 2,455 words in length. That, I suppose, is about enough for a blogpost. But there’s more, much more, in this interview. So please, read/listen to it in its entirety.

But hey, I’m clearly on a roll, so I cannot resist one final piece of advice. Take notes, and write down your thoughts about what you’ve consumed. Even if nobody else is ever going to read it.

It really and truly helps.

What do small groups do?

You might want to read my previous posts about online education and learning before reading this. See this essay about the state of higher education in India, this about signaling and bundling in higher education, this about unbundling college,this about measuring efficiency in education and this from yesterday about large classes and small groups.

The latter part of yesterday’s post spoke about the importance of small groups, and how to go about forming them. I mentioned how the process isn’t clear at all, and about how you might have to iterate until you get the right groups for most people concerned.

But a supplementary question is, well, all right, we have the groups. Now what. As in, what do these groups do?

The beauty of a group lies in the fact that a well-knit, cohesive group that shares certain traits but also has diverse skill sets is able to accomplish so much more than an individual ever can.

So asking the group to just help each other learn achieves – nothing. Not only will it be the case that the group will achieve the goal of learning better fairly quickly, but worse, it will stop being challenging.

But, on the other hand, if you ask the group to apply what they’ve learned – ah, that’s where the magic has a pretty good chance at beginning.

Or, as Seth Godin says: ship, dammit. Not, to be clear, in those exact words, but the point he’s making is that learning all you’ve learnt isn’t worth a damn thing until you’ve put it out there in the real world.

Put what out in the real world? Anything! A blog, a podcast, a vlog, a write-up, a website, a dashboard – anything at all. But unless you use what you’ve learnt to create something, and unless that ‘something’ is up for people to see, like, love, hate and criticize… it doesn’t count.

For example (and this is the point of today’s post), go visit this page. It is a page that hosts a podcast called “The Undismal Paradox”. This is a podcast started by nine FYBSc students at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics (GIPE), which is where I teach.

Mondays is a podcast about the rise of China (and related issues), Wednesdays is about the electricity sector in India (ditto) and Fridays are about understanding how consumption habits have changed because of the pandemic (ditto^2).

This podcast was started by the students themselves, with the gentle encouragement of a colleague of mine – Saylee Jog – from the Institute. I was roped in to help in any way I could, but honestly, both I and my colleague have ended up not doing all that much.

We put a basic structure in place, created a basic workflow, and put in place simple rules to follow about minimizing errors. After that, we just stepped back, and watched these nine students learn more about economics than a class could ever have taught them.

The learning happened, make no mistake. The colleague I mentioned has taught them a course in Principles of Economics and Microeconomics-I. But learning while sitting in a class is different from learning in order to teach other folks. Plus, the pressure of shipping your work to a fixed cadence, and that too, shipping something out to the world at large, is a much better incentive to learn than the threat of an examination at the end of the semester.

The podcast is about to take a hiatus in a bit, because they have exams (oh, the irony), but it will be back in one form or the other in late August/ early September.

My personal hope is that when it will be back, I and my colleague will have to do even lesser than we did this time around. Maybe these nine students can recruit others, and the podcast will end up taking on a life of its own.

But that, to me, is a concrete answer to the question, what exactly do small groups do in an online course? They apply what they’ve learnt, and make their learning available to the world at large.

Without having shipped a product on the basis of what you’ve learnt, an education simply isn’t complete.

There are problems with this, to be sure:

  1. It by definition doesn’t scale well, because the job of the teacher/college is no longer to just teach, but also to mentor each group
  2. It is also to guide this group through a variety of stages: the formation, the inevitable adjustment pangs, the pressure of shipping, the disagreements that will crop up. Again, this isn’t a scalable thing, and so costs will rise.
  3. Getting the number of students in each group, and the number of groups in each class right will always be a challenge.
  4. Some groups will not work out, especially online. Devising fallback measures and alternatives is important.
  5. Setting up these groups, and setting up the systems associated with these groups is hard work, but hopefully, it will be a one time thing.
  6. Tackling the inertia of the education system, and convincing it of the merits of ship-the-work is hard!

But, all that said and done, it still is worth it. Because what you learn by doing simply can’t be replaced by what you learn by memorizing.

Small groups, and shipping your work is the only way online education will work.

Large classes, small groups

You might want to read my previous posts about online education and learning before reading this. See this essay about the state of higher education in India, this about signaling and bundling in higher education, this about unbundling college and this about measuring efficiency in education.

In addition, Aadisht had a great comment about optionality and higher education, which really deserves a post in its own right – but you can click on the link in this paragraph and scroll to the bottom to read it for now.

All that being said, today’s post ties together the thoughts and deeds of three people whose thinking I try to follow very carefully when it comes to online education.

The role of community in education

Let’s begin with this tweet from one of them, David Perell.

Both the thread of which 4. is a part, and the Twitter thread referenced in 4. are worth reading.

But today, I wanted to focus on the community bit.

A quick reminder: my thesis is that college sells you three things. The education itself, the access to peer networks and the credentialing. If there is to be an online model that will work for colleges, it must successfully provide all three (and more) at the same price (or less) as college does today.

When it comes to peer networks, can they ever be as successful online as they have been offline?

That begs the question: have they been successful offline? And that is really two separate questions.

About Peer Groups

  1. Are peer groups worth the effort in the first place?
  2. Is there something special about peer groups you form in college?

With regard to the first, I’m going to take a pass on answering it in depth for at least two reasons. First, I know nowhere near enough sociology to be able to speak about this sensibly for any length of time. And second, isn’t the answer obvious?

About the second question, you might want to read this essay – a part of which is excerpted below:

As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.

https://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/fashion/the-challenge-of-making-friends-as-an-adult.html

The entire essay is worth your time, but the crux of it is those three points above: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and college life.

Anecdote Time

Two of the best years of my life were spent while studying for my Masters degree at the Gokhale Institute in Pune. There was a fair bit of reading/learning involved, but most of those two years were spent in just hanging out with a group of people I am still close friends with.

And of the three things that Gokhale Institute gave me when I purchased a Masters degree from it, it is this group of friends that I value the most. Then comes the degree, and the least important – as it turns out – was the learning itself.

Don’t misunderstand me – learning was and is important! It’s just that for me, sitting in a class and listening to professors talk wasn’t the best way to learn. I have learnt much more by speaking one-on-one with some professors, arguing heatedly and passionately about random topics with friends, and by reading/listening/viewing to stuff on my own time.

But therein lies a dilemma.

How to reconcile online education with forming your college gang?

Random bike rides, conversations at three in the morning sitting on a ledge on the hostel terrace, giggling at a joke while sitting towards the back of a classroom is not just an important part of college. In my personal experience, this pretty much was college.

And not just during the pandemic, but even beyond, the key challenge is to figure out ways and means to achieve something approaching the same experience in this brave new online world of ours.

What might be an answer to this conundrum? That brings me to the second person whose thoughts about online education matter to me, Tyler Cowen

Small Group Theory, via Tyler Cowen

If you are seeking to foment change, take care to bring together people who have a relatively good chance of forming a small group together. Perhaps small groups of this kind are the fundamental units of social change, noting that often the small groups will be found within larger organizations. The returns to “person A meeting person B” arguably are underrated, and perhaps more philanthropy should be aimed toward this end.

Small groups (potentially) have the speed and power to learn from members and to iterate quickly and improve their ideas and base all of those processes upon trust. These groups also have low overhead and low communications overhead. Small groups also insulate their members sufficiently from a possibly stifling mainstream consensus, while the multiplicity of group members simultaneously boosts the chances of drawing in potential ideas and corrections from the broader social milieu.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2018/06/best-analyses-small-innovative-productive-groups.html

If you are going to run an online course, or are going to be a student enrolled in an online course, the most important thing you can do is think long and hard about forming groups.

If you are the person running the course, you need to make the process of forming a group as friction-less as you possibly can. Without these groups, not only are drop-outs more likely, but the groups themselves are perhaps the bigger point!

Here’s Tyler Cowen again, in a separate post:

Remember Lancastrian methods of education from 19th century England? Part of the idea was to keep small group size, and economize on labor, by having the students teach each other, typically with the older students instructing the younger.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2020/05/my-weird-lancastrian-method-for-reopening-higher-education.html

The post I quoted from is about how college might reinvent itself in the era of the pandemic, but the larger point he is making – or at any rate, the point I choose to take away – is about how learning in small groups is better than classrooms.

And on a related note, the third person whose thoughts on online education I choose to take very seriously, Seth Godin:

Great guy. Chip and I went to business school together. He was the third youngest person in the class and I was the second youngest person in the class. He got five of us together and every Tuesday night, we met in the Anthropology Department for four hours. We brainstormed more than 5,000 business ideas over the course of the first year of business school. It was magnificent. It wasn’t official, it wasn’t sanctioned. It was just Chip said let’s do this, and we did. And he picked the Anthropology Department because he knew someone there and could get the conference room.

https://tim.blog/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/138-seth-godin.pdf

That is from an episode from Tim Ferriss’ podcast, in which he interviewed Seth (the whole episode is well worth your time), but the point that I remembered was about small groups.

Anybody who is going to try and do education online is going to have to get small groups going. Without it – in my opinion – it simply will not work.

But how do you form these groups?

I’m still thinking about the how, and the more I think about it, the more it seems as if there is never going to be a perfect answer. Forming groups is hard, and I think we need to make peace with the fact that groups may not always work out.

People won’t get along, people will drop out, quarrels will take place even among groups that develop close bonds – there are many, many things that can go wrong. But it doesn’t matter how long it takes and how many times groups have to be formed and re-formed – it is unlikely that you’ll get an education worth the name without the formation of a group, or community.

And what do these groups do?

… will be the topic of tomorrow’s essay, for I was part of an experiment that tried to answer this question – and I really liked the answer!

Links for 21st March, 2019

  1. “In a 2011 paper, trade-policy researchers Anwarul Hoda and Shravani Prakash analyzed the impact of “the proclivity of the U.S. administration to leverage the GSP program to achieve its economic and political objectives.” They found that with major developing-country trading partners “the reciprocity requirement has proved to be ineffectual.” In 1992, the U.S. stopped India’s preferential access for chemicals and pharmaceuticals in an effort to improve intellectual-property protection. New Delhi shrugged off the pain, and waited for a World Trade Organization agreement before amending its patent law, the researchers noted.”
    Andy Mukherjee doesn’t think the removal of the GSP support by the USA will have any meaningful impact on India’s exports to that country. He also cites an interesting paper (which I haven’t read yet), which seems to say essentially the same thing.
  2. “The opportunity is simple to describe but requires real effort to achieve: the community must enforce systems that build the external costs into the way that the industrialist does business. Faced with an incentive to decrease bycatch, waste or illness, the industrialist will do what industrialists always seek to do–make it work a little better, a little faster, a little more profitably.Industrialism can’t solve every problem, but it can go a very long way in solving the problems that it created in the first place.”
    Seth Godin (whose blog is a remarkable thing, by the way) gives his take on externalities, and makes the case that economists take a far too restrictive, anti-septic view of the problem. I’m putting words into his mouth, but that’s how I interpret it – and I’d agree. Certain problems can be identified best by economists, but perhaps the solutions lie outside the textbook. A useful article to read for starting discussions around externalities, the Coase theorem, Elinor Ostrom’s work, the role of culture in economics.
  3. “When it comes to the institutional framework, there are obviously massive differences between India and China. Any leader in India must contend with parliament, the courts and state governments. Also known as democracy. That limits how quickly stuff can get done. It can also save politicians from serious mistakes. China has competing interests and constituencies as well, but it’s not the same sport, let alone ballpark.”
    The article is about India’s less than stellar economic growth in the previous quarter, but that paragraph above was important to me. India is a functioning democracy, China anything but. That has it’s advantages, and its disadvantages – to both. A point worth remembering in many ways – one of which part of the focus of this article.
  4. “In the process, Netflix has discovered something startling: Despite a supposed surge in nationalism across the globe, many people like to watch movies and TV shows from other countries. “What we’re learning is that people have very diverse and eclectic tastes, and if you provide them with the world’s stories, they will be really adventurous, and they will find something unexpected,” Cindy Holland, Netflix’s vice president for original content, told me.”
    Farhad Majoo in the NYT about why Netflix is such a good thing. It’s a useful article to understand the impact Netflix is having the world over – but also a good article to learn about pricing, the implications of pricing, content discovery on Netflix.
  5. “For several years, India’s banks have been in the spotlight over their problematic lending to prominent industrialists. Now the mutual funds and non-bank lenders — who have taken increasingly important roles in the credit system amid the banks’ woes — are coming under similar scrutiny. That is good for the development of the Indian financial sector. But it is yet another headache for some hard-pressed members of the promoter class.”
    Simon Mundy in the FT on how the IBC has provided teeth to creditors in India – which is genuinely good news. But the transition is unlikely to be smooth, and there may well be some unexpected skeletons waiting to tumble out of the closet. A good read for finance, bankruptcy and non-bank lending in India.