Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I Like This Girl

Many years ago in a small Indian village a farmer had the misfortune of owing a large sum of money to a village moneylender. The moneylender, who was old and ugly, fancied the farmer's beautiful daughter.

So he proposed a bargain. He said he would forego the farmer's debt if he could marry his daughter. Both the farmer and his daughter were horrified by the proposal.

So the cunning moneylender suggested that they let Providence decide the matter. He told them that he would put a black pebble and a white pebble into an empty money bag. Then the girl would have to pick one pebble from the bag.

1) If she picked the black pebble, she would become his wife and her father's debt would be forgiven.

2) If she picked the white pebble she need not marry him and her father's debt would still be forgiven.

3) But if she refused to pick a pebble, her father would be thrown into Jail.

They were standing on a pebble strewn path in the farmer's field. As they talked, the moneylender bent over to pick up two pebbles. As he picked them up, the sharp-eyed girl noticed that he had picked up two black pebbles and put them into the bag. He then asked the girl to pick a pebble from the bag.

Now, imagine that you were standing in the field. What would you have done if you were the girl? If you had to advise her, what would you have told her?

Careful analysis would produce three possibilities:

1. The girl should refuse to take a pebble.

2. The girl should show that there were two black pebbles in the bag and expose the moneylender as a cheat.

3. The girl should pick a black pebble and sacrifice herself in order to save her father from his debt and imprisonment.

Take a moment to ponder over the story. The above story is used with the hope that it will make us appreciate the difference between lateral and deductive modes of thinking.

The girl's dilemma cannot be solved with deductive thinking. Think of the consequences if she chooses the above logical answers. What would you recommend to the girl to do?

Well here is what she did....

The girl put her hand into the moneybag and drew out a pebble. Without looking at it, she fumbled and let it fall onto the pebble strewn path where it immediately became lost among all the other pebbles."Oh, how clumsy of me," she said. "But never mind, if you look into the bag for the one that is left, you will be able to tell which pebble I picked."

Since the remaining pebble is black, it must be assumed that she had picked the white one. And since the money-lender dared not admit his dishonesty, the girl changed what seemed an impossible situation in to an extremely advantageous one.

Most complex problems do have a solution. It is only that we don't attempt to think. Thinking itself is a task and lateral thinking even more so because it involves reason and imagination unlike pure deduction which is primarily only reason.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Two Systems Of Thinking

We can roughly map our judgement and decision-making activities in to two formats. As a Psychiatrist; I am well aware of how puny our understanding of the brain and it's chemistry is. So I will not make any dogmatic claims on neurology. 

SYSTEM 1 - This is the intuition-based, emotional, almost automatic, effortless and above all a quick way to decisions. It's the short-cuts we take due to experience or innate impulses (like self-preservation). These short-cuts are studied in the branch called "Heuristics". Obviously a short-cut will sometimes cause mistakes and these mistakes are called "Biases". Biases may be positive or negative in quantity and can be measured so we can get the accurate picture. This "fast and frugal" experiential system is considered the "limbic brain". Humans share this kind of decision-making with birds and animals. Malcolm Gladwell describes this system in his book called "Blink". The process you run through is more opaque than System 2 processes.

SYSTEM 2- This system really sets "Man" at the head of the created order. You obviously do not know of your pet dog or cat or parrot thinking hard about the ultimate meaning of life. Nor do you see them ever able to handle problems of logic, mathematics and twists of language. This system is considered the "cortical brain" and it is the slow, logical, progressive kind of thinking which really drains you. Since you are aware of the progression of your thoughts you can retrace the mental events and see where you went wrong.

In my next post we will see where to use which system and the implications of messing up on this vital distinction.


What I Learnt From "Outliers"

(1) Today when I meet someone I consider successful; I am not too much over-awed by their success. I know that their success has to a large extent to do with the opportunities that came their way.

(2) I understand that some advantages may be purely because of arbitrary rules and regulations which are apparent only on closer examination.

(3) I realize that where I come from matters. I can not ignore my cultural legacy. Since I know what parts of my cultural legacy can stand in the way of my success; I will work to lose their grip on me and I would like to accentuate those parts which add to my chances of success.

(4) The 10,000 hour rule tells me that I can't be world class at ten things in one go. I need to prune back my activities to let the sap flow into the juiciest grapes.

(5) I am no more afraid of people who have much higher IQ than me but my focus is on looking up to those who have creative intelligence and social intelligence.

(6) When I have kids; I plan to bring them up in ways which develop their sense of autonomy and identity leading to a healthy self-image and the ability to handle social situations tactfully. I say this because my upbringing contributes to my introvert and inward looking tendency which I fight daily.

(7) I realize that if an organization works for the upfiftment of society then they have to take intelligent steps to achieve their goals faster.

(8) I plan to interview successful people regularly and make notes about not only what they did but also where they come from.


Key Thoughts In "Outliers"

(1) Random rules like minimum age for entering school can advantage some children at the expense of others. These children who are not very successful to start with come under the positive effect of "Self-Fulfilling Prophecies" which evoke the behavior of success. 

(2) Those who are already successful are more likely to get opportunities that lead to more success. This is "Accumulative Advantage" at work. 

(3) Ability, opportunity and arbitrary advantages combine to create success. If you want to master anything just spend 10,000 quality hours at it and you will be world class. This applies to whatever you want to do-Maths, Literature, Business, Sport, Music and even Robbery!

(4) Extra-ordinary talent is shaped by extra-ordinary opportunities. Be thankful to God and be humble if you are successful because you may have been given extra-ordinary opportunities which may have passed others due to some very random reasons. To make matters more complicated; the world at your time should be able to appreciate your 10,000 hours and reward you for it!

(5) IQ is not everything. Creative Intelligence (divergent logic) is much more important for success than Analytical Intelligence (convergent logic). Practical Intelligence means being able to handle ground situations well. Unlike Analytical Intelligence it is not a genetically determined trait. It is a result of "Concerted Cultivation" of the child's personality by the parents in which the child is taught independence and is exposed to decision-making almost as an adult would.

(6) Sometimes some people are unsuccessful just because of "Demographic Reasons". Nothing seems to work in spite of their intelligence and hard work because social and economic structures are unfavorable to different professions and different classes at times. So we must learn to read the signs of the times to escape this limitation.

(7) Hard work is a prison sentence if it does not have meaning. To have meaning in your work; you must have some "Autonomy" while working, a reasonable amount of "Complexity" to handle and there must be a clear connection between "Effort And Reward". Successful people endure rough conditions and low payback if their work is meaningful and this endurance leads to breakthroughs irrespective of humble origins.

(8) Cultural legacy is a strangely powerful force which can work for you or against you. You need to break out from your cultural legacy and re-train yourself if this stands in your way. Its obvious at times that your skills just don't matter if cultural legacy is standing in the way. Cultures that place a high emphasis on hard work are likely to produce more winners in almost any and every related or unrelated field.

(9) Finally success is not mysterious at all. It is a product of History, Community, Opportunity and Legacy besides Intelligent Hard Work. This thought keeps us from the pride of our achievements.


What Is An Outlier?

An outlier is a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample. Gladwell's latest book, Outliers, studies exceptionally successful people from an entirely unexplored perspective. I am just about done with it and in my next post I hope to summarize the main thoughts. Basically, Gladwell argues that we tend to focus too much on the personality based reasons of success and we ignore to observe and analyze the special conditions, extra opportunities and other such external factors in evaluating a person's success.