Slip fielding meetings

It’s been nearly six months since I returned to corporate life. As you might imagine, I have participated in lots of meetings in this period. Some of them are 1-on-1s. Some are in slightly larger groups. Some meetings have big groups.

Meetings in big groups are of two types – ones where you do a lot of the talking, and what I have come to call as “slip fielder meetings”.

Basically, participating in these meetings is like fielding at slip in a cricket match. For most of the day, you just stand there doing nothing, but occasionally once in a while a ball will come towards you and you are expected to catch it. That means you need to be alert all the time.

These meetings are the same. For most of the discussion you are not necessarily required, but once in a while there might be some matter that comes up where your opinion is required, and you need to be prepared for that.

I can think of at least two occasions in the last six months where I was rudely awoken from my daydreams (no I wasn’t literally napping) with someone saying “Karthik, what do you think we should do about this?”.

And since then I’ve learnt to anticipate. Anticipate when my presence might be required. Figure out from the broad contours of the conversation on when I might be called upon. And remain alert when called upon (though on one occasion early on in the company my internet decided to give way just when I had started talking in a 20 person meeting).

Yesterday, a colleague gave me a good idea on how to stay alert through these “slip fielder meetings”. “Just turn on the automated captions on Google Meet”, he said. “Occasionally it can be super funny. Like one day ‘inbound docks’ was shown as ‘inborn dogs'”.

I think this is a great idea. By continuously looking at the captions, I can remain sufficiently stimulated and entertained, and also know what exactly is happening in the meeting. I’m going to use this today onwards.

I now wonder what real slip fielders do to stay alert. I’m not sure chatting with the wicketkeeper is entertaining enough.

Social Skills Decelerator

This post is a consequence of a conversation I had with my wife this morning.

I was telling her about how a friend, who also went to IIT Madras with me, recently said something like “I’m surprised XXXXX (another mutual friend) has so much confidence in himself even though he went to <local college>. A lot of my self-confidence comes from IIT”.

“It is precisely because XXXXX went to <local college> that he has so much confidence”, my wife countered (she studied in an engineering college that is very similar to the aforementioned <local college>). And then we started talking about respective lives, and experiences, and all that.

The big insight (I’m writing about this because I think my wife is too lazy to blog about this – though it’s her idea) is that in different schools, you build reputation based on different things. In 11th and 12th standards in schools where people are mugging for JEE, for example, the primary currency for reputation is academics (both my wife and I went to such schools – different branches of the same school, to be precise).

In other schools, it’s due to extracurricular achievement. Some schools place a premium on sport. Others on gadgets and shoes. Yet others simply on good looks. And some on who you know. It’s not a finite list, except that each school has its own “portfolio” of things that help build its students’ reputations.

Coming back to my wife’s big insight, it’s that in IIT, at the prime ages of 17/18 to 21-22, the primary currency to build reputation still remains academics, and that is not the case in other colleges. And in some sense, in terms of building social skills and generally increasing one’s confidence in life, these are the prime years.

And the other thing is that academics is a zero-sum status game – there might be infinitely many “nine pointers” but there can only be one class topper. And if reputation is based on academics, it is likely to be based on relative grading. So at the prime years of your life, when you are looking to build social skills (social skills are positive sum), you are playing a zero-sum academic game for marks. You are not only not building your social skills at an age when you should, but you are actively destroying them by indulging in too many zero-sum status games.

The other corollary, of course, is that by indulging in status games where there can only be one winner, we are all (most of us at least) effectively turning ourselves into losers.  By being in an environment where reputation is built only on one (zero sum) dimension, our confidence is shattered.

Some of us come back from this shattered confidence, and at some point in life (albeit belatedly) start building social skills. Others, unfortunately, never recover.

My wife is right – people are not “confident despite not going to IIT”. They are “confident BECAUSE THEY DIDN’T GO TO IIT”!

 

Communicating Numbers

Earlier this week I read this masterful blogpost on Andrew Gelman’s blog (though the post itself is not written by Andrew Gelman – it’s written by Phil Price) about communicating numbers.

Basically the way you communicate a number can give a lot more information “between the lines”. Take the example at the top of the article:

“At the New York Marathon, three of the five fastest runners were wearing our shoes.” I’m sure I’m not the first or last person to have realized that there’s more information there than it seems at first. For one thing, you can be sure that one of those three runners finished fifth: otherwise the ad would have said “three of the four fastest.” Also, it seems almost certain that the two fastest runners were not wearing the shoes, and indeed it probably wasn’t 1-3 or 2-3 either: “The two fastest” and “two of the three fastest” both seem better than “three of the top five.” The principle here is that if you’re trying to make the result sound as impressive as possible, an unintended consequence is that you’re revealing the upper limit.

Incredible. So 3 in 5 means one of them is likely to be 5th. And likely one is fourth as well. Similarly, if you see a company that calls itself a “Fortune 500 company”, it is likely closer to 500 than to 100.

The other, slightly unrelated, example quoted in the article is about Covid-19 spread in outdoor conditions. There is another article that says that “less than 10% of covid-19 transmission that happens indoors”. This is misleading because if you say “less than 10%”, people will assume it’s 9%! The number, apparently, is closer to 0.1%.

There are many more such examples that we encounter in real life. If you write on LinkedIn that you went to a “top 10 ranked B-school”, it means you DID NOT go to a “top 5 ranked B-school”.

Loosely related to this, I’ve got a bit irritated over the last year and a bit in terms of imprecise numerical reporting by the media (related to covid-19). I won’t provide links or quotes here, since what I can remember are mostly by one person and I don’t want to implicate her here (and it’s a systemic problem, not unique to her).

You see reports saying “20000 new cases in Karnataka. A majority of them are from Bangalore”. I’ve seen this kind of a report even when 90% of the cases have been from Bangalore, and that is misleading – when you say “majority”, you instinctively think of “50% + 1”. Another report said “as many as 10000 cases”. Now, the “as many as” phrasing makes it sound like a very large number, but put in context, this 10000 wasn’t really very high.

Communication of numbers is an art that is not very well spread. Nowadays we see lots of courses on “telling stories with data”, “data visualisation”, graphics, etc. but none in terms of communication of sheer numbers itself.

Maybe I should record an episode about this in my forthcoming podcast. If you know who might be a good guest for it, AND can make an introduction, let me know.

Getting into a new public hobby

As I had recently announced on Twitter, I’m planning a new “side gig”. It’s been a long time coming, mainly because when you are doing a portfolio life it is pretty much impossible to have a side gig – everything becomes a part of your portfolio instead.

Now that I’m in a full time job, and after a very long time, maybe for the first time I have a real “side gig”.

I’m planning to start a podcast, on all things data. I’ve started working on it, and recorded a couple of episodes already. Another 3-4 recordings are scheduled for next weekend, and if all things go well, I should start releasing in June. The podcast will be in a typical “interview” format, where I interview people about different things to do with data. So each episode needs a guest (or two).

So far so good.

The downside about picking up a new side gig at this advanced age (38) is that initially I’m not going to be good at it. And this has been something that is hard to accept.

After one of the recordings, for example, I realised that I’d not asked the guest a few questions I should have asked him. And that while these questions had been playing on my mind a while back I hadn’t thought of it in the lead to the podcast at all.

After another recording, I realised that the sound hasn’t been recorded properly for large parts (because of a failing internet connection – either at my end or my guest’s). What guts me is that it was a truly awesome episode (based on what the guest told me).

Rookie mistakes, basically. And I’ve been thinking so much about these rookie mistakes of late that there is a small downside that the side gig might “cost me” more than I had bargained for.  For example, yesterday evening I was listening to other podcasts while doing the dishes and instinctively started comparing them to my own, and about whether I’m doing mine properly.

Similarly, back in 2016, when I was writing and publishing a book, I had become conscious about how others were going about their books. I kept comparing my books to others, and worrying about what I did right or wrong. It was nerve-wracking.

Again while doing the dishes last night, though, I had another revelation – this kind of comparison or beating myself has NEVER happened in terms of my blogging. I’ve written because I’ve wanted to write, and the way I want to write, and not bothered about what others are doing or whether what I’m doing is “right”.

Maybe it helped that I started this at a young age (I was 21 when I started), and that gave me a period of fearlessness before I actually became somewhat good at it. Maybe it helped that I was writing as a way of “rebelling” (if you see some of my early posts (pre 2006), they’re really angsty), and so I didn’t care at all. And by the time I started caring, I had either become good at it, or that it had become second nature to me, and so I didn’t have to worry at all.

The positive lesson to take away from that is that you are unlikely to be good at something the first time you do it. You will have a few duds. You will inevitably make the rookie errors. And irrespective of how well you plan or prepare, these rookie errors and duds will happen. The only way to get over them is to keep doing it again and again.

So now, before every recording I tell myself that it is okay if the first season of my podcast doesn’t end up being as good as I want it to. I might be “experienced” in other ways, but that in podcasting I’m a rookie, and I must judge myself like a rookie.

And after I’ve done it for a while, one of two things would have happened:

  1. I know that I absolutely suck at podcasting, which is a good sign to bury the side gig
  2. I actually become good at podcasting, in which case I will continue.

The important thing now is to recognise that there is a non-zero chance of 2 happening. And I should keep at it until this situation “collapses” (in the quantum physics sense).

 

Does alma matter?

I just spent the holiday afternoon massively triggering myself by watching the just-released Netflix documentary Alma Matters, about life in IIT Kharagpur. Based on the trailer itself, I thought I could relate to it, thanks to my four years at IIT Madras. And so my wife and I sat, and spent three hours on the documentary. Our daughter was with us for the first half hour, and then disappeared for reasons mentioned below.

I have too many random thoughts in my head right now, so let me do this post in bullet points.

  • I have always had mixed feelings about my time at IIT Madras. On the one hand, I found it incredibly depressing. Even now, the very thought of going to Chennai depresses me. On the other, I have a lot of great memories from there, and built a strong network.

    Now that I think of it, having watched the documentary, a lot of those “great memories” were simply about me making the best use of a bad situation I was in. I don’t think I want to put myself, or my daughter, through that kind of an experience again

  • My basic problem at IIT was that I just couldn’t connect with most people there. I sometimes joke that I couldn’t connect with 80% of the people there, but remain in touch with the remaining 20%. And that is possibly right.

    The problem is that most people there were either “too fighter”, always worried about and doing academics, or “too given up”, not caring about anything at all in life. I couldn’t empathise with either and ended up having a not so great time.

  • My wife intently watched the show with me, even though she got bored by the end of the first episode. “It’s all so depressing”, she kept saying. “Yes, this is how life was”, I kept countering.

    And then I think she caught the point. “Take out the cigarettes and alcohol, and this is just like school. Not like college at all”, she said. And I think that quite sums up IIT for me. We were adults (most of us for most of the time – I turned eighteen a few months after I joined), but were treated like children for the most part. And led our lives like children in some ways, either being too regimented, or massively rebelling.

    “Now I can see why people don’t grow up when they go to IIT”, my wife said. After I had agreed, she went on, “this applies to you as well. You also haven’t grown up”. I couldn’t counter.

  • The “maleness” of the place wasn’t easy to notice. After one scene, my wife mentioned that we spend such a long time in the prime years of our lives dealing only with other men, that it is impossible to have normal relationships later on. It’s only a few who have come from more liberal backgrounds, or who manage to unlearn the IIT stuff, who manage to have reasonably normal long-term relationships.
  • The maleness of IITs was also given sort of ironic treatment by the show. There is a segment in the first episode about elections, which shows a female candidate, about how girls have a really bad time at IIT due to the massively warped sex ratio (in my time it was 16:1), and so it is difficult for girls to get respect.

    And then that turned out to be the “token female segment” in the show, as girls were all but absent in the rest of the three hours. That girls hardly made it to the show sort of self-reinforced the concept that girls aren’t treated well at IITs,

  • After intently watching for half an hour, my daughter asked, “if this is a movie about IIT, why aren’t you in it?”. I told her that it’s about a different IIT. “OK fine. I’ll watch it when they make a movie about your IIT”, she said and disappeared.
  • While the second and third episodes of the show were too long-drawn and sort of boring, I did manage to finish the show end-to-end in one sitting, which has to say something about it being gripping (no doubt to someone like me who could empathise with parts of it).
  • Finally, watch this trailer to the show. Watch what the guy says about people with different CGPA ranges.
  • He talks about “respect 8 pointers and don’t like 9 pointers”. That sort of made me happy since I finished (I THINK) with a CGPA of 8.9

If you’re from an IIT, you are likely to empathise with the show. If you are close to someone from IIT, you might appreciate them better when you watch it. Overall three episodes is too long-drawn. The first episode is a good enough gist of life at IIT.

And yeah, trigger warnings apply.

Risk and data

A while back a group of <a large number of scientists> wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister demanding greater data sharing with them. I must say that the letter is written in academic language and the effort to understand it was too much, but in the interest of fairness I’ll put a screenshot that was posted on twitter here.

I don’t know about this clinical and academic data. However, the holding back of one kind of data, in my opinion, has massively (and negatively) impacted people’s mental health and risk calculations.

This is data on mortality and risk. The kind of questions that I expect government data to have answered was:

  1. If I get covid-19 (now in the second wave), what is the likelihood that I will die?
  2. If my oxygen level drops to 90 (>= 94 is “normal”), what is the likelihood that I will die?
  3. If I go to hospital, what is the likelihood I will die?
  4. If I go to ICU what is the likelihood I will die?
  5. What is the likelihood of a teenager who contracts the virus (and is otherwise in good health) dying of the virus?

And so on. Simple risk-based questions whose answers can help people calibrate their lives and take calculated enough risks to get on with it without putting themselves and their loved ones at risk.

Instead, what we find from official sources are nothing but aggregates. Total numbers of people infected, dead, recovered and so on. And it is impossible to infer answers to the “risk questions” based no that.

And who fill in the gaps? Media of course.

I must have discussed “spectacularness bias” on this blog several times before. Basically the idea is that for something to be news, it needs to carry information. And an event carries information if it occurs despite having a low prior probability (or not occurring despite a high prior probability). As I put it in my lectures, “‘dog bites man’ is not news. ‘man bits dog’ is news”.

So when we rely on media reports to fill in our gaps in our risk systems, we end up taking all the wrong kinds of lessons. We learn that one seventeen year old boy died of covid despite being otherwise healthy. In the absence of other information, we assume that teenagers are under grave risk from the disease.

Similarly, cases of children looking for ICU beds get forwarded far more than cases of old people looking for ICU beds. In the absence of risk information, we assume that the situation must be grave among children.

Old people dying from covid goes unreported (unless the person was famous in some way or the other), since the information content in that is low. Young people dying gets amplified.

Based on all the reports that we see in the papers and other media (including social media), we get an entirely warped sense of what the risk profile of the disease is. And panic. When we panic, our health gets worse.

Oh, and I haven’t even spoken about bad risk reporting in the media. I saw a report in the Times of India this morning (unable to find a link to it) that said that “young are facing higher mortality in this wave”. Basically the story said that people under 60 account for a far higher proportion of deaths in the second wave than in the first.

Now there are two problems with that story.

  1. A large proportion of over 60s in India are vaccinated, so mortality is likely to be lower in this cohort.
  2. What we need is the likelihood of a person under 60 dying upon contracting covid. NOT the proportion of deaths accounted for by under 60s. This is the classic “averaging along the wrong axis” that they unleash upon you in the first test of any statistics course.

Anyway, so what kind of data would have helped?

  1. Age profile of people testing positive, preferably state wise (any finer will be noise)
  2. Age profile of people dying of covid-19, again state wise

I’m sure the government collects this data. Just that they’re not used to releasing this kind fo data, so we’re not getting it. And so we have to rely on the media and its spectacularness bias to get our information. And so we panic.

PS: By no means am I stating that covid-19 is not a risk. All I am stating is that the information we have been given doesn’t help us make good risk decisions

Not all minutes are equal

I seem to be on a bit of a self-reflection roll today. Last night I had this insight about my first ever job (which I’ve  said I’ll write about sometime). This morning, I wrote about how in my 15 years of professional life I’ve become more positive sum, and stopped seeing everything as a competition.

This blogpost is about an insight I realised a long time back, but haven’t been able to quantify until today. The basic concept, which I might have written about in other ways, is that “not all minutes are created equal”.

Back when I was in IIT, I wasn’t particularly happy. With the benefit of hindsight, I think my mental illness troubles started around that time. One of the mindsets I had got into then (maybe thanks to the insecurity of having just taken a highly competitive, and status-seeking, exam) was that I “need to earn the right to relax”.

In the two years prior to going to IIT, it had been drilled into my head that it was wrong to relax or have fun until I had “achieved my goals”, which at that point in time was basically about getting into IIT. I did have some fun in that period, but it usually came with a heavy dose of guilt – that I was straying from my goal.

In any case, I got into IIT and the attitude continued. I felt that I couldn’t relax until I had “finished my work”. And since IIT was this constant treadmill of tests and exams and assignments and grades, this meant that this kind of “achievement” of finishing work didn’t come easily. And so I went about my life without chilling. And was unhappy.

The problem with IIT was that it was full of “puritan toppers“. Maybe because the exam selected for extreme fighters, people at IIT largely belonged to one of two categories – those that continued to put extreme fight, and those who completely gave up. And thanks to this, the opinion formed in my head that if I were to “have fun before finishing my work” I would join the ranks of the latter.

IIMB was different – the entrance exam itself selected for studness, and the process that included essays and interviews meant that people who were not necessary insane fighters made it. You had a rather large cohort of people who managed to do well academically without studying much (a cohort I happily joined. It was definitely a good thing that there were at least two others in my hostel wing who did rather well without studying at all).

And since you had a significant number of people who both had fun and did well academically, it impacted me massively in terms of my attitude. I realised that it was actually okay to have fun without “having finished one’s work”. The campus parties every Saturday night contributed in no small measure in driving this attitude.

That is an attitude I have carried with me since. And if I were to describe it simply, I would say “not all minutes are created equal”. Let me explain with a metaphor, again from IIMB.

The favourite phrase of Dr. Prem Chander, a visiting professor who taught us Mergers and Acquisitions, was “you can never eliminate risk. You can only transfer it to someone who can handle it better”. In terms of personal life and work, it can be translated to “you can never eliminate work. However, you can transfer it to a time when you can do it better”.

Earlier this evening I was staring at the huge pile of vessels in my sink (we need to get some civil work done before we can buy a dishwasher, so we’ve been putting off that decision). I was already feeling tired, and in our domestic lockdown time division of household chores, doing the dishes falls under my remit.

My instinct was “ok let me just finish this off first. I can chill later”. This was the 2002 me speaking. And then a minute later I decided “no, but I’m feeling insanely tired now having just cooked dinner and <… > and <….. >. So I might as well chill now, and do this when I’m in a better frame of mind”.

The minute when I had this thought is not the same as the minute an hour from now (when I’ll actually get down to doing this work). In the intervening time, I’ve would’ve had a few drinks,  had dinner,  written this blogpost, hung out with my daughter as she’s going to bed, and might have also caught some IPL action. And I foresee that I will be in a far better frame of mind when I finally go out to do the dishes, than I was when I saw the pile in the sink.

It is important to be able to make this distinction easily. It is important to recognise that in “real life” (unlike in entrance exam life) it is seldom that “all work will be done”. It is important to realise that not all minutes are made equal. And some minutes are better for working than others, and to optimise life accordingly.

If you’ve gotten this far, you might think this is all rather obvious stuff, but having been on the other side, let me assure you that it isn’t. And some people can take it to an extreme extreme, like the protagonists of Ganesha Subramanya who decide that they will not interact with women until they’ve achieved something!

Fifteen years of professional life

I was supposed to begin my first job on the 1st of May 2006. A week before, I got a call from HR stating that my joining date had been shifted to the 2nd. “1st May is Maharashtra Day, and all Mumbai-based employees have a holiday that day. So you start on the second”, she said.

I was thinking about this particular job (where I lasted all of three months) for a totally different reason last night. We will talk about that sometime in another blogpost (once those thoughts are well formed).

The other day I was thinking about how I have changed since the time I was working. I mean there are a lot of cosmetic changes – I’m older now. I can claim to have “experience”. I have a family. I have a better idea now of what I’m good at and all that.

However, if I think about the biggest change from a professional front that has happened to me, it is in (finally, belatedly) coming to realise that the world (especially, “wealth games”) is positive sum, and not zero sum.

The eight years before I started my first job in 2006 were spent in insanely competitive environments. First there was mugging for IIT JEE, where what mattered was the rank, not the absolute number of marks. Then, in IIT, people targeted “branch position” (relative position in class) rather than absolute CGPA. We even had a term for it – “RG” (for relative grading).

And so it went along. More entrance exams. Another round of RG. And then campus interviews where companies came with a fixed number of open positions. I don’t think I realised this then, but all of my late teens and early twenties spent in ultra competitive environments meant that I entered corporate life also thinking that it was a zero sum thing.

I kept comparing myself to everyone around. It didn’t matter if it was the company’s CEO, or my boss, or some junior, or someone completely unconnected in another part of the firm. The only thing that was constant was that I would instinctively compare myself

“Why do people think this person is good? I’m smarter than him”
“Oh, she seems to be much smarter than me. I should be like her”

And that went on for a while. Somewhere along the way I decided to quit corporate altogether and start my own consulting business. Along the way I met a lot of people. Some were people I was trying to sell to. Others I worked with after having sold to some of their colleagues. I saw companies in action. I saw diverse people get together to get work done.

Along the way something flipped. I don’t exactly know what. And I started seeing how things in the real world are not a zero sum game after all. It didn’t matter who was good at what. It didn’t matter if one person “dominated” another (was good at the latter on all counts). People worked together and got things done.

My own sales process also contributed. I spoke to several people. And every sale I achieved was a win-win. Every assignment came about because I was adding value to them, and because they were adding (monetary) value to me. It was all positive sum. There were no favours involved.

And so by the time I got back to corporate life once again at the end of last year, I had changed completely. I had started seeing everything in a “positive sum” sort of way and not “zero sum” like I used to in my first stint in corporate life. That is possibly one reason why I’m enjoying this corporate stint much better.

PS: If you haven’t already done so, listen to this podcast by Naval Ravikant. It is rather profound (I don’t say that easily). Talks about how wealth is a positive sum game while status is a zero sum game. And to summarise this post, I had spent eight years immediately before I started building wealth by competing for status, in zero sum games.

JEE Rank, branch position, getting the “most coveted job” – they were all games of status. It is interesting (and unfortunate) that it took me so long to change my perspective to what was useful in the wealth business.

PPS: I’ve written this blogpost over nearly two hours, while half-watching an old Rajkumar movie. My apologies if it seems a bit rambling or incoherent or repetitive.

 

 

Uncertain Rewards

A couple of months back, I read Nir Eyal’s Hooked. I didn’t particularly get hooked to the book – it’s one of those books that should have been a blogpost (or maybe a longform article). However, as part of the “Hooked model” that forms the core of the book, the author talks about the importance of “uncertain rewards”.

The basic idea is that it is easier to get addicted to something when the rewards from it are uncertain. If the rewards are certain, then irrespective of how large they are, there is a chance that you might get bored of them. Uncertainty, on the other hand, makes you curious. It provides you “information” each time you “play the game”. And you in the quest for new information (remember that entropy is information?), you keep playing. And you get hooked.

This plays out in various ways. Alcohol and drugs, for example, sometimes offer “good trips”, and sometimes “bad trips”. The memory of the good trips is the reason why you keep at it, even if you occasionally have bad trips. The uncertain rewards hook you.

It’s the same with social media. This weekend, so far, I’ve had a largely good experience on Twitter. However, last weekend on the platform was a disaster. I’d gotten quickly depressed and stopped. So why did I get back on to twitter this weekend when last weekend was bad? Because of an earlier weekend when it had provided a set of good conversations.

Even last weekend, when I started having a “bad trip” on Twitter, I kept at it, thinking the longer I play the better the chances of having a good trip. Ultimately I just ruined my weekend.

Uncertain rewards are also why, (especially) when we are young, we tolerate abusive romantic partners. Partners who treat you well all the time are boring. And there is no excitement. Abusive partners, on the other hand, treat you like a king/queen at times, and like shit at other times. The extent of the highs and lows means that you get hooked to them. It possibly takes a certain degree of abuse for you to realise that a “steady partner who treats you well” makes for a better long term partner.

Is there a solution to this? I don’t think so. As we learn in either thermodynamics or information theory, entropy or randomness is equal to information. And because we have evolved to learn and get more information, we crave entropy. And so we crave the experiences that give us a lot of entropy, even it that means the occasional bad trip.

Finally, I realise that uncertain rewards are also the reason why religion is addictive. One conversation I used to have a lot with my late mother was when I would say, “why do you keep praying when your prayers weren’t answered the last time?”. And she would quote another time when her prayers WERE answered. It is this uncertain reward of answers to prayers (which, in my opinion, is sheer randomness) that keeps religion “interesting”. And makes it addictive.

In appreciation of Tom Vadakkan

The former Congress spokesperson had said on national TV that ‘a tweet is a very lonely man who needs counselling’. While he might have been misinformed on that count, I do think that social media nowadays overindexes on spreading mental illness. 

Let me get the most controversial statement out of the way right upfront – most activism relies on creating anxiety. Yes, I just said it. I must mention that creating anxiety may not be the express intention of the activism. However, it is an inevitable effect.

I had written about this a long time ago, specifically in the context of environmental activism. Basically, things like carbon taxes (and other Pigouian taxes) and other price-based measures of environment regulation mean that things have been priced in by the time an ordinary person comes across it.

“Should I take the plastic cup from the coffee shop?”. Has already been priced in in the price of plastic.

“Can I take shower for another 15 minutes extra today?”. If I’m paying fair price for the water this ceases to be a moral question.

“Is it okay to drive across the city each day by my own car? Wouldn’t it result in extra emissions?”. If the price of the extra emissions has been included in the price of fuel, again don’t need to worry.

On the contrary, you might see that a lot of activism (and left-wing activists are generally against the price mechanism) is about creating guilt. It’s about making you think at every point in time because the price mechanism doesn’t account for it. And it is not just about environmental activism.

Take political correctness for example. A lot of jokes from my childhood (and even from a few years ago) are not kosher any more because they hurt the sentiments of some minority or another. So, while we’ve been conditioned to make these jokes as if they are normal, now there is an extra layer of thought, leading to anxiety.

And activists won’t let you be in peace either. For example, one rational response to things being shit all around us (like it is right now, as covid cases are raging, and bodies have to wait for days together to get cremated) is to just ignore it all, get into our little bubbles and move on. Activists don’t let you do that. It’s not uncommon to see tweets of the nature of “how can you sleep soundly when <some unknown person you wouldn’t normally care about> is dying on the street?”. It’s about creating guilt.

A few days back, I put this tweet (of late, all my blogposts seem to be expansions of random thoughts I would’ve thrown around on twitter):

I guess this deserves an explanation. I keep quitting social media, and while I’m on it, I keep unfollowing (and muting, and blocking) people who post too much negative or “outrage-y” stuff. The reason I go on social media is to have some nice discussions, see some ideas and so on. For news, I have my morning bundle of The Times of India, The Business Standard and The Economic Times.

“Why do people outrage so much on social media”, I was wondering aloud to my wife the other day. I wasn’t talking about people giving their opinions on what is wrong or how it should be done (that at least adds SOME value). I was talking about tautologies of the like of “oh, Kumbh Mela is being allowed to go on”. Or “migrants are dying due to the sudden lockdown”. No opinion. No value addition. Just selective amplification of news that people will get from the next morning’s papers anyways.

My wife and I had a long discussion. One of the points that came out of the discussion is that people seek some solidarity on social media. People are anxious, have nobody around them to share their anxieties with, and if they can find like-minded people on social media who share their anxieties and empathise with them, it is rational to rant on social media. The downside, of course, is that you might lose the people who don’t share your anxieties.

One of my links above refers to Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life (another source of anxiety that activism creates – “what will people think of me given that I’m quoting someone they’ve ‘cancelled’?”. It results in self-censorship. And by not expressing your thoughts your mental health becomes worse). I think that was his Rule 11. I want to now bring up his Rule 1 (later on I might bring up his Rule 12. Most of the rest are not worth quoting).

In the first chapter of his book, he talks about anxiety and depression, taking the case of lobsters. The thing about anxiety (I’ve just about gotten off another round of medication for it) is that you get into a situation of heightened defences.

This is a natural reaction. If you are walking in the jungle and hear a lion roar, you better have heightened defences. The problem with chronic anxiety is that you are always in a state of heightened defences. You are always worried that something might go wrong. This means you have less mental and physical energy for more productive stuff. And so it hampers your life.

Being in a state of anxiety means you want to get early information of anything that might go wrong. This makes you an ideal candidate for “24×7 news” – since that sets you up and prepares you well in time for anything that might go wrong. Depending on your persuasion, you either get your news from television, or from social media. Thus, on the margin, mentally ill people are MORE LIKELY to be on social media all the time, and be on it for the sake of news.

Let’s put things together.

  • Anxious people are more likely to be on social media for news
  • They are more likely to get triggered by news, and become anxious about it.
  • They want some release from the anxiety, and that can come by way of empathy from people with similar anxieties. This means they tweet (or post) their anxieties. Sometimes it could just be tweeting tautologies.
  • At other times it is retweeting activism from people they empathise with. And activism fundamentally causes more anxiety (as explained above)
  • Thus, anxious people end up spreading their anxieties through social media. And when someone says they don’t care about these anxieties, the privilege card gets brought out.
  • And so, on the margin, spending more time on social media can make you anxious, by increasing your exposure to tweets that create anxiety.

Unfortunately I’m unable to find the video (it seems to have been removed from YouTube). So I’ll just link to this blogpost by Vadakkan’s then co-panelist Amit Varma.

And how do I plan to deal with all the shit happening around? By following Jordan Peterson’s 12th rule. I spend half an hour in the morning reading newspapers. Given what’s happening around, I feel depressed and worried. And then by the time I have moved to the business newspapers I am feeling better. And then I get on with life. And work. And keeping my family and myself safe. And I only use twitter one day a week.

PS: I learnt while researching this post that Tom Vadakkan is with the BJP now.