Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Power of Compounding, Bill Gates and Online Courses

What is common between the power of compounding, Bill Gates and online courses? Turns out a lot!

But before I delve further into it, a little background on my trysts with online courses. I discovered MOOC ( around 2012. I started my first course on Coursera the same year. I dutifully completed the first couple of video lectures, but as time passed by, my interest in the course tapered and it soon came to a grinding halt. One of my 2013 resolutions was to start taking more online courses, and like the countless gym resolutions I have taken over the years, this also went nowhere. The pattern continued, more or less the same way, since then. Until last year.

2018 was the year when I finally turned a new leaf, as far as "completing" online courses were concerned.

How does this relate to the power of compounding and Bill Gates? I will get to that.

In February 2018, I read a book about investment - From the Rat Race to Financial Freedom - written by an Indian author Manoj Arora. It is a very good book which describes the basics of investing and the reason why you should start investing early. Particularly, the author stresses on the power of compounding. The following excerpt from the book caught my eye:

If Christopher Columbus had invested $1 in 1492 at 5% "simple interest", today it would be worth approximately $25 (an increase of 25X). If the interest on the invested $1 had been compounded annually, guess what it would be today? 
Well... more than $50 billion!

This is an incredible piece of statistics, and signifies the power of compounding in a way mere words cannot.

Around the same time I read one of Bill Gates' quotes :

Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.

Well, for mere mortals like me, the quote can be altered slightly - "Most people overestimate what they can do in 1 month and underestimate what they can do in 1 year."

It is interesting how the knowledge gained from one field can be seamlessly applied to another field. Something clicked, and I was able to apply the above two pieces of wisdom to solve my problem of online course completion.

I realized I was overestimating what I could achieve in 2 weeks, as far as the online courses were concerned. I tried to cram the courses as much as I could, spending 3-4 hours a day with the sole intention of completing the course in one or two weeks flat. Obviously, it did not work and wasn't the right strategy. Spending relatively less amount of time, say 30 minutes per day, did not look a good option either, as I felt I was doing things too slowly. As a result, I was lulled into inaction and ended up skipping the courses altogether.

My breakthrough came when I realized the power of compounding is as effective when applied to knowledge, as it is to wealth! If I just spend 30 minutes a day taking courses online, I may not achieve much in 2 weeks, but I can achieve an incredible amount in 1 year (and exponentially more in 5 years). Since the human brain thinks in a linear way and cannot grasp the power of compounding as easily, I underestimated how much I can achieve in a year by just spending 30 minutes a day.

Once I understood this basic truth, there was no stopping. I completed as many as 6 online machine learning courses on Coursera last year, spending only around 5-6 hours every week. Of course, this applies to any form of knowledge and not necessarily online courses. I was able to finish a very good (and a hefty) book - Designing Data Intensive Applications - following the same strategy.

In today's day and age, especially in the field of software engineering, change happens so fast that unless you keep yourself updated with the latest developments, you quickly became irrelevant. The ability to consistently and incrementally add to your knowledge, so that it keeps compounding, will go a long way in ensuring that you are never behind the curve.

Perhaps this discovery will come across as "common sense" for those already following it, but for me this was a game-changer, and a revelation, and for that, I am thankful to Manoj Arora and Bill Gates.

Here's to many more years of compounding knowledge!

Saturday, July 30, 2016

42 inch 4K TV and life choices

Couple of months back one of my colleagues, lets call him Vijay, purchased a 42 inch Ultra HD 4K television set. It cost him around INR 70 k. When I inquired him on the reason for this indulgence, he sported a wide smile and replied, "I want to live life king-size. What is life if you don't enjoy it".

Vijay is not alone. He is part of a growing section of the society who are unapologetic about their spending patterns. They purchase the latest electronic gadgets, shop every other weekend in branded stores and fly wherever they want. Of course, why shouldn't they? After all its their hard earned money; they have every right to spend it as they seem fit.

I pressed Vijay further on what programs he intend to watch on his new favorite gadget. His face contorted a bit, clearly annoyed at such an irrelevant question. If there was a machine which could translate facial expressions to words, it would have certainly read out - does it even matter what I watch; everything will look good on this. But he controlled his thoughts, paused to think for a while, and casually uttered, "I guess cricket will look cool on this. I will watch a few IPL games. Also, the animal channels. It would be such a thrill to watch a Leopard chasing a Deer in 4K"

I ran into Vijay a month later. I asked him how his TV watching experience was coming along. He replied that the TV is great and the images are so clear that he can count wrinkles on an old person's face. In fact, after he bought the TV he recorded a show featuring an old lady and replayed the show regularly to see the old lady's wrinkled face! But off late he wasn't getting any time to watch the TV; office work and other important tasks - like sleeping - occupied most of his time.

This incident lead me to think - is there a better way to lead life than what Vijay so eloquently put 'king-size' ? Agreed, that watching a lousy program on a 42 inch 4K  TV is way better than watching the same program on a 32 inch TV, but why are our choices restricted to just upgrading the TV? If Vijay wanted to enhance his TV watching experience, a more logical choice would have been to watch a better program, isn't it?
Given that he had 70K to spend, could he have bought DVDs of some classic movies or TV shows? Could he have subscribed to some online streaming movie sites? Could he have opted for some paid channel where he could watch the programs he liked? And if he was never the TV-watching type, could he have just spent the 70K on something else; something which would have bought him genuine joy and happiness? Did he even think on these lines?

I think that is one of our main problems. We only think of upgrading to 42 inch 4k TV, never think about changing the programs we watch. We commute to our mundane jobs on a Maruti Alto and aspire to commute to the same mundane job in a Honda city, but don't think about the option of going to our dream job in a metro. We live in a 2 BHK apartment and aspire to own a two storied independent house, but don't give any thought on how to live in these concrete structures.

As I walked out of my house with these thoughts in mind, I was startled by the guffawing coming from my neighbor's apartment.From the ajar door I could see that my neighbors - two bachelors in their late 20's - were watching the superhit hindi comedy movie "Hera Pheri". One of them - Narayana - was laughing so heartily that he almost fell off his chair.
They were watching the movie on a 15 inch non HD laptop. I wonder if they would have laughed any louder had they watched the movie in a 4K HD TV set !

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Success Vs Joy - A Book Review

Success – that seductive mistress after whom everyone (well, almost everyone) runs – is a parameter by which society measures the worth of individuals. Success is thought of as the panacea of all ills afflicting us. We think success is the missing piece in life’s jigsaw puzzle and putting this piece in place will reveal a bright and a beautiful image and we will live happily ever after! Everywhere we go we find people eulogizing success. There are numerous books written on how to be successful. Before a kid turns 5 he/she is already going to ‘tuitions’; there are CAT coaching centers all over India to help aspirants clear the exam; there are hundreds of cricket academies who promise to churn out the next ‘Tendulkar’. If society has a god, it has to be success.

Joy, on the other hand, is an often ignored cousin of success. You don’t find that many books written on how to experience joy, how to be happy. You won’t find any cricket academy which teaches kids just to enjoy playing cricket and in the process score runs. You won’t find any coaching center which talks about the joy derived while solving a problem. Joy is thought of as something which will eventually follow success. Get hold of success and you will find joy.

Geet Sethi – 7 time world billiards champion – and Sunil Agarwal try to find the distinction between success and joy in this remarkably insightful book ‘Success Vs Joy’.  In the book, written as a first person account by Sethi, Sethi draws from his experiences on and off the billiards table to persuasively argue that it is in the pursuit of joy that one finds the maximum satisfaction. Success, according to him, is a social concept and its interpretation is very much dependent on what the society thinks. If you go after success it will lead you into doing things which the society expects from you, not what you really want. Joy, on the other hand, is internal. Joy is not something which happens at the end of a process, unlike success. Rather, joy is the process itself.

The addiction of Joy

Geet Sethi talks about the concept of sweet spot in ball sports like golf and billiards.  In golf when the ball is hit with the club, sometimes it flies a long way away not with the force applied but with the perfect alignment of the body, rhythm and timing.  Such a perfect connection of the club with the ball is called the sweet spot. Most of us who have played cricket can relate to it when on occasions we might have hit the ball without much force but it still would race away to the boundary due to the alignment of the body, the weight transfer and the angle at which the bat meets the ball.  That moment when the ball hits the bat, that sweet spot, is addictive.  Though in ball sports the sweet spot is literal, a figurative sweet-spot is available in all professions. A writer may hit the sweet-spot if he finds just the right combination of words to express exactly what he has in mind. A software programmer may hit the sweet spot when he chances upon a simple, elegant yet an intuitive algorithm to solve a complex problem. This joy experienced with hitting the sweet spot gives the maximum amount of satisfaction and is extremely addictive.

The corruption of Joy

So when a person gets so much joy in hitting the sweet spot why does he shun it? Why doesn’t he go after the sweet spot again and again to experience the joy? As per Sethi, this is because all of us fall prey to society’s expectation; all of us run behind money and fame; all of us try to be successful. It is in the pursuit of success that we forget about the sweet spot. As Geet Sethi writes, "I have learned that when I wanted success and was willing to sacrifice joy for it, I eventually got neither".

Apart from the pursuit of success there are many other distractions which prevent a person from experiencing joy. These include problems with spouse/family members, temptations from surroundings and playing to the ‘gallery’, among others.

Further in the book Geet Sethi gives tips on how to overcome the problems that lead to the corruption of joy. He stresses on the importance of concentration and single-minded focus on the job at hand and in the process experience joy.
The book has a unique format in that it is divided into 80 chapters with each chapter not more than 2 pages long. I felt the book was a little disorganized as the ideas presented in the book sometimes ended abruptly in a chapter and made reappearances a few chapters later. However, my key takeaway from the book is that the meaning of life is in finding our own sweet spot. The path is not easy as there are numerous distractions which pull our mind in all directions, but if one has a single minded focus on the job at hand these distractions will go away and we will succeed in our objective of experiencing joy.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Blink - A Book Review

Angelos Delivorrias, an art expert, immediately recognizes a statue as a fake one which otherwise was confirmed as authentic after a thorough scientific investigation of fourteen months.

John Gottman, a psychologist, watches married couples (whom he has never met before) discuss a contentious topic from their marriage for about 15 minutes and predicts with a 90% certainty if the couple will still be married 15 years later.  

Nalini Ambady, another psychologist, goes through a 40 second taped conversion between a surgeon and his patients and predicts with surprising accuracy if the surgeon will be sued in future for negligence of duty!

Is there a common link between the above three narratives? If so, what is it?

Thin-slicing, according to Malcom Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point),  is what allows Angelos Delivorrias, John Gottman and Nalini Ambady to make accurate snap decisions when even a rational analysis of the problem using conventional methods doesn’t yield any result. Thin-slicing is the ability to find patterns based on only “thin slices” or a very narrow window of time.
According to Gladwell the subconscious mind has the unique ability to thin-slice by blocking out redundant data and extracting just the right amount of information from the surroundings to make a decision, which is what Angelos did while judging the fake statue. He was able to look at the statue and immediately feel something amiss, something not right.  He prevailed where fourteen months of scientific investigation failed.

Interestingly, when Angelos was asked why he called out the statue as fake he couldn’t give a definite answer. He said he felt an “intuitive repulsion” after looking at the statue; hardly a substitute for 14 months of rigorous scientific investigation, yet he was right. This is another point Gladwell makes in the book. Even though the subconscious mind thin-slices and provides an answer, we have no idea why.  It is very difficult to see what lies beyond the locked door in our mind where snap decisions are made. We may have a gut-feeling or an intuition about something, but we cannot pin-point exactly why we think so. That is probably why the subconscious mind cannot be relied upon completely to make snap decisions. In fact, there are lots of instances when our past prejudices affect our ability to thin-slice and lead us astray.  Gladwell goes on to give a lot of real life examples where thin-slicing has proved disastrous, including an instance where four police officers gunned down an innocent unarmed black man in a neighborhood notorious for its crime rate.

So even though thin-slicing is extremely handy when it comes to making snap decisions, things can go disastrously wrong. It is a double edged sword. How do we improve our ability to make snap judgments?  By practice, says Malcolm Gladwell.  We can train our subconscious mind to make snap decisions accurately by being in similar kind of situations and making similar kind of decisions day after day. We might not know what goes behind the locked door, but with practice we can make sure what comes out of it. Over the course of his life Angelos Delivorrias experienced countless ancient sculptures and learned to interpret his first impressions. John Gottman videotaped thousands of couples and studied each and every minute detail about their conversations to gain the ability to thin-slice a conversing couple sitting next to him in a restaurant and pass judgment about their future.  Nalini Ambady studied hundreds of hours of taped conversations between surgeons and their patients to identify the level of warmth, hostility, dominance and anxiousness present in their exchanges and determine which surgeons got sued and which ones didn’t.   

Blink is a very interesting book which explores the concept of thin-slicing, its advantages, its pitfalls and the ways to avoid them. A key takeaway from the book is that we should always be conscious of the subconscious mind at play whenever we make decisions. Once we are able to train and control the subconscious mind then we can take decisions in the blink of an eye; quite literally

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Happiness, US, et al

When you are living in the US a common topic, especially among the Indian community, is the elusive Green Card!
"Have you applied for the green card"?
"When did you apply ? I just got mine" ( followed by a 100 watt smile )
"You better apply for one as soon as you can. Anyway, even if you get your green card you can still go back to India" ( hahaha ......)

The other day I read an interesting article about immigrants going back to India , which got me thinking about the reasons why people like to stay back in US. Are there any valid reasons? Does settling in US enable a person to be more happy in the long run, or even in the short run for that matter ?  Why do people think that living in US will make them more happy? Is there any truth in that?  And, at a broader level, what are the things that really make us happy ?

Coming to the first question; why does a person want to settle down in US? A major reason is the high standard of living the country offers. You can own a car and a house in no time. The infrastructure is excellent. You can travel 30-40 Km in less than half an hour without any hassle, which may take hours in a city like Bangalore. The luxuries that the country offers is definitely much better than what it is back in India and is a major incentive for people to stay back.

The second reason is the quality of work and the career opportunities the country provides, at least in the context of the IT industry. You have a lot of opportunities to grow in your career and also choose the fields you would like to pursue. Though some amount of workplace politics is inevitable, meritocracy is still the king. If you are good, nothing can stop you from climbing up the ladder.
The third reason why people want to settle down in US is somewhat surprising - independence. Independence may mean different things to different people. One of my married friends who came to US about a year back was relieved to be here because in India most of his weekends and free time was spent on attending various functions organized by his relatives!  For unmarried guys independence might mean something different.

There might be many more reasons, but off the top of my head I could think of the above points.

Now, coming to the second and probably the more important question. Does settling in US enable a person to be more happy in the longer run, or even in short term ? A simple way of answering this question will be to compare if US citizens are happier than others. Though there are no credible instruments to measure happiness index of a country , there have not been any studies/surveys that I am aware of which says that US citizens are happier than others. In fact on the contrary, the Gross National Happiness index says that people in Bhutan are the happiest !

In my opinion, whether we stay in US, India or Bangladesh, it doesn't matter. The mere act of living in a specific country will not determine whether you are happy or unhappy. Happiness, for me , is determined by dynamic things, and not by static things.
By static I mean things that don't change a lot over the course of time, like a big house, an expensive car or good infrastructure. If you live in a big bungalow you might be happy for the first 10-15 days or so, but once that 'honeymoon period' is over your daily happiness is independent of the bungalow. The bungalow has absolutely no role to play in determining if on a given day you are happy or sad. The same applies for a car.
Static elements will give you happiness for a moment or two and then disappear. The happiness derived from them cannot be sustained, they wither away. 

Dynamic things, on the other hand, are those that are unpredictable. They constantly change and in my opinion happiness can be derived only from them. One example of a dynamic thing is the work we do for a living. If the work is interesting and constantly throws up challenges, then nothing can be a better source of happiness.
Similarly, personal relationships - like the relationship with your spouse, friends, children or parents - are also dynamic and are a great source of happiness.
The dynamic nature of work and relationships allow us to derive happiness from them.Probably that is the reason why we enjoy sports so much, as sports is an unscripted drama and is the epitome of unpredictability.

Coming back to the reasons why people like to settle down in US, I think most of the reasons are static in nature, be it the standard of living or the feeling of independence. We might feel happy initially, but the happiness is not sustainable and we eventually come back to a steady state.They are like spikes in a graph where the value is momentarily very high and comes back to a normal value the very next instant.

I am not saying that settling in US is not a good idea or that you are better off staying in India, but just that it ultimately doesn't matter where you live. Whether you are in US or in India, your happiness is determined by the little things you do on a daily basis, how you respond to challenges you face everyday, rather than the Ferrari parked in your garage.  A Green card or a US citizenship is not the panacea for all the ills afflicting you. In fact, I would compare getting a Green card with India winning the cricket world cup. You rejoice for a day or two and from the third day normalcy is restored !

To be really happy we have to go after the dynamic things . Their dynamic nature will ensure that periodically we will experience bouts of unhappiness, sadness and frustration, which is precisely the reason why we experience happiness when things go right.
Unlike the big bungalow, which never shrinks, never expands, keeps staring at you the same way day after day, as if it doesn't even exist.