A Good Definition

Definitions have been around for ages. They are more than words describing words. Proper definitions need to be in a certain way for conveying the essence of a term or concept accurately. The process of creating them requires a lot of planning and consideration.

A broad definition misses the essential part and a narrow one includes things that aren’t essential. Many definitions end up failing to solve their purpose due to circularity, obscurity and metaphors that unnecessarily complicate them.

A good definition is broad and narrow at the same time, it conveys what’s essential while being precise and sticking to the objective. It is genuine and doesn’t have any hidden stipulations.

Good definitions should not contain the word that is being defined itself. And lastly, defining something by stating what it’s “not” is an ineffective way of describing it. Sometimes this is unavoidable but definitions should generally be in a positive sense where they can be.

For example – Defining a ‘bird’ as “an animal that flies” is fallacious as birds like penguins and ostriches can’t fly. Defining them as “warm-blooded animal” would be too broad considering there other warm-blooded animal species like mammals, reptiles and lizards. And defining them as “feathered egg-laying animal” would be too narrow as there are male birds that get disregarded in this case.

Here, a good definition will contain all the essential characteristics in a complete, clear and honest manner. Merriam Webster defines ‘bird’ precisely as “Warm-blooded vertebrates distinguished by having the body more or less completely covered with feathers and the forelimbs modified as wings.”

Good definitions are valuable as  they help us to have better conversations, discussions and arguments. They let us have a common understanding of an issue even if we’re having clashing beliefs. Having proper definitions saves time as the audience gains the understanding of a term or concept in just one sentence that everyone agrees with.

Golden Mean – Sunday Clippings

Hello there,

This week I have published three new articles that you might want to check out: Showing Up Every Day on why it is important to practice something and show up every day in order to learn better. The difference between Mindless Repetition and Deliberate Practice is another post in the practice series I’m slowly working on.

And the bat, ball problem on problem-solving and recognising established rules and facts. Moving on to the newsletter now.

This week had been exhausting. I missed a few deadlines and couldn’t write one blog post a day like I wanted to. This inspired me to write this newsletter issue about Aristotle’s theory of the Golden Mean which is about finding balance in various aspects of life.

In his philosophical work Eudemian Ethics Aristotle constantly uses the phrase “… is the Middle state between …”, he is referring to the idea of moderation and a finding a desirable middle ground between the extremes.

In his notes on virtue he writes, “Virtue is a state apt to exercise deliberate choice, being in the relative mean, determined by reason, and as the man of practical wisdom would determine. It is a middle state between two faulty ones, in the way of excess on one side, and defect on the other: and it is so moreover because the faulty states on one side fall short of, and those on the other exceed, what is right, both in the case of the feelings and the actions; but Virtue finds, and when found adopts, the mean .”

This theory is seen everywhere in life, even in the modern world and is so simple yet significant to understand. He states that the middle ground is usually closer to one extreme than the other and that happens for it’s own good. An example being courage (response to fear), the two extremes are recklessness and cowardice. Here the “golden mean” could be being closer to recklessness than the deficient cowardice.

Similarly, I believe that finding the sweet spot and balance is important in most places like professional work, creative practices, communication and relationships. Locating the golden mean is not something that comes from studying the principles theoretically or reading books about it. We learn more about it with trial and error, practice and experience – just like other things in life.

Many people have summarised the means of moral virtues in tables like this and they are quite perfect. For instance, modesty is one of the virtues given here. It’s in the mean between shamelessness (deficiency) and shyness (excess). Most of Aristotle’s virtues are still relevant and I suppose they’ll always stay relevant as they’re spheres of feelings that are a part of human permanence.

“The people in modern society need to overcome their pride and arrogance and look in nature for guidance because we all depend on it. Staring into the sky and imagining ourselves in heaven will not accomplish anything; it is better instead to accept our role in the world and appreciate the beauty of life, and death, which gives meaning to it. We don’t need “new” and “progressive” ways of life when the ancient wisdom of the world’s greatest thinkers is in front of us, forgotten in the dusty shelves in some crumbling library. The balance, the golden mean of which Aristotle talked about must be recognized as beneficial and important, as it is in nature itself.” – American Nihilist Underground Society

I agree with everything they’ve said here. In the busy work-life, there needs to be a golden mean between the things you have to do and the ones you want to do. And it doesn’t need to be in the middle ground, it can shift towards the more significant duties from time to time. When nothing goes left, don’t go right – stay in the middle!

Have a great week,
Vedant


This Week’s Clippings

1 – Article – Daniel Kahneman’s interview on The Guardian was quite insightful. He’s a Nobel prize-winning psychologist and economist who shares his thoughts on AI, efficiency and emotional inclinations to human systems. Here’s a clipping I have saved for you:

In terms of the attitude to vaccination. People are willing to take far, far fewer risks when they face vaccination than when they face the disease. So this gap between the natural and the artificial is found everywhere. In part that is because when artificial intelligence makes a mistake, that mistake looks completely foolish to humans, or almost evil.”

2 – Podcast – I enjoyed the Modern Wisdom episode with . Jack is a designer, entrepreneur and the founder of , he simplifies complex valuable ideas as visuals that are more appealing and easier to understand. Since he recently had his first-born, they talk about how it impacts his creative processes, lifestyle, the role of algorithm and more.

3 – Podcast – I found this week’s Back in the Thunderdome discussion really informative. In this episode, they share their thoughts on anger, blind rage and the power of pluralism. I learnt that disagreements can be quite useful if they’re coming from the right, constructive place. In fact, having disagreements with your community is important as it makes you understand the values and standards of having them. The conversations you have with people who have the same understanding as you is one of the best ways to develop your ideas.

(This issue is a part of the “Sunday Clippings”. Every week I compile various useful insights, learnings and my highlights from interesting articles, books and podcasts in a short and concise email newsletter. I’d love for you to sign up here and receive the future issues directly to your inbox.)

The Bat, Ball Problem

It took me two or three times to completely understand the answer to the famous bat, ball problem. If you haven’t heard about it, here’s what it says: A baseball bat and a ball cost $1.10 together, and the bat costs $1.00 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

The second I read this, my brain prompted 10 cents because well of course 10 cents and one dollar together make up $1.10. But that’s wrong. The reason behind this is that if we subtract 10 cents from 1 dollar, it’s 90 cents and “the bat costs $1.00 more than the ball”.

The actual cost of the ball should be $0.05 so that the bat would be $1.05 ($0.05 + $1.00) and together the ball and bat make up $1.10 ($0.05 + $1.05). This is something we have learnt in school – solving pairs of linear equations – x + y = $1.10 and x – y = $1.00. Most people know how to solve these but fail at recognising them in the first place.

While discussing analytic thinking in an article, R. Douglas Fields writes, “Cognitive theory of decision making supports the hypothesis that there are two independent processes involved in decision making. The first process is based on gut instinct, and this process is shared by other animals. The second cognitive process is an evolutionarily recent development, exclusive to humans, which utilizes logical reasoning to make decisions.”

Learning subjects is about understanding the established rules and facts we have been taught over the years. We know how to use them but end up forgetting where to use them. It is very easy for our brain to be lazy, ignore the technical method and either give the wrong answer or rely on the phrase “I can’t do maths”.

Mindless Repetition and Deliberate Practice

While mindlessly practising something, I’m doing it again and again without proper concentration. It’s similar to being a factory worker who is carrying out the same action repeatedly and can do it blindfolded after some mindless sessions practice. This type of practice is seen in passive actions like tying shoelaces and folding clothes.

There’s a big problem with mindless repetition, it’s a waste of time and makes you dull. Thinking about the number of pages your read or the number of hours you spend on doing something makes you outcome-oriented. The short-term payoffs of careless repetition are far less valuable than those of doing it with full attention and mindfulness.

Here’s where deliberate practice kicks in. It’s the act of practising something repeatedly while being completely present in the situation. Sticking to something with engrossment is hard but that’s what makes it worth it.

Deliberate practice is often useful for people training in music. Musicians often find themselves practising the same chords again and again mindlessly and end up being frustrated when they can’t play them properly. Here’s an insightful extract from a research two professors, Andreas C. Lehmann and K. Anders Ericsson conducted to describe the implications of deliberate practice for music students:

“Deliberate practice in music typically refer to individuals’ solitary efforts to improve a particular aspect of their performance. However, the concept of deliberate practice includes any training activity for which goals have been defined and feedback is available. Each learning activity in turn promotes the acquisition of an associated skill; all these skills together lead to a structure which supports a particular performance.

To become creative improvisers, jazz musicians imitate models, listen to recordings, and try to understand the style of a given performer. Chess experts spend large amounts of time studying published chess games by masters, predicting the next move and then comparing their predicted move to what the master actually did. Discrepancies between a chosen chess move and the master’s move then are analyzed. Assuming that the master’s move was indeed the best choice, this activity combines goal setting and instant feedback.”

(Hat Tip to James Clear for sharing the theory)

Showing Up Every Day

Around this time last year, I had the thought of starting my blog. It has been one of the best decisions of my life. I’m highly inspired by Seth Godin’s idea of showing up every day. When you write and publish daily, you get forced to look around and find things to write about.

The world does not lack ideas, our brain ends up ignoring most of them. Daily Blogging makes you more observant and critical. Till now, I have written more than a hundred posts for this blog. Most of them aren’t that good but they got me one step ahead of my previous post and I learnt something new while writing them.

I don’t write this blog for statistics or the subscribers, I write it for myself and for people who are looking to follow my writing journey. I’m working on building a routine that enables me to come up with something new and publish it consistently, without missing a day. That’s the goal. :)

Without Society’s Soundtracks – Sunday Clippings

Hello there,

This week I published three new articles that you might want to check out: Moulding Habits and the Loop on forming new habits and eliminating the ones that form along the way. Same Eyes, Different Directions on why perspective matters and the importance of taking feedbacks.

And Old Normal and New Normal on the fluid meaning of the word “normal” in context to the pandemic. Moving on to the newsletter now.

This week’s newsletter is about the story of one of the most known and admired composers in classical music, Ludwig van Beethoven and about how he became so deaf to the point he couldn’t hear the notes of his instruments or the singer’s voice and how it later impacted his personal life and career as a musician.

As many of us might know, Beethoven was surprisingly stone deaf. It’s important to know that he wasn’t always deaf, it’s something that developed slowly. The cause is unknown but it is believed that his deafness was caused by syphilis, lead poisoning, typhus, or possibly even his habit of plunging his head into cold water to keep himself awake.

It started when he was just 26 with a buzzing and ringing sound in his ears that started irritating him. It steadily grew and became more and more noticeable even though he tried to keep it a secret. By 1812 when he was 44, Beethoven had gone completely deaf. His hearing ability had deteriorated so much that he couldn’t hear the sound of the instruments playing or the singers singing. Here’s an extract from a letter Beethoven wrote in 1801 to Dr Franz Gerhard Wegeler, one of his close friend.

“… For two years I have avoided almost all social gatherings because it is impossible for me to say to people “I am deaf”. If I belonged to any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession, it is a frightful state…”

He had to start using notebooks as a way to communicate with visitors who wrote down what they wanted to tell or ask him. And in the same way, Beethoven replied by writing his response in his notebook. These are now known as the “Conversation Books“.

Okay, so here’s the obvious question – if he was couldn’t hear at all then did he stop writing and composing music? – No. In fact, Beethoven created his greatest works including the Moonlight Sonata, his only opera Fidelio and six symphonies during this period.

The deafness worked as a gift for Beethoven musically because he couldn’t hear the “prevailing compositional fashions.” It was entirely him and his imaginations that led to his greatest pieces. Arthur Brooks, while discussing this in an article published in the Washington Post writes:

“It seems a mystery that Beethoven became more original and brilliant as a composer in inverse proportion to his ability to hear his own — and others’ — music. But maybe it isn’t so surprising. As his hearing deteriorated, he was less influenced by the prevailing compositional fashions, and more by the musical structures forming inside his own head. His early work is pleasantly reminiscent of his early instructor, the hugely popular Josef Haydn. Beethoven’s later work became so original that he was, and is, regarded as the father of music’s romantic period.”

He ended up wrecking pianos by banging on them so hard to hear the notes. Beethoven had to go through a lot of struggle, frustration and isolation to achieve greatness and influence. His deafness forced him to become very private and only allowing selective friends to meet him.

This seems to be a very important lesson. Sometimes eliminating what society has to say from your ears does wonder. Beethoven proved that the outcomes of creative processes are better without the worldly clutter, even though it might take a toll on an individual’s mental health.

Deafness granted Beethoven complete artistic freedom – not being influenced by what other musicians are producing, not considering people’s comments about his work, just creating sound without even listening.

Have a great week,
Vedant


This Week’s Clippings

1 – Podcast – I really enjoyed last week’s episode of the Tim Ferriss Show with Chip Wilson, a serial entrepreneur and philanthropist. They discussed intriguing things like goal setting, the winning formula, linguistic abstractions and Chip’s theory about turning 43. Here’s one of the paragraphs I highlighted:

“There’re many times when people can’t be in integrity. But to clean up the mess caused by lack of integrity is where more integrity occurs. So that’s the other thing. So the third thing that I think is most interesting to me is this thing about being responsible. I could sense that I was a complainer in life. You know, I complained, complained, complained, but you know, of course we all know that after two complaints, nobody would listen to me anymore. It took me a while to get that. But more interesting is that when I was responsible for whatever the situation was, then immediately I had the power to do something about it.”

2 – Podcast – This podcast episode about Unsticking Yourself and overcoming writer’s block was quite helpful. I ended up re-listening it three times, it’s short but gives a practical exercise for generating new ideas.

3 – Article – I enjoyed reading this Interview with Alex Honnold, a pioneer of “free solo” climbing. He answers many intriguing questions about risk-taking, problem solving, teamwork, efficiency and failure. In free solo climbing, there are no safety ropes and even a slight failure leads to death. Here’s a clipping from the interview:

“… when I’m free soloing, I’ve already prepared and want to stick to the plan. I don’t want to be improvising. That would bring more uncertainty and risk into the equation. So most of my creative processing comes on rest days when I’m lying around somewhere safe, just thinking about climbing. That’s when I’ll envision “enchainments”—combinations of climbs that people have never done before.”

(This issue is a part of the “Sunday Clippings”. Every week I compile various useful insights, learnings and my highlights from interesting articles and books in a short and skimmable email newsletter. I’d love for you to sign up here and receive the future issues directly to your inbox.)

Old Normal and New Normal

After more than a year of working, studying and socialising from home, the meaning of the word ‘normal’ has changed. Whether you hated it at first or weren’t really tech-savvy, you somehow managed to adapt to it.

Slowly but ultimately the pandemic will end and the meaning of ‘normal’ will change once more. The same individuals who were facing difficulties with the work from home arrangement earlier have now become comfortable with it and don’t want to shift back to offline life again.

There’s also a sense of anxiety associated with it. Meeting people daily again and having a social life isn’t something many people have experienced for a long time. The pandemic has given workers and students a sight of a more comfortable working environment.

But will life ever get back to our ‘old’ normal? – Nobody knows the answer but definitely, the world has changed forever. In the initial stages of post-pandemic life, we’ll be incorporating certain functional aspects of the online world with human interaction to make it work. Humans are highly adaptable beings and have survived several pandemics in the past.

There’s also a bright side to look at. Effective vaccines usually take a decade or more to be developed and circulated. But in this case, it took less than a year for scientists to make the vaccines. It also made people realise the existence of death, the value of being alive and the importance of living at the moment. The definition of normalcy isn’t fixed but the part of it that does remain constant is the human experience.

Same Eyes, Different Directions

Perspective matters. The way you look at something differs from the way I look at it. You may be able to see something that I can’t see, even if I stare at it for hours. We often assume people to have the same level of knowledge and interest as us in a given subject. However, everyone has their own realities and experiences. This isn’t something bad as it leads to unique conceptions that are valuable.

These days when I get stuck with something, I force myself to ask someone to review it and give their opinions on it. Insights from others are always helpful as they make us think things from a broader view and realise something new that we wouldn’t think of otherwise.

Taking other people’s perspective is also significant for building constructive relationships. People respect you more when you show eagerness to understand things from their point of view. Everyone has the same set of eyes, it’s the direction they’re looking at that makes a difference. Usually, there’s no right or wrong it’s only different.

Moulding Habits and the Loop

In ‘The Power of Habit’, Charles Duhigg lays down the principle of moulding habits in three simple components – Cue, Routine and Reward. Together these three stops form what he calls the Habit Loop.

Cue – the reminder that prompts us to start the habit.
Routine – the habit in its active stage, taking place.
Reward – essentially, the satisfaction we receive once we’ve completed the habit loop. It is the thought in the brain that tells us if the habit is worth remembering or not.

The first step to mould habits is to identify the cue, routine and reward by writing them down. If it’s a good habit that needs to be adopted in the routine, we can try experimenting with the reward. The rewards are powerful as they make us crave them more by sticking to the routine. On the other hand, if it’s a bad habit – the practical way is to isolate the cue. If there is no cue, the loop doesn’t start.

Let’s say that the habit is being addicted to Instagram. To get rid of this bad habit, I should be eliminating the cues that lead to the action. Here, for example I can disable the notifications or uninstall the app. If it’s something good – studying regularly. To adopt the habit, I can experiment with different rewards such as watching one hour of my favourite show on the days I follow my studying schedule.

Still, I feel that a tremendous amount of self-discipline is required to mould habits. There’s no way to ‘hack’ the loop, it’s all about knowing what’s good for you and having a plan accordingly.

Counting Blessings – Sunday Clippings

Hello there,

I recently read some articles written by Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California who is one of the most well-known experts on Gratitude. In this issue of the Sunday Clippings, I’ll be sharing a research and social experiment he conducted in 2003 with the help of Michael McCullough, the professor of psychology at the University of Miami and an author.

As a part of the experiment, 192 undergraduate students were given a packet of 10 weekly reports. These participants were then divided into three groups who were asked to reflect upon three major types of conditions respectively: Gratitude, Hassles, and Life Events. Now, here’s the interesting part –

  1. The participants of the Gratitude Conditions wrote things like – waking up this morning, the generosity of friends, to God for giving me determination, for wonderful parents, to the Lord for just another day, and to the Rolling Stones
  2. In the Hassles Condition, the students wrote things like – hard to find parking, the messy kitchen no one will clean, finances depleting quickly, having a horrible test, stupid people driving, and doing a favour for an ungrateful friend.
  3. The participants of the Life Events Conditions wrote things like – talked to a doctor about medical school, learned CPR, cleaned out my shoe closet, flew back to Sacramento, and other circumstances and events that affected them in the past week.

Overall, it was noticed that the participants in the gratitude condition were more satisfied with their lives as a whole, felt more optimistic about the upcoming week, and felt more connected with others than did participants in the control or events condition.

It takes equal effort to record the things you are grateful for as it takes for the things that you’re annoyed by. But it’s more about how the reflections impact you and your perception of life. It’s clear that gratitude manipulation increases the positive effect as well as helps in reducing the negative effect. It totally depends on what you’re focusing on – the blessings or the burdens. The two psychologists open their report with a Charles Dickens quote that conveys the message accurately – “Reflect on your present blessings, on which every man has many, not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”

Personally, I had never reflected on such stuff properly but this week I decided to give it a try. I wrote a log every day (morning and evening) using the 5 Minutes Journal app by Intelligent Change.

Just within a few days of writing these entries, I found myself making notes on little things that would usually go unnoticed. Doing a decent amount of reflection daily makes you think about time on earth with a broader perspective. You actively get forced to answer those prompts. I have noticed that maintaining a daily log helped me to stay mentally clear and have a more optimistic attitude.

Journaling is something worth giving a try, five minutes a day with a pen and paper is enough if you focus on the right stuff. Think about it this way – People celebrate Thanksgiving once a year but what if it was extended as a daily thing? A Year-Long Thanksgiving!

Have a great week,

Vedant


This Week’s Clippings

1 – Blog Post – One of Seth Godin’s daily blog post this week about Starting and Finishing really resonated with me. In his usual manner, the post is short but impactful. Here’s what he says:

“Sometimes the rule is: You don’t have to finish, but you do have to start. And sometimes the rule is: You don’t have to start, but if you do, you have to finish. When building a personal habit, it might make sense to embrace the first rule. You don’t have to run all the way, every day, but you do have to get out of the house and start running. And when making promises to a group where trust matters, the second rule definitely applies.”

2 – Books – Recently, I’ve bought two books that I’m planning to read in the next two weeks. Firstly, we have The Midnight Library by Matt Haig and then the second one is The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Both of them are Historical Fiction and seem really interesting. I was recommended the Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by my friend Anna who has a blog as well.

3 – Podcast – I really enjoyed this episode of The Knowledge Project Podcast with Jonathan Haidt. They talk about how parenting in modern society is becoming increasingly overprotective, the rise of the “call-out culture,” and the dangers of social media. I find the new age Gen-Z challenges quite intriguing, how none of these social media problems existed a decade back and how currently there are rarely any proper resources or awareness to deal with them. Here’s a thought-provoking highlight from the conversation:

“If you can imagine growing up, wherein your teen years you’re always self-censoring, you’re always careful, we think this is what’s happening. This is what many students tell us it’s like. They often just accept it as normal, because that’s all they’ve known. And this means we might have a generation that’s afraid to take risks, afraid to play with ideas. Afraid to challenge dominant ideas. It’s going to lead to a lot more conformity, a lot less creativity.”

4 – Tweet– This tweet by Jack Butcher resonated. While sharing anything, you refine it into the most simplest form for others to consume. Even of you’re just sharing your ideas with a friend or writing it somewhere. Documenting your thoughts is the first step to mental clarity. And that’s what this email newsletter is for me, to share my ideas with you.

(This issue is a part of the “Sunday Clippings”. Every week I compile various useful insights, learnings and my highlights from interesting articles and books in a short and skimmable email newsletter. I’d love for you to sign up here and receive the future issues directly to your inbox.)