Home / Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday /  The Tao of thinking

When I sent this dispatch to my editors last week, I was on the road meeting up with some fine minds from various parts of the country. The outcome of one such meeting suggested most people can be put into buckets that include two types of idiots and three kinds of pigs. I’d signed out then saying it was among the finest masterclasses I had ever gotten on management.

I got a breather and was home earlier this week. It gave me some time to introspect and ask whether this is a Machiavellian and perverse perspective. Much thought later, I am at a point where I think not.

Instead, it appears to be a set of insights that would occur only to someone who has taken a lot of time out to examining the self. That is why people—like the person I had the privilege of conversing, among many others—have gotten to the positions they have. This compelled me to ask if there are a few strands that are common to such people. Prima facie, there seems to be some and it sounds compelling.

Strand #1: The end game is clear

Each of them has spent much time thinking what their lives should look like in the future. Conversations with them suggest doing that isn’t easy. It means to take out time, deliberately, to imagine a world that is possible in the future.

To do that, they go through some incredibly tough tasks in the mind. Give up on the idea that fate does not determine the future. Understand that multiple futures are possible. And finally they ask themselves: “Of all of the possible futures that exist, what future do I choose?" This is a complex question to address. The world is a large place, there is much to do, and the mind can imagine infinite possibilities. But there is only so much we can accomplish in our finite lives.

But this finiteness is something they have come to terms with. They deal with it brutally by merging the philosophical questions that emerge on their larger purpose. They do so by donning the multiple hats—like that of an engineer, a management consultant, a surgeon, a philosopher, a student—all at once.

What does this translate into? Creatures that have an enormous ability to be brutal with the self and compartmentalize ruthlessly. That is why they can ask questions like these:

■ Sure, that looks like an interesting issue. But what problem will it solve?

■ What larger impact will it have on the world and me if that problem is solved?

■ Do I have the muscle in me to solve the problem?

■ If I don’t, can I acquire the skill?

■ How long will it take me to hone the skill to a degree of perfection?

■ Is it worth expending the time to acquire or am I better off aligning with somebody who already possesses it?

And so on, and so forth. The outcome of asking such questions is that they latch on to big, hairy, audacious goals and the end game is clear to them. It also leaves them with a confidence in the self that is absolute. Above all else, they build an ecosystem of allies to surround them when battles must be fought and their internal resources feel depleted.

Strand #2: Theory of Constraints

Because they have dwelt upon these questions, they recognize their own mortality as well. That compels them to impose the constraints on how they work. This is a theme I have dwelt upon earlier in this series. At the risk of sounding repetitive, I quote a passage from it that I stumbled across in a doctoral thesis that originates from the University of Michigan:

“….it has also been suggested that the availability or abundance of material resources might negatively impact creativity. For example, while resources are needed to perform one’s job, not having everything that is needed readily at hand may stretch employees to think of different ways of doing their work. In other words, a lack of resources may actually help foster creativity. Taking this a step further, Csikszentmihalyi (1997) suggests that resources can make people too comfortable, having a ‘deadening’ effect on creativity."

These people fully understand the importance of what this means. When you set out to solve a wicked problem, among the first things you do is get out of your comfort zones. Because the problem you may set out to solve may not exist just from your own context, but contexts as viewed from multiple perspectives. It is pertinent, then, that the problem be looked at from all of those eyes. And how do they do that?

The most obvious answer is to impose constraints on the environment they are used to operating in and mimic that of a stakeholder who may be involved in it. This compels their minds to look at the problem from a reality very different from the one they were weaned on.

Strand #3: The time value of money

A natural corollary to the Theory of Constraints is the Time Value of Money (TVM). Those deeply embedded in finance and accounting would account for it on their books by applying the Discounted Cash Flow method. Be that as it may, like I articulated earlier, there are multiple sets of lenses to look at it.

One that got my attention was a radical assertion by a contemporary Canadian philosopher Joseph Heath in his book Economics Without Illusions: Debunking the Myths of Modern Capitalism that the “poor are sometimes poor because of their own life choices".

This begs the question: Who comprises the poor?

From a strictly economic and policymaking perspective, the poor comprise individuals deprived of the bare necessities. But what if it were to be looked at through the TVM lens? Assume for a moment all economic criteria that define poor are surpassed. Why, for instance, do many of us in India look back at our growing up years, when our folks were “poorer" for resources, with fond nostalgia? “We were poor, but we were happy", is a refrain I constantly hear at school reunions. And, must admit, I’m part of the choir.

So why aren’t you happy now that you have more resources? Everybody seems to have the same answer: A paucity of time.

“Where did it go? How did it pass by so fast?"

“When did my children grow up so much?"

“Why is my spouse so distant from me?"

“I can afford fancy vacations. But I’m on call all the time and unable to relax."

“Why am I glued to the news all the time?"

May I assert then an individual with no time to spare, but with material resources to spare, is as poor as any individual deprived of the necessities? But it does raise a few fundamental questions.

Where does the balance lie? How does any individual apportion their resources, time and talent in just the right way that they may get closer to their imagined end state or ideal future? Is it possible to engineer these moments? What will it then take to craft a life to stay content in the moment and insure the future?

These, again, are questions these people seem to have asked of themselves and addressed adequately. That is why it appears they can enjoy both the moment they are in even as they stay engaged in crafting the future.

Strand #4: They stay unruffled

What struck me about them is their clarity in thinking, precision with which they go about doing things, remaining open minded to engage, how ready they are to let go of any notion, and why they hold no malice. How do they do it?

Some prodding on how they think and introspection on their answers later, some pointers emerged. They follow a process that I’ve tried to outline above—they break each problem down into units without losing sight of the end goal, set constraints for themselves, look at the world from multiple perspectives, and place a time value to their money.

To do all of this, they deploy mental models of three kinds that allow them to stay unruffled:

Model #1: Occam’s Razor

When it comes to any problem, their stock response on how to solve it is to “keep it simple". With the benefit of hindsight, I now know that what they are deploying is the age-old Occam’s Razor. It can be roughly interpreted as this: When faced with a complex issue and competing hypotheses are vying for attention, go for the one that has the fewest number of assumptions built into it.

Model #2: Principle of Falsifiability

However, Occam’s Razor comes with a caveat and traces its origins to Karl Popper’s school of thinking. No scientific theory can ever be proven. It can only be “confirmed" that a hypothesis “may be true".

Therefore, assume for a moment you are at work to solve a problem and have chosen to go with a hypothesis using Occam’s Razor. But if the outcomes this hypothesis is throwing up are bad, it is pertinent and prudent it be discarded and the next most plausible one that satisfies Occam’s Razor be chosen.

However, under no circumstance can any hypothesis be accepted as empirically true. If contrary evidence and facts emerge, it is morally incumbent you weigh in on the significance of that evidence and be prepared to discard your hypothesis. It also stands to reason that any proposition, which argues in absolute terms, cannot be proven wrong and takes a dogmatic position can originate only from idiots. This is the sum and substance of the Principle of Falsifiability.

Model #3: Hanlon’s Razor

To my mind, Hanlon’s Razor is the toughest one to deploy in a noisy world intent on trolling, insisting you take a stand. But if you take a stand, you violate the models articulated above. That is where this tool seems to be the most apt one to deploy.

It can be summed up in a single-line and puts into perspective how the current discourse across the world ought to be viewed: Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

I suspect that is why all of them can maintain a relaxed demeanour as well and laugh as easily as they do.

Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel Publishing.

His Twitter handle is @c_assisi

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