Home/ Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday/  The anatomy of failure

Last Wednesday, a lady invited me to talk to a group of executives from Proctor and Gamble at one of their annual retreats. I was told the company regularly invites guest speakers from outside their business to speak on a subject close to their hearts. It offered an opportunity to interact with executives from a business I like to follow, and so I agreed. I was hoping, after my presentation, that I would get some time to hear what their business is like and develop some meaningful relationships with these executives.

Some bouncing of ideas between the both of us later, I settled on a subject built on the back of Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman’s work around how the human brain works. His hypothesis is an interesting one. Many people believe the gut instinct is a strong one. I think it is rubbish though and had argued against it in an earlier instalment in this series. But I must confess that when I made that argument, I wasn’t familiar with Kahneman’s work on the theme.

The sum and substance of his argument, captured in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow is that, metaphorically speaking, there are two parts the brain uses to think—System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is that part of the brain that makes decisions on the fly. System 2 is that part of the brain which deliberates over long periods of time before arriving at any decision. Therefore, to arrive at any rational decision, you ought to be aware of these systems, how they work, listen to what both have to say and finally take an informed call.

The lady said I had 60 minutes to talk, which again sounded reasonable. I suspect I started out well. About 20-25 minutes into the talk, something bizarre happened. The MacBook Pro that I use every day at work took a life of its own. Windows started popping all across my screen. The PowerPoint slides I was using disappeared.

For the life of me, I had no clue what happened. I guess it took a painfully long 20 minutes to retrieve my machine. The clock was ticking. The audience of 60-odd people had lost interest in what I had to say. There were other speakers waiting their turn.

When my machine finally came back to life, I had run out of time, couldn’t complete the talk or the larger point I was trying to make. The overwhelming feedback was negative, and I beat a hasty retreat after which I texted a sheepish apology to the lady who had invited me.

On my way back, I sunk into the seat of my car, wondered about whatever caused me to freeze when I knew the subject so well, and could very well have continued extempore without the slides to back me up. Be that as it may, I thought it a good idea to put the episode behind me and investigate later whatever happened to both my machine and me.

I woke up the next day and the first thing on my agenda was to figure why my machine copped out. Some tinkering around later, I managed to nail down what really happened.

All thanks to some time spent at a technology magazine in my earlier days, I know a thing or two about looking under the hood of a computer. I spotted a few cookies I didn’t recognize residing on Chrome, my browser of choice. They looked suspicious. And how in the devil’s name did it get there? I am paranoid about security. Some more tinkering later, I finally managed to get a post-mortem done.

A little while ago, I had gotten hooked on to online deal hunting. The way it works is simple. You spot something you like and think you may get a better price for it online. Oftentimes you do. To make things sweeter, there are sites that offer discount coupons for whatever it is you intend to buy. And these discounting sites are dime a dozen.

Punch in the name of a product you are looking for, Google a discount code for it, and almost always you end up at some site that offers a promo code that can applied when you check out to avail an attractive offer. For the life of me, I hadn’t figured out how it works. But how did I care so long as I got a good deal?

But now that I was staring at the cookies on my browser, it all started falling into place. For all my paranoia about security, greed had taken over. Not just that, it finally put into perspective how discounting sites work. When the human brain sees a discount on offer, as Kahneman would put it, System 1 takes over because it sees an immediate benefit. The consequences can be disastrous in the long run for a few reasons.

• It triggers impulse purchases

• You end up buying more than what you need

• You make unnecessary upgrades

• You may choose generic brands that you would otherwise not because they look cheaper, and hence more attractive

• You shop longer

• And, worst of all, you put your privacy at stake

While these are the overarching principles around which discounting merchandisers work, there are devious ones as well out there who create cookies that embed themselves in your machine surreptitiously. The coders that create them have it designed such that every move of yours in the online world is tracked. Inevitably, even the most careful ones make a mistake.

I now know with a degree of certainty that I made the mistake in shopping for a piece of software. The promo code at a site I visited offered $20 off its regular sticker price. Not a bad deal at all, I told myself, and promptly clicked on it. When I did though, I was redirected to a Chinese payment gateway. I closed the window promptly.

In hindsight though, the damage was done. Perhaps that is where the malware originated and eventually caused me to lose face. But by then I had purchased two copies of the software, one of which I gifted to a friend.

That part of the mystery solved, I turned my attention to myself.

Why did I freeze in front of an audience?

I have been in front of large audiences before. I knew exactly what I wanted to talk about. The most logical thing I ought to have done is simply turn away from the machine and gone on to speak. But I couldn’t. In spite of knowing that I should have deployed the System 2 part of my brain, the one that would have demanded I pause, let the dopamine rush that accompanies System 1 thinking pass—it inevitably does in a few minutes—gather my thoughts and carry on.

But in his book, Kahneman argues that most people don’t. By way of an example, he draws attention to what happens during the course of his frequent walks to find solace in, and think through, problems.

“As I speed up, my attention is drawn with increasing frequency to the experience of walking and to the deliberate maintenance of the faster pace. My ability to bring a train of thought to a conclusion is impaired accordingly... In addition to the physical effort of moving my body rapidly down the path, a mental effort of self-control is needed to resist the urge to slow down. Self-control and deliberate thought apparently draw on the same limited budget of effort."

When I extrapolated this analogy to what happened with me, I could see the timer ticking away, the organizers getting frazzled and the audience getting restless. My mind went into a funk and System 2, because it hadn’t been trained enough, declined to pause and go slow.

For most people, me included, this systemic shift requires too much effort, we don’t have it in us to go the extra cerebral mile. It is this ability to switch from System 1 thinking to System 2 thinking that separates the mediocre from the good and great.

I kept reading about this.

Two things stayed with me.

The first, a quote by Marcel Proust that “all our final decisions are made in a state of mind that is not going to last". To that extent, I am glad I put the episode behind me the moment I got into my car and slept it out until morning when I had it in me to introspect.

If I hadn’t, this post-mortem wouldn’t have been possible. More pertinently, if I had deployed that thought into my addiction for online coupons, perhaps my machine wouldn’t have imploded when I needed it most.

The second was a strategy deployed by Ignatius of Loyola. When faced with two choices, take a decision and maintain a diary for three days on all of the feelings you experience. Then take the next choice and repeat the exercise. Again, when I think about it, I perhaps wouldn’t have fallen prey to an addiction for discounts without thinking about the possible consequences.

About the only thing I have to say by way of conclusion is: Serves me right.

Charles Assisi is co-founder and director of Founding Fuel Publishing.

His Twitter handle is @c_assisi

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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Updated: 30 Jan 2016, 11:28 PM IST
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