Archive | May, 2013

Complex or just complicated?

31 May

Our thoughts can be either complex or complicated or both. One can speak in a really clear way or in a very complicated way. In either mode, one can be saying very simple things or very complex things. It is therefore important to distinguish between  these two adjectives. This blog post is on speaking about complex things in simple terms and how we often get it wrong.

If we know only a little about some topic, we speak about it in simple terms if at all, using our everyday language. This is because we do not know what we do not know, so we by default have to keep it simple. It is worth noting however, that simplicity does not always equal to brevity for some people can take a really long time to convey a simple thought they do not even know much about.

When we dig deeper into a topic and we learn more about it, we start understanding parts of it. But we also realize that there is so much more to learn about it – we know what we do not know. This is the most tricky phase. Because we are eager to use all our new knowledge, we are no longer able to speak in simple terms only. Additionally, by trying to acknowledge and compensate for the known unknowns, we start speaking in a really complicated way. Our message becomes a lot less comprehensible.

It is only when we become really familiar with the topic that we are able to speak about it with clarity again. We know what we do know. We are able to pick only aspects most relevant to our audience and convey a complex thought in simple terms. This is the ideal phase. I always enjoy coming up to somebody with deep knowledge of an unusual field and asking that person to tell me in couple sentences about what they do. If they really understand their stuff, they are usually able to do so.

It is important to be aware which phase we are in. If we are in the first one, we should be careful not to be making any big claims about our knowledge of the topic. We should acknowledge we do not know much about it, speak briefly about it, and ask questions or learn more about it. If we are in the second phase, imagine how lost the poor guy on the other side of the table must be. We are now in a position to synthesise and to ask better, more targeted questions about the topic so we should do that rather than start rambling for ages. Finally in the third phase, we can share with others our gift of understanding complex topics in beautiful simple terms. I think this makes much better impression than using complicated terms just to show off we know them.

And always remember what Albert Einstein said:

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

Shaping your fate

8 May

Randomness is one of the key concepts the nature rests on. The very fact you exist, the fact you are reading this blog post or the fact you (might) know me is random in essence. Some people call it fate however. I have been hearing this word a lot lately. It happened because it was meant to happen. Or, if it is meant to happen, it will happen. While I sometimes very much enjoy this romanticised perspective on the world as well, I have always been struggling to fully buy into it. Things do not just happen because they are meant to happen; there must be something more to it. This blog tries to uncover this topic using concepts of randomness, exposure and ability to spot and to capitalise on opportunities.

Imagine a hypothetical example of you meeting an old friend you have not seen for ages at a party you were not intending to attend and he ends up getting you a job in his friend’s company. You take it, you really like it, your new boss loves you and in fifteen years you assume his/her job. At that point, your grandmother might say something like ‘you were always meant to become the boss of this pharmaceutical company, it was your fate and I am so happy you are doing it now!’ Was it really? Let’s look at this example more closely.

Firstly we have to accept that lot of things in the world happen on a random basis. The fact that your friend you have not met for years was at that party was random as was the fact he knew a person who was looking to hire somebody like you at a time when you were job hunting. So try getting comfortable with the fact that life throws a lot of stuff in your direction and that it does so on a very random basis. This is the bit we cannot control.

Where fate originates

The other two elements – exposure and ability to spot and to capitalise on opportunities we however can control. Since things happen on a random basis, some bad and some good, the amount of good opportunities you came across becomes a game of numbers. The bigger exposure you have, the more opportunities come your way, a portion of them being good. By eventually coming to the party as opposed to staying at home, you increased your exposure.

Finally you can control also the third element which I call ability to spot and to capitalise on opportunities. Because even if you had a massive exposure and were therefore getting lot of opportunities but you were not able to distinguish good ones from the bad ones and to pro-actively pursue the good ones, you would still not get anywhere. Once your old friend mentioned to you he knows somebody who is hiring, you called him up the next day, took a number on that guy, got in touch with him and persuaded him to hire you.

This is what truly makes a difference and is at the root of why you are where you are. Calling your life fate is suffering from a retrospective illusion of predetermination even though what actually happened was just a combination of random events and (lack of) your conscious effort.

The main takeaway therefore is that while we cannot completely control what random opportunities come our way, we can actively control how much randomness we expose ourselves to and where we do so. Then it is up to us to recognize the good opportunities passing by and to grab them. This is where I believe fate originates.


Note: If you have a mathematical mind, you can imagine fate as a product of a function with a random element in it and two variables. You can control the result you get by increasing/decreasing those two variables.

Smile if you’re European

6 May

Just came across a great commentary in the FT – Smile if you’re European.

“Europe is having a terrible time – except compared with probably every other continent and any time in history…”

I wrote a blog post along similar lines over a year ago, when I spent some time in Europe right after getting back from my placements in Colombia and India. You can read it here: Ennui and effete European society