About two months ago, I biked to Ocean Beach in San Francisco to spend the evening. As I sat there and watched the water gently lap the shore, I had the urge to listen to a book on Audible. Wanting to seize the moment, I opened it to read Shantaram, a 42 hour (and 936-page) epic novel partly based on the author’s own story of escaping an Australian prison to end up in the underbelly of Mumbai. I managed to listen to 28 out of the 42 hours last year. But as I opened Audible, I realized the novel wasn’t in my library anymore. Instead, I noticed another one I had purchased too long ago to even remember: Why Are We Yelling by Buster Benson. He is the writer behind an article on cognitive biases that went viral in 2016.
Just as well. I rested my head on my shoulder bag, shielded my face from the sun with the bike helmet, closed my eyes, and pressed play.
Why Are We Yelling is a book on the art of “productive disagreement”, as Buster calls it. About 36 minutes into the first chapter, as it was reaching the climax, he mentioned a word that caught my attention: metaskill.
“The art of productive disagreement is what some call a metaskill, and I call a superpower. Because it is a skill that levels up all of your other skills. It’s up there with the ability to read or write or think critically. Metaskills are super important to invest in, because if you get marginally better at having more productive disagreements, say even 5 to 10% better, your life could get 50 to 100% better. That’s because every role you play in your life requires communication and the ability to work through disagreements that pop up. When you learn to disagree productively in different roles, the effects combine and are magnified, making you a better friend, a more competent coworker, a more loving spouse, a more active family member, and a more effective citizen of the world. It’s a superpower.” — Why Are We Yelling by Buster Benson
I paused the audiobook and asked myself, Now, what could be a few other superpowers? Since then, it took me two months and many iterations before convincing myself that something was and was not a superpower. This is an ever-evolving list and I welcome your input.
Superpower 1: The Art of Reading Right
According to the OECD and World Bank reports, “While only 12% of the people in the world could read and write in 1820, today the share has reversed: only 14% of the world population, in 2016, remained illiterate. Over the last 65 years, the global literacy rate increased by 4% every 5 years –- from 42% in 1960 to 86% in 2015.”
That is such joyous news.
But, how many of those people are reading right?
Passive Reading vs Active Reading
Have you ever read a page from a book and realized you remember almost nothing from it a few seconds later?
If you did, you were most definitely a passive reader.
Passive readers read every article and book the same way: not stopping to question the ideas presented, not caring to question whether they understood the premise, and not spending time reflecting on it afterward.
On the other side of the dichotomy, we have active readers who don’t just read as they read. They read, pause, think, synthesize, take notes, read, pause, read… as they read.
Figure: Active vs Passive Reading. Source: Excelsior
Don’t mistake this superpower to be only reserved for those who read books or papers.
Even if you’re not a bibliophile, you still read every day. You read emails, messages, articles, reports, and documents. I’m not preaching that you read everything with a pen in hand. Rather, just ask yourself,
Do I read every piece of information in the same manner?
What is something I read every day that requires more thought?
How can I change one small habit to read right?
Why Numbers Don’t Matter
In 2019, I kept a goal to read 25 books by the end of the year and ended up reading 22; still a decent number. However, now I see two major flaws in that goal.
First, it shouldn’t matter how many books I read. What if I read 50 books as a passive reader? I might still end up none the wiser.
The outcome doesn’t matter as much as the means you took to get there.
Second, I should not be coerced into finishing a book because I started it; because I want to hit some number. I realized that the harder I try to finish a book, the lesser I learn from it.
“I probably spend 10 times as much money on books as I actually get through. In other words, for every $200 worth of books I buy, I actually end up making it through 10%. I’ll read $20 worth of books, but it’s still absolutely worth it.” — Naval Ravikant
I don’t keep count of the books I read anymore. I read 5 books simultaneously, and keep shifting based on my mood. I read differently. I take notes every time I encounter a new idea. Once I’m done reading a book, I transfer the highlights and notes into my Roam workspace to further extract the various threads of insights and embed them into my existing workspace. It’s slower and requires more cognitive energy, but everything I read adds more fodder to my brain now. Isn’t that the end goal, after all?
Figure: One page from my Roam workspace with highlights of a book
Superpower 2: The Art of Storytelling
We grew up listening to stories.
I remember listening to the fables of great warriors told by my grandfather as we sat on the verandah every evening in Pattaravakkam, a secluded suburb in Southern India.
I remember true stories of struggles and heartbreak told by my mother that she heard on the radio every morning.
I remember enacting the stories of Julius Caesar and Mirabhai in my English classes.
We don’t realize just how much storytelling affects us, and there are three sides to it.
The Three Sides to Storytelling
The first side consists of the stories we hear.
When we watch Romeo and Juliet, we don’t simply see the actors on a screen enacting written dialogues. We see ourselves in them. We take the essence of their story and find ways to apply it to our own.
The Bishop’s Candlesticks taught me generosity. The Fountainhead taught me self-respect and integrity. The Prisoner of Birth taught me to always put things in perspective.
As you read the above, I’m sure you are experiencing stories you’ve read in the past flash in your mind. Pause for a moment to appreciate their importance.
Figure: Romeo and Juliet. Source: EDSITEment
The second side consists of the stories we tell others.
This starts in your formative years with your parents. I remember having to come up with a convincing story to explain how I broke my spectacles when I was 13 (True story: one of my best friends accidentally threw a key at my face that broke it).
Do you remember the stories you crafted?
As we grow up, we craft stories to get out of a class, to get into a university, to get our dream job, to close the deal with a client… it all requires some mastery over this skill.
The third side might seem a little unexpected.
The third side consists of the stories we tell ourselves.
Hear Estafani Smith, an author, and speaker who dwells on psychology and philosophy, talk about the four pillars that make a meaningful life:
“Belonging, purpose, transcendence [are the first three pillars]. Now, the fourth pillar of meaning, I’ve found, tends to surprise people. The fourth pillar is storytelling, the story you tell yourself about yourself. Creating a narrative from the events of your life brings clarity. It helps you understand how you became you. But we don’t always realize that we’re the authors of our stories and can change the way we’re telling them. Your life isn’t just a list of events. You can edit, interpret, and retell your story, even as you’re constrained by the facts.”
You get to tell your story to yourself and the world; no one else.
Storytelling of the third kind is so powerful that you can look at the same glass of half-filled water and think, There’s still half a glass left! or think Why is there only half a glass left? depending on your perspective on life.
The beauty of storytelling lies in the fact that we practice it every day. All of us. I’m most interested in the third kind of storytelling, in giving meaning to my actions and spinning up the positive side, the silver lining, of every situation. How about you?
Superpower 3: The Art of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a simple concept that is terribly hard to implement.
“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not be overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” — Mindful
You just need to be fully present in every moment.
Try being fully present just for the next one minute. Set a timer, close your eyes, focus on your breath, and start counting as you breathe in and out. When you hear the timer beep, open your eyes, and ask yourself: was I fully present in those 60 seconds?
Go on and try it.
“The first thing I learned by observing my breath was that, notwithstanding all the books I had read and all the classes I had attended at the university, I knew almost nothing about my mind, and I had very little control over it. […] For years I had lived under the impression that I was the master of my life, the CEO of my own personal brand. But a few hours of meditation were enough to show me that I had hardly any control over myself. […] It was an eye-opening experience.” — 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Harari.
It’s backed by science
It’s not a coincidence that some renowned experts around the world — Marc Benioff, Naval Ravikant, Arianna Huffington, Yuval Harari, Sam Harris to name a few — advocate for mindfulness and meditation. It is not a practice reserved for the spiritual or religious. It is backed by science.
Given the advancement in neuroscience and our understanding of the brain, the past decade saw an increase in trials run to test the effectiveness of meditation, especially with the use of fMRI, a machine that detects brain activity based on the changes in blood flow.
“The number of randomized controlled trials — the gold standard for clinical study — involving mindfulness has jumped from one in the period from 1995‒1997 to 11 from 2004‒2006, to a whopping 216 from 2013‒2015, according to a recent article summarizing scientific findings on the subject.” — The Harvard Gazette
Meditation is shown to help with stress, anxiety, depression, fibromyalgia, and decreased blood pressure.
Figure: The reduction in the activation of our amygdala, the fight or flight part of our brain, before (left) and after (right) eight weeks of meditation. Source: The Harvard Gazette
Aside from all those wonderful benefits, my (untested) hypothesis is that being mindful makes you less reactive.
My favorite episode from Black Mirror, a suspenseful series exploring the theme of “techno-paranoia”, is Hated in the Nation. It revolves around the theme of internet bullies who use the power at their hands without a filter of thought. You don’t need to go far to see this in action. Open any video on YouTube and you can witness a string of comments propelled by hate, intolerance, and plain stupidity.
We blurt out opinions with no thought, we use the cloak of anonymity for hate speech, and we constantly interrupt each other.
Something that I’ve learned over and over the past 24 years of my life is the following.
The only person’s action I can control is my own; that too if I’m very, very lucky.
The key to getting there is to learn to be mindful; to meditate.
One of my favorite inspirations in neurotech, Bryan Johnson, the founder and CEO of Kernel, wrote in an article that, “when humans can measure something, the first thing that always happens: an ecosystem of ideas and, eventually, industry springs up around it.”
Rightly so, we now have an entire ecosystem around health and wellness. Apps like Calm and Headspace dominate the industry with 60 million and 65 million downloads respectively.
With my limited experience in meditation, I realized that the only way to make it stick is to bind the task along with another, more sticky, one. This has changed over time for me: initially, I used to meditate after brushing my teeth at night, then it became an activity I did right before reading in the evenings, and now it is right after biking in the mornings (which I’ve lately been skipping…). I suspect I will go through a few more such iterations to truly make it stick.
We have all the tools we need to begin the journey.
Now it’s a matter of when.
Superpower 4: The Art of Productive Disagreement
Imagine you have a beautiful garden in your backyard. It’s filled with daisies, roses, daffodils, tomatoes, carrots, and peas. But, amongst all these visual treats you see a bushel of weeds beginning to show their heads. Your first reaction is to pull them out or cut off their heads.
Alas, they grow back.
What you don’t know is that they are a special type of weed that have long roots underground with a proclivity to proliferate every time you chop off their heads. So it becomes an everyday frustration for you as you walk out to look at your garden only to spot their heads continuing to grow.
Like certain types of weeds, arguments too tend to have long roots; and will keep coming back whether we like it or not.
So we can either fight them ferociously or welcome them as opportunities that help us build stronger relationships and expand our worldview.
The Voices in Our Head
In Why Are We Yelling?, Buster Benson breaks down the voices in our heads into four types: Power, Reason, Avoidance, and Possibility. These are the voices we listen to when an argument begins to take shape, either with someone else or within ourselves.
- The Voice of Power shuts arguments down in a dictatorial manner, not giving a chance to the other party to voice their thoughts, and even if they did, refusing to acknowledge it.
- The Voice of Reason looks for evidence supporting the opposing position: either factual or cultural. If what the other party suggests is not backed by data, social etiquettes, or a cultural norm, we tend to automatically label it unacceptable
- The Voice of Avoidance might seem like an attractive option, as you don’t take part in the argument at all, thus avoiding its consequences. However, like the weeds, they will keep resurfacing, sometimes more quickly than if you had taken the time to deal with it.
- The Voice of Possibility is the one we tend to listen to the least, sadly. This is the voice that gives the other person a fair chance to voice their thoughts and be heard. This voice views the argument as an opportunity to learn, as opposed to a creature to be silenced. The Habit 4 from Steven Covey’s best-seller 7 Habits of Highly Effective People hints at something similar: look for win-win situations.
There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who look at the world through the lens of abundance, and those who look at the world as a zero-sum game.
You decide which side you belong to.
A few days ago I had an argument with my dad about a conversation we had earlier. He said that I had promised during an earlier conversation to send a certain amount of money for an investment opportunity in India. I told him I didn’t and that he misunderstood what I said. We kept going back and forth for a few minutes focusing on what I had said instead of the real question: will I be able to send the money now?
Too often, arguments tend to derail so much that you often forget where the train was initially headed.
If you learn to find the source quickly, welcome the other person’s input, and perceive it as an opportunity to grow, the weeds might just turn out to be delicious ingredients for your salad.
Superpower 5: The Art of Building Connections
This was the missing piece to my puzzle that I didn’t know I was searching for but knew I needed to complete it.
A book that I’m currently reading, Where Good Ideas Come From, helped me find it.
“If there is a single maxim that runs through this book’s arguments, it is that we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them. […] When one looks at innovation in nature and in culture, environments that build walls around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run than more open-ended environments. Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete.” — Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson
Connection to Innovation
Imagine a white enclosed room with a few red balls on the ground.
Each ball here represents a body of knowledge that you have accumulated in a domain; physics, mathematics, neuroscience, economics; it can be anything.
Suddenly, the balls begin to gain momentum and start bouncing around.
On a rare occasion, two of them collide to give off a spark that is so powerful that it can set off a chain reaction.
That spark is called creativity.
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.” — Steve Jobs
Some of the basic yet seemingly irreplaceable inventions such as suitcases with wheels, toaster oven, and alarm clock were a result of people seeing connections and patterns that no one else saw. Even the printing press came into existence when Johannes Gutenberg combined the flexibility of a coin punch with the power of a wine press.
The Story of the Car Parts Incubator
The idea of the very first incubator came from an obstetrician who experienced a eureka moment while watching newborn chicks totter about in a warm incubator at the Paris Zoo in the late 1870s.
In less than a hundred years, this idea became the gold standard.
In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven writes, “Modern incubators, supplemented with high-oxygen therapy and their advances, became standard equipment in all American hospitals after the end of World War II, triggering a spectacular 75% decline in infant mortality rates between 1950 and 1998.”
Figure: Heat map of infant mortality across the world. Source: UN
However, while the developed nations enjoyed the fruits of the invention, the child mortality rate in developing nations was still alarmingly high; in some cases ten times higher than in the United States.
Contrary to popular belief, the issue wasn’t the lack of equipment.
“Over the years, thousands [of incubators] have been donated from rich nations, only to end up in “incubator graveyards” — most broken, some never opened. According to a 2007 study from Duke University, 96 percent of foreign-donated medical equipment fails within five years of donation mostly because of electrical problems, like voltage surges or brownouts or broken knobs, or because of training problems, like neglecting to send user manuals along with the devices.” — The New York Times
The solution to “incubator graveyards” came from a doctor in Boston by the name of Jonathan Rosen, who had another eureka moment when he realized that no matter how impoverished the cities were, they always had a Toyota 4Runner running in them.
So he, along with a team from the non-profit Design That Matters, built an incubator out of car parts for a fraction of the cost compared to modern incubators.
$1,000 vs $40,000.
“The incubator uses sealed-beam headlights as a heating element, a dashboard fan for convective heat circulation, signal lights and a door chime serve as alarms, and a motorcycle battery and car cigarette lighter provide backup power during incubator transport and power outages.” — Design That Matters
Figure: Someone operating the NeoNurture incubator made out of car parts. Source: Design That Matters
Sam Hinkie, the former GM of one of NBA’s teams, and someone I wish I had come across many years earlier, rightly said, “Whenever possible, I think cross-pollinating ideas from other contexts is far, far better than attempting to solve our problems in basketball as if no one has ever faced anything similar.”
Cross-pollination cannot be done in isolation, however. The precursor to it is reading books from various domains (and reading it right). Soon, you will begin to see patterns from between domains as far as biology and blockchain.
When you do, don’t let go of that passing cloud.
We often tend to ask those who are successful,
“How do you manage to do so much despite having the same time as the rest of us?”
I really believe the answer lies in how many metaskills they’ve managed to cultivate over the years.
Imagine how your life would be if you learned to read actively, tell others and yourself a compelling story, be present and savor every moment, have productive arguments that strengthen your relationships, and spot connections that no one else sees.
Focus on the fundamentals.
Cultivate your metaskills.