Four For Friday (30)

This series took two weeks off due to urgent travels, but we are back now. This week’s readings discuss Purpose and Meaning.

Fast Company interviewed several entrepreneurs who believe they have created businesses that mean something to their customers.

These are not just stories about underserved consumers; these are stories about people who could not get on with their jobs or their family lives because brands were not thinking about their needs. “These are stories shared by millions of people,” Walker says. “We take a very consumer-centric approach to our innovation. It’s not about building it and seeing if they come; it’s talking to them and knowing that they will come.”

LinkedIn’s founder Reid Hoffman writes about the power of purpose at work. Purpose not perks.

According to Imperative’s research, purpose-oriented employees are:

* 54 percent more likely to stay at a company for 5-plus years
* 30 percent more likely to be high performers
* 69 percent more likely to be Promoters on Bain & Company’s eNPS scale, which measures employee engagement and loyalty

So how to find one’s own true purpose? Help is at hand from several corners, as curated by Maria Popova. Here, Paul Graham on the false metric of “prestige”:

What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world.


Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.


Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.

A lot of times, pursuing and even re-focusing on one’s own purpose means saying No. No is a full sentence. Here is an interesting, rambling piece by Tim Ferriss who is taking a break from investing in and advising startups, and may do the same for conferences, interviews etc.

To become “successful,” you have to say “yes” to a lot of experiments.  To learn what you’re best at, or what you’re most passionate about, you have to throw a lot against the wall.

Once your life shifts from pitching outbound to defending against inbound, however, you have to ruthlessly say “no” as your default. Instead of throwing spears, you’re holding the shield.

On that business of saying “yes” to a lot of experiments, here is a bonus link — for one year, Shonda Rhimes said “yes” to everything. Here is how it started.

“My oldest sister said to me, ‘You never say yes to anything.’ And by that she meant I never accept any invitations,” Rhimes says. “I never go anywhere. I never do anything. All I did was go to work and come home. And she was right. My life had gotten really small. Once I sort of realized that she was right, I was going to say yes to all the things that scared me, that made me nervous, that freaked me out, that made me think I’m going to look foolish doing it. Anything that took me out of my comfort zone I was going to do it, if asked to do it.”




Art or Science?

Is management an art or a science? This is the direction in which the conversation in the comments section of an earlier post on Recession-proofing Your Career veered. The answer, just as with other questions in life, is not clear cut, nor all-pleasing at all times.

But to me, the question should be different. Are art and science really so different, so different as to be used as antonyms of some sort? I do not think so. The Wellcome Trust, the UK’s largest medical research charity, also seems to consider art inspired by science a cause worthy of some £5.5M since 2002.

The beauty of science and mathematics, in my mind, is better than, if not at least akin to the best of art. As some of you may know from my past writings, I am no philistine, a term which is a shame to use as a derogation, when the early history of Philistines shows them to be quite a cultured people. But I digress.

My attention was recently drawn, by a friend and fellow PhD student on a train ride from Cambridge to London, to a beautiful example of art converging with science and the merged entity being thrown in the midst of the community’s quotidian life.

Alongside the train track runs a cycle track and footpath. And on that footpath have been laid some 10,000 colour stripes. These stripes represent the genetic code for a vital human gene: the BRCA2, which was sequenced at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge. BRCA2 (pronounced “Bracker Two”) is, as some of you may know, is a human gene, alterations or mutations in which may be involved in some cases of breast and ovarian cancer.

Here is a picture of the said pattern of BRCA2 made of coloured stripes, that I took from the moving train.


(c) Picture taken by me, on Nokia N95, February 2008: The BRCA2 gene map on the cycle path from Shelford to Addenbrooke’s, Cambridge

Art or science? What do you think?

Me? I think there is no separation between the two. Science is the art of explanation; art is the science of making more than the literal sense of the explanation in a broader, richer, more complex context.

Other genetics-related readings on this blog:

The genetic research gold rush


Look, we have made the Leap!

Happy New (Leap) Year, Readers and Blog-friends! May your quotidian life be as you desire it to be. What are your plans for that extra day we have this year?

And Happy Birthday to the modern world’s most influential 25-year old – TCP/ IP.

A full switchover to this open-architecture protocol, which enables the internet as we know it, was completed on January 1, 1983. All that we take for granted now – surfing, searching, blogging, e-commerce on the internet, of course – would not have come to pass without this important landmark. The world owes a lot to engineers! Of course, I would say it, would I not?

Lost in translation?

Long post alert!

As information overload grows, it seems the world is getting lost in translation. This confusion and lack of clear communication goes beyond linguistic and grammatical faux pas. The problem is more serious and manifests in many ways. However the smallest hope of comprehension finds itself inextricably lodged in the cracks, some feel chasms, between disciplines and specialisations.

Examples abound around us. What does it mean to a non-numerate person when the weather forecaster says there is 1-in-15 chance of a shower today? Should he leave his umbrella at home or take it anyway? What does it mean when a business reporter says that the sub-prime crisis was precipitated by the excessive lending by banks to ninjas? (No, not the mutant turtles or Japanese specialist warriors, but people who have No Incomes, No Jobs!).

There is buzz in the blogosphere, predictably.

Paul Sunstone at Café Philos calls this frustration in communication the irony of our times. He argues that specialization is fragmenting each of our societies into expert little niches that often do not understand one another.

It is possible that the information overload almost requires to lead more stylized lives, thus listening to sound bytes rather than critical analysis.

Harini Calamur brings up the annoying presumption of newspaper editors that abstruse, specialist terms are comprehensible to the wider readership. She wonders if India’s leading business broadsheet, the Economic Times, has slashed its research budget. The counter, she suggests, is that readers should all send the editors at ET links to Google so that the need for clarification gets through.

Nita goes further deeper and discusses prejudices held against humanities graduates; the ensuing discussion on her post delves into why early specialisation in secondary school could be contributing to narrower and narrower education, as well as less and less cross-disciplinary understanding.

On a hopeful note, Paul Kedrosky mentions noticing an upward trend in business channels on television in the US asking their specialists to explain their business jargon. His only gripe is that the guests should be warned in advance, so that they do not look shell-shocked.

I see many issues brewing here.

The first is naturally if it is good to rely on experts. Apparently not always. In simpler words, never ask a barber if you need a haircut.

But there are others too. Why are we concerned about understanding specialists? Is this a real problem? What is the best way to fix it – instant or slow-burn systemic? Whose responsibility is it then – the one who is explaining or the one who wishes to understand – to fill the gaps? Is there an ideal type of person for disentangling specialist mysteries for ordinary people?

There is only so much I can explore in a blog post but I hope the ‘comments’ section will bring more insights.

I must start with a clarification. My education is multidisciplinary spanning both sciences and humanities, with a great degree of self-learning thrown in for good measure. So I have been a lot at the ‘asking’ end, and as a debt to the universe, now increasingly at the ‘explaining’ end of things.

Is there a problem, or is there a need for specialists to be understood by others?

Paul Sunstone argues that there is such a need, as people of one specialisation are increasingly using products made by other specialists.

I wonder if this really is any different from how the world has always been? In old days, a butcher sold meat, a cobbler made shoes and bought meat from the butcher, who bought his shoes from the cobbler. None needed to know how the other did his work. But I could also demolish my own argument by saying that the products we use now are more complex and require us to be more savvy. But surely the answer lies in design specialists aiming to make products more intuitive, not in users becoming more adept at what we politely called the instruction to RTFM* in the IT industry.

So is this a real problem?

May be. We do not know. It is entirely possible that the information overload is making people more curious in general. It is probably more likely that the overload requiring us to lead more stylised lives**, which we wish to simplify by seeking answers in sound-bytes so we can appear more knowledgeable than we really are.

My money is on the latter. In my experience, many a time, people ask questions without realising that the answer is neither simple nor laconic. These questions usually begin with ‘how’ or ‘why’. The answer is rarely 2 lines. Then as the truth emerges, I can see them yawning, physically leaning away and realising that they really did not care that much, after all.

If you doubt any of this, try explaining – honestly, briefly – the sub-prime crisis to someone and what it means for them, without using jargon. Let me know how you get on.

Whose responsibility is it then – the one who is explaining or the one who wishes to understand – to fill the gaps? Is there an ideal type of person for disentangling specialist mysteries for ordinary people?

In other words, does the solution lie in, for instance, cornering specialists mid-interview? Paul Kedrosky’s post suggests this is becoming increasingly popular. I am not sure this is appropriate. Financial shows are hardly being watched by totally illiterate people who cannot comprehend the issues being discussed.

Or does the solution lie in running to Google like Harini suggests? That, by the way, would be the self-help option that I prefer. If I wish to understand something, I owe it to myself to find out more. But then again, some others I know have different views.

Both these possible options however put the responsibility on either the specialist or the ordinary consumer of information.

Assuming however that lack of understanding is a genuine issue, neither of these is a systemic answer, nor is either of them a sustainable or scalable solution to the problem.

Ben Casnocha, who is at University at the moment, recently wrote about the value of people who can bridge the gap between disciplines. I do not know what he is studying but it will sure be interesting to know how his views on this issue and his life choices evolve. A similar argument is made by Jonathan Guthrie in the FT, who suggests there is a need for intermediaries, who can translate between disciplines. Not unlike an interpreter at a UN conference perhaps?

In my view, the systemic solution lies in encouraging multi- and cross- disciplinary training. Not for all, but definitely for some, who are so inclined.

Am I contradicting myself on that it is “apparently not always” good to rely on experts? Not really. It is a nuanced difference, not a contradiction.

I am not in favour of narrow expertise, the kind that does not interact with other disciplines, the kind that does not face innocent curiosity nor thorough scrutiny of the methods of other disciplines. There are arguments to be made in medical specialisations such as should a neurosurgeon care about cosmetic surgery? I cannot comment on it – I do not know enough and I do not know any surgeons who can talk about both specialisations.

However I am in favour of those who wish to become experts across the boundaries of narrow disciplines. For instance, those who can translate laboratory science into commercial opportunities. Or those, who can apply principles of evolutionary psychology to explaining market transactions and fundamentals of economics. It is just that much richer an understanding of things and that much closer to real problem-solving than narrow disciplinary training prepares us for.

I believe such multidisciplinary adventurers and interpreters should be encouraged, celebrated, supported and listened to.

This sounds easier than it is in practice. At least in the UK, cross- and multi- disciplinary endeavours find little or no research or education funding. In other words, there are few systemic incentives for such intermediaries and interpreters. So those, who are keen, like me, put our money where our mouths are. Which further means that those of us, who become successful interpreters of this kind, then exploit the market to address the information asymmetries. Why not? After all, we did put our money where our mouths were, did we not? And we rightly expect and exact appropriate returns.

The harder way of course is to learn in the school of life. It just takes that wee bit longer and real life mistakes, although a great teacher, often cost a lot more money.

If you have experienced, or benefited from, any such cross-disciplinary translation and interpretation, do share your experience. I am sure this discussion is ripe for developing.

What can we possibly lose? Nothing.

What can we possibly gain? A better understanding! Isn’t that what we are after, after all?


* Stands for: Read The Fucking Manual!

** I have linked to the cartoon but not stuck it here because I cannot find direct attribution on LL website.


Yes, I know that post title should have been followed by ‘sic‘ in brackets. I can spell fine but before ‘pharming‘ was cruelly hijacked by ‘phishers’, it used to imply a combination of the agricultural methods with advanced biotechnology. This involves insertion, into plants and animals, of genetic material that would code for useful drug products, which can then either be purified or just consumed directly.

A well-known example of such GE* food products is of course Golden Rice. Golden Rice is created to deliver Vitamin A, the deficiency of which causes night blindness, common in developing countries. Its health benefits notwithstanding, Golden Rice has attracted a lot of criticism from anti-globalisation and environmental activists. If the science were to be considered, separate from the argument surrounding private profits and patent ownerships, or political will, it is a good illustration of what can be achieved with technology.

The promise of the technology made way for European funding to explore the development of vaccines and drugs for HIV, rabies and tuberculosis.

Today it is reported that Sembiosys, a Canadian firm, has developed a safflower variety, with human genetic material added, that can deliver insulin. Unlike bacterially-produced insulin, these plants needn’t be kept in sealed areas but can be grown in open spaces. Trial planting has been done in Chile, the US and Canada.

Although the number of Type-I or insulin-dependent diabetics is smaller (5-15% of all diabetics) than those with Type-II or non-insulin-dependent diabetes, the market is still considerable. The incidence of Type-I was commonly associated with age but in recent years, a huge growth has been seen in children. Much as this is no cause for joy as a society, it still means that demand for insulin will grow.

The regulatory loop of bio-equivalence to human insulin of course yet needs to be cleared, if the firm is to have hopes of large scale commercialisation, and large scale profits.

As block-buster drugs become more elusive, new methods of production and delivery of drugs will gain importance. Since food is essential, what can be better to deliver essential drugs and ensure enhanced compliance?

* GE (genetically engineered) is technically the correct term for what we commonly call GM (genetically modified) in food context.