Living in a Blue Zone

Not too long ago Kiran visited Pune from Bangalore. He spent his day in Pune and ended it in Koregaon Park. Instead of taking a cab to the airport he decided to walk. The 1+ hour-long route for sure took him through pedestrian-friendly & unfriendly spots, but that didn’t matter at all to him. He made it and tweeted out his accomplishment to his many followers.

The prevalent assessment of living in a city like Pune or Bangalore are that they are pedestrian and cyclist-unfriendly. Some of the replies to Kiran’s tweets echo this sentiment. Sure, these cities are far from the idea of Blue Zones that encourage denizens to walk, cycle to work and getting around differently. Picture your self coasting on LA’s Venice Beach, or in Amsterdam with dedicated cyclist lanes, safely segregated from the surrounding traffic. We’re a long way from that.

In Pune’s commuting history there have been attempts to improve the cycling infrastructure and ridership. At one point segregated cycling lanes were built. Some still exist today with intact road skirts but neglected riding surfaces. Last year several bike-leasing startups such as Yulu have deployed several thousand bicycles across the city. Students continue to prefer to cycle to school. What I think deters ridership are the increasing distances, the growing population of 4-wheelers and large vehicles. Pune’s hot summers and monsoons push commuters to give up on two-wheels and take cars to work thus increasing traffic snarls and parking unavailability.

Having cycled to work and for errands over the last 3 weeks, I humbly submit that it’s fun to get around Pune on a bicycle and a tad tricky. The dangers include aggressive drivers that’ll cut across your riding lane, gravel on the street, inclined crossovers that your tires won’t grip, two-wheelers taking shallow rights, four-wheeler occupants who’ll flip doors open at you, bus drivers, impatient auto-wallahs and so on. Once I can get over the psychological hump of riding with them, learn to navigate them, I’ll be more open to the pure satisfaction emerging from long and short rides. Soon, I imagine I won’t think twice before getting on my saddle.

It goes without saying that if you haven’t already figured it out, err on the side of safety. Wear a helmet and maybe even protection for elbows, knees. If you’re riding early mornings or after dark, purchase an inexpensive high-visibility vest, add reflectors, or spend a little more on a USB-charged light that straps to your bicycle. Sundays and National Holidays the traffic is way more forgiving and long rides more enjoyable.

I guess it’s alright to want more. Mehuls’ bike ride to work is over 10 km. If city riding is not your thing you can head out or find trails inside the city. Bicycles are incredibly fun and should be the future of inner-city transport. If you’re not convinced, that’s ok too – just be cool with the riders on pedal-powered machines you’ll meet at your next traffic light.

PS. if you’re part of Pune’s growing cycling enthusiast groups and are open to riding together, tweet me.

Sunday Cycling Update

Today’s cycling route, 15 km:
* Agricultural College to Loyola High School Gate.
* Loyola High School Gate to Parihar Chowk via Baner Rd.
* Parihar Chowk to Symbiosis College.
* Symbiosis College to Agricultural College via FC Rd.

Total distance covered = 15 km at a relaxed 1 hour.

The original plan was to get to Venture Centre and then head back to Shivajinagar via Symbiosis hill. However, at Loyola High, traffic was held up for a marathon of school children. I switched routes to go through Abhimanshree instead.

A 3 km long designated cycling track has been laid out from Bremen Chowk to University Circle. It’s cost the city of Pune over INR 2CR to make this possible. It’s a work in progress as the bollards were placed too close together and are being relaid. This is an exciting step and perhaps next weekend the track will be fit to use.

#PuneCycling is alive and kicking. A number of cyclists were out this Sunday morning from Bremen Chowk to Symbiosis. It’s fun, physically demanding and will get to be a lot safer with designated tracks.

Symbiosis Hill

Sunday morning. The traffic’s eased up, a clear day, the weather is between 17°C – 20°C. Today’s route was longer and a fun 38 minutes. Starting from Shimla Office up the length of Ganeshkhind / University Road, left onto Senapati Bapat Road and then to FC Road through the connecting BMCC Road.

The route has both uphill and downhill stretches. The uphill was steep enough to have to use the lower gears all the way down to the large (1). The gears on the bike continue to be a learning opportunity. When switching down to large (1), I have to anticipate and switch the smaller gears up first or the pedals will spin with effort and low traction.

There were several other groups out today. Persistent Systems were out for their annual marathon, Ananda Foundation had a walkathon and there were a few other riders whose route overlapped mine for some distance.

It was a treat to see riders take on the uphill on mountain bikes and slim road bikes. The incline up Symbiosis College was hard and my legs screamed as I watched the other riders made it look effortless. I managed the climb up and the downhill from there was crazy fast and exhilarating.

The length of FC Road continues to be under construction and I think it’s shaping up well. The pavements are being rebuilt to allow for 2-wheeler parking and ample walking area for pedestrians. That’s our cities version of ‘smart’ pavements.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, bike riding has helped give a different colour to everything that’s around me. When city riding wears off, I’ll look forward to bike rides out in the areas around town.

I want to Ride my Bicycle

I’ve been bicycling to work. I’m getting better at it gradually. Commuting on a bicycle maybe slower than a quick 2-wheeler ride, but has other benefits. It’s helping me avoid driving to work. I also get a short workout twice a day. It’s a different way to experience the ride home, the shops, the route and promises a lot more freedom than walking to work.

Coping with the traffic on a bicycle is getting easier with experience. At the stop lights, the entire width of the road fills up faster than you would expect. Almost always, it’s faster to walk your cycle across the crossroad than it is to wait and get through with the normal traffic.

The downside is the deep potholes I have to watch out for that. I think they can easily bend the wheel rims if hit when riding quick enough. At night, these are harder to see so I’ve memorised the route. Having high visibility clothing is also a great idea.

The bike I’m using is a Schnell Sierra which I think is made in Pune. It’s quick, lightweight and comes with a 24-speed configuration. I’m still getting used to changing up and down. On a bicycle, gear-changing is about anticipating when you’ll need to change up or down. I’ll also need to figure out which gears to avoid riding on to lower the wear and tear on the chain.

The plan for now it going all the way upto 15 March. That’s when I expect it’ll get too hot to keep going.

2019 is here, wish you dear reader a Happy New Year!

Downshifting

Downshifting is a noticeable worldwide trend, one that I’ve experienced with myself, in my own personal network of 30-somethings and fellow startup founders. The first principle for downshift thinking is to be eager to trade in money for time.

Listing out the classic traits I’ve directly observed in downshifters:

  • Reducing the amount of time spent on apps, especially social networks such as facebook, twitter and trading that time in for face to face interaction and groups.
  • Making it imperative to avoid long commutes. Staying close to your workplace.
  • Investing time and effort in locating an irregular, or non-mainstream job position that may compromise on career growth but is rewarding in personal freedoms*.
  • Paying greater attention to pressing social issues, especially those that most people would be apathetic to.
  • Proactively investing time in kids, family, health, wealth, hands-on skills, creative endeavors.
  • Seeking time-tested methodologies that allow you to address the stresses of city life.
  • Making time and space to be with one’s self.
  • Seeking wisdom, answers to existential questions, or lasting purpose.

I wouldn’t laugh at this trend. Its growing and the startup world has taken to it in a big way. The corporate world will in time learn to acknowledge what’s happening here.

A note of caution, startup culture still promotes the image of the hard at work, 24×7 working founder, or fast cash-burning startup that makes it seemingly incompatible with personal behavior changes that come with downshifting. As always, I’d say to that “go your own way”. There’s plenty of exceptions out there.

* I’ve just discovered an intriguing book on “God’s Own Office“, the story of James Joseph, a Microsoft professional who sets up his home-office out of Kerala while continuing to work for Microsoft. You can get it in hardcover here on flipkart.com and kindle edition on amazon.com.

 

What Exactly Does Adequate Attention Mean?

Sourcing good ideas is hard. The challenge manifests when attempting to source ideas from within and even from a slightly larger group of people. In all such cases, optimizing attention along a sensory dimension can help.

First, a few basic ideas. Sensory attention employs the sense organs. Abstract attention on the other hand, is attention that is independent of sensory input. At any given point of time, you’re applying both cognitive processes to various degrees.

When we’re a part of a novel or challenging experience, our abstract attention isn’t a priority. Let’s say you’re getting ready for a presentation. On standing up and presenting out loud to an audience, you’re optimizing on your aural as well as visual attention. In other words, you’re paying attention to a feedback loop that’s not just inside your mind. If on the other hand, you’re putting together slides seated at your desk – you’re engaging the presentation in a more abstract sense.

Here’s the catch. Abstract attention alone isn’t as sustainable, or effective in introducing contextual breakthrough as sensory attention is. Anyone who’s experienced school in India will identify with a scenario where the teacher’s yelling out “pay attention to the blackboard!”

This makes for some simple and odd-sounding solutions possible.

Do you think it’s possible for a brick-building game such as LEGO to foster team and business building? Maybe even change success rates in an educational environment?

LEGO Serious Play (wikipedia) claims all of the above. Teams are encouraged to collaborate and create projected story lines of their business, team or any concept as a 3D LEGO model. As you build it out, you’re paying attention to your hands employing both touch as well as visual attention. In a collaborative environment, you’re also unconsciously reading body language and employing empathy.

Switching contexts, when brainstorming on a startup idea, its easy to disregard an idea as unworkable without actual customer data, or contextual input to show that it’s promising. It’s also easy to overestimate the value of an idea based on what you’ve seen or heard. The challenge with an infant idea is that it’s an abstraction with potentially many inner ideas that could be rearranged for greater effectiveness. What’s needed is resolution before decision. This is certainly an area where increasing sensory attention beyond the average business model framework or story map can play a role in encouraging deeper thought and better decision-making.

Celebrating Minecraft’s Creator

Build what you want! Have you heard that one before?

Minecraft began as an idea in the mind of Markus “Notch” Persson. He released an early version of it in May 2009 after creating it in his spare time from home.  They’ve sold 54 million copies since! In September 2014, Mojang – Minecraft’s current owner sold out to Microsoft for $2Bn.

Minecraft’s a unique story that highlights two promises of our age – the ability for anyone to write software and instantly ship it to users at scale. If you’ve got the ingredients right, the sky is the limit.

The build cycle starts out with toying with several ideas, good and bad. The one that’s interesting is the one that gets built. As the very first user of what’s being built, the creator enjoys the advantage of the shortest possible feedback loop before users were to even get involved.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of thought over this bit of the loop. I’ve come to realize that attempting to give away the responsibility of this bit loses the entire point of the cycle. Communication is inherently lossy! Pleasant, unintended side effects of doing it oneself- keeping in only those features that are absolutely necessary and depriving naysayers altogether.

Sharp build skills have another amplifying side-effect. When you notice a workaround or a gap, you’re less likelier to turn to a lesser solution. Instead, you’re likelier to think “… that’s interesting, I can build that tonight.”

It’s also the only sure way that I know of dropping the many biases we carry. And yes, you’re going to get some ideas that suck.

This is to wish Markus well! His faith in ‘Build what you want’ is inspiring.

 

Build What You Want

Beyond Giving Up

What you do after giving in is a true window into character. If you think you’re going to get back on track, here’s a few thoughts from different books I’ve read over the past year that will help you on your way.

Do you know why you’re giving in? The key is to know the difference between a temporary setback from one that’s permanent. Often this clarity is elusive when unexpectedly overwhelmed.

Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” describes an experiment where researchers gave guests puzzles to solve while measuring the dilation of pupils, heart rate. As the challenge level rose, they’d watch the pupils dilate as much as 50% and the heart rate go up by as much as 7 beats per minute. These physiological indicators were reliable enough to tell when the guest has given up,

During a mental multiplication, the pupil normally dilated to a large size within a few seconds and stayed large as long as the individual kept working on the problem; it contracted immediately when she found a solution or gave up. As we watched from the corridor, we would sometimes surprise both the owner of the pupil and our guests by asking, “Why did you stop working just now?” The answer from inside the lab was often, “How did you know?” to which we would reply, “We have a window to your soul.”

– Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow (Get the Kindle edition on Amazon).

Did you get the challenge-level right? If it is a temporary setback and you’re keen on getting back on – revisit the challenge level. Think about what might make it easier for you to get into the flow of things.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on happiness describes a spontaneous process of immersion in  work that can only be achieved if you’re able to balance the challenge and skill level. Too great a challenge and your likely to be disillusioned. Too little and you’ll be bored.

flow model
Flow Model, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

– from Mihaly’s talk and book “Flow”, (Kindle Edition on Amazon).

Slow things down. One way to reduce the challenge level without compromising on the opportunity to learn and fix is to slow things down. Deliberately practice your steps so that you can do them correctly. With the help of repetition and stress on smaller steps you’re more likely to figure out what you need to do correctly.

In “Talent Code”, Daniel Coyle refers to deliberate practice as ‘deep practice’, breaking down a complex skill in order to learn it. He relates how students in various talent hotbeds first watch the skill in action as a coherent entity; slowing your own practice down to break down the moves into its component steps and imitating each one correctly over and over again.

At Spartak it’s called imitatsiya—rallying in slow motion with an imaginary ball. All Spartak’s players do it, from the five-year-olds to the pros. Their coach, a twinkly, weathered seventy-seven-year-old woman named Larisa Preobrazhenskaya, roamed the court like a garage mechanic tuning an oversize engine. She grasped arms and piloted small limbs slowly through the stroke. When they finally hit balls—one by one, in a line (there are no private lessons at Spartak), Preobrazhenskaya frequently stopped them in their tracks and had them go through the motion again slowly, then once more. And again. And perhaps one more time.

Daniel Coyle. The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown (Get the Kindle Edition on Amazon).

The questions these excerpts will raise ought to be valuable for anyone who’s experienced the frustration of giving up on any objective. Fail and fail smart!