Branding and positions of strength

I had an invitation to attend a data science networking event today. I had accepted the free pass for option value, but decided today to not exercise the option. Given I was not going to speak at the event, I realised that the value of the conversations at the event for me would be limited.

One of the internet gurus (it might be Naval Ravikant, but I’m unable to locate the source) has this principle that you shouldn’t go to networking events unless you’re speaking. Now, if everyone applied this principle events would look very different, with speakers speaking to one another (like in NED Talks!).

Thinking about it, though, I see clear value in this maxim. Basically when you go to a networking event and speak, you can network from a position of strength, especially after you’ve spoken. This is assuming you’ve done a good job of your speech, of course, but apart from elevating your status as a “speaker”, speaking at the event allows potential counterparties in conversations to have prior information about you before they talk to you.

So there is context in the conversation, and since you know they know something about you, you can speak from a position of strength, and hopefully make a greater impact.

It is not just about speaking and events. For a long time, a lot of my consulting business came from readers of this blog (yes, really!). This was because these people had been reading me, and knew me, and so when I spoke to them, there was already a “prior” on which I could base my sale. Of late, I’ve been putting out a lot of work-related content here and on LinkedIn, and that has sparked several conversations, which I have been able to navigate from a position of strength.

A possibly simpler word to describe this is “branding”. By speaking at an event or putting out content or indulging in other activities that let people know about you and what you do, you are building a brand. And then when the conversation happens, the brand you have thus built puts you in a position of strength which makes the sale far easier than if you didn’t have the brand.

You need to remember that position of strength as I’ve described here is not relative. It is not always necessary for the brand to elevate you to a level higher than the counterparty. All that is necessary is for it to put you at a high enough level that you don’t need to talk from a position of weakness. And if you think about it, cold calling and door to door sales is basically selling from a position of weakness – while it might have worked occasionally (which makes for fantastic stories), it is on the most part not successful.

And in some way, this concept of branding and positions of strength is well correlated to what I recently described as “the secret of my happiness“. By being really good at what you are good at, you are essentially putting yourself in a position of strength, so that people have no choice but to tolerate your inadequacies in other areas. Putting it another way, being really good at what you are good at is another exercise in brand building!

Brand building efforts can sometimes fail. There are times when I have given talks and got few questions – clearly indicating it was a wasted talk (either I didn’t talk well, or the audience didn’t get it). I have put out content that has just sank without a trace or any feedback. The important thing to know is that somewhere it all adds up – that these small efforts in branding can come together at some point in time, and make it work for you.

 

The secret of my happiness

Ok that’s an exaggerated title, but over the last few days I’ve figured how I like to “manage life” so as to increase my happiness – basically overdeliver on the things I like or am very good at, so that I can slack on other stuff.

In fact, this has been a formula I’ve followed through my life, and my periods of frustration have coincided with times when I haven’t been able to use this formula.

Let me take a few examples from recent life to illustrate how I’ve used this.

  1. Health: I like to eat lots of sweets and fatty foods (well, that’s a tautology – we’ve all evolved to like eating such foods), and in the past have been massively overweight and had issues with blood sugar and cholesterol. However I find diet control massively taxing mentally (though I did pull off 50 days of intermittent fasting earlier this year, though I think that contributed to a worsening of my ADHD).

    A few years back, however, I discovered weightlifting – more specifically, a combination of squats, bench press, shoulder press and deadlift. I only need to do this for about 45 minutes on 2 or 3 days a week, and I’ve found that it keeps me fit enough – irrespective of whatever junk I eat.

    So, having deadlifted 130 kg earlier this evening, I’ve felt “entitled” to eat whatever the hell I want, knowing it won’t harm me. And I will feel this way for another 2 days, when it is time to hit the gym again.

  2. Family responsibility: On weekday evenings, our parental responsibilities include preparing dinner, feeding the daughter, playing with her and putting her to sleep (I’m possibly oversimplifying). Of these activities, I’m not particularly fond of the second one, since it depends on a major factor outside of my control, which can tend to stress me. So I like to leave it to the wife to feed her.

    So on most days I grab the activities that I love doing – cooking and playing with the daughter (though maybe her mother’s games are more fun. I either play football or play songs on the keyboard for her to recognise). Doing these allows me to remain free of guilt when the wife undertakes the other responsibilities.

Going back several years, the secret of my happiness in school years was being insanely good at maths and science, which allowed me to slack off in the languages and social science. Being a topper also meant that I could talk my mind (including occasionally talking back to teachers), and people wouldn’t mind so much.

And then when I went to IIT, I was neither a topper nor was I good in a majority of the subjects, so these privileges were taken away and I was miserable. Towards the end, though, when I started preparing for CAT, which was something I was insanely good at, and that allowed me to make peace with not being particularly good with my academics at IIT. Later on, in my first job, things I’m good at such as lateral thinking or certain kinds of maths weren’t highly valued, and that didn’t allow me to slack on things I hated, and I quit in 3 months.

I don’t think this phenomenon is anything specific to me – I suspect that is how the human race operates (and hence we have lots of specialisation and trade). We maximise the benefits from stuff we’re good at, and hope that this allows to slack on other stuff. And in situations where we aren’t allowed to play to our strengths, we remain miserable.

Bridge!

While I have referred to the game of contract bridge multiple times on this blog, today was the first time ever since I started blogging that I actually played the game. I mean, i’ve played a few times with my computer, but today was the first time in nearly fifteen years that I actually “played”, with other humans in a semi-competitive environment.

It happened primarily thanks to the wife, who surprised me yesterday by randomly sending me links of two bridge clubs close to home. I found that one of them was meeting this evening, and welcomed newcomers (even those without partners), and I needed no further information.

One small complication was that it had been very many years since I had even played the game with my computer, or read bridge columns, and I needed to remember the rules. Complicating matters was the fact that most players at this club use four-card major bidding systems, while at IIT and with my computer I was used to playing five card majors.

I installed a bridge app on my phone and played a few games, and figured that I’m not too rusty. And so after an early dinner, and leaving a wailing Berry behind (she hates it when I go out of home without her), I took the 65 bus to the club.

The club has a “host” system, where members can volunteer to play with “visitors” without partners. My host tonight was Jenny, a retired school teacher and librarian. We quickly discussed the bidding system she uses, and it was time to play.

There were some additional complications, though. For example, they use bidding boxes to convey the bids here (so that you don’t give out verbal signals while bidding), and I had never seen one before. And then on the very first hand, I forgot that bidding takes place clockwise, and bid out of turn. That early mishap apart, the game went well.

We were sitting East-West in the pairs event, which meant we moved tables after every couple of hands. Jenny introduced me to our opponents at each table, helpfully adding in most cases that I was “playing after fifteen years. He had never seen a bidding box before today”.

I think I played fairly well, as people kept asking me where I play regularly and I had to clarify that today was the first time ever I was playing in England. Jenny was a great partner, forever encouraging and making me feel comfortable on my “comeback”.

At about three fourth of the session though, I could feel myself tiring. Hard concentration for three hours straight is not something I do on a regular basis, so it was taxing on my nerves. It came to a head when a lapse in my concentration allowed our opponents to make a contract they should have never made.

Thankfully, I noticed then that there was coffee and tea available in a back room. I quickly made myself a cup of tea with milk and sugar and was soon back to form.

Jenny and I finished a narrow second among all the East-West pairs. If my concentration hadn’t flagged three fourths of the way in, I think we might have even won our half of the event. Not a bad comeback, huh? After the event, someone told me that he would introduce me to “a very strong player who is looking for a partner”.

Oh, and did I mention that I was probably by far the youngest player there?

I’ll be back. And once again, thanks to the wife for the encouragement, and finding me this club, and taking care of Berry while I spent the evening playing!

Mental health triggers

My ADHD seems to have become much worse over the last couple of days. Like this morning I had this episode where I couldn’t decide whether to go back home to get an umbrella, and thus turned around twice while I was in the middle of crossing a road.

In part, I blame this on having just read a book on ADHD – the second such book I’ve read in the last week (I found this book from the bibliography of previous one). While this book told me the impact of ADHD on relationships, and helped me understand what someone married to someone with ADHD goes through, in the course of doing so it reminded me of all the problems that one faces when you have ADHD.

So in some way, as I read through and “revised” the list of problems that one has with ADHD, all these problems have started surfacing (more likely I have noticed these issues every time they’ve come up). And this has led to a positive feedback loop, and thus much shorter attention spans and massive distractions and even mild addiction (to online chess).

This is not an isolated incident. In the past as well, when I’ve read material related to mental health problems that have affected me as well, the precise problem gets triggered. So when I read some stuff about depression, I’m likely to have a depressive episode after that. Similar with anxiety.

Interestingly, there is no impact when I read something related to a problem that I myself have never faced – like I once started reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s essay on bipolar disorder and it had no effect whatsoever on me.

It wasn’t always this way. Long back, before I got diagnosed, reading stuff about mental health issues which I later got diagnosed with would make me feel hopeful – hopeful perhaps that there was in fact a diagnosis for what I was going through and it wasn’t simply “laziness” or “ineptitude” on my part that was causing me all that I was going through. But once I got the diagnosis, and figured out lifestyle changes to deal with my issues, reading more has only triggered the respective issue.

I guess the solution for this is simple – unless absolutely necessary (say there is a specific issue for which I seek help on) I shouldn’t read stuff about mental health issues that I might be facing.

I won’t spare you, though – here is an essay about ADHD that I had written three years ago (which I dug up after a conversation on ADHD with a friend yesterday).

 

There’s no way out

One thing relationship gurus parrot often is the need for compromise. Conflicts are inevitable in a relationship, they say, and so sometimes you need to compromise. While sometimes it’s possible to hold back a thought or a statement, and prevent a situation from blowing up, at other times, there’s simply no way out.

Consider the situation last night, for example. The wife wanted to make Maggi for dinner. Now, unlike most Indians of my generation I don’t like Maggi, and I can at best tolerate it for a snack – definitely not for dinner. And so I definitely wasn’t pleased at the proposal that we have Maggi for dinner. The question was how I should react.

I had two choices – either to grudgingly accept, eat Maggi for dinner and feel unhappy about what I had for dinner, or to tell her I would make my own dinner, which would come at the cost of her getting upset that I wasn’t going to eat something she was going to lovingly prepare.

So one way I would feel unhappy, and the other way she would – so the moment she uttered the proposal to make Maggi, some kind of conflict or unhappiness was given.

That, however, doesn’t mean that it was her fault either – to propose that we eat Maggi, because the same tradeoff applies there as well. She could either propose we eat Maggi, with the result that either she’ll get upset or I’ll get unhappy, or she could hold back the thought and silently bottle it in. Both would incur a cost.

And it happens all the time – there are days when I want us to go out, knowing fully well that the wife likes to stay home. If I voice my desire to go out, it will lead to conflict – either I get upset that she refuses or she’ll grudgingly accompany me. If not, I’ll sulk silently at not having explored the option to go out. And it goes on.

How do you even resolve such differences? By backward induction, the conflict happens at the moment a thought is planted in your head – you could say that we should train ourselves that we don’t even get thoughts that could potentially lead to situations that potentially lead to conflicts, but isn’t that possibly taking things too far?

Anyway, last night we “monetised” our anguish, when I said she should go ahead and make Maggi, but only for herself and Berry (who also loves Maggi). I made myself a Halloumi sandwich. As it happened, all three of us woke up in the middle of the night feeling incredibly hungry!

Mini me

Two years back when we were expecting, relatives would wonder if it would be a “mini Priyanka” or “mini Karthik”. This was their way of wondering whether it would be a girl or a boy. Having spent the first half of the pregnancy in Spain, we knew that it would be a girl, but in most cases refused to answer this “mini Priyanka/Karthik” question.

In hindsight, it’s a bit annoying – to assume that the kid is the mini version of the parent she shares her gender (or should I be saying “sex”, as a Brooklyn-based friend recently remarked) with. What makes people simply assume that a girl should be like her mother and a boy should be like his father, when it is clear that irrespective of sex (take that Brooklyn, I got it right) the kid receives the same number of chromosomes from each parent.

And as it happens, our specimen is a clear exhibit of being like the parent of the opposite sex. She might be a mini Priyanka in that she is a girl, but that and her Bambi eyes apart, she is uncannily like me in pretty much everything else. In fact, upon seeing her as a baby, her godmother remarked that “Karthik could have married an old shoe and still produced a child that looks exactly like this”.

The specimen in question

Save for her eyes, she looks nearly exactly the same way as I did at her age. Just like me, she’s outgoing, and likes to go aimlessly wandering (to go “on beat” as we would say in Kannada). For the large part, she likes the same kind of foods that I like (a notable exception is her affinity for Maggi). Just like me, she looks out for cashewnuts or peanuts in whatever food she is having.

This list is a long one, with the list of her similarities with her mother being much much shorter.

And on top of all this, she is also attached to me. She doesn’t let me get out of home without insisting that I take her along (I clearly remember doing this a lot to my father as well), while she happily says “bye” to her mother. When she wakes up, she starts screaming “appa” and “ka” (short for “kara” which is short for “Karthik”. it’s a nickname used mainly by my wife and one of my cousins). She calls out to me from the other end of the house in a way she’s never called out to her mother. And she doesn’t trouble me like she troubles her mother!

I had been told by several people that fatherhood can change you, but one thing I hadn’t bargained for was that it would make me more emotional. But then I guess having a little version of you who you can totally empathise with around can do that to you!

Astrology and Data Science

The discussion goes back some 6 years, when I’d first started setting up my data and management consultancy practice. Since I’d freshly quit my job to set up the said practice, I had plenty of time on my hands, and the wife suggested that I spend some of that time learning astrology.

Considering that I’ve never been remotely religious or superstitious, I found this suggestion preposterous (I had a funny upbringing in the matter of religion – my mother was insanely religious (including following a certain Baba), and my father was insanely rationalist, and I kept getting pulled in both directions).

Now, the wife has some (indirect) background in astrology. One of her aunts is an astrologer, and specialises in something called “prashNa shaastra“, where the prediction is made based on the time at which the client asks the astrologer a question. My wife believes this has resulted in largely correct predictions (though I suspect a strong dose of confirmation bias there), and (very strangely to me) seems to believe in the stuff.

“What’s the use of studying astrology if I don’t believe in it one bit”, I asked. “Astrology is very mathematical, and you are very good at mathematics. So you’ll enjoy it a lot”, she countered, sidestepping the question.

We went off into a long discussion on the origins of astrology, and how it resulted in early developments in astronomy (necessary in order to precisely determine the position of planets), and so on. The discussion got involved, and involved many digressions, as discussions of this sort might entail. And as you might expect with such discussions, my wife threw a curveball, “You know, you say you’re building a business based on data analysis. Isn’t data analysis just like astrology?”

I was stumped (ok I know I’m mixing metaphors here), and that had ended the discussion then.

Until I decided to bring it up recently. As it turns out, once again (after a brief hiatus when I decided I’ll do a job) I’m in process of setting up a data and management consulting business. The difference is this time I’m in London, and that “data science” is a thing (it wasn’t in 2011). And over the last year or so I’ve been kinda disappointed to see what goes on in the name of “data science” around me.

This XKCD cartoon (which I’ve shared here several times) encapsulates it very well. People literally “pour data into a machine learning system” and then “stir the pile” hoping for the results.

Source: https://xkcd.com/1838/

In the process of applying fairly complex “machine learning” algorithms, I’ve seen people not really bother about whether the analysis makes intuitive sense, or if there is “physical meaning” in what the analysis says, or if the correlations actually determine causation. It’s blind application of “run the data through a bunch of scikit learn models and accept the output”.

And this is exactly how astrology works. There are a bunch of predictor variables (position of different “planets” in various parts of the “sky”). There is the observed variable (whether some disaster happened or not, basically), which is nicely in binary format. And then some of our ancients did some data analysis on this, trying to identify combinations of predictors that predicted the output (unfortunately they didn’t have the power of statistics or computers, so in that sense the models were limited). And then they simply accepted the outputs, without challenging why it makes sense that the position of Jupiter at the time of wedding affects how your marriage will go.

So I brought up the topic of astrology and data science again recently, saying “OK after careful analysis I admit that astrology is the oldest form of data science”. “That’s not what I said”, the wife countered. “I said that data science is new age astrology, and not the other way round”.

It’s hard to argue with that!