Basketball and playing to your strengths

Earlier this week the wife went to play basketball with some classmates in Barcelona. As she was on her way back home, we were talking about the game and I inevitably referred to my own style of playing (it’s a theme now – she says something about school, and I start off my own story with “back when I was in B-school…”). I was telling her about how I never really got good at laying up or dribbling, and I built my game around a careful avoidance of those themes.

She snapped that I was “one of those guys” who doesn’t bother learning certain kind of stuff because I’m good at other kind of stuff, so I assume that I don’t need to learn new stuff. What she said took me back to this piece in Scientific American which talks about two kinds of learning – which the piece calls as “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset”. The piece goes on to say that kids who are usually praised for results or intelligence end up developing “fixed mindsets” and that for such kids, learning stops at some stage. Those praised for effort and process on the other hand, the piece says, continue to learn and their learning is everlasting.

When I read the piece I completely identified with the fixed mindset. I sailed through most of school without putting in much effort, but when the learning curve got steep (like in Class XI physics, or at IIT) I simply gave up and started working around concepts that I found hard to learn. I didn’t do badly then, but it started affecting me when I started working. And over the last three years I’ve institutionalised playing to my strengths, while making an effort to simultaneously learn.

Coming back to basketball, the wife talked that day about how my view of the game was wrong and compared my views to those of people who would ask her “so how many points did you score” after a game – which she said was extremely pointless.

Anyway I had a chance to put that to test this morning when I played basketball (after a gap of close to 9 years) with Rohin, Vivaan and Issac (links not available to latter two). It was a chance occurrence – I stumbled upon Rohin’s tweet calling for people to play basketball with him and I responded. And it was a wonderful morning today, as I played the game after nine years.

Two pertinent observations – firstly I haven’t regressed too much. I missed shots much more frequently than I normally do, but got better as the game wore on. The second and more important pertinent observation – I still play in a fashion similar to how I played back in 1997.

So despite having gone for formal training in basketball for a brief period when I was in class 1 (or 2), I’ve never been good at dribbling. I’ve never learnt to put a good lay up . And I’ve never been a quick runner. And right from the beginning rather than working on these weaknesses, I simply played to my strengths and improving my play in those – I can shoot reasonably well (though I didn’t do so today), my above-average height (by Indian standards) means I can pick rebounds well, I have developed a good sense of positioning to compensate for my lack of speed, which also means I can defend fairly well, and so forth. And I make up for lack of dribbling and layups by relying on quick short passing. And all this put together has made me a reasonable player at casual level, and I had a satisfactory game this morning too.

In short, the way I’ve developed my basketball is by just ignoring what I suck at but focussing on getting better at my strengths. While this means that I rarely put myself outside of my comfort zone, it also means that I become an overall better (though incomplete) player given the amount of effort I put in. I remember times when I would play alone in the half-court behind my hostel at IIT. When you play basketball alone, you have two choices – do layups and shoot. To become a complete player I should’ve practised the former. I chose the latter!

So coming back to the Scientific American piece, while I agree that a fixed mindset can stop growth at some point in time, it is possible to grow around it as long as you recognise your limitations and simply focus on your strengths. And with the coming up of the on-demand economy (which I’m in a weird way part of), division of labour can be such that you can possibly get away doing only those things that you are good at! At least that’s the hope for people like me who’ve grown up with a fixed mindset.

And finally, I realise I’m unfit. Despite going to the gym fairly regularly, the game of basketball this morning showed me up as being severely unfit. Despite being the youngest guy on the court ( I think, but am not sure), it was I who was calling the time outs this morning, and it was I who was panting the most. It’s not good. Basically the kind of fitness you need to play sports such as basketball (lots of short sprints) is very different from what you build by doing “normal gym activities”. To put it another way, squatting 150 lb is no indication of whether you’re capable of playing half-court basketball for 30 minutes!

Language

For millions of years
Mankind lived
Just like the animals

And then something happened
That unleashed the power of our imagination
We learned to talk

(from Pink Floyd’s Keep Talking from Division Bell)

And then we moved to a place where no one speaks any of the languages you speak. And we became animals again.

This trip to Barcelona is the first time I’ve spent a reasonable length of time I’ve spent in a place where no one speaks any of the languages that I speak. And I’ve been literally feeling like an animal again, absolutely incapable of communicating, pointing at things and using sign language. It seems like my experience here has been significantly diminished given my inability to speak any of the languages spoken here.

I learnt to talk Kannada when I was perhaps one, or max two. I learnt English in a year or two after that. And then my language learning stopped. I had Hindi as my second language in school, and somehow struggled through it despite scoring 90 out of 100 in my board exam (shows how pointless board exams are). I can understand Hindi, and watch Hindi movies, but I still can’t speak fluently. When I have to speak Hindi, I construct a sentence in Kannada and then translate it. And I speak it with a heavy Kannada accent, much to the mirth of people around.

I have a Bihari cook in Bangalore. He claims to know Kannada  but I’ve never tried testing that. And I try speaking to him in Hindi. It is almost like we use sign language. I point to a set of ingredients and tell him the name of what I want to eat. He cooks, and buzzes off. At least talking face to face is fine. There are occasions when I have to call him and give him instructions (“come early tomorrow” or “come late today” or “don’t come today” or some such). It is a nightmare.

It’s not like I’m absolutely bad at languages – I can pick up words  quite easily. Thanks to football watching I’ve learnt a fair bit of European history and geography and culture, and through the process I’ve learnt a fair number of words (they’re of the kind of trequartistaregistatornante, etc but European words nevertheless). I know words in several languages. Just that I have this inability to learn grammar, or how words are put together to form sentences and communicate thoughts (except of course in English and Kannada).

Fourteen years back I went to IIT Madras, and half the people in my class were Gult. That meant I had the opportunity to pick up a fair bit of both Telugu and Tamil. I did neither. I can understand both languages a fair bit, but my understanding of the languages can be described as “assembly language”. I know words and what they mean. I listen for such keywords in what people are saying and interpret based on that. And when I speak these languages, it is based on keywords – I just say out the noun and the root form of the verb and expect the other person to interpret. I’ve never managed to get beyond this!

So there are these bakeries near where I live which might have already marked me off as a weird animal who just walks in and out o them. I go in, survey what they have and if something looks interesting point to that. They pack it for me, and then tell a number. I ask for the bill – so that I can read the number, or just give them a large enough note and trust them to return me the exact change. When nothing looks interesting to me in the display I can’t talk and ask them for what I want. I just look around (perhaps like a bakery dog) and just walk away. I don’t know how to say “Sorry I don’t know what I want”, or “Thank you, but I don’t find anything interesting here”. And I’ve been visiting some of these places multiple times, doing the same thing!

The level of discourse we are reduced to when we are unable to communicate is rather remarkable! It’s like we can simply not unleash the power of imagination, it is like going back to living like animals. I don’t like it, but I don’t know how to remedy it – I simply can’t pick up new languages!

Ordering in large groups

When you go out in a large group, ordering can sometimes become a pain. This is especially the case if you know each other well and want to collectively share a large number of dishes rather than each person ordering a dish for herself. Usually, you can end up either under ordering (I’ve seen cases where three curries have been ordered for a table of ten people) or over ordering (when lots gets left over). And someone or the other is usually left unsatisfied.

There are two extremes in which collective ordering for a large group can actually work. At one extreme, there is one “leader”, whom everyone else trusts to order. The leader finds out the group’s preferences and aggregates them and takes the decision on the group’s behalf. Usually the leader is someone who is trusted, so their decisions are generally followed. There might be some inefficiencies but the rest of the people can focus on the conversation while the leader can bask in the glory of power.

The other extreme that works is completely decentralized ordering, like we did last night when I met a bunch of relatives. People trickled in slowly, and we found it was not feasible (for the butterflies in our stomachs) to wait for the whole group to arrive before we started ordering. And so I ordered a pizza and a pitcher of sangria (when in a large group you don’t need to specifically target who is going to consume the pizza and each glass of sangria – it gets aggregated over). I took a slice of the pizza and a glass of the sangria, and the rest actually disappeared rather quickly.

As people came in, they got the hint, and we never had to waste any time in discussions of the “shall we order this” sort. People kept ordering what they wanted, and since we had an implicit agreement of “sharing”, everything presently got consumed. That we were collectively full was indicated by the point in time when no one was ordering. It turned out to be a fantastic dinner.

Now, there are some conditions that need to be met for this kind of ordering to work. Firstly, there should be no one in the group who is shy or hesitant to order by themselves or requires pampering – such people will end up hungry in this situation. Secondly, there should be some sort of implicit trust in the  group that people will be somewhat reasonable in their order. Finally, given that the only way to split the bill in such situations is equally (since who ate what is rather fuzzy) “tragedy of the commons” should not happen. All conditions were broadly satisfied last evening, and (in my opinion) things worked out.

What kind of ordering algorithms have you used in the past, and how has that fared? Do you think decentralized ordering actually works, or if there are other conditions that need to be satisfied for it to work? Do leave a note on your experiences with ordering!