Slow deaths and sudden deaths

My parents both died slow deaths. My father spent the last three months of his life in hospital, of which the last month was in intensive care on ventilator support. He had been rendered immobile, and when the ventilator tube and food pipe went in, there was absolutely no way in which he could communicate to us during the brief times we were allowed to meet him.

My mother’s was a different story, but on a shorter time scale. She spent her last month in hospital, with the last ten days in intensive care and on ventilator, again what I think was fairly painful existence for her, living in a fairly isolated and airconditioned room, not being able to communicate with anyone, with all sorts of tubes and measuring devices stuck all over the body.

In hindsight, I regret my decision to allow them to be put on ventilator. I feel guilty for having extended their lives in a way which was both painful to them and where there was little meaning, for they lived cut off, and unable to communicate (and in both cases, had I thought rationally, I would’ve known that there was little chance the time on ventilator would allow them to recover). The only upside to this was that it gave me time to prepare. That it gave me time to prepare for their impending passing,

People who attended either of my parents’ funerals might have been surprised, a bit shocked even, to see that I was quite composed and in control of things. I wouldn’t be wrong if a number of them thought I was a heartless emotionless wretch. The reason I behaved thus was because it was only an incremental change as far as my mental preparedness was concerned. Till the day prior to both my parents’ deaths, I knew that the chances that they would recover and get back home was minimal. Delta. Epsilon. The death, normally a “discrete event” had only pushed this chance to zero, not a big change in probability.

I was thinking about all this two nights back when my grandfather-in-law passed away, once again after a prolonged illness (he refused to be admitted to hospital or be put on life support so in a way he was spared of time on ventilator), but his condition had deteriorated steadily enough for us to know that he would be gone soon. Several family members reacted quite badly, but several others were quite brave and acted bravely. The slow death was the reason for this, I thought.

There are too many factors that affect death, and no one can choose either the time or mode or pace of dying, but I have been thinking if slow deaths are better than sudden deaths or vice versa. The upside of a sudden death is that there is little suffering on the part of the dyer, but the discrete nature of the change (probability that the person would be no more the next day would jump suddenly from close to zero to one) would imply a huge shock for family members and friends, which they would take considerable time and effort to come out of.

A slow death, on the other hand, is extremely painful for the dyer, while it gives time to the family members to come to terms with the reality. Here, too, of course there is usually one big discrete step involved (like that Monday night when in the matter of less than an hour, my mother went from happily chatting with me to gasping for breath so uncontrollably that they had to immediately wheel her to intensive care and a ventilator; or that Thursday morning when my father suddenly realized he had lost all the power in his legs and couldn’t stand on his own), so it is more like a time-shifting of pain (for relatives/friends) rather than the pain being amortized over a number of days.

Once again, there are no clear answers to this question about which mode of death is better, but ever since I saw my father spend his last three months in hospital I’ve believed that sudden deaths are superior. I’ve found myself reacting to other people’s sudden deaths saying “good for them they went without suffering”. Again, no one really has control about how or when they’ll die. It’s only a question about what to hope for in life.

Partners and Associates

Last week I’d written this post about managing studs, and while discussing that with some colleagues the other day, I realized that I could reformulate it without touching upon the studs and fighters theory. So let us consider a consulting firm. There is a partner, whose sole job is to solicit business for the firm, and to get the lion’s share of the benefits. And there are associates, trying hard to get noticed and promoted, and working for this partner. It’s the associates who do most of the work. Let’s assume that the firm is in “steady state”, where as long as they don’t mess up, there is a steady stream of business assured.

Under this assumption, all that the partner needs to do is to ensure he and his team don’t “mess up”. He knows that he has the relationships to keep the work flowing, and given that he doesn’t really do any work himself, he doesn’t care about the nature of work, or whether his associates find the work challenging, or interesting, and stuff. As long as the tap is open, and he makes his “partner’s cut”, he’s happy.

Given this, his incentives are towards work that is hard to go wrong. “Steady” work, where expectations are likely to be high, but the downside risk is quite low suits him absolutely fine, and he seeks to find more and more of that kind of stuff. There is little chance that his relationships with his steady clients can go wrong in this kind of a situation, right? So he goes about trying to find work with a “short deep-out-of-money option” payoff.

What about the associates? There will be some of them that are already established, and known to these steady clients. They know that it’s only a matter of time before they get promoted and hit the partnership pot of gold. They’ve made their mark, at a time when they had the opportunity to do so, and now they only need to hold fort till the end of the rainbow. And they hold on, perfectly happy to do work in which things can’t go wrong.

As for the other associates, who are still looking to establish themselves? What they’d ideally like would be the opportunity for “big wins”, which will make them be seen, and noticed, and enable them to make the move up the ladder when the time is right. Given their current standing, they don’t mind taking the risk – they have little to lose in terms of lost reputation. On the other hand they have everything to gain from pulling off improbable big wins. Basically they ideally like the “long deep-out-of-money option” payoff. ┬áBut the stream of projects the partners and other associates prefer doesn’t give them the opportunity to go for this kind of payoff! So they are stuck.

So, if you are working in a consulting firm, which is in reasonably steady state, where the partners don’t take part in day-to-day work, and where you are not yet established, you need to think if you’re in the right place.

Handling Jesus

A few months back, perhaps during the football world cup, I had talked about the role of Jesus Navas in the Spanish attack. He would mostly be brought on as a “plan B”, mostly when the Spanish tiki-taka failed to break down the opposition defence.

And by hogging the right touchline, he would single-handedly offer a new line of attack, without taking too much away from the existing tiki-taka attack down the middle. Though quite under-rated, I think he had valuable contributions in the Spanish victory.

So I was thinking about the conditions that are essential for the success of Jesus Navas. And the primary condition, I thought, was the support of his team-mates. For example, when Xavi passed the ball right to Navas, he recognized fully well that there was little chance Navas would give it back to him. Xavi would recognize that Navas would play his own game, and all he had to do would be to perhaps send Sergio Ramos to support and get players in the box waiting for the cross.

It is to the credit of Xavi and the other members of Spanish “Plan A attack” that they recognized this and allowed Navas to play his own game whenever he came on. If they hadn’t, Navas would surely have never been as effective. In fact, he would have been a complete misfit and failure.

You might want to draw your own analogies from this but what I want to say is that when you have a guy in your team who does things differently, who is there to “provide a different angle to the attack”, you need to create conditions to facilitate his work. At the very least, you need to ensure that all members of the team recognize that this guy is different, and what they need to do to enable his success.

Talking about diversity and diversity policies is all fine, but to get the best out of the diversity policy, you need to create conditions to extract the best out of the “diversity hire”, in whatever context you choose to view this.

Wasting Youth

Nowadays everyone seems to be preparing for JEE. It is almost as if it is a logical progression to join some JEE coaching factory once you are done with 10th standard. Yeah, the numbers were quite large in my time (~10 yrs back) itself. But they are humongous now, and it is not funny.

Yeah, awareness about IIT and people feeling good about themselves and wanting to go study at India’s best undergraduate institutions is great. It is brilliant. Fantastic. What is not so great, brilliant and fantastic is that tens of thousands of youth are wasting two years of their prime youth trying to mug for an entrance exam in which they stand little chance of doing well.

I just hope I’m not sounding condescending here, but it intrigues me that so many people who have very little chances of making it through the JEE slog so much for it. I think it is due toe the unhealthy equilibrium that has been reached with respect to the exam, which makes everyone waste so much time. Let me explain.

So over the years the JEE has got the reputation of being a “tough” exam. And over the years, maybe due to the way papers are structured or the way factories train people, people have figured out that hard work and extra hours of preparation helps. I could get into studsandfighters mode here but in line with my promise let me try and explain without invoking the framework. And you need to remember that the JEE uses “relative grading” – how well you have done is dependent on how badly others have done.

So if everyone has put in that much extra hard work, you are likely to lose out by not putting in that extra work. And so you increase your effort. And so does everyone else. Yeah this is a single iteration game but still looking at the competition and peer pressure eveyone is forced to raise their effort. Everyone is forced to, to quote the Director of my JEE factory, “work up to human limit”.

Yeah, a few hundred people every year manage to “crack” the system and get through without putting in that much effort. But then their numbers are small compared to the number of people who get admitted, so people who get through based on sheer hard work do tend to get noticed more, and spur other aspirants to work even harder. And so forth.

Yes, there is a problem with a system. Something is not right when a large proportion of youth in the country is wasting away two years of prime youth in preparing for some entrance exam. It is easy to see the fundamental problem – shortage of “really good quality” engineering colleges (I argue that this mad fight for IIT seats shows the gap between IITs and the next level of engineering colleges – at least in terms of public perception). But considering that as given I wonder what we could change. I wonder what we could do in order to save our youth.

As an aside, one thing I’ve noticed about several JEE aspirants is that they don’t give up. I don’t know if this is necessarily a good thing – to carry on with the mad fight even if you know that your chances of making it are remote. Yeah I’m sure there is peer pressure and status issues with respect to giving up. But then I suppose I would have a lot more respect for someone who would give up and enjoy life rather than continue the mad fight knowing fully well that his chances are remote.

Looking back, I do regret wasting those two years in mad JEE mugging. Ok I must admit I did have my share of fun back then but still looking back I would have definitely preferred to have not worked so hard back then. And of course I count myself lucky that I got through the JEE and my hard work in those two years wasn’t in vain.