Cheap motivation

I’m reading this (so far – I’m blogging in the middle of reading) excellent piece by Charles Assisi in Mint On Sunday about motivation for careers. At the point where I’ve stopped reading his piece and started writing, I’m looking at this graph he has put on the source of motivation:

This reminds me of this conversation I had with a few classmates from business school a few months back. One of them is a successful brand manager for a large packaged goods company, and he was telling us that what gives him the thrills in his job is to see his product replace his rival companies’ products on store shelves.

It is a rather logical motivation – to see the share of the brand you manage improving. However, what was interesting was the way he put it (I’ve surely paraphrased here) – that the thrill came out of his brand doing well at the expense of a rival brand, and of watching the rival brand sink.

It got me thinking about what motivates us, and if motivations are as profound as we like to mention in either a statement of purpose or in an interview. When writing a cover letter for a job, for example, it is likely that you chart out your career path so far detailing motivations for each career move, and what motivates you to take up this job you are applying for.

With a few honourable exceptions, it is likely that it is all a lie, and that you have invented these motivations to retrofit your career progression thus far. Sometimes the real motivation could be as simple as money – you took up a certain job because it paid you well, but for whatever reason it isn’t politically correct to put this on a cover letter (it can work the other way also. I once interviewed for a proprietary trading position and the interviewer was surprised that money wasn’t my number one motivation).

For the most part, however, I argue that the real motivation for most things is something rather trivial – so trivial that nobody will trust you it can actually be a motivation. Like you join a hobby class because that allows you to stay out late. Or go for some other activity because it is near the house of someone you have taken a fancy for. Or you participate in an event because it allows you to travel to a particular city. I had once gone for a recruiting event because it was being held in a five star hotel and the agenda included lunch.

A trivial motivation need not always lead to results – the sheer triviality of the motivation means that you are less likely to generate good results from such processes. However, what trivial motivations allow is to expand the range of activities and opportunities you take part in, and the sheer volume of such expansion can take you to places you had never imagined you would get to. In other words, while at some point in time, you do use serious motivations, it is likely that the seed for such activities or pursuits had been set in more trivial settings.

So when you want to do something purely for the cheap thrills it gives you, go ahead – it might help you learn something about yourself that you’d not known before. And might motivate you to an extent well beyond what motivation you can get from profound sources.

Yet another startup idea

This time it’s an i-phone/android app. The motivation for this is the heavy advertising in the last few days for Mapmyindia GPS, on hoardings all over Bangalore. Again, I don’t know if this has been implemented before.

So this will be built on top of Mapmyindia or any other similar GPS. When you hunt for the shortest route between point A and point B, you can give two possible choices – shortest by distance and shortest by time. The former is the default choice that all GPSs currently use. This one is an app to provide the latter.

Now, each city will be mapped out as a network of intersections. And then, for each “edge” on this graph, we use data that we’ve gathered from other users of the app in order to predict the amount of time taken to travel. Of course, the prediction model is not going to be simple, and I’m willing to partner you (via my forthcoming quant consultancy firm) in developing it. It’s going to be a fairly complex model based on time-of-day, recency of data, outlier detection (what if someone stops off for lunch in the middle of an “edge”?) and all such.

So, now you have the city mapped out (for a particular instant) both in terms of distance and in terms of time, and in cases of any traffic jams or such, my system will help you find the quickest route to your destination. Should be useful, right?

Of course, the success of this app (like a lot of other apps, I guess) depends heavily on “network effect”. The more the users of this app, the better the model I’ll have in predicting time between intersections, and save you the headache of mentally trying to optimize the route to your destination each time you set out (like I do).

I’m pretty serious about this. If you think this hasn’t been done before, we can work together to get this up!

The problem with “civil society” people

is that they can’t work with people with whom they have minor differences – which is where politicians easily trump them. Politicians are expert in the art of working out compromises and working with people with whom they have divergent beliefs. Of course, it creates “unholy coalitions” but you have to give it to the enterprise of the politicians (let’s not question their motivation here) to come together as a group and get stuff done.

With civil society types, however, as soon as they discover that there is something disagreeable about the other party, they’ll cry hoarse and refuse to work with them. So for example, if for some reason I come together with these “civil society” worthies for some cause, I’m sure they’ll all ditch me as soon as they come to know that I was a member of the RSS when I was eight years old.

Because of this, it is rare that civil society types come together for a cause, which is what makes people believe that the Anna Hazare-led protests of two weeks back were such a significant success. That this magnificent coalition hasn’t really lasted, and cracks are already coming up in the “civil society” half of the draft committee just goes to illustrate my point.

There can be exceptions to this of course – civil society people drawn from an extremely homogeneous distribution ARE capable of “getting things done”. Think National Advisory Council!

Joint Blogging

So the more perceptive of you would have noticed a major change in this blog overthe last couple of weeks. It has now become a multi-author blog with my wife Pinky joining me here.

The chief motivation for this is feedback I received over the last one year that my blog had become boring and one-dimensional. Considering that I’ve been going through some sort of a mental block over the last few months, and am unable to produce posts with the same quality and frequencyas i used to earlier, I decided that the best way to spice up this blog was to bring in a co-blogger.

Around the same time, I got married to Pinky, who is herself a blogger,  so it  was natural to bring her in. And in the last couple of weeks, since I added her as an author, she has responded spectacularly, producing posts (albeit of a different flavour compared to what I produce, of course) with significnatly better regularity and quality compared to me.

So I just want to make it clear that the decision to make this blog a joint one is a conscious and well-thought out one, and not one that has been made due to marital compulsions or anything. Yes, we have markedly different writing styles, so you need not even look up or down to check the author’s name at the bottom of the post or the top of the RSS feed.

This decision to make this blog a multi-author blog is irreversible (yeah, I won’t rule out future expansion, if we are to get suitable co-bloggers; but that won’t happen for a while). So those of you who are trying to debate about the quality changes in the blog because of this change (in the comments section) are just wasting your time. And if you think that the quality is dropping for whatever reason, there is the “unsubscribe” button that your RSS feed aggregator offers you.

I’m working on producing author-specific RSS feeds, so that might allow people to selectively subscribe to posts. Essentially we are looking for a way by which our posts will appear on our respective facebook pages, rather than on everything appearing in mine. If anyone knows how to do that for a wordpress.org blog, plis to be letting us know.

Crowding out with public transport

This is an idea that’s been in my head for a while. About whether it is possible to nudge people who normally travel in cars to use public transport by simply flooding the roads with buses. The motivation for this comes from the hassles associated with marking and enforcing bus lanes, a form of public transport that is generally considered superior to subway trains in terms of cost of implementation and effectiveness.

So the idea is that as the number of buses on the road increases, the average speed of cars comes down. And after a point, the number of buses on the road means there’s enough supply that one can travel comfortably in them. And there will come a point when people will give up their cars in favour of buses since they can now spend the time more usefully rather than waste it by concentrating on the road.

Of course, this point is still far away for a city like Bangalore, though the BMTC has been making efforts, with initiatives such as the Bus Day. Still, now I’ve begun to have my doubts about it. About whether just increasing bus connectivity and frequency and quality will be enough to take cars off the road. I’ve begun to think if the comfort of not having to drive but travel at the same speed is enough to compensate for the cost of walking to and from bus stops and waiting for buses. The other cost of traveling by bus is that once you get into a bus you travel by a fixed route rather than adapting to daily traffic flows.

The important thing here is the distribution of waiting time for catching a bus. If a passenger is convinced that he is very likely to get a bus within a certain span of time with a very high probability (using vague words to avoid putting random numbers) he is likely to wait for a bus. However, if there are no such bounds, then the passenger might choose to travel by an alternate means of transport.

Still it needs to be seen. From what I know, all cities that currently boast of great public transport actually built a lot of the basic public transport infrastructure before the boom of cars in the place. I can’t recall off the top of my head any city that has actually nudged passengers from personal cars to public transport after cars had become default mode of transport (if you know of such cases, please let me know). In that sense, this nudging towards public transport is still a hard problem to solve. Nevertheless, I still think it might still be a good idea to try crowd out private transport by public transport.