Learning how to lose

Ok, the two-week show is over. It felt good while it lasted. Every night from 9 PM to 1 AM for the last two weeks, there was good escape from thinking about fuel prices in India, stock market and real estate bubbles, about Greek variants of an unknown virus, whose origin cannot be spelt out but whose variants can be traced to specific geographies, etc. It was time to forget about all that for about 4 + hours. Have to get back to some reading now! Or, until the India-England Test matches start in August.

Obviously, my observations are based on what I watched in those four hours or more precisely what Fox Sports chose to televise. So, I am not a witness to the prodigious young talent of Emma Raducanu as some of the unbiased (?) British writers write in wimbledon.com nor to the heroic comeback attempt of Andy Murray. The latter has my best wishes, of course. To be a three-time Wimbledon finalist and a two-time winner is no mean feat. The ball always comes back from Andy. I think Boris Becker said it about Novak yesterday. I felt it is truer of Andy.

Nor are my views biased because I have no favourites. I am no fan of any player. I like to watch good tennis or, in general, good entertainment. When national teams are involved, one may feel a bit more involved but even that is fading with age and correctly so. So, you can read and nod or shrug your shoulders and move on. This is just one man’s observations and vastly subjective.

I must confess to feeling a bit sad about not paying much attention to Ons Jabeur. I saw her beat Muguruza and lose to Sabalenka. She came across as a fighter. But, did not apply my mind to thinking more about her game. She is from Tunisia. Such countries need role models. That is the role that Novak plays with respect to Serbia.

Novak and Matteo had a scrappy match. The match did not reach great heights in terms of quality of tennis it produced. Both made too many errors and they were not at their consistent best. The first-serve % of both the players was in the sixties. Matteo made any errors on his forehand, his strong suit. Novak’s shot selection at critical points was perplexing. He contrived to lose the first set. Having begun the match with a double-fault, he managed to hold on to his serve and come up 5-2. He allowed Matteo back into the game. It was an encore in the second set. This time he prevailed 6-4. Third set was not particularly memorable either. Only in the fourth, did Novak give some glimpses of why he is the world champion.

In fact, Novak deserved the title for the way he played against Shapovalov in the semi-finals. Shapovalov gift-wrapped the first set and gave it to Novak. Novak had no answer to his brilliance. He was a passenger. Shapovalov won and lost the first set. It was more or less the same story in the second but now Novak was beginning to establish a bit of a presence in the match. Even then, in every service game of Novak, Shapovalov had break points. I was disappointed that the young man lost both the sets and I went off to sleep. Novak was correct and generous in his praise. Shapovalov deserved to win. But, Novak deserves praise for ‘batting down the hatches’ as a commentator kept saying.

Indeed, the achievement of a great athlete is not in winning when things are going their way but in the way they overcome a tough challenge. Novak demonstrated that amply that day. That is why he deserved the championship on Sunday.

Shapovalov could have blown many away that day. He was in a little bit of a hurry to finish off points. They say that he has matured a lot. I believe so. With a little more patience, he can go places.

In the other semi-finals, Matteo was all over Hubert. His serve and forehand were in devastating form and maintained the consistency throughout the match. As a report in Wimbledon.com or Tennis.com pointed out, his serve never deserted him even once in the match. Perhaps, he served one double-fault in the final game of the match. That Hubert took a set off him on that day speaks highly of his potential too. Matteo did not play this consistently well against Felix Auger-Aliassime or, for that matter, in the finals. He has some distance to go.

Some said that Hubert was no good. I disagree. Hubert did not have luck and that is because Matteo forced him to rely on luck. When players miss the lines by a hair’s breadth, we say that they were unlucky. We should pause to think if the opponent’s game and skill had anything to do with it. It was the case with Matteo that day. He pushed Hubert to look for winners on the edges of the court, near the tramlines and with acute angles. Naturally, the risk of failure rises. But, these four guys – Matteo, Felix, Hubert and Denis – together with Tsitsipas and Zverev constitute pretty good young talent.

Ashley Barty was the deserving champion. She was one cool customer. She is never out of the match even when the opponent is posing hard questions. She has an all-court game and all the strokes for all the surfaces. Angelique Kerber could not get past her. Now, age is catching up with her. Not sure how long will she be around. But, she lost to a really great player who was a bit too much in the semi-finals. Karolina impressed me in both the SF and in the finals. The way she soaked up Sabalenka’s imposing presence across the net and her on-again and off-again shotmaking was admirable. Pliskova gives the appearance of being languorous but she is calculating all the time. She is mostly unruffled. She showed that in both the matches. Especially in the finals when she took nearly fifteen minutes to get just one point in the match.

To come back from that start and take the match to three sets showed some class. Her remarks in the post-match interview were a gem:

Q. You said earlier that you know how to lose. I was wondering have you always known how to lose? How has that changed over your career?

KAROLINA PLISKOVA: No, no, not always. I think that’s something what you have to also learn. I mean, to know how to win and to know how to lose, you need to learn that.

But, I mean, believe me, I think all the big champions and all the big names, they need to learn this. They need to know how to also, like, lose. In the end somebody has to lose. I don’t want to be like behaving like the way, I don’t know, some people are just being like desperate or being super down. Of course, you can be down, but just don’t show it to the people because they don’t really want to see this. Be down in your room, but not really like in front of the crowd.

I think also to accept that maybe somebody played better that day, or somebody is a bit better, for no matter for which reason, I think is also important. Yeah, I just know how to do that. [Link]

All in all, it was good to delight in the world of skills on the court and admire them for their exploits on grass. It was great to see some of them transcend human foibles and follies and not merely the limitations of their game.

[Postscript: In my previous post, I have mentioned wrongly that Novak and Shapovalov were engaged in some tussle with the officialdom. Well, it is not Shapovalov. It is Pospisil. It is about fees for players, in general. It is not about prize-money for the final four or eight. I don’t have a view on the matter. But, here is a link to an interesting news-article in the New York Times on the subject.

All my expectations mentioned in that previous post as to who would come to the finals and who would win the title have turned out to be wrong. Good.]

Tales and thoughts from the Tennis Town

As the match between Hubert Hurkacz and Roger Federer was about to begin, my thoughts drifted back to the summer of 2019. I was in England to watch the cricket world cup semifinals and finals. On the day of the finals, I was at the Lord’s cricket ground watching a thriller unfold in front of my eyes. New Zealand was robbed of a historic win by a strange rule and a possible umpiring error. Some of my friends whose eyes were watching the epic contest on the cricket ground, found their hearts at the Wimbledon Centre Court. Their hero, Roger Federer, was waging his own battle against Novak Djokovic. For all practical purposes, it looked like Federer had the better game that day and yet Novak hung on, to win the title. My friends were crestfallen.

I thought this year was going to witness another Novak-Roger slugfest in the finals on Sunday. Roger had hardly broken sweat in his serene march to the quarter finals. Novak had just dismissed the challenge from the spirited Hungarian in the first quarter finals of the day. It may be a well-worn expression but Hubert had other ideas. After watching the match, I feel that Hubert is a silent assassin. He does not display too much histrionics or theatrics on court. Good for him.

But, his speed of movement is deceptive. His movements are languorous. But, he gets there and retrieves them all. Well, almost. Several points – as good as given up by other players – ended up on his side of the ledger. When Federer broke early in the second set, I switched to watching the high-octane Khachanov-Shapovalov thriller. But, Roger had surrendered the early lead. HH made Roger lose heart with his amazing shot-making and solid serve. In the third set, Roger seemed to lose heart. He did not try to play many balls. He had given up. But, to beat Roger Federer, even when he is nearing 40, on a Wimbledon centre court 6-0 in the quarter final, must count as the man’s biggest achievements even if Hubert Hurkacz goes on to win more titles in his career. I back him to be in the final, getting the better of Berrettini.

I watched the first two sets of the match between Berrettini and the 20-year old, immensely talented Felix Auger-Aliassime. The Canadian lad has a bright future. Well, that is an easy statement to make. He is a fighter and he plays with a big heart and a brain that belies his age. Berrettini should have been 2-0 in the first two sets when he fluffed two break points to go 5-3 and serve out the set. In the end, he lost the second set 5-7. It was time to hit the bed. Looks like he has shown character to win the next two. Good for him. Somehow, I got the impression that he makes too many unforced errors. He does not seem to have the consistency in shot-making that is needed to win big matches on big occasions against big players. Well, that is my limited observation based on, admittedly, limited evidence.

The semi-final match-up between Novak and Denis Shapovalov could be the final for all purposes. The latter has speed, energy, spirit and a great range of shot-making off the forehand and backhand. I was mighty impressed. Considering how well Khachanov played, he would have beaten many players on Wednesday. But, he came up against Shapovalov.I understand that Djokovic and Shapovalov are aligned on some matter involving the officialdom. (This is not correct. It is Novak Djokovic and Pospisil, another Canadian player. Sorry about that).  But, I doubt if that affinity or alignment will be on display in the Centre Court on Friday. It is the electric Shapovalov vs. the doughty Djokovic. For all his record and determination, my money will be on Denis Shapovalov. I might be influenced by the recent evidence. Human tendency is to overweight recent evidence and ignore a long and distinguished record. I accept the criticism.

I feel that the time for the torch to pass on appears to have arrived. We had Andy Murray making a brave comeback but did not succeed. He is a two-time winner and a three-times finalist. Nadal did not compete this time. Federer is unsure of his Wimbledon future and rightly so. The game is high-powered with oversized racket heads and the tours are relentless. It takes a toll and the burnout rate is high. For Novak, Rafael and Roger to last as long as they have is an immense achievement. Especially Roger. The other two are still younger. So, let us see if it is a Shapovalov-Hurkacz final on Sunday. That is my expectation.

The men’s circuit seems to be full of talent while the women’s circuit appears to lack exciting players. I could be wrong here. Are women players fading out too quickly? I don’t see too many of them display the staying power on the circuit as the three gents have. The Williams sisters were the last of such a tribe, it appears.

Of course, full credit to Angelique Kerber to make a determined quest for the title. To beat Serena in straight sets in 2018 would have taken some doing even though Serena might have just about peaked and the declining phase might have commenced. Two years before that in 2016, she had lost in straight sets to Serena. Now, 2021 could be her turn, even though Ashley Barty appears bubbly, charming and has good court coverage. She is as comfortable at the net as she is at rallying from the baseline. But, Kerber seems more resolute and her retrieval capabilities are tremendous. The angles she can create in her shots are breathtaking. It is hard to relax against her. Even when she seems out, she finds it in her to claw her way back into a match. As does Novak. Novak has done it time and again. My money is on Kerber to win the women’s title this year.

If my amateur punditry has any substance in it, then I expect Angelique Kerber to lift the plate on Saturday and Denis Shapovalov to lift the cup on Sunday.

After losing the match, in his press conference, Roger Federer said this:

“Clearly there’s still a lot of things missing in my game that maybe 10, 15, 20 years ago were very simple and very normal for me to do. Nowadays they don’t happen naturally anymore. I got to always put in the extra effort mentally to remember to do this or do that. I have a lot of ideas on the court, but sometimes I can’t do what I want to do. [Link]

Once a player feels that way, he is perhaps ready to go. That candid observation made me recall a similar observation made by an astute cricket observer in 2019 after India lost the semi-final clash against New Zealand narrowly in Manchester in the World Cup cricket tournament. He said that MS Dhoni’s mind still makes the calculations needed to win matches off his own bat in the last two overs but that the ability of the body to translate those calculations into winning sums was waning.

Roger Federer’s ability to figure out where his body and mind stand is praiseworthy.

Two tidbits to close this post:

One is the comment made by Novak Djokovic on ‘wolf energy’. Several people I know believe in ‘wolf energy’.

Djokovic hailed his family roots for his on-court passion, which was evident on Court One, as well as the struggles in growing up in Serbia in the 1990s during the Balkans conflict.

“Part of it is genes. We grew up in difficult times for my country and failure was never an option,” he said.

“We had to find basic ways to survive, that strengthened my character.

“Also my upbringing in the mountains I spent a lot of time with wolves — this is wolf energy. I’m not kidding.” [Link]

Lastly, the controversy over John McEnroe’s remarks on Emma Raducanu’s withdrawal from the pre-quarter final match due to her physical discomfort is both needless and manufactured. He was not harsh. He sympathised with her. He said that the situation might have gotten to her. The statement that the player released the next morning appeared to vindicate what he said. She had felt overwhelmed and that manifested in physical discomfort.

She is young and she will learn and she will be all the stronger for it.

Such observations are what senior, experienced and capable ‘Guru’s (teachers) would offer to their wards/students/disciples. They may sound harsh but they are usually accurate and are steps on the ladder to success and glory. No point in taking umbrage at them. That is what a Guru is for.

[Postscript: I must disagree with the comments made by friend TCA Srinivasa Raghavan on the relative attractiveness of tennis and cricket in this article. I love both the games and I must disagree with his views on tennis over cricket.]

Humility over hubris

I woke up this morning and checked my in-box. The usual ‘Business Standard’ daily morning briefing was there. I saw an article with a brief description about hubris and humility. These issues fascinate me. Human frailty, fragility and behavioural quirks and features greatly fascinate me. In another setting, I might have avoided doing a Management Degree, a Ph.D in Exchange Rates, etc and become a psychologist, perhaps! Who knows? Anyway, ‘what if’ questions are always interesting.

But, the funny part of it was that while I scrolled the mail for other headlines, I missed seeing this one again. I searched frantically and I could not locate it. It is not possible. So, I thought I would search in the internet and I found several other articles.

In the meantime, I did find the article that emphasised humility over hubris. It is written by my friend R. Jagannathan (‘Jaggi’). It is well written. In fact, it is top-drawer stuff for many of its ‘tongue-in-cheek’ elements. His main subject matter, the Finance Minister of Tamil Nadu, has indeed been talking too much and talking a little too abrasively. Not necessary.

That said, I did like his prepared remarks made (or was not made) at the GST Council Meeting on the 28th May 2021. They were substantive. My personal view is that he should let his work and intellect speak for themselves.

My friend Harikiran Vadlamani (HKV), the man and the brain behind Indic Academy (check it out) shared this once:

Humility is a strange thing – the moment you think you have it, you’ve lost it! – Swami Chinmayananda

Hubris is even stranger – the moment you think you don’t have it, you have gained it ! – HKV

They are cute and, yes, they are simplistic. But, yes, they are also exaggerations that make a point. That is what exaggerations are for.

If we think about it, we often say accusingly or disapprovingly, that someone is so full of himself or herself. But, there is a flip side and a positive one at that. Only those who have an irrational self-belief or self-confidence will defy odds, will do and achieve things that reasonable people won’t or won’t even try. They are the disruptors and change agents – for the better or for the worse. What is funny or sad – depending on the effect on the world – is that those who do such odds-defying feats eventually end up being change agents for the worse. They continue to disrupt all right but the larger good suffers.

So, for the rest of us, it is important to remember that people who are full of themselves are the ones who change the paradigm (sorry for the cliched expression) and who achieve things beyond the three-sigma range. Most of us will be calculating odds and will never even attempt them.  But, at some stage, the self-belief become delusional and the decline begins. But, they are too proud and too consumed by their self-belief to notice it even. That is how the cookie crumbles or has crumbled in history.

It would all be nice if they know when to switch from being disruptors to being ‘maintainers’. The latter requires reasonable, risk-averse behaviour.  But, that is as rare as it is desirable and admirable.

We can start with a definition of hubris:

The simplest definition for the word “hubris” is dangerous overconfidence. But the word has additional nuanced complexities. It’s an ancient Greek word that also included taking pleasure out of humiliating others and even encompassed a connotation of sexual conquest and exploitation. Hubris, according to the Greeks, is an insult to humility and epitomizes insolence to the gods. [Link]

Christopher Bergland writes:

Believing that you possess both the power of Atlas and are as insignificance as an Ant is a difficult paradox for the human ego to navigate, but it is the key to being extraordinary. A lot of athletes are incapable of doing this. I’ve struggled with it myself over the years. [Link]

These brief lines from Scott Miller (part of the blog of Franklin Covey) were interesting:

As you’re climbing up, throw a rope down and lift them up with you. Encourage them to climb above you. If you’re confident in both your character and competence, your shoulders can handle some weight….. Remember, humble leaders are more concerned with what is right than being right. [Link]

Dr. Steven Berglas of the Harvard Medical School wrote this in 2014 for the Harvard Business Review:

Hubris, … is a reactive disorder: Either the unfortunate consequence of endless laudatory press clippings leading to supreme over-confidence, or the culmination of a winning streak that causes a person to suffer the transient delusion that he is bullet-proof. Many good people will, under bad circumstances, suffer from hubris— but they tend to recover after toppling from their pedestals shrinks their egos back down to size.

Of course, one way for hubris to be reined in is for leaders to create and institutionalise mechanisms for someone to play the devil’s advocate, communicate freely and challenge the established view in a group setting. It is not without its pitfalls. Some may take advantage of it and may think that the leader is weak. Alternatively, some may try to poison the leader’s mind about the ‘naysayer’ (even if the leader had appointed him or her to be a naysayer). It is not easy.

Also, conformity is hard-coded in  us as this book extract says. It is from ‘Meltdown: why our systems fail and what we can do about it?’:

“We show that a deviation from the group opinion is regarded by the brain as a punishment,” said the study’s lead author, Vasily Klucharev. And the error message combined with a dampened reward signal produces a brain impulse indicating that we should adjust our opinion to match the consensus. Interestingly, this process occurs even if there is no reason for us to expect any punishment from the group. As Klucharev put it, “This is likely an automatic process in which people form their own opinion, hear the group view, and then quickly shift their opinion to make it more compliant with the group view.”…. Our tendency for conformity can literally change what we see….

….And when people went against the group, there was a surge in activity in brain regions involved in the processing of emotionally charged events. This was the emotional cost of standing up for one’s beliefs; the researchers called it “the pain of independence.”

When we shift our opinions to conform, we’re not lying. We may not even be conscious that we’re giving in to others. What’s happening is something much deeper, something unconscious and uncalculated: our brain lets us avoid the pain of standing alone. [Link]

In other words, it is not just the hubristic person but even people around him or her are hard-wired to encourage hubristic tendencies.

They add:

And listening to a dissenting voice can be as hard as speaking up….

It turns out that the effect of being challenged — of having your opinions rejected or questioned — isn’t just psychological. Research shows that there is a real, physical impact on the body. Your heart beats faster and your blood pressure rises. Your blood vessels narrow as if to limit the bleeding that might result from an injury in an impending fight. Your skin turns pale, and your stress level skyrockets. It’s the same reaction you would have if you were walking in the jungle and suddenly spotted a tiger.

This primal fight-or-flight response makes it hard to listen. And, according to an experiment conducted at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, things get even worse when we are in a position of authority….

….that even the faintest sense of power — being in charge of something clearly inconsequential — can corrupt. And it’s just one of many studies drawing the same conclusion. Research shows that when people are in a position of power, or even just have a sense of power, they are more likely to misunderstand and dismiss others’ opinions, more likely to interrupt others and speak out of turn during discussions, and less willing to accept advice — even from experts.

In fact, having power is a bit like having brain damage. As Keltner put it, “people with power tend to behave like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal lobes,” a condition that can cause insensitive and overly impulsive behaviour. [Link]

The extract then goes on to give two examples. One is the case of a dentist where he had empowered the receptionist to challenge him and direct him to take a look at a patient. He does so and sends him for treatment immediately to a heart centre because the man was experiencing symptoms of an ongoing heart attack and his family had a history of heart attacks.

The second example is that of cockpit authority and airline crashes. Passengers were safer when the less experienced pilot was flying the plane:

Of course, it’s not that captains were poor pilots. But when the captain was the flying pilot, he (and most often it was a “he”) was harder to challenge. His mistakes went unchecked. In fact, the report found that the most common error during major accidents was the failure of first officers to question the captain’s poor decisions. In the reverse situation, when the first officer was flying the plane, the system worked well. The captain raised concerns and pointed out mistakes and helped the flying pilot understand complex situations. But this dynamic worked only in one direction.

This is indeed an apt conclusion:

But learning to embrace dissent is hard. When Crew Resource Management was introduced, many pilots thought it was useless psychobabble. They called it “charm school” and felt it was an absurd attempt to teach them how to be warm and fuzzy. But as more and more accident investigations revealed how failures to speak up and listen led to disasters, attitudes began to shift. Charm school for pilots has become one of the most powerful safety interventions ever designed.

A paper written by Nassim N. Taleb, Daniel G. Goldstein, and Mark W. Spitznagel in the Harvard Business Review in 2009 on the six mistakes in risk management is related to listening and speaking up, in a way.

The six mistakes are:

(1) We think we can manage risk by predicting extreme events

(2) We are convinced that studying the past will help us manage risk

(3) We don’t listen to advice about what we shouldn’t do

(4) We assume that risk can be measured by standard deviation

(5) We don’t appreciate that what’s mathematically equivalent isn’t psychologically so

(6) We are taught that efficiency and maximizing shareholder value don’t tolerate redundancy

I like (3) followed by (5). The whole article is here.

In conclusion, let us spare a thought for our hubristic leaders. Conformity is easy. Speaking up is hard. Listening is harder. We are wired to conform. We are not wired to speak up nor to listen. So, hubris has to be the default! Worse, we don’t even know if, on many occasions, the shoe is on the other foot!

Languish vs. Dormant

Psychologist Adam Grant had given a label, ‘languish’ to the feeling of ‘blah!’ that many have felt and continue to feel in the last twelve months. Several friends, with whom I shared the article, felt that it described their own state of mind accurately.

These are the key extracts of that article:

Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression — and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.

The term was coined by a sociologist named Corey Keyes, who was struck that many people who weren’t depressed also weren’t thriving. His research suggests that the people most likely to experience major depression and anxiety disorders in the next decade aren’t the ones with those symptoms today. They’re the people who are languishing right now. And new evidence from pandemic health care workers in Italy shows that those who were languishing in the spring of 2020 were three times more likely than their peers to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Part of the danger is that when you’re languishing, you might not notice the dulling of delight or the dwindling of drive. You don’t catch yourself slipping slowly into solitude; you’re indifferent to your indifference. When you can’t see your own suffering, you don’t seek help or even do much to help yourself. [Link]

He notes that giving oneself uninterrupted time and focusing on small goals are antidotes to languishing. But, some of the answers may be a case of Catch-22.  But, I liked this last line and therein lies the clue to why mental illnesses are not attended to at all. We are in denial of them all the time. Almost all of us:

We still live in a world that normalizes physical health challenges but stigmatizes mental health challenges

There was a response to this article by who wrote that he was not languishing but that he was consciously dormant. Of course, the moment one is conscious of what one is doing, they cannot be languishing.

This is a fair point:

But one has to remember that naming doesn’t just describe the world, it creates the world, too. As Brian Eno says, “Giving something a name can be just the same as inventing it.” 

In these lines, it looks like he is trying to make a case for acceptance as an answer to the situation we face:

It seems to me that the reason that so many of us feel like we’re languishing is that we are trying to flourish in terrible conditions. It is spring outside — or the “unlocking” season — but it is still “Winter in America,” and, as any gardener knows, if you try to wake a plant out of dormancy too soon, it will wither, and maybe die.

in other words, there is a time to lie low and not do anything and such dormancy is a part of flourishing when the conditions are propitious. Being patient when conditions are not propitious and respecting the reality that there will be winters and then springs, etc., is what he is alluding to here:

It is a mistake and a misreading of nature to think that you, a living creature, will be flourishing all the days of your life.

We learn, from the article that Michelangelo lost four years of work to dealing with a lawsuit. In other words, stuff happens.

I like both the articles for different reasons. Adam Grant’s article helps people recognise what they might be going through. They do not have to feel very worried. They will feel a bit better that it is rather commonplace and widespread, in these times. The response by Austin Kleon too is good in the sense that, indirectly, it makes the case for acceptance and not resisting what cannot be resisted or what may not be possible to resist.

The omitted variable in CSK’s success

Today, I saw the header in Cricinfo.com. See the picture below:

CSK

A thought crossed my head. It is not as though CSK played badly last year. They won a few matches in the end. If I recall correctly, at least two matches were very close. In one match, Dwayne Bravo sustained a groin strain and could not bowl his last over. 

This year the players are almost the same, except for Shane Watson. Suresh Raina is back. But, the bulk of the players is the same. So, what has changed?

The header says, ‘change in attitude’. The oft-used word is ‘intent’. What about ‘luck’? Why is not mentioned? Should everything be in our control? Is it the case any time? Most of the time, it is not.

The team had the same set of skills, talent, experience. To be sure, they might have pledged to apply themselves better. But, success breeds success. Suddenly, people begin to look for reasons for success. It might be a small stroke of luck here and a small stroke of luck there. Had not Russell lost his leg stump by moving too far inside the line, KKR might well have won their match against CSK. Or, had Nagarkoti taken a single and given the strike to Cummins, they might have won the match. Who knows?

[Parenthetically, I should mention here that Riyan Parag should have taken a single and given the strike to David Miller today in their 20th over against the Mumbai Indians. Perhaps, who knows, they could have added ten more runs to their total.]

Humans look at success and want to explain it as reflecting their endeavour, their application, their hard work. My point is not that these things don’t matter. I doubt if there is such a big difference in these aspects from last year to this year. Luck plays a huge role in our successes and failures. We can call it ‘Divine Will’ or ‘grace’ too. That is required.

Although not directly applicable to the above situation, the quote below resonates:

……While we are rather willing and even eager and relieved to agree with a historian’s finding that we stumbled into the more shameful events of history, such as war, we are correspondingly unwilling to concede—in fact we find it intolerable to imagine—that our more lofty achievements, such as economic, social or political progress, could have come about by stumbling rather than through careful planning. . . . Language itself conspires toward this sort of asymmetry: we fall into error, but do not usually speak of falling into truth. [Link]

That quote is from the review article by Malcolm Gladwell on the book by Adelson on Albert Hirschman.

 

Effective teams

Mr. Ravi Venkatesan, founder-promoter of GAME (Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurs) had shared an article that Charles Duhigg had written in February 2016. Today is a day for revisiting old gems, it looks like.

Charles Duhigg knows how to write and how to tell a story. He weaves well. His 2018 article, ‘The case against Google’, incidentally, was a classic. It is worth reading. Still relevant. Perhaps, more relevant.

His book, ‘The power of habit’ is in my Kindle app. Yet to read, though.

This article leaves me with somewhat mixed feelings in the end. I would have preferred the words, ‘openness’ and ‘trust’ that openness would not be exploited or used against a team member than the word, ‘safety’ which is a word in fashion these days.

Some key extracts (as I saw them):

But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations….

Trust is one word that captures the above.

what Silicon Valley does best: figure out how to create psychological safety faster, better and in more productive ways.

If one thinks of the nation and its people as a team, is Silicon valley really raising the level of psychological safety, in all key issues of the day – whether it is political ideology or Covid handling, etc.,? In other words, is Silicon Valley or Google, living up to (1) above, for America as a whole?

She wanted her teammate to be sensitive to what she was feeling.

Understanding someone takes time and effort and so is establishing trust. If we are lazy, we don’t do that and hence, we resort to heuristics and short-cuts and slot people into pre-existing mental  boxes in our heads that we think we understand.

In other words, if we delay or, better, avoid sticking labels to people, we will be doing well as members of teams inside an organisation and members of a larger society or nation or the world.

What will we do with (or without) Housel’s delightful nuggets?

Again, thanks to my friend, Gulzar Natarajan I read Morgan Housel’s blog post tilted, ‘A few short stories’. It was written about five days ago.

Indeed, as always a very delightful read. But, if I may dare say, Morgan Housel has also become sort of predictable with his collection of stories. There is a part of me that asks, ‘So’? – similar to the guys who landed on the moon and asked if that was all there was to it.

Beyond reminding us to be humble because we don’t know much and we may not even know what we don’t know and that we all may be victims of the Dunning-Krueger effect (that we overestimate what we know and underestimate our ignorance or are not even cognisant of it), my only hope is that at the right time when I need them, these nuggets of wisdom come to my rescue. Of that, I cannot be sure either because I have no idea how my brain works 🙂

  • That risk is something that happens to others – my dad used to say this repeatedly, when you are young, you think old age is something that happens to others.
  • That the lady who had her blindness cured regretted it – law of unintended consequences
  • John Nash’ remark – that is an important reminder – that the same person who could do some out of the world thing that you liked could do another out of the world thing that you did not like. We accept one and cannot accept that both stem from the same personality trait or skills or attributes that he/she possessed.
  • That the anticipation of something was always more exciting than the reality – the story of the astronauts who felt underwhelmed on landing in moon – used to be referred to in the context of marriage. 

But, the problem with all of these is this: what do you do with it? The hope is that subconsciously they seep into us and that, at the right time, our brains put them to work and save us from some mistake, blunder, disaster, calamity, etc., just as it struck the British commander that if they could rescue soldiers from Dunkirk, Germans could cross the ocean too. I hope that such intuition and insight comes to the top of the mind surface from the recesses of our consciousness, where all the imprints of these readings are stored, hopefully.

Emptiness of evil

Destruction is an inverted form of creation, which brings into being a new entity known as nothingness. Since God has cornered the act of creation, the devil can only imitate this creativity by trying to break up God’s handiwork; but this means, to Satan’s eternal chagrin, that evil is dependent on good, and is always belated in relation to it.

There’s a long tradition for which evil is a kind of lack or absence. It may look frighteningly real, but it really springs from an incapacity for life.

When evil people feel agonised by the sickening void inside themselves, they try to fill it by annihilating others. Only in the act of destruction can they feel alive. Only by spreading their own nothingness around themselves can they hope to escape from it. Yet one can also view this from another perspective.

One reason why the evil detest human life is because it is messy. Evil is unnerved by the untidy and unfinished. Materiality is shapeless, mercurial stuff which seeps all over the place. The evil, however, are purists and disciples of order who find chaos unbearable, and who are therefore deeply hostile to the human body.

Evil has the mystery of things that are motiveless. This is one reason why it is sometimes seen as glamorous, compared to the prim world of virtue. In fact, virtue is also a matter of doing things for their own sake, rather than for profit and reward, and thus has an unnerving resemblance to evil. The devil, one should recall, was once an angel. Evil may appear full of energy and exoticism, but that is just outward show.

Vice became exciting when virtue grew boring. For Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, virtue is all about abundance of life. By the time we arrive at the philosophy of John Locke in the late 17th century, virtue is now a thoroughly bourgeois affair — a matter of thrift, prudence, chastity, temperance, honesty, sobriety and a number of other qualities for which one feels more admiration than affection. No wonder, then, that with the rise of the middle classes evil finally comes into own, as Milton’s magnificently rebellious Satan overshadows his stiff-necked bureaucrat of a God. Dickens’s heroes have all the virtues, but his villains have all the life. One would rather knock back a glass of whisky with Fagan than share an orange juice with Oliver Twist. How to make goodness interesting becomes an exacting artistic problem. A few centuries later, “wicked” would come to mean “great”, and Gothic would be all the rage in university English
departments.

If only the evil could let themselves go, they might recognise that there is a more fertile kind of nothingness than destruction, namely the act of self-dispossession. Only in this way might they be open to genuine life. [Link]

Somehow, when I was reading this, a paragraph I read in the wonderful review of Laurence Freeman’s ‘Strategy: a history’ by Professor Avinash Dixit:

Finally, Clausewitz recognized that even a seemingly decisive battle was seldom the end of the story. \A defeated enemy might rise again. … As victory might be temporary … it might be prudent to negotiate a settlement under more favorable terms when the optimum position has been reached” (p. 93). This is true in real-life games more generally: every game is embedded within a bigger game, and a seemingly winning strategy in this game may be bad for the larger game. The more game theory I learn and understand, the better I realize that what your mother told you was \the right thing to do” is often also the best self-interested strategy for the long run and for the bigger game. [Link]

When in doubt, act

I am surprised that I had not blogged on this article the first time it was shared with me by my friend Srinivas Varadarajan in 2013. The article had originally appeared in 2013, of course. Malcolm Gladwell wrote it. It was a review of a biography of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman, a Princeton historian. It took me four years to click on the link that my friend Srinivas Varadarajan had sent and now, four years later, the article is back in my space.

Somewhat interestingly, my friend Gulzar Natarajan shared a paragraph from that article with me yesterday. It is worth repeating it here:

Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be……

……While we are rather willing and even eager and relieved to agree with a historian’s finding that we stumbled into the more shameful events of history, such as war, we are correspondingly unwilling to concede—in fact we find it intolerable to imagine—that our more lofty achievements, such as economic, social or political progress, could have come about by stumbling rather than through careful planning. . . . Language itself conspires toward this sort of asymmetry: we fall into error, but do not usually speak of falling into truth. [Link]

The last line is a gem and it can be interpreted in ever so many ways. It fully reflects the play of human ego. Errors are not ours. They are accidents that are no fault of ours. But, correct solutions are not serendipitous. We engineered them. We don’t stumble into achievements. We actively planned and made them happen. It is beautiful and yet wholly unsurprising that we have even made the language reflect this strong belief of ours: faults are not ours but achievements are!

I am presenting below some extracts from the article and comment on them when I could not resist myself from commenting!

The phrase that Hirschman and Colorni would repeat to each other was that they hoped to “prove Hamlet wrong.” Hamlet shouldn’t have been frozen by his doubts; he should have been freed by them. Hamlet took himself too seriously. He thought he needed to be perfect. Colorni and Hirschman didn’t. Courage, Colorni wrote, required the willingness “to always be on guard against oneself.”…. Hirschman would come to recognize that action fuelled by doubt allows for failures to be left behind.

The extract below resonates with us when we confront choices between ‘tried and tested’ and the unknown. Or, when we look for a new job, between an established employer and a start-up, say. Of course, there is no right or wrong decision. Each one of has to be clear about our preferences and what we are comfortable with. On a whim, Hirschman relocated to Bogota, Colombia.

Of course, eventually it turned out to be a very happy period in his and in his family’s life. I am not sure that we will be writing about it if he or his family members encountered something very harmful in those years. Even he might have called his own decision reckless and his philosophical attitude to experimentation ver. certitude and between doubt and conviction might have evolved differently. Who knows?

Writing to her parents about the family’s decision to move to Colombia, which was then in the midst of a civil war, Sarah explained, “We both realize that you should think of the future—make plans for the children etc. But I think we both somehow feel that it is impossible to know what is best and that the present is so much more important—because if the present is solid and good it will be a surer basis for a good future than any plans that you can make.” Most people would not have left a home in Chevy Chase and the security of a job in Washington to go to a Third World country where armed gangsters roamed the streets, because they would feel certain that Colombia was a mistake. Hirschman believed, as a matter of principle, that it was impossible to know whether Colombia would be a mistake. As it happened, the four years the family spent in Bogotá were among its happiest. Hirschman returned to Latin America again and again during his career, and what he learned there provided the raw material for his most brilliant work. His doubt was a gift, not a curse.

It is not very difficult to relate to this extract:

Obstacles led to frustration, and frustration to anxiety. No one wanted to be anxious. But wasn’t anxiety the most powerful motivator—the emotion capable of driving even the most reluctant party toward some kind of solution?

It is not that difficult to believe that it is the restless mind or that it is the unreasonable person that comes up with extraordinary answers that alter the status quo, that shows a new path, etc.

In other words, what Albert Hirschman is saying is that when there is no conflict between different ideas, when there is no doubt in our heads, when you are so sure of yourself, you make no intellectual progress. Being restless and being anxious and prone to self-doubt is a path to creativity, intellectual growth and progress, according to Prof. Hirschman.

We can extend this notion to nations and societies too. When there is no openness of conflict between ideas and when alternative ideas and views are suppressed, nations do not make progress. Further, when nations undertake policies only when they are sure of themselves, they will never take decisions.

It makes sense to undertake policy experimentation, learn, make changes, improvise, improve and move along. That is why he says, interestingly, that when policymakers think that they got it right when, in fact, they are wrong, that is when creative solutions emerge just as they do, when they are in doubt and still have to act. Of course, it also means that one is simply lucky. The two examples to support this assertion are the case of the Troy-Greenfield railroad. It was an impossible task. But, because the planners did not know how difficult it would, they had ‘recklessly’ begun construction. But, it turned out to be a game-changer for the good, for America! The second example was that of Karnaphuli Paper Mills in Bangladesh.

Sometimes, I admit, it is also difficult to draw the right lessons from these examples for ourselves, except to remind ourselves of our fallibility and of the limitations of our own knowledge and the vastness of our ignorance.

When I reached the end of the review and I saw the story about school vouchers and of the differences between exit, voice and loyalty, I could connect ‘exit’ immediately to passive-aggressive behaviour and voice being the opposite of it. So, it was with a pleasant sensation of being proven right, that I read the sentences below:

Exit is passive. It is silent protest. And silent protest, for him, is too easy. “Proving Hamlet wrong” was about the importance of acting in the face of doubt—but also of acting in the face of fear. Voice was courage.

Exit is also escapism just as passive-aggressive behaviour is. The latter is a sign of unwillingness to hold oneself, one’s own views and actions to scrutiny. We are not confident that they would stand up to scrutiny. Hence, we withdraw and not confront a situation, we don’t engage in dialogue, we don’t resolve it one way or the other, durably. We withdraw, we sulk and we make it worse for all concerned.

In short, I am glad that my friend Gulzar Natarajan brought the article back to my attention and I am glad that I had the time and the mind to re-read it.

One does not have to agree with Hirschman to find him charming. It may be easier said than done to act in the face of doubt and to accept lack of certitude as a permanent feature of one’s thinking. It is not easy. It is  unsettling. Others may find us ‘useless’. Only very few can understand such an attitude as one of intellectual honesty and humility and not as a sign of weakness or incompetence. Further, constant experimentation can also result in failures and sometimes, rather seriously so. So, it is easy to find such an attitude ‘charming’ in hindsight.

But, the admonition that the mistake of Hamlet was that he took himself too seriously is well worth heeding.

IPL 2021 early impressions – the elder one has to grow up

Nothing is likely to come close to the scowl that the camera captured on the face of Krunal Pandya, on seeing the amusingly floundering attempt to stop a boundary of Johnny Bairstow by Trent Boult. He did not succeed. But, his running after the ball – whether deliberately done for amusement or not – was quite amusing. Unfortunately, Krunal Pandya could not see the funny side of it. Trent Boult did not misfield. The ball was travelling too fast for him. It would have been good, for a change, for the elder Pandya to have seen the funny side of it. He did not. His scowl showed that he takes the game seriously. Good. But, it also revealed that he takes himself too seriously. Not good. I can believe  Deepak Hooda even though the Baroda Cricket Association has banned him on disciplinary grounds for showing dissent. Perhaps, it is someone else who needs to be disciplined.

In this regard, his younger brother has made more progress in recent years. India’s captain Virat Kohli has done better than him too. Even the man with multiple perspectives like Ashwin Ravichandran has to traverse some distance on this one. It was very good of India’s batting maestro Sunil Gavaskar to tell Ashwin, in their conversation, that the one advice he had for today’s stars (rising or risen) is not to take themselves too seriously. Very relevant to all of us and never more so than for people in the limelight or prominent people or both.

Let us stay with Ashwin. After going for plenty in the first match against Chennai, he came back very well against Rajasthan and it was not a good decision on young Pant’s part not to bowl out his full quota. I felt that way even before Stoinis went for fifteen in his over. Of course, the match turned early enough when Pant was run out. The pitch was very different when he was batting. RR did not look like making it. Avesh Khan leaked in the 18th, I think. So did Rabada, surprisingly, in the nineteenth. Tom Curran was always suspect given he had neither pace nor was there any swing on offer. Ashwin would have been a better bet in that over too. It was good to see Ashwin in form against Rajasthan. It is important for India.

The fact that Morris swung it for his team must have caused a few fresh questions on Sanju Samson’s instinctive decision to refuse him a single in the 20th over in their very interesting encounter against Punjab. I back that decision. Sanju was batting in a different zone in that game. He was right to take it upon himself to finish the match. It was not to be. Notwithstanding dropped catches, he was sublime. It was a match about which both the captains could be proud. Rahul played beautifully. But for an utterly difficult catch that Tewatia made look ridiculously easy, Rahul would have added another 10 or even 20 runs in the last over of Punjab’s innings. Hooda’s sixes on the offside were special.

Punjab’s loss to Chennai was triggered by Rahul’s brilliant runout by Jadeja. I was joking with my Chennai fan-friends that Chennai was having an ‘off day’, as they clinically dismantled the innings of Punjab. Chahar bowled quite well. Rituraj is not firing. That is disappointing. Quite a few young guns are not. Shubman Gill has not set the stage alight. He looks to be in good touch. It is early days for Padikkal of course. Mayank Agarwal is having a lean trot that began in Australia. Manish Pandey looks unable to switch gears. Vijay Shankar has always batted well below the required strike rate this format. He really needs to go back to the drawing board. The catch he dropped off Kieran Pollard in the game against Mumbai on Saturday probably cost them the match.

Staying with batters (or batsmen), good to see Prithvi Shaw come good against Chennai. He must continue for India’s sake. India’s bench strength looks good. But, the pipeline must continue to keep the talent flowing. Ishan Kishan’s form is indifferent. I would like to see Priyam Garg, Abhishek Sharma, Rihan Parag and Shivam Dube come good this season. Let us see. Hyderabad has to find a way to fit Kane Williamson and go with just Rashid Khan in the overseas player list and use Indian bowlers. They need better batting.

As for their bowling, for all my love for Natarajan and his big hearted bowling, I do feel that his economy rate needs to be a run lower, in this IPL. Bhuvi appears to be leaking more than he should, considering how well he bowled against England. His two sixes of the last two balls against Pollard on Saturday (17th April) were decisive. Two other bowlers who are yet to strike form are Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur. From the India angle, it will be good to see them among wickets for fewer runs. That will boost their confidence. That Jadeja is back somewhere near his peak is a good sign as is the form being shown by Pant with his bat. Sundar is perhaps trying too hard. He needs to go back what worked for him in IPL 2020. His economy rate for the most part of the tournament was below six runs per over last year. Mohammed Siraj is doing well for Bengaluru. I am pleased with that.

Mumbai losing their first match against Bengaluru was actually not a good sign because that is how they have started in recent years and gone on to win the tournament eventually. I went to bed before their match against Kolkata got over. I was shocked to see Kolkata squander it as did Hyderabad yesterday. Great to see Bumrah holding a rampaging Bairstow in check. The good thing about Boult is that he comes back strongly even if batsmen knock the leather out of the skin of the ball off his bowling, from time to time. Even though Rahul Chahar did not do well in his outing for India – I expected him to do better – he has come back well in the IPL. Good for him.

As for Suryakumar Yadav, he was batting in his own zone against Kolkata. On Saturday, he looked set to repeat that before Vijay Shankar snapped him up off his own bowling. I like his confidence. But, there are only thin lines between confidence, overconfidence and arrogance. He needs to watch out.

These are still early days to predict the final four although from a competitive interest angle, it is disappointing to see Mumbai pulling ahead. It would be interesting if they were the underdog going into the second half of the tournament. That does not appear to be the case. Every other team seems to have more problems than they do.

I am rooting for Rihan Parag, Padikkal, Rituraj, Priyam Garg to do well. In bowling, I want to see Karthik Tyagi perform. He impressed me with his attitude last year. That is why he went as a support bowler. Well, how can I end this post without mentioning Chetan Sakariya. The boy has tremendous attitude and what a catch he took in the match against Punjab to get rid of Nikolas Pooran. The umpires took forever to confirm the catch. I was reminded of the catch that Malan ‘took’ for England against India in one of the ODI matches. The batsman was Suryakumar Yadav. That was given out when it was clear that the ball had clearly touched the ground. Here, young Sakariya was in full possession of the ball all the way through. The boy has come through tough times and a difficult background. Has shown tremendous character to get to where he is, today. May he succeed and stay grounded while making sure that his catches are not, as he did the other day.

This young man bowls above 130 kmph and as he puts on some weight, he will definitely crest 140. Would love to see both him and Tyagi operate in tandem for India, one day.