Nihilism is more powerful than optimism

A few weeks ago, I landed on this tweet.

It criticizes the naive optimism of the quoted tweet. Life is often harsh, out of our agency and control. Felix is rationally right. We don’t have full agency over our life. Ask someone suffering from illnesses and born to an unstable family.

Typically, optimism is seen as the opposite of pessimism. That creates a symmetric perception. But, pessimism is vastly more powerful than optimism. You see this phenomenon everywhere — negativity bias.

even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things

Negativity bias expresses itself in relationships and tribes like companies, countries and institutions . In a marriage, it takes about five good interactions to counteract a negative interaction. Ever wondered why you obsess over the one nitpick from your friend than the dozens of compliments they throw everyday? Yup, that’s negativity bias.

So, what do we do here? I think relentless, boundless and somewhat naive optimism is a good recipe. We’ve seen this work before. Take the American Dream, for example. Any rational analysis will quickly conclude that the American Dream is a false myth for a large section of Americans. But, the collective myth also propelled the country to do unbelievable and irrational things — create the world’s biggest economy, go to the moon and a create forward-looking civilization that’s innovative, thriving and self-critical.

Optimistic belief might actually yield a way. Nihilism is always a self-fulfilling prophecy

Think optimistically all the time? You might just succeed. Lean towards more pessimism? Your predictions will always be true.

The ossification of occupational licensing

Today I learnt that my barber with a cosmetology degree is legally prohibited from using a straight razor. To use a straight razor, she must obtain a barber’s license, the education for which costs $6000.

The distinction is unnecessary. Every time you want to learn an adjacent skill, you shouldn’t need a new license. My barber was lucky that her community pitched in to send her to cosmetology school when she was 16.

The usual spiel is consumer protection. Aren’t you worried that someone untrained will cut your neck or your carotid artery? Removing licensure doesn’t mean one can misrepresent their training or commit malpractice.

There’s a reason why software is the only net-new successful industry in the last ~20 years. Imagine if software engineers were licensed to only write C#, and had to get a license every time they wanted to learn adjacent skills.

I’m not sure what the next steps are… it appears that there is broad consensus to gut the licensing regime, especially in less controversial domains where the potential downside is an individual getting a rash. Licensing however, is a state-controlled domain. Progress will be slow and painful.


Understanding America: The new immigrant’s reading list

Two years and six months ago, I moved to America. I had one bag weighing 33 pounds, a stamped passport, a Dropbox account and a lot of excitement.

I first met with an American in Nairobi, Kenya. Kopo Kopo — the startup that I joined after undergrad in India — was founded by two Americans — an eagle scout from Arkansas and a lawyer-turned-entrepreneur from Washington state. Ben and Dylan embodied the best of America —staunchly principled, humorous and action-oriented. After ~3 years of working in Nairobi, I moved to Seattle, our newest office.

Ben (left) and I at a wedding in the Michigan countryside

Each country brings its unique history. America stands out as the most dynamic and willing-to-change. In a rapidly changing world, this spirit keeps America resilient and forward-looking. It also makes the country’s culture complex, layered and conflicted. Below are some books that helped me unpack the complexities. I hope you enjoy them.

Cities — Cities are humanity’s greatest living artifacts. A civilization of hunters and gatherers created a dense environment that catalysed the flow of ideas and information. American cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles bring their own local flavors mixed with the 1960s downtown. The American suburb quietly complements the vibrancy of cities with its sprawling expanse. For someone who grew up in a tiny, dense and crowded small town in India, American cities are like perpetual amusement parks.

Suburban Nation and The Life and Death of Great American Cities are great reads on how the American city and suburbs came to be.

Media and Journalism — America breathes on narratives — both founded and unfounded. Its media empires command global attention and dollars. Lately, there’s a backlash against media elites, who are accused of partisanship and being out of touch with the ‘real’ America. That isn’t new. Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism paints the partisan beginnings of American newspapers.

Also see: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business — a sceptical take on how high-fidelity forms of media (Radio, TV and Internet) are shaping national conscience.

Individual Liberty and Common Good — I grew up in a tribal society. In exchange for familial comfort, you prioritized community over individual ambition. America is different. Your American experience varies dramatically by the state you live in. From the liberal pilgrimage of the left coast to the libertarian frontiers of the South, America is eleven countries. They subscribe to varying levels between individual liberty and common good. American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good is a great read for those wanting to explore all eleven Americas.

The American Nations

Also see:The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Democracy in America by Alexis de Toqueville, published 1831

Economics and Society— Like its political and ideological diversity, socio-economic life varies dramatically in America. Some seek inspiration from the upward mobility of meritocracy while others find themselves shackled by discrimination. In the last three decades, America has seen intensive economic polarization. Job growth statistics and median wages don’t add color to this issue. In The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New Americathe author spends time living with Silicon Valley VCs, Jay-Z, foreclosed homeowners in Florida and steel workers in Ohio. If there’s one book you read from list, it’s this.

Race relations — You cannot understand America without race. To this day, the remnants of slavery affect justice, law enforcement and the American experience. The Asian immigrant experience is tangential to such experiences. In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin paints a picture of his experience. His modern spiritual successor, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a painful memoir in Between the World and Me.

What books enhanced your understanding of America? I’d love to hear your recommendations in comments below or on Twitter.

Death by detail — when data is dangerous for product teams

We live in a time when building a product is becoming a science. The world is awash with frameworks that promise you the next big product. Build, measure and learn, they say. The marginal cost of running experiments and A/B tests has plummeted to zero, making them a regular tool for product teams.

That’s it, folks. Our work here is done.

Despite their noble intentions, I have seen teams use data in counterproductive ways.

  • Analysis paralysis — when a ‘data-driven’ culture becomes an end in itself, it motivates the wrong behavior. Product teams waste time performing endless A/B tests, even when they know the right thing for their customer. Endless testing creates inertia and dilutes the team’s vision, when they’d rather move on to an audacious problem.
  • Local maxima or mistaking the forest for the trees — when teams are obsessed with a north-star metric, they go all out in moving the needle by 0.1%. After years of successful obsession with a metric, teams find that they missed the boat on solving a bigger, valuable problem. (Also see: Blockbuster/Netflix, Yammer/Slack)

With self awareness, product leaders can break free of these traps, and use data effectively.

Jeff Bezos offers an eloquent mantra —

Good inventors and designers deeply understand their customer. They spend tremendous energy developing that intuition. They study and understand many anecdotes rather than only the averages you’ll find on surveys. They live with the design.

I’m not against beta testing or surveys. But you, the product or service owner, must understand the customer, have a vision, and love the offering. Then, beta testing and research can help you find your blind spots. A remarkable customer experience starts with heart, intuition, curiosity, play, guts, taste.

Make no mistake, data is a great leveler and puts the truth above our flawed opinions. However, rather than treat data as objective truth, I encourage teams to use data as an invitation — an invitation to peek under the rocks, explore our curiosity and discover wonderful insights about customers’ lives. Teams need to be obsessed with their customers’ problems — the metrics will follow.

Let the science underpin your art.

Paying for an Uber ride in three continents

Uber is clearly the defining company of this decade. As of today, it’s available in 300 cities across 57 countries and counting. It is changing our lifestyle and the way we experience cities.

As a perpetual expat who jumps between three countries — United States, India and Kenya — it is incredibly reassuring to have a reliable, timely and fairly-priced ride, anywhere.

Building a local operation in Los Angeles is radically different from building one in Nairobi. To scale a company that operates in hyper-diverse environments requires juggling local regulation, payment infrastructure and operations.

Uber’s customer-facing app is coherent despite these localizations. A glimpse over my ‘select payment’ screen paints a microcosm.

In the US, the default payment method is obviously a credit card. (There are more than 2 credit cards per person).

If you take an Uber in India, the preferred way to pay is a popular prepaid wallet called ‘PayTM’. (25 million users).

And if you hail an Uber in Nairobi, Kenya, you may also pay with cash, a tactic Uber needs to apply in developing and frontier markets.

Most users will use Uber locally and never see the hard work that goes behind the scenes to keep the app lightweight and easy-to-use.