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Lesson from a Dozen Angry Men

In June 2016, I got the opportunity to attend Prof. Sanjay Bakshi’s workshop in Flame University. Prof. Bakshi’s style of teaching is remarkably unconventional. He uses a lot of images, videos and stories to explore ideas. Such method serves three purposes.

First, unlike traditional classroom lectures, Prof. Bakshi’s classes, from start to finish, are very interesting.

Second, a human mind is better at remembering information when it comes via multiple sensory inputs. Understanding of the concepts is much deeper when different sections of the neural machinery are engaged through visual information.

Third, stories make the information stick better. A message packaged in the form of a story has a longer shelf life.

One such video that Prof. Bakshi shared during his workshop was an old Hollywood movie called ‘12 Angry Men.’ It came out in 1957. The story is based on a drama written by Reginald Rose.

The jury system is designed to be a wonderful system for decision making. So, the movie has important lessons on decision making, thinking, and human psychological biases. Interestingly, there’s also a Bollywood version of the same movie titled Ek Ruka Hua Faisla. However, I suggest you watch the original 1957 version first. I guarantee that the 90 minutes you’d spend on the movie will be worth every second of it.
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Latticework of Mental Models: Benford’s Law

On 25 November 2003, Kevin Lawrence was sentenced to 20 years in prison for pulling off possibly the biggest financial fraud in Washington State’s history. Here’s the backstory.

Kevin Lawrence graduated from high school in 1984. After a brief stint with a brokerage firm Lawrence bought a bowling alley and converted it into a fitness gym. He equipped the gym with modern exercise equipment, computers and hired chiropractors, masseuses and a nutritionist for the facility. But that was just the beginning of his entrepreneurship dreams. Soon he started working on an ambitious business plan to create a chain of high tech health clubs. He pitched the idea to a lot of investors.

Lawrence claimed that his startup would be an industry innovator that integrated fitness and health care into one business model, i.e., consumers could do fitness workouts and obtain health care within the same facility. His proposition also included offerings for design, manufacturing, and marketing of fitness equipments. Plus, he planned to build software to analyze the club member’s physical performance.

Lawrence must have been a good storyteller for he was able to convince more than two thousand investors and raise close to $100 million.

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Latticework of Mental Models: Thinking From First Principles

First principles thinking is one of the most effective mental tools for solving problems, especially the hard ones. And no one embodies this philosophy of first principles thinking better than Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla Motors and SolarCity.

Musk, in one of his interviews, said –

It’s most important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. We’re doing this because it’s like something else which was done or it’s like other people are doing. It’s mentally easy to reason by analogy rather than by first principles. First principles is the Physics-way of looking at the world. What that really means is that you boil things down to the most fundamental truths and then reason up from there. That takes a lot more mental energy.

For example, somebody could say that battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they’ll always be because that’s the way they’ve always been in the past. No! That’s pretty dumb. If you apply that reasoning (analogy) to anything new then you won’t be able to get to that new thing.

For batteries people say, historically it has cost $600 per kilowatt hour and it’s not going to be much better than that in the future. First principles thinking would say, what is the market price of the basic constituents of the battery? It’s got Carbon, Nickel, Aluminium, and some polymers for separation. So breakdown on the material basis and ask, “If we bought that in London metal exchange, what each of those things cost?” Oh! It’s like $80 per kilowatt hour. Clearly, you need clever ways to take those material and combine them into the shape of a battery cell and you can have batteries much much cheaper than anyone realized.

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Latticework of Mental Models: Hot Hand Fallacy

One of the most embarrassing moments of my childhood was the day when my class teacher asked me something about Sachin Tendulkar. I replied, “Who is Sachin Tendulkar?”

I was in 6th standard. The entire class, including the teacher, burst into laughter. That was the day when I started taking an active interest in cricket. Of course, the motivation was to avoid looking like a fool in a cricket crazy nation.

“Dravid is not in form these days.” Claimed one of my friends.

“I hope he comes back in form soon else they will drop him from the national team.” Argued other friend.

I nodded in agreement. I was faking because one thing that still baffled me was the idea of a player being “in-form” or “out-of-form.”

“What’s this in-form and out-of-form business?” I asked my best friend. Typically, looking-like-a-fool fear goes away when you’re with your best buddies, right? He was the only one who I didn’t feel the need to impress with my cricket knowledge.

Well, if a player plays consistently well for many innings, we say he is in good form. Otherwise, he is considered out of form, he explained, “An in-form player is always in demand because he’s expected to continue playing well.”

Why does an in-form player play well? If it’s the past performance that determines the present form then how does it ensure the future performance? Isn’t this form business based on circular logic?

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Latticework of Mental Models: Naive Realism

Let me start by inviting you to have an intellectual and emotional experience. Take a few seconds and stare at the picture below.

Image-1 (Source: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey)

Observe closely. What do you see?

You’d probably see a woman who is looking away from you. You may notice that she is wearing a necklace. She seems to have high cheekbones, long eyelashes, and a pointy nose.

Now I ask you to take your eyes off her and focus on the second picture below –

Image-2 (Source: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey)

What do you see now? Another woman? What does she look like? How old do you think she is? What is she wearing? In what kind of roles do you see her?

You probably would describe this second woman as beautiful as the first one. You might guess that she is about 25 years old and fashionable. In fact, the second image looks like a lower resolution version of the first image.

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The Art of Asking Good Questions

Two hunters are out in the jungle when suddenly one of them collapses. His pulse is gone and his eyes are glazed. The other guy yanks out his cell phone and calls the emergency services.

He gasps, “My friend is dead! What should I do?”

The operator says “Calm down, sir. I can help. First, let’s make sure if he’s really dead.”

After few moments of silence, the operator hears a loud gunshot. Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?”

The hunter was dumb but given the high adrenalin and panicky situation, the operator’s question wasn’t brilliant either, was it?

There’s some truth to the saying – the quality of your questions determine the quality of solutions. Computer programmers know this very well. They call it GIGO, i.e., garbage in garbage out.

Good question begets good answer. Bad question leads to bad answer.

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Latticework of Mental Models: Impact Bias

Nobel laureate Albert Einstein formulated his theory of relativity mainly with the help of Gedankenexperiment. It’s a German term for thought experiments. In a thought experiment, one doesn’t conduct an actual test in the lab but uses imagination and logic to explore problems and generate insights.

Imagination is more important than knowledge, said Einstein. So let’s start today’s discussion with a thought experiment.

Imagine there was a sophisticated device which could measure happiness. Taking inspiration from the thermometer, we’ll call our device Happymeter. Once we attach this instrument to someone’s skull, it would show the amount of happiness and content that person is feeling at that time.

We’ll select two volunteers for our Gedankenexperiment. Our Happymeter tells that the present mental state of these individuals is 1000 units each. Now, these volunteers go through (in our imagination) two wildly different events.

1. The first person wins 10 million dollar lottery.
2. The second person gets into a terrible accident and both his legs are amputated.

Can you guess each person’s mental state one year down the line after the above two events have happened? In the first case, would his mental state be less than or more than 1000?

Of course, it would be more than 1000. Isn’t it? After all, he’s a wealthy man now.

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Latticework of Mental Models: Domain Dependence

Imagine this. You are escorted into a room. On one corner there’s a table with three items on it: a box of board-pins, a matchbox, and a candle. Your task is to attach the candle to the wall, so the wax doesn’t drip onto the table.

A psychologist named Karl Duncker first designed this experiment in 1945.

About seventy-five percent of the participants who take part in this experiment try following solutions.

First, they try to pin the candle onto the wall. It doesn’t work. Then they try to light the candle and use the dripping wax to attach it to the wall, but that’s usually not strong enough to hold the candle. So that doesn’t work either.

What about you? How would you solve this? Take a moment and think about it.

Very few people see the solution at once. Some people find it after only a minute or two of thought. Others see it after stumbling through several unsuccessful attempts. Most fail to solve it without some outside help.

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