“Oh, I can do that”: The Deceptive Illusion of Skill Acquisition

You see a viral dance step tutorial video on TikTok, Instagram Reel, or YouTube Shorts and think yourself – I could do it easily as well. You see a plumber fix the leaking tap rotating the teflon seal tape over the tap thrice, and you think yourself – I could do it easily as well. You observe a workshop facilitator conduct a two hours session, and immediately think – I could do it easily as well. The list goes on.

You could do it easily. But chances are, you could struggle – and fail miserably. Many of us overestimate how much we can learn by observing others. I thought I could learn guitar chords just by watching people play over the YouTube videos. And boy was I wrong.

This is a common phenomenon in learning – the illusion of skill acquisition.

Easier Seen Than Done: The Research

In a fascinating study at Northwestern University, researcher Michael Kardas had participants watch videos of skills like dart-throwing and the moonwalk dance multiple times, some even up to 20 times. After watching, they were asked to guess how well they could perform these skills before giving it a shot themselves. Surprisingly, many believed that just by watching the videos, they could become skillful. Interestingly, the more they watched, the more confident they felt about their abilities.

However, the study’s results were unexpected. Despite feeling more confident with each viewing, the participants didn’t actually improve in performing the skills when they tried them. Their confidence in learning through observation didn’t match the reality of their unchanged performance. This highlights the misconception that simply watching instructional videos can lead to skill mastery, emphasizing the importance of active practice and engagement for effective learning.

Can you land a plane?

Passive observation can have a surprising effect on people’s confidence in handling challenging tasks, even life-or-death situations like landing a plane, as discovered by Kayla Jordan, a PhD student at the University of Waikato, New Zealand. Inspired by Kardas’s research, she wanted to explore if this phenomenon could extend to highly skilled tasks. Piloting, for example, demands extensive training and knowledge of complex subjects like physics and engineering, far beyond what a short video can convey.

In their study, participants were asked to imagine being in a scenario where they were the only one left to land a plane due to the pilot being incapacitated. Half of them watched a brief video showing a pilot landing a plane, while the others did not. Interestingly, the video didn’t provide any instructional guidance on the pilot’s actions during the landing. Despite this, those who watched the video showed a significant increase in their confidence to successfully land a plane themselves, about 30% more than those who didn’t view the clip, as noted by Jordan. This highlights the intriguing way in which passive observation can influence one’s perception of their own capabilities in demanding situations.

Why does this happen?

If you have been around a child, you will know that they imitate their elder ones. Human beings – since their infant age – watch others and learn. This is the basic premise of the “Social Learning Theory”, developed by psychologist Albert Bandura, which explains how people learn new behaviors and skills by observing others.

This theory highlights three key aspects: observation, imitation, and modeling. First, you observe someone else’s actions. Then, you try to imitate what you saw. Finally, through practice and feedback, you model your behavior to become more like the observed behavior. Bandura also emphasized the role of reinforcement and punishment. If the person you observe gets praised for their actions, you’re more likely to copy them. Conversely, if they get punished, you’re less likely to follow in their footsteps.

However, in case of illusion of skill acquisition, we don’t really reach the imitation and modeling phase. We observe and then do not engage in deliberate practice. Without deliberate efforts made into practicing, we don’t get required feedback for corrections, which means we omit the modeling phase as well. Humans are social beings, and much of our learning occurs through observing others. Mirror neurons facilitate this type of learning, which can be efficient but also prone to creating illusions of mastery.

Here’s the culprit!

I was watching my mom cook a delicious meal. I noted everything she did – from the steps to the list of ingredients. A few weeks later, I replicated her every step. It was a disaster. I swear I did all the steps right, but I don’t know why the meal was a disaster! From childhood, I have learnt cooking from watching others cook – be it in my own kitchen or in the TV cooking shows. That has helped me gain knowledge about cooking new dishes. I have ideas about new dishes, recipes, and the ingredients used – but have I learnt how to cook it? Probably I can’t say unless I give it a try.

This sort of learning is facilitated by our mirror neurons, which is referred, rightly or wrongly, as “The most hyped concept in neuroscience”. Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that responds both when we perform an action and when we observe someone else performing the same action. Mirror neurons are also said to be responsible for being more empathetic towards another person. They are thought to be involved in understanding others’ actions and intentions, as well as in learning through imitation.

While mirror neurons help us learn by observation, they can also create a false sense of competence because they simulate the action in our brains without actual physical practice or feedback.

So what to do now?

Overcoming the illusion of skill acquisition requires a mindful approach to learning and practice. Here are three actionable things you can initiate to overcome this illusion:

Engage in Active Practice: Instead of passively observing or assuming that watching others perform a skill will lead to mastery, actively engage in practice yourself. Practice involves hands-on experience, allowing you to develop muscle memory, refine techniques, and gain a deeper understanding of the skill. By consistently practicing and actively applying what you’ve learned, you can bridge the gap between understanding a skill conceptually and being able to execute it effectively.

Seek Constructive Feedback: Feedback is crucial for skill development as it provides valuable insights into areas of improvement and helps you correct mistakes. Actively seek feedback from mentors, instructors, or peers who are experienced in the skill you’re trying to acquire. Constructive feedback not only highlights your strengths but also pinpoints areas where you can enhance your performance. Embrace feedback as a tool for growth and use it to adjust your practice strategies and refine your skills effectively.

Set Specific Goals and Track Progress: Establish clear, measurable goals for your skill development journey. Break down the skill into smaller milestones or targets that you can work towards achieving. By setting specific goals, you create a roadmap for your progress and can track how far you’ve come. Regularly monitor your performance, celebrate small victories, and reflect on areas where you may need to focus more attention. Goal-setting helps you stay motivated, maintain direction, and overcome the illusion of skill acquisition by grounding your efforts in tangible outcomes.

One more thing…

Although learning can occur from observing others perform something, the observer’s confidence in their own ability to perform the skill can also be a determining factor. This can cause the false increment of their ability to perform the skill compared to their actual ability. This illusion of motor competence – i.e., “Overconfidence” arises because the learner doesn’t get access to sensory feedback about their own performance.

So the next time you see a video with someone performing or doing something, ask yourself – “Can I really really do it?”.

The ‘Battery’ of the Team

Spanish La Liga: Real Madrid’s Galacticos

2002-03 Season, Spanish La Liga: O Fenomeno (The Phenomenon) Ronaldo joined the Los Blancos, Real Madrid Football Club, from Inter Milan for a staggering fee of 45 million euros. With his 23 league goals, Real Madrid won the Spanish La Liga for 29th time in its history. They were jubilant and ecstatic with the victory.

In order to further strengthen their team for their conquest next season, the club decided to bring in another star midfield player – David Beckham. In the subsequent 2003-04 season, Beckham arrived at the Santiago Bernabeu, the home of Real Madrid, from Manchester United for a whopping fee of 35 million euros. Addition of Beckham ensured Real Madrid added another star in their galaxy – alongside other star players like Iker Casillas, Roberto Carlos, Zinedine Zidane, Raul, Ronaldo, and Luis Figo. With such reinforcement, they were highly favored to win their 30th title.

The Real Madrid Galacticos: David Beckham, Luis Figo, Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Raul [L-R]; Photo Source: Era Galactica, Real Madrid Fandom Wiki

In a shocking manner, Real Madrid finished fourth in the 2003-04 season, behind champions Valencia, FC Barcelona, and Deportivo La Coruna. To fight back from this embarrassment, Real Madrid bought another forward next season – Michael Owen – the golden boy from Liverpool. Despite the golden boy addition, the 2004-05 season saw FC Barcelona edge Real Madrid with four points. Real Madrid still couldn’t win their 30th title.

In 2005-06 season, Real Madrid splashed out a whopping 96 million euros for multiple players – defender Sergio Ramos and midfielder Baptista from Sevilla, and forward Robinho from FC Santos. Even with such reinforcements, Real Madrid still finished second behind FC Barcelona, this time with a gap of 12 points. For the second consecutive season, Real Madrid did not win any competitions.

Real Madrid finally wins their 30th League Title

In 2006-07 season, Real Madrid splashed huge with more than a hundred million euros. Only after signing the 2006 World Cup winning defender Fabio Cannavaro and his Juventus manager Fabio Capello, along with forwards Ruud van Nistelrooy from Manchester United, Gonzalo Higuain from River Plate, defender Marcelo from Fluminense, and defensive midfielder Emerson from Juventus, Real Madrid managed to win their 30th league title. However, shortly after winning the La Liga title, the club surprisingly sacked manager Capello after he refused to field David Beckham and Ronaldo, and his defensive tactics. This season saw Zidane’s retirement as well as Ronaldo leaving Real Madrid for AC Milan.

The Big Question

The question remains – why could Real Madrid, a team filled with such superstars and gifted players, not win the league for over three seasons, and remain trophy-less in two of them?

While there are multiple reasons for Madrid’s galacticos remaining trophy-less for consecutive seasons, one of them is a departure of an under appreciated genius – Claude Makelele.

Claude Makelele - The Battery of the Team
Claude Makelele – The Battery of the Team; Image Source: Thesefootballtimes.co

Makelele arrived at Real Madrid from Celta Vigo in the 2000-01 season, when Real Madrid started operating with the goal of making it the most fashionable club in the world and was dubbed galacticos since they were aiming to recruit one expensive world famous player every summer. However, despite his value for the team, Makelele was one of its most relatively underpaid player, earning a fraction of that paid to teammates like Zidane, Figo, Raul, Ronaldo, Carlos, McManaman and Guti.

When Madrid’s 28th title winning manager Del Bosque was shockingly sacked, and after the arrival of David Beckham, Makelele decided to ask for an improved contract – especially after getting encouragements from team members Zidane, Raul, McManaman, and Morientes. The club management outright refused to even consider his request. Upset, Makelele handed in a transfer request, and was signed by English Premier League sides, Chelsea in 2003-04 season. Club president Fiorentino Perez infamously scorned on Makelele’s footballing abilities after his departure and proclaimed he would not be missed.

Rise of Chelsea: The Makelele Role

In Steve McManaman’s autobiography, he described Makelele as “the most important and yet least appreciated midfielder at Real Madrid.” The then captain of Real Madrid, Fernando Hierro, also criticized club president Perez for both Makelele’s departure and the manner of departure, and said, “The loss of Makelele was the beginning of the end for Los Galacticos, he was the base, the key and I think he is the same to Chelsea now.”

Makelele usually played in front of the team’s back-line, where he served as a defensive protection cover for the defenders. With his ability to read the game, break down plays, mark and anticipate opponents, and aggressive tackling, he was regarded as the best in the position. In his role, he was highly regarded throughout his career for his positional awareness, tactical discipline, intelligence, energy, and ball winning ability. With such abilities and playing a key role in redefining the defensive midfield role, that role is now colloquially known as “The Makelele Role ” in his homage.

With his arrival, Chelsea finished second in the league in 2003-04 season. In 2004-05 season, Makelele was a key player in Mourinho’s campaign, winning the league first time in 50 years and also the League Cup. As of now, this Chelsea side still holds the defensive record for most clean sheets and fewest goals conceded in English Premier League season, all thanks to the defensive cover from Makelele.

The Battery of the Team

When Claude Makelele signed for Chelsea in the summer of 2003, then manager Claudio Ranieri proclaimed Makelele as the ‘battery of the team.’

Now what does this term – ‘battery of the team’ – mean?

Take a moment to think about your decision making process while purchasing a new phone. The decision criteria mostly would include the brand, screen size, display types, processor speed, cameras, RAM, and storage. The battery of the phone rarely comes to the discussion on the decision criteria – not because it is not required, but is often overlooked. The battery powers all the functions – the display, processor, camera, and storage, but is not always considered the best part of any phone. Claudio Makelele was the battery of the team because he was the one to protect the defensive line and supply the ball to the strikers so that they can score.

Similarly, in our teams, we have people who connects and gels the team together – supplying power and energy to other team members. Covering someone’s late night shift, asking a colleague to take a break, protecting a teammate’s mistake – these all are hallmarks of someone who provides energy to the team. The battery of the team often gets under appreciated, and looks like an average performer. But beneath the average performer could be our teams’ battery – who is constantly charging the team, someone who is constantly energizing other team members.

It is essential as leaders and managers to recognize these average performing energizers – because they might be the reason that our star performers are performing their best. Removing them might cause the star performers’ productivity to dwindle down, as that happened with Real Madrid’s galacticos. To identify such ‘battery’ in the team, be in a constant connection with all members of the team – not just with your best performers. Get to know the ins and outs of all team members. Get to know them personally. Get to know which team member contributes in which areas apart from their own designated works.

Getting to know, understanding, and connecting with your team members – this will help you recognize the ‘battery’ in your team. Hold on to them, and sometimes charge them too. It is the battery that powers all other functions in the phone, but the battery needs to be charged too. Similarly, your team’s battery might need frequent charges too.

Do not mix office retreats with team building activities

I repeat – do not mix office retreats with team building activities.

Why? Before asking me why, I guess you need to ask your team members first. Ask them if the trust fall or the scavenger hunt they have been forcefully playing in every retreat contributed to their growth, or at least made a positive improvement within their teams. If they were really ‘really’ honest, most of them would say the games and stuff were ‘fine’, the reflections were ‘nice’, but once they were back to their work desks, most people had swept these understandings and notions out of their minds.

The better question we need to be asking should be – why does team building activities in office retreats do not work? Multiple academic research say it works and even contributes to team camaraderie. However, in reality, the academic research deviates from the practical work settings. So why not to mix it? And what to do about it?

I’ll tell you.

What retreat actually is?

Retreat – This word originates from when armies pulled themselves back or withdrew forces as a result of looming defeat or enemy’s superior powers. This was done in order to gather themselves back, and assess a different ploy to get victorious over their enemies.

In corporate world, retreat practices are pulling employees back from their exhausting work duties and giving them a relaxing environment for having fun and ensuring they get all sorts of rests – physical, emotional, social, and mental. And then someone decided to think “Let’s utilize this moment to rebuild ourselves”, and few years later – BOOM – Corporate Games and Team Building Activities were emphasized in the office retreats.

Why team building in retreat don’t work?

Ironically, these team building activities ensures that people continue using their cognitive and physical abilities and deprive them of the well deserved rest, which was intended in the first place. Retreats are a personal space for personal reflection, rests, and a change of mundane lifestyle from the corporate offices. But when the team building activities are imposed on the people, it takes away all that personal space and leaves people wanting more personal space for themselves.

The team building activities are not bad – that’s not what I am arguing. Team building activities are required, but office retreats are not the time and place to do it. Moreover, the team building activities like minefield, blindfolded walk, trust falls, and scavenger hunts are a standard thing that doesn’t offer much customization in terms of what the organization and their team needs. Team building and bonding means to understand each other, become vulnerable, feel safe to share their deepest fears, and feel confident that their team understands it all – it shouldn’t be with everyone in the office. Those team building activities are socializing activities rather than understanding the teams’ challenges and problems. Those activities are ‘forced fun’ and no one likes forced fun. Take notes, dear HR.

To be honest, a coffee conversation between two people in the team might be more effective in creating the desired level of bonding than doing these socializing activities. There is nothing wrong with socialization – but socialization has its own pace with different people. Not everyone opens up with the same game or activity – it’s forced fun, and people do not like anything imposed. And at few times, the team building activities can also become team breaking activities. Especially when people become competitive in these team building games, it can cause more harm than good.

What to do about it?

So what to do about it? If you are actually connected with your team members, they will tell you the answer to this. But in case if you aren’t, try to take initiatives to understand what your team requires, what their preferences and priorities are. It’s not as simple as asking – “What do you want to do in the retreat?”, but goes more deeper than that. Building that connection with your team is the way to start, and for retreats, keep it more for the rest, relaxation, and out of work chatters.

Let retreats be just retreats. For team building, make it a separate event – and it can be in office event if you really want to build your team.

Can too many cooks not spoil the broth?

Too many cooks spoil the broth” — this popular idiom implies that when too many people work together or are involved in an activity, the final outcome or result becomes inferior.

While we all agree to the idioms with our versions of experiences, a popular management term “synergy” comes into mind. On a flipped perspective of the idiom, shouldn’t multiple cooks be rather reinforcing the broth with their own camaraderie and united strength than spoiling it?

This proverbial expression metaphorically denotes employing excess resources causes inefficiency. On a more literal term, too many cooks might not always spoil the broth. It is having multiple inputs from too many people that derails the progress. Contrary to the belief, there can be multiple number of people and less number of inputs. Sounds superficial and counterintuitive, but it is not impossible to achieve.

The Earned Dogmatism Effect: Culprit for the Spoiled Broth

“We don’t know everything, and we probably never will.”

This sentence sums up the antidote to the earned dogmatism effect, which explains that as we start becoming more experienced and knowledgeable – and thus, move from amateur to expert, we start becoming more close-minded and adopt a relatively dogmatic orientation – inclined to lay down certain beliefs as incontrovertibly true. Little do we know, multiple truths exist.

Read in detail about ‘The Earned Dogmatism Effect’ here.

When the cooks start believing that their way is the “ultimate right” way, the broth gets spoiled. If the cooks (or anyone in general) become more self-aware of their own dogmas and its impact on the bigger picture (i.e., the spoiled broth), they can help prevent this accident. Of course it is against the common human nature to not add recommendations in such quandary. But this should not be seen as a “sacrifice” because one does not necessarily have to put forward their ideas and recommendations all the time.

How to Save the Broth?

Here are a few steps (out of many) to help us save the broth and move towards achieving ‘synergic’ results.

1. Self Awareness

Checking in with yourself always helps. As the popular saying mentions, “the only way out is in“. It becomes important to understand how our thoughts, emotions, and actions are ever evolving and changing as we learn, and grow more with education and experience in life. The more we know, the more likely we are to fall into the diagnosis pitfall. The diagnosis pitfall notes that the “experts” at times are blinded by their past experiences, and could be fixated on the new event being the same as their past events. When we tend to selectively focus only on a part of the event that triggers our inner advice monster, we succumb into this trap of diagnosis pitfall. 

Read in detail about ‘The Diagnosis Pitfall” here.

As credible and knowledgeable experts, it becomes easy for us to advice people irrespective of their need for the guidance. Taming our inner advice monster is essential, and so it understanding that advice giving is not the problem.

Advice giving becomes problematic when i) we fail to understand the real depth of the challenge or the problem, ii) we think our advice is amazing when it might not be (Knock, knock: The Dunning-Kruger Effect), and iii) most frustratingly we cut away the other person’s sense of confidence and autonomy by trying to be a messiah or savior with our advices.

Self awareness helps us to check our biases within us, and realize that these cognitive biases can be problematic not just for us, but for the overall team and the outcome of the project/activity.

2. The golden pyramid of conscious and empathic listening

The golden trident of listening effectively comprises of three components – i) Understanding, ii) Humility, and iii) Curiosity.

Listening to someone should be more about understanding, and not about responding or reacting. And to make things clear, understanding does not mean agreement. We can develop this amazing ability to listen to someone say a complete opposing view without agreeing to them, but trying to understand where they are coming from.

The second component is about having the intellectual humility, since we do not have the knowledge of everything in the world. Even if we might have mastered cooking, we might not have full comprehension about all the dishes of the world. This humility allows us to listen rather than recommend more inputs to spoil the broth. Finally, the third component is about curiosity. Curiosity can be summed up with two words – asking questions.

Imagine you were about to clean the dishes voluntarily. Then someone comes in and then asks you to clean the dishes. You, now, might still do it but not as wholeheartedly as you would have done it before. Now imagine that instead of that someone ordering you to do it, they come up to you and simply asks, “what are you about to do?” Your probable response would be, “I’m about to do the dishes”. You might find the difference in your thoughts, emotions, and actions while doing the dishes now.

As human beings, being asked questions is a way to open up discussions and create platform to express ourselves. Asking questions implies that the other person is curious to listen, know, and understand about your views. Asking questions and staying curious in the conversation is more likely to push you to a listening zone. As the principle of reciprocity goes, when you listen to someone, you get listened to as well.

3. Imposed gets opposed.

Finally, when we try to impose our ideas and recommendations on others, we can expect it to be challenged, criticized, and even opposed.

Imagine your vegan friend pressing you hard to leave your juicy steak and turn into adopting a plant based diet. Imagine a religious priest avouching you to turn into following a certain religion, or trying hard to turn your atheist views to believing in god. Imagine someone with high inclination towards alternative medicine trying to influence and persuade you into following their methods. When you feel these things being imposed on you, you won’t budge no matter how much of logical statements they make, or how much evidences they present to you. They simply come across as “logic bullies“.

Any idea or change that is imposed will largely get opposed. In order to save the broth, we need to remain mindful that we are not imposing our inputs and recommendations to others. Understanding this simple rule will help us to easily get things done through our teams and groups.

Even the recommendations mentioned here in this article are not imposed; people are free to practice their own will. Just don’t impose it to others.

Dreading the Difficult Conversations

We probably have faced difficult conversations, at least once in our lives.

Ending a relationship. Asking your friend to repay his share of debt. Giving a critical feedback to your supervisor. Talking about financial issues with parents. Discussing about personal possessions with coworkers.

We absolutely dread talking out these difficult and crucial issues and either do it badly or postpone it for some other time, which never seems to come.

Crucial & difficult conversations can happen with everyone – families, friends, spouses, significant others, and colleagues. I’m convinced that the inability to hold space for these difficult conversations ends majorly either in silence or violence. The more we keep these emotionally charged situations and conversations to ourselves, the nastier its result is going to be for our interpersonal relationships.

Whether we like it or not, difficult conversations aren’t something we can avoid. Mastering it, however, is a crucial skill that rarely anyone talks about. But we rarely muster up courage to speak up. We tend to ignore it because that’s how we are wired. Our evolution comes with the “fight-or-flight” mode which proves to be counter-productive for such situations where opinions vary, stakes are high, and emotions are strong.

What to do in difficult conversations?

During such difficult conversations, at times we indulge so much in “winning the conversation” by focusing too much on the topic being discussed. We use our rationale, logic, and reasonings to make our point heard. We try hard to look for evidences that backs up our hypotheses, and give in everything to prove our point. We might win, but at what cost?

Sometimes that cost is losing social credibility and coming across as a tyrant boss, strict parent, inconsiderate colleague, apathetic friend, or an arrogant partner/spouse. When conversations start to turn toward either silence or violence, focusing on the surrounding climate can be of advantage.

If you’ve faced something like that or are someone who is focused hardly on putting your message across, try to look for the two things:
(A) What do you really want? E.g. To be understood.
(B) What do you really NOT want? E.g. To spoil my relationship.
Once you get it, try asking your mind: How can I have a conversation about (A) and avoid (B) from happening.

The elusive “and” is the key.

Sometimes, people just focus on what they want, and leave what they NOT want as a byproduct. I’ve seen people say “I’m just telling the facts. If the other party can’t digest it, I’m better off without them.“We need to understand that both these parts can be achieved together. But when we start ignoring how people are reacting to our words in the conversation, we might be flying too close to the sun like Icarus with his waxed wings; we would evidently be bound to fall down soon.

As the persuasion paradox goes, the most argumentative people rarely persuade anyone of anything. On the flip side, the most persuasive people don’t argue – they observe, listen, and ask thoughtful questions. This is another useful key in the bag to unlocking the difficult conversations door.

As Susan Steinbrecher – author of Meaningful Alignment – says, “Only when we can get out of judgment and blame — and have the willingness to understand why someone is doing what they are doing — can we hope to solve anything.” Note that elusive “and” here as well.

This quote further brings the issue of understanding our own judgement, getting out of blaming someone, and finally our willingness to understand through empathic listening. That is how we can come out of the vicious spiral of resolving through difficult conversations.

Listening – with intent and empathy – is always the numero uno tactic for every conversation, be it difficult, crucial, or regular.

Why do we judge (and continue being judged)?

“You know me, not my story. So don’t judge me!”

“Before you judge me, why not take a good look at yourself?”

“Never judge someone. They’re fighting their own battles.”

These are some common statements we see and hear most of the times. As educated and rational beings, we know that we should not be judging others. But why do we still continue to judge people? We do not like being judged, yet we continue to judge people. Worse, we judge people for judging us. Oh, the irony!

Why should we not judge?

Yes, it is true that we should not judge others. That is true, because we do not know the entire story behind whatever is happening, and judgement of the object or a person would cloud our perception. Forming a narrative based on only half of the story does not really help in fostering and nurturing the relationships that are essential and close to us.

On contrary, judgement – most of the times – are the ones that creates a half-image of the whole, and prevent us from looking at the bigger picture. This myopic sight would trouble our interpersonal relationships – be it personal or professional.

There are a lot of arguments for why we should not judge anyone, or anything, because we probably have only seen it from our lens, and formed our own narratives based on our worldview. This is not necessarily right or wrong, but the bottom line is that it does not show the whole bigger macro-perspective.

But why do we judge?

We will at least in our lifetime remain judgmental of others because that is how our brains have evolved from the past.

Since the times when humans lived in caves, there was always a constant fear of wild animals, a conflicting tribe comprising of physically strong counterparts, natural disasters, and even unknown diseases. Therefore, this judgement of the unknown was an essential skill required not just for surviving, but for thriving too. The initial judgement of “friend or foe” kicked in to understand whether the “unknown” was a potential threat and danger to us or not. And if it indeed was a threat, our ancestors trained their brains to trigger the “fight or flight” response as a way of our survival mechanism.

This combination of reactions to stress is also known as the “fight-or-flight” response because it evolved as a survival mechanism, enabling people and other mammals to react quickly to life-threatening situations. The carefully orchestrated yet near-instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses helps someone to fight the threat off or flee to safety.
– Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School

This “fight or flight” mechanism was a medium for humans to evolve into social groups. As social beings, this practice of judgement was vital for cavemen to establish functioning tribes. Without judgement, the tribe would cease to exist.

Learn how the “fight or flight” mechanism works here.

The best we can do is understand how these judgements are formed and what the judgmental thoughts tell about us.

The way you measure yourself is how you measure others, and how you assume others measure you.

Mark Manson, author, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

As Mark says, “the yardstick we use for ourselves is the yardstick we use for the world.” This is why we judge others. Suppose we judge someone for being late, this probably means that we value punctuality. When we judge someone for their appearance, it tells us that we emphasize on the physical outlook. When we judge someone for being disrespectful, it tells us that our principle operates by being respectful towards others. When we judge someone based on their riches, it is just that we value those riches. Simple.

Judgement of others tells us more about ourselves than about them. If we only start noticing by what parameters we judge others, we can understand that those parameters are of importance to us. We can’t stop judging people, but we can surely know more about ourselves with this process. Thus, being mindful and thinking about your own judgements will open doors to understand your own self. This will, however, require a lot of patience as well as practice.

Coming back to the question – will we ever stop judging? Short answer – NO. This judgement is something that is developed with our brain during our evolution, so it is next to impossible for humans to stop judging. However, we can become mindful of our judgements, reflect back on those judgements, and use it as a key to self-awareness in understanding our own priorities, parameters, and principles.

So judge all you want, but be mindful about the narratives being formed, and what those narratives tell you about yourself.

Practice, practice, practice

The famous Spartan warriors had a credo for their war – “Sweat more in practice, bleed less in war“. Practice is probably the greatest thing humans can do, yet people ridicule it.

For every new thing or an idea that has been brought into the world, people have laughed at it, criticized it, and ridiculed it at the beginning. As the famous quote wrongly misattributed to Mahatma Gandhi goes, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

This quote is a summary of Nichoas Klein, an American labor union advocate and attorney, who gave a speech to the Clothing Workers in May 1919, where he said the following:

[…] And my friends, in this story you have a history of this entire movement. First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you. And that is what is going to happen to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. And I say, courage to the strikers, and courage to the delegates, because great times are coming, stressful days are here, and I hope your hearts will be strong, and I hope you will be one hundred per cent union when it comes!

This ridiculing of new thoughts and ideas goes way back in our human civilization. Back when we humans didn’t know earth revolves around the sun, the accepted norm was a geocentric approach – which states that our Earth is at the center of the Universe. Even great philosopher and thinker like Aristotle was in favor of geocentric approach.

When Aristarchus of Samos presented the first known heliocentric approach that placed the Sun at the center of the known universe, with the Earth revolving around the Sun once a year and rotating about its axis once a day, it was met with rejections in favor of geocentric theories of Aristotle and Ptolemy.

In the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish mathematician and astronomer, formulated a model fo the Universe that placed the Sun rather than Earth at its center. However, he was not certain if he wanted to publish his book containing this fact because of his concerns about possible astronomical and philosophical objections and/or religious objections.

However, in the 17th century, Galileo Galilei presented supporting observations about Copernican heliocentrism (Earth rotating daily and revolving around the Sun) using a telescope. This was – again – met with opposition from within the Catholic Church. The Roman Inquisition concluded that heliocentrism was foolish, absurd, and heretical since it contradicted Holy Scripture. Later on, Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy” by the Inquisition, and thus had to spend the rest of his life under house arrest.

Long before the geocentric theories of Aristotle, the great philosopher Socrates was also executed by forced suicide by poisoning, because he was accused of corrupting the youth and failing to acknowledge the city’s official gods. In 399 BC, his trial lasted a day, and was sentenced to death for his radical thoughts and ideas.

In a world full of ridiculing, why should we practice?

Let us first go back to the time, when ancient humans discovered fire.

Although the direct evidence is scarce, claims for the earliest definitive evidence of control of fire by a member of Homo ranges from 1.7 to 2.0 million years ago. Evidence for the “microscopic traces of wood ash” as controlled use of fire by Homo-erectus, beginning some 1,000,000 years ago, has wide scholarly support [a].

A diorama depicting hominins igniting fire inside a cave from the National Museum of Mongolian History, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

In a review for the Royal Society Philosophical Transactions B, J.A.J. Gowlett hypothesizes that hominins took advantage of natural wildfires for foraging. It is difficult to follow the development of human control over fire because of what Gowlett calls its “disappearing act.” Fire isn’t as well preserved in the archeological record as, say, middens or flint tools. And progress was incremental, with fire control being learned in different places at different times. Certain archeological sites have proffered a bounty of stone tools, suggesting long-term quartering. Such occupancy could mean hominins learned to at least maintain fire as far back as 2.5 million years ago. But direct evidence is scarce [b].

So what happened after we discovered fire?

The cooking hypothesis, proposed by Richard Wrangham, Ruth B. Moore, Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard, claims that fire allowed us to cook our food – making cooked meats easier to chew and digest; and as a result, our bodies could extract more nutrients form the same amount of meat. Wrangham argues that the ability to create cooked foods shaped the brains and bodies of our Homo ancestors. Larger brains allowed us to process more information, create more dynamic social groups, and adjust to unfamiliar habitats. All of which benefited us evolutionarily [b].

Cooking can be thought of as “pre-digesting.” Because we’ve already broken down much of the food by cooking, the calorie absorption process becomes more efficient than if the food had been raw, and requires that we put in a significant amount of energy to just digest. The use of fire to prepare food paved the way for the evolution of organisms that could support significantly larger brains [c].

The expansion of the brain, seen in fossils from different branches of our family tree, may have been aided by fire, first used at least a million years ago. NMNH, SI

Thus, we are where we are now because of practice.


Imagine a scenario – one of the ancient homo species discovered fire and showed it to his close group. He may have been ridiculed, laughed at, or may even have been accused of creating something dangerous and potentially destroying weapon! But had that one homo species given up, and left the practice to discover fire and educate more species, we would probably not have evolved so much as we have now.

Practice enabled humans to discover fire. With fire, humans were able to consume cooked foods. This allowed our body and brain to gain valuable nutrients required for our continuous development. Darwin himself considered language and fire as the two most significant achievements of humanity [d].

So how do you build habit of practice?

Step 1: Shut up and show up.

As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, say – shut up and show up. Showing up is the first step towards practice and building long term habits. No matter what, show up. Take that first step.

Step 2: Know the environment.

Our environment also plays a vital role in building any habit of practice. If the people around us talk about football all the time, we are bound to watch football – because as humans, we are wired to comply with social groups. If people around us are appreciative and supportive enough, we tend to take the step we never thought we could take. The safety net from our environment really helps in taking new strides. If people around us aren’t supportive, maybe we need to change our environment around us.

Step 3: Use visual cues.

Small wins are massive motivators, but we rarely recognize them. Having a small win, and assigning a visual cue to it is important in any practice. Visual stimulus is important. It makes us stick with good habits. The visual cues act as a reward system for us to continue practicing. A small ‘tick’ on our calendar or marking done in our to-do list are all examples of visual cues working with our brain to reinforce our habit of practicing.

A constant reminder for myself to practice comes from my name itself – Prayas, meaning ‘try’. Let’s give it a try. Let’s take the first step.

And let’s keep practicing.

Also read: Awareness & Courage – And how to “Practice” it

The antidote to toxic positivity – Tragic Optimism

Amidst all the global health crisis and unrelenting optimistic quotes floating on Instagram and Pinterest, “Tragic Optimism” serves as a way of living.

Viktor Frankl – the Holocaust survivor and Austrian psychiatrist – first coined the term tragic optimism. Frankl explains first about the tragic triad of human lives – pain, guilt, and death. Thus, tragic optimism is an optimism in the face of the tragic triad and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for: (a) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (b) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (c) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action. [1]

Tragic optimism is the ability to maintain hope and find meaning in life despite its inescapable pain, loss, and suffering.

– Viktor E. Frankl

Frankl initially advocated that tragic optimism holds a space to experience both the good and the bad in human lives, and that we can grow from each. [2] Furthermore, Emily Esfahani Smith – author of the critically acclaimed book The Power of Meaning – argues that there is hope and meaning can be found in life while also acknowledging the existence of the tragic triad of human life. Smith further mentions, “When researchers and clinicians look at who copes well in crisis and even grows through it, it’s not those who focus on pursuing happiness to feel better; it’s those who cultivate an attitude of tragic optimism.” [3]

The problems with toxic positivity is that it paints negative emotions as a failure or weakness. Moreover, toxic positivity is a form of denial – which completely disregards the current adverse situation and focuses solely on the “bright side”. With toxic positivity, negative emotions are seen as inherently bad. Instead, positivity and happiness are compulsively pushed, and authentic human emotional experiences are denied, minimized, or invalidated.

Failing to acknowledge the hardships in life can have a detrimental effect on our mental health. Persistent reminders to reflect on ‘how good we have it’ in the midst of strife and struggle don’t make sadness, fear or anxiety dissipate, research shows. Instead, suppressing negative emotions can actually make us feel worse

Is ‘Tragic Optimism’ what we need right now?

The COVID pandemic has not just threatened our physical health but also emotional and mental well-being of people around the world. According to psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who coined the term “post-traumatic growth” in the 1990s, the people who grew after a crisis spend a lot of time trying to make sense of what happened and understanding how it changed them. In other words, they search for and find positive meaning.

Similar instances have happened in the past. To illustrate the effectiveness of tragic optimism, Smith points to a study conducted after the events of September 11. In general, people reported higher instances of fear, anxiety, or hopelessness—but the emotions were more debilitating for some than others. After a crisis, most people acquire a newfound sense of purpose, develop deeper relationships, have a greater appreciation of life and report other benefits. It’s not the adversity itself that leads to growth. It’s how people respond to it.

Tragic Optimism: Search for meaning than happiness

Frankl himself suggests that this is the core of the human spirit – if we can find something to live for; if we can find some meaning to put at the center of our lives, even the worst kind of suffering becomes bearable.

But how do we find meaning in our lives? Frankl reiterates that there are three main sources of meaning in life: 1) creating a work or doing a deed;  2) experiencing something or encountering someone (as in love);  and 3) transcending, learning, and finding meaning from the inevitable suffering which we will experience. Thus, Frankl argues, we can find meaning despite the tragic triad of suffering, guilt, and death.

At the start of lockdowns in the UK last spring, Jessica Mead, a PhD student in the psychology department at Swansea University, sought to measure changes in wellbeing among residents. Naturally, wellbeing levels plummeted as a result of the pandemic, but Mead and her colleagues found participants who showed tragic optimism coped more effectively with the trauma of the pandemic.

Finally, relying in part on Viktor Frankl’s notion of “tragic optimism,” we should be considering how we may begin to reconsider our traumas as not just endings of what is, but beginnings of what still might be. When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. Even in dire circumstances, we still have a freedom to make our choice. As Frankl writes, “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Life may be tragic, but we should remain optimistic that it meaningful nonetheless—life even in its most tragic manifestations provides ways to make life meaningful.

Recipe for Content Life: Awareness and Courage

I first saw the combination of awareness and courage in Tim Urban’s tweet. Tim called it the ingredients for the recipe of “good future for humanity”. I wouldn’t be far-fetched to call it a good future for “humanity”, but let’s just focus on us “humans”.

Upon reflecting on this tweet for nearly about a year, I have had epiphanies of this piece of insight being more and more relatable. I have come to realize that when people’s lives are in trouble, it has to do with these two factors – they are either unaware of their own selves, or lack courage to take the step that they deep down want to take, or lack both.

Take a moment to think about the troubles you currently have in your life and try reflecting where your efforts have been lacking – it boils down to lack of either one of awareness or courage, or both of them. Let’s look at following examples:

In a financial crisis (either from loss of job or multiple debts) – You now probably need to be more consciously aware to save, invest, or sell some of your dearest possession(s), or need to be courageous enough to be vulnerable in front of your friends and seek for help.

In a health crisis – You weren’t aware of your eating habits, or weren’t courageous enough to maintain discipline for your routine exercise. Of course health problems could be genetic and you could consider yourself helpless, but in order to resolve it you will once again need to be aware of what you can/can’t do or eat, and courage to follow the task religiously.

In a relationship crisis – You’ll again need to be aware of where the problems are arising from and be courageous enough to take actions. You, yourself, could be the root of the problem – and if you don’t see it, you aren’t being aware. Even if you are aware and you see the problem is within you, you will need to draw courage to change yourself so that the relationship thrives.

There could be a lot of crisis, troubles, and problems that could be well beyond your span of control. What about that? Again, be aware of what could be within your boundaries, and have the courage to act.

Awareness and Courage - Recipe for Content Life

For leading a content life, we will need to have BOTH awareness and courage. Being aware, but not having enough courage to act would make us feeble and helpless. We’ll need to depend on other people to take us out from our distress. Being courageous, but lacking awareness will eventually lead to a disaster because our over-confidence skyrockets. We will be doing things bravely, but without knowing and understanding why are we doing so, and what consequences are we facing as a byproduct of our choices. And finally, having neither awareness nor courage is completely useless.

So, awareness and courage – that’s it?

No. That’s still not it.

Awareness and courage are interlinked – you will need courage to be more aware, and you will need to be aware to be more courageous. It’s a loop. But where do you start? You start with a simple word called – PRACTICE.

But practice what?

Practice asking questions to yourself. Especially those difficult questions that you have been trying to run away from. Questions like these:

  • Who am I, really?
  • If I were to introduce myself without the use of any other person or institution I’m associated with, how would I introduce myself?
  • What worries me most about future?
  • What matters the most in my life?
  • Why do I matter?
  • What are the words I’d like to live by?
  • What is my idea of fun?

You can find more self-introspection and reflection questions here.

And how do you find courage? Turns out, more you become aware, more you will find courage to take any action.

Also read: Don’t be yourself; consider adaptive authenticity

To live a happy and content life, you will need to discard a lot of things that goes against your personal values and your comfort zones. If you need to look for growth in your professional life, you probably need to quit hanging out with friends who would drag you down and focus on self-improvement. Cutting those ties would require a huge deal of courage.

The same goes with cutting toxic ties with family, relatives, friends, colleagues, or even institutions. All of these require huge courage, but prior to that, you will need to be aware of what is going on with you, your surroundings, the consequences of your actions, and so on. To begin the process of awareness, you will again need the courage to question yourself. The damned loop.

You think you fear giving presentations? Being aware of your content will help you reducing your fear. You need courage to say ‘no’ to your boss? Being aware of your personal values might help. You need courage to stand up for injustice? Being aware of our actions and consequences could help. Need to embrace your fear? Start with being aware of your fears first!

Taking small steps and celebrating the small wins could help in overcoming your fears. But do remember, everything starts with PRACTICE, a small first step.

Then after, it’s the duo – Awareness and Courage into the play.

Worries worth taking

Are any worries worth taking in life? Superficially, NO. Even Gaur Gopal Das, Indian lifestyle coach and motivational speaker, asks not to worry about any problems in life because we can either do something or not do something about it. However, on a deep and thorough perspective, maybe there are some worries that are worth scratching brains for.

After coming back home from a different-than-usual haircut, people around me had vivid perceptions – some appreciating the change, and some finding it harder to accept I spent my time and money for nothing. Some even asked why I was so worried about my appearance. I immediately wondered, “just because you are not interested in your appearance doesn’t mean I should not be worried about mine“. That’s when my mind hit this question – “Could there be worries worth taking?”

The Upside of Worrying

Kate Sweeny, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, claims that not all worries are destructive despite its negative reputation. Sweeny and her team led to a research that concluded with surprise benefits of worrying – when done in right amount, it may motivate people to engage in behaviors that are potentially beneficial to their health. Sweeney further suggests that it seems both too much and too little worry can interfere with motivation, but the right amount of worry can motivate without paralyzing.

Worry has been defined in both negative and neutral terms. Edward Watkins, a clinical psychologist and mood disorder researcher at the University of Exeter points out, “By worrying about something, we are more likely to think of reasons to take action and be motivated to do something.” Furthermore, researchers argue that there is a “finite pool of worry“, so anxiety about one matter can inhibit concern about others.

Sweeny points out that alike any emotion, worry also serves a function. Sweeney adds, “It’s a signal. It’s essentially pointing us towards something that might be coming and it’s drawing our attention there. It’s motivating us to ideally prevent the bad thing from happening or at least prepare for it.

Sweeny says that flow has been especially useful for coping with the stresses of COVID-19. Flow is a state of absorption with moderate challenge and a means of tracking progress – “zoning in” rather than “zoning out”. In Sweeny’s and colleagues’ preliminary research on the mental wellbeing of Chinese people not yet quarantined, flow was associated with reduced loneliness and more health-promoting behaviours.

So could there really be worries worth taking?

Understanding the upside of worrying, we can conclude there could be worries worth taking – especially those worries that will help us to engage in behaviors helpful to us, but not at the cost of harming others.

When we worry about something, it might be telling us that it is important for us. When we start noticing about what makes us worry, or what worries usually surround our mind, we begin to understand how we prioritize and value that instance.

For example:

  • If one can observe how much they have sacrificed their late night sleep for the latest edition of Euro Cup to support either Italy or England in the finals, they would understand how much they value football and entertainment.
  • When someone works late night and worries about how their sales pitch in front of a big corporate client, it can be noticed that person really does care about performing their best and getting the deal.
  • When someone continuously talks about buying a new apartment and moving out of their parent’s house, it can be understood that freedom and independence is of importance to them.
  • If one can observe how many plans they’ve made to visit new places during the weekends, they can understand how much they value traveling and creating new experiences.

However, the important point here is while we would be worrying about these worries because they’re important to us, others might or might not be able to understand and relate it the same way. Hence they can easily discard our worries or find it difficult to contemplate why we are involved in it so much. It needs to be understood that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure .

For instance from the earlier evidences,

  • Someone who has no interest in football wouldn’t understand why one is sacrificing their sleep for a game between two countries that has no connection to them.
  • Someone who doesn’t really value their job wouldn’t understand why someone else is working late night and putting so much of effort to that sales pitch presentation.
  • Someone who is comfortable enough to live with their parents wouldn’t understand why someone else is so bothered about finding an apartment and spending hard earned money just on rents.
  • Someone who would rather stay indoors wouldn’t understand why someone else would like to go around new places and meet people they don’t know for the sake of just enjoyment.

This leaves us with a very important thought to reflect back:

What are we worrying often about? What does it tell us about ourselves as a person? And are we discarding others’ worries just because we are not invested in it? And the most important one – What are the worries worth taking?

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