Rediscovering Intense “Wants”

Sometimes in life, I am inexplicably drawn to things. I just want them, and I don’t know why. I realized this when I watched a video review of the latest Subaru BRZ (Same as the Toyota 86 and the erstwhile Scion FR-S). I’ve gone into some detail about why I like cars and what they mean to me, but I wanted to talk about the concept of wanting something, in general.

 

“An artifact of an impressionable childhood mind”

When I was a child, I wanted a lot of things. A lot of different bits and baubles, a lot of shiny toys. My parents were nice enough to get me a lot of these toys, but I always

Batman Action Figure- Greg Capullo

This figure sits on my desk. 10-year old me would freak out if he saw it.

wanted the newest thing that caught my fancy. Now that I’m a little more grown up I realize it was because the advertisers were doing a great job at making their product look desirable to a young impressionable mind (perhaps that’s a little manipulative, but I digress).

I wanted a whole host of things as a child. Action figures, Hotwheels tracks, video games, and gaming consoles… the list goes on. I wanted it all; but I couldn’t have it all, of course— my parents didn’t want to spoil their child. I couldn’t have whatever I wanted, and the want was so intense— as childhood brains tend to work, it made me want those things even more. A huge part of my childhood was me wanting the latest Batman figure.

“It’s easier to brush these feelings away as a responsible adult”

I rarely feel that intense want of something anymore. Perhaps it is because I grew up and toys aimed at children don’t appeal to me anymore other than the occasional sentimental value. I do have a Batman figure at my desk at work, but I don’t feel intensely about it. Perhaps it was too easy to procure. Or, perhaps I’m not a 10-year old who wants to build a huge action figure collection anymore.

As I grew up, those feelings of temptation or intense wants grew fewer and farther in between. These days I only “kind of” want some things, and I mostly only think about the things I need. The last time I remember wanting something intensely was when Android smartphones were relatively new, and all I ever wanted was to be a gadget reviewer so I could have the latest phones without having to pay for them— the coveted “review samples”. But, that was when I was a kid in college— now I have a job. A combination of financial independence and Android-powered gadgets losing their novelty washed that “want” away.

“What we do here is go back”

The waning intensity of my wants is why I was so surprised when all of a sudden, I was in the throes of temptation once more, as I first saw a video featuring an orange Toyota 86. A rather beautiful looking car, close to some of those old Hotwheels cars I used to gawk at on store shelves. “Not the fastest car, but a fun car to drive,” the reviewer said. I kept looking at the car, and as I saw its badges and trim pieces, its sparse interior, and its little digital speed readout I couldn’t help but feel a mix of positive emotions wash over me. I didn’t know why, but I wanted it. I just wanted it.

So I watched this one video. Then another video. Then the next—and I kept watching others talk about this vehicle, its lack of power, its affordability, its fan base and before I knew it I was window-shopping online, looking at listings, imagining myself behind the wheel. I reveled in this sensation like I’d met an old friend. But then I stopped myself.

“A responsible adult”

 

callsaul

Like Jimmy McGill before he became Saul Goodman.

As I have gone over in a previous post, buying a car doesn’t make much practical sense. I am getting by just fine without one. I’m a grown up now, and adulthood is all about being responsible. About staying the course. About making a long-term goal and sticking with it till it comes to fruition. A moment of whimsy is nice to have once in a while but in the end, I have to put the blinders back on and focus on what’s important. What I truly need. I can’t just give in to temptation and live to regret it— I need to think about grown-up things now, like savings, and investments, and Demat accounts and credit scores and interest rates and rates of return, I need to make sure I have a plan for “wealth creation” and let the gods of compound interest help push me through life comfortably like a middle-aged man on a pool float, sipping a pina colada and soaking in some sun on a lazy river ride.

 

A car is to be bought only when I absolutely need one, and all it can be is a utensil, a utility, something that takes me from point A to point B, has a good resale value, great gas mileage, and the best reliability. I have to sit down with the child inside me and have a talk about the really important things in life. I have to tell myself that the joy of having overcome temptation is greater than giving into it.

 

But why don’t I believe it?

 

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A Sunset

Thoughts after a sojourn in India

I visited India for the first time in nearly three years, and some of the experiences I had really made me think of the disparity between the Indian and the Western way of life, and what thinking about this difference taught me about myself.

The Bank

One of the first experiences I had after my arrival, was at a delightfully old school bank. Banking in America allows me the convenience of never visiting a physical branch if I so choose. But here I was, standing in line at the cash counter, having filled and signed two different forms, waiting for the grumpy middle-aged teller lady to hurry up. She didn’t hurry up, she just took her time, hunting and pecking at the keys on an archaic computer, getting up every so often to take a break or because she needed to get some more cash from the back room.

The bank could have had multiple tellers and the teller lady could have processed things much faster than she did but she didn’t— because in the few moments between you handing her the withdrawal slip and her giving you a wad of notes, she commanded power over you. In that brief time-slice, she had you looking at her in anticipation, waiting for your money, waiting for your deposit to go through, waiting for her “all clear”, like a defeated gladiator waiting to see if the emperor’s thumb goes up or down.

There is no reason for this bank to hold on to an outmoded way of doing business, but it does because they know they have their customers locked in. Customer Service starts and ends with just one quip—

“If you don’t like it, just open an account in some other bank”.

They know they have you locked in for life, they know you won’t go to another bank, and they know you will put up with an analog system of filling forms, attesting photocopied documents, and making sure you sign your photographs just the right way, with half your signature on the photo and the other half on the paper, just like they asked you to. And you will sign it exactly that way because you know they won’t shy away from making you fill that form out all over again.

Somehow, I found my experience with the bank more amusing than frustrating. Perhaps it was because I knew what to expect and I was in no hurry, but the fact that the cries of modernization just fell on deaf ears when it came to this regional bank was just a reminder of the realities of my home country, a grounding experience compared to the overtures of customer experience that the banks in the United States tend to have.

Travel by Road

I work with a lot of car related stuff, from infotainment to semi-autonomous driving, so I was looking forward to being able to juxtapose the “first world” vision of what driving is, with the realities of driving on Indian roads.

Here’s the thing— you can’t have your car keep you in your lane if there aren’t any lanes, to begin with. You don’t want to keep yourself in the middle of the lane, because nobody else is in the middle of their lane, because everyone is trying to either get ahead of you or to avoid larger vehicles. You don’t want to maintain a gap distance between you and the vehicle ahead of you, because you don’t want fifteen two-wheeled vehicles cutting you off. You definitely don’t want the car to detect speed limits and traffic lights, because you don’t want some dude on a motorbike yelling “Is this your first time on the road?” at you as he crawls up to the middle of the intersection before the light turns green, and completely disregards the posted speed limit as he zooms off into the distance weaving through traffic.

Screenshot_20180930-152626

Nobody wants to stop, and everyone wants to get there as fast as possible.

You don’t even want lane departure warnings, because most smaller roads have cars parked on the sides which effectively reduces a two-lane road to a lane and a quarter. You’re lucky if you don’t encounter a 3-row SUV coming towards you in the opposite direction.

 

Don’t even get me started about the potholes.

The truth is, if you want to create a semi or fully autonomous driving system for a country like India, you need to completely re-imagine what driving on a road is compared to what it is in North America. You need to understand the mind of an Indian driver— impatient, irritable, and under a constant pressure to be alert and get where he/she needs to be as fast as possible.

That’s a metaphor for Indian society as a whole— everyone wants to get somewhere they’re not, everyone wants to be better than everyone else, and there’s just so many people and obstacles in the way, that you really feel a compulsive need to do it as fast and as ruthlessly as possible, even if it means sacrificing your own health and wellbeing.

The Dermatologist

The most painful experience I had during my time in India, was at the dermatologist. My mother was concerned about my hair situation and decided I should get a professional consultation. I spent nearly three hours in the waiting room, watching some guys try to learn water buffalo racing before I was called in.

edf

The emotional pain I experienced can be summed up by the phrase

“This kind of hair would be fine if you were ten years older.”

Now, as a man in his mid-20s I already have plenty of things I worry about, but until now, my hair was not one of them. I returned to the United States with a new thing to obsess over and a year’s supply of hair care products.

I’m not going to blame the doctor for what she said and the effect it had on me— they were just doing their job and offering their honest professional opinion. I’m just going to use it to highlight another aspect of Indian society.

The fact that there’s a lot of people in India, and there are a million people waiting to take your place in case you falter doesn’t go well with the idealistic notions of only comparing yourself to yourself, and taking the time to discover yourself and what you really want to do in life. Combine that with parental concern that comes from a genuine desire to see their child “succeed” in the materialistic definition of the term, and you get a recipe for misery.

A night out with friends

Marine lines

An impromptu visit to Marine Drive. Pro tip- if you’re having an ice gola, ask for some extra ice to wash your hands afterward.

This was what I was looking most forward to. Meeting friends, reminiscing about times past, catching up on each others’ lives. I was fortunate enough to spend some time with some friends from my days in Junior College, a group of people who I managed to maintain great ties with and not push away with my eclecticism.

In the moments I spent with them, shooting the breeze at the shores of the Arabian sea, the sounds of fast trains rattling by as we sat on benches eating street food, I wasn’t some out of shape 20-something with a dad-bod and a receding hairline, I wasn’t some man-child with no vision for the future, I wasn’t some loser with no love life, I was their friend, and they were my friends, and all was right with the world.

The time I spent with them meant so much more to me than anything else I experienced in those few days. A group of friends for whom you are enough— just you, whoever you are, wherever you are at in life, whatever you are doing, just you, your banter, the same old topics, a conversation that never ceases, and ties much greater than just some quid pro quo agreement.

A distinct dearth of true friends in close proximity is one of my greatest laments about living in the Midwest. Making friends as an adult is weirdly difficult, and even if you do make friends, the ties are never as strong as the ones you forged in your childhood and adolescence.

Reflection

Going back to my home country, I was faced once more with the realities of what it takes to stay relevant in a hyper-competitive world— tenacity, impatience, aggression, a “go-getter attitude” (whatever that means), and trying your best to achieve the goals that either you have set or have been set for you, even if it means sacrificing your peace of mind, your health, and your overall wellbeing. There is no time to rest because every time you achieve something, you will be hounded by thoughts of what’s next.

You will have your faults constantly being pointed out to you, often by people who genuinely just want to see you get ahead of the competition and “succeed”. You will have to constantly work on things that are supposed to raise your standard of living and your place in society, but funnily enough, have an adverse effect on your mental and physical health.

But what are we to do? That’s just the grim reality of the modern world, and there’s nothing you can do to change that. You have to spin all of these things in a way that appears positive. Call it “personal growth”, “an achiever’s mindset”, or whatever you need to.

All this stems from the idea that at some level, you as you are, are not enough. Inadequate. You need something more to really give meaning to your own life. You need these objective material markers, these milestones of achievement, to truly become something more, something better, a “successful” person.

I don’t believe that at all.

One of the things I marveled over in the early days of my move to the United States, is the focus on individuality, and how some people took their own time to work on whatever goals they had, whether they be professional or personal goals. This was new to me because my whole life up to that point had existed under the tacit social agreement that was that “certain things needed to be done at certain times”. You complete your education at a certain age. You get married at a certain age. You have a family at a certain age. You must do certain things in a certain way because you need to “compete with these people— the best and the brightest, and they will not stop for you to catch up with them”.

This mindset meant that I had a genuine inability to truly be happy for others and their achievements, and that is an extremely toxic way to be. As I have grown older and am now on the other side of the mid-20s, I’m beginning to be more accepting of people and am trying to be genuinely involved in their happiness. Life is too short to be constantly jealous.

So what is the “right” way to live life anyway? Following an age-old tradition? Venturing out into the great unknown by your lonesome and facing things as they come? It is an interesting juxtaposition. Maybe there is no right way. All I know is, I’ve spent way too long beating myself up about things, and I want to spend some time focusing on what I’ve done right.

My tryst with the automobile

I’ve been on a real car kick lately. Watching videos, TV shows, and listening to podcasts about cars, how they’re driven, how they’re made, how people fix and maintain them— it’s all fascinating to me. All this makes me think about the idea of the automobile and what it means to people all over the world.

My formative experiences with cars

When I was an 18-year-old in India, I wasn’t very enthused about cars. They were just metal transportation boxes, liabilities, a headache to use and maintain. My experience learning to drive a car solidified that mental model. I learned to drive in an old beat-up Hyundai Santro, learning to shift gears on a gearbox that felt like it was held together by crunchy peanut butter, with an instructor screaming instructions into my ears as I barely managed to avoid cars, motorbikes, bovine creatures and callous old ladies on the mean streets of Thane. It didn’t help that I chose to take lessons during peak traffic hours and that the instructor made me go to traffic roundabouts at a time when I barely had a few hours behind the wheel.

This video closely resembles what I went through in my first few driving lessons.

 
I went to a “driving school” as most 18-year-olds do in India. That’s where I got behind the wheel of the aforementioned Santro. The thing about “driving schools” in India is that they only really teach you how to pass the driver’s test. Once you pass your test and get your license, you’re on your own. That’s the interesting and honestly scary thing about learning to drive in India—  having a driver’s license doesn’t mean you actually know how to drive.

The stresses of car ownership in India

From my point of view as a child and young adult, car ownership always seemed like quite the hassle. I lived in Thane which is part of the greater Mumbai metropolitan area (some might nitpick that but I don’t want to get into that). Due to this, some of the things I quickly learned to associate with cars were “stress”, “traffic”, “pollution”, and “the stress of parking”.

I remember whenever we had relatives over, or whenever we visited someone, one of the first questions was always about the drive itself. “How was the traffic?” “How are the roads?” “Which route did you take to get here?” , and so on. The discussion would go on for a few minutes before the conversation moved on to other topics, but the conversation about the journey was invariably present no matter the occasion or time of year.

Parking was another constant pain. I remember my father used to ask us to keep a lookout for parking spaces every time we drove somewhere. I remember the paid parking attendants, the merciless tow truck operators, and the moped owners chasing behind them to get their vehicles back. I remember parallel parking in a tough spot only to get bookended by cars parked bumper-to-bumper and having to go home in an auto rickshaw. Twice. It didn’t matter if you had a compact car or even a two-wheeler, parking always involved a bit of luck and a whole lot of patience.

The aspirational aspect

maruti

Source: Indian Express

In India, the experience of driving a car is wrought with stress but the idea of owning a car is still aspirational. Being able to buy a car with your own money is a sign that you’ve made it in life. I remember hearing anecdotes like “Sachin Tendulkar bought a Maruti 800 with his own money when he was 18”, as examples of someone to look up to. The anecdote aims to show people the success you should strive to achieve, and the car is a symbol of that success.

From Urban India to the Midwestern United States — a shift in perspective

Four years ago, I moved to Indianapolis. Indy is technically a city, but it was nothing like the city I was used to living in. Much fewer people, much larger roads, and much longer distances. All of this, and a nearly non-existent public transport system.

In the midwest, not having a car is like a handicap. Distances are measured in how long it would take to drive there. A small indicator of how deeply rooted car culture is in the American way of life. Throughout my life as a grad student living in the midwest, I felt this handicap every day. Calling it a handicap might be hyperbolic, but it was definitely a small pain in the side, a small hurdle I needed to overcome just to be able to keep up with people better equipped on the transportation side of things.

patelstore

Due to the long distances in the Midwest, a car is almost a must.

The nearest Indian grocery store was eight miles away. The nearest Starbucks was a couple of miles away. Getting around on the University campus was not much of a big deal, but I remember spending up to twenty minutes at the bus stop waiting for an Indy-go bus that was always late, riding the bus for fifty minutes to the Patel Brothers store, trudging through wet lawns of car dealerships on the highway to get to the Wal-Mart that was “next door”, along the streets near the I-65 that were built with cars and drivers in mind (no footpaths and barely any crosswalks!). Then, waiting for the bus again, heavy bags in hand, trying to balance six bags of groceries in two hands and trying not to spill anything, balancing some of the grocery bags on the handrails, trying to ignore the other passengers’ looks of confusion mixed with curiosity, trying to hold back the restlessness in the fifty minute journey back as the bus stopped on each and every bus stop spaced two blocks apart…

This experience was enough for many of us to try to get driver’s licenses. And indeed, many of us did. It was like a whole new world of opportunities presented itself to us. Enter “ZipCar” — a car rental service that charges you by the hour, perfect for those trips to the Indian grocery store. The nearly hour-long journey was cut down to about fifteen minutes. There was no walking through lawns or footpath-less highway roads— just drive to the store and find a parking spot. We needn’t balance heavy bags in our hands anymore,  just put them in the trunk. To an American, this was a mundane, everyday experience. But to us, it was like we were given the keys to the city.

Using ZipCars wasn’t always without its pitfalls, though. there were four cars for about four thousand students, and availability was limited. More often than not, the window of availability was only an hour to ninety minutes. That’s not enough time to go to both the Indian grocery store and Wal-Mart. Walking through the vast expanses of a Wal-Mart’s aisles takes at least an hour, and it takes fifteen minutes to get there. We were often found wanting more time, which more often than not, we didn’t get. The car needed to be returned to its designated parking spot on campus, where a new set of students lay in wait for a chance to get behind the wheel and do their own shopping.

Despite all these travails, it was still much better than taking the bus. Driving in the midwest was fundamentally different from driving in urban India. Wide roads, clear signs, everyone following traffic rules, and most importantly —  almost no honking. All of this meant that for the first time in my life driving wasn’t just a chore anymore. Dare I say, it was almost… enjoyable.

Uber/Lyft—  a new hope

In the midst of the revelation that was driving in the Midwest, I began using ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft. I didn’t use it often as a grad student, but as a newly minted college graduate with a job, I use it almost every day. It hits the sweet spot for me. I can get to places I want to be but I don’t have to drive. Why wouldn’t I drive if I felt driving in the midwest was almost enjoyable? That’s because of the realities of car ownership and car buying, in the united states.

Wants versus needs

Getting a good deal on a car depends on a lot of factors, and there’s a lot of research that’s necessary. This car research is what got me on the car kick I mentioned in the beginning. I got so involved in research that I ended up spending my evenings binge-watching consumer reports videos. All my research points only to one thing— don’t buy a car unless you need to. I don’t need to buy a car. I live in an area well-connected by bus, and my ride-share app expenses end up being lesser than it would be to own and drive a car myself.

Despite arriving at a practical conclusion, buying and owning a car is still something I want to do. The answer to why that is doesn’t lie in the experience of driving, it lies in that aspirational aspect of car ownership. It lies in the fact that the car is a measure of success and personal responsibility.

It’s not the car, it’s just me

At times when I am in a pensive and introspective mood, I feel like having my own car will make me feel more like a grown-up, an adult, someone willing to take responsibility. Maybe I’m missing out on that. I feel like there’s this unending race towards self-improvement, “growth as a person” , all these things I’m seeing other people do, all these things that make me feel jealous of others with their perfect schedules and hobbies and interests and personal lives and successful relationships, maybe having a mechanical object that can transport me from place to place will placate this desire to fit in with the rest of these youthful individuals full of vitality and hopes and dreams, maybe I’ll feel like a responsible adult like so many people my age appear to be.

Maybe I need to get out into the world and cut myself a larger slice of this experiential pie. Maybe I’m hearing so much about cars all day that my mind is turning a corner on the idea of having a car. “The downsides are worth it I promise” I hear them say subliminally. Maybe I’ll go out into the world. Maybe I’ll drive down the highway for a few hours and go back to Indianapolis on a Thursday evening and go listen to some Jazz at my favorite Jazz bar. Maybe I’ll drive down an hour and go to that nature reserve that’s “super close” but I haven’t been to because I don’t want to drive a rental car.

Or maybe I’ll be a worry-worm just like I am today, but with one more sword dangling over my head. Maybe I’ll just drive around town with the windows up and the heater on, listening to some music loudly while screaming “look at me I’m not a loser”.

The modern automobile— the ultimate compensator.

IBM Model M – My New Old Toy

Sometimes all you need is a new toy. My new toy’s a really old toy, but it has the same effect as something shiny and new. Such a thing of beauty, such a satisfying experience. It’s funny because in its heyday, this was a run of the mill accessory for IBM computers, which is about as boring and mundane you can get.
IBM Model M serial number

Serial number and manufacturing date

 

This particular unit was manufactured in 1987. Ever since I heard about mechanical keyboards in 2012-13, I have wanted to have one of these in my possession. I’m glad to report that it lives up to all that hype.

The anticipation combined with the honeymoon period of using something new. The slight hiccup while setting it up. Browsing forums to find fixes to issues. Finally getting a thirty-year-old piece of electronics to work with a modern computer. It just scratches my itch for tinkering with things, making them work together. An itch I have had since the days before digitally downloadable games were the norm, and I had to buy bargain basement games due to a lack of availability where I lived. My computer was barely able to run those games, and I had to find all sorts of fixes for a multitude of issues. The satisfaction after getting a game to run for the first time, after hours and sometimes even days of troubleshooting is what the experience of getting this keyboard to work reminded me of.

How it feels to type on it

Now that the beige behemoth was up and running, I started to type. This anticipation to type is something I hadn’t felt in ages. It didn’t matter if I’m a bad writer. It didn’t matter if a genius level intellect told me I wasn’t good at it. None of that mattered. I wanted to do this again. I wanted to tear open a hole in the dark unconscious and pour the contents of the mind into the realm of the digital, through this ancient instrument. This instrument that flawlessly captures what it should feel like to put words on a screen. Just the right amount of force. Just the right level of click. Throw in the occasional ping in there. Hear those sounds, let your thoughts achieve a particular rhythm. Lose your conscious thoughts and inhibitions about your apparent skill or the lack of it. All of that is pointless. You write because you don’t want this to stop. You don’t want the clicking to stop. You want to keep typing through the slight fatigue, till the fingers start to feel the strain, your fingertips slightly hot from pushing down on the perfectly curved and textured plastic keys.

In a casual conversation with friends, I joked that this was my weapon against the transgressions of my upstairs neighbor who likes cranking up the volume when he watches TV and listens to music. It doesn’t matter to me now. I want to write. Write about something. Write about anything. My will to write was like a rock precariously perched on a cliff waiting for a little nudge to convert potential energy to kinetic. The nudge came in the form of a new keyboard. The rock is certainly rolling now. The content does not matter. This is purely self-indulgent writing. Writing for its own sake.

So familiar, yet so strange

This brings back memories of a time that I now feel was much simpler. The feeling is familiar, but the memory is distant. In some way, this keyboard feels just like that- an object from the distant past which feels so familiar as I use it today. I didn’t need to learn anything, I didn’t have to readjust. Everything was in the right place. Like going back to your parent’s house after several years to find your room just like it was before you left. That makes sense because the IBM Model M helped popularize the standard keyboard layout of the keyboards of today.

It doesn’t have the modern accouterments- no backlighting, no pass-through for headphones or USB devices, no macro keys. But the feel of the keys more than makes up for that. I’d gladly give all of those fancy features up for the visceral satisfaction this buckling spring keyboard gives me.

This keyboard was built for offices and workspaces. It was built at a time when the age of personal computing was only getting started. Back then, loud keyboards were more accepted. We’ve moved past the time when keyboards were designed to sound similar to typewriters. We live in a time where the most frequently used keyboards are virtual ones on a glass touchscreen panel. There’s haptic feedback of course, but it is nowhere close to what you can get from a keyboard with mechanical keys.

Some parting thoughts

The IBM Model M serves as a reminder of the things we’ve left behind in our relentless quest towards more affordable mass-produced computer peripherals. Mechanical keyboards are making a comeback as a niche community of late, but of the keyboards, I have tried, none come close to the IBM Model M. It’s so much more than just “good enough”.

This is, of course, my personal opinion. Not everyone likes clicky and loud keyboards, not everyone’s willing to put up with a hefty computer peripheral. But if you, like me, are filled with a strange compulsion to write, this is one of the most satisfying tools you can use.

 

 

When things are worth doing, they are worth doing badly

Why I haven’t posted anything lately:

I’ve never been the person with the highest sense of self-esteem. Feelings of inadequacy are a part of the human condition- most of us if not all of us have felt that we are not good enough to do something, at some point in our lives. The latest bout of such feelings came about when I was faced with an honest critique of my writing. The criticism was quite understandable, in my excitement, I decided to forego making multiple drafts and carefully re-writing everything. I just stuck with the first draft and I felt that it was good enough. What I wrote was full of grammatical and structural errors and wasn’t the best work I could have presented.

I got so excited by the subject matter, so carried away by the fact that I was working on something interesting that I forgot to remember to see it through to completion properly. I should have written and rewritten, I should have pored over the draft to make sure the grammar was correct, I should have made sure the structure was cohesive. I didn’t do any of those things because I was too excited. The response to that was inevitable and swift, and I welcomed it (or at least I thought I did). I felt that my motivation to write something and my belief about the correctness of my points would shield me from the negative feelings that come with any criticism which I expected to be minor at the most. Clearly, I was wrong about both the quality of what I’d written and the effect the criticism would have on me.

When the criticism came my way, I was devastated. Being able to express myself through writing is an important part of my self-identity and self-worth. I never thought I was world class, but I did think I was pretty good at it. When you believe something to be an integral part of your identity, your public face, your “personal brand” if you will, having that put into question shakes your foundations. The question was not only if I was good enough now, but if I ever was any good at all at any point in the past.

The criticism itself was pretty easy to understand. My emotional reaction to it took longer to fully understand and process. The rational mind would say it is a good thing to be given honest feedback but the sheer bluntness of it really shook me to the core. I was good at writing one moment, and in the next, I was just not. Was this just an isolated mistake? Am I really any good? Was I ever any good? Did I ever improve? What have I been doing all these years? Will I ever actually be as good as I thought I was?

All this turmoil made me hesitant to write for several weeks. I needed to articulate these emotional responses in my head, but each time I thought about it, I ended up in the same spot. I realized I needed to do something different. I needed a change in perspective.

For days I kept thinking about my apparent lack of writing skill and even though I wanted to get myself out of the inertia that I had accumulated, it was difficult to put any plans into action. Days passed and I kept going through the motions of my daily routine, and I kept turning a blind eye towards the mental turmoil hoping that in time the memories of this upheaval would fade away.

But they didn’t fade away. Those comments and my reaction to them were constantly on my mind. I was able to push them away during the week when I was occupied with work. Whenever I found myself with free time, however, the feelings rushed back to my mind and occupied center stage.

Trying to get to the bottom of things:

I decided to look back at why I wrote the piece that started it all- my post about the self-determination theory. I looked at the reasoning behind why I felt I was intrinsically motivated to write. When I was truly engrossed in writing, the act of writing was its own reward. Whether the writing was any good was not a part of that equation at all. I understood that although the act of writing is what I truly love to do, I am also drawn to the feeling of validation that came with showing off the writing to others. The process of writing on my blog, sharing it with the world and watching the page views grow by the day is integral to my sense of accomplishment and also my self-worth.

My intent of writing about self-determination theory was to understand some of the different factors that motivated my writing in the past. As I mentioned before, I got carried away by those thoughts and the post was not vetted as well as it should have. It was rushed. That left me to ponder over why the blunt feedback affected me so deeply.

To try and understand my thoughts, I wrote them down in a journal. The simple act of writing the things that were on my mind had helped me on multiple occasions in the past. All it takes is a pen, paper and a stream of consciousness emptying itself out from your brain and into the physical realm in the form of the written word. Journaling my thoughts helped me through a lot of tough times, especially as a student living in the United States, away from my friends and family.
An entry in a journal doesn’t have to be perfectly worded and devoid of grammatical errors, it doesn’t have to be drafted and re-written in order to form a cohesive story for others to read. It is a means by which you can get your thoughts out of your head and in front of your eyes to see. It turns an intangible, nebulous swarm of thoughts into something physical, which frees the brain from the entanglement of those thoughts.
Journaling my thoughts definitely helped clear the cobwebs in my brain. I was done avoiding my thoughts and I had met them head-on and articulated them in as much detail as I could muster. Writing down my thoughts was definitely a liberating experience.

Now that I knew what I did wrong, and had come to terms with my reaction to the feedback I had received, the only thing I needed was a little nudge in the right direction.

The A-ha moment:

A new perspective on this whole situation dawned upon me when I was watching a video by Jordan Peterson where he said: “If something is worth doing it’s worth doing well, but if something is worth doing it is also worth doing badly.”

As children, we are taught the importance of doing things the right way. Making your bed- make sure there are no creases in the bedsheets. Solving a math problem- make sure you write down all the steps properly. Cleaning your room- don’t just shove the dirt under the carpet. It is a good virtue, striving towards perfection, aiming towards the ideal, living your best life, being your best self, and so on.

The trouble occurs when you don’t think you’re good enough and you end up not doing anything, because what’s the point of writing if it’s not perfect and people are not going to like it? Well, then you’re looking at it the wrong way. And indeed, I was looking at the whole situation the wrong way. I was too caught up in trying to look smart, and the sole purpose of writing was for the feeling of validation that I got from others reading my blog. Now I realize that if you really think something brings you joy, then you do it even if you’re not good at it because it is better than not doing anything at all. A lack of motivation to write is the reason why countless blogs die, and I’m not going to let my blog become one of those symbols of discouragement getting the best of people.

This whole episode has really helped me understand myself, my reactions to things, and how best to deal with situations such as these. In fact, the act of writing this has been quite cathartic because I’m not writing this for anyone else. I’m not a great writer, I may not even be a good writer. That doesn’t matter because I’m not going to stop trying to get better. I feel like maintaining this blog is worth doing, and when things are worth doing, they are worth doing badly.

Self Determination Theory and my writing journey

 

Introduction

I’ve been re-reading some of the research papers that I read when I was a graduate student, and now that I have the leisure of ruminating on the concepts stated in them, I’ve started to correlate those concepts with my own experiences.

I decided to start reading about Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation, specifically the Self Determination Theory (SDT) developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan. I think I picked this topic because I haven’t been inspired or motivated to write about new things for the past couple of months, and every time I set out to write about something, I haven’t seen it through.

What is Self Determination Theory?

Self Determination Theory is a meta-theory, or a collection of theories about motivation, self-regulation of behavior, and personality development. Self regulation refers to the process of internalizing extrinsic or social values into self motivations and personal values. Two of the key sub-theories with SDT are Cognitive Evaluation Theory, and Organismic Interaction Theory.

Organismic Interaction Theory and the Self Determination Continuum

The organismic Interaction Theory is a subtheory within SDT, and it describes more fine-grained distinctions between types of motivation.

Self Determination Continuum

The figure shows six types of motivation. Each type varies in the amount of autonomy the person has as well as in the level of internalization (i.e. how much the person has taken in a value, or how much the person values the activity).

My writing journey through the lens of the Self Determination Continuum

Amotivation- the beginnings

I didn’t actually start writing blogs until 2012, when I started to write for a football blog. My first foray into blogging was for a football website created by a group of friends and acquaintances at college. I wasn’t motivated in any way, extrinsic or intrinsic. I started off with a regular schedule but I soon found myself lagging behind, rarely writing new posts. Even when I did manage to get myself to write a blog post, I was simply going through the motions. Writing became a chore.

I consider my initial foray into blogging as lacking motivation. I begun with good intentions- I wanted to try my hand at writing on the internet. However,I never truly got engrossed in it as I wasn’t truly interested in football, and I wasn’t getting paid. Also, because I didn’t know much about football, I didn’t feel competent enough to write about it.

External Regulation – Writing for “exposure” and monetary rewards

When I started writing technology related blog posts and articles, my dream was to one day have enough clout to receive devices for review. In pursuit of that goal, I approached many a website, and agreed to write for “exposure” or in some cases e-commerce store credit.

There was little to no autonomy because it was just about slaving away writing “hot takes” , blindly copying and pasting information about the latest goings-on in the tech space. The only reason I ever wrote was because I loved seeing my name in the by-line, getting some sort of presence on the internet however infinitesimal it may be, and hoping that the relentless grind would get me one step closer to my dream of being a gadget reviewer on the internet.

This was a recipe for burnout, and I burned out in spectacular fashion. There was no feedback, positive or negative. There was nobody guiding me, helping me find my way, nobody helping me grow as a writer in any sense. I was all just a blind rush to get the latest “Hot Take”, and get the most page views by any means necessary. I felt like a hamster in a wheel. At the end of it all I wasn’t interacting with an audience. I was simply throwing hastily spewed out words their way in an attempt to get more clicks. I was neither forging an identity and for the most part, nor was I getting any sort of proper remuneration for it [1]

Introjected Regulation- Writing for validation

There was a point in time where I used blog posts just to get validation from people. The act of actually writing the blog post was secondary to the act of sharing the blog post on social media and on messaging apps. I spammed links to my blog posts everywhere and found inventive ways of trying to get as many views as possible. I was only writing blog posts as a method of ego enhancement. I wanted to show the world that I was a writer, a content creator, who took the time and the effort to write blog posts regularly. I wanted to prove to the world I could do it, and I also wanted to show off to the world. I tied the act of writing with my own inherent self worth- I would feel guilty or anxious if I didn’t write and share it with the world.

I consider writing for validation as a form of Introjected Regulation, because even though this form of motivation may seem internal, but it’s still caused by external factors- in this case my need for validation by others, may it be through likes or comments or social media, or even the number of hits each blog post got[2]

Identified Regulation- Writing about UX

This form of regulation is more internalized as the person perceives the action as personally important. During my final semester in the Master’s in HCI program, I realized I needed to showcase my writing skills and use them to talk about concepts of UX that I was learning at school. This was because having a web presence was integral to my job search which was in full swing at the time.

I consider this a form of Identified regulation, because I valued the goal, and considered the action personally important. It was important to me because it lined up with my goal of creating a digital identity, a writer’s equivalent of a UX portfolio.

Integrated Regulation- Writing for Pocketnow

In the summer of 2015, I got the opportunity to write for pocketnow.com, a website that covers mobile technology. I was very excited because writing for a tech website was a long time dream of mine. This was different from the “writing for exposure” days because I was given increased autonomy by my editor in chief, and I was actually being paid for my work.

When I look back at those days I feel like that experience was the single most helpful thing that ever happened to me in terms of growing as a writer. I discussed ideas for articles with the editorial team, and after getting the go-ahead, they always provided constructive feedback about what I wrote[3]. Writing for a legitimate website like Pocketnow also helped me communicate with a community of readers.

I consider this a form of Integrated Regulation because writing for Pocketnow helped me really identify as a writer. However, even though I the experience was enjoyable and helped me identify as a writer, the motivating factors were still external- getting paid, gaining an audience, and improving my writing skills.

Intrinsic Motivation- Writing for myself

There are times where I write just because I enjoy it. I like the whole process – coming up with a topic, doing some research, writing, editing, sometimes rewriting. Sometimes what I write doesn’t see the light of day, but I enjoy it anyway. It’s not about the validation, or getting money, or the pageviews. It’s just about thinking about something, writing it down, and crafting something cohesive. It’s about getting engrossed in the act of writing itself, and losing track of time.

I’m at a stage now where I have a strange compulsion of sorts, to write something, anything. I use the word compulsion because there’s something that truly compels me and I can’t explain it using external motivators. I want to , I have to write because I like it. This is, in my opinion, true intrinsic motivation.

My writing journey through the lens of Cognitive Evaluation Theory

My writing journey can not only be categorized using the self-determination continuum, but also using Cognitive Evaluation Theory. Within Cognitive Evaluation Theory,  the authors mention three factors that influence intrinsic motivation:

Autonomy: a sense of being in control and having freedom.

Competence: a sense of being able to do something.

Relatedness: a sense of being associated or connected to others.

Initially during the football blog days I was unmotivated because:

There was no autonomy- others decided what I should write about, and I could not deviate from the section I was assigned

There was no competence- I had no idea if I was good enough, and I was able to capture what people wanted from a football blog

There was no relatedness- I really wasn’t that into football and hence couldn’t really relate to the other writers and their football enthusiasm

When I was writing for “exposure” , my autonomy was restricted to writing about whatever had the potential to get the most page views. I may have felt more competent, but that was because what I wrote was formulaic and had low complexity. All my initial feelings of relatedness quickly vanished because I was doing nothing to connect with other people.

As I started writing for my personal blog and even for Pocketnow, I had increased autonomy because I could decide what to write about. The subject matter was always about what I liked (technology) or what I was learning (User Experience). I felt more competent because I always got feedback from my peers, and I could see a progression in my skills as a writer.

When I write for myself, I have complete autonomy. I am confident in my ability to write, I feel competent. I try to write things that encourage a discussion with other like-minded people, which helps with relatedness.

Reflection

The path between Extrinsic Motivation to Intrinsic Motivation is non-linear:

Although the self determination continuum looks like a linear progression, it doesn’t imply that motivation follows that order. In my personal experience I have gone from External Regulation to Intrinsic Motivation, and then fallen back to one of the intermediary phases when I lacked inspiration. Inspiration is fleeting, and I feel like I’m intrinsically motivated or experiencing “flow” when I am inspired. However, there are times when I am not inspired or intrinsically motivated, and I need some form of external regulation, or an intermediary form of regulation such as Introjected, Identified or Integrated. I think the Self Determination Continuum really adds more nuance to the idea of writing as a disciplined practice versus motivated or inspired writing.

Going through the intermediary forms of motivation helped me fully incorporate intrinsic motivation:

When I started writing, I thought that inspired writing was always my best work because it was “from the heart”, a stream of consciousness captured as words and sentences. The more I forayed into writing about specific topics however, I realized that writing, getting feedback and rewriting until you have a cohesive narrative was great as well.

Now when it comes to writing, I realize how important it is to have a proper procedure. Having a stream of consciousness is great, but it needs to be channelized properly. Getting feedback from others more skilled than I am really helped in that regard. In my initial attempts at writing for myself, I didn’t really have a sense of direction. I had complete autonomy, but I had no competence, and others were unable to relate to what I was saying. In the case of writing for Pocketnow, the slight reduction in autonomy was worth it, just for the increase in competence that I experienced as a result of working with more accomplished writers.

In my writing journey, I started off like a bullet shot from a gun- I had plenty of ideas, and I put them into writing as fast as possible. Soon, I was out of inspiration. I went from intrinsic motivation to being unmotivated.  Nevertheless, I continued writing for various reasons. I slowly went through the intermediary phases and regained the intrinsic motivation I started with. I feel like my intrinsic motivation is in fact stronger than when I started writing, because I continued to write and gain feedback.

References:

Footnotes:

  1. I eventually realized this wasn’t the right way to go about writing. Looking back, I still feel quite bad about the incessant spamming of links that I used to do. A few people even blocked me on social media because of it. I wrote this blog post around that time, describing what was on my mind.
  2. Spamming friends and family with blog posts was not only a form of seeking validation, but was also a fun activity. I’m not so proud of it now that I look back at it. But I think I needed to go through that phase to get it out of my system.
  3. Shout out to Michael Fisher, Stephen Schenck, and Anton D’Nagy, the editors at Pocketnow who helped me hone my writing skills. (Also Adam Doud, who helped me learn to deal with haters/trolls/ general negativity in the comments section.)

A few thoughts on “Using the Difficulty”​ in User Experience Design

Introduction

While looking through articles and examples of UI Dark Patterns, I stumbled across a paper titled “Use the Difficulty through Schwierigkeit”: Antiusability as Value-driven Design”. I was intrigued by the title of the paper, and the essay style used by the author.

On an initial read through, the paper felt like a meandering essay, which touched upon various aspects of the “Anti-usability/Schwierigkeit ” school of thought. A couple more read-throughs later, I was able to understand the various nuances within the points presented by the author.

The author really exemplifies the point he’s trying to make with the words used in the first couple of sentences. I mean, wording such as  “This aphorism also encapsulates the raison d’etre…” has to have been a deliberate choice.

Definition and Origins of “Using the Difficulty”

Antiusability is defined as

“…a novel way of design that centers on the finely tuned integration of graduated difficulty into user interfaces to systems in a variety of contexts.”

It’s important to note that Antiusability is not the opposite of usability, it is in fact part of usability and user experience design. Lenarcic makes note of this by suggesting the use of the term “Schwierigkeit” (which means “difficult” in German) as an alternative.

Lenarcic cites the example of Michael Caine, who asked the director of a play he was in, about how to deal with a chair that was on stage. The director told him to make use of the chair in a way that helped him express the nature of the scene (smashing the chair of it was a dramatic scene, or tripping over it if it was comedic). In this way the chair went from being an obstacle to an object that could be used in a productive manner.

Key Points

Here are the key  points that Lenarcic went over in his paper:

  • The usability of a device can modify a user’s behavior.
  • Difficulties can be used in such a way as to have a net positive effect.
  • Choreographing obstacles in a way that allows the users to regain the feeling of being in charge of the interaction process rather than being “madly addicted” to it.
  • “Calibrated difficulty in practical design to accentuate the greater good in system use”
  • How easy should things be? How difficult should things be to enable an end user to feel they have performed a useful task?
  • Regaining control over our lives- “slow” movement and moving away from hyper-efficiency as an end goal for all interactions
  • Exploring “viscosity” in user environments, affordances that allow resistance to local changes.

What follows is my attempt at summarizing and reflecting on some of the points presented in this paper. The paper was written in a meandering essay style and my thoughts tended to meander as I wrote this, though I have tried my best to create some coherent structure.

“Calibrated Difficulty”: Gamification and Homo Ludens

The author talks about “calibrated difficulty in practical design to accentuate the greater good”. My mind naturally went to levels of difficulty in video games. Games are a great example of difficulty being an important aspect of the user’s experience or indeed their enjoyment. Most games have different levels of difficulty to cater to different people’s preferences.

Today, gamification of interfaces has become a buzzword. “Gamification elements” have become synonymous with things you can tack onto an interface in order to make it more “delightful”. Things like leaderboards, scores, achievements, and badges. I feel like the benefits of adding such elements without proper thought is limited at best and questionable at worst.

I believe that this idea of using the difficulty has an application in truly gamifying a user experience. True gamification involves using aspects of the interaction itself, using the “Core Drives” of the user, as this article by Yu-kai Chou brilliantly describes. Imagine if you got a sense of accomplishment on completing a tedious task, rather than exasperation. (Something like, say, editing an image-laden document in Microsoft Word without messing up the layout.) Providing a challenge, timely positive feedback and competition can definitely act as motivational drivers as is described in this paper.

But gamification at its core still aims to improve the user experience with the goals of the user in mind. It is still about getting things done by providing a sense of accomplishment to the user for doing “grunt work”. Lenarcic’s Schwierigkeit is more in line with William Gaver’s “Designing for Homo Ludens”. As Gaver describes, his definition of “playing” is different from “gaming”

“Not only are these forms of ‘play’ fundamentally goal-oriented, but in striving for a defined outcome they impose rules about the right and wrong ways to go about things… Pursuing such an instrumental version of ‘fun’ does not help provide an alternative model for computing. On the contrary, it co-opts play into the same single minded, results-oriented, problem-fixated mindset that we have inherited from the workplace.”

Gaver goes on to provide examples of open ended forms of engagement with no fixed goals, rules or outcomes. He says that scientific approaches to design should be complemented by open ended and exploratory ones.

“It is difficult to conceive of a task analysis for goofing around, or to think of exploration as a problem to be solved, or to determine usability requirements for systems meant to spark new perceptions”

Regaining control over the experience- allowing the user to reflect on their actions

Another aspect of Lenarcic’s paper is about allowing the user to reflect and rest as they use the system, instead of having a singular goal of reducing the time on task and increasing efficiency. The more time you can save, the more work you will end up doing, as Landauer expressed in his book The Trouble with Computers.

He argues that allowing time to reflect over actions may help the user feel more in control over the system, as opposed to being “madly addicted” to the process. He argues that adopting a more mindful and “slow” approach could lead to more user satisfaction. Allowing users to reflect on their actions be used to improve learnability and understanding of the system.

A personal reflection on Usability, User Experience and “Delighting” the user

Usability discussions are often centered around ease of use, and when people talk about user experience the end goal is often times “delighting” the user. The end goal of UX design and research is always creating an ideal experience for the user based on their needs and behaviors. Words like simple, easy, desirable, and efficient are the ones that are used, while words like difficult always have a negative connotation.

This paper really got me to think- is making something easy to use, more efficient and less time consuming really the only way to improve the user experience? Can the difficulties inherent in some experiences be leveraged to a positive end?

Of course, there’s a difference between making something usable and making a delightful user experience. I feel like Lenarcic’s idea of “using the difficulty” has a place in discussions about the latter. Some may equate the ideal experience with the most efficient, but reading Lenarcic’s essay made me go back and re-read ideas like Gaver’s Designing for Homo Ludens, and made me realize that there’s a lot more to user experience or human centered design than simply designing for efficiency.

Thinking back to my days as in Grad School, I remember the discussions with professors and peers about ways to “delight” the user. It almost always ended up being about how the interface reacted to the user- beautiful transitions, animations, innovative 404 screens or other ways in which to provide information about system status, and so on.

There’s so much more to user experience and “delighting” the user than a focus on making things easier to use. Exploring, playing around with something with no end goal, some level of challenge, all of these are ways in which we may seek fulfillment. I’m glad I picked apart this paper despite my initial hesitation, because it made me go back and re-read so many things that I had forgotten about or was unable to appreciate because of the stresses of being a graduate student. This in itself is a case in point- I read all these academic papers with a goal oriented mindset, I wanted to extract their meaning, write a summary, and discuss them in class, all with the goal of passing my class, with the incentive of good grades (or the fear of bad grades). My goals were set, and I developed methods to efficiently accomplish the tasks of summarizing and discussing papers. It’s now that I have the time to reflect on these papers that I realize how important and thought provoking they are.

This paper reminded me of my initial wonderment about the human condition. I feel like I had lost sight of the complexities of the things that make us tick, and it’s refreshing to remove the blinders of efficiency and ease of use to look at things like difficulty from a new perspective.