FF Insights #685: Break bad habits

July 1, 2022: India’s first diplomat; Random trials; Wishful thinking

Founding Fuel

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Good morning,

While most of us acknowledge and implicitly understand how the bad habits we have are hurting us, despite the best of intent, giving up appears almost impossible. Daniel Coyle acknowledges this in The Little Book of Talent and offers a workaround.  

“When it comes to dealing with bad habits, many of us try to attack the problem head-on, by trying to break the habit. This tactic, of course, doesn’t work, and we’re left with the old truth—habits are tough to break. The blame lies with our brains. While they are really good at building circuits, they are awful at unbuilding them. Try as you might to break it, the bad habit is still up there, wired into your brain, waiting patiently for a chance to be used.

“The solution is to ignore the bad habit and put your energy toward building a new habit that will override the old one. A good example of this technique is found in the work of the Shyness Clinic, a program based in Los Altos, California, that helps chronically shy people improve their social skills. The clinic’s therapists don’t delve into a client’s personal history; they don’t try to ‘fix’ anything. Instead, they focus on building new skills through what they call a social fitness model: a series of simple, intense, gradually escalating workouts that develop new social muscles. One of the first workouts for a Shyness Clinic client is to walk up to a stranger and ask for the time. Each day the workout grows more strenuous—soon clients are asking five strangers for the time, making phone calls to acquaintances, or chatting with a stranger in an elevator. After a few months, some clients are “socially fit” enough to perform the ultimate workout: They walk into a crowded grocery store, lift a watermelon above their head, and purposely drop it on the floor, triumphantly enduring the stares of dozens of strangers. (The grocery store cleanup crew doesn’t enjoy this quite as much as the clients do.)

“To build new habits, start slowly. Expect to feel stupid and clumsy and frustrated at first—after all, the new wires haven’t been built yet, and your brain still wants to follow the old pattern. Build the new habit by gradually increasing the difficulty, little by little. It takes time, but it’s the only way new habits grow.”

Worth thinking about, isn’t it?

India’s first diplomat

One eye opening conversation we came across in recent times is an interview by the journalist Rohan Venkat with the historian Vineet Thakur. They do a deep dive into the legacy of India’s first roving diplomat V.S. Srinivasa Sastri. He started work on international relations for India before the country gained independence. Sastri differed in his world view with both Gandhi and Nehru, but went on to leave a complex and rich legacy that left an indelible mark on India. Here’s an extract on what Venkat discovered from his conversation with Thakur.

“I had never heard of Sastri until I went on a visit to Durban where I saw Gandhi’s Phoenix Ashram. However in Durban, there is another great monument to the struggle of Indians in South Africa. It is a school called Sastri College. When I followed up a bit more, I figured it was started by Sastri when he was India’s first Agent, or what we would today call High Commissioner, to South Africa. His name then came up more prominently as I was researching a short book on South Africa’s leader Jan Smuts. Sastri had led an impressive and successful diplomatic assault on Smuts at the Imperial Conference of 1921. Sastri was supremely eloquent in his speeches there but also unexpectedly deft in his diplomatic skills. That encounter spurred me to explore his diplomatic life further.

“Sastri was a leader of the little-remembered National Liberal Federation. It was the party of the moderates that split from the Congress after Gandhi’s entry, because they disagreed with Gandhi’s methods of non-cooperation. They emphasized constitutional politics, and in their dealings with the government, both in India and England, followed the credo ‘take what you get and fight for more’. Sastri and Gandhi shared a special relationship because they both were disciples of Gokhale. Nevertheless, the key reason for my interest in Sastri was that in the decade after 1919 he functioned as India’s roving ambassador. I was obviously interested in his diplomacy largely because even as a diplomatic historian it is almost counter-intuitive to imagine that Indians conducted diplomacy before 1947.”

Dig Deeper

The complex, fascinating legacy of India’s first diplomat

Random trials

Nature has a good survey of randomised trials—including its limitations. India is not new to randomised trials—and has been a venue for many such experiments. One of the most respected names in this field, Abhijit Banerjee, who won a Nobel Prize in 2019, is from India. The essay in Nature has some interesting examples from other parts of the world, and throws light on some of the issues researchers face. Here’s an extract.

“In a classic experiment that pre-dates the current wave, paediatrician Sally Grantham-McGregor tested in-home interventions designed to bolster nutrition, mother–child interactions and cognitive development among more than 125 malnourished Jamaican children, who were aged 9–24 months at the start of the 2-year study in 1987. Two decades later, children in the treatment group earnt 25% more than their untreated peers; after three decades, the income disparity increased to 37%.

“‘When I started, I was told it was nonsense: you couldn’t work with these mothers, because they were not educated enough,’ says Grantham-McGregor, who ran the experiment at the University of West Indies in Kingston before moving to University College London. ‘Now it’s accepted that you can work with them, and you can have an impact.’

“But Grantham-McGregor’s experience also demonstrates the fundamental challenges in running, interpreting and scaling up such experiments. Although she is amazed at the long-term effects of her study, she readily acknowledges that there is no way to determine what caused that impact: did the interventions work because they boosted the children’s cognitive development, or changed the mothers’ behaviour, or both?

“And then there’s the challenge of expansion. When scientists tried to replicate the Jamaican experiment with around 700 children in Colombia and some 70,000 in Peru, the interventions had significantly smaller effects. The lesson, Evans says, is both simple and daunting: scaling up interventions that depend on complex human interactions won’t be easy.”

Dig deeper

These experiments could lift millions out of dire poverty

Wishful thinking

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Warm regards,

Team Founding Fuel

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Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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