Dealing with Downswings in Poker

In three out of last six months and five out of last 11, I have lost money playing poker. In the 12 months before that, I lost money in only one. I am playing the worst poker of my life. And it doesn’t seem like I am any closer to turning things around.

I am writing this on a Sunday, the biggest day of the week for a poker player, dropping today’s grind. Before I play another hand, I have decided to take a break to investigate what the fuck is going on. And hopefully, you can use some of this to steer out of your own downswing if and when it occurs.


FACTS

At the end of each month, I take stock of my poker results and add notes on events that influenced the results. Thanks to this, I have a clear hindsight and I can see my current downswing rooted in the past.

POKER FACTS

1. Variance

Without data, I can't say for sure that I have run bad or it is just selective memory bias. Any half-decent poker player will tell you that they don't remember the times they sucked out on someone else as much as when they were on the receiving end. Keeping this in mind, I do believe that I ran below EV in critical spots in tourneys or in big pots in cash games.

2. Volume

The number of hours I spent playing went down considerably - 'Didn't play enough' features in my notes in 6 of the last 9 months.

This is a problem. Putting in volume is a way to deal with variance. Poker players pride themselves on making decisions which may turn out to be wrong in that instance but are +EV long term. The long term is achieved by playing a lot of hands so that the variance evens out and the effect of your +EV decisions shines through. And the shorter and fewer sessions I put in didn’t help in this regard.

3. Distributed effort

I am primarily a cash game player but I’ve experimented with tournaments with decent success.

Mixing cash and tournaments is actually a pretty good strategy but I went in without any proper plan. I played tournaments without discretion (although within the rules of BRM). This reduced my cash game time (which is my main source of income) and introduced more variance.

4. Study

While I watched more videos, I did much less off the table hands-on work. In terms of pure technical knowledge, I know more than I ever did in my poker career. But I executed a much smaller percentage of what I learnt.

Why I didn't apply those skills is the mental game weakness.

5. Mental Game

I’ve been a professional when it came to dealing with swings, bad beats, or with someone saying bullshit in the chat. But the mental game slump sneaked up on me - the first big red sign was when for the first time I started considering moving up to cover the losses (which thankfully I didn’t pursue for long).

mental game over time

Often I showed up with my B-game or C-game. Auto-piloting, just clicking buttons. When I was all in a certain spot with say an over-pair against top pair, I would expect getting five outer-ed. I knew I’d lose flips or get my Aces cracked against Kings or run into Aces with my Kings and not get there.

There was a tangible shift in mentality, it was like I had resigned to the idea of losing even in way ahead situations. I would hero call in spots where I knew the villain is never bluffing, and make over elaborate bluffs and then wonder why did I get called.

As to the reason why this happened, it could be as simple as not paying attention to the mind. The way our body needs exercise to stay fit, the mind also needs workout to keep it in good shape, whether it is by meditation or reading books. Furthermore, it is also affected by your life outside poker.


LIFE FACTS

1. Higher Expenses

In the last 12 months, I have spent twice the amount I spent in the 12 months before that (I got married and went on more vacations).

If I am honest with myself, I do think that higher expenses brings pressure and affects the game. It is not all about the money, but also about missing days where I could have put in a grind instead. Unlike a salaried employee, every day we are not on our job, we don’t get paid

I am a flow-player meaning that I perform better when I am playing on a regular schedule. Even though I relished the wedding and the vacations, these breaks ruptured that momentum. Having said this, it is a lifestyle I chose - traveling, enjoying life and playing poker. So the onus is on me to get better at managing the breaks.

2. Unfit body, unfit mind

I have become a not so proud owner of the Indian epidemic called the beer belly. Binge drinking and smoking became a norm. My food habits aren’t the best. And I have nothing to show for in the name of physical exercise.

It should surprise no one that this has a direct correlation with my performance. Alcohol and drugs affect the ability to focus for a sustained period of time. The morning after, I felt drowsy and not capable to think deeply about spots. I felt returning to auto-pilot mode often because I had no stamina left.

Goa monsoons didn’t help either. At the onset, sure it looked green and beautiful. But with time, when I couldn’t go to the beach for a run, or see the sun for days, my mood became as overcast as the sky above.

3. Loneliness

Even before getting married, my wife and I stayed together - so there was no change in that. The friends I had here moved away either geographically or emotionally. With the kind of lifestyle I (and my wife) have - working from home, rarely stepping out - I didn’t meet a lot of new people either. During most days, I said hello to more birds and animals than humans.

This solitude of living in a Goan village got to me. I grew concerned about my mental health as I could see it precipitating into something more serious.

4. No creative outlet

I wrote five articles in 2017 and 13 in 2016. In 2018, I published one.

The reason I got into poker was to sustain my writing. But somewhere along the way, I forgot that initial purpose and focused just on poker. At least I thought I did. What actually happened was that the unsatisfied creative urge to produce something bred discontent and disillusion with poker. The dissatisfaction manifested itself in a sense of futility and a lackadaisical attitude towards the game.

I remember the feeling of waking up in the morning and springing out of the bed so that I can study and play poker. I don't feel that way anymore. The motivation to play the game to enjoy it is not there. Sure, I want to play the game for money but it's not like before where I used to play because I actually enjoyed the game.

5. Indifference towards money

I became numb to losing money. Some of my biggest single day losing sessions came in this period. I stopped caring about money not because I am super rich but because I don't see more money equaling more contentment or happiness.

The detachment with money comes as part of the job description. When we see daily swings which can sometimes equal someone's monthly salary, you stop looking at money as something that is hard to get. It is not bad per se but when it affects your decisions on the table, when you make that big hero call because ‘Fuck you, fuck me, fuck everyone,’ then it becomes a problem.


THERE HAVE BEEN SOME POSITIVES

  • The losses haven't been that big because of my low volume and a conservative BRM. I am disciplined with my bankroll management and that has allowed me to not worry about my personal financial situation.

  • I dropped down the stakes. So the mistakes I make are not as costly as before.

  • I still believe in my ability to bounce back. Self-confidence, which has come from hours of study and playing is holding me in good stead.

  • PSL Season 2 runner up spot was pretty sweet.


WHAT ARE MY SOLUTIONS?

If you are not doing well in life with say your relationships or mental health, it is unlikely that you will get good results on the felt. A single bad beat will bring forth all the negative emotions and cause you to play worse. So my focus is on improving my life outside poker first.

LIFE SOLUTIONS

1. Moving to Bangalore

At the end of this month, I will move to Bangalore. When you are in a rut, a change of any kind can work wonders. And I am hoping it does.

The move will solve a lot of problems in one go. I have a lot of close friends there which should help curing loneliness. The sports and fitness infrastructure is better so I can do a physical activity regularly. Additionally, I hope to channel city’s energy into my life outside poker.

2. Getting fitter, eating healthier, quitting smoking

These are non-negotiable not just for poker but for life in general.

3. Creation over consumption

The easiest way to find time for writing would be to forego Netflix and such. I also intend to fill my days with things that give me contentment like art and culture. The idea is to live everyday and not postpone it to an imagined future.

4. Mindset training

Even though I wrote about a daily meditation habit, I haven’t been able to put it in practice. That is going to change.

I also want to read more Non-Fiction (Books like When, Deep Work are great to help you live at the peak of your abilities). And of course poker specific - The Mental Game of Poker (I read this early in my career. Now it needs refreshing and reading of the second part).

POKER SOLUTIONS

1. Staying at lower stakes till I get my winning mindset back.

2. Designing my grind as a professional

An elite athlete in any sport probably has a schedule for his work out, practice and pre-game rituals designed to put him in a situation where he can perform at the peak of his abilities. I need something similar.

So the days where I lazily open a lobby and stumble upon a table would be gone. Instead, pre-session rituals, vigilance and restorative breaks, autopilot checks will come in. A target for number of hands/hours to play per week, which tournaments to play will be set. This structure should also help in allowing me to play well even between vacations solving another problem.

I still have a lot of work to do on what it means to be a ‘professional’ in this game. I'll probably post a short post when I have it in proper form.

3. Studying a lot more in a structured method

HH reviews, working with software, videos and a coach. Setting a target for number of hours/week for each of these.


PARTING THOUGHTS

One last thing I want to talk about is envy.

I never got into poker thinking that I want to be the best poker player in the world. But seeing endless brag posts of people made me crave that too. The FOMO kicked in and when I looked at others succeeding, I wanted that success for myself. Even though my definition of success was not about making a certain amount of money or winning a marquee tournament. I accepted, mistakenly so, other people's ambitions as my own without realizing the trade-offs they are making.

I don't know if envy had an affect on my game but it certainly degraded my mental health.

The hardest thing in life is to find your own truth amidst all the noise and the gyaan and have the courage to pursue it. The Instagram culture we are a part of, induces a feeling of discontent at not doing cool things.

What I would suggest to you is to find your own truth, whatever it may be. If it is to grind 16 hours a day for a cash games leaderboard, then go for it. If it is to be able to have a regular source of income while working a day job but still be able to play some tournaments on the side, then so be it.

The truth for me is to write, play poker at a competitive level, be able to pay my bills, save for the future, travel and be fit. Creating a balance between them is my responsibility which I need to work on away from the table. And I hope to be back as a mentally, physically and skillswise improved professional.

If you want to talk about poker, mental health or life in general, feel free to ping ( mj [at] mayankja [dot] in ). I may not be an expert in this field, but I have found that letting your feelings out is often the first step in healing. As a sounding board, I am here. Cheers and good luck on the tables.

Further Reading:

Wait But Why’s article on Choosing a Career has a useful exercise on creating priorities when you want to do a lot of things. I am going to do that and I’d recommend it to you too.

If you like this post and want to receive emails on any new post I write, leave your email address here.

Best Books I Read in 2017

Every year, I spend a lot of time on choosing the books I want to read. I find my recommendations from a variety of sources - reading lists, Reddit, friends, popular culture, and mentions in books. And this end of year list is something I do to point out the brightest ones from a sea of innumerable beautiful stars. Let's jump right into it.

1. Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie

The first thought that came to my mind when I finished reading this book was, “What do I do with my life now?” It left me feeling like I have now read everything that I would ever want to read and nothing that I pick again is going to match its level. This is an incredible book, a masterpiece. Of course you don’t need me to say this about the sole recipient of The Best of the Booker award. I had never read a Rushdie before so I did not know what I was getting into. And his imagination and the richness of characters totally blew me away.

People adept at their craft are sometimes called magicians out of respect. In Rushdie’s case, this is a veritable truth and not just in a metaphorical sense. I never imagined that language and words could be used in this way; I was spell bound. Midnight's Children ranks right up there with the best books I have ever read. And I would urge you vehemently to make this your next book to read.

2. Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind - Yuval Noah Harari

Over the past few years, I have dramatically reduced my internet reading. Instead, I like to read books which offer in depth material on a certain topic. Knowledge empowers the mind to make informed choices. And with Sapiens, I found answers to a lot of questions which plague me as an individual and also as a member of our society.

When I picked this book, I imagined that I’d learn a lot about mankind’s history from the prehistoric times up to today. But it did a lot more than inform me - it changed my worldview. Instead of passive knowledge, I received active wisdom. It helped me look at the world around me and things that I care about in a different light. And I couldn’t help but recommend this to every person I met. 

3. A Farewell To Arms - Ernest Hemingway

If you read a Hemingway, and it doesn’t feature in your Best-Of list, you probably didn’t read it right. He is one of my favorite authors and from whose writing style I try to take a lot. A Farewell of Arms is an intense World War 1 story and one of his best works. I want to leave you with the most famous quote from this book:

“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

4. The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupéry

It might come across as a children’s book. But it is much more than that. The best lessons are the ones which nudge you in the right direction from where you can travel on your own. And not the ones where you are pushed onto and you are not sure what you are supposed to do now. This book comes under the former category. Apart from the charming story and the illustrations, the author himself is quite a character. Its a cute, lovable, simple, deep book all at the same time. Read this with your partner or read it with your kids, and share laughter, happiness and timeless wisdom. 

Other Notable Mentions:

I read a few Agatha Christies which never disappoint. Also read a couple of books from The Song of Ice and Fire series - I only wish I had experienced them before watching the TV show first. Non-fiction works like Deep Work, Predictably Irrational, Song Machine and As a Man Thinketh were interesting reads as well. 

I hope you do get around to reading some of these. If you like these recommendations, check out the rest of my reading list here.

Lists from previous years:

Playing Poker for a Living - A Complete Breakdown

The first thing my mother asked when I told her that I've quit my job and plan to play poker for a living was, "That's gambling, right?" Since she is my mom, and trusts me, a simple "No, it's not. It is a skill game," was enough to put her mind at ease. But it takes a lot more than that to convince the skeptics.

This post will try and explain that about poker. It will be a detailed breakdown of why I chose this profession, how the daily life of a poker player looks like and if this is something you should get into. We’ll also talk about money.

There are three aims of this post:

  1. For non-players, to give an inside look into what it entails to play poker for a living.
  2. For amateurs thinking of taking the game seriously, what it takes to make the jump.
  3. For poker professionals, an echo of thoughts, sharing struggles and victories.

Not all sections will be relevant to all the three groups; pick the ones you like. Here’s what follows:

  • What is Poker and Its Legal Status
  • Is Poker Gambling?
  • My Beginnings
  • The Journey Thus Far
  • Skills Needed
  • Let's Talk About Money
  • Good Way To Make A Living?
  • A Usual Day At The Office
  • A Little Bit About Live Poker
  • Where To Play
  • Future Of Poker

For the ones who don’t know about the game, let’s start with a quick introduction.


WHAT IS POKER AND ITS LEGAL STATUS

Poker is a card-based skill game that involves exchange of money. It has many variants and the most popular one is called Texas No-limit Hold'em, which is what I play. When most people say poker, this is what they mean. Other variations include Pot-Limit Omaha, Razz, Open Face Chinese etc.

The poker sites and rooms make money by charging rake. Rake is a percentage of every pot that is taken away - you can imagine it as a commission fees. It is usually anywhere from 2.5% - 5% of the pot with a cap on the total amount.

Most poker variations are played in two formats: Cash Games and Tournaments.

Cash games is where you show up with as much money you want (upto the maximum buy-in), and play with that. The stakes are fixed and are rarely increased as the game goes on.

In tournaments, everyone starts with the same amount of playing chips. As the game progresses, players are eliminated, and at the end a small percentage get the money, while the rest go empty handed. For example, in the last tournament I played, everyone paid Rs. 35k for the entry; there were 294 entries and  top 30 people were paid. The guy who got eliminated at the 30th place got Rs. 61k, and the winner got Rs. 27 lacs.

The legal status of poker varies in different countries. In some places, online poker is banned, while live poker in casinos is allowed. For example, Las Vegas is the mecca of poker players but online poker is banned in the US save for a few states. Then there are places like London, where both live and online poker thrive.

In India, online poker is legal. Live poker is legal in casinos or poker rooms in select few places - Goa, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Gangtok. Indian government treats poker under its gambling laws and a tax of flat 30% is applicable on your winnings.


IS POKER GAMBLING?

I think I may not have told my mom the complete truth.

By definition, to gamble is to play games of chance for money. Technically, this makes poker gambling. But the real answer is neither as straightforward, nor is it binary.

Here's what I'll tell you - Poker is a skill based game with an element of luck. Given a long enough duration (which we poker players call long-term), the better player will win against a worse player. We’ll take an example to understand these concepts a bit more.

Let’s say you decide to flip a coin 100 times against a friend. You bet Rs. 10 on Heads every single time, and your friend bets the same amount on Tails. The betting odds are 1:1. This means that for every flip you win, your friend gives you Rs. 10 above your bet and vice versa.

If the coin is not rigged, you can expect to win exactly Rs. 0 after 100 flips. The probability of Heads on a coin flip is 50%; half the time you'll win 10 bucks per flip and lose 10 per flip the other half.

Your Winnings = (50%*100)*10

Your Losses = (50%*100)*(-10 )

This coin toss is a net break even game. Your expected value (EV) from this game is 0.

But here's the thing: Each coin toss is an individual event. The coin itself doesn't know what it showed last time - Heads or Tails. Each individual outcome is independent of the previous one. So it is also possible that 70 out of 100 flips (or even all 100 of them!) show Tails and you lose.

  An unlucky day at the coin flip tournament. Hit by statistical probability.

An unlucky day at the coin flip tournament. Hit by statistical probability.

The coin flip follows the laws of probability and statistics but it is not bound by the sample size. Just like we don’t expect the coin to show one Heads and the other Tails in 2 back to back flips, we shouldn’t expect it to show 50 each out of 100 times.

This is called variance - deviation from the norm, from our expected results.  

In poker, just like a coin flip, each individual hand is different from the other and is independent of the previous outcome. In a coin flip, if we go long-term, by increasing the sample size to say a billion flips, the distribution should be equally weighted between Heads and Tails. Similarly, if two poker players play each other a billion hands, they can expect to get the same cards and situations equally.

Now the question arises: If both the sides can expect to have the best hand or the worst hand equal number of times, wouldn’t this be a break even game? No. This is where poker differs from a coin flip or any other purely probabilistic game.

You'll be dealt winning hands, and losing hands. The aim then is to extract the most value from your winning hands and minimise losses from your losing hands. This is called MinMax. Minimise losses - Maximise winnings.

Sidenote 1: Minimise losses doesn’t just mean losing the least money when you have a worse hand. It might also mean bluffing your opponent off of a better hand - in this case you are making money even when you have the losing hand.

How do we do that? This is what separates good players from bad. And where the skill comes in. So if an amateur wins against a better player 3 days in a row, it is variance. But, if this happens over a year, then our presumptions about who is a better player are wrong.


MY BEGINNINGS

Just like most people I know who play poker, I was introduced to the game in college. As broke college students, we didn't play for a lot of money - 100 bucks at max. The big winner would then take everyone out to the canteen for a treat. When we couldn’t borrow playing chips, we used matchsticks, or another deck of cards as play money. The setup was quite rudimentary.

The games continued when I started working, this time with proper chips. Stakes increased, nothing excessive, but reasonably higher than before. Poker nights became a thing. The biggest game I played was in the casinos in Goa. But it was just a handful of times as an amateur. And that was that.

Then in 2016, I got into it a lot more. I had money and time to spend. There were no obligations (house, car, family, loans) so I could afford an expensive hobby - and that's what it was at the time. I started playing a lot of home games and discovered Adda52.com - a poker site.

Here we'll take a quick leap across time to go back into the past - to a 13-14 year old me:

I was playing a lot of sports at the time and was competent at most. If two captains were choosing a team, I would be one of the early ones to get picked. And I entertained the dream of becoming a professional sportsperson. My father, who used to be a Table Tennis player/coach in his younger days, encouraged me to take up Snooker since I showed an inclination towards it. But, it was an expensive game; the hourly rates were prohibitively high for me. Around the same time, I had a serious injury which rendered me unable to play sports for a few years. So, the dream had to be put aside.

Coming to the recent past, during my college days, I picked up Snooker again (the hourly rates were ridiculously low). But it was just a hobby; a very time-consuming, entertaining and fulfilling hobby. It was too late to think about becoming a professional snooker player. To become world-class at any sport, you have to start young. Ronnie o' Sullivan, my snooker hero, and quite possibly the most talented snooker player in history, started playing at the age of 6. I couldn’t expect to start at 18 and think of becoming a good professional.

The point of these two stories is to tell you that playing a sport professionally would have been a dream come true for me. Cut back to the present and we see that I have discovered poker websites. A bulb lit up. What if I could do this for a living?

This was also at a time when I was thinking of quitting my job and finding a new location-independent income stream. I wrote about this in an earlier post (the one about my relocation to Goa). Playing online poker seemed to fit the bill. So, I decided to give it a shot. And by the time I quit my job in December 2015, I was on my path to make poker my profession.


THE JOURNEY THUS FAR

The first few months of grinding (that's our term for playing poker as a job) were difficult. The most common fallacy among poker players, especially amateurs, is that they believe themselves to be much better than they actually are. I wasn't immune to it either.

When I started, I thought I knew what the game was, I had my moves, and felt that my opponents are doing stupid things and getting lucky. Of course it wasn't true, but in a state of mind clouded by the haze of bad results, it's difficult to recognize it in real time. And I lost a bit of money.

Losing money wasn't the problem. It was in a sense that I had limited savings to experiment this new income stream with. But the real problem was that I didn't know what I was doing wrong.

I had assumed that poker was a simple game. I was wrong. As I wasn’t studying enough, the complexities of the game caught me by surprise. It was the classic case of not knowing what you don’t know.

I started playing at 2/4, 3/6 and 5/10 - at a buy-in of 300, 500 and 750 respectively. The simple fact that I was playing such varied stakes goes to show how bad of a poker professional I was. This is not the way to play. You have to find a stake you are good at, beat that level, and then move to the next one.

After the first few months of losing (mostly online, some live home games for fun), I started spending more time on learning the game. I read articles, watched YouTube lessons, read books and discussed strategy with a friend who was a better player than me at the time.

Gradually, I leveled up to playing 5/10 exclusively (for a maximum buy-in of 1200) and started beating those games. Around the same time, a friend offered to stake me and I began taking shots at 10/20 (for Rs. 2000 buy-in).

Sidenote 2: Staking - Here's how it works: a person gives you money to play poker and you share the winnings with that person. The benefit to the investor is that he gets to make money without expending any effort (with a risk of loss). The player’s benefit is that he gets to take shots at higher stakes with a lower risk exposure. The exact terms of the deal (% winnings and % loss shared) depend upon the two individuals.

In a few months, a combination of studying, running good, and a confidence boost from the arrangement (the fact that someone else trusted my skills gave me a lift) led me to move up to 10/20 permanently.

Sidenote 3: Running good means falling on the positive side of statistical distribution. In our coin flip example, where you lost 70 flips out of 100, you would be said to be running bad, and your opponent would be running good.

By this time I was turning in a regular profit. Hence, with the new found belief that I can make poker my profession, I relocated to Goa.

Current State: I have now graduated up to 25/50 (with a max buy-in of Rs. 6000) playing 4 tables at a time. I prefer cash games over tournaments but if there is a good value tournament, I don’t mind giving it a shot.

PITFALLS ALONG THE JOURNEY

Poker is an emotionally challenging game. Imagine losing 10 coin flips in a row, and having the emotional maturity to be able to convince yourself that it’s OK, in the long term, you’ll end up break even. In poker, there are situations where you are a percentage favorite (say 99%) to win the hand, you made the best play, but the last card comes out to be one of the 1% times when you lose.

The solace that a good poker professional seeks in such situations is in knowing that he made the best play. The opponent got lucky once, but the rest 99 times, you’ll make money. But here's the problem: You cannot expect that the 1% will occur every 99 times. It is a possibility that it happens twice or thrice or any number of times in a row.

  Replace The guy on the right with Computer Screen/Wall/Keyboard

Replace The guy on the right with Computer Screen/Wall/Keyboard

At times like these, rationality, logic and analytical thinking goes down the drain. Emotions take over and you start questioning your game play and basically become a wreck. In such situations, having the emotional stability to look beyond the immediate results, is the hallmark of a great poker player. And it takes time to develop. It certainly took me a lot of time to improve at.

I’ve had nights where I lost a lot because of variance. If you are not emotionally detached to the immediate results, this run-bad will cause you to play worse and it becomes a vicious cycle. It pushed me to the verge of quitting a few times.

This leads perfectly to our next section - the skills needed to become a professional poker player.


SKILLS NEEDED

In my experience so far, here is my top 4 list:

1. Focus - It is not uncommon for an online poker session to be 12 hours long. Live poker sessions can even go on for days. My last tournament started at 7 p.m. and ended at 4.30 a.m. and that was just the first day. The ability to focus deeply for an extended period of time thus becomes a critical skill to succeed. If you are easily distracted, this is probably not for you.

2. Discipline - Let's be honest, Poker is a little bit like gambling. It is easy to be running good and perceive yourself as being a great player and take shots at higher stakes. The ability to play within your Bankroll (We'll explore this concept later) and have the discipline to put in regular hours of studying is thus vital.

3. Analytical Mind - A lot of poker players have a background in strategy games like chess or video games. This is not to say that it is a necessity to be a good chess player, but the ability to break things down to basics is a huge plus.

4. Emotional Stability - As we learnt in the pitfalls during my journey, even during a run bad, you should have the emotional stability to look past the trees and see the forest. Decisions in poker are based on the expected value of an action. Even though you might lose in a particular instance, being able to commend yourself for making the right play is a good sign.

A lot of poker players, including myself, work on their mental game extensively. It is a big part of the profession and there are coaches who work with you just for that. To lose money and still be able to have a sound sleep, and function normally in your relationships and daily life is a skill that needs to be developed.


LET’S TALK ABOUT MONEY

I was talking about playing poker on Reddit, and people asked me a few questions about making money. I’ll answer some here.

Q. How many months in a year can you expect to be in profit?

I don’t think this is the right question to ask because it is irrelevant. You can have more losing months in a year yet still end up net positive for the year and vice versa.

This is especially true for tournament players for whom a big score usually skews the results of one month or sometimes a whole year. But I am a cash game player, and even though a downswing of one month isn't unheard of (and not un-experienced either), I have had more positive months over the last 12 months than negative. Here's a graph of my cummulative results (the numbers aren't there, but the trajectory is true).

  As you can see, I've had a few negative months, but the net effect is positive

As you can see, I've had a few negative months, but the net effect is positive

Sidenote 4: Downswing -  A long streak of losses/run bad.

Q. How much can you expect to make?

Simple Answer - Good amount of money. This amount is based on a lot of ‘Ifs’. If you: study enough, select good games, play your A-game a big % of the time, run well and a whole lot of other factors.

Complicated Answer - Winrate in poker is usually calculated on the basis of BB/100 which is Big Blinds per 100 hands. So if you play 1000 hands in a day, 20 days a month, and you make Rs. 50000 playing on 10/20, your winrate would be (50,000*100/20*1000*20) = 12.5 which is great. A winrate of 12.5BB per 100 will put you in the top 1-2% of players. A more realistic winrate could be anywhere from 5-7BB/100. Really good players can reach 10BB/100 and higher.

Q. How much money do you need to start playing poker?

Simple Answer - The games are available at all stakes starting as low as for Rs. 100. If your question was how much you need to be able to make this a living, then the answer would be you need enough to survive the inevitable downswing without punching your monitor.

Complicated Answer - This is the part where most people fail, even some pros: Bankroll Management (BRM). Bankroll is the amount of money you have. As a poker player, you need to have two BRs - life bankroll and poker bankroll.

BRM is a way to manage your poker bankroll in such a way that it minimises the effects of negative variance. If you are a true professional, this is one of the key areas which you would have to master. I have been guilty of misusing my bankroll at times, and it has come back to bite me in the ass. Let me explain.

Let's say you have Rs. 1 lac to play poker. You like two games - one at 10/20 with max buy-in of Rs. 2k and the other at 100/200 with max buy-in of Rs. 20k.

Good BRM would tell you that former is the game to choose. In latter case, you have a 5 buy-in cushion. But, that's not enough to handle the inevitable downswing. What if your 99% hands lose against 1% hands 5 times in a row? You will end up broke.

Personally, I have experienced a downswing of 10-15 buy-ins. I have read stories of people experiencing 40 buy-ins downswings too. And they were not bad players. As a rule of thumb, on a conservative side, I'd recommend a bankroll of 100 buy-ins. I don't always follow this rule, I wish I did, but do as I say, not as I do.

A more practical approach would be to play with a 40-60 buy-in bankroll. But anything below this would be inviting trouble. If you don't have that much money, drop down the stakes, build your bankroll and then move up.

A bad beat doesn't care about the stake you are playing. It doesn't care that you are playing well and have just made good winnings on a lower level and are now taking a shot at a higher level. It cares only about statistics and probability. It might strike you the hardest when you are taking shot at a higher level, or it might also smile on you.

If you are a professional, better not take a chance.

Q. Which is better - Cash Games or Tournaments?

It depends on your goals with poker. These three basic differences should make it clear:

1. Nature of Earnings - If you are a good player, you can expect to have a decent regular income from cash games. It may not be big, but it will be fairly regular. The effects of variance are not pronounced.

On the other hand, tournaments are high-variance in nature. So, even if you are a very good player, you can expect to have long dry spells; or find yourself winning life-changing money in a single day.

2. Fame and Glory - The way you have trophies in other sports, we have Bracelets for esteemed Poker Tournament winners. And it is a matter of great pride to win a bracelet. There is no such tangible reward for a good cash game player.

Here’s a short documentary called 10 for 10 about Martin Jacobson, the winner of 2015 World Series of Poker. It is the most prestigious poker tournament in the world, and awarded $10 million for the winner.

  Look at all that money and the big shiny bracelet - Martin Jacobson, 2015 WSOP Main Event Winner

Look at all that money and the big shiny bracelet - Martin Jacobson, 2015 WSOP Main Event Winner

3. Schedule Constraints - Most good tournaments (online) are scheduled over the weekend. So, you need to plan your schedule around that. There is no such constraint with cash games - you choose when you want to play.


GOOD WAY TO MAKE A LIVING?

There's a popular saying about the game: "Poker is a hard way to make easy money." And I couldn't have put it across any better. Let's break it down into Pros and Cons:

PROS:

1. Freedom of time and schedule - I fix my own schedule. I decide how long I want to play, when I want to play. Sometimes, if I am not feeling up to it, I read a book, or watch a movie.

2. BYOB (Be Your Own Boss) - Need I explain further?

3. It is challenging - Just like any competitive sport, it is a challenging game. Even if you start beating the players at your stakes, there will always be a level up or a newer variant of the game for you to master. It keeps the game fresh and invigorating. There is nothing like a good challenge to keep your brain cells young and healthy.

4. Location independence - I have played poker from the mountains of Dharmasala while watching the sun set behind the mountains, to the sound of the flowing river as a furry dog jumped around trying to catch a sparrow. I have played poker in my underwear in my house in Goa. I have played at Cafes and in friends' houses (fully clothed). If location independence is your dream, it’s a great profession.

Not just online, but live as well. Poker tournaments are hosted all over the world in some exotic places. Casinos can be found in a lot of countries. So if you choose to be a live player, the regular travel to tournaments or casinos and meeting new people could be really satisfying.

5. Money - Of course there's money to be made in poker. A lot of money. You won't become a billionaire. A millionaire, yes, if you work hard at it. And having poker as a skill means that you can go in any poker room and expect to make money - so it’s like having your own money fountain.

CONS:

1. Not enough freedom - Remember what I said earlier about freedom of time and money, it's there but it’s not absolute. Here's the thing - unlike a regular job, where you get paid even during a holiday, poker doesn't pay you for a day off. Call it opportunity cost. So, if you choose to spend your free time watching a movie, you will have to ask yourself as to whether that time could be better used studying.

2. BYOB - With most professions where you set your own deadlines, it can be hard to be disciplined.

3. It is challenging - A simple fact of the game of poker is that you make money by playing against players who are worse than you. Unlike a few years ago, today there are a larger % of people who are good at the game. The sheer number of resources - both free and paid makes it dead simple to learn the game quickly and in a better way.

Hence, the game is only getting tougher. And if you are relying on this to make you money, this could be a problem if you aren't learning faster than others are.

4. Emotionally Taxing - You need to have a very clear head to be good at the game. I have punched walls and screamed in frustration after getting unlucky a few times in a row even after making the correct play. All that was earlier in my poker journey and much before I became a better professional.

5. Search for contentment and fulfillment - Before I got into poker, I had an inkling that this will be a problem. Poker is a negative-sum game. For you to make money, not only does the other player have to lose money, but you also have to make more than the amount of rake you are paying the site.

Grinding each day, playing cards, without making an impact in the real world can make people unfulfilled. It is not a spectator sport to an extent that say Tennis is. So whereas Tennis players can rejoice in the fact that they provide entertainment to their fans, and find fulfillment in that; poker players can't. Sure, some events are televised, but it’s much harder for a newbie to be hooked to poker than tennis.

I have read personal stories, spoken to people who have expressed the same sense of emptiness. I had a feeling that I might be prone to it and that is why I have my writing to balance it off - to satisfy my creative urges, to create something for the world.

So, if you are thinking of getting into poker professionally, having something to balance it off would be a good idea to counter fatigue especially if you look at it as a 10-15 year career.


A USUAL DAY AT THE OFFICE

I wake up 10-11ish; do my morning rituals followed by exercise. I make a quick breakfast - most days I eat cereal with milk - helps keep things simple. A little bit of Start with Art and then I get to writing. Writing doesn't happen daily but I try to make it a practice to sit down for sometime and write. A few days, I go to the pool for a swim.

I take a break to make lunch, shower, eating and then some lazing around. I try to get my meditation in between. The evenings are beautiful here in Goa, so I make it a point to spend some time outdoors  - walks, grocery shopping, beach visits, or sitting in the porch and bird-watching (quite literally) or reading.

At dusk, I fire up my poker session. Depending upon the action, and if there are any tournaments scheduled, I squeeze in daily study time. It doesn't always happen but I'd like to take out more time to study. I take a break for dinner and then end the session around midnight. An hour or two of winding down follows and I call it a day.

Some weekends I am busier than usual, because good tournaments are lined up over the weekend. As I am busy most evenings, sometimes I choose to skip meeting friends and avoid social obligations. But, if I want to party, I go out partying. “The games will always be there tomorrow,” is what I tell myself.


A LITTLE BIT ABOUT LIVE POKER

I have played in home games, in poker rooms and in fancy casinos. I have played on beds, on mattresses, on floors, at dining tables, at restaurant tables, and at fancy poker tables. I have played drunk, high, and sometimes both (not recommended).

Playing live poker is a very enjoyable activity. Get a group of 6-7 people, get the banter going, order food, put on some music and it makes for a superb friday evening. Often the games go on till the wee hours of the morning, which is when you go out for a cup of tea at the roadside thela and discuss hands and the action. Just writing about it makes me crave for a good live poker session since I don't play live much anymore.

This is what makes this game great - the social aspect. You'll often find that people make it a regular part of their lives because of its entertainment value. I have made new friends at the poker table and shared laughs with many.

If you want to play live poker professionally, by all means go for it. Even though I like playing live, I can't do it regularly. Usually, the live games start late in the evening and go on till early morning which screws up your sleep cycle. The long hours and the lopsided schedule - I can't do it. Perhaps I am getting old (I am still 28 but the early 20s time feels such a long time ago), but I like a good sleep and a reasonable schedule.


WHERE TO PLAY

Online: I play almost exclusively on Adda52.com. It doesn’t have the best software but it has other positives. First, it has been around the longest. This makes it much safer to play there since you can trust them to handle your money with care (there’ve been cases of fraud by poker sites). Secondly, it has the  most number of active users. This ensures that there are games running at most times of the day.

Other popular sites are Spartan Poker (great tournament structures), PokerBaazi, Poker Ninja, FTR Poker, GoPoker, PokerHigh. I haven't played much on these sites except maybe some tourneys on Spartan. So, I won’t be able to comment on them with authority.

Live: If you want to play live, you can always find home games. Otherwise, there are poker rooms in Bangalore, Kolkata, Ahmedabad and Casinos in Goa and Sikkim. A news came in recently today that Indian Poker Association (IPA) is opening up new poker rooms in Radisson Blu, Delhi and a few other 5 star properties. Their plan is to open up more rooms in other cities like Rajkot, Indore, Varanasi, Kochi, Chennai too, which is great news for poker.

The logistics of playing online are simple - You deposit money via usual methods: Credit Card/Debit Card/Netbanking etc. And you can withdraw it directly to your bank account or via cheques. I use direct withdrawals to my bank account and they are smooth - usually happens within 2-3 days of raising a withdrawal request.

Then there are a bunch of international sites you can play on: PokerStars, 888 poker, TonyBet etc. I don't play much over there since deposits and withdrawals have been a hassle. But you’ll find many more active users on these sites, and a lot of different variations of the game.


FUTURE OF POKER

If you read the news recently, you would have found an article about how a computer beat some top poker players. Does it mean that computers can now beat poker players? The answer is No. That computer, called Libratus, beat humans at Heads-Up No Limit Hold'em. It is a subset of Texas No-limit Hold'em and it has much fewer decision trees. The popular variant isn't beaten yet.

This is not to say that I don't see a time that computers would completely be able to beat the game. AI is coming! The online version is seeing a barrage of new tools which help you improve as a poker player and tell you the Game Theory Optimal way of playing.

The edges between the top players are becoming smaller and smaller, which is true for most sports at elite level. But the difference between poker and other sports is that these edges directly relate to money in poker. In other sports, say two top football teams play each other 10 times. Both win 3 times each and draw the rest 4. They will still get paid because of tickets and TV rights. In poker, if the same scenario happens, both the players actually end up losing (because of rake).

Having said this, live poker would always be around. It is a fun, social and entertaining game and I don't see it going away any time sooner.

Talking specifically about India, this is a time of sharp growth. More number of poker sites are coming up than ever before. The people behind them are doing good to promote the game by conducting events in colleges and catching young players at an early stage. A new league on the lines of IPL called the Poker Sports League (PSL) will have its debut tournament this May. It has been running qualifiers for the past 4-5 months to shortlist the best poker players in the country. The 12 teams participating have reputable business houses as their owners. So the trajectory is looking up. 

As for me, poker has become an indispensable part of my life. Not only does it pay my bills, it also gives me immense joy to compete. If a day goes by without poker, something feels amiss. I have a long way to go, and I looking forward to move ahead and upwards on my poker journey.

Enjoyed the post? Please consider sharing. And let me know your thoughts in the comments below. 

READ NEXT: HOW TO UNDERSTAND ART - A MARK ROTHKO CASE STUDY

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Notes from Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Here's an exercise: Count the number of times you are interrupted while reading this article. And when I say interruptions, I mean all of these things and more:

  • A colleague coming over for a quick question
  • A ting on your phone
  • New email notification on the corner of your screen
  • The sudden craving for a quick cup of coffee
  • Opening up a new tab and doing internet wandering

These interruptions may seem harmless, but they have a significant impact on the quality of our work, productivity and consequently on our life. The book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport explores this idea extensively using solid research.

Some of the concepts in the book should be intuitive knowledge to us. But I've found that when such knowledge is backed by scientific studies, it becomes much more likely to be adopted in real life. (Like the benefits of meditation and why I started doing it after reading about its very real benefits).

This post covers my notes and highlights from the book. Passages from the book are in italics.


WHAT IS DEEP WORK

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

If we look back in the past, we’ll find that deep work was ubiquitous in influential people. For example:

Mark Twain wrote much of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in a shed on the property of the Quarry Farm in New York, where he was spending the summer. Twain’s study was so isolated from the main house that his family took to blowing a horn to attract his attention.

This is not an isolated example. The book Daily Rituals by Mason Currey is full of such stories of important historical figures who owe their success to commitment to deep work.

Newport says that our behavior - ‘our’ as in most knowledge workers - is in sharp contrast to this. And he ascribes the reason to network tools and the proliferation of shallow work.

Shallow Work: Non Cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

If we look at our usual work day, a lot of the deep work is replaced by the shallow alternative - like the constant sending and receiving e-mail messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction.

Larger efforts that would be well served by deep thinking, such as forming a new business strategy or writing an important grant application, get fragmented into distracted dashes that produce muted quality.

WHY DEEP WORK

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
Our work culture’s shift toward the shallow is exposing a massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth.

This opportunity will become more apparent in the coming years when the artificial intelligent tools will take over more of our shallow (and some deep) tasks.

The real rewards are reserved not for those who are comfortable using Facebook (a shallow task, easily replicated), but instead for those who are comfortable building the innovative distributed systems that run the service (a decidedly deep task, hard to replicate).

Assuming that you agree with the deep work hypothesis, we'll need two core abilities for thriving in the new economy: 

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
  2. Theability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

And this is where Deep Work will come handy.

 

1. DEEP WORK HELPS YOU QUICKLY LEARN HARD THINGS

To understand this, we'll get into the science of focus. I found it to be the most fascinating part of the book. A few things to learn:

Myelin: It is a layer of fatty tissue that grows around neurons. It acts like an insulator that allows the cells to fire faster and cleaner.

What are Skills? Skills, intellectual or physical, eventually are a function of our brain circuits. When we focus intensely on a specific skill, we essentially force the relevant circuit to fire repeatedly in isolation.

And this is how the two are connected:

The new science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. To be great at something is to be well myelinated.

By focusing intensely on the task at hand (or in other words, by using a specific circuit repeatedly), we trigger cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons—effectively cementing the skill. Instead, if we are distracted, we fire too many circuits simultaneously to be able to isolate the group of neurons we want to strengthen. It follows that - 

To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.

 

2. DEEP WORK IS RARE

A few examples of why in today’s work culture deep work is rare:

  1. Open floor offices - My last job was in at a very cool company with good perks, flexible vacation policy and an open floor office. But, that last bit was problematic. Ringing phones, laughter, discussions - all these traveled farther in an open layout. I had to find a meeting room just to be able to focus and do some deep work.

  2. IM in offices - ‘Coffee?’ ‘Smoke?’ ‘Yo what’s up?’ Simple questions which take not just your attention but also your time - The office instant messenger problem.

  3. Social Media presence - The effects of the attention sinks that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al are has been well documented. This problem is more pronounced in the case of creators who not only have to do their deep creative work but also engage in the shallow work of keeping their social media updated since they also use it as a channel of promotion.

These cause a problem which you might have heard before:

Attention Residue - When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task.
It implies that the common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance. It might seem harmless to take a quick glance at your inbox every ten minutes or so. But that quick check introduces a new target for your attention. The attention residue left by such unresolved switches dampens your performance.

 

3. DEEP WORK IS MEANINGFUL

Here's something perhaps you can relate to:

It can be hard to define exactly what a given knowledge worker does and how it differs from another: On our worst days, it can seem that all knowledge work boils down to the same exhausting roil of e-mails and PowerPoint, with only the charts used in the slides differentiating one career from another.

At my work, some days would be spent in meetings with little output. Other times I would use my busyness as a proxy for productivity. It brewed dissatisfaction and a lack of purpose.

Newport quotes Winifred Gallagher, a scientific researcher in the field of focus:

There’s a gravity and sense of importance inherent in deep work. Gallagher’s theory predicts that if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance.

By contrast, shallow work begets discontentment.

Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging. To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction. Whether you’re a writer, marketer, consultant, or lawyer: Your work is craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your professional life.
A deep life is a good life, any way you look at it.

 

4. DEEP WORK HELPS YOU PRODUCE AT AN ELITE LEVEL

Consider this equation:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Newport gives example of a prolific professor who often isolates himself without distraction on a single research task. During these periods, which can last up to three or four days, he’ll often put an out-of-office auto-responder on his e-mail so correspondents will know not to expect a response.

If you believe this formula, then Grant’s habits make sense: By maximizing his intensity when he works, he maximizes the results he produces per unit of time spent working.

This idea of working smarter, not harder has been explored in multiple other books and articles. And it seems to make a lot of sense.


The second half of the book is used to lay down the Rules and the Techniques by which we can attain deep work in our life. To give you a short summary of those techniques is just not possible because there's too much information to be compressed in a succinct form.

The aim of this post was to introduce you to the concept of Deep Work, to show the solid foundation behind it and how profound of an impact it can have in our lives. I hope it has served its purpose.

I'd highly recommend you to read the book. You'll get a stronger understanding and hopefully you implement some of those rules in your life. I’ll leave you with one last advice from the book, which I feel is the simplest to implement and probably the most powerful.

 

RITUALIZE

The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.
Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
Without structure, you’ll have to mentally litigate again and again what you should and should not be doing during these sessions and keep trying to assess whether you’re working sufficiently hard. These are unnecessary drains on your willpower reserves.

“Men of genius themselves were great only by bringing all their power to bear on the point on which they had decided to show their full measure.”

-Antonin Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life


Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed the post, share it with someone who might find it useful. Leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.

If you want to read more on the topic of focus, here's something I wrote: A Romantic's Guide to Finding Focus

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How to Understand Art - A Mark Rothko Case Study

The idea of taking your Tinder date to an art gallery sounds good in theory. But going there, looking at the paintings and thinking to yourself, "I don’t get this" isn't fulfilling. 

Or you come across an article on the internet about some abstract painting selling for $20 million dollars and you go, "Wait, whaaaat?"

Or let's say you have developed an interest in the arts. Perhaps that Tinder date went well, and you want to make a grand gesture by gifting a painting. How do you decide which one is good to buy? After all, there is no manual which says that a painting in a certain style is superior than others.

You learn that 'good art' is subjective. Why then are some artists held in higher regard than the others? What is it about Picasso, Dali, Van Gogh and Da Vinci that makes them indisputable geniuses? If you are not an art connoisseur, how do you identify great art from bad? Or even before that, how do you understand what the artwork is about?

This post is my attempt to answer these questions by tackling the work of a painter I admire - Mark Rothko. Also covered are the topics ‘Why to understand Art at all’ and ‘The Business of Art.’


WHO IS MARK ROTHKO?

Rothko (1903-1970) was an American painter of Russian descent. The images below are some of his works:

This style (called 'multiforms' by critics)- large blurred fields of solid color devoid of any figures or symbols - was his signature work. His paintings often feature in the list of most expensive paintings. This one went for $188 million, this for $90.6 million and this for $84 million.

The small images here won't do justice to his work. But I've added them to give you a reference point for everything that follows.


WHY MARK ROTHKO

Falling in romantic love is instinctive rather than calculative. We fall in love with the whole human being and not just with the sum of their individual qualities. This is why we hear things like "I love him for what he is as a person," or "I love how she makes me feel." A piece of art is quite similar.

This is where our first lesson begins.

  Mark Rothko in front of one his paintings

Mark Rothko in front of one his paintings

When I first looked at a Rothko, I was instantly captivated. I felt strong overwhelming emotions and a feeling of transcendence that I’ve experienced rarely. There was no rhyme or reason to my attraction towards it; there doesn't need to be any. Sometimes, a painting's job can just be to make a wall look better. Art's primary function is to be admired. It doesn't have to reveal a profound secret message to be worthy of appreciation.

So the simplest way to understand or judge a painting is to answer - Do you like it? And by 'like' I do not mean the technical qualities, but just enquiring whether it looks aesthetically attractive to you.

I chose Rothko because it appealed to me. The minimal language of his work goes well with my philosophy of life. But there is no need for you to feel the same way to understand it. Perhaps you even had a few questions like:

  • Why is it so famous?
  • What am I supposed to understand?
  • What's the meaning of this?
  • Isn't this very easy to make?
  • This was sold for $50 million dollars! Is this real life?

All these are valid questions which deserve an intelligent response. But that is for later. For now, all we need to do is simply answer the ‘Do you like it?’ question. Do you think it looks good? Keep the doubts for later and just observe without any notions about what it may or may not mean.


FORM AND CONTENT

Lesson number two. 

After the initial reaction, it is a good idea to look at the form, the painting itself: The canvas frame, color palette, the subject, shapes, brush strokes, layers. Imagine how it was done, how it could be done.

Rothko used large canvases

In the case of Rothko, you notice the simplicity and the deliberate lack of any symbolic reference. You notice the depth and intensity of colors, how there is a luminous quality to them. Or how the canvas seems much bigger than it is. You imagine that working on this painting would have been physically taxing for the artist. 

You notice the patterns in all his work. Big rectangular boxes filled with deep colors in a flat picture plane -  the boxes which appear to hover in and out of the picture plane.

Slowly the painting unravels a bit more. Numerous layers over layers of paint. The blue slightly visible behind the predominantly burgundy box. Or the green superimposed over the red. You notice these less evident colors at the edges or through the thin layers of the primary paint. This unravelling is like watching the artist’s process of creation in reverse chronological order.

You notice the name of the paintings and are surprised to see that most of them are titled 'Untitled' or 'No. X'  or 'Orange, Red and Blue'. You sense the artist's deliberate attempt to avoid shoving his ideas towards the observer. It is what it is.

You hear someone telling a story of how when a journalist asked Rothko to explain his paintings, he said, "Silence is so accurate." You sneer at this artsy-fartsy statement. But then you have a longer look at the painting. And you realise that what he said might make sense to some. The paintings really don't say anything specific. Silence could be accurate. Your head spins a bit. You move on.

Of course all this is more apparent when you can see it in person. Rothko himself recommended that viewers position themselves as little as eighteen inches away from the canvas to experience "a sense of intimacy, awe, a transcendence of the individual and a sense of the unknown." People recount of experience of being engulfed by the painting or becoming a part of it. The barrier between the art and the audience vanishes.

The lack of frames on his pictures is because of this reason. According to Rothko, framing a painting implies that there exists a different reality in the work. But he did not distinguish between the canvas and the world outside. The intention was to "eliminate all obstacles between the painter and the idea and between the idea and the observer." 

"I also hang the largest pictures so that they must be first encountered at close quarters, so that the first experience is to be within the picture. This may well give the key to the observer of the ideal relationship between himself and the rest of the pictures." - Rothko

Once you do this observation, you start associating certain qualities to the painting. A little more understanding is achieved merely by looking at it for longer than a few seconds.

Art often serves as a reflection of our times and the artist's personal exploration of her own identity around the zeitgeist. Thus, the next step in our understanding will come from the history and the context. For this, we have to go beyond the canvas.


BEYOND THE CANVAS - THE CONTEXT

Rothko's early work was much different from his later style. Some of his early work:

This was followed by a phase of transition to the multiforms:

This progression tells us a story of an artist who experimented with different styles before finding one which resonated with him. It teaches us one more thing - the debunking of the overnight genius myth. 

Rothko’s final style of multiform wasn't an overnight spur of the moment decision. It wasn't on a whim that he decided to paint something like this. It took him years to perfect a style with which he could express all that he wanted to. It was as if he was learning this new style by trial and error. A method to madness, if you will.

The notions often associated with artists of making something totally random or esoteric or pretentious are thus invalidated in case of Rothko. After all, we have to ask ourselves, what was that thing that drove an artist who was as skilful as he was, to find a style which looks so simple and continue doing it for the rest of his life. What was this conviction in purpose, and where did he find it from?

In Rothko, we had an artist who broke away from the status quo, created a new style which was radically different from everything else at the time, and had the conviction and self-belief to persevere even in the face of doubters and naysayers.

Rothko Chapel

Thus, when you are looking at a Rothko, you are also looking at the result of conviction in purpose, thousands of hours of experimentation, rejection, and perseverance. If you want to take anything from his work, that in itself is enough.

The originality of his style is also something to be cherished upon. Most of what we do, the words I write, the person we are - is influenced by something external -the people we meet, the books we read, the places we go to. So when we find true originality, it should be celebrated.

In the book 'The Artist's Way', the author says of writing which I think is true for most art - we are conduits for the art to flow through us onto the canvas/paper. An artist’s job thus becomes that of a passageway rather than that of a glorified creator. In a life filled with mundane activities, this makes it a way of accessing the divine. 

While drawing his pictures, or while imagining them, Rothko experienced this spiritual feeling. And this is what he wants to convey through his pictures. If we look at the pictures and search for a meaning in the shapes or the exact color used, we won't find it. This was abstract art, and abstract by definition means "existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence." or "relating to or denoting art that does not attempt to represent external reality, but rather seeks to achieve its effect using shapes, colours, and textures."

If you are thinking that this is becoming tangential and bordering on the line of some spiritual bullshit, you are forgiven. It is fair to ask what is this 'spiritual feeling' that Rothko wanted to express. How do we understand it? This is where the next part comes, which to me is the most important bit of this whole post.


ART AND AUDIENCE

"The most interesting painting is one that expresses more of what one thinks than of what one sees." - Rothko

This section is about you. Not the collective pronoun 'you' who are all the readers. But 'You', the individual reading this post while taking a break from work, or on the Uber ride back to home, or while browsing your Facebook feed in the toilet. 

Art needs audience. And each individual in that audience gives that art a different meaning. Without an audience to ascribe meaning to it, the art would lose its purpose. A great book is nothing but ink on paper if it doesn't inspire or entertain or make someone laugh. 

Let me give you an example.

I am a big fan of Linkin Park and always will be. They might be passe now, but I will always have a fond memory of them. Music has been a great influence in my life. It has played a large role in shaping me the way I am. And Linkin Park was my gateway drug into music. They were probably the first band through which I was introduced to western music. I studied for hours in a dingy, smelly room while preparing for IIT entrance exam - their music kept me awake. I have sang aloud with friends while 'Numb' played in a rental car's shitty audio system while on a trip to Goa. I have played it on repeat on speakers in college until someone came and lent me a different CD or took their CD player away.

The point is that I have associated Linkin Park with my memories. And it is I who created those associations. And these links can be different for others. It might have been a way to deal with teenage angst for a kid growing up, or a guy who met his future wife at a LP concert might associate it with love. 

Great art isn't great just for what it is. It is great for what it does to you, the changes it brings about. It becomes part of the moments of your life. It shapes them. 

The meaning that we seek in life, the purpose and the singular reason for which we do the things we do everyday isn't to be found in a textbook, or on an inscription in a cave wall, or in the careless depths of LSD infused trance. Or even in a Mark Rothko painting. It is to be found within us, and in our understanding of the world around us. That meaning is what we choose to ascribe to things in our life. 

If we decide to accumulate as much money as possible, then that's our meaning of life. If we decide to uplift the poor to a better state of living, then that's our meaning. Great art, like Rothko for me, gives meaning to my existence and the things I do. Or put it another way, it is I who decides what that painting will do to me. It is empowering. 

It is I who decides to find meaning and understanding in this quote by Rothko - 

"Small pictures since the Renaissance are like novels; large pictures are like dramas in which one participates in a direct way."

It is I who chooses to say ‘true that’ to this quote by him - 

"If you are only moved by color relationships, you are missing the point. I am interested in expressing the big emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point."

Or in this one -

"Shapes have no direct association with any particular visible experience, but in them, one recognizes the principle and passion of organisms."


WHY TO UNDERSTAND ART AT ALL

There are three reasons for me in the increasing order of complexity.

1. “I think you want to learn about art because you had an experience of some sort - a totally non-redemptive but vaguely exciting experience, like brushing up against a girl with big boobs in the subway."

- David Hickey, Art Critic/Journalist/Writer.

If you ignore the slightly sexist comment, you can see what this guy means here. It is just a way to make you a more rounded person. Learning about why an artist, Picasso for example, is called a genius, never hurt one anyone right? Call it curiosity to understand this facet of life.

2. "The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls."

- Pablo Picasso

For me, art is therapeutic. If I have a bad day, a day filled with art exploration usually recharges me. In fact, I have been struggling with work for the past one week. And today's act of writing this post has already made me feel much better.

Painting is slow art. You cannot look at it for 5 seconds and declare it good or bad. In a way it is very similar to poetry. (If you haven't picked Tagore's Gitanjali and wondered about the meaning of life after reading just a few lines, you are missing an experience). So in a world where the food is fast, news is breaking, and peace is ephemeral, art brings about a good change of pace. 

3. Art is a way to express the inexplicable. Presumably, we’ve all experienced moments of transcendence whether on drugs or meditation or during our travels or in near-death experiences. Art, from what I understand is a way to explain that, to express emotions that words cannot.


THE BUSINESS OF ART

Although it doesn't have a lot to do with understanding Art itself, I want to touch upon this issue briefly because this is something which turns people off away from the art world.

A few years ago, when I had absolutely no idea about what art is, I came cross Joan Miro's “Peinture (Etoile Bleue)” which was sold for 37 million dollars. I scoffed at the price since it was something I thought I could paint. It was natural to assume that the art world is delusional or pretentious or both. But during the course of the research for this post I understood something else.

The art market isn't a reflection of who the best painter is. The highest priced painting doesn't mean the best painting. Buying and selling art is a business. And the prices in a business are driven by many other factors than just the quality of the work. If you can't fathom why a certain painting was sold for multi million dollars, that's fine. But, don't let its price discourage you from appreciating it.

Oscar Wilde said it best:

“A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse.”


Conclusion

Abstract art isn't supposed to make you feel a particular way. It is supposed to help you embrace whatever it is that it invokes. 

This 'something' could be different for different people. Great art incites conversations, discussions and conflicts of opinions. Rothko's work inspired me to write this post, so you could say I found inspiration and contemplation in his paintings. Perhaps you could find love, or reflection, or celebration.

If you look at any piece of work and wonder - "I could do that," you are missing the point. Good art is not judged by how difficult it is to make. Or the level of technical skill involved. Or the most skilful execution. And that is why it's subjective. This can be found in other art forms too. Hemingway didn't write the most complicated sentences, but he was a masterful storyteller.

Art may seem unapproachable at times. But if you give it a chance, it can turn out to be deeply personal and enriching.

Thank you for reading. I hope you ascribe positive association to this post in your life. And may that date at the art gallery become an important moment in your story.

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READ NEXT: HOW TO HAVE MORE FUN AT FUN

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I Relocated to Goa - Why, How and Status Report of The First 3 Months

Last year, in the second week of October, I moved to Goa.  This post is a story of why and how that happened. Also, my perspective on the good and the bad of living here.


THE WHY

Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Paul Graham, Elon Musk - these were the names I idolised a few years ago. Then, I built a startup, sold it off and was burnt out in the process. Building and running a startup was by far the most difficult thing I had done in my life and it exhausted me.

While recovering from my burn out, I discovered the joys of slow travel. I found new idols - Tim Ferriss, Levels, Chris Guillebeau, Derek Sivers, Mark Manson. I envied their lifestyles - regular travel, seeing new things, meeting new people, working on the move. I envied all this and what it represented - freedom of time and money, and flexibility of schedule. They pushed boundaries of human productivity and the breadth of their achievements enamored me.

I discovered the term 'Digital Nomad' and was instantly attracted towards it.

By the time I quit my job in December of 2015, I had figured out what I wanted - to be the master of my own schedule and fill my life with things that I consider meaningful - travel, writing and whatever else that might come up later. So, by mid-September, I decided to move out of Gurgaon to experience a new way of living. I do not yet know if it is the perfect lifestyle for me. But without making this move, I would never know.


MAKING THE SWITCH

The first step before moving was to find a location independent income stream. 

Writing seemed like a good option. But the number of people who knew about my work and were willing to pay for it was limited to my network (I had only a single self-published eBook to my name). As with any art form, it would take me time to make writing financially sustainable.

So, I started working on a few other things to make money. Meanwhile, my savings formed a safety net for me to try out this arrangement. It took almost 10 months, and many nights of self-doubt, struggling, and coming back from the brink of quitting, to find a somewhat reliable income stream (more on this in a future post).

During this time, I learnt some basic life skills like cooking, and developed a habit of doing my chores on my own, becoming more self-reliant in the process. People like The Minimalists and Leo Babauta showed me the path of Minimalism which helped reduce my financial and mental energy expense. I also learnt how to procrastinate less, create more and find more time for the fulfilling things in life. 

The next step was to pick a location. The criteria was - clean air, less traffic, nice weather all-year round, small town, culturally active, scenic and good internet. And it had to be cheap to live in. Even though my expenses were low, I didn't want to take any chances. Moving abroad was ruled out for the same reason.

A milieu of options came up - Coorg, Dharamsala, North East, Goa. Some suggested Mysore or Pune. I disregarded the last two because even though they are good cities in their own right, I did not want to move from one city to another, however small it may be. Coorg sounded pleasant but I doubted if I'd find enough things to keep myself engaged; I wanted to move to live a healthy lifestyle and not a monastic one.

North East had seemed charming during my travels but it felt a little isolated and the move seemed difficult to execute. Dharamsala was a place I had been to and enjoyed. It scored well on all the parameters, except one - the winters, when it gets bitterly cold. And, I heard that the internet connection fluctuates a lot when the snow falls.

The choice narrowed down to Goa. It had pretty much everything I wanted. Beaches, parties, good weather for most part of the year, culturally very active. Moreover, three of my friends had made a move to Goa recently and they had said good things about it.

So, I packed my bags, sold off or gave away a lot of my possessions (books - I read exclusively on kindle now, guitars and amps, didgeridoo, snooker cue, tennis racket, old clothes, and other random junk), couriered the rest to my friend's place, booked an AirBnB for a week, and flew to Goa. 

It took me two weeks and multiple visits to see different houses, but I finally found the perfect place in a quiet village in North Goa. It's tucked away in the corner so it allows me privacy and peace, yet it is close enough to the beach and to the nearest town. I've got ample vegetation in the courtyard and trees of all sorts - coconut, mango, chikoo, pineapple. A family of langurs jumps around the tree tops, and the neighbor's dogs come in the evening to collect their treats. Parle-G is their favorite.

 Meet two caterpillars from the garden

Meet two caterpillars from the garden

Now, let's get into the specifics of Life in Goa. 


THE GOOD

 

1. Weather - I arrived in Goa at the right time of the year - mid October. This is when the last of the monsoon bids its goodbye. People get ready for the pleasant days in the sun and on the beach. They clean their gardens, weeding out the overgrowth caused by the rains. The days are breezy and sunny and the evenings get cool enough for a thin jacket. It's perfect. 

Goan monsoons, running from June till September, are a delight too.

2. Beach - I once told a friend that if I knew when the last day of my life would be, and I could choose where to spend it at, I’d go to a beach. So, obviously I love beaches. And Goa has the best of them.

Pro tip: South Goa beaches are cleaner and the water is more pleasant to swim in as compared to their North Goa counterparts.

3. Air - The Air quality is much better as compared to the cities. It seems such a stark contrast from Gurgaon where we encountered untimely haze in the sky caused by pollution. The night sky has more visible stars and decipherable constellations.

4. Traffic - Except in the tourist areas, traffic is not a big problem. The roads are lined with coconut trees and old Goan houses along the way, with sparse traffic, so it is pretty cool. There are a few tourist frequented spots where bottlenecks crop up, but other than that, it is just fine.

5. Cost of living - Goa is inexpensive to live in. The electricity rates are low, water bill is reasonable, petrol is cheaper, there are no extra taxes in the restaurants and a pint of beer is 35 bucks. House rentals are not as low as you might imagine for a place like Goa - but they are still much lower as compared to the metros.

6. Parties and Live Music - Another one of those non debatable things about Goa. You can't rival partying on the beach, with the moonlight reflecting off the sea, a fire dancer doing her tricks in front, and some good music behind you. Or Monday Nights Jazz, Reggae Wednesdays, Sitar on Thursdays, Friday Nights at any one of the many sexy clubs and so on. If you are the kind who loves a good party, this is the place to be.

7. People & Susegad - In September 2016, I went to Ziro Festival of Music in the North East. As luck would have it, the guys camping next to us were from Goa. And they were two of the most endearing people I have met. They've often gone out of their way to help me. The locals I met have appeared friendly and easy to strike up a conversation with too.

There is a popular term in Goa called Susegad - which roughly translates to laid back or chilled out. It is often used to describe the kind of life people live here. And it has rubbed off on me. Long breakfasts sitting in my porch, dipping in the sea, and a chilled beer in the evening have become a regular part of my life; Susegad is awesome. 

8. Activities - Art Galleries, Social dancing, Treks, Water Sports, Live Music, Night Markets, Heritage Walks, Casinos, numerous Art & Music Festivals - there's all this and so much more. The variety of options is tremendous and offered at very reasonable prices.

9. Visits - An added benefit of living in a tourist destination like Goa is that it is frequented by friends and acquaintances. I meet more friends now than I did earlier in the city. It’s a good preventive cure for isolation.


THE BAD

1. Weather - A slight downer is the heat of the summer. The humidity is high and at first, you might have to deal with typical tropical climate issues - bad hair, blocked nose and head, etc. However, as time progresses, your body will adjust and you’ll be fine.

2. Tourism and The Precedents - When given the space and the freedom to enjoy in a place with very few prohibitions, not a lot of people are good at doing it responsibly. And this has created a sense of discomfort in the heart of the locals. The bad tourist precedents have created biases, often unfair, against people like me who want to make Goa their new home.

There is a latent tension between the newcomers (I don’t really like the term ‘outsiders’) and the locals which occasionally ends up in confrontation and makes everyone involved very unhappy.

Let me give you an example:

My landlords stay in the house next to mine. Often, my friends come over to stay at my place while they are visiting Goa. Their visit could range from a few hours to a few days. And this is a problem for my landlord. He thought that we are subletting the house and making money off of it. He said that he has heard cases and seen people do that. It disconcerted me because I was being accused of something that I didn't do. But I could see where he is coming from. One of the AirBnBs I stayed at earlier had a similar situation. That dude was subletting his apartment on AirBnB without permission from his landlord. 

This is an example which explains the core issue - one newcomer does something stupid, a local gets affected by it, another local suspects some other newcomer of doing the same shit, and this newcomer in turn feels ostracized and angry at being treated unfairly. This also exists the other way around where the cycle is triggered by a local instead.

I don’t have a solution to it, but all I can give you is a very generic, non-answer: empathy, understanding and respect of each other’s sensibilities would help.

3. Bad Apples and Aggression - Every place has its cons, every herd has a black sheep and every society has its bad apples. We cannot generalise based on these outliers. But I have to address them nevertheless because they have affected me. 

The aggression in some folks is outrageous. I don't know what fuels it, but it's there, and I am wary of this a lot of the time. It often manifests in the form of rash, drunk driving (from cabbies and tourists alike), or a readiness for unprovoked confrontation. I want to think that all of this is caused due to the precedents that we talked about earlier. And I hope that these bad apples appear only during the tourist season which runs for a few months.

4. Public Transport - No Uber. No Ola. Not a lot of Auto-Rickshaws either. They do have private cabs over here which charge exorbitant amounts. Then there are bike taxis - which are fine I believe. The bus service is there, but I haven't used it enough to comment.

5. Connectivity - Depending upon where you live in Goa, Internet and Mobile Network connectivity can be a bit of an issue.

The cell reception is weak inside my house. I have to go outside in the garden to make or receive a call. The Internet has been erratic for the last couple of weeks caused by occasional fiber cuts and inexplicable frequent drops. Reliance Jio, which I bought as a backup, works well only on my roof. 

If instead, you choose to stay in a house which is less remote, you won’t face these problems. There are more ISPs to choose from. And my friend who lives in such a place tested my Reliance Jio and told me he’s getting upto 5 Mbps which is great news.

Update: After lodging a complaint with my ISP, the frequent drop issue seems to have been fixed.

Sidenote: The Internet service providers are private companies which claim speeds of upto 100Mbps. That is a bit of a stretch, but the realistic speed ranges from 30-80 Mbps which is ridiculously good in its own right. And for most part, it works like a dream.


The Future

Before arriving, my plan was to stay for a year and a half, maybe two. I imagined that thereafter I would want to explore some new place. So, would I move to a new place next year? It depends on the accomplishment of my goals this year. It is also possible that Goa keeps growing on me and I end up staying here for many more years to come.

What would I say to people considering Goa to make a similar move? I'd say that the pros of the move far outweigh the cons. Issues like the newcomer-local tension is not unique to Goa and can be found in other major cities too. And even though there are bad apples, it feels a much safer place than where I was earlier. Goa has all the necessary ingredients for a wholesome life, what you make out of it is part luck and part individual.

Would I recommend this place to people looking for a longer term move, say 5-10 years? Honestly, I don't know. Three months is a short time to comment on this but my friends who’ve been here for a year and a half plan to stay here for many years to come.

To sum it up, my quality of life has increased considerably since I’ve arrived. And this move has been enabling in a lot of ways. So, if you want to come and stay here for a year or two to experience a new lifestyle, it's a yes, a definite, resounding Yes!

Enjoyed the post? Please consider sharing. And let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

FURTHER READING

  1. A Primer On Minimalism
  2. If you like a nice party, here's a poem I wrote on one - The Night's Beat
  3. Stories Of 10 Indians Who Left The City Behind For A Quieter Life
  4. How to do what you love and make good money by Derek Sivers
  5. Nomad List - A list of best cities to live and work remotely

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Searching for The Sublime in Mundane - Notes from The Book of Tea

"LET US DREAM OF EVANESCENCE, AND LINGER IN THE BEAUTIFUL FOOLISHNESS OF THINGS."

One of the most important books that I read last year was The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakuro. It talks about much more than just the art of making tea - aesthetics, simplicity and the transcendence found in the seemingly simple rituals of a craft (in this case, tea-making). It is a manual on living a deliberate life, in the depths where the sublime reveals itself to us.

The wisdom in these pages dwarfs the other important aspect of this book - the efficiency of words. At only 160 pages, this short read punches well above its weight. There are no wasted sentences, no time expended in citing shallow stories. It is a study in depth, and living immersed in your craft. I also featured this in my Best books I read in 2016 list.

Here are my notes and highlights from it. Lines from the book are in italics.

 

On the greatness of little things:

Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others.

This here seems like the crux of Teaism. Most of our life is spent in doing the mundane- sleeping, eating, cooking, washing clothes, etc. The moments of extreme pleasure - sex, travel, sports, dancing - form a minority of our time every day. So, in order to maximise the happiness from our lives, it makes sense to enjoy the mundane as much as we cherish the bursts of extreme pleasure.

The mundane holds equal importance with the spiritual. In the great relation of things, there was no distinction of small and great, an atom possessing equal possibilities with the universe. 

The whole ideal of Teaism is a result of this Zen conception of greatness in the smallest incidents of life.

 

On What makes gooD tea:

The best quality of the leaves must have "creases like the leathern boot of Tartar horsemen, curl like the dewlap of a mighty bullock, unfold like a mist rising out of a ravine, gleam like a lake touched by a zephyr, and be wet and soft like fine earth newly swept by rain."

By using such vivid images to describe good leaves, the author has attached a romance to a seemingly simple morning ritual of making tea. This is a constant theme in the book. In fact, I wrote about this in my post A Romantic's Guide to Finding Focus.

Lotung, a Tang poet, wrote: "The first cup moistens my lips and throat, the second cup breaks my loneliness, the third cup searches my barren entrail but to find therein some five thousand volumes of odd ideographs. The fourth cup raises a slight perspiration,--all the wrong of life passes away through my pores. At the fifth cup I am purified; the sixth cup calls me to the realms of the immortals. The seventh cup--ah, but I could take no more! I only feel the breath of cool wind that rises in my sleeves. Where is Horaisan? Let me ride on this sweet breeze and waft away thither."
Wangyucheng eulogised tea as "flooding his soul like a direct appeal, that its delicate bitterness reminded him of the aftertaste of a good counsel."

If we replace drinking tea with any of our daily tasks, say cleaning, and imagine it being described by a great writer, it will transform from a mere chore to a event to experience in all its glory. While we are at cleaning, let's see what the book says about it.

 

On What Cleanliness Means:

One of the first requisites of a tea-master is the knowledge of how to sweep, clean, and wash, for there is an art in cleaning and dusting. A piece of antique metal work must not be attacked with the unscrupulous zeal of the Dutch housewife. Dripping water from a flower vase need not be wiped away, for it may be suggestive of dew and coolness. 

I have no idea why the reference of the Dutch housewife is here. But what attracted my interest was the the attention to small details.

The next quote is about the garden path. It is one of the parts that makes a Tea House.

There is a story of Rikiu which well illustrates the ideas of cleanliness entertained by the tea-masters. Rikiu was watching his son Shoan as he swept and watered the garden path. "Not clean enough," said Rikiu, when Shoan had finished his task, and bade him try again. After a weary hour the son turned to Rikiu: "Father, there is nothing more to be done. The steps have been washed for the third time, the stone lanterns and the trees are well sprinkled with water, moss and lichens are shining with a fresh verdure; not a twig, not a leaf have I left on the ground." "Young fool," chided the tea-master, "that is not the way a garden path should be swept." Saying this, Rikiu stepped into the garden, shook a tree and scattered over the garden gold and crimson leaves, scraps of the brocade of autumn! What Rikiu demanded was not cleanliness alone, but the beautiful and the natural also.

 

ON GREAT ART:

The book explains what great art means by explaining  the metaphor of Vacuum. It claims that only in vacuum lay the truly essential. For example, the reality of a room was in the vacant space enclosed by the roof and the walls, not in the roof and walls themselves. Likewise, the usefulness of a water pitcher was the emptiness that it contained, and not in the shape or material of the pitcher. 

In art the importance of the same principle is illustrated by the value of suggestion. In leaving something unsaid the beholder is given a chance to complete the idea and thus a great masterpiece irresistibly rivets your attention until you seem to become actually a part of it. A vacuum is there for you to enter and fill up the full measure of your aesthetic emotion.

There is a wonderful story about a harp made from exquisite wood. All the harpists in Japan tried to play their songs on it but no one succeeded. It would not produce good music as everyone had hoped. Finally, the hero of the story Peiwoh, a celebrated harpist comes along and plays songs of the trees, the forests, the river - basically everything that the harp might have seen when it was a tree. 

"Sire," he replied, "others have failed because they sang but of themselves. I left the harp to choose its theme, and knew not truly whether the harp had been Peiwoh or Peiwoh were the harp."

It connects with the concept of vacuum: 

One who could make of himself a vacuum into which others might freely enter would become master of all situations. The whole can always dominate the part.

In the olden times, the Samurais of Japan, much like most of Japan at that time held art in high regard. So, often if the samurais were given a job to do, they often sought art instead of money as a form payment for their efforts.

A single masterpiece can teach us more than any number of the mediocre products of a given period or school.

 

SOME APHORISMS:

We are wicked because we are frightfully self-conscious. We nurse a conscience because we are afraid to tell the truth to others; we take refuge in pride because we are afraid to tell the truth to ourselves. How can one be serious with the world when the world itself is so ridiculous!
Why do men and women like to advertise themselves so much? Is it not but an instinct derived from the days of slavery?
The Sung allegory of the Three Vinegar Tasters explains admirably the trend of the three doctrines. Sakyamuni, Confucius, and Laotse once stood before a jar of vinegar--the emblem of life--and each dipped in his finger to taste the brew. The matter-of-fact Confucius found it sour, the Buddha called it bitter, and Laotse pronounced it sweet.

Taoism accepts the mundane as it is. And unlike the Confucians or the Buddhists, tries to find beauty in our world of woe and worry.


The beauty of words in this book is baffling. I sincerely wish that you get a chance to read it. Teaism had taught many things to the Japanese at that time - about culture, art, and living a meaningful life, most of which is still relevant to us. I hope you find it useful. And if you've read it already, leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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Best Books I Read in 2016

Every year, I spend ample time on selecting the books to read. I find my recommendations from a variety of sources - reading lists, Reddit, friends, popular culture, and other books. And this end of year list is something I do to point out the brightest ones from a sea of innumerable beautiful stars. Let's jump right into it.

 

1. The Call Of The Wild - Jack London

I read it in a single bus ride from Dharmashala to Delhi. And every time I am looking for a new book to read, my thoughts go back to reading this book again. It's that good. It is not a complicated story but the writing style and the narrative evoked strong emotions in me. Sometimes, I see myself in Buck, the dog who is the main character. At other times, I see myself in his owners. I don't want to reveal more, go ahead and find it out for yourself. Thank me later.

2. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M. Pirsig

This was my fourth attempt to read this book. While in the first two attempts, I barely managed to move past a few pages, in the third one I read till about 100 pages and then stopped. The blame for not being able to finish it earlier rests solely on the immaturity of my ability to grasp the meaning and perhaps a lack of focus. It has got nothing to do with the quality of the book.

Quality - that is what this book is, and is about. I associate myself very closely to it - the writer's questions are the ones I seek, his fears are what haunt me in tense moments at night. I am a big fan of rational thought process, and thoroughly enjoyed the writer's journey to find the ghost of rationality. If you do decide to read this, take your time, don't rush and let every new concept sink in.

 3. The Book of Tea - Kakuzo Okakura

It is more like a very long essay than a book.  The art of making tea and the philosophy of life derived from it (Teaism) has left me deeply enamored. On its face value, you might assume that the author has written about the ways of making tea, its history, and its effect on Japanese culture. All that is there along with much more. The metaphors used can be applied to our daily life and provide a simple way to live in harmony with the nature that is around and inside of us. This book taught me a lot more about life in subtle ways than any other book could directly.

4. The Silent Cry - Kenzaburo Oe

If you are looking for a simple story to read, don't pick this book. Oe's stories, much like human behaviors are layered and multi-dimensional. They reveal to us the depth of emotions which we may or may not express to each other but harbor inside ourselves. So, in a way, Oe's books are a mirror to our deepest, darkest feelings. This is the second time that Oe's work has featured in my end of year best-of list. And honestly, I feel that it doesn't matter what the specifics of the book are, if it's an Oe, it'll find its way on such lists.

5. Catch-22 - Joseph Heller

There are few books which make me laugh out loud. There are fewer which invoke pathos. And the books which can do both are even rarer. Catch-22 falls in the third kind. Each character brings something different to the story - humor, despair, innocence, vitality, absurdity, lunacy. The sum of all these parts lends a fascinating quality to the whole. As much as this is a great book to read, it is also a brilliant education in how to write a good story.

Currently Reading - When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi. I am half-way through this and I suspect it will find its way into my best of list soon.

I hope you do get around to reading some of these. If you like these recommendations, check out the rest of my reading list here.

Lists from previous years:
Best of 2015
Best of 2014
Best of 2013

The Priming Effect and Making The World A Better Place

A couple of months ago, a friend recommended to me the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate. It’s an intriguing read so far and serves as useful small talk topic. But, I wanted something more from it than just watercooler conversation. So, I’ve used some of the insights from the book and applied them to the cause of improvement of our daily lives.

This is the second post in the series. Words in italics are taken directly from the book. You can read the first post here: Ego-Depletion and Why Having a Job You Like Matters


PRIMING

If you have recently seen or heard the word EAT, you are temporarily more likely to complete the word fragment SO_P as SOUP than as SOAP. The opposite would happen if you had just seen WASH. 

This is a Priming Effect. The idea of EAT primes the idea of SOUP, and WASH primes SOAP.

Priming effect takes many forms. If EAT is on your mind, you will recognize the word SOUP quicker if it is spoken in a whisper or written in a blurry font. You will also be primed for other food-related ideas like hungry, cookies, ice cream. If you ate at a wobbly table, you will be primed for 'wobbly' as well. Like ripples in a pond, priming spreads across a network of associated ideas.

Priming is not restricted to concepts and words. Even your actions and your emotions can be primed by events you are unaware of. In an experiment, young students were asked to assemble a four-word sentence from a set of five words (for example, "find he it yellow instantly"). For one group, half the scrambled sentences contained words associated with the elderly, such as forgetful, bald, gray, or wrinkle. After this, the students were sent in an office down the hall for the next task. That short walk was the actual experiment. The time it took to cross the hall was measured for each person. The students who had formed a sentence from words with an elderly theme walked down the hallway significantly slower than the others.

This experiment involves two stages of priming. First, the set of words primes thoughts of old age, even though the word 'old' is never mentioned. Second, these thoughts prime a behavior - walking slowly, which is associated with old age. Afterwards, when the students were questioned, they insisted that nothing they did after the experiment could have been influenced by the words. So, this effect happens without us being aware of it.

This priming phenomenon - the influencing of an action by the idea - is known as The Ideomotor Effect

If after reading the earlier paragraph, you wanted a glass of water, you would have been slightly slower than usual to rise from your chair - unless you dislike the elderly, in which case you might have been slightly faster than usual.

Reverse Ideomotor effect also holds true. If you were walking slowly, you would tend to recognize words like old, wrinkle, or bald faster. So, the age-old advice of smiling in the moments of adversity is quite useful. Just like amusing thoughts make you smile more, smiling more brings amusing thoughts. Acting like you are calm is likely to be rewarded by actual tranquility.

 

PRIMING IN OUR CULTURE

In another experiment, few volunteers were asked to construct a sentence from a selection of money related words ('high a desk salary paying' became a high-paying salary'). Other primes were introduced like a stack of Monopoly money on a table or a computer screen saver with dollar bills floating in the water. The results of this experiment were astounding:

  1. Money primed people became more independent than they would be without the associative trigger. They persevered longer to solve a difficult problem before asking for help, clearly showing increased self-reliance.
  2. Money primed people were also more selfish. They were much less willing to help a fellow participant who was confused about a task. When someone dropped a bunch of pencils on the floor, money primed people helped pick fewer pencils. 
  3. They also showed preference for being alone. Money primed people placed their chair farther apart from others than the ones who weren't primed.

These findings present a profound inference:

In a culture where we are constantly reminded of money, it is shaping our attitude and behavior in ways that we are unaware of and of which we may not be proud.

Another common portrayal of this priming effect is in dictatorial societies where the ubiquitous portraits of the national leader not only convey the feeling that 'The Big Brother Is Watching' but also lead to a reduction in spontaneous thought and independent action.

Some other common priming examples:

  1. Reminding people of mortality increases the appeal of authoritarian ideas. 
  2. Uniforms are the anti-prime of creativity.
  3. Thinking of stabbing a co-worker in the back will make you more inclined to buy soap or disinfectant  than juice, candy or batteries (Feeling that one's soul is stained triggers a desire to clean one's body).

You could react to these studies by disbelieving them. After all, we are all rational beings who think logically and are not affected by such trivial manipulations. But, the fact is that the results are authentic; they are not statistical flukes. The conclusions are true, and more importantly, they are true about me and you. If we were exposed to a dollar bills screensaver, we too would pick up fewer pencils to help a clumsy stranger.

 

MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE

I find the effects of priming astonishing. The profundity and width of its implications in our lives makes my head spin.

The simple act of reading the newspaper in the morning can affect the quality of our day. If you look at the majority of the front page news, it is sensational and often depressing. This is probably the worst way to start your day. It primes us to being more pessimistic and drains out energy for positive action. And as we found earlier, this happens without us being conscious of it.

So, does that mean that we should ignore all the negative happenings of the world? No. What it means is that we should ignore the inconsequential negative stuff. For example, do we really need to read about two celebrities bitching about each other. It doesn't add value to our lives, in fact, if were to accept the priming effect, it is going to make us meaner and drive us to the edge.

I remember an incident a few months back. It was late at night and I was checking Twitter about an event that was shaking up the world. I can't recollect what it was, but safe to say, it elicited extreme reactions from people. And, I was aghast  at the negativity surrounding the event. Random people were writing searing comments and I felt angry just by reading them. I took note of my rising heartbeat and promptly closed the app. Was the mass hysteria necessary? I doubt it.

Gossip, sensationalism and negativity like this is Antifragile ( ref. Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb ) - our attacks on them increase their resilience to obscurity. If we instead chose to deny it our acknowledgement, it will die of its own accord. 

So, can we collectively decide to tone down the frequency of discussions around negative incidents? Instead, why not talk about culture bearers, the ones who move our society forward? For example, instead of talking about a sexist comment by some celebrity, let’s talk about stories of women who have done something outstanding by breaking their traditional boundaries. By doing this, we are not ignoring the women who were disrespected in the first incident. But, we are choosing to bring change by showing the good (priming) instead of condemning the bad. 

If our parents read more stories of people taking unconventional paths, they might find it easier to accept your idea of quitting the job and traveling the world. Or, if we are amazed by a cannabis community celebration ( YouTube Link), perhaps it is time to share our own happy weed stories.  

 

END NOTES

Based on everything we read so far, 'Be positive' becomes not just a hippy mumbo-jumbo but a practical motto with real effects on our lives. Surround yourself with settings which would encourage the behavior you want to demonstrate. So, instead of reading news in the morning, I listen to good music and exercise. And then, to prime me for writing well, I read a nice book.

A lot of our decisions are impulsive and driven not by a rational, thought out process but by our whims and fancies influenced by external factors. So, if we want our decisions to make us better human beings, shouldn't we put ourselves in situations that make us the best version of ourselves? And if we all decide to do that, the world might just become a better place.

A final suggestion: Try out the priming effect on your own. Perhaps do a small experiment like not reading the newspaper in the morning for a week. Or, starting the day with upbeat music. See for yourself if it makes your day better. And let me know how it goes.

There is a very recent article on Slate which tells a different story on the priming effect. Here's where you can read it: Sad Face

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Cover Image via Unsplash

Ego Depletion and Why Having a Job You Like Matters

A couple of months ago, a friend recommended to me the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate. It’s an intriguing read so far and serves as useful small talk topic. But, I wanted more from it than just watercooler conversation. So, I’ve used some of the insights from the book and applied them to the cause of improvement of our daily lives.

Thus far, I have read only a quarter of the book. So, I think this could be a series of posts. We'll see about that when we cross that bridge. 

 

Ego-DepletioN

‘An effort of will or self-control is tiring; if you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes around. This phenomenon is known as Ego Depletion.’

This means that if you are involved in cognitively challenging tasks, especially the ones which you don't want to do, you would be more susceptible to give in to your urges later. An example from the book: Suppose I ask you to remember a sequence of 7 digits for a couple of minutes. And you are told that this is the number one priority for you. If at the end of two minutes, you were asked to choose between a virtuous fruit salad or a sinful chocolate cake, chances are you would choose the cake. 

In a demonstration of the concept, a group of people were asked to stifle their emotional reactions after watching an emotionally charged movie. This group then performed poorly in a physically draining task immediately after. The emotional effort of the first half of the experiment, reduced their ability to sustain physical pain and they gave in to their urge to quit more quickly.

 

Why having a job you like matters

An important implication of the concept of ego-depletion is that the kind of job you do, and how you feel about it dictates the rest of your day as well. An effort of will or self-control is tiring. So, if you are forced to work at a place you don't like, chances are that after coming back home, you might eat more junk food, watch more senseless TV and indulge lesser in creative interests.

For example, a friend of mine who hates her job enjoys painting. But, she found that after coming back home, she had little drive to do the one thing she loves - paint. She would scroll her Facebook feed endlessly, or watch movies and not feel good about it. Ego-depletion is in part a loss of motivation. The ego-depleting job reduced her desire to engage in creative pursuits (the hard task) and made her give in to the urges (the easy task).

Instinctively, you know that your job is screwing your life (if you hate the job), but now you know exactly why. If I look back at my behavior when I was working at a regular job, the regular drinking and going out was succumbing to my urges as much as it was a deliberate fun activity.

So, if you don’t do anything productive after work and feel guilty about it, cut yourself some slack. It’s biology. Your ego is depleted and you need a change of work or a glass of fresh juice. No, really. Read on.

 

Mental energy is more than a metaphor

The nervous system consumes more glucose than most other parts of the body. So, the more strenuous your task is, the more glucose is consumed. Blood glucose level drops and the next task becomes more difficult to execute. 

In a demonstration of this concept, a group of volunteers was shown a short film featuring a woman. They were asked to interpret her body language. While they were at their task, a series of words crossed across the screen to distract them. And they were instructed to ignore the words, and refocus their attention on the woman if they found their attention drawn away. This self-control caused ego-depletion. After the end of the task, half of them were given glucose and the other half were not. Then, a second task followed where they needed to overcome their intuitive response to get the correct answer. The ones whose glucose level had increased performed much better than the others. The restoration of available level of sugar in the brain prevented the deterioration of performance.

A more disturbing demonstration of this phenomenon was in a study done on eight parole judges in Israel. Their job was to review applications for parole the whole day. It was found that the number of applications they approved was higher immediately after their food breaks. And, it dropped close to zero as the time since their last meal increased. The inference made from this data was that tired and hungry judges tend to fall back on the easier default position of denying requests for parole.

 

Glucose For The Win

It seems almost too trivial to even point out - drink a refreshing sugary drink after a challenging task. This isn’t news right? We all know it intuitively. But, knowing the science and how it affects the rest of our day helps. So, I have started keeping a reserve of lemonade with ample sugar in the fridge. When I feel tired, a glass of it restores my glucose level. Also, since I am convinced of the positive effect of glucose, a placebo kicks in and refreshes me even more.

Let me know if it works for you.

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