Book Notes: The Willpower Instinct – Kelly McGonigal

Dr. Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford. She created a course, “The Science of Willpower” which has become one of the most popular courses offered by Stanford. This course brings together insights about self-control based on research work across psychology, economics, neuroscience, and medicine. The book has ten chapters which reflect her ten week course. If you want to gain a deeper understanding of how Willpower works, then this is a must-read. It is quite practical and hard to put down once you start reading it.

Notes from the book:

To succeed at self-control, you need to analyze how you fail. Smokers who are most optimistic about their ability to resist temptation are most likely to relapse. Overoptimistic dieters are least likely to lose weight. Why? They fail to predict when, where, and why they will give in.

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A Sure Way To Make Tender & Juicy Chicken Breast

Chicken Breast is the ultimate food for a fitness enthusiast. It is low in calories and high in protein content. But none of that matters, if you can’t cook it right and it comes out tasting like a leather shoe. After enjoying a few different shoes, I gave up and embraced the lovely boneless chicken thighs. It’s hard to mess them up, although I won’t put anything beyond yours truly. No matter how delicious chicken thighs came out, I always got a lump in my throat thinking about my failures with the Chicken Breast. All this changed recently, thanks to my Friend – Shikha Sharma who is an expert chef from the French Culinary Institute. I’m glad to report that I have now perfected the technique. Follow the ten steps below, and prepare to enjoy the Chicken Breast Nirvana. If I can do it, so can you.

Step One: Defrost Chicken
Make sure that the entire chicken breast is at a uniform room temperature, so that the meat cooks evenly both inside and out. Rookie Mistake – I used to pull the chicken straight out of the refrigerator, and throw it in the oven. Nope – that won’t work.

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Re-Thinking Engineering Education

Our Engineering Education System was designed over four hundred years ago. The world has changed a lot since then –  We have an infinite source of knowledge at our fingertips, thanks to Google and Wikipedia. We have access to the experts for every topic and can reach out to them with a simple tweet. We can learn from the world class educators on a wide range of topics, thanks to Coursera, Udacity, and EdX. I expect, every subject sooner or later will be available to learn online, so where does that leave the brick and mortar engineering institutes? More importantly, if we had all the powerful tools at our disposal that we do now, how would we re-design the engineering education?

Let’s start from the objective of an engineering institute. The final product of an engineering institute is its engineering graduate. An engineer by definition is someone who can devise and build new things. He should be able to turn an idea or a concept into a finished product. Last year 140,000 students graduated with engineering degrees. How many of these engineers are capable of building new products? To be fair, creating and building new things is not an easy task. Firstly, there is a lot of concepts to cover, and the students interest may vary across different industries and products. Secondly, the instructor teaching time is a finite resource. The good news is that both of these constraints can be beautifully addressed with the dawn of internet. Let’s take an example – a mechanical engineering graduate may end up working for automotive, mining, oil exploration, consumer device manufacturer, and so on in a wide variety of functional roles. Therefore, the curriculum had to cover all potential subjects such as fluid dynamics, heat and mass transfer, operations research. The graduate may never use any of these concepts all his life, but some one in the class might need them.There was no better solution, and we had to deal with this inefficiency. But not anymore, the internet can help us deliver customized education – perfectly suited to the student’s need and interest. The instructors don’t have to regurgitate the same content year in and year out. They can capture all necessary concepts in streams of 10-minute videos similar to Khan Academy. The students can then create a learning trail based on what they need to build a product.

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What Are The Important Problems In Your Field?

I came across an excellent talk by Dr. Richard W. Hamming. He was an eminent Bell Labs scientist, who worked with the likes of Feynman, Fermi, and Oppenheimer. In this talk, he answers the question – Why do so few scientists make significant contributions and so many are forgotten in the long run? If you are in any field where innovation matters, I highly recommending reading this piece.

He brings up some excellent points. One of the gems – People who do great work know even in their sleep what are the important problems in their field, and they spend considerable time thinking about it. An average person on the other hand spends his time working on problems which he himself doesn’t believe will not be important. He implores you to ask yourself – If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it is going to lead to something important, why are you working on it?

Quoting him directly – “If you do not work on an important problem, it’s unlikely you’ll do important work. It’s perfectly obvious. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them. Let me warn you, `important problem’ must be phrased carefully. The three outstanding problems in physics, in a certain sense, were never worked on while I was at Bell Labs. By important I mean guaranteed a Nobel Prize and any sum of money you want to mention. We didn’t work on (1) time travel, (2) teleportation, and (3) antigravity. They are not important problems because we do not have an attack. It’s not the consequence that makes a problem important, it is that you have a reasonable attack. That is what makes a problem important.”

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