The Pitfalls of Meritocracy

From “A belief in meritocracy is not only false: it’s bad for you“:

Although widely held, the belief that merit rather than luck determines success or failure in the world is demonstrably false. This is not least because merit itself is, in large part, the result of luck. Talent and the capacity for determined effort, sometimes called ‘grit’, depend a great deal on one’s genetic endowments and upbringing.

This is to say nothing of the fortuitous circumstances that figure into every success story. In his book Success and Luck (2016), the US economist Robert Frank recounts the long-shots and coincidences that led to Bill Gates’s stellar rise as Microsoft’s founder, as well as to Frank’s own success as an academic. Luck intervenes by granting people merit, and again by furnishing circumstances in which merit can translate into success. This is not to deny the industry and talent of successful people. However, it does demonstrate that the link between merit and outcome is tenuous and indirect at best.

This part about gratitude is also unexpectedly nice to me,

By contrast, research on gratitude indicates that remembering the role of luck increases generosity. Frank cites a study in which simply asking subjects to recall the external factors (luck, help from others) that had contributed to their successes in life made them much more likely to give to charity than those who were asked to remember the internal factors (effort, skill).

Cycling Thoughts: July 24, 2022

When cycling yesterday I came up with this thought experiment.

Whenever in a crowd, try to imagine the relationships between people you see and draw imaginary bubbles surrounding those who seem to love or care about each other.

Parents walking with their kids. Friends sharing a motorcycle ride. A random youth helping a grandmother cross the road.

Being in a crowd makes me feel uncomfortable. And living in Java, the most populated island in the world, there are crowds almost everywhere.

But as I notice and look around, I can see those bubbles wherever I go.

As it turns out, love is also everywhere.

Gran Fondo Thoughts: May 14, 2022

Strava map of the Gran Fondo ride.

At first I wasn’t sure what to think of this ride. I wanted to find some meaningful theme to carry in my mind, but it all began pretty uneventfully. This started just as a long ride after Ramadan to check my level of fitness.

Then about 30 minutes in, I saw a father riding a motorcycle with his daughter. He stopped the motorcycle as they arrived at her school. The daughter stepped down. She kissed his hand, and he kissed her forehead.

I found the theme I was looking for: parenthood.

That scene struck me pretty hard. I am also currently dealing with my daughter starting elementary school, with its own share of challenges. I felt I knew exactly what that forehead kiss meant: may you learn valuable things at school, and may you be safe in a place where I’m not there with you.

My heart felt full. It’s a cliche, but it restores my faith on mankind. Somewhere out there, there are fathers loving their daughters as much as I do mine.

Afterward I kept my eyes open for more scenes like that. I found them, yet only with my eyes did I capture them. Words are inadequate, yet I’ll describe them nevertheless.

I saw another father looking into an unseen baby, laying down in a stroller facing away from me. They were sitting under the shade of a big tree, and ray of lights were streaming down the blessed family.

I saw a grandmother sitting with her grandchild by the side of the road. I kept looking at her trying to remember her features, and she kept looking at me as well: puzzled why some dude in weird costume kept looking.

I passed a school and a teacher walked in the front while a long line of tiny elementary school kids walked behind him in pairs of two. They were probably taking a walk to a nearby field for some exercises.

I saw a mother stopping at the same mini market where I rested. The staff put three huge bags of diapers on the front of her motorcycle, then she carried her baby and drove back home.

Everywhere I see small humans being raised by loving adults, with what must have taken enormous but often unrealized amount of thoughts and energy.

I am also a parent and I am tired all the time. But this time, I realize I’m not alone.

Kevin Kelly’s “103 Bits of Advice I Wish I Had Known”

Throughout my life, I’ve almost always prioritized short-term goals. I don’t have a lot of patience and imagination to work on long-term goals. In an attempt to rebalance that, I found that lessons shared by people more experienced than me to be priceless. It’s as if someone is traveling from the future carrying these gifts.

Kevin Kelly recently turned 70, and shared 103 advices on his blog. They’re all short advices that are worth lengthier reflection than they might appear at first. At this stage of my life, here are some that I found particularly weighty.


When you forgive others, they may not notice, but you will heal. Forgiveness is not something we do for others; it is a gift to ourselves.

The older I get, the more I realize how important it is to not let something steal attention and drain my mental energy continuously. When someone does something harmful to me, it’s easy to fall into self-pity. To keep asking why they couldn’t do better. To keep wondering what I had done to deserve such thing. Left unchecked, this keeps the wound open, as the mental energy required for the healing is spent for ruminating instead. Forgiveness short-circuits the negative cycle.

Writing Things Down

The biggest lie we tell ourselves is “I dont need to write this down because I will remember it.”

This resonates with me. I’ve tried so many diferent things: fountain pens, note-taking apps, voice recordings. All in the name of making it as seamless as possible for me to record and retrieve random piece of thoughts or information that might be valuable in the future. I am still searching.


Speak confidently as if you are right, but listen carefully as if you are wrong.

This is another form of “strong opinions—weakly held”, but I think I like “speak confidently, listen carefully” better. It rhymes better. And it’s good to mention listening in there. Listening skill—wondrously, being such a passive activity—is something that requires huge amount of efforts to improve.

In the end, it’s all about being brave both ways: in sharing our thoughts, and in being wrong.


The consistency of your endeavors (exercise, companionship, work) is more important than the quantity. Nothing beats small things done every day, which is way more important than what you do occasionally.

Almost word-for-word similar to one of Muhammad’s sayings: “Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Take up good deeds only as much as you are able, for the best deeds are those done regularly even if they are few.”

Also related:

We tend to overestimate what we can do in a day, and underestimate what we can achieve in a decade. Miraculous things can be accomplished if you give it ten years. A long game will compound small gains to overcome even big mistakes.

Breaks and Goofing Off

Efficiency is highly overrated; Goofing off is highly underrated. Regularly scheduled sabbaths, sabbaticals, vacations, breaks, aimless walks and time off are essential for top performance of any kind. The best work ethic requires a good rest ethic.

I’m grateful for “good rest ethic”. It puts into words something that has been percolating in my mind for a while. Since I’ve became a full-time developer, I’ve been noticing the need and benefits of taking a break. Constantly thinking about a programmatic puzzle or an odd bug almost always yield in worsening performance, while being away from them eventually brings fresh perspective.

On the other hand, I’ve also been dealing about the guilt stemming from goofing off. From taking breaks. That something still feels off if I don’t notice myself constantly grinding. So that particular advice helps convince and point me to the right direction.

Good pen, bad pen

Take note if you find yourself wondering “Where is my good knife? Or, where is my good pen?” That means you have bad ones. Get rid of those.

I have too many bad pens (here’s my best one).

On Public Speaking

When public speaking, pause frequently. Pause before you say something in a new way, pause after you have said something you believe is important, and pause as a relief to let listeners absorb details.

When speaking to an audience it’s better to fix your gaze on a few people than to “spray” your gaze across the room. Your eyes telegraph to others whether you really believe what you are saying.

Good public speaking advices, as travel and conferences seem to be coming back.


Denying or deflecting a compliment is rude. Accept it with thanks, even if you believe it is not deserved.

Something I recently realized (from getting code reviews, of all places) is to deeply appreciate whenever people take the time to think about what you’ve done, and give feedbacks about it. Humans generally spend time thinking about themselves, so it’s always precious when we productively think about others.

Compliments (also: gifts) count as valuable feedbacks. Even if I don’t think they’re deserved, I might still be wrong. Others might have seen something valuable that I have missed in the gap of my experience and understanding. So indeed the only right path is to thankfully accept them.

Things Only We Can Do

Making art is not selfish; it’s for the rest of us. If you don’t do your thing, you are cheating us.

When you have some success, the feeling of being an imposter can be real. Who am I fooling? But when you create things that only you — with your unique talents and experience — can do, then you are absolutely not an imposter. You are the ordained. It is your duty to work on things that only you can do.

I had not considered the connection between doing something that only we can do, and it being the antidote of imposter syndrome, but it makes perfect sense.

On Aging

Your time and space are limited. Remove, give away, throw out things in your life that dont spark joy any longer in order to make room for those that do.

The chief prevention against getting old is to remain astonished.

Aim to die broke. Give to your beneficiaries before you die; it’s more fun and useful. Spend it all. Your last check should go to the funeral home and it should bounce.

No comments on these, except that I’ll be thinking about them for a long while.

On The Road To Our Daughter’s School

My car vibrates less and the road feels smooth all of a sudden. I see fresh line of asphalt, looking at the same time darker and shinier than the older surface on the other side. The holes I was preparing to avoid are no longer there.

Covid has subsided, and now every morning I drive my daughter to school. It is not a long drive, maybe twenty minutes one-way. However, the way to go is through a stretch of road that was clearly not designed for the capacity it has to sustain every morning and afternoon nowadays. It is narrow, and packed with hundreds of motorcycles.

In general, motorcycles in Indonesia behave and move fluidly. It’s like water. If you give them space, they will fill it. If you fill a space, they will flow around you. It almost feels like a dance. At times, it feels meditative.

Unless it is rainy season, like it is now. On rainy season, potholes grow on our roads, like mold spreading on leftover food. And potholes add an extra dimension, extra verticality, that makes motorcycles movement harder to predict. Sometimes you think they’ll go straight, only to see them jerk left last minute, nay, last second, to avoid a hole that was unseen minutes before.

I don’t know why potholes grow during rainy season. Maybe poor drainage after a rain leaves a lot of debris on the road. Then cars press these debris through the asphalt, chipping and starting the hole. Then each day, little by little, more and more vehicles crowdsource the growth by crushing into them unknowingly.

The holes just keep going bigger. I have lost count, but there were easily fifty potholes on the way to our daughter’s school. Some are wider than our car. Because the road is narrow, I often have no choice but to hit these holes.

So I was surprised to see the new patch of asphalt. They weren’t there twenty four hours before. It’s a busy road, so it must’ve been fixed late at night. The holes had been there for weeks, maybe months. Evidently, it only took a few hours to fix. Evidently, we have the tools and technology and expertise to do so. It can’t be too expensive as well: all these cars and motorcycles are taxed highly. And the result is decent enough. It’s not to the level of Japanese people overnight fixing a road split into two by earthquake, but I have no real complains.

Yet someone, somewhere, made the decision to let the issue linger and let a lot of people suffer, even though it really doesn’t take long to get things fixed.

On the road to our daughter’s school, I often think about these people. I’m trying not to, but maybe one day when holes have stopped growing on our roads.

My Coffee is Bitter Today

My coffee is bitter today. I didn’t want it to be that way, it’s just that I added a bit too much coffee beans into the hand grinder, trying to see what would happen. Turns out this is what happens.

Lately the morning sun’s position is in a certain angle that its light goes through my office window blinds, creating horizontal line shadows over the right half of my desk. It makes for a nice, fleeting adornment. It is only when I have to have a video meeting in the morning that the light also goes into my eyes and it becomes uncomfortable.

Last Sunday I kept hearing ambulance siren sound from somewhere nearby. Over and over and over again. Complaining about sunlight-hitting-eyes discomfort seems inappropriate.

My wife’s cousin passed away yesterday. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.

A few moments after our first daughter was born, I remember stepping outside of the hospital for a bit and suddenly taken aback by the sight of every single human being whom I saw outside. The fresh experience of childbirth made me realize that every single of them was once a newborn, every single person out there needed the collective work and years and years of learning and knowledge accumulation of so many other people so they could be born alive. And then for years and years later, uncountable amount of support and nurture and love were poured into each of them, into each of us, so we could be the person we are right now.

It is unfathomable to me how incredibly exhausted each and every one of us must be at this moment. Yet, if it is for others, no matter how miniscule and how separate we might seem to each other, it is still worth it.

Meditation is Noticing

A common method in meditation is to focus on breathing, try to notice fleeting thoughts that show up, and let them go. My usual visualisation method is to imagine being in a wide field, watching my thoughts show up as clouds in the sky, and letting them drift away from where I sit. My initial assumption was that the more I meditate, the emptier my mind becomes, the less fleeting thoughts would appear, and eventually that makes me a calmer person.

But maybe that’s not right. Maybe the most important task during meditation is the noticing. Once I notice a thought, it’s already a win. It means I’m building the skill and mental muscles that are needed to notice thoughts. So in a counter-intuitive way, more fleeting thoughts are better, as it gives more opportunity to improve the noticing skill.

A lot of problems in my mind seem to come from instant reactions to an external stimulation. It’s the “lizard brain” at work. It’s flight-or-flight, it’s fast, and often it’s not the most appropriate reaction to something. A better way is to notice and intercept those reactions as they come, and take the time to assess the situation and formulate better reactions. And that’s where the noticing skill comes in. It’s the prerequisite. The starting point for any change. As the skill gets stronger, hopefully the intercepting becomes easier and easier.

Cognitive Processing Therapy

From a comment on Reddit about dealing with self-defeating thoughts:

What OP is describing is very similar to Cognitive Processing Therapy.

In CPT, you identify a self-defeating or otherwise unhelpful thought pattern as well as the negative emotion it causes you to feel.

Then ask yourself some very simple questions about it such as

– What evidence is there FOR this thought/belief?


– Does it not include all the relevant facts?

– Is it an “all-or-none” or exaggeration?

– Are you confusing what is possible with what is likely?

– Is it based on feelings or on facts?

Then you identify any classic problematic thinking patterns that might be going on:

– Are you jumping to conclusions?

– Exaggerating or minimizing?

– Ignoring important aspects?

– Oversimplifying?

– Overgeneralizing?

– Emotional reasoning?

Once you have established these things for yourself, then you identify what you could think instead of the unhelpful thought that is causing me difficulty, and how do you feel when you think about it that way instead?

Having done that, look back on the thought or belief that had been giving you trouble. How do you feel about it now? How much do you believe it?

Having done all of that, now how do you feel about the thought or belief we just re-framed?

Whether you call it “story editing” or CPT or re-framing, it’s just a matter of understanding that our brain is not our friend. The “lizard brain,” “survival brain,” or however you might want to refer to the amygdala and thalamus operate independently of rational thought and do not always (or even usually) offer input that helps us in our modern, non-survival driven existence.

But they do offer input at all times, no matter what. It’s something to be aware of and to manage if it needs to be managed.

This theme is something I explored a bit from last year, and it’s great to see everything laid out concisely as above. When the commenter above said that, “our brain is not our friend”, I think another way to see it is that “our brain is not us”. What the brain says, then, is not the absolute truth. Instead it’s helpful to look at it as a tool that gives us an input about a certain situation, and it’s up to us to decide how to interpret this input, or even whether to believe it at all.

(It’s also interesting to explore just what are we, if we’re not our thoughts. There’s something in us that’s capable of observing our own thoughts and think about them, often called metacognition. Would be good to be a topic for a future blog post)

A Worry Free Day

A few days ago, I woke up with one thought in my mind: “You know what? I’m going to not worry about anything today. I’m very good at worrying anyway, so I can always do it again tomorrow if things don’t work out today.”

I used to be a carefree person. Then I became a parent. Slowly, I developed an obsession to read the future, to catch problems before they happen, to see further ahead, all in the name of making life as safe as possible for our children. Slowly, my brain became more and more focused on thinking about worst case scenarios, to make sure that I could handle them properly. I started to worry about a lot of things, things that eventually never happened, but would nevertheless cost a lot of my mental energy.

The worrying became so frequent and strong that it’s affecting my physical health. And life continues being unpredictable, as unforeseen problems keep happening. So it was quite a different day, the day I woke up and decided not to worry for one day.

I felt lighter. I realised something new, that my worrying and problems that arise are entirely separate. Problems will show up anyway whether I worried about them or not beforehand. Worrying does nothing to problems that actually show up. And the amount of energy I have to use to fix a problem is likely the same, whether I worried about it or not beforehand.

Or, in other words, worrying is an extra work that’s not particularly efficient or useful.

That day I did not live completely worry-free. Some worries still crept into my mind. We had to do some errands outside, and during a pandemic, that’s a good enough reason to worry. I noticed those worries, and tried my best to talk to them and let them go. It didn’t work that well, but I suppose that’s understandable. I’ve never done any of this before! But overall, I felt pretty good about it.

In a weird meta sort of way, I’m also worried that not worrying at all is not the perfect solution. I still need to be able to foresee some problems and prevent them from happening, if I could. But I think I should be able to dial down the intensity. I should be able to trust myself more, that if something unpredictable happens, I will have some sort of ability to handle problems that arise.

Personally, I think a powerful way to change myself is the fact that I love to experiment. I enter a lot of new hobbies out of curiosity. Just to see what it’s like. So it feels like a good idea to tell myself to try not worrying for a day. Just to see what would happen.

If the experiment fails, I can always go back to worrying tomorrow. Or, maybe the experiment will be successful enough to help me delay the worrying further to the future. Who knows. Why don’t I try and see?

Our Pandemic Experience, Year One

It was about a year ago that the first case of COVID-19 was discovered in Wuhan, China. The virus has been and is still affecting the world massively, and in this post I’m going to recount how it has affected my family and me.

On February 2020, I found and bought the single remaining bottle of hand sanitizer spray, in a supermarket in a neighboring city. My own city did not seem to have them in stock anywhere, it felt at that time. We were on a vacation to celebrate our second child’s birthday. There has been no official announcements, but everyone seemed to instinctually know that something terrible was about to unfold.

Also on February I was scheduled to talk at a conference in Bangkok, Thailand. The conference was cancelled. At that time the decision to cancel was rather controversial. After a few more weeks, it would then prove to be the exact right thing to do. Anyhow, we also had to cancel our personal trip that would have happened afterward. There were no refunds, because at that time our destination had not been declared to be in emergency.

Back at home, at the beginning, an inflatable pool was our main tool to entertain children, especially since schools were closed. As it turns out, inflating the pool was easy. It was draining the water once everyone was done that’s tiring. The excess water also wasn’t great to the grass on the backyard.

I told my wife on my birthday in March that that was the worst birthday I’ve ever had. Anxiety level was high, everything was unpredictable, and our government did not seem to treat the situation with the right level of urgency. Masks and sanitizers were hard to find, local information even more so. We had to fend for ourselves by doing what we thought was best: not leaving the house, getting a lot of vitamins, and pretending to be cheerful to our kids as if nothing had happened.

I had a few scheduled work travels that had to be cancelled. Team meetings were replaced by multiple-day Zoom calls. They didn’t feel great, like having instant noodle for lunch instead of a proper meal. It felt great as an idea, but left me with regrets.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons for Nintendo Switch deserves its own paragraph here because it definitely has been the video game of the pandemic. It soothed not just our family, but seemingly the whole world. Even just the opening song was enough to give us a warm, fuzzy feeling. Our daughter played hours and hours of it. Her reading skill spiked up from reading conversations in the game. She memorized a lot of songs from it. One of the songs she turned into her nightly lullaby. She was not the best decorator, so our island in the game was an ocean of trash, but at least she’s happy.

Other games that get a lot of play time: Goat Simulator, Lego World.

Oh, Eid was cancelled. If there is a single holiday that’s uncancellable in Indonesia, it’s Eid. Yet it was, indeed, cancelled. Instead of visiting families, we had Zoom calls in the early morning.

We found that my wife was pregnant some time at the end of last year. I was so anxious I wasn’t able to sleep or eat for a whole day, something that never happened to me before.

Pregnancy during pandemic required many changes from what we’ve known from previous experiences. We had to avoid our usual hospital for doing regular check-ups, because the hospital was used to treat COVID-19 patients. We found another doctor who was good, had a practice at her own house, and the place had proper health measures in place. Masks required, outdoors waiting area, good airflow.

A few days ago I heard the news that the doctor and her husband got the virus, despite all that. I suppose it’s inevitable if you’re a doctor and meeting a lot of different people every single day. When we were there sometimes we’d see patients who were clearly coughing but still brought themselves there.

When it was time for my wife to give birth, we had to pick a different hospital also. It was a place that’s not familiar to us. We were asked to arrive the night before the operation, and the hospital was eerily quiet. Visitors were generally not allowed, but still it felt very unusual to be in an almost empty place. That night it felt like we were the only persons in there.

At the beginning of the year, I had thought that by the pregnancy’s due date on August, the virus situation would have already died down. I was so, so wrong.

Anyway we picked a room and stayed. Right away the level of service did not seem to reach the previous hospital that helped us with our two previous children. But overall it was comfortable.

The operation went smoothly, and we stayed for a few days after. It was the three of us there for those few days, with pretty much no visitors, which is something completely unusual if you’re a family with newborn in Java. The culture here dictates that pretty much everyone goes to visit a new baby at the hospital. The stark quietness gave us a great opportunity to relax and recover. During lulls I was able to play quite a bit of video games, watch Netflix, and rediscover the joy of Starbucks’s cafe latte. We also particularly enjoyed the hot tea that the hospital provided. It was the perfect amount of sweetness and warmth to help counter our stress.

Overall, our kids have been doing relatively fine, thankfully. Our youngest are growing healthily. For our first two it’s been a lot more games and videos than I’m comfortable with, but those are also important moments of rest for us parents. It’s a tricky thing to balance.

Online school has been particularly difficult for our first child. Even at the beginning it was obvious to us that the kindergarten we picked for her wasn’t particularly tech-savvy, but we thought it won’t be a big problem since our main goal was for her to gain new friends and socialize at the school. Who would have thought that school would suddenly move to Zoom? The hardest part for us has been to figure out what’s essential for her to learn during these lost school months, and what’s okay to let go. I don’t think we have it completely right. We’re trying.

And finally here we are, a year later. Like the constant hum of air conditioners, the presence of the virus and the uncertainty it brings keep on playing in the back of my head. It remains a factor to consider on top of all the things happening in our live. I see that things are getting worse in many parts of the world, especially those entering winter season. In my part of the world people have relaxed by a lot, even though testing is still low and there’s a lot of unknowns.

At the beginning I tried to keep myself updated with news, hoping that one day a glimmer of hope will appear. It was very tiring emotionally, and eventually I had to tune them out. Recently there were news about two vaccines, of Pfizer and of Moderna, that have over 90% success rate. These are actual, backed-by-science, glimmer of hope. Especially since there are also other promising vaccines in development with a timeline to share their findings in the near future.

A year from now, there’s a good chance things will be back to relative normalcy. Before that, with vaccinations, things will get easier and easier. Hopefully this writing will be it, and there will be no “Year Two” post. Hopefully, soon it will be a comfortable and relieving descent after this whole year of exhausting, foggy climb.

Real Life Forrest Gump

This is without a doubt the most fascinating article I’ve read this year. Part bike investigation (it’s on after all), and part profile about one Tom Pritchard:

He had so many stories. He’d tried to smuggle hash into Spain in a size 13 cowboy boot box, got spooked, and dumped it. After serving in Vietnam, he’d worked as a mercenary on top-secret missions to undisclosed locations. At the Jamaica Inn on Key Biscayne, he personally thanked Richard Nixon for working out a trade deal with Mexico that allowed the free flow of tequila across the border. He once served heavyweight legend Sonny Liston seven pounds of carp.

“Every story he’s told me is beyond convincing,” a financial advisor named Howard Sachs told me back then. “He’s as close to Forrest Gump as anybody I’ve ever met.”

How To Tell If Meditation Is Working

The simple answer is that your meditation is working if your mind is more calm and more positive outside of meditation. You can catch yourself in mid thoughts and correct it if necessary. You can access the kind and patient side of yourself more easily. You are no longer surprised by how you got to this train of thought, but you can direct your thoughts and chose your thoughts rather than them choosing you. You’re aware of how you are thinking & feeling during the day. In short, you are more aware of the contents of your mind.

St. Peepsburg at Ask Metafilter

I used to meditate regularly after the birth of our second child, and I did notice my mind being more calm and positive. As I then found also, meditation seems to be like a physical exercise where you want to be consistent with it, to keep enjoying the benefit. Things happen and I am not doing it anymore. And I can tell the difference.

With strength training, it’s possible to regain muscles that were grown, but are then lost after periods of no exercises. Now that our third child is here, I am hoping that those lost mental muscles, so to speak, are easier to grow back as well.