Thinking is not an easy endeavor. It is demanding and as such needs skills. Thinking from first principles is one of the most fundamental concepts I have known recently.

Thinking from first principles involves asking a series of ‘whys’ to boil a given problem down to its irreducibly fundamental units.

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Thinking from First Principles

Economists often assume human beings are rational and they make choices and decisions that are in their best interest under a given set of constraints and information. Other breeds of economists, behavioral economists, have discovered that people are, in reality, far from being rational. They are subject to cognitive biases. Recognizing this has tremendous effect on how we design policies, interact with and among each other and generally how we get our acts together to lessen the detrimental effects of some of our irrationality as well as to tap into our potentials for cooperation through altruism and social preferences. I know I have thrown several jargon terms already but I will explain many of them to you.

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Cognitive Biases

Meskel, my best omen

It is Saturday morning, and I woke up earlier than I am used to. For my morning dopamine, I grabbed my phone and scrolled down my social media feeds a dozen times. Almost everything is exclusively about the colorful celebration of Meskel in Ethiopia. I am not sad but I am not happy either. I cannot hide the uneasiness and nostalgia though. I live 5700 kms away from where I grew up singing ‘hoya hoye’.

The arrow of time has brought me here. But my imagination is taking me back in time to exactly a quarter of a century ago, Tuesday morning 27 September 1994. It was a cold dusk with the morning dew barely giving way to the twilight. I can see a vivid image of a young boy in shorts (that was how young men were dressed until they get married when they can buy a pair of trousers for their wedding). The boy holds a big stick in his hand (his weapon, literally). He is half asleep. His shoulder feels loose from dancing and his palms hurt due to clapping ceaselessly for the whole night. After all, Meskel is eagerly awaited a day (and night for the boys) of joy and freedom, of self expression, of signaling one’s capabilities, of never giving up.

The boy was me, my 25 years younger version. And there is this image of another young man from another group. My and the young man’s groups met on a hilltop while heading to households which belong to our respective sides of the village. He spotted me, smiled and greeted me warmly. Then he asked me a quick but unexpected question. I am happy that there was Meskel celebration, that the celebration involved visiting each house in our neighborhoods, that it took us the whole night to visit all, that it took the other group the same time, that it became dusk (not too dark), that we (the young man and I) met, that he greeted me, that he asked me, that I said ‘yes’...

Meskel is one of the colorful religious (with a tinge of culture, in my opinion) holidays celebrated in many parts of Ethiopia. Where I am now in my imagination, the boys used to make torches with dry bush and sing ‘hoya hoye’ in each and every household in their village. Exactly a quarter of a century ago, I was among the boys who spent the whole night (Monday evening to Tuesday morning) singing and going round the village to make sure that we visited every household.

This story is not about Meskel per se. It is about the course of my entire life over the last 25 years. There are moments I tend to believe that life is choice. However, it also appears as though there was a grand scheme of things which determines what we get to choose from. I bear witness of this. Until a second before the young man I mentioned above came and asked me if I can go to school with him, my choice set was different and so were my choices.

My body quivers when I think of the counterfactual, i.e., the path my life would have followed and the arrow of time would have taken me in that direction. I am not ruling out, as a possibility, even a much more fulfilling destiny than I have today, but looking at what is of highest likelihood, I would have been a very poor farmer.

Meskel feels like a good omen that sent me the young man to tell me that there was such a thing called school and that even the least prepared can venture to a world unheard of (in his time and place). When he asked me if I can go to school with him, my heart said ‘yes’, but I remember first asking him where the school was, because I didn’t know any school nearby. Well, there was none. He mentioned one that was in another district (God knows how many miles away).

Right there and right then, I decided to go to school. Within two weeks, I was a student (and in second grade. I have an excitingly funny story here.) That is how it all began. I am grateful for this day and that young man ever since, in fact more so now than ever.

The rest of my story? Stay tuned and I will tell you:

  • About what I did on first day in school (an innocent mistake that saved me a year)
  • How we used to take care of plants in school compound (incentives worked, they still do)
  • My hypocrisy about girls’ capabilities (and how I kept taking second place, next to a brilliant girl)
  • The way to my second home: Kelamino
  • Life in Arba Minch University
  • and more...
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Meskel, my best omen