Thursday, June 27, 2013

Being One with Nature

At my workplace, on most Friday evenings, a common discussion during coffee is how to escape from Bangalore during the weekend. Yes, on Monday mornings, ‘weekend spent the best way’ award goes to the guy who escaped the farthest!! No wonder travelling is possibly the most common hobby among MNC crowd today. Next in the list would be photography. Some of us could take to these hobbies out of sheer boredom/peer pressure, but am sure along the way we learn more than we bargained for. Of course, the fact that this crowd comparatively has more disposable income helps them in pursuing these hobbies.

After interacting with few guys who are quite seriously pursuing these hobbies and also personally pursuing travel to some extent, I could not help but ask the question – is there more to it than just escapism? Agreed, Bangalore is no longer the city it was and any sane guy would want a break from this madness. It is possibly true for most Indian cities. Nobody likes the noise and the chaos. We need a breather from this madness to recharge ourselves to live through the next week. But, then, note that the most preferred escape destinations are the ones where there is ample opportunity to spend time with nature. These destinations are the ones where human intervention is as low as possible and nature is in its natural splendid form. There is something magical about these places and at the same time there is something very repulsive about concrete jungles we live in. It is as if the finest of human emotions easily manifest when surrounded by pristine nature and also easily get suppressed amidst the noise and cacophony of cities. There is magic in the mighty mountains, in the pristine beaches, in the deep forests and soothing rivers. 

I am yet to meet anyone who does not like being close to nature. How desperate one is to spend time with it might vary, but I have not heard anyone say that they hate the mountains and valleys!! In fact, those who have experienced the pleasure of being close to nature always seek more of it. Sadly, some people might not have the opportunity to wander out of the concrete jungles and for them it is hard to appreciate the joy of being amidst nature. But, I can safely bet that once they experience it, they would start relishing it. Maybe, it is just that humans are designed to live a simplistic life in sync with nature. Maybe, we are designed to spend little time on meeting our basic survival necessities and spend most of our time and energy in understanding and pursuing the finer aspects of life. On the contrary, the modern day lifestyle asks us to spend most of our time and energy in meeting the over hyped materialistic demands, with little scope to focus on the fine things. I think this is where the repulsiveness towards this lifestyle starts. Unfortunately, we are so tuned to it that we get used to it and continue to live with the distaste. More unfortunate is when we don’t even realize that there is something wrong with this, until it is too late.

I could safely argue that the desire to be close to nature is not escapism from reality, but actually escapism from an imposed materialistic lifestyle. I strongly feel that spending time with nature is one of the best ways to discover ourselves. This gives us an opportunity to move away from the never ending materialistic demand and consumption cycle and take an honest view of what we actually need and what we actually are. It would also give us an opportunity to question our preconceived notions about many things in life. These are the subtle moments where we can take off our masks and shed the multiple layers we cover ourselves with and do an honest self analysis. The question is – are these possible only amidst the mountains and rivers? May be not, but they make the process much easier. So, whenever I get an opportunity to be amidst nature, I need to make sure to grab it with both hands.

The best way to end this post would be with a quote from the movie Into The Wild, true story of Christopher McCandless:

“Two years he walks the earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou shalt not return, 'cause "the West is the best." And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage. Ten days and nights of freight trains and hitchhiking bring him to the Great White North. No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild. - Alexander Supertramp May 1992”

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The critical factor called 'Motivation'

At the end of a few important tasks, I often wonder what led to its specific outcome. What are the factors which determined the outcome? Was it mainly my abilities or the people involved or the resources I had at my disposal or plain luck? Or was it a combination of multiple factors? If it was indeed a combination of multiple factors, which is most possibly the case, then what is the most dominant factor? As an exercise, take two different tasks – one which you executed with pride and tasted success and the other in which you failed, in spite of having the ability and resources to successfully take it to completion. Now, start analyzing the common denominator for both the outcomes. Personally, when I did this exercise, one thing was clear – it was ‘Motivation’ which turned out to be the decisive factor in impacting the outcome more than anything else. 

This led to the next obvious question – what is this motivation all about? We would have heard and discussed this topic a thousand times, but at times it sounds vague. It sounds all the more vague when people try to motivate me to get things done saying “common, show some motivation”!! One dictionary description I found for motivation is ‘The general desire or willingness of someone to do something’. If I have to describe it as per my understanding, motivation [in relation to pursuing any activity] is the answer to the question – why should I pursue that specific activity? It sounds very simple, but I have observed that it is often ignored. It is not uncommon to hear/say comments along the lines ‘this task is so simple, just takes a couple of minutes and I have no clue why you are not able to complete it’? At times like this, I wish I could just say ‘well, I know how to do it and also have more than a couple of minutes, but have not yet figured out why to do it’. This ‘why’ definitely varies from person to person, but we cannot deny that unless this ‘why’ is clear, the ‘how’ and ‘when’ will always remain a mystery. 

I have observed that once this ‘why’ is clear; the rest of the process becomes easier. I could easily figure out the ‘how’ and ‘when’. As long as the ‘why’ is answered, even if I lacked the required resources or abilities, have overcome them while answering ‘how’ and have found time to address ‘when’ . On the other hand, when the ‘why’ is not clear, have failed in spite of having the ability and the required time to complete the task. In fact, when we are overloaded and we are not sure on how to prioritize, it seems like the tasks which have a clear ‘why to do’ occupies the top of the ‘to do’ list. 

It is all fine till this point. But, on a daily basis, we again seem to ignore this. When we do a self analysis of our success or failure in any task, we tend to miss the importance of motivation or the lack of it. It is easy to get side tracked and miss this critical point. Similarly, when we assign tasks to others, it is quite tempting to jump to the ‘how’ segment and expect that the other person will automatically figure out the ‘why’ and get magically motivated. This is what most mediocre managers do against what an inspiring leader does. The inspiring leader will focus on the ‘why’ and trust that his men will figure out the ‘how’. This is best explained by this comic at Zen pencils.

So the next time I sit down to chart my to-do list, I should remind myself that it is actually the ‘why to-do’ list. Also, when I am required to inspire someone, I rather first focus on the ‘why’ before jumping to ‘how’.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Born with a wooden spoon and 2 digit IQ

If we scan through any popular print media or watch news channels for few minutes, we would invariably come across the names of people who have excelled in their respective fields. It could be a mention of a sportsperson who has brought fame to his country, an entrepreneur who has sold his startup for a couple of million dollars, an artist who has won a prestigious award, the list is endless. Often, when I read or hear about these people, I am left wondering – why am I not one among them? One thing for sure is that there is no definitive answer for this question, but I will make an honest attempt at getting close to the answer.

On analyzing the super achievers, I observed that they could roughly be placed under four groups– 
  • Born geniuses – These are the people who are extraordinary by design!! These people are gifted with some unique ability and it is tough to answer why they were the chosen recipients for the gift. A popular example would be Albert Einstein. 
  • Blessed with a great lineage – The set of people who have an edge over others primarily by the virtue of being born to super achievers. It is like , in a race, their starting point is quite ahead of others. These people have the much needed guidance and mentorship available at their fingertips and are best described by the phrase ‘born with a silver spoon’. Pick any second generation successful industrialist as an example. 
  • A combination of 1 and 2 above – These are set of people who are gifted with fairly good skills and a decent lineage. Their credit lies in combining it optimally. 
  • The hard worker – The quintessential darling of popular media who makes it to the top by sheer hard work and determination. 

Of course, this is a very broad classification and in most cases, it would be a combination of two or more things in the list in creating a success story. But, more than refining the list, am concerned about the vast majority of us who don’t belong to any of the categories above. By ‘us’, I mean the guy writing the blog and the one who is reading it J let us call this group as the ‘mediocre majority’. The hard truth is that members of this group are not gifted with any extraordinary abilities or born with silver spoons. Adding to the misery, hard work does not bond well with us. It is these people who seem to lead very ordinary lives in comparison to the exciting lives of super achievers. It is these people who spend most of their spare time wondering why are they leading ordinary lives!! During one of these contemplating sessions it struck me that I am missing an important point while comparing myself with people who seem to have achieved too much too soon. May be, the error is that we are just looking at the end result and not the path. It was like looking at two end products and immediately concluding which is better than the other, without doing the background check of what went into making each product. A better analogy would be like looking at two athletes ‘Mr. Mediocre’ and ‘Mr. Extraordinary’ racing against each other and instantaneously concluding who is the winner, without asking some critical questions – did they start from the same place? Did they follow the same track ? Were they given equal opportunities for training ? Are they participating in the same race ? May be, if we really start analyzing along these lines, it would be tough to declare anyone of them as winner or loser. 

In the above example, imagine that ‘Mr. Mediocre’ who apparently looks lagging behind started from a different point in the race and had to train under tougher circumstances compared to ‘Mr. Extraordinary’ who apparently looks like leading the race. Fortunately or unfortunately, the situation of most people in the ‘mediocre majority’ is similar to the situation of ‘Mr. Mediocre’ in the race. With the limited skills and opportunities, it takes time before we accomplish anything substantial [what actually qualifies to be called ‘substantial’ is a different topic in itself]. And due to these limitations, it is quite possible that ‘Mr. Mediocre’ might never catch up with ‘Mr. Extraordinary’. This may sound hard, but this could just be the reality. The motivational speakers would want me to believe that these limitations just exist in the mind, but reality does not always match theory!! 

I don’t mean to discredit the super achievers in anyway, but just looking at the end result and ignoring the process would be a wrong way of judging anything. Considering this, the next time I am tempted to compare ‘Mr. Mediocre’ and ‘Mr. Extraordinary’ and come to a hasty conclusion, it is better to not just look at the end result, but also give a thought to their individual journey through the race.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Futility of faking Emotions

In a group of people, it is interesting to notice how we share common opinions about each other. We often hate or like things in common. For example, in a group, if I find one guy to be very kind and generous, it is highly likely that most of the group members feel the same way. Similarly, if I find one guy in the same group not to be trustworthy, it is again highly likely that most of the group members share the opinion. It is as if we are all naturally equipped with this ability to judge the intentions of people we interact with.

Imagine this situation - two friends A and B meet accidentally after a long time. A is going through a great phase in life and is in a mood to share everything with B. But, B is having a tough time and is not interested to indulge in a lengthy conversation. Now, without B explicitly telling A that he is not interested in a long conversation, I would safely bet that A would get the subtle message [assumption is A is a sensible guy!!] and keep the conversation short. I am sure all of us have been in the position of both A and B numerous times. The situation might be different, but the bottom-line of we being able to intrinsically and accurately perceive the emotions of people we interact with and react accordingly remains intact. Now, imagine what the situation would be if A did not have the ability to understand that B is not interested to listen to his life story, it would be nothing short of a disastrous conversation.., May be, the ability to understand the unexpressed emotions is critical part of human communication. 

We all have repeatedly heard and read that verbal communication forms only a small part of the communication. The rest is all non verbal communication. So, understandably all of us should have natural in built sensors to decode these fine non verbal messages. The sensors could be developed to different extent in different people. Few of us could have super sharp sensors where in just by looking at a person, we can accurately judge them. Few of us might have slightly blunt sensors, where in we need multiple interactions to accomplish the same. But, eventually, we will figure out the true intentions of the people we interact with.

This brings me to the actual question I had – is it possible to hide our true intentions and fake our emotions successfully? Is it necessary to do this and is it sustainable? If not, what is the alternative? From my little understanding, the answer to the first question is NO. It is NOT possible to consistently fake our emotions. We can manipulate our words, but it is hard to manipulate the non verbal communication. It is very easy to observe when there is a conflict between what one is thinking internally and what he/she is communicating externally. We can make this out even in response to a generic question like ‘did you like the food’. The fact of the matter is that we are interacting with human beings and not robots and they will eventually decode our true emotions, no matter how much we try to camouflage it. But, the sad part is that not everybody understands this, including me at times. It is pathetic to observe people when they try hard to be somebody they are not and are wrongly convinced that nobody noticed it. A simple example could be a co-worker who is self centered, but pretends hard to give an impression of a people person.

Given this, it is futile to fake our emotions and it is better if we just try to be our natural selves. Coming to the question of whether it is necessary to fake emotions in the first place, this is a tricky one and may be the answer is yes. We cannot always reveal out true intentions, but these situations are more of an exception than a rule.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Modern day Identity crisis

Generally, when two people meet for the first time, an almost certain question in the conversation is ‘what do you do?’ Based on this answer, we quickly try to decide how far we would want to take the new relationship forward. Using this data, the other person is going to take a guess at our levels of IQ, EQ, SQ and many more. It is as if our existence depends on this one single response!! This question is easier to answer for some more than others. For example, it would be a very easy question for a successful celebrity. It could be an extremely uncomfortable question for a guy out of college and looking for work. 

The point is how comfortable are we in facing this question. Well, personally I could just say I am an engineer working for a reputed MNC. But, the drawback is there are hundreds of thousands of engineers working for equally or more reputable companies and this answer does not really set me apart and make me stand out in the crowd. So, generally, at the first available chance, I try to talk about things I do apart from work, with the hope that the additional information I provide about myself is going to make an impact!! But, wait a minute, why should I make an impact? Why should I bother to make the other person understand and appreciate that I am special? What is this need to stand out and why can’t I be content with the identity of ‘engineer working for a reputed MNC’? What’s wrong if there are hundreds of thousands of others sharing the same identity?

I feel the answer to most of these questions lies in one fundamental quality we possess – the strong desire to be different and unique. At the moment, I really don’t understand why, but am sure that most of us strive pretty hard to create a unique personality and we are not content with being one in the crowd. This forms one half of the identity crisis, where the focus is external and it is mostly about making the world acknowledge that we are special and unique.

The other half is the internal struggle, where we often find questioning ourselves – what is the impact I have on this planet? Am I leading a meaningful life? How many lives am I affecting? All these boil down to one single question – what is my net worth? There is no magic formula to calculate this, as it is too complex an equation. In the movie It's_a_Wonderful_Life , the protagonist gets a chance to see how life in his town would have been if he was not there. He gets to realize the impact he has created and witness the lives he has touched. Unfortunately, unlike the movie, we don’t get this opportunity in real life. If we had, probably it would have been an easier way to arrive at our net worth. 

Adding fuel to this identity crisis is the information overload we all go through. Every minute, we are bombarded with stories of movie stars, sportspersons, revolutionaries, social crusaders, child prodigies, serial entrepreneurs, eco-warriors, philanthropists and just about everybody. As much as these can be inspiring, they can be de-motivating as well, as we constantly end up comparing and evaluating our lives against them. But, what metric do we use to compare and evaluate? Here lies the problem because there is no universal metric for this. So, until we find the right magic metric, we better don’t compare!!

Then, how do we know where we stand? Imagine the world is like a huge insanely complex piece of machinery with tens of millions of component parts. Understandably, if the machine has to perform well, each component part has to be in good shape. Extending the same analogy, just like the component parts, probably each of us have a role to play to keep the world moving. Maybe, understanding our position and responsibilities in the complex machinery and working accordingly would solve the identity crisis. It is fine even if we are not the most visible pieces in the machine. I recently came across a saying which was on the lines “It is not enough to know oneself, but it also important to be content with it.” Could not have been said better.