The Privilege of Choice

One of the things a Bangalorean gets conditioned to, pretty quickly, is the imminent traffic and long commute to and from work. Spending an hour or two in a transportation system of convenience is considered a norm. Over the past few months, I’ve come to realize that my commute constitutes a significant portion of my day’s time that I can (and should) put to constructive use. So instead of mindless social media browsing, I’ve made a conscious effort to choose interesting podcasts, books on my Kindle, or even just people and systems-watching. An exercise I try to do is to observe my thoughts as I notice what is happening around me.

That vegetable vendor with a hand-cart – where does he source his produce from? how much wastage must he have? what kind of profit could he make?

The women selling one foot long pens at the signal – who buys this stuff, really? who is their employer? who came up with the idea of a footlong pen?!

Stray dogs that are multiplying on street corners – what is the root cause and the most effective solution to solve this problem? do they need to be rescued?

Piles of garbage along main roads – how much garbage did I generate this morning? why do the garbage pickers have no protective gear? is this the outcome despite all the waste segregation laws?

An exercise like this can get frustrating very quickly. Especially given our propensity to blame the system or view it as a downward spiral that has no scope for improvement. Here’s a question that can help break this web though – what choices am I making? You see, there is an underlying assumption that we often don’t acknowledge when we talk about self-accountability – the privilege of choice. For all of us reading this blog using an internet connection, we have been blessed with sufficient resources that give us the luxury of choice and control in almost all critical components of life. Often, however, we are so caught up in our own web of thoughts, that we seldom recognize how choice plays out in the decisions we make every day.

The choice between a cab and a bus for your daily commute. The choice to buy rice or wheat for your family. The choice of spending that extra cash on a pair of shoes that will never be worn, or saving it for hospital expenses for a parent. Living in an unhygienic hostel or renting an apartment of your own. Choosing to have kids or struggling with infertility. Fretting over your partner who left the towel on the bed or battling physical abuse in a marriage.

Exercising our choice is a right. But it is also a privilege that not many are blessed with.

So the next time we feel stuck in a rut, or feel like the world is not on our side, the best thing we can do is spend time observing people around us in our morning commute and ask ourselves – what choices are we making? And thank our stars that we get to choose. Because they don’t.


New Year, New Intentions

A colleague at work wants to learn the art of lock-picking in 2018.

Unless you are as radical as he is, my guess is you associate New Year Resolutions mostly with scorn and disbelief. Most of us know the statistics, and we quote it proudly – Only 8% of the people actually keep their resolutions, so why even bother? Fair enough.

Here’s the deal though. It seems like a cop-out. If a 92% failure rate were a strong-enough deterrent, half the start-ups would never be founded in the first place.

During my time in New York as part of the Fellowship training, I was introduced to a beautiful word, that has stayed with me ever since – intention. Such a simple word, but if you ponder long enough, it really allows you to establish a strong foundation or a theme for your actions, without the inevitability of failure or disappointment being an endpoint. An intention, if spelled out well, forms a bedrock of purpose but at the same time, leaves room for failure, experimentation and iteration. It allows us to remain grounded in reality while being aspirational enough to break mental and physical barriers. Marathon vs Sprint kinda thing…

Inspired by the intent behind the word, I decided to set an intention for 2018. Actually two.

One is accountability, and two, more action less talk.

Showing up, when you don’t want to, is hard. Blaming someone else or something outside your control for your failure to ship is easy. Hence accountability. Note that I said failure to ship, and not failure to succeed.

It is human tendency to hide behind the cover of perfectionism or structure or efficiency. But the very nature of resilience rests on the assumption of ambiguity and possible failure. And the only way to build anything is to practice. Hence, more action less talk.

I’m about 9 days late to the party, but I hope this year is filled with resolute intentions for you as well.


Doing Good and the Saviour Complex

I had a very odd dream last night. Unlike most of my dreams which are mostly fleeting visions on everything from my dog to exotic food and countries, this one felt like one never-ending movie reel with a beginning, a middle and an end. The dream begins with me on a train, with a co-passenger (who’s face I have conveniently forgotten!). Through a random sequence of events, we realize that our train is caught on fire, that is taking down one bogie at a time. However, it seems like the fire is a planned heist because the driver refuses to stop and allow the firemen to put the fire out. Which means the only way to save the passengers is to evacuate – yes – a moving train. (Did I tell you my dreams tend to be very Bollywood in nature). To add fuel to the already raging fire, I realize that the firemen have no intention of saving passengers in the third class – they’re last in priority, a fireman claims. Talk about a coup de grace! Clearly, I am taking none of this discrimination. The remainder of the dream sequence has me and my partner-in-rescue(?) risk life and limb to save the ones who were left behind. (Side Note: Now that I think about it, I think my having watched the finale of the Castle TV series just that evening played a big role in the over-dramatization bit.)

Now, I am not a big believer in psychoanalysis, so my intention to wax eloquent about my dream is not a quest for deeper meanings or signs. If I take it at face value, the part that has stayed with me, and continued to bother me was this odd saviour complex thing I had going on there. You see, ever since I decided that I want to build my career working in organizations that combine doing good with scale and profits, I have been very conscious of the story I tell myself – a possibility of the clever confusion that would make me delusional about the impact me and the organization I work for, are causing. In just the two years of pursuing this path, I have already encountered many who have fallen trap to this facade, and I have been on edge about allowing myself to fall into the same abyss.

Recently, I updated my LinkedIn profile to my most recent position – I was kicked about it. I was the Head of Operations of a social enterprise, and that too, within a month of graduating from the Acumen Fellows program. Until I realized about a week into this job, that this title and the trappings that came with it, were crippling me more than being empowering. I realized that in my mind, the title came with a certain code of conduct that I believed I should follow. But the reality is, that there is only one thing that really matters in social change (or any change, for that matter) – doing the work. I reversed the LinkedIn update immediately. I will put it up when I feel within, that I have done enough work to be worthy of the title. This tiny experience however, was a very uncomfortable reminder of the desires I am holding on to, and what I need to let go of, in order to be effective.

I don’t want to be a saviour – that is probably the one thing I am certain of. The rest, is nothing but a series of questions. Almost every day, I am reminded of this quote we were told on Day One of the Acumen Training and I find myself going back to it over and over again –

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Oh and in case you were wondering – my partner and I manage to safely retrieve all the passengers of that burning train. Just saying. (;-))

Linking to an incredible article I found on Medium, along the same theme.

#28DaysofGratitude – Day 28

I believe there is a fundamental shift in the way people assess their lives, as they move from the 20’s to the 30’s. The 20’s are all about exploration – experimenting, testing new waters, failing unabashedly, being okay with not having a clear answer to “where am I going in life?”. It’s not reckless necessarily, but on the spectrum of fearless to fearful, their risk appetite is more tending towards the former. On the other hand, the 30’s, more specifically, post the age of 35, one starts thinking more in terms of longevity or legacy – “am I making a mark in my world; what am I leaving behind?” These thoughts figure naturally, while making choices.

On the last day of the Acumen Fellowship, we were all asked to write our epitaph as a “fun” (yeah, funny sense of humor, they got!) exercise – pen down what we would be remembered for, if we were no more. I’ll be honest – it took me over 25 minutes, and some help from Google, to really even write the first word down on paper. The personal stuff came easy – and what a relief that was! Being able to name over 10 individuals comprising my family, friends and dogs, that I was “leaving behind”, is a blessing I knew was rare. However, professionally? That was, and still is, hard for me to comprehend. What would I want my legacy to be, really?

My mom has been a teacher for over 30 years now. She worked in schools for many years before starting her own business. I was 13. At the time, we were 4 students (yes, I was one of them) who would sit around the dining table in our living room. There was an old, green chalkboard mounted on one wall, that would throw clouds of chalk dust in the air every time she wrote down boring algebraic equations. One of her students, Advait, took a special liking to her- he hated math and science, you see, and it was her patience and coaching that helped him clear his exams. She has a way with students, my mom. She has a temper, and her students bear the brunt of her yelling on multiple occasions. But she’s so invested. It bothers her when they don’t do well. It hurts her when they choose some other teacher over her – not from a pure business customer growth standpoint, but a blow to her talent and commitment. And almost all of her students know that she’s more than just a teacher – they confide in her; even when they can’t talk to their parents, they trust her. Every year, on Teacher’s Day, our home is filled with handmade gifts, cards, chocolates, flowers. Her students who have graduated many years ago make it a point to visit, to take her blessings and show her that they’re doing well in life.

So does Advait – every year without fail. He is in the Merchant Navy now, so he is sailing away for 6 months of the year. But every time he lands, he makes it a point to visit my mom. He brought a box of sweets when he first got into Maritime School, he got another box when he graduated, he came after his first successful sail, he came to give her his wedding card, he brought his wife to introduce her to his teacher, and then last week, he brought his newborn son. It’s been over 15 years since we all sat around that dining table. Isn’t that what legacy is? When someone touches your life through boring algebraic equations?

What my mom did was nothing out of the ordinary, if you think about it. She chose a vocation, not just a career. Legend has it that when she was in school, my mom would study history and science by pretending to teach the walls, tables and windows of her room. Almost like a theater performance! She was a natural. But she honed her skills through years of training. And she did her job really, really well. For well over 30 years, she put in the work that was needed. Bore the shit sandwich of demanding parents, demanding hours, less time with her own family – all because of the love for teaching.

Maybe that is all it takes then. Rather than think about legacy today, let that be an afterthought to an immense, genuine, sincere body of work that is built over years. Work that puts people first, work that is not calculated, and is personal. With the hope that in due course of time, the legacy will show itself at your funeral.

#28DaysofGratitude – Day 27

When I was in the midst of job-hunting over the past few months, one thing I was very clear about was choosing a CEO and company that I really connected with, in terms of values, and mission. Which is why, rather than apply for jobs the traditional way, I looked up companies I thought were solving interesting problems, and asked for a conversation with the CEO. Some of these requests had very interesting and memorable results. I am reminded today of one such interaction with the CEO of an ed-tech start-up in India. I happened to speak with her on another unrelated occasion, and found her so motivated and engaging, that I had to reach out later. After weeks of back-n-forth and cancelled meetings from her end, we finally met in her posh, new-agey office in the center of the business district. After the initial pleasantries, and exchange of information, I asked her what germinated the idea of the company she had now been running for 5 years. Her answer was immediate – “Because I want to create a dent in the universe. And I felt education was the way to do it.” Probably a 10/10 answer, if she were pitching to a potential investor.

I’ve been wondering for a few days now – it is almost mandatory nowadays for CEO’s to use words like innovation, cutting-edge, and disruption while describing their idea. If you cannot use the “Uber of XYZ” phrase to describe your start-up, you’d rather shut it down immediately – you’re clearly not doing enough. Right? But is this desire to innovate and disrupt, the birthplace of real innovation? Is that where one starts, or is that more of a by-product along the journey – one that should begin with the desire to solve a real problem?

When I first spoke to this CEO, I loved the ambition behind wanting to create a dent in the universe – it sounded purposeful, and motivational. But on deeper thought, it told me nothing about the real driver behind the company and the CEO’s mission. It seemed more like an external image that needed to be built – that of being a disruptor and dent-creator. But what is Step 2 here? How does one go about doing that? And if I were to work for her, how do I, as an employee, help her with her mission?

As I spend more time interacting with people in the start-up and social impact space, I am growing increasingly uncomfortable with terms like “changing the world”, “ending poverty” etc. The fact is, one individual or organization cannot possibly know how to do that. It takes years of consistent effort across multiple interconnected systems, some of which, we have no visibility of. What one can begin with though, is the intention to create a positive impact in our sphere of influence, however small that may be – commit to go as deep as possible to understand the issues at play, and then choose a starting point for an actionable step. While this may not sound flashy and inspirational, it begins with humility.

Humility to accept that we do not have all the answers, that we would make mistakes and need to start all over again. But as long as the intention is exploration and then continuous small actions, there is no shame in admitting failure and retracing your steps. Imagine starting with wanting to create a dent in the universe, and then realizing you have the wrong weapon in your hand!


#28DaysofGratitude – Day 26

Last Thursday was my first day at a new job. I now work for a social enterprise called Habba, an artisan-centric e-commerce initiative based out of Bangalore, India. One of my more drab, rather first-world worry on my first day was- the kind of laptop I would be given at work. You see, I’ve never owned or purchased a laptop of my own since 2011. I was fortunate enough to work at companies that gave me a laptop to use. And especially in the past year, with the financial limitations of the Fellowship, I knew I could not afford to buy myself a laptop right-away.

At about noon, one of my teammates places this device on my desk – it is a massive, 15.6-inch Dell laptop – heavy as hell (I swear, it weighs over 3 kg!) and a far cry from the ones I’ve been given previously! I crack a silly joke about growing bigger biceps from lugging this “non-laptop” around, but yeah, I’m not happy. I knew I would need to buy a new bag because the one I was using wasn’t big enough.  On my cab ride home, I had already begun researching affordable compact laptops on Amazon, shortlisted 2-3 I wanted to consider buying, and done some mental math about whether I could afford the purchase.

I come home and see V sitting on the couch, waiting to hear stories. The first thing I do is take this monstrosity out from my bag and show it to him – “Look at the laptop I got, it’s hugeeee, uggghhhh…” He takes one look at the device and his first words are – “Wooaahhh they gave you a Core i5 ! This is aweeesoommeee…” What, no – that’s not the plan – we’re supposed to hate this thing. Before I could say anything else, he had opened the Settings and added 5 other impressive things to his list – the hard disk space, the RAM, and other things that my silly mind was too irritated to even remember.. And so, that was that.

Fast forward 48 hours, and I am sitting with this 3 kg device on my laptop, writing my first blogpost after three months. I already have a new laptop bag that cost me like 1/27th the price of a new laptop, thanks to the power of Amazon Prime. I don’t necessarily love the device, but I can make my peace with it.

Sometimes we need someone who will be the wind beneath our wings. And other times, we need someone who will cut short our useless flights of fantasy and bring us back down to ground reality. Sometimes we need someone who will show us that the greener side of the grass is right there in front of us, because we’re too busy complaining about the heat. And many times, we just need to be grateful for a laptop and five blog followers! 🙂

#28DaysofGratitude – Day 25

Yesterday was Friendship’s Day in India (is it Friendship Day or Friendship’s Day – grammar nazis, correct me please!). When we were children in school, this day held very very special significance, and entailed preparation from weeks in advance. Making sure all impending fights were sorted out, scouting the market for the latest trends in Friendship bands, allocating time to hand-make bands for the special few friends (the days when n >= 10). Because believe me, the anticipation as you approached school on the day-of, was even more intense than the look on Jamie’s face when he saw Drogon and Dany fly over Highgarden with the Dothrakis! I kid not.


The goal at the end of the day was to walk away with the maximum number of bands on your wrists, hence being hailed the undisputed Friendship King/Queen. The competition began on the school bus itself. A few over-ambitious ones woke up early and got a headstart by covering friends in their neighborhood. The look of jealousy on kids’ faces when one boarded the bus with 20 bands on their wrists already, was worth sacrificing an hour of sleep for. Try explaining that to your ignorant parents! At the end of the day, the coolest kids always walked away with both their forearms covered with bands, till the elbows! Uggghhh how we hated them, but wouldn’t dare NOT tie them a friendship band!

For many, the day was an occasion to proclaim their “more-than-friendship” feelings to those special someone’s. As Bollywood movies of those years taught us – Love is Friendship. Pyaar dosti hai. Perfect marketing opportunity for Archies and Hallmark, to introduce aptly titled ribbons and bands too! So it was not uncommon to see the beginnings of new romantic relationships on the day, all of which were discussed to death, on the bus ride back home. The fact that those relationships didn’t last more than a week (if lucky), didn’t matter – just fodder for more gossip!

The advent of cell phones in college meant that the Friendship bands were replaced by sappy SMS-es and monochrome MMS-es to the many friends who had moved to other cities – despite the surcharge rates by telecom providers. We’re friends after all – what is Rs. 5 in comparison ?! Cut to 2017, where WhatsApp is free, but no special messages were exchanged among my friends (where n <=10) and I could not be happier !

I was thinking about how much time and effort I wasted on some of those meaningless friendships, the silly fights and arguments on everything from clothes to boys to grades.. If I had to give my 10-year-old self any advice, would I ask her to rethink her entire friendship strategy? Ask her to invest her time only on those people who stayed through those crazy teens and 20’s ? Probably not. These experiences are likes rites of passage, no? – I wouldn’t have the people I call my own today, if I had not met those many others who came and left. It was probably my fight with a “friend” who ridiculed my hair behind my back, that led me to this other curly-haired-girl who has stayed with me for 23 years. And had I not gone through this whole “I-hate-the-girls-in-my-group” phase, I would have never met my now best friend and the first guy I ever spoke to!

So while there will be no sappy messages and friendship bands any more, I cannot help but thank those crazies on my school bus who led me to the crazies I have with me today!