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.


The Fearless Girl Standing Tall

The Fearless Girl sculpture recently won multiple awards at the Cannes Lions – one of the most prestigious awards in the advertising world. In one of the articles I was reading about this sculpture, the following image was used –


One look, and it has not left my mind ever since, and I have been reading and thinking about it more and more. The statue was put on Wall Street to bring people’s attention to the lack of female executives in boardrooms. But what makes it so astounding was the way it was done. Look at this girl – standing tall, chin up, hands in the Super(wo)man pose, hair in a ponytail because no C-level executive has time for a blowout and no one cares if she does, wearing shoes not stilettos, in clothes that neither accentuate nor diminish her body because that is not the point here, and with razor-sharp eyes focused on what she’s here to do – face the Raging Bull. She appeared out of nowhere, in the middle of the night, like the classic underdog who no-one pays attention to until they make their presence felt quietly! That to me, is art that inspires, challenges prejudices, and redefines the norm.

I don’t even want to get started on feminism because of the responses it elicits from most people nowadays. And to be honest, in my eyes, this sculpture stands for so much more than that. This Girl is a symbol for anyone who is trying to crack the glass ceiling, question the status quo, and represent a voice that does not have a platform. On Wall Street, it is women in boardrooms. In the world of Social Impact, it is entrepreneurs who are trying to change the way the world tackles poverty. When one is on an unknown path, where no has gone before, it is easy to get distracted by external markers of impact – which, in the case of female empowerment, have become pant-suits and nude photoshoots. But the real indicators of change are more nuanced than that, aren’t they – they are in freedom of choice, freedom of being who you are, freedom from external fear. When you can stand your ground, keep your eyes on the prize, and make your presence felt in the most real, honest way – that is where real change can be felt.

Living a More Purposeful Life By Throwing The Word “Purpose” Out The Window!

Young woman meditating outdoors

I was talking to a friend a few days ago. He was going through a tough time at work and was thinking of a change of job. To help him work through his thoughts, I asked him a simple question — “Why are you thinking of changing your job, do you not enjoy the work you do any more?”. His answer was very simple — “That’s not my worry”, he said, “a lot of people don’t enjoy their job.” My first response was nonacceptance — “that’s not right, one must have a job they enjoy going to!” The thought remained in my mind though, until I realized how privileged it was of me to say that!

Yes, people deserve to be in a job they love and enjoy. Your workplace is where you spend 70% of your day, so it only makes sense to do something you love. But not everyone is blessed to choose accordingly. Think of the classic IT technician in India, who is working in a large corporation like Infosys or IBM. He didn’t know what he was getting into, when he chose this profession. For him, the sole reason to choose IT as a career, was the large number of job opportunities available. His goal when graduating was to find a job that would pay the bills and relieve his parents of financial burden in their old age. At my previous company, I interviewed hundreds of candidates for operations managers roles. They had undergraduate degrees and had started working at the age of 19 or 20. Many of them had left their families behind in their native towns and villages, because they couldn’t support a family of 4 with the income of a low-to-mid-level manager in a city like Bangalore. What drove them to work every day was not some life-altering purpose or desire for impact, but a simple need to support their family, and move up the income chain! You might think it is pretty naive of me to realize this just now, and I agree with you there! At times, we allow ourselves to get so clouded by our situations that we forget perspective. Anyway, I have been trying to demystify the meaning of the word “purpose”, and here are some of my realizations along the way!

1. Purpose, Impact, Meaning…… is a luxury! So have gratitude!

(I use these words together, because I do feel they are loosely connected in concept at least) There’s a famous Simon Sinek talk about millennials and their need to want impact in their jobs. While I love what Simon says about leadership and people management at the workplace, I do strongly feel that his talk about millennials was largely focused on upbringing in Western countries. Growing up in India, I was never raised with the idea that I am special and therefore I am entitled to greatness in the workplace. Quite the contrary, actually. I grew up in a country of 1.2 billion people. I was taught to be educated and independent. Talk about purpose and impact came much later when I was in my 20’s (which is also when I moved to the US). It is now that I realize how lucky I am to even be able to utter those words, let alone use them as guiding principles to chart my life and career. Not only does this fill me with gratitude, but it makes me realize the greater responsibility I have to value this opportunity and channel it in the right direction. Because there are others around me who don’t have that option.

2. Being Useful is so much better than having a Purpose

How many of us have allowed heavy concepts like “purpose” to burden the decisions we make? If you break this word down — what does it really mean? Doing something you love, that plays to your strengths and is valued by the organization you work for. I read somewhere that we all have figured out our purpose when we were around 14–18 years old, and all our life choices are just physical manifestations of this overarching theme. The struggle for us is seeing the patterns and putting them down into words. Having thought about it long and hard, I can see how that is true. So, instead of focusing on composing a mission statement, focus on being of use to your team or company. Instead of limiting yourself to the 5 tasks you’ve been assigned by your boss, try to get involved in projects which catch your interest and where you think you have something valuable to contribute. My personal experience has been that my happiness and satisfaction at work is greatly linked to feeling like I helped my team or company in some way.

3. Listen to your Body — When are you in the Bubble ?

Being self-aware is probably the hardest thing for most people. It is extremely easy to confuse who you really are, with who you wish you were. If you research self-awareness, you will come across phrases like “taking risks” and “listening to your gut”, which again are scary to most people. I like to break it down to simply paying attention to your body. Have you ever felt extremely nervous before an important project or presentation? Of course, you have! But once you begin, you just feel like you’re in the bubble and nothing else around you matters? That’s your body telling you that this thing you’re doing perfectly aligns with your gut and brain and heart. I remember the first article I wrote — it was the 2003 Cricket World Cup final and India had just lost to Australia after a brilliantly close match. That disappointment affected me so much that I instinctively took pen and paper, and the words came pouring out. I’m not even an avid cricket follower! In that moment, I didn’t think about sounding smart, or framing the right sentences — I just had to write. There are very few times I’ve felt this way. Now I am a realist — so I’m not saying this makes me a writer, and I need a book deal tomorrow! But it does tell me that writing gives me the kind of joy that connects me to my inner self. We all have experienced such moments. The important thing is to keep experimenting with different things, and listening to your body — listen to how it makes you feel and follow those signs.

4. Your Job is not a Magic Fix-It All

You know those cheesy relationship articles that tell you that your happiness is in your hands, and not dependent on a life-partner? I say we extend that philosophy to our jobs as well. Of course, it would be wonderful if we could make a living doing something we love. But let’s get real — very few people are lucky enough to get that opportunity. That does not mean we cannot feel fulfilled otherwise. Your life is a beautiful concoction of your friends, family, interests, careers, and it is how well you layer and mix them, that determines the kick you get! I may not loooovveee going to work every day, but here’s what I can do — do one thing that makes me feel useful at work every day. And ensure that the rest of my day or week is filled with activities that make me feel fulfilled — in my case, it is (trying to) write. It could be a sport, or painting, or social events, or hiking or rescuing animals. (P.S.- And if you can’t find one way to be useful at work every day, then you’re either doing something wrong, or you’re in the wrong job!)

 Leading a life of purpose is something we control completely. We need to take away this enigma surrounding it, and get comfortable with being real with ourselves. Look at the situation, get creative with workarounds and solutions and figure out a path that works for you. And that is the key — it has to be something that works for you. There is no magic spell that unlocks the door!

1 Way to not want 10 Ways

My husband, a physician and “Mad Scientist”, does research to understand Insulin Resistance, and it’s impact on weight loss, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and other chronic diseases. Part of his job is to give talks in conferences, companies, meetups etc, to people who are struggling with any one of the above and help them on their journey to lead healthier lives. One of the most commonly asked questions he gets asked is — “what are the top 3 tips you would give to anyone struggling with their weight”. After a few attempts, his go-to answer now is — “My first tip would be to stop wanting just 3 tips!”

Do a Google search for almost anything nowadays and you’re sure to find a range of articles titled — “5/10/20/52/108 ways to do XYZ..”

Am I the only one freaking out about this screenshot ?! :-O Why, Google, why?

The thing that puzzles me is — how can you distill down life’s major moments to n number of steps? Overcoming Depression, Learning a New Habit, Being Financially Secure, Loving Yourself, Curing Heartbreak — these are vulnerable, gut-wrenching phases of life and it takes days of trying countless different things, and failing, and trying again! Rinse, and repeat, until you get where you want to be! Life isn’t simple, and therefore, breaking it down into “10 things to do”, just makes it so much harder to embrace the complexity and messiness of it. Believe me, I’ve seen every YouTube video that told me 3 ways to find my life purpose, and while I took away pearls of wisdom from all of them, I have come to realize that 3 steps ain’t gonna get me anywhere close to the goal. It’s a lifetime’s worth of learning, unlearning, trying, failing, fighting, hoping and accepting.. And while this can seem daunting, at least I know I am prepared for the mad ride!

Totally coincidental that today is Star Wars Day, btw! (Source: Google)

From Summer to Fall..

You know the seasons are changing when the Starbucks lady stops asking you if you want your White Chocolate Mocha hot or iced..(the idea of iced WCM doesn’t make sense in any case, but that’s a different topic). Coffee Specials shift from Frapuccinos to Pumpkin Spice Lattes. Grocery store sales move from barbecue paraphernalia to Halloween decorations.

Nature follows a more gradual approach to ease us into the change. You may need a light jacket when you leave for work at 7 AM but you still get enough heat the rest of the day to let you believe it’s still part-summer. The sun sets an hour early, but makes up for that by treating you to these brilliant hues of orange and red splashed across the sky so you can enjoy your drive back home. Trees shed their leaves but before they wither away, (if you’re on the East Coast) you get to marvel at the most spectacular Fall colors you’ll ever see.. There’s a perfect balance in everything.. Always a yin to the yang..

Wouldn’t it be nice if life was the same way? If everything was proportionate and justified? If the good came with the bad so that it didn’t seem so impossible to bear.. There’s something wrong in the design of the universe for sure. Right?

Or maybe we make it hard by adding our own variables to an already complex equation. Maybe we get too close to the expected outcome, not knowing how to accept any other alternative. Maybe things would be a lot simpler if we were all like Gautam Buddha- maintain a safe distance – from everyone and everything. No attachment = no pain. How simple can the equation get! Now if only someone deconstructed the “no attachment” part.. 😛

As you get older, you tend to contemplate a lot on how you have lived your life- the decisions you made, the people you trusted, the paths you chose to follow. How did you land up where you are? Was it the most ethical and fair decision you could have made at that point?

What if you step back for a minute and think about the decisions you did NOT make, the people you did NOT trust and the paths you chose NOT to follow.. Would the story of your life have been any different? What exciting adventures did you miss out on? Or maybe you were saved from a destructive avalanche! Could it have gotten better or did you escape something worse? Or maybe life doesn’t work that way- maybe all paths lead to the same unknown, elusive destination.. Maybe you eventually land up exactly where you’re supposed to be- its just a question of choosing country roads where you get to enjoy the slow drive, or taking the express-way..

The seasons are changing for sure.. A whole summer has gone by- what have I missed..
A comeback post that has more questions than answers- that’s not a good sign..

A Measuring Stick for Life?

I am a scheduler by profession. According to my boss, they founded our group in my company about seven years ago because they needed people who would be trained to look at the big picture, instead of always trying to temporarily work around issues as they came, which is what Operations tends to do habitually in a company of this size. So essentially, an important part of my job is to think of how what we do today, impacts our tomorrow. If I fire people today because I am over-staffed, will I need them three months later? If I work overtime this weekend, will we be out of work next week? Things like that.. And for problems we notice to be repeatable or significant in nature, we know the issue needs a much deeper analysis – for this we seek the help of the Industrial Engineer – which is what I am by training.

You know one of the main reasons I like IE – it is because, by principle, IE’s are supposed to be the fix-it people- which is something I have always loved to be! IE’s have tools for everything- to determine root cause of a problem, to predict and account for inherent risks to a process, to determine how things are supposed to be versus how they are, to eliminate non-value added activities in a process, even to study human behavior. They may not always be effective in the first go, but if applied correctly, can really help lay out all the pieces of the jigsaw.

If you think about it, the above skill-sets are exactly what is required to solve all of life’s complexities!
Make a new friend? – okay, look at the big picture – is this relationship going to be a season pass, or is it a lifetime membership? Invest your resources accordingly.
Trust too often and too soon? – make an Ishikawa diagram of what is wrong with your own brain that makes you do that – fix the root cause, and your failure rate will drop.

I understand that mastering the above techniques to, what crazed psychologists call, “whole-hearted living“, would essentially make us akin to God – but hell, what if we all had a few God-like qualities? Okay, if not a lifelong plan, even the ability to foresee the next one year would be appreciated by many a humans, don’t you think?! Life’s mysteries be damned! 😛

Talking of psychologists – people doing research in psychology, every-day human behavior and interpretation, social work, happiness (yes! people do research in happiness too!) like to come up with verbiage for what they think gives people a “sense of fulfillment” in life. I’ve heard of words like connection, compassion, vulnerability, choice, courage, purpose, meaning etc etc. Well, it’s 2.15 AM on a Friday morning and my head is swirling with a ragoût of unasked questions, unwanted answers, questionable actions and unanswerable reactions; and I can come up with only two things every human being seeks out in this lifetime –
1. To be seen, really seen.
2. To know they are not alone.

If only someone invested their time and research grants on figuring out tools, real concrete tools, that would help us do that instead of beating about the bush all the time. If only we didn’t have to untangle the mess and pave the path by ourselves all the time…

When you are home..

What is it that makes a place, home?

Every year, I go to India in December- it is almost like a yearly ritual, like a pilgrimage I must complete. I enter the Bombay airport (which I still call Sahar International; I can never get around to calling it Chhatrapati Shivaji International Terminus.. :P) and always find myself smiling all through Immigration, Baggage Claim and Customs, because I see the inherent Indianness of all the people come to the fore- the usual cutting of lines to be the first in the queue or fighting for every square inch of space around the baggage carousel- it is not irritating or strange, it is just the way it is supposed to be. As I exit the airport, I scan the crowd for a pair of hands waving frantically to attract my attention- my dad who painstakingly tracks my flight all through the seventeen hour journey, and arrives at the airport half an hour before the plane is supposed to land- even though he knows that the formalities do end up taking more than an hour. We hug, he takes the trolley from my hand and makes ten calls to the rented car driver announcing my arrival and asking him to pick us up. It has been the exact same routine now, four years in a row. It would actually be strange if this were to not happen some year- because this, the very essence of this moment, is what I call home.

Somehow airports have a way of letting you know instantly whether you are welcome or not.. Knowing that you are returning to a place where there is someone waiting for you; knowing that your arrival brings a smile to someone’s face – that is what makes a place, home

Moving away from Rochester was one of the most-needed and necessary decisions of my life. But regardless of everything, this was a place which taught me all there was to learn about myself and about people – it showed me the best and worst of situations and it also tolerated me through my own best and worst. Knowing that a place has seen you in your nicest, meanest, friendliest, angriest, happiest, saddest, proudest, weakest moments and still accepts you the way you are – still helps you discover the cafe with the best coffee, or the cutest bookstore, or yummiest pastries for those midnight cravings – that is what makes a place, home.

I think we are all on a quest to find our own home. To find the place or those people that make you feel as if you belong, as if you are wanted. But in the face of the unknown and uncertain, how do we know we have reached our destination? Is it truly a matter of chemistry – sometimes the missing pieces of the jigsaw just fit – and you keep going until you have completed the puzzle? Or is it a matter of trained acceptance – learning to make a place your home; learning to nest and see the beauty in imperfection?

How do you know you are home? When the wandering mind beckons and urges you to move on, how do you know that it is time to stop?