#28DaysofGratitude – Day 22

One of my favorite teenage rebellion movies was Ice Princess (yes, I am willing to close my eyes and ears right now, while you take a moment to point your finger and laugh. oh well, I was that girl!) I guess my 15-year old mind identified with that nerdy schoolgirl who’s mom expected her to excel in Science class instead of in sports or arts. Anyway, I thankfully got over that movie pretty quickly, except for this one line which stayed with me. The line was said by the protagonist’s figure-skating coach who was upset because the nerdy girl couldn’t stand up to her mom. The line went something like this (and I’m paraphrasing) – “You’re never going to win the championship because you’re too polite. If you want something, you have to be willing to push past everyone and everything and just get it.” Too polite? If you know anything about the classic Indian upbringing, there is nothing called “too polite”!

Okay, I’m exaggerating. But in all fairness, in most south-east Asian cultures, there is a lot of emphasis on being very linear, within the boundaries of accepted norms, placing the wishes of our elders first, and generally keeping your emotions in check. I can see how this can translate to “politeness”. And while I have nothing against my culture or upbringing at all, I am realizing more and more, how this can get in the way of people in these countries wanting to follow an offbeat path. There is a certain level of aggression, defiance and foolhardiness almost, that is needed for real innovation to happen. Especially in today’s world, where the next big idea is always around the corner – you have to be willing to push past obstacles along the way (which are mostly mental, but can be certain people and situations as well). There are going to be hurt emotions, in pursuit of the greater good.

“Hustle” is the new golden word being used in almost every motivational podcast or video around. And the idea behind it is simple – if you want to achieve certain results, there are sacrifices to be made – there will be no time for family, and no weekends with friends, and no time for TV and social media. But hustling has one prerequisite – putting your dream/goal before anything else – that is what gives you the drive to make all those sacrifices. This mindset can be developed over time, but is also so dependent on one’s upbringing (and culture). Why do children of businessmen end up starting businesses? Why do sportspeople always have stories of their parents waking them up at 4 AM for practice? We emulate what we see our parents and societies practice, and that is what defines the norm for us.

This is not just relevant with respect to one’s career. This attitude plays out in personal life choices as well. I know someone who was told by her parents while choosing a life partner to “realize that she isn’t going to find anyone better than this guy anyways”. How does this compare to being told that – “there are good people everywhere, what matters is that you follow your heart.”

This post is almost like a rant, and I apologize for that. We always say with respect to gender equality that empowerment begins at home. The same philosophy applies here as well. Cultural change happens slowly over decades, but in the meantime, we need to really think about what we are teaching our children – the language we use, the ideas we promote. Do we ask them to settle, or do we ask them to fight ? Do we expect politeness or do we encourage just that little bit of rebellion that can make a difference to their future?

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#28DaysofGratitude – Day 21

It is a good day when you have a thought-provoking and insightful conversation with your Uber driver. With most chatty drivers, the conversation follows a similar trajectory – a look of surprise when they realize I can’t speak the local language, multiple inquisitive questions to figure out where I am from, and what I am doing in Kerala, and an attempt at solidarity by talking about the time they visited my hometown, and what they thought of it. I realized how ingrained my Indianness was, when I started telling them involuntarily that I was from Bangalore and not Pune, silently hoping that I would be accepted more if I told them I was part of South India like them, and not from “North” India (as Pune is often considered to be…). At times, the conversation veers off into more personal territory such as family, income, women living alone etc.. This morning, my friendly Uber driver and I started discussing about life in the Arabian Gulf. For the uninformed, almost 80% of Kerala has migrated to “the Gulf” at some point of time – Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait etc. This guy was among the remaining 20% who did not choose that route, and had some insights into the effects of this migration on peoples’ mindsets. Home ownership being a critical one.

He was telling me stories about how social status in Kerala is judged on the basis of the size of your home – since income from “the Gulf” means that one can afford much better homes than they could have, had they stayed back in India. Now the bane of societal living is that if your neighbor owns a large home, it is almost incumbent that you do too. Choosing to not pursue large-home-ownership could have serious repercussions, especially when you have daughters who needed to be married, which was one of his big worries. Prospective grooms’ families would not be as impressed. He was a practical guy though, arguing vehemently about how ridiculous it was to put his family through the pressures of a 20-year home loan, which would only be passed on to their children. What sense did it make, he continued, to have a beautiful looking house on the outside, but be struggling for money on the inside? After all, even though he was a mere Uber driver, they were *happy* in their smaller, comfortable home. “This society, I tell you.“, were his final remarks knowing there was little he could do to change it.

We love to blame social media sites like Facebook for distorting reality and lowering self-esteem by presenting an unrealistic, perfect image of our peers . But if you take a step back and think about it, the tendency to hide our imperfections and “fake it” has always been part of our innate nature. It begins with school, where we are taught to paint within the lines- and graded based on who does it best. We always want the external picture to be pretty and actively participate in oneupmanship because it makes us feel good about ourself. Until a few years ago, the building blocks of this imagery were shiny degrees on the wall, cars parked in the driveway, the perfect 4-bedroom house. Facebook and Instagram have changed it to X-Pro-II-filtered foreign holidays, fruit bowls and status updates! And of course, made it incredibly easy to open our perfect doors to 2 billion people around the world.

So before we go on a social media detox, it’s worth thinking about how we see ourselves first – why do those lines exist in the first place and how rigid are they? what if there are smudges here n there? what if we want to completely disregard the lines, and freehand on a blank piece of paper? It’s probably not going to be as pretty, but it will be our own. Are we really okay with that ?

#28DaysofGratitude – Day 20

I’ve mentioned multiple times before, that I am a huge addict of TEDTalks. No surprise then, that a lot of my daily doses of inspiration come from talks that leave a strong mark on my thinking. Yesterday, I heard the TED talk of Raj Panjabi, a physician, social entrepreneur, and winner of the TED Prize in 2017 among many other accolades. His company, Last Mile Health, trains community workers on essential skills that can help them provide lifesaving healthcare to the remotest areas of West Africa. His life’s work is based on one fundamental belief – no one should die because they live far away from a doctor. Such a basic principle, isn’t it ?

My sister, a gynecologist, spent last week working at a government hospital in my hometown – an experience that shook her, as a new doctor entering the real world. She was appalled at the quality of healthcare being provided to pregnant women, the sheer lack of infrastructure and resources, and the callousness it led to, among the doctors and nurses working there. Healthcare in government hospitals is a complicated intertwined system, so I would not be arrogant enough to blame just the doctors – I know they mean well and are not valued enough. But the people at the end of the totem pole are these pregnant women, who, due to the failure of this entire system, just don’t stand a chance to get quality care, let alone survive without complications. People at this hospital die, not because a doctor isn’t available, but because the doctor isn’t able to give them the care they deserve.

As an outsider viewing this system, the critical thing I see is lack of empowerment at every level from hospital management to staff, that cascades down to frustration and therefore, disregard for quality healthcare. On the other hand, what works so beautifully in Last Mile Health is that common people who didn’t even have a stable job, are being empowered with these medical skills that help them make a difference in the lives of others. They are more invested in what they do, not just because it provides them with a means to improve their own lives, but also gain satisfaction from serving others.

This idea so beautiful in theory, but even as I think about how it might apply to the healthcare system in India, I feel helpless – can I change this? if yes, what is my next step? am I being too idealistic? what are the ugly truths I am not seeing yet? One of the first lessons we were taught as Acumen Fellows was to be comfortable with the questions. Seems like a sucky lesson to be taught, right now! (sorry Acumen)

The thing that inspired me the most about Raj Panjabi’s TED talk was the way his face lit up, when talking about his company and his people and the impact they are having. It was not grandiose, but rather, the kind of humble satisfaction you feel after having scaled a massive mountain – taking just a moment to acknowledge the days of arduous climbs behind you, and knowing there are tougher mountains to scale in the future. That look right there, is what I aspire to.

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 –

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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.

#28DaysofGratitude – Day 19

If you analyze the flood of social media posts on Father’s Day, here are some of the common adjectives you would find – strong, hero, rock, smart, supportive, inspirational, leader. Almost all through literature and movies, the image of the father has been of this loving, but distant person who’s primary role was to be a strong anchor of the family, an inspiration, a stoic and composed human who would often spew out words of wisdom, and who’s acceptance we would always seek – not love, but acceptance. Art imitates life, or life imitates art ? – Who knows, but this is just the reality of the norms we see around us.

When I think of my father, most of my memories are of us discussing politics or books or movies or financial matters. Sarcasm is something we have in common, so there are memories of jokes at the lunch or dinner table. They’re all fun memories, but they’re not impactful, in that, they don’t involve major life decisions, or moments of despair, confusion and fear. We went to mom at those times. My mom and dad lived apart for almost 8 years due to their careers, so for all my adult life, I have seen my mom make key decisions around the house – that helped blur the image of a traditional “mom figure” in my mind to someone who was warm and cuddly, but also authoritative and powerful.

But the dad image never changed. He has always been goofy, fun and caring, but I always felt like there was an unbroken barrier. I never knew what his thoughts, aspirations, fears, worries were. I have never heard stories of his childhood, forgotten dreams, disappointments, and successes. My past few visits home have been about trying to change that. When he’s particularly chatty, he will talk about our childhood with great enthusiasm. I recently heard the story of his struggles, as a 27 year old, of bringing up a new baby when he didn’t even have a house of his own, or any savings. Did you know there were times he had to choose between a pack of biscuits for me, and a bus ticket for him to get to work? What must those times have been like for him? I knew my mom’s side of the story, but never his!

One of the things I really believe is that in understanding people, context is everything. People behave a certain way not because they are good or bad, but because their experiences have made them that way. And in having these conversations with my dad, I understand so much more of his context – how his parents were, what he’s given up on, and what he’s fought for, how did he view his dad, what did he wish was different. And today, I don’t need him to be a strong, supportive, inspirational superhero for me. But my hope is that there is more openness, realism and depth in our moments together. The goofy jokes will always stay, of course!

 

#28DaysofGratitude – Day 18

I spent the last few days with my parents and sister in my hometown.. It’s always a wonderful experience going back home. It’s the place I grew up in, so I expect there to be a lot of familiarity – I expect to just meld into the people and systems around the house, as if I had never left. But that is not the case any more. For the most part, my arrival is treated like a special event because I only visit them for a few days a year – my family moves their schedules around to spend more time with me, there are gatherings with the extended relatives, there are special meals cooked for me, and outings planned to show me the new spots to hang out at. That kind of treatment felt nice when I used to visit from the US, and even today, I appreciate all of it because I know it comes from a good place. But it does make me increasingly feel like an outsider at times as well. I am a member of a small 4-person team, so I feel like I am supposed to know where we keep the spare bulbs at home, or what medications my mom takes, or what we feed the stray cats we’ve adopted! Thankfully, we all share a very close relationship, in that we are constantly talking on our little WhatsApp group, and speaking over the phone a few times a week. But I still struggle with learning to accept that as I go on to build my own 2-person-1-dog team, some things just have to change and cannot be the same as they were ten years ago. And realizing that the most important thing I can do is really make sure I show up when they need me the most. And that might mean that I will need some extra help while changing the light bulbs, but that’s okay!

One of my favorite illustrators/painters is Brian Andreas. And one of my favorites from his collection is this one called Home. I am reminded of my parents every time I see it..

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Image from here- https://shop.storypeople.com/products/the-way-home-prints

#28DaysofGratitude – Day 17

I did the stupidest thing today, and almost missed my flight for a trip I was planning. It was a huge calculation error and traffic misjudgment on my part and I was berating myself the entire ride to the airport! Had it not been for an enthusiastic cab driver who was determined that I make it on time, and a really kind co-passenger who willingly offered to be dropped off after me, I would definitely still be stranded at the airport! Kindness from strangers is not something we expect or accept as the norm, so when it does happen, it leaves you, not only with the warm and fuzzies, but also with a determination to pass it forward whenever you can..

Funny thing is, in those twenty minutes it took for the situation to shift from “I’m-definitely-going-to-miss-my-flight” to “Shucks-I-might-actually-make-it“, I was angry at almost everyone around me – right from the erratic car drivers that came in our way, to the co-passenger who kept asking about my flight to even my husband in another city because I wanted him to be as anxious as I was! Go figure! But the moment I stood at the gate, those negative feelings magically evaporated into oblivion. When I thought back, I was so amused at how absolutely pointless my anger was. Thank God I didn’t call my husband and instigate a fight or say something mean to the lovely co-passenger!

Weird how human emotions work. When we are down, we want to take the whole world down with us, even if it is completely unintentional. Anger can be such a dangerous emotion. My lesson from this is definitely to try and take a deep breath and count to 5 before I allow my anger to take control of my mind. It is harder said than done, but hey, I think we owe it to ourselves to do that.