#30DaysofGratitude – 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!

 

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#30DaysofGratitude – 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

#30DaysofGratitude – 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.

#30DaysofGratitude – Day 16

I have been binge-watching Seth Godin‘s videos on YouTube – something about the complex simplicity of his ideas and thoughts just make you sit up, take note, and go – “Huh! What a wonderfully new way to think about this.” If you are interested – check this and this to begin with – they are my favorites.

On the latest video I watched, he talks about his morning routine and one of the things he says is – “In 1977, I decided that ‘facing the day’ didn’t feel right. So instead I view it as an opportunity. I have not hit the snooze button once since 1977.  Part of what I have tried to do with my work is create a life where I bound out of bed, eager because I get a chance at unlimited bowling”. (You have to watch the video to get the bowling reference.)

Isn’t that such a wonderful thing to aspire to? Forget the billion dollar idea, forget the jargon surrounding impact and purpose, and the 5 million followers on Twitter. Let us bring it down to the basics. We are all here in this world with a limited amount of real estate and resources to our name. Our job is to make the most of what we have, and think about creating something that makes “them (whoever them is) miss you when you are gone.” (paraphrasing Seth’s language here)

Now I know that Seth can say this today with conviction, after having authored 18 books, and created the most popular marketing blog on the web. People like you and me are not even a quarter of the way there. Which is why I use the word aspire. It doesn’t matter what you are doing, approaching each day with boundless eagerness is so much better than fear and dread of the unknown. It sets the right intention in place – and allows you to get into the flow.

You know a good place to start – by saying goodbye to the snooze button! 🙂

Cultural Messiness

The inspiration of this post is from Seth Godin’s awesome article a few days ago – read it here.

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As part of the Acumen Fellowship, I got the unusual opportunity to spend time, not like a tourist, but in a real I-live-her way, in two Tier 3 cities of India – Bhopal and Ernakulam. I say unusual because I know that I would never have taken the time to do this, had it not been for this placement. And unless you spend a solid 3-4 months in a city, interacting with the locals, speaking their language, shopping and lunching with them, celebrating birthdays and farewells, you don’t get a real understanding of their desires and motivations. For the past seven months, I have tried to assimilate and understand parts of a culture that I felt familiar to, and alienated from, at the same time. There have been parts of it that have angered me and left me frustrated, especially as I try to traverse through the complex workings of an organization that is trying to do good, and sustain in the midst of many roadblocks.

From the time I started on my Acumen journey, the words “social enterprise” and “messiness” were used almost synonymous to each other. As someone new to this world, I wondered why. On a business level, a social enterprise needs to run similar to a regular for-profit venture. Right? Yes, there is an uncompromising focus on impact that is integrated into the business model, which means cost of goods and profit margins need to be re-calibrated accordingly. When we are working with the under-served, we are designing solutions to fulfill their basic needs- the must-haves, and not the nice-to-haves. But surely, this cannot be the full story. These are external customer-centric factors. What really is different about the internal workings of these kind of companies that makes them “messy” ? It wasn’t until I spent time with my colleagues in Bhopal that I really saw what I had never seen before, and what Seth has managed to articulate so much better than I can. It is culture – this culture of familiarity, safety, fear of change.

I am not saying that organizations in bigger cities do not struggle with this – but heightened hybridization in Tier 1 cities tend to make people look more favorably upon change. We have no choice but to accept that our favorite South Indian restaurant has also started serving North Indian food now. We willingly see Durga Puja being celebrated with as much fervor as Deepavali or Vishu or Eid. From cab drivers to roadside vendors to uber-cool startups, no one can escape it and therefore, we do what is innately human to us all – we adapt. This trickles down the entire ecosystem and impacts the way organizations are run – we work at a faster pace, we demand more of our employers, we move jobs if we feel our vision doesn’t align with that of our company.

Here is what I saw in Bhopal: The organization I worked for, was facing a severe cash flow problem which meant there were delays in salary payments to employees. These delays only kept getting worse with time. When I asked the employees what their plan was to combat this – most of them shrugged their shoulders and said – “what can we do, it is what it is.” You know what would have happened in Bangalore or Mumbai – the company would probably have 100 legal notices by now. Not even kidding.

When I was in Bhopal, my team comprised of smart, capable individuals who were not able to grow and contribute, because they were not given the opportunity, and they didn’t know how to ask. If you dig deeper, the reason for this could be traced back to their upbringing, family environment, expectations of what their life can be. What I saw was unfulfilled potential. Imagine if we were able to tap into this potential of 1.2 billion people – it would change the landscape of this country!

So here’s my little theory – social enterprises are messy, not only because their customers are harder to understand and design for. It is also because most such enterprises are proximate to their customers – in smaller towns and cities – which lack the ecosystem for change. There is a larger internal battle they face every day- which is, fighting the status quo of familiarity and fear of the unknown that exists within their organization itself. Knowing that what they are doing is bigger than themselves, and for that, they really have to show up differently. This is not a security blanket, a job to retire from 45 years later with a pension account.

As Seth says –

In the face of change, the critical questions that leaders must start with are, “Why did people come to work here today? What did they sign up for?”

So that’s where the real challenge begins for CEO’s and founders of social enterprises – sharing a completely believable vision of a new reality – not just externally, but also internally!

Talk about messiness !

#30DaysofGratitude – Day 15

It is 10th and 12th Grade results season in India! Now for those of you who have not been schooled here, let me provide some context. The education system in India has not undergone much revision since the 70’s or probably, even earlier. We all study the same subjects ranging from the usual Math and Science to Social Studies, History and Geography. Now, I don’t have anything against the content per se; what I dislike the most is the methodology of studying – there is very little focus on understanding concepts and applying them to real world problems. What is rewarded is good presentation, good handwriting and basically what we Indians call “mugging” or learning by rote with little importance to the why’s and how’s. I remember actually changing my handwriting in my 10th Grade exams from cursive to split because I was told by my teachers that it would be easier to read! And our overall percentage in the 10th and 12th Grade final exams basically control the next step in our education – pretty much like your SATs, except that these marks are the only aspect of our application that is looked at by the Admissions Committee. So you can imagine the pressure on these 15 year old kids, especially those who harbor dreams of studying the Sciences which tend to be the most competitive.

I distinctly remember the day my 10th Grade results were announced – I do not remember my marks, funnily enough, considering how I thought my world was going to end on that day! I remember going to my school almost breathless, looking at the results, feeling like a complete failure, almost fighting back tears, refusing to talk to my friends or extended family because I felt like I had let them down. Want to know why? Because I expected to get 88% or higher, and ended up getting something around 85% (as I said, I can’t even remember now!) I was in the top 10 students in my school – yes, I was that geek – and I still felt like my life had come crashing down! As I recollect that day today, I feel stupid at how dramatic I was! But that was the kind of pressure we had on us, to perform! (Did not help that I had a teacher mom!)

Now I went on to do pretty well for myself after that. As is the case with most adults, there are bigger and worse roadblocks I have faced since that day 15 years ago, and I have managed to survive conquer them (whadupp How to Be a Bawse reference! ;)) My world did not end, and in fact, it only got better, regardless of those missteps! You love and you lose, you fail and you win, you change for the better, you change for the worse, you correct and re-correct yourself, but most importantly, you keep moving forward and keep living!

The newspapers are full of pictures of happy 15-year old kids and their even happier parents. And I know that this is a moment to celebrate, and I do not wish to take away from that – but I wish that after the euphoria dies (and these kids score a seat in their dream colleges), their parents sit them down and tell them that this is the start of a loooonngg journey. They are going to change as people, they are going to make mistakes but that does not mean they are failures! And behind those success stories, are the hidden faces of those children who did not make it (or idiots like me!) – and I wish their parents would  also tell them that this is not the end, this does not define their future even by 1%. I know I would have done so much better if I knew that!

So I guess, today, I am grateful for how far I have come in life. It may not be the path I envisioned for myself when I was 15, but it is pretty good, nonetheless. And I am grateful for organizations that have taken on the difficult task of revamping the education system in India – like this enterprise called iTeach Schools run by my friend. The Indian schooling system needs to be based first on equality – everyone has the right to a good education. And there needs to be more focus on application and practicality of concepts, a more multi-dimensional approach to learning by reading books, engaging in community work, sport, crafts, dance and real life skills! This is a long, arduous task but until there are schools like iTeach, I am hopeful that at least my future kids will not have to go through this “life-altering” experience that is Grade 10 results!

(P.S. – I just realized that this post makes it seem like I’m 40 ! I am not that old, really! Just very wise ;))

#30DaysofGratitude – Day 14

I love how Google and Facebook have this wonderful ability to bring up special moments from the past, that you may have forgotten about but when you see that picture on your Newsfeed, it transports you back to those significant days that changed your life for the better.. Memorial Day is a special weekend for me. In 2011, Memorial Day weekend, I made my big move from Rochester, New York to Davis, California. Now I’ve made bigger moves before and after, but this particular one was specially significant because it marked the onset of a truly spectacular phase of my life. I moved for a job I truly enjoyed, with the most amazing boss and team I have ever worked with – and if you’ve had your share of bad bosses like most of us, you know how much of a rarity this is! I still draw inspiration from the way my boss at Siemens used to lead our team – with so much humility and kindness.

And more importantly, this move introduced me to the most special group of friends I have had the pleasure of knowing.. If you are like me, you’re not the kind of person who has a huge social circle. I have a handful of very special friends who I have known since my childhood and college days, and I cherish them with all my heart. I met my friends in Davis when I was 24, which is not when you expect to meet people who will really integrate into the fabric of my life. So when that happens, it is really something to be grateful for. In the past 6 years, we have seen each other through marriages and breakups and new cars, new jobs, new homes, babies – you name it! Just scrolling through our first set of pictures from 6 years ago (bless Google Drive backup!) makes me realize how much our lives have changed ever since. But we are still in it together, trying our best to be there for each other through it all!

That is the thing about friendship really – I’ve come to realize that it does not matter how alike or different you are. What matters is real acceptance of the other person, and knowing that your relationship is more important than a difference of opinion. I really believe that you are the average of the five people closest to you. So I make it a point to surround myself with people who inspire me to be better every day, and who allow me to go through my phases when I am particularly anti-social, and love me regardless of it, and who constantly remind me of my strengths, but at the same time, can be real with me and tell me off when I’m being a wuss.

Here’s to special moments that change your life for the better! 🙂