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.

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#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 24

Last weekend, V and I took a trip to a hill station close by called Munnar. I had heard about the place being gorgeous, but the sights, sounds and smells we experienced there were truly out of this world, and beyond anything I expected! Acres of the greenest greens I had ever seen, clouds that would descend on the fields within minutes, changing the landscape entirely, the slightest hint of a persistent rain that felt like mist on your body and a quietness that was perfectly balanced between being calming and eerie at times! Imagine walking in the middle of these tea plantations all day ! No filters necessary!

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As is typical on most of our trips, the food was a major highlight and we didn’t shy away from trying out everything including the fish, which Kerala is very popular for. On Day 2, our friendly tour guide took us to this tiny restaurant that was famous for it’s authentic Kerala meals – basically a spread of massive amounts of fluffy rice, 4 kinds of vegetables, a fish curry, and an array of condiments that only the Kerala folk can do full justice to. Simplicity at it’s best, but an explosion of flavours in your mouth. The best part of the entire experience was the restaurant owner – now if you want to know customer service at it’s best, this guy was the epitome of it! Within minutes of us having chosen a table, he walked over and explained the entire concept of the Kerala meal to us in his endearing broken English – the different kinds of fish, their size, the amount of bones one might encounter, spice levels. On realizing we are rookies, he made his own suggestions and even threw in two varieties for the price of one – no one should leave Kerala before trying out the fish, he insisted! Before leaving the table, he assured us that if we didn’t like the food, we didn’t have to pay a dime. But of course, the food was delicious – one of the best meals ever, and it cost us less than $6 overall! He checked on us multiple times and even sent over little samples of some other curries, “just to taste”! Now one might argue that he was being a shrewd business-owner – he was used to dealing with tourists and knew how to keep them happy. But in addition, what I also saw was a genuinely nice guy who knew that the only thing he needed for his business to succeed was the right product and the right attitude! The former might be easy to nail, but the latter takes a lifetime of practice and intention!

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Over the past few months, I’ve grown increasingly fascinated by small business owners. People who focus on niche products, creativity, resource-scarcity and true autonomy to make a dent in their corner of the world. And I have been trying to support them as much as possible, because it is truly admirable to run a one-man-show. Like my most recent acquisition from this guy in Bangalore who makes the cutest succulent planters using unique objects like metal measuring cans! For someone who loves plants, but has a home without much direct sunlight, this was the perfect solution! Anyway, I digress… Coming back to my Munnar trip, one of the big highlights for me, beyond the gorgeousness of the place and food, was this friendly restaurant owner who showed me that with the brightest smile, and a fantastic product, you can win the hearts of two non-fish-non-rice eaters!

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#28DaysofGratitude – Day 23

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One of my allll time favorite quotes is by this incredible poet called Allama Iqbal – the quote is in Urdu, but this Quora article has a beautiful translation and explanation of every verse. The quote loosely translates to –

“Excel yourself to such a level that, before granting a fortune, God Himself asks you, what do you want!”

I was probably in my teens when my mom narrated it to me for the first time, and its one of those things that resurfaces from the hidden corners of my mind, every now and then, when I’m doing the most mundane things like cleaning! And I always stop for just a few seconds, in awe of how powerful it is. Now I admit that I am not an Urdu literary genius, nor do I understand the depths of Islam and its philosophy on Khudi, destiny etc. So my fascination stems purely from my interpretation of it.

I was brought up to believe that all our life is a manifestation of God’s will and nothing we do can alter the path we will eventually end up on because it is pre-destined. I remember battling with this concept for a really long time because firstly, it took away all control I had over my life and that just seemed ridiculous to my mind – Why would my parents ask me to study so hard if my path was predestined anyways?! (There’s an easy out, eh!) Secondly, it made me feel like a mere player on stage in Shakespeare’s world – is that ALL life amounts to? As I grew older, I rapidly moved to the opposite side of the spectrum with a strong sense of my life, and my actions and my control that I will NOT give up. But there were still those incidents that I just could not explain or rationalize. A random sequence of events that brought me places I could never have dreamed of – some good and some painful – now how do I explain that? How could I have had control over something I didn’t even know could exist in the first place? This dichotomy existed in my mind for a good part of my 20’s as well and I went from being religious to spiritual to agnostic to atheist back to spiritual etc etc..

It is probably in the past 3-4 years that I have come to an acceptance of this game of life, and this quote helped me get there in many ways. And that’s what I call it – a friendly game between the Universe and Me – something like UNO – now if I was better at games, I’d have compared it to something complex like Settlers of Catan, but that’s too much exercise for my mind, so keeping it simple here! So UNO –> at each juncture, we have our cards, and we play our game not knowing what the person in front is going to play next. We have our own agenda – I’ll play the Reverse Card first, and then the Skip Card and save my Wild Card for the end….and just when you think you have a good game going, the Universe drops a Draw Four and oh well…you get the picture. But at no point of the game, are you stressed or fretting about the loss of control. You’re just playing the best game you can and trying out different strategies. If you lose, move on to Round Two and try this all over again – this time, you hopefully have learned lessons from Round One, and can figure out a better strategy – maybe don’t be such a wise ass and expect an easy game.

The key idea here is – there is always a next round, but the important thing is for you to keep playing your game! What that translates to, in my interpretation, is to keep trying out new things, new projects, ideas, paths – maybe there will be the one time when the Universe won’t have a Draw Four card, and you’ll remember to call out “UNO!” when you have one card left, and you’ll win !!! Taaa…daaa….

And that’s what I like about the above quote too – you’re not a Shakespearean character – God knows how bad an actor you are, come on! – you’re here to make friends with the Universe, play your game, learn, have fun, try new things, do your dance. You win some, you lose some. Sometimes, you lose a lot but you shuffle up the cards again, and go for the next round. Always.

(There’s a second part to why I love this quote as well, but this  post is turning out to be as long as my Masters Thesis, so I’m going to continue this tomorrow… Come back! :))

 

#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?

#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.