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.


#28DaysofGratitude – Day 23


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 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 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! 🙂

#28DaysofGratitude – 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 ;))

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!