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 26

Last Thursday was my first day at a new job. I now work for a social enterprise called Habba, an artisan-centric e-commerce initiative based out of Bangalore, India. One of my more drab, rather first-world worry on my first day was- the kind of laptop I would be given at work. You see, I’ve never owned or purchased a laptop of my own since 2011. I was fortunate enough to work at companies that gave me a laptop to use. And especially in the past year, with the financial limitations of the Fellowship, I knew I could not afford to buy myself a laptop right-away.

At about noon, one of my teammates places this device on my desk – it is a massive, 15.6-inch Dell laptop – heavy as hell (I swear, it weighs over 3 kg!) and a far cry from the ones I’ve been given previously! I crack a silly joke about growing bigger biceps from lugging this “non-laptop” around, but yeah, I’m not happy. I knew I would need to buy a new bag because the one I was using wasn’t big enough.  On my cab ride home, I had already begun researching affordable compact laptops on Amazon, shortlisted 2-3 I wanted to consider buying, and done some mental math about whether I could afford the purchase.

I come home and see V sitting on the couch, waiting to hear stories. The first thing I do is take this monstrosity out from my bag and show it to him – “Look at the laptop I got, it’s hugeeee, uggghhhh…” He takes one look at the device and his first words are – “Wooaahhh they gave you a Core i5 ! This is aweeesoommeee…” What, no – that’s not the plan – we’re supposed to hate this thing. Before I could say anything else, he had opened the Settings and added 5 other impressive things to his list – the hard disk space, the RAM, and other things that my silly mind was too irritated to even remember.. And so, that was that.

Fast forward 48 hours, and I am sitting with this 3 kg device on my laptop, writing my first blogpost after three months. I already have a new laptop bag that cost me like 1/27th the price of a new laptop, thanks to the power of Amazon Prime. I don’t necessarily love the device, but I can make my peace with it.

Sometimes we need someone who will be the wind beneath our wings. And other times, we need someone who will cut short our useless flights of fantasy and bring us back down to ground reality. Sometimes we need someone who will show us that the greener side of the grass is right there in front of us, because we’re too busy complaining about the heat. And many times, we just need to be grateful for a laptop and five blog followers! 🙂

#28DaysofGratitude – Day 25

Yesterday was Friendship’s Day in India (is it Friendship Day or Friendship’s Day – grammar nazis, correct me please!). When we were children in school, this day held very very special significance, and entailed preparation from weeks in advance. Making sure all impending fights were sorted out, scouting the market for the latest trends in Friendship bands, allocating time to hand-make bands for the special few friends (the days when n >= 10). Because believe me, the anticipation as you approached school on the day-of, was even more intense than the look on Jamie’s face when he saw Drogon and Dany fly over Highgarden with the Dothrakis! I kid not.

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The goal at the end of the day was to walk away with the maximum number of bands on your wrists, hence being hailed the undisputed Friendship King/Queen. The competition began on the school bus itself. A few over-ambitious ones woke up early and got a headstart by covering friends in their neighborhood. The look of jealousy on kids’ faces when one boarded the bus with 20 bands on their wrists already, was worth sacrificing an hour of sleep for. Try explaining that to your ignorant parents! At the end of the day, the coolest kids always walked away with both their forearms covered with bands, till the elbows! Uggghhh how we hated them, but wouldn’t dare NOT tie them a friendship band!

For many, the day was an occasion to proclaim their “more-than-friendship” feelings to those special someone’s. As Bollywood movies of those years taught us – Love is Friendship. Pyaar dosti hai. Perfect marketing opportunity for Archies and Hallmark, to introduce aptly titled ribbons and bands too! So it was not uncommon to see the beginnings of new romantic relationships on the day, all of which were discussed to death, on the bus ride back home. The fact that those relationships didn’t last more than a week (if lucky), didn’t matter – just fodder for more gossip!

The advent of cell phones in college meant that the Friendship bands were replaced by sappy SMS-es and monochrome MMS-es to the many friends who had moved to other cities – despite the surcharge rates by telecom providers. We’re friends after all – what is Rs. 5 in comparison ?! Cut to 2017, where WhatsApp is free, but no special messages were exchanged among my friends (where n <=10) and I could not be happier !

I was thinking about how much time and effort I wasted on some of those meaningless friendships, the silly fights and arguments on everything from clothes to boys to grades.. If I had to give my 10-year-old self any advice, would I ask her to rethink her entire friendship strategy? Ask her to invest her time only on those people who stayed through those crazy teens and 20’s ? Probably not. These experiences are likes rites of passage, no? – I wouldn’t have the people I call my own today, if I had not met those many others who came and left. It was probably my fight with a “friend” who ridiculed my hair behind my back, that led me to this other curly-haired-girl who has stayed with me for 23 years. And had I not gone through this whole “I-hate-the-girls-in-my-group” phase, I would have never met my now best friend and the first guy I ever spoke to!

So while there will be no sappy messages and friendship bands any more, I cannot help but thank those crazies on my school bus who led me to the crazies I have with me today!

 

#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 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 ?