#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 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 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 ;))

#28DaysofGratitude – Day 3

As part of my Acumen Fellowship, I am placed at this social enterprise called Our Family Clinic in Kochi, India. The company runs a chain of primary healthcare clinics, largely in rural areas where the closest medical facility was over 50 km away. And since we want to serve the maximum number of people, we have highly subsidized consultation fees. Obviously, given the nature of the system, monthly income is often contingent upon the seasons (is it flu season yet!?) which is not a very stable revenue model. So part of the reason I am here is to help my team think of additional revenue streams through which we can help more people and at the same time, also add more sustainable channels of income. The first such program we are experimenting with is a school health program. Essentially, we run a medical camp in schools, where we do a detailed exam of students (general screening, ENT, teeth, eyes, nutrition – you get the picture!), record and analyze results, and hook them up with specialists who can help them get the right treatment for any medical conditions they may have.

My least favorite part of this job is contacting school principals over the phone and pitching this program to them. Not because I dislike school principals, but I genuinely dislike talking over the phone! Is that even a thing – I don’t know! I’ve reached out to about 40-45 principals so far and have had all kinds of experiences – from people thinking I’m a telemarketer, to assuming I’m asking for a donation, to people literally hanging up on me in the middle of a conversation! Guys, you are school principals – be more polite !!! :-X

Anyways, it’s always heartening when instead of the above responses, I end up actually having a decent, fruitful conversation with a school principal! So today’s first gratitude is towards those principals who take the time to listen to me! 🙂

I am grateful for the new blender I have – I can finally get back on my keto journey – Bulletproof Coffee, here I come! 🙂

And I am grateful for a good night’s sleep – realizing the importance of it more than ever, since I started living alone.