It is quite likely, given that tomorrow’s the last day of the month, that I won’t be able to meet my 2-per-month quota. I’ll make up for it next month. Apologies to the readers who read what I write and thank you for reading.
A few months ago, in a meeting, in response to something that I’d worked on along with a different team member, someone said, Why don’t we do…? The “do what” does not matter; it was the “we” that I’d like to focus on. The use of “we” in such situations looks like a benign word but it hides a more pernicious agenda of why doesn’t someone do this as long as this someone is not me.
Before you accuse me of reading too much into this one incident, this is something that I’ve noticed time and again, so it’s not just about one incident. Also, I’m pointing this out about people who make suggestions (i.e. give ideas) but do not take the initiative to actually implement any ideas or improve processes, i.e. take ownership of something and execute on the idea.
I think it’s because ideas and suggestions are so easy to throw out there. “We should do x to improve y”, without specifying the we and without further action is what empty vessels do.
To give an idea or a suggestion, to follow it up with a well-thought out execution plan, and to execute the plan is hard work. Also, it makes you responsible for implementing the idea and when you actually take responsibility, you see what executing your brilliant (in your mind) idea actually entails.
I have been in meetings where people have tossed out ideas and when you ask them to come back with even a high-level explanation of the how (regarding the execution), they have no clue about how to proceed. Sometimes it is because the ideas themselves are superficial, other times it is a lack of critical thinking and understanding that prevents folks from seeing bottlenecks and issues that could crop up.
I’m not against giving ideas but against the notion that ideas are enough; they’re not. Ask anyone who has created something based on an idea or implemented something based on an idea and you’ll understand how much effort the execution actually takes. While ideas are important, they are only one part of the process–the execution is far more important and far more difficult than the generation of the idea.
So, go ahead and keep generating ideas but take ownership of some and bring the ideas in your head to fruition by doing the hard work of executing them. You will gain a new sense of appreciation for the people who generate ideas and successfully execute them. And, even if you fail, you’ll learn something about how to actually do stuff rather than talk about stuff.
That’s a win-win situation if you ask me.
Since this is a time of lists and more lists, I’m adding my list to the lists.
These are the best books that I read in 2016, not the books that were published in 2016. In the order that I remember them now.
- When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (my review): I read it twice and I’ll probably go back to it again.
- H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald: About training a hawk (goshawk actually) to deal with the aftermath of her father’s death. Riveting book
- The Heretics by Will Storr: I need to review this book at some point but until that point suffice to say that this is a brilliant, thought-provoking, well-researched, fascinating book .
- Woodsmoke and Leaf Cups by Madhu Ramnath (my tweet about book): A masterpiece of anthropological reporting, which, sadly, according to the publisher did not do well.
- Nickel and Damned by Barbara Ehrenreich: Quite an old book actually buy but still relevant. A reporter goes undercover doing minimum-wage jobs and documents the hardships that she faces.
- Technopoly by Neil Postman: The sub-title of the book is “The Surrender of Culture to Technology”. Another one that I must review and another that is just brilliant.
- Eating Animals by Jonathan Saffran Foer: If you eat “non vegetarian” food, as we Indian’s call it, this is a book that you should read. Excellent book, thought-provoking, and disturbing to meat eaters everywhere, myself included.
- Cod by Mark Kurlansky: You would think the story of a fish being fished would not be that interesting and you would be wrong. Cod is a masterpiece.
- Liar’s Poker by Mary Carr: Breathtaking, heartbreaking memoir. Transports you to the world of Carr’s childhood. I could not put this book down.
- The Watcher by Charles Maclean: The first (and so far only) fiction book on this list. I bought this book because of a Guardian recommendation and I was not disappointed. The writing was phenomenal, the story and suspense simply gripping. I finished this in a day or so I think.
- So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson: If you are on social media, this is a must read. If you aren’t, it is still a must read for knowing about the culture of shaming that exists online today.
- Essentialism by Greg McKeown: Essentialism is about the “disciplined pursuit of less”. Essential reading for our “I want it all” age.
- Give and Take by Adam Grant: Fascinating book about givers and takers.
- Things That Can and Cannot be Said by John Cusack, Arundathi Roy et al: Short, but super sweet (my tweet about book)
It’s late and this is all from memory, so I’m stopping now. If I missed something else that I read and found really good, I’ll update the list. Or not. Oh, the suspense.
When I was walking my friend to the car today, a family of four or five people walked past and one man tapped my arm and asked me (in Hindi) if I spoke Hindi. I instinctively said No (in Hindi) and kind of turned away; I heard a woman ask (in Telugu) if I spoke Telugu. Then, another man muttered something to her and they walked away.
I’ve had a variation of this experience several times in Bangalore and every time they leave me deeply unsettled. They’re always families and they seem to be from small towns and I always wonder what their story is. Maybe they came to Bangalore and are lost; maybe they were promised a job and were duped by someone they knew. Could they be running a scam? I don’t really know the answer and though the experiences always leave me conflicted, I’ve never sought to find out about their stories.
I’m always going somewhere when these encounters take place and in some cases stopping would make me late; in other cases though, I’ve had the time and I’ve still walked away. I’ve meant to ask about such people but Google doesn’t seem like the right place to find out. Who do I ask?
I don’t talk to ragpickers either; they’re unkempt, usually have a sack slung over their shoulder and scrounge for trash they can sell; I can’t meet their eyes. I wonder what their story is–where did they come from and how did they end up like this?
Yesterday, while going to the office, our cab was stuck behind a garbage truck and a man was in the back, which was filled with garbage, emptying a can of garbage from a restaurant around the place that he was standing. I’ve seen men shoveling garbage from the side of the road on to trucks that reek from twenty or thirty feet away. Where do these folks come from and what has led them to this line of work?
In the movie The Dark Knight Rises, Selina Kyle, a cat burglar, tells Bruce Wayne, the billionaire, says (emphasis mine):
There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little to the rest of us. 
The part that I emphasized in the above quote keeps playing in my mind every now and then, especially when I see people struggling around me. I wonder about what millions of Indians must have felt when we became independent and what their dreams and aspirations must have been. And, I know we’ve obviously had progress and we have made things better for some people but I can’t shake the feeling that overall we’ve failed a great many people.
It is an inescapable fact that for millions of Indians life is a daily struggle and this is not just for the BPL (Below Poverty Line) families. This article asks an interesting question: does exiting extreme poverty really guarantee that the poor can attain a decent life? Later, in the article, this is a striking assertion:
India has already made striking gains against extreme poverty, but the harsh reality is that 680 million of its citizens live with various forms of deprivation.
You can argue about whether it’s 680 million or 250 million but you cannot argue that millions of people “live with various forms of deprivation”. How do we reconcile this with the lives that we get to lead? We can’t; we’re just lucky that we had opportunities that were even available to us that we could take advantage of; sure, we worked hard but some people don’t get these opportunities no matter how hard they work.
It’s not fair and the odds are stacked against such people. So, when I hear people talking about sacrificing for the good of the nation or in the national interest, it makes me angry because the people saying this are privileged and for them, sacrificing is standing in a line to withdraw cash or worrying about how to pay salaries to domestic help, and so on. I don’t want to wade further into the great cashless debate, so I’ll stop.
When I thought about this post, I wanted to segue into a book that I’m reading, but this went in a different direction after I started writing. I know this might be a depressing post to read but this isn’t about guilt-tripping or about shaming, but about acknowledging. I think we get desensitized in India because most of the time, things around us are too overwhelming.
But, maybe, if we force ourselves to feel every once in a while, by wondering about people’s stories and imagining living their lives, we have a chance of letting the reality of others disturbing the distortion field around us.
Evolution gave us a marvelous tools, the prefrontal cortex, which allows us to run simulations in our head, mirror neurons that fire when we observe the actions or behaviors of others–all this means that we don’t necessarily have to immerse to experience. We can imagine what it might be like and we can listen to the emotions that follow.
And, then, maybe we’ll get to what John Lennon sang in his beautiful song (watch/listen here):
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…
: Here’s a link to the movie’s script, which obviously has spoilers.
Recently, there was a discussion in the office about which TV news channel would be aired in the cafeteria. Multiple people chimed in about different channels, some even said that they wouldn’t mind not having the TV on so that people could talk to colleagues. The TV-on brigade won out, so we now get to watch politicians and their rhetoric, which does wonders for my blood pressure.
This got me thinking, however, about how eating is now a multi-task activity. People watch TV, talk, read, or watch stuff on the phone, read something, etc. when they are eating. You hardly ever see someone doing nothing else but eating. I get that eating is a social activity and it is nice to eat with friends and family and I think that this is one thing that is okay to do because you can’t talk with your mouth full; not most people anyway.
But, the next time you’re eating alone, just watch what you do when you are eating.I’ll bet you do something other than eating most of the time. I do this pretty much all the time when I eat alone. The problem with eating and doing something else is that the ‘something else’ takes you away from the act of eating. This really is a shame because eating is one of life’s great pleasures, something that we do at least once a day, and that a lot of us do thrice a day.
When I was a child, I remember people telling me that Gandhiji used to say that we should chew our food 32 times or some number like that. I remember trying it and finding that it was difficult and giving up and then forgetting about it. I recently read something about chewing your food properly and started concentrating on chewing my food and realized that for solid food, you end up chewing anywhere between 20 to 30 times (or more) if you chew your food to a pulp like you’re supposed to.The thing is that chewing your food like this actually makes the food taste better. This is best illustrated with something that’s not cooked, like a vegetable (cucumber, carrot, tomato), or a fruit (orange or sweet lime, grapes, watermelon, pretty much every fruit).
Since it’s orange season, let’s talk about this wonderful fruit. Take an orange, peel off the skin, take a wedge out, take out the white “hairs”, optionally take the seed out, and pop the wedge in your mouth. Close your eyes and concentrate on the chewing. The first time the juice squirts into your mouth and hits your tongue and the insides of both cheeks, you get that mixture of tartness and sweetness and an explosion of freshness that is delightful.  This continues but diminishes, as per law of diminishing marginal returns , as you chew the wedge into a pulp.
Don’t take my word for this; try it with any fruit or vegetable and you’ll really appreciate the different tastes and textures that you can sense in your mouth as you chew. And, the food tastes appreciably better. After you’ve done this with uncooked food, try it with cooked food. You’ll notice a similar effect.There’s nothing earth shattering or new in what I’m suggesting. It’s what we are supposed to do when we eat because it aids digestion–our salivary glands kick off the whole digestion extravaganza. You might have also heard about eating like this in articles on mindfulness or mindful eating.
We can eat mindlessly or mindfully but I think most of us do a lot more of the former than the latter. I also think that it’s not necessary to be alone to eat mindfully; we can do it even if we are not alone because it’ll also help us listen more than we talk, which is not necessarily a bad thing. You don’t even have to try this for a full meal; try it when you’re eating part of your meal or a small snack and see how different the experience of eating is, how much better food tastes.
There are many benefits to eating in this way; you’ll probably eat less because you’ll eat slower, you’ll enjoy your food more because it will taste better, you’ll calm down because if you concentrate on chewing and tasting your food, your mind will stop behaving like a crazy monkey .
So, just try it and if you don’t like it, you can always go back to eating mindlessly.
This blog post was written without eating and in a mostly mindful fashion. The result is that I’m hungry. So, if you’ll excuse me, I can hear an orange whispering my name softly.
: My mouth is watering as I write this.
: Gratuitous economics mention in this age of demonetisation.
: To be fair, this might just be me.
A few days ago, our Prime Minister, who, in the past has called the media “baazaru”, was chosen to give out the Ramnath Goenka awards for excellence in journalism. This is a PM who refuses to have press conferences, who gives creampuff interviews to friendly journalists, but I’m going off track here.
Raj Kamal Jha, the editor of the Indian Express, in his vote of thanks to the PM, gave a 5-minute speech that was hailed as courageous and exemplary. I had a Twitter exchange with Mitali Saran, someone who regularly speaks truth to power in her column, about this in which she said that the courage that Jha exhibited should be the baseline in journalism.
After Donald Trump won the US presidential election, some of the pieces written by journalists, columnists, writers in the US were great examples of speaking truth to power. Here’s the first paragraph of David Remnick’s piece in the New Yorker:
The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism. Trump’s shocking victory, his ascension to the Presidency, is a sickening event in the history of the United States and liberal democracy. On January 20, 2017, we will bid farewell to the first African-American President—a man of integrity, dignity, and generous spirit—and witness the inauguration of a con who did little to spurn endorsement by forces of xenophobia and white supremacy. It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety.
I can’t recall reading anything as withering by someone in India about anyone so powerful. The US has a great commitment to freedom of speech but it still takes courage to write something along these lines. So, I was thinking about what Mitali said about the courage being a baseline for journalism and wondering why it is not also a baseline for citizens in democracies.
Why should we not expect (us) citizens to speak the truth to power in their own way? Why should it fall only to the activists and the journalists to tell the truth, especially given how easy it is for anyone to publish what they write or create? One reason might be the intimidation tactics used, for example, where a post on Facebook might get you arrested. I get that the fear of intimidation is real and you wonder whether speaking up is worth it, but the problem in such a situation is that it serves to embolden the powerful. And, unless more people refuse to be intimidated and cowed down, how is this situation going to change?
Also, as long as you don’t indulge in hate/racist/misogynist/etc. speech, there should not be be a fear of speaking your mind or the truth to power whatever that power might be. A democracy will be more vibrant when citizens speak truth to power. India’s current laws are not super-friendly to free speech–at least free speech the way it is in the US–but we are a democracy and we do have some freedom of speech.
If you have a “this is not my problem” mindset, I’ll just share what Garry Kasparov, yes that Kasparov, said in a tweet:
Famous last words throughout history. People saying “It’s not my problem!” until it is a bigger one. Small battles now or big ones later.
With Brexit and the US election, the world seems to be moving towards a situation where the discourse is being dominated by the far right. The discourse tends to be one of xenophobia, of faux-nationalism, of racism, and other such things that should’ve been left behind a long time ago. But, these things are making a comeback, and in a tangible way. Just read the timeline of Shaun King to get an idea of the number of racist incidents in the US just days after the US election.
The threats are real. The question is whether you are going to speak up when you can or wait until maybe you won’t be allowed to or when it’s too late.
I think it’s time.
: Ms. Saran seems a bit too formal
A few months ago, I read a fascinating book called Mindset by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. The gist of the book is that people have two mindsets: a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that any talent is something that’s innate or something that they have or don’t. On the other hand, people with a growth mindset believe that talent is not innate but something that can be learned.
It seems simple enough but if you think about it, the implications are staggering. As Dweck mentions in her book, people with fixed mindsets will tend not to attempt stuff because of the fear of failure or or making mistakes or simply because they can’t. People with growth mindsets on the other hand look at anything as a learning opportunity and don’t worry about making mistakes or about failure but frame this as part of the learning process. 
So, if you have a fixed mindset about something, you may believe that you can’t draw (no talent for drawing), can’t sing (can’t carry a tune), can’t speak in public, can’t dance (two left feet), and so on. The problem is that none of the examples that I gave are innate. I used to think that I couldn’t draw until I *really* wanted to and started learning how to and I realized that it is a skill that can be learned. Singing too is something that you can learn, the same goes for public speaking (see Toastmasters), and so on.
If you think about this though, it is strange that we have fixed mindsets because if there’s one thing our brain is terrific at doing it is learning new things. If we didn’t have that capability, we would never have rolled, crawled, sat up, stood up, walked, run, learned to grasp things, talk, and so on. If you notice how a baby or a child learns new things, you’ll see how they experiment without realizing that they are experimenting.
So, where does this experimental behavior go and why do people start having fixed mindsets? Dweck believes that it’s because of the tendency for parents and teachers to praise only achievements or outcomes and not the effort that leads to the outcome. If you do the former, what happens is that children start (unconsciously) focusing only on the outcome and will try to avoid making mistakes and even stop attempting difficult things because they “fail” at them.
This is not just limited to children; adults too have fixed mindsets about intelligence, creativity, and so many things. I point out intelligence and creativity because those are the things you hear so much–he’s so smart, she’s so creative–, which sub-consciously is “I’m not that smart” or “I can’t be creative” or something equivalent.
Note that having a growth mindset is not about saying that you can be the best at anything if you try but about opening yourself up to the possibility of trying. If you read this and started feeling that you have a fixed mindset about some things, that’s normal–we can have growth mindsets about certain things and fixed mindsets about other things. What you have to realize though is that you can change your mindset and approach things with a different mindset.
So, what are the fixed mindset areas in your life? Think about them and think about why they elicit that mindset in your mind. Maybe it’s because of something you were told as a kid (or an adult) or because you’ve developed a fear of making mistakes and/or failure. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter; what matters is that you can change that mindset and break that mental block that keeps you from even trying or learning or getting better.
To paraphrase a popular quote, It is better to have tried and made mistakes than to have never tried at all.
If you want to learn more (hey “growth mindset”), here are some interesting articles about mindsets:
- Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives
- What Having a Growth Mindset Actually Means (article by Carol Dweck)
- The Stanford professor who pioneered praising kids for effort says we’ve totally missed the point
 – Obviously, this is a brief summary of the book and the argument is much more nuanced and the experiments and research are fascinating to read. But, this is not meant to be a book review, so I’m keeping this short. If you liked this post, consider reading the book–it really is worth it.
I’m a productivity junkie in the sense that I’ve been reading articles about productivity and productivity “hacks” for a long time. At one point, I was even reading more articles about productivity than doing anything productive, but it’s become “the period that must not be named” part of my life. I’m kidding of course.
The reason that I’m writing about this is because I got myself in a bit of a pickle with posting twice to the blog last month. Somehow, I ended up doing the second post just about in time (1 day left). This time too, I thought I’d get a head start and we’re just over halfway through October and this is my first post.
I think that this is because the two posts per month “guideline” is fluid and at the beginning of the month it doesn’t look all that bad and then suddenly I’m scrambling . The reason is that I don’t schedule a time to do the blog posts. I’ve told myself that I’ll do them over the weekend, because I can’t make time during the week but I don’t tell myself that I’m going to do it this weekend–you see, the weekend’s fluid too.
Contrast this with two tax-related things that I had to do this Saturday, which I scheduled and wrote down on Friday and did on Saturday. I’ve found this true with tasks at work as well; the moment I schedule something and tell myself that I’m going to get something done by the next morning or whatever, I tend to get things done. When I don’t, I end up feeling like I’ve been doing a lot of tasks but not the important stuff.
Here’s the big idea: Scheduling tasks, i.e. giving them a concrete date and/or time, makes you more likely to do them. This is not a new idea or even my idea; people have been saying this for quite a while now  but it’s so simple in its elegance and effectiveness that maybe it seems too simple. Also, my brain, being the monkey brain–no disrespect to monkeys–resists scheduling because there is an impending deadline and a sense of commitment that is now attached to a task.
Now, just to be clear, I’m not saying that you have to schedule everything–that would be extreme and like anything taken to its extremes would likely be counter-productive. What I am saying is that it makes sense to schedule your important tasks because if you don’t, other urgent, and possibly unimportant, tasks will take away your time your attention.
Just to reiterate that this is not new, it seems pretty obvious, and you probably already know this, but, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of the things we know because we forget them. So, try it out, schedule an important task or two and see if that helps you get the task done.
PS: If you’re interested, there are a bunch of articles around scheduling that you can read. Here are two from HBR:
: Yes, I know it’s two posts a month and maybe I’m being a tad dramatic
: I’d cite research on this but I’m too lazy to do so and I didn’t really schedule research time for this blog post.
A little while earlier, I was reading the newspaper and saw a photo of a polar bear that had been tranquilized. My first instinct when I saw the polar bear lying on the ice was that the bear was dead but I was relieved to know that it was not.
However, I read a little bit of the accompanying article and in that it said that in Norway, because more people are visiting and because of the thinning ice, more people are coming into “contact” with polar bears and polar bears are being killed. I couldn’t read more. Our actions are causing the polar bears’ habitat to shrink and we’re killing them because they “threaten” us. I couldn’t read further.
Then, I read another piece about how lions bred in captivity are sometimes being used for trophy hunting.
A new report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) says, in the decade between 2004 and 2014, 1.7 million animals were killed for their ‘trophy’. At least 2,00,000 of them were threatened species such as elephants, rhinos or lions. IFAW found that the US was the biggest importer of stuffed animal heads, while South Africa was the biggest exporter — and lions were by far the most traded.
I get the whole hunting for meat thing, but what is trophy hunting if not entertainment or thrill-seeking? How do we reconcile killing defenseless animals just for a photograph or for their heads? And, it’s not just land-based animals; trophy fishing is a “sport”.
Are we so bored out of our wits that killing is now something to be done for entertainment? How much more extreme does it have to get before we say enough? I think it won’t ever be enough because we’re a species that wants to dominate at all costs. All species do but we have the ability to reason but we use that reasoning to rationalize the choices we make. Also, if we can, throughout our history, commit genocide at fairly regular intervals, why would we discriminate against animals?
Maybe I’m wrong and it’s not entertainment; maybe it is power and the pursuit and application of it that we are after. Perverse power but power nonetheless. I’m simplifying a complex argument; there are other reasons I’m sure, but maybe the impotent anger and sadness that I feel blind me to other reasons.
Paul Kingsnorth wrote these great lines in one of his essays.
The nature of this Earth is change. The nature of this Earth is endings. The nature of this earth is extinction.
The one that sticks in my mind every time I think about what we’ve done to the natural world is, “The nature of this Earth is endings.”
And, we are in one–except this one is one that we created.
From time to time, my broadband provider calls me letting me know that I can double my broadband speed and increase my usage quota for a minor increase in my bill; I think less than 10% per month. It seems like a good deal but I always decline because I’m happy with my broadband speed. One customer care representative was actually baffled that I did not want an increase in speed and quota–why not?
Because when I ask myself, “Why?” I’m unable to give a good answer. I don’t watch many videos or stream music or movies, so I don’t really need a faster speed. Plus, except for one time when I downloaded music (free and legally), I have never used up my quota–I rarely use up half of it.
In case you think I’m nuts, you haven’t heard the full story. My cable guy told me a few months ago that they were offering HD channels and I said I didn’t want HD. Till recently, I didn’t even have a TV that was HD-compatible, so having a non-CRT TV itself was a big step. I wouldn’t have changed my TV if the old one hadn’t stopped working but that’s another story.
The cable guy said something like, “It’s your wish, sir”, but I could hear the disapproval and bafflement in his voice. Again, it’s not like I can’t afford it–I don’t really see the need for it. I think it would actually be better not to have a TV itself but this is not an opinion that the rest of my family shares.
Now, I am not a Luddite: I am typing this on a really nice laptop, using one of the world’s most popular blogging tools piggybacking of course on my fast broadband connection. (I’ll have to get back to you on whether the usage of ‘blogging’ is now allowed on the Internetworks.)
The problem for me is that I’m never able to convincingly answer myself on why I need that “upgrade”. But the larger question in my mind is: When will this end? At what point are we going to say, “this resolution, this speed, this technology–is enough?”
The problem is also with the way that our brain works; the new thing that was exceedingly superior a few months or year ago is now the new normal in your brain. So, you get used to the new thing and it’s not new anymore.
Of course, it doesn’t help that what was exceedingly superior a few months ago is now second best or, God forbid, third best. And, the ad people are great at telling you how much better your life is going to be or how much you’re missing out (tapping into our FoMO) if you don’t have the latest and the greatest.
Plus, the “technology” is so seductive–if, for example, you’ve held a recent Apple product in your hand and felt its lightness, caressed the metal–you know what I’m talking about. The sharpness of the TV picture, the speed of Internet connectivity, the new features of the latest phone–some of this stuff is great, there is no disputing that. But, how much greater than what was there before? And, more importantly, how much greatness before we say, “that’s great enough”?
Or good enough? Or, simply, enough?
I’ve focused only on technology in this piece but you can ask this about anything in your life because this applies to everything. What I’m saying is nothing new but it’s good to remember every once in a while.
So, ask yourself; then, slow down or, even better, stop, and listen.