On the periphery

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. [1]

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…

[1]: Here’s a link to the movie’s script, which obviously has spoilers.



Eating, only eating, and nothing but the eating

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. [1] This continues but diminishes, as per law of diminishing marginal returns [2], 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 [3].

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.

[1]: My mouth is watering as I write this.

[2]: Gratuitous economics mention in this age of demonetisation.

[3]: To be fair, this might just be me.

Your mindset for different situations

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. [1]

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:

  1. Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives
  2. What Having a Growth Mindset Actually Means (article by Carol Dweck)
  3. The Stanford professor who pioneered praising kids for effort says we’ve totally missed the point

[1] – 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.

When will it be enough?

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.


On seeing the positive side

A couple of months ago, I watched Neil Pasricha’s wonderful TED talk, The 3 A’s of awesome. I had not heard of Pasricha before watching this talk; he started writing a blog called 1000 Awesome Things and that led to a Webby award and then a book.

You should watch the talk but the short story is that Pasricha figured out at a low point in his life that he needed a way to look at the positive side of things. He decided to do that by writing a blog about all the things that he thought were awesome: everyday, mundane stuff that we (mostly) take for granted.

Then, last month I heard Shawn Anchor on the HBR Ideacast Why a Happy Brain Performs Better . In that podcast, Anchor mentions something similar to what Pasricha talks about, writing a thank you note (or email), as a way to focus on the positive things and how that starts to make a difference in your (work) life.

A couple of days ago, I watched Martin Seligman’s talk on TED in which he talks about positive psychology and about how psychology is also looking at mental health as opposed to just the mental illness.

I’m sure you sense a theme here: Yes, I have been watching TED talks and listening to HBR podcasts.

Seriously though, there is no question that we notice many things in the world that have gone wrong. Maybe it’s the lizard brain that makes us much more susceptible to noticing the “dangers”.

But, the flip side is that we don’t tend to notice the things that are right often enough. I’m not suggesting a pollyanna-ish attitude to life, just one where we are aware that there are also many things in the world that are, as Pasricha says, awesome. I wrote a blog post a while back about some simple inventions, and if you look, you can find tons of things that are amazing in almost every facet of life.

A good way to start is to genuinely notice the things that are right with the world and feeling grateful for those things. For example, isn’t it amazing that I’m typing this blog post in a text editor and that I’ll copy it to WordPress.com and then publish it to the world wide web. WordPress will also let me publish this post to Twitter and Facebook, and you’ll read it either on the web, via email, or in an RSS reader. Heck, maybe you’ll read it on your phone, something you couldn’t have done a few years ago. I’m not even going into the networking technology that makes all this possible–that’s mindblowing stuff.

So, all this reminds me of this voice-over at the end of American Beauty:

I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me, but it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst. And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it. And then it flows through me like rain. And I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life. You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry, you will someday.

It’s a nice feeling, that gratitude. We need to feel it more often.