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.