No Freedom from Adjustment

Every job is a self-portrait of the person who does it. Autograph your work with excellence – Unknown

 A safe guess would be that this Unknown person was not an Indian.  Look around yourself and you will understand what I mean.  Be it roads, drainage, sanitation, water supply, electricity, health care, public transport, education and just about everything is shoddy at best and unreliable when functioning. However, the most deplorable part to this ubiquitous shoddiness is our response to it. From “Chalta hai” (anything goes) to “Jugaad” (hack) our responses are essentially to either accept the low standards because “what else could you expect in India” to somehow find a passable workaround for the time being.

It would not be a stretch to say the only standard prevalent in India is substandard.

A society’s standards are nothing else but a set of behaviours of its members.  These behaviours get hardwired in our heads, built upon the expectations we have from ourselves and others in a variety of situations. These societal standards are reflected in the promises we keep, the way we dress, the way we behave, how we treat others, in the quality of the work we do, our ethics, values and commitments.

Infact, everything we say or do gives an indication of the personal standards we stand by. And if our standards are so low it must mean we don’t think too highly of ourselves or our fellow countrymen. What could be the reason for this malaise?

We can proclaim “Saare Jahan se achcha” proudly and get all jingoistic with “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” but we don’t think we have arrived until a TIME magazine decides to do a cover story on how we are poised to be the next superpower, until our age-old tradition of YOGA is adopted by Westerners we don’t find it fashionable, until the time first world countries tout the benefits of AYURVEDA, it remains for us an archaic science.

How come a land once synonymous with fabulous wealth, great intellect, splendid literature, scientific temper and empowered women views itself so poorly now? A thousand year of all round subjugation and plunder, earlier by Muslim invaders and then by British colonialists combined with the stagnant, caste ridden Hindu nature of the society caused a steady downfall of a once great civilization. So much so now we need constant reaffirmation from white skin gods to feel worthwhile.

Though the Muslim invaders and their descendants ruled India over a far larger time span than the British, in terms of their impact on Indian psyche it was limited to ruthless, forcible conversions and plundering of wealth. Muslim invaders could not stamp out the core ethos of India – its language, art, culture and traditions – despite often being diametrically opposed to most of it. To the contrary, India enriched Islam and it was the moderate Indian version of Sufi Islam which was one of the reason why the religion became so popular.

The British were very different.  They rarely used sheer, brute force. For them, ruling India was a “white man’s burden” – a divine right ordained to them by the Church and the Monarch to civilize the savage natives of this “uncultured” land.  For the British, their homeland was the most enlightened, developed, civilized, industrialised, philanthropic and advanced nation in the world. To achieve their nefarious motive, the British rulers had two simple plans:

On one hand, they encouraged an English and Christianized education in accordance with the well-known Macaulay doctrine, which projected Europe as an enlightened, progressive heaven, and on the other hand, they pursued a systematic denigration of Indian culture, scriptures, customs, traditions, crafts, cottage industries, social institutions & educational system. In the words of Thomas Macaulay, there was a need to produce with the help of English-language higher education -” a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect” who could in their turn develop the tools to transmit Western learning in the inferior, vernacular languages of India.

The British would never spare a chance to indoctrinate all and sundry about the greatest possible awe of their power and with the least possible suspicion of their motives.

Till date, the bruised and battered psyche of India is yet to heal, our self-esteem yet to recoup, our identity yet to be rediscovered.

But still there is hope, if our very own bunch of semi-literate Indians from rural background can achieve 6 Sigma accuracy (3.4 defects in a million transactions) for 125 years without any training or help of western tools (you are right, I am referring to Mumbai Dabbawalas) why can’t the rest of us stop using, “I am doing my best” as a stock response for doing sub-par work and start aspiring to actually demand better and give better as individuals and as a society.

“If I don’t, others won’t either.”

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We Don’t Need No Education

I must confess I have found myself to be quite useless when trying to do things like changing a flat tyre, repairing a blown fuse, fixing a leaky tap, stitching on a button that’s come undone and other similar stuff.

It has often made me wonder why did I never learn such useful skills earlier in my life. Ofcourse, I could have learnt them if I studied in a vocational school but not in a regular school. And does regular schools prepare us for other “simple” tasks which we need to do daily such as paying the bills, managing our finances, cooking a nutritious meal?

An education should involve learning life skills that a person can carry with them after school to become a well-rounded, successful person.

So here is my wish list of what all schools need to compulsorily teach to students:

  1. Communication & Conversation Skills – Generations coming out of school are forgetting the good, old art of conversing as most communication today happens on smartphones. But lack of conversation and communication skills often results in social isolation, arrested social development & unfulfilling relationships. Communication skills is still rated as the top most skill to have by most employers. Learning how to converse and communicate means understanding of social norms and boundaries to be observed, knowing how to connect with others, being empathetic, which results in rewarding professional and personal lives.
  2. Handling money matters – Accounting, finance, and business classes do explain accounting procedures, financing arrangements, and business structures, but do not focus much on personal finances, saving or investing. The job of these classes is to prepare students for working environments, and not necessarily for managing their own finances. Students need to understand the concept of expense tracking, expense management, managing budgets, managing wish lists through pocket money as well as the concept of emergency funds. It’s equally important for them to make saving a habit, after all a penny saved is a penny earned.
  3. Cooking, health and nutrition – I regularly come across people (mostly men I must admit) who are clueless in kitchen. They can’t make themselves a cup of tea even if it was to save their lives. The ability to microwave a ready to serve, processed, junk food is not really considered cooking. But beyond cooking, which is an incredibly great way to destress and have fun, schools also need to teach students how to read food labels to determine the health benefits or potential harms of additives and ingredients, storing & packing food safely, taking precautions to avoid food borne diseases, develop a healthy diet and very importantly, trying out foods from other geographies to develop an empathy and better understanding of divergent cultures. Healthy eating habits create a healthy and prosperous society. Sick societies cannot produce leaders.
  4. Manners, Etiquette & Civic Sense – Manners and etiquette are indispensable in a civilized and evolved society. They are the lubricant which keeps society moving smoothly. Not only do good manners and proper civic sense show us in good light, they also help us extend kindness and respect to everyone around as we would expect from others. The students need to learn something as basic as how to enter and exit a crowded elevator to somewhat advanced skills such as how to behave and dress for a formal dine out and how to interact with people from foreign lands.
  5. Self-defense & protection – As societies become more aggressive, chaotic and unsafe, threat to one’s life and limb can spring from anywhere, anytime. Learning self-defence can be necessary in protecting the well-being of ourselves and our loved ones. Children should be taught to protect themselves from potential molesters. For women, it is particularly advisable to know how to apply “Krav Maga” type manoeuvres that would leave any potential violator incapacitated. It is also critical to know how to render first aid and help, such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation, dressing of wounds, to accident victims when necessary.

Henry Ford famously said – “If I had asked people what they want, they would have said faster horses”. This is exactly what we seem to be doing, wanting our students to memorize more, achieve more, in a much less time – just like how we would have wanted faster horses when really, we should have been asking for the car. Similarly, our expectations from the education system needs to constantly evolve and change to help us better equipped to handle challenges life throws at us.

When you take the class out of the classroom and into the real world is when you attain the ability to do things which ought to be done.

The Answer is No

Steve Jobs said focusing is all about saying “No”. If you want to have laser focus, then learn the art of a slow “yes’ and a quick “no”.

However, for many of us mastering this art is not easy at all. The roots of this problem go as far back as when we were children. Growing up as kids we associated the word “no” with rejection and denial.

Mommy, can I have that bar of chocolate? NO.

Daddy, could I have that shiny new toy? NO.

Mommy, can I stay up late tonight? NO.

Daddy, can I not have a shower today? NO.

 BAD IS STRONGER THAN GOOD

Multiple research in the field of Social Neuroscience has shown that our brain responds far more strongly to negative feedback and stimuli. Negative information produces a bigger and swifter surge of electrical activity in the cerebral cortex than does positive affirmation. Negative memories are stronger than positive ones. Infact, even close and intimate relationships are more deeply influenced and affected by negative actions than constructive or positive actions. That’s why we remember very clearly what our parents denied us when we were kids but seldom remember what they provided for us. We scarcely remember the many fabulous things our partners may have told us but remember with elephantine memory every single hurtful word they ever uttered. And that’s also the reason why bad news goes viral in no time and precisely why malicious gossip travels faster.  No wonder there is a glut of mood enhancing drugs, food, music and fragrances. We need protection from negative forces.

There is something evolutionary about why our brains behave this way. A strong memory of something bad or hurtful helps us avoid such situations in future. For example – If we are walking along a trail, our brain perceives the harmless piece of rope as a snake. This helps us avoid potentially dangerous situations that could endanger our well-being.

AVOIDANCE OF CONFLICT OR FEAR OF CONFRONTATION

As children, we are taught to obey authority. We are supposed to do what parents, teachers, and others in power tell us. We obey not only because of fear of being punished, but also because of an innate desire to please and be loved by these very people who are so important to us. Unfortunately, we often carry this trend well into our adulthood.

The teenager who refuses to smoke when all in her group are puffing away, inadvertently puts herself in the spotlight, sticking out like a sore thumb. She is fearful that If everyone else is smoking and she isn’t then she might get verbally attacked or ridiculed by her peer group and end up having no friends. So, she hesitantly takes her first puff because she badly wants to blend in the gang and be liked by them.

As we grow older, this desire of avoiding conflict manifests itself in the form of wanting to be accepted and be liked by all. In short, our desire to avoid saying “no” and giving negative feedback could be because we know that both emotionally and neurologically, negative feedback hurts and that is precisely why we suppress our inclination to say “no” to avoid confrontation.

 HOW TO SAY NO BETTER

Saying “No” to someone or something need not be the verbal equivalent of showing your middle finger. It can be a win-win experience for all involved.

Introspect, get to know yourself better – define what is important to you and realise what is not. Value yourself as a top-notch brand would. Your actions will define your brand guidelines. Value your own credibility, your time and commitment.

Don’t be a tour operator for guilt trips – Don’t let guilt eat you up. Often despite taking logically sound decisions we are worried what if our relationship with a person is impaired after a refusal. If it does, then it wasn’t a sincere relationship but possibly a manipulative one. Someone who truly appreciates us would never ask us to do something that goes against our interests. In any case most people do not take our “no” as badly as we think they will. That’s because of something called a “harshness bias“—our tendency to believe others will judge us more severely than they actually do.

Time out – delay the “yes” if the terms are ambiguous. State upfront that you need time to think about it. Don’t lie or over explain.  Accept the request later only if you find compelling arguments for it.

Don’t get personal – Your “no” must always be to the specific request and not to the person making that request.  Soften the blow. Let the other person know politely something you genuinely admire or respect about them. And that you are not rejecting the person just declining their invitation. But stay firm with your decision of saying “no”.

Practice your “no”–  Keep practicing and perfecting your art of saying “no” by trying it out in low risk, easy and safe situations such as when the bartender  offers you another refill or when that pesky vendor on the road tries to hard sell you something.

After all, what you don’t do often determines what you can do.

 “I can’t tell you the key to success but the key to failure is trying to please everyone” – Ed Sheeran

Tell me why

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”  – Voltaire

Have you ever wondered why adults don’t ask enough questions? All of us as preschoolers have badgered our parents with innumerable questions. Infact, I am told that kids aged 4 to 6 years ask an average of 100 questions a day, often asking the same questions again and again. This questioning and the answers we as parents give them helps children make sense of the universe around them. But the same inquisitive children by the time they reach middle school ask almost no questions. Why is that? Have they stopped being engaged and interested in the world around them? The answer to this gradual drying up of curiosity lies in our educational system which rewards children for having the answer and not for asking questions. For example, do you know of any school that uses a test where students were asked to formulate questions, instead of answering questions?

But why blame the educational system alone, even Media, Politicians, Employers and organized religion does the same. Media tells us what we need to know. Politicians tell us what they are doing for the people and how it is in our best interests, they do not ask us what they could do better. Religion tells us what we should and shouldn’t do as true believers. Most Job descriptions put out by Employers ask for problem solving skills, not problem identification capability in the applicant. Having been a participant in many a training workshops I have realized that these workshops mostly teach people what to think, the processes, the procedure, the methodologies and the information required to do a task.  But they seldom teach you how to think.

Society influences, manipulates and programs our brains to obey, fall in line, and conform but seldom does it prompt us to ask questions or carefully consider what is being told to us.

So then why is asking questions important?

Asking questions helps us dig beneath assumptions and conventional wisdom to get to the deeper truth and possible untapped opportunities.  Asking questions helps us how to think and when we know how to think we can adapt that learning to multiple situations not just the ones we have been trained for.

Research has shown that one skill that is common to all top performers is the ability to ask good questions. Top performers often ask questions that move from ordinary and reactionary thinking to deep thinking. Most importantly these questions spur people into action.  Best innovations come only from problem identification.

Imagine what if Newton had not asked himself why the apple fell on his head? What if Tesla had not challenged Edison’s Direct Current theory? What if Steve Jobs did not Think Different?

Why are people afraid to ask questions?

The very thought of asking questions invokes in people a feeling of fear, anxiety & stress. Because we think that asking questions will make us look weak, ignorant or unsure.  We like to give the impression that we are decisive and in command of the relevant issues. We are apprehensive that asking questions might introduce uncertainty or show us in a poor light. More significantly, some of us who want our pre-programmed thinking re-affirmed never ask any questions.

However, asking questions is a sign of strength and intelligence – not a sign of weakness or uncertainty. Great leaders constantly ask questions and are well aware that they do not have all the answers.

If we are just accepting other people’s answers without questioning then we are consuming what I call “intellectual fast food” – convenient, pre-packaged and processed with other people’s thoughts, experiences and ideas.

So how can we learn to ask questions or maybe even better questions?

Look around ourselves with curious, observant eyes and take time to wonder about things we often take for granted. Like maybe why doesn’t the moon fall from the sky?

Then we can progress from “why”  to “what if” (say the mass of moon increased considerably for it to exert more gravitational force)  to “how” (if moon did actually start falling on to the earth how could we stop it). And voila, we have discovered the practical applications of laws of gravity.

Asking many questions is very effective but it can also make us appear to be inquisitorial and intrusive. Therefore, it is important to ask questions in a friendly and unthreatening way. Do not ask accusing questions. Also, how we use our words in framing the question differentiates a good question from a bad question.  For example – If I ask myself why am I so lazy? The answer that my brain will give me for that question will be very different from the answer my brain provides to a better question such as how can I get this job done?

Knowing the answer will help us in school, knowing how to question helps us in life.

The key to wisdom is this – constant and frequent questioning, for by doubting we are led to question, by questioning we arrive at the truth.” – Peter Abelard