Transitioning to WFH – watch-outs for overwhelmed mid-managers!

New times bring forth new challenges and positives. The IT services sector – a global, tech-focussed, multi-industry sector – is used to change as a rule. The COVID-resultant transition to WFH en-masse was a biggie though.

Middle managers, in particular, seem to be struggling – they suddenly find that their time is not their own. They are used to working across time-zones and extended working hours – but WFH stretches the demand by a large margin. With mobility still restricted across most cities and WFH in place, boundaries are getting blurred – no one knows when the day starts or when it ends. Weekends aren’t spared either – work seems to fill in every waking hour. 

At a closer look, this seems to derive from two significant aspects:

  1. Colleagues/ managers block associates’ time for meetings indiscriminately. Some take refuge in the reasoning of commute hours and limited mobility, providing people with more home time. And when they are home, maybe it is ok to take a few more calls? Managers also suffer from Fear of missing out (FOMO) and do more calls. Busyness is mistaken for effective-ness resulting in long days of endless meets.
  2. The number of people on emails and the number of emails – both have gone up exponentially. Again, with people always having a phone or a laptop closeby, responses (and forwards!) are faster, leading to very significant email times and distracted lives! There’s almost a movement clamouring for attention – in a sense we are becoming cry babies!

When coupling this with the massive cognitive overload due to the situation on hand with the virus (which is working on everyone’s mind in the background) – people end up exhausted. 

These are early days, and given human capacity to adapt, am sure we’d evolve some optimal responses very soon. 

However, it is worth spending a moment on a couple of assumptions that underpin the above behaviours:

a. The first assumption is that our very identity depends on our work titles and the work that we do. It’s not the case – at least for most people – identification with your managerial persona and title would be but a decade old if you were in your thirties and a few decades old if you were in your fifties. Over half your life you lived life as a non-manager, perhaps it’s time to grab some of that “identity beyond work” back! 

Those who have other identities are doing way better. A colleague who is also a gifted singer has started zoom classes for kids during non-working hours. Another friend is teaching online meditation. People are rediscovering their love for books and music afresh. Folks are discovering the joys of household work – everyone has interests, and this seems to be the best time to exercise that. Spending some time with our colleagues to understand them beyond their work personas will open us to a limitless world of conversations. It’s important to realise that this does not mean the ones with other interests do any less quality work; they are just as good and often produce even more inspired work. They are less stressed as well and more fulfilled.

Here’s a masterpiece from Alain De Botton on how to bring back our curiosity – he looks at how children do this effortlessly. A brilliant, brilliant read.

b. Secondly, there’s an assumption that our time is free. It certainly is not – it is our most expensive resource. Here’s Seneca explaining this in his inimitable style in a lovely brainpickings.org post:

I am always surprised to see some people demanding the time of others and meeting a most obliging response. Both sides have in view the reason for which the time is asked and neither regards the time itself — as if nothing there is being asked for and nothing given. They are trifling with life’s most precious commodity, being deceived because it is an intangible thing, not open to inspection and therefore reckoned very cheap — in fact, almost without any value.

If this realisation sinks in, time becomes an ally, not a nuisance. 

If you are one of those mid-management people who find things a little overwhelming – I trust the above would help alleviate this a bit. If you are one of those who already have mastered managing time and the transition to WFH, would love to hear more about your experiences.

Do leave a like/ share/ comment – makes a world of difference as always.

Deepavali – the Festival that everyone loves

Deepavali elevates goodwill to a whole new level. Deepavali – often called the festival of lights – is very special – it oozes goodwill and gratitude. You share sweets, gifts and greetings with your neighbours, relatives and every one involved in your life (yeah – dont forget the security folks who ensure your life is safe or the local merchants who bring the choicest delicacies to your doorstep!) and perhaps it’s the one day where smiles are truly infinite. You also buy new clothes for the occasion and stuff for your home – society and the traders benefit. Abundance, sharing and love shine forth together in this unique festival.

I love the fact that we honour our ancestors (and gods too) too. We burst fireworks and play with sparklers (yeah green ones these days 🙂 to light up the world so our ancestors can see us (and chuckle at the fun we are having perhaps) and also to illuminate their paths to the higher worlds they are transitioning to. The sarams (the string of crackers tied together) is also believed to help guide laxmi, the goddess of wealth to your home! Fun and gratitude – can there be a better mix?

Earthernware lights and kolams (fantastic designs made of edible stuff that insects and ants can digest) are a brilliant way of bringing out our exuberance and joy and sharing it with the world. Indeed, function and form come together in an amazing synergy lighting up the world on this day – and importantly – all of this is also imbued with a sense of higher purpose and meaning. Can can you think of a better way to honour mother earth?

Importantly, you take care of yourself as well. There’s a ritualistic oil bath and a home-made medicine that ensures your body is able to accommodate the wonderful sweets and savouries that will punctuate your Deepavali at frequent intervals! A prayer to God with gratitude for all the good things in your life sets you perfectly. This is enhanced further by blessings from your elders – at home and those you visit through the day.

This festival has you covered from all aspects – physical, emotional, spiritual – you name it. Kids love it – so creativity is at the heart of it. It gives a chance for everyone – elders, children, adults – to bring out the child in themselves and provide for others in their own ways. It’s also a chance to love and be loved back in return. It is a gift from our ancestors to us – a benediction from a wonderful and multi-faceted Hindu way of life passed on to its descendants and indeed the world. Let us cherish this extraordinary festival of joy and light – happy Deepavali to everyone…

Performance Management and 3 Richards!!

I am sitting at the canteen with a friend (who also happens to be a senior leader) sipping some filter coffee when a young colleague comes in looking dazed and badly in need of some super strong coffee.

We procure one for him and let him take a few sips of the strong, hot, relaxing brew and ask him what happened.

“Ran into a ghost or something?” we ask helpfully.

“Man, how do you senior guys pick goals for us?.” The lament has officially begun. “My boss started off talking about the need for upskilling, deep-learning and endless curiosity, almost requiring me to become like Richard Feynman!”

“See – we seniors help turn you into a genius!” the two of us say in unison.

“Guess that’s where I made my blooper” says he in a lower and more aggrieved tone.”At that point, I wise cracked that I understood why Feynman would come in handy to my boss – he had the knack of explaining complex stuff to even a 5 year-old child!”.

“And..”, we ask expecting the discussion to now be peppered with fireworks.

“Well, the guy just started reading out the next section of my goals – now requiring me to be a showman who could wow clients, take risks (but always succeed!), diversify the business..”

“Did he also mention about sporting a cool hairstyle?” asks my friend.

“Nope, but he did say something about standing apart from the crowd”, says our young friend looking perplexed.

“He was just asking you to channel your inner Richard Branson. Check the goal sheet – as a stretch goal he may require you to secure a Knighthood for yourself”.

“Give me a break – I need a tomato juice” says our young friend and moves to the counter.

Now it’s our turn to be surprised. Tomato juice following filter coffee is not something we see often.

Our friend returns from the juice bar, plonks down his beverage and breaks into a beatific smile.

“Just when I thought my boss was all done, he asks me to deal compassionately with my team, be inclusive and diverse, do mind-fullness meditation exercises and never show anger”.

“Eh?” we sputter. This is novel. “Did he have a role model for this – ahem – perfect citizen behaviour”.

“He did. He asked me to follow the writings of Matthieu Richard – who apparently is the happiest man in the world. He even suggested I try attending one of his retreats – he recommended choosing Sunday, since we occasionally worked Saturdays”.

We were impressed. This boss guy and his 3 Richard system was something else altogether. We wondered how the session ended.

Our young friend now smiled his first happy smile. “But I ended on a high and had the last laugh – I told him that I would give these Richard-behaviours a shot and return in a year – but if he then asked me to become yet another Richard – no matter who – I would turn into Richard the Terrible. The expression my boss sported on hearing this made up for all the grades in the world. Thank god, the guy at least reads Shakesphere!”

An emptiness that’s fulfilling – my experience with the isha shoonya program

Over the last four days, I had the opportunity to attend the shoonya intensive programme at the isha ashram in coimbatore.

Intensive is the right word – indeed it’s the first thing that strikes you about the program. Right from the consecrated hall which sends out intense vibes, the format of the program which makes sure that every minute is accounted for effectively, and the very wise teachers (who are also full time volunteers) and the program volunteers who take service to a whole different level altogether, and of course the curated videos of Sadhguru which ensure that concepts become internalised truths in you – intensity is a word that perfectly describes the programme.

The interesting thing though is this – all this intense focus does not translate into long faces and on-edge behaviour. Indeed there’s a sense of relaxation and gentle humour pervading the entire program.

At every moment there’s the sense that a good-natured-laugh and a profound learning is just a minute away.

The teaching is deep – and like all of the best things in life, the practices grow on you over time. I know this from past experience. On my very first isha program, I was surprised when the teacher advised us not to take notes.

“This is not a learning of the mind, but an experience to go through. Just stay with us and you will pick it all up” he said

I have come to appreciate that there is a different way to learn – that of experiential learning. You learn through hearing, seeing, visualisation, doing and repetition. And stuff learned this way stays with you – its a transmission of experience not just a transfer of concepts.

So what I did I learn? I came back with two practices – about an hour’s worth of daily practice – which promise deep restfulness and explosive energy respectively. If these seem contradictory, its another fact I have come to appreciate about spirituality at large – its hard to decode spiritual practices with just the mind. The best approach is to try it for a while and see if it does something to you. When it comes from a true source, it will often flower into something that you cannot explain or predict – its beyond words. The little while is a mandala to start with – about 40 days of uninterrupted practice for the practice to take root in your life. Its something I will be able to do hopefully – and will look to post on any experiences.

But there’s another learning that’s stayed with me.In one of the videos played, Sadhguru mentions that every day he is greeted by tears of joy no matter where he happens to be in the world. And I believe, its these tears of joy and gratitude toward their master and the world that inspire the teachers and the volunteers to share so much and so well – with absolutely no expectations.

Indeed that’s the learning – that there’s an extraordinary way to go about one’s life – being relaxed yet attentive, intensely focused, with a smile on the face, and a joy in the heart. When you work like that, I guess you are a blessing to the world.

Its an inspired way to live and work – and while a long shot, its something that I look to internalise – stay tuned for any progress updates!

Why read the Bhagavadgita Gita?

“Why read the Bhagavadgita Gita” asked a friend recently.

There are scholars and there are gurus who can answer this best – I thought I would share my personal reasons for dipping into this book every now and then.

How do you live a life of fulfilment and joy in a world you don’t understand? With a body that’s subject to entropy and not really under your control? With a mind that’s chattering away incessantly?

The Gita provides a balm and an understanding into each of these. Feeling upset – there’s a chapter that will set you at ease. Feeling disheartened by someone’s behaviour – there’s stuff that will make the ache go away – or at least reduce it. Down with disease – again some understanding and techniques that will help the body rest (the why me question handled!).

So it’s a path to put you at ease. And what’s more over time it gets you to align these various aspects so you don’t have conflict with yourself (eg – when your intellect suggests you don’t gamble while your emotions are screaming to place the bet!) I guess not having internal conflicts is a gift beyond compare. In the brief moments the conflict disappears (during meditation/ asana/ chanting and watching your breath for instance), life seems truly “at ease”.

This to me is why I return to the book time and again. I have read but a few verses from a few chapters and my understanding is no way perfect and yet the Gita doesn’t expect perfection from you – its benediction is limitless and you can gather its wisdom unto yourself to the extent you can – and more importantly focused on what you need at that moment. If you haven’t tried it yet – I’d recommend you give the book a shot. It’s possible the book will touch your life in a miraculous way as well.

(mis)Management through nostalgia!

It’s performance appraisal time and a bunch of middle management folks are sitting around talking while working on the normalisation – the tedious job of fitting individual performances to a bell curve.

“The chaps today just aren’t like we were at their age. We worked 15 hour days, we held ourselves fully accountable for everything, we turned up for all the meetings – man, these days folks need to be spoon-fed. And their attitude – lax is an understatement. I wonder how long it will take these guys to become managers like us” and so it goes. It’s a sad conversation over some insipid coffee. Hearing them talk almost gets you worried about the future.

And that’s when a colleague – an eternal optimist – pulls a chair across and beams at me. “These manager folks dragging down your spirits with their bell curve stories huh?’ She asks.

We decide we will take a fresh stock of the situ from a data standpoint (out of say 400 freshers a decade back, these 4 have graduated to become managers) – so what does this tell us – we see not one but four possible scenarios:

1. That the managers are right, they are super men/ women. The current batch needs to step up if they want to emulate their managers’ performance. But there may have been others who were just as smart and hardworking and yet didn’t make it – so there could be a survivor bias at work here that these guys should be cautious about!

2. The managers simply lucked out! Four out of four hundred (actually fewer considering people who would have quit etc) would have anyway made it to this role – it just happened to be these folks and they are now fitting a narrative to explain their success

3. Maybe they actually un-lucked out! The rest of their batch are probably doing things they believe in/ are relevant for the future (startup’s, social work, playing tech/ business/ client roles) and these four are a few of those left behind on old-age roles – it’s just that they don’t recognise it yet!

4. Effectiveness vs busyness – there’s a difference. In today’s world perhaps the new folks are tending to effectiveness as opposed to looking busy. Maybe the managers need some reverse mentoring – it’s they who need to adjust!

We both break into a smile. The more you think about it, it’s not the world that’s getting worse – it’s only our world-views that need updates. And once our frame of reference changes, the world appears in all its glory!

Would you agree?

HNY and two life-changing gifts for you!

“Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the Gods made for fun.”

Alan Watts

As we embark on the new year, here are a couple of frameworks from two legends (one was a stoic philosopher and the other leads our ecom revolution today!) that have served me well over the years – with the wish that they prove to be key tools in your arsenal too and make the year very special.

How to overcome fear – the Seneca way

Fear is an universal emotion – while what we fear differs from person to person (security/death/illness/loneliness), the emotion itself looms heavy on most of our minds. Seneca, the stoic sage, has an antidote to fear that builds upon a simple insight that “fear of an event is often more crippling than the event itself”.

And once we accept this, then he has a simple solution to transcend the fear. Embrace the fear and act upon it – albeit in small doses!

Seneca gives us a practical example to illustrate his framework and his advice on how we can overcome the fear of poverty are very relevant even today (the fear of poverty is why we are “always” engaged in worrying about our financial security, our addition in working all the time etc.)

“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with course and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’” – Seneca

Seneca

Now Seneca was one of those rare philosophers who practiced what he preached – and his solutions therefore have exceptional real time validity. So do try out the framework, it has certainly worked for me in many instances.

How to evaluate life changing decisions – Bezos’ regret minimization framework

In the face of a decision that involves a significant change to our life – personal or professional – I have always had the challenge of debating endlessly between what the mind tells me is right and what the heart encourages me to do. Jeff Bezos (yes the Amazon guy) apparently faced a similar dilemma a few decades ago – he was torn between choosing to embark on an uncertain dream (starting amazon.com) or continuing with his job (which included a “big bonus” in the short term!).

In his trademark style, here’s him thinking this through and coming with a wonderful framework that can serve all of us:

I went to my boss and said to him, “You know, I’m going to go do this crazy thing and I’m going to start this company selling books online.” This was something that I had already been talking to him about in a sort of more general context, but then he said, “Let’s go on a walk.” And, we went on a two hour walk in Central Park in New York City and the conclusion of that was this. He said, “You know, this actually sounds like a really good idea to me, but it sounds like it would be a better idea for somebody who didn’t already have a good job.” He convinced me to think about it for 48 hours before making a final decision.

So, I went away and was trying to find the right framework in which to make that kind of big decision. I had already talked to my wife about this, and she was very supportive and said, “Look, you know you can count me in 100 percent, whatever you want to do.” It’s true she had married this fairly stable guy in a stable career path, and now he wanted to go do this crazy thing, but she was 100 percent supportive. So, it really was a decision that I had to make for myself, and the framework I found which made the decision incredibly easy was what I called – which only a nerd would call – a “regret minimization framework.”


So, I wanted to project myself forward to age 80 and say, “Okay, now I’m looking back on my life. I want to have minimized the number of regrets I have.” I knew that when I was 80 I was not going to regret having tried this. I was not going to regret trying to participate in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a really big deal. I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried. I knew that that would haunt me every day, and so, when I thought about it that way it was an incredibly easy decision. And, I think that’s very good. If you can project yourself out to age 80 and sort of think, “What will I think at that time?” it gets you away from some of the daily pieces of confusion. You know, I left this Wall Street firm in the middle of the year. When you do that, you walk away from your annual bonus. That’s the kind of thing that in the short-term can confuse you, but if you think about the long-term then you can really make good life decisions that you won’t regret later.

Jeff Bezos (I believe this was from “the Everything Store” – a wonderful book by Brad Stone)

I’ll leave you with one more thing (yeah!) – some wonderful advice from Russ Roberts‘ “How Adam Smith can change your life” where he encourages us to be kind and trustworthy to make the world a better place. BTW – if you haven’t read it yet, this is a must read book on so many different levels.

 “If you want to make the world a better place, work on being trustworthy, and honor those who are trustworthy. Be a good friend and surround yourself with worthy friends. Don’t gossip. Resist the joke that might hurt someone’s feelings even when it’s clever. And try not to laugh when your friend tells you that clever joke at someone’s expense. Being good is not just good for you and those around you, but because it helps others be good as well. Set a good example, and by your loveliness you will not only be loved, but you may influence the world.”

And that’s it for now – here’s wishing everyone a wonderful year. Please do share/like/comment this post – it’s the conversation that adds the greatest value to a post.


Self Awareness – perspectives from a corporate coach and a spiritual teacher

Over the last few weeks,  I have had the opportunity to connect with two very different leaders – a corporate coach and a spiritual teacher. Both of them were expounding on a common topic – how to more “self aware” and in the processes deepening empathy (ability to put oneself in others shoes).

The self they talked was not the same though – the coach equated the self to our personalities – and he was looking to improve my personality (a tough ask!). He was looking for me to learn well – gain deep knowledge, best practices, intellectually intense one-one sessions – and the learning will elevate my personality.

The spiritual teacher was talking about the Self (note the capitalisation here) – the “god” within each of us. This “Self” is your true nature – the only reason you cannot find it is because it is hidden behind all the learning and conditioning over the years (indeed lifetimes!). “Unlearn well and your nature will reveal itself ” he intoned.

So one wanted me to be an expert learner and the other – an expert at unlearning!.

But that wasn’t all.The coach focusses on thought and theory. He wants me to reflect on some of my life experiences, take inventory of my thoughts, judge them (as positive vs negative thoughts) and label them (e.g. differentiating between being skeptical vs cynical). The list that emerges out of this involved intellectual exercise is then representative of my “emotional intelligence quotient” he opines. The more words that I am able to show in your journal (all neatly classified and labelled) – the more I am becoming emotionally intelligent. And I’d do well to read a little (pick daniel goldman’s classic as a first step) and be diligent with my paper exercises (inventory, classification and labelling) – and over time, results will follow. How would I know I am truly more self aware – my DISC or equivalent psychological scorecard, a couple of positioning charts will all help me rate myself against my benchmarks. In his view, self awareness and emotional intelligence are a skill and knowledge that needs to be learned.

The spiritual guru is not interested in thought – he neither likes them or dislikes them – he just dosent care about them. His is not the way of the mind but the heart. He recommends we observe sensations in the body, gently pushing aside thoughts – not quite suppressing them – not celebrating them either. And there is no classification of what is good or bad – observe and over time you yourself will recognise how you are getting along. The recognition comes out of experience and not a intellectual score card. Everyone is on his or her unique journey – and has the necessary native intelligence to recognise what is best for themselves. Awareness for him is more about unlearning rather than learning – you remove layers of conditioning and knowledge – and presto you will begin to see things the way they truly are. And once you get there, you will relate to yourself and to others automatically in a deeper way – for “empathy and authenticity” are the very essence of being human.

They back themselves differently too. The coach considers himself successful using a model similar to that he advocates – professional credentials, monetary wealth, testimonials, impressiveness of his client list. His models and frameworks have worked with over 500 of his customers – and therefore it should work for you as well. If it doesn’t – you are doing something wrong – after all, the model is proven!

The spiritual leader vouches for your divinity on the back of having experienced all of nature as one and his conviction from that experience on the true nature of the human form. Indeed he does not see himself as a doer – he sees himself as an instrument through which existence is playing its lilas – just like you, its just that you aren’t aware of it yet. For him rediscovery is an unique journey – there is no pass or fail here – and once you find your compass, you will do what is right for you – irrespective of whether it aligns to society and corporate success measures.

Two very diametric approaches – and in their own way can contribute to the individual requirements.  The important point though is to become aware first of the two selves (personality and internalised godhead!) and decide which one we want to pursue! Its easy to mistake one for the other – a mistake that can turn out to be costly! Agree? Thanks for reading – do comment/share/like – would love to keep the conversation going!

Better Decision making – The Gita and Proust to our rescue!

Why do we often make the wrong decisions?

I came across an incredible insight from contemplating on a few messages in the Gita recently – it talks about the two powerful approaches we all have for connecting/ making decisions. The first is using discriminatory intelligence (buddhi in sanskrit) where we use our reasoning power to decide the right path forward. The second is the emotive aspect (manas in sanskrit) – where decisions are based on emotional considerations a (and yeah – we often then force fit a “rational” reason to support the decision!). And the awesome insight is that we use the wrong tool for the wrong context – flip it around and we should be ok.

So for instance – if an acquaintance’s relative dies, we use our discriminative facility and tell them exactly how to process this loss. We share quotes on the fragility and the fleetingness of life and provide ideas to help the person deal with the loss. Chances often are that the person is not in the right frame to take this piece of advice – they are too emotionally wrought – and we end up not connecting at all.

Now, when we are faced with a similar disaster, we use emotive reasoning instead of the discriminatory one. We play the scene over and over in our minds and bring up emotions of anger, guilt, denial – we struggle to move on with life for a very, very long time.

Our ancient wisdom seems to say – why not flip this around? In the first case, use some emotional connect – put yourself in the person’s shoes and you’ll know what they feel like. And your response can be based on their nature (some will want to be alone, some would want a listener as they vent their frustration, some would just want a shoulder to cry on). In short, you are bringing in some empathy.

And when dealing with disasters at home, using the buddhi may be more helpful. This requires a complete acceptance of what has happened and how one feels (Sad/ helpless etc) and then permit oneself to “without blame” process the pain/ grieve/ provide any other outlets as much as required. The acceptance of the situation and directly feeling the emotion will bring some peace at the end as we close out unresolved questions.

For such large scenarios, this makes sense. But how then can we decide in the case of smaller everyday decisions – which situation calls for which response? I guess Proust has an answer in his “impartial observer”. Proust recommends that we imagine an impartial observer by our side at all times – and we ask ourselves what will he do? And when we do that, the impartial observer can pick the right response from the above – and that can lead to some progress.

Would you agree with this approach?

Success in a VUCA world – ancient wisdom

It’s a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambigous). How do we survive here?

I guess the best answers will come from other times that were even more VUCA than this. For instance let’s travel back to the times of the “Gita” which is a dialogue occurring in a battlefield with both sides having weapons drawn and ready to fight. Or the times of Marcus A’s “Meditations” which chronicle’s a Roman emperor’s thoughts during a period of extreme uncertainty on all fronts. The answers these tomes which were written to counter a VUCA world and have survived until now surely must have insights for us?

I guess so, lets check them out.

Volatility: The antitode to volatility seems to be in embracing it. Looking into the fear (albeit a watered down version) consciously gets the fear to flee. Seneca advised us to periodically fast so as to be rid of the fear of hunger – indeed to live occasionally a “life of poverty by choice” is liberating! Ignoring volatility until the odds are overwhelming is defintiely fatal – its better to get used to volatility periodically (you actually get stronger – there’s a superb explanation by Taleb on why this is so).

Of course, if you happen to own a lot of bitcoins, the advice is harder…..

Uncertain: The best way to handle uncertainity is to do two things:

a. Create strategies that have limited downside and lots of upside

b. Accept that you will work toward your plans, but in no way can you determine the outcome for sure

This is best encapsulated by a beautiful word “saranagati” – which by the way is not a misspelling for the Sarengeti national park! It can be translated as “thy will be done” – but setting up a situation in such a way that the downside is limited.

For instance, ascetics try to reason like an unwell child who cries for chocolate but is handed over some bitter medicine by their mother instead. It’s impossible for the child to understand the benefits of the medicine at this time – the only thing it can do is trust. So they set themselves up in such a way that they surrender to an higher ideal (god/eternal consciousness etc) and expend all their efforts in a system (yoga/ prayer/ meditation – whatever) they have investigated and trust to take them there. They also give up other desires (limited downside) and any failures related to the experience are but medicine for them – they remain steadfast in their goal.

Or in a more materialistic model, a businessman may invest in a venture and mentally write off the sum. If it succeeds big time – he’s happy (all upside). If it fails, that’s ok (he’s already written it off). The secret is in capping downside.

Complex: A series of rituals that unpack the complex into very many simple activities is the prescription. And in todays world you may want to then automate some of these simple ones as well! Unpacking the complex into many simple ones allows you to feel more in control and also refactoring where required with minimum impact to the whole (yeah unless it’s that butterfly whose wings cause rainfall across continents!)

This I believe is why all ancient wisdom is encapsulated into a series of small rituals that remove the complexity of a situation and build positive muscle memory through successes (its easier to do a simple ritual successfully) over time as well.

Ambiguous: Its tough to even see if we are winning sometimes. Your portfolio goes up and up and up and it seems like it will forever. And just as you are preparing your winner’s speech, it disappears out of sight. The antidote for ambiguity is a very simple definition of what you are after (good) and what you are not (bad).

Ancient wisdom has this too. Good/ truth is what does not change (permanent through time). Bad/ untruth is what can change rightaway. And it also adds a third component (mithya) which stands for stuff that is relatively stable (say a man’s life – for 100 years he’s alive). So just looking at these three – give you a view and a metric of how you are doing. In the portfolio example – transient movements shouldn’t be your metric of success – you have established criteria irrespective of other factors that decide your actions.

So that’s one lens on looking at a VUCA world. Do you agree?

A walk around a mountain

When we meet a vastness that we cannot fathom, we are drawn into a different space. This space is inclusive – and we realise – indeed feel – ourselves to be part of something that is larger than us. This is why I believe sitting by the beach and watching the sun set or gazing at the open sky at night make for “larger than life” experiences.

All of this came to me when I had the chance to walk around the much revered “Arunachala” hill at Tiruvanamali, the very, very popular Indian temple town. The hill is believed to be one of the earliest outcrops of earth – so you are looking at a very, very ancient earth form. And the popular mode of worship is to walk around the hill (with the hill always to the right of you) stopping at shrines on the pathway – a distance of around 14 kms.

Now, I didn’t know if I could walk 14 kms, so I thought I would take it an hour at a time. Anytime, I felt fatigued, I could call one of the local autorickshaws and have them ply me back to my resort. And so I started at dusk on a momentous experience.

As you walk on the much shaded pavement on lingam avenue with the the immense mountain on your right, you realise that you are in the presence of a multi-dimensional vastness. For one thing – its ancient – incredibly so. The mountain has indeed perhaps witnessed the very evolutionary process from amoeba to the monkey to our own human sapiens. And you realise you are but a speck of the immense life forms that the mountain has been benevolently watching over 1/2 a million years or so.

And then, there’s the time of day. The recommendation is for one to undertake this holy walk at nighttime – preferably during the full moon (I walked a day after the full moon – the moon had just begun to wane.). If you look to the skies on such a night, you see a rounded, bright moon and the vast, wondrous skies. You get an idea of the immensity of space and the worlds (think milky way!) and you realise you are but a speck in this very wide space.

And then there’s the dimension of size – as you walk alongside the mountain, you realise how big it really is – or rather how small we are in comparison with it.

And finally, there’s this idea of spirituality. The mountain even in the recent past has been home to some incredible sages – starting with Ramana Maharishi, Seshadri swami and many, many more. On the left are centres of wisdom that have cropped up inspired by them (I counted at least 7 spiritual centres and numerous places of worship) – and it gives you goosebumps to realise that you are treading ground that these very special children of god treaded. Indeed, legend has it that perfected beings circumbulate the hill even today. As you walk, you observe numerous modern day sanyasis in their ochre robes, devotees on their path of discovery, tea vendors, 3 wheeler (auto) drivers, and people engaged in all aspects of commerce. Each person is on their own journey and the mountain is exercising its spell and doing its work silently on each and everyone. There’s really no question of who among these is a more spiritual person – the mountain is teaching us to be non-judgemental – and appreciate that everyone is on his or her journey.

At first all these comparisons to immensity look like a negative thing. It certainly does some ego bashing! However, you realise soon that its medicinal – it allows you to drop all pretence of greatness and let you be yourself. When you realise that you are one of a billion people and will be spending a minute fraction of a million years that the World has witnessed – somehow, there’s a sense of lightness. You feel you can allow yourself to be unencumbered by society’s pressures – at least for the duration of the walk. And have some fun – the mountain will anyway do its work!

And then there is the experience of being alone with oneself for the duration of the walk. It’s something thats a bit of a luxury these days – to be by yourself with no distractions for 3-4 hours and just walking on. The mind slows down by itself. The scriptures recommended you walk barefoot so you can sense the earth beneath you (something i should try as well). With the feel of the earth beneath you, swaying trees and an immense hill on your right and a full-moon adorned sky above – its hard not to fall into a wonderfully meditative state walking. Its not a race, so you can let your body do the speed control – take your time to stop, breathe, think. Ideas crop up, solutions to pressing problems flash through your mind, there are periods of no thought. And underlying it all is a sense of gratitude for just being there. Its an incredible feeling. And as you push through your perceived limitations and cover a distance you didn’t believe was possible – there’s a sense of accomplishment too.

I’d like to get into this walking thing more – not for exercise, not for a purpose. Walking for the sake of walking and with the elements in tune, now that’s something to revel in. Would you agree?

The mindfulness experiments – 1

A few months ago, I decided it was time to incorporate some mindfulness into my day. Now this is a much used (and some say abused!) term today – and a novice like me can add to the woes easily. So let me at the outset define what it means for me – and then go on to share what’s been happening since I gave it a test run.

To me mindfulness equals being “aware”, of “noticing”consciously. Note that I am not trying to “improve” anything – the effort on my side is only to notice. The very act of noticing consistently can perhaps provide insights for change – if and when required – to begin with, its only about taking stock of my state.

So in short, if I could witness myself being angry, being happy, being sad, walking, talking – whatever be my state of being or activity- I could call the experiment  a success. Quite a modest goal you say huh – perhaps it is, it just wasn’t as easy as I thought it to be though – let me explain.

On a given day – we meet many people, we do many things. And through the day, we experience emotions. Plenty of them – with everyone’s talking/feeling/trying change  – and disruptive change at that. And without your even noticing it, all this seeming volatility can get to you – it can affect your mood, it can drain you out, and even leave you unwell. And it was this sense of feeling mentally fatigued, a touch angry and too often (a little unusual for me!) that got me curious about what was happening – and I started maintaining a nightly journal.

Every night before turning in, I would rewind the day as best I could remember and jot down how I felt. Writing stuff down brings in clarity – and the first few days provided enough fodder for me to realise how many moments through the day I wasn’t proud of. There were moments of fleeting negative emotion – some expressed, some withheld – both of them leading to some composure ruffling. And then before you could settle down and let the emotion go, off you were on another jaunt -more emotions coming your way. A few times, you expressed something uncharacteristic – but before you could make amends or clarify further – the next meeting was on. And so I moved from one unresolved emotion and unfinished business to another – and it was all these unclosed events that led primarily to the energy drain.

I felt better immediately post the journaling (and indeed laughed at some of the events) – and where some course correction was warranted (say – apologise/ clarify/ maybe even just spend some more time with the person involved) put it down on my next day’s task list. Very quickly, the “unfinished business” list was coming down. And indeed, I felt awesome.

Miracles come in small packages to your aid when you are trying some positive stuff. Sukumar gifted me a little doll (designed after a Japanese ritual) that had two large eyes. You made a wish, coloured an eye and placed it somewhere you could look at it often.  And every time you caught the doll’s eye, it would remind you of what your wish was – and you would be “nudged” toward your desired effort. in my case, it was to be more mindful – and with the arrival of the doll, twice a day i reviewed my day – a significant improvement from the nightly journal.  And the benefits began to accumulate. The sense of being “overwhelmed or touchy” began to dissipate and more importantly I could now clearly notice what were aspects that touched a nerve. And once you noticed these, without realizing you made adjustments in your life to limit the exposure to the toxic situations, people, tasks – basically stuff that gave you no sense of accomplishment at all, but did have significant emotional overhead. This following wonderful Naval Ravikant  served to be the scale on which I reviewed my day primarily:

“What you choose to work on, and who you choose to work with, are far more important than how hard you work.”

Its important to notice that I wasn’t focussing on the interventions required for improvement here – just noticing how different events made me feel made the difference. Indeed I was not adding – but actually subtracting stuff resulting in gaining me more free time to focus on things I cared about!).

 

A quick summary of the above for all you super busy folks: – If you feel there’s too much going on in your work life (feeling overwhelmed/ touchy etc. etc) – try the following:

a. Start off by journaling in the nighttime (rewind the entire day – you’ll be surprised by how much you remember). If there’s any event you’d like to course correct (say call a colleague who you were a touch upset with for instance and talk it through), put that on your list

b. If the above works for you, try to have a few more “check ins” – just before lunch and before leaving for the day are perfect – to rewind and take stock. You can drop the nightly journal at this point.

The story doesn’t stop there though. Last month, I was gifted 2 more invaluable aids to further the practice. The 1st was a workshop on evolving change happily using “tiny habits” – by Sukumar and Kumaran of tinymagiq. It’s a course that will change you one little habit at a time – and happily at that!  It certainly warrants another follow on post. The second was a wonderful book by Thich That Hanh on the “4 establishments of Mindfulness”. This book breaks down mindfulness itself into 4 parts (and therefore allows you to remember the day a lot, lot better across these areas). as I work  on this ‘mindfulness” journey – I continue to be amazed at how rewarding it is – and at the same time, how much more there is to travel.

The good part though is that the journey is as (if not more) rewarding than the destination (per all the gurus in this space). If you are on a similar journey, would encourage you to adopt any of the above techniques too – and do let me know how they work!