From smack-bang in the middle of the bell curve

Of objects of desire and gratification

In blah, life on July 5, 2013 at 8:22 am

On newly graduating to the 5th standard and moving from pencils to fountain pens, the object of desire was a beautifully shaped “Hero” pen with the distinctive dark green body and the shiny gold cap with “Made in China” engraved on it’s clip. This is when the phrase just meant “foreign and awesome”. I remember asking for one for my birthday, feeling ecstatic when it was approved, then going traipsing around the neighborhood looking for one only to be stymied in my efforts after several hours. Having to settle for an imitation that sucked so bad, it caused significant heartburn until a friend’s dad was able to procure the genuine article a week later.

Through most of school, it was sneakers, or any pair of shoes that weren’t the regulation black leather pair that was mandated by the school. I distinctly remember the first pair of sneakers I ever owned with the big lotto logo on the sides. Though I’m fairly sure they were fakes, the thick cushioning with the curves and the multi-patterned fabric made them the most awesome thing I’d owned. Of course, they were never used for anything as mundane as sports, but only for the most “special” occasions. It was a sad day, when after over four years of sterling service, the sole decided to cash in its retirement check.

Through college (undergraduate), there was this fascination with worn jeans of the just the right fit. With the usual suspect brands priced at outlandish four-figures, and even Indian brands in the high three-figures, we went looking for, you guessed it, counterfeits. The thing about them of course was that they were often shaped like they were made to fit no one in particular and hence they’d have to be taken to the neighbourhood “jeans alteration” specialist who would then transform the shapeless mass to hip-hugging, thigh clenching, boot-flaring perfection. Of course, the whole exercise setting you back something like Rs 400 meant that it was an annual or even a bi-annual affair. Oh but the joy of getting that perfect pair.

Then came employment and with it the opportunity for an underperforming wallet to hold currency notes, yes plural, and then, hot damn! a debit card! I think for the first few weeks after getting it, the lot of us made trips to the conveniently located ICICI ATM within the office premises just to enjoy the feeling of abundance that can only come from a machine that makes a series of robotic whines before spewing cash. The freedom that it bestowed was euphoric. My first ever purely non-functional purchase, a U2 compilation cassette tape remains one of my fondest. My first laptop, a refurbished Sony Vaio bought on an auction site and it’s successor 3 years later, a newly launched model were two purchases where I remember refreshing the “Track your package” page for 3 days straight, waiting for it to arrive and then feeling the same kind of elation.

So the relationship seems logical; The amount of gratification from a “shiny new thing” is a function of how long you’ve had to wait for it from the time you first wanted it and how much it costs relative to your financial situation.

Therefore as the time lag between “wanting” and “having” diminishes, the first part of that equation, and the relative size of the purchases also moves  in your favour, it stands to reason that it would start taking larger, much larger purchases to provide that same thrill. Project that trend a few years and you can explain the sale of Baum et Mercier watches and Audi A6’s, each providing progressively lesser gratification than the last.

Research supposedly says that wanting expensive things makes us happier than buying them. I’d rephrase that line to say “…makes us happier than having them” because the purchase still tends to be pleasurable in anticipation of what we think we’ll get from the ‘thing’. Another school of thought suggests that experiences are better than possessions. And there is certainly some merit to it, thinking back to some vacations that have stayed in the mind much longer than the excitement of a new phone. While that makes more intuitive sense, I’m not convinced that a round-the-world cruise would be very different in its characteristics from the latest overpriced gadget.

What’s your take? Do you find the same joy in acquiring things or was there something in the “unattainability” of it?

What to expect when you’re expecting: Life at ISB

In blah, ISB on April 15, 2013 at 3:56 pm

“ISB is not a swimming pool. Everyone who dives in won’t come out wet” – 2005 visiting professor of long forgotten elective.

This slightly cryptic and in hindsight, surprisingly insightful quote is an apt introduction to this post, which is meant for the new class, as you settle in and start finding your way around campus. As my twitter feed shows references to the brilliantly named #OWeek, I wondered about the few mostly useless and some douchey things I could share with the incoming class of 2014.

A disclaimer: A specific percentage of this class, will be those who know exactly why they decided to do a business degree, have already had “informal” coffee chats with  alumni in their target shortlist, are on the 4th revision of their elective bidding strategy and have just locked down their “extracurriculars” for the year. This post is a waste of time for them.

It’s more for those who were only now starting to be less wistful about their last job, its comforting security and are now lightheaded from trying to commit all the name-face associations to memory. Relax. It get’s worse. Well, before it get’s better.

1. Block out the advice: Yup, oxymoron right off the bat. Right from the infamous “alum in my room” email incident of 2005, incoming classes have shown tremendous propensity to gather spoilers about what to expect at ISB.  The ISB alumni body now has about 3,000 members and roughly the same number of “how-to’s” and “do’s and don’ts” for an incoming class. “Start your interview prep early”, “Definitely do an ELP”, “The lounge behind SV3 is an excellent makeout spot”, “Forget about grades!”, “Focus on grades!” You’re likely to hear all of it. Let it all wash over you but do what makes sense. To you.

2. Don’t check that box: “Co-founder of blah-de-blah association. Organised event raising funds equivalent to the GDP of Estonia. Envisaged fantastic new mortgage-backed product injecting phenomenal liquidity into markets.” When shortlisting from a pile of 300 resumes, I’ve tended to make a mental note either “prone to delusions of grandeur” or “plays fast and loose with the truth”. If you’re signing on for any event for the sake of the resume bullet point, know that it takes all of 2.7 seconds for it to become apparent in an interview. Find a subject that intrigues you, put together a team, do some research, take a provocative stand, write a paper.  Thumb rule is: If you’re not equipped to have atleast a luke-warm debate on the point, skip it.

3. The “aha”s have it: Every now and then, you’ll find yourself clicking ‘Send’ at 3am on an assignment, then rushing to attend a group meeting to decide on your markstrat submission, returning to start another assignment due by 7am while fretting about the case prep you think you’re 2 weeks behind on. In your caffeine-fuelled stupor, have a part of you monitor your effort. Pay extra attention to the subjects you find yourself doing the optional readings on. Find yourself wondering where the night went as you ran Monte Carlo simulations on inventory planning? Immersed yourself into writing an impassioned paper on the promotion strategy for an underdog brand of grinders? It might be time to get out of the bathtub and streak around campus because you, my friend, might have just discovered your calling.

4. Forest for the trees: Now for some doucheyness. If y is the phenomenal day 1 job with stratospheric pay you applied to ISB for, then  y = Bo + B1X1 + B2X2 + R. Bo is the default you can end up with (read worst you think can do),  X1 and X2 are your academic performance and “aha” insights into self-awareness respectively. And R is the residual, the macro-economic environment you graduate into. Based on empirical evidence, R (the part you/ISB/anyone has no control over) can be several orders of magnitude higher (positive or negative), compared to B1 and B2. Inference: Not that X1 and X2 don’t matter, but don’t confuse the job you think you’ll get on campus with how you perceive your time at ISB. (To the quaddies of the smart-ass smugly asking about R-square,  dunk him some more will ya. To those who didn’t find the use of a regression equation funny, give it a term)

Wishing you a year of terrifyingly abundant possibilities.

What are we really proud of?

In blah, life on November 12, 2012 at 10:18 pm

Before the oft-repeated cliches became those, cricket commentary used to have the occasional nugget of insight. One of those was when the batting team was cruising along at 114/1 and the commentator on air then said something along the lines of “it’s a good score right now but you have to add a couple of wickets to the score to see if it still looks good because that’s how quickly the game can change”.  And sure enough, more often than not, a clump of wickets would fall and 114/1 would become 118/3 and then 124/4 and make a seemingly impregnable position look decidedly precarious. Who said those words isn’t particularly important in the context of this post, because the cricket reference is only to draw an analogy.

The point is a simple mental exercise.

What are the elements that your sense of self-worth is tied to? And what happens if the most important ones are eliminated?

It’s a funny question to answer and depending who it is posed to, the answers are likely to be grouped into a few broad buckets; intellectual prowess (IQ, ranks on entrance exams, undergrad / grad school, post-graduate degrees),  physical prowess (physical condition, sporting ability), aesthetics (purely chance arrangement and proportion of features that denote “good looks” in the classical sense), professional status (not hard for most B-school grads to relate to), artistic talent and so on.  The buckets mentioned here are by no means exhaustive, just indicative.

Barring movie stars, scientists, professional sports persons who might have a large part of their “stock” tied to one of those axes, I think it’s logical to assume most people would ‘define’ themselves by two or three dimensions.

Like the radar graph illustrative here showing how two conventionally successful people might assess themselves. So, a large part of one’s sense of self might arise from his / her exemplary academic qualifications and the sought-after job they bagged and now potent amounts of money earned. For person 2, it might be the fact that they played national level volleyball , have run 3 marathons under 4 hours and possess the musculature of one of those Greek sculptures.

However easy it is to fall into the trap of classification, there are no “good” and “bad” axes. Sure Charlize Theron was fortunate to be born with those physical attributes but then it was just such a chance combination of genetics that probably enabled Stephen Hawking author his books. Similarly, it’s fair to say that a lot of what makes us tick is a combination of the raw material we were born with, some work and lots of luck. But exploring that is a digression as well.

Now, add a couple of wickets to your “score”. Meaning, knock off one or two of those high-scoring axes on your graph, or rather, the signaling mechanisms that indicate high scores. Let’s say all records indicating your performance on that entrance exam over a decade ago were lost or the bulge bracket investment bank that establishes your credentials is erased from the history books. Or if your cheekbones lowered themselves overnight, just enough to take you from an 8 to a 4. Or the skill you pride yourself on became irrelevant.

Would your interactions with the world change? The tone we adopt when introducing ourselves to strangers, when interacting with peers, with people in more and less fortunate situations in life? If yes, would it be for the better?

Is humility an externally demonstrable trait or an internal state of mind?

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