From smack-bang in the middle of the bell curve

Archive for November, 2011|Monthly archive page

Template Not Found

In blah, life on November 22, 2011 at 5:05 am

This is a most unsatisfying blog post. Because it rambles and because it left me more confused at the end than I was at the beginning. Because it raises more questions that I have answers.

Quick question: If you had to draw a pie-chart of how you spend your time in a typical day / week / month and bucket all the things you did, into logical categories, what would the breakdown look like?

Let’s see, a large chunk would fall under ‘work‘, medium chunks would fall under ‘TV / Internet’ of which you could subdivide probably 25% as ‘active’ and the remaining 75% as ‘brain-dead time’, a smaller slice would go to ‘family & friends’, even smaller slices under ‘Admin’ like shopping for groceries, getting car insurance etc. and if you’re one of the lucky ones, a sliver under ‘personal interest(s)’. Now, partly because of a middle-class upbringing which hard-wired the concept of ‘work-save-spend’ and mostly because of inertia of the mind, the breakdown above seems about right. Or rather, we tend to go with it unquestioningly, as the template of a normal life.

The question is: What should the pie chart look like, if there was no template? Now and 5-10-15 years from now?

In a way, it was an easier answer in the India of 25 years ago. Combine a huge young population with the ‘Hindu growth rate’, and you had few jobs and modest salaries that were stretched to satisfy monthly needs.In 2011, it’s a trickier question.

The most logical answer (courtesy PK) I’ve got is to take the components from the ‘Now’; work, TV/Internet, Family & Friends, Admin and Personal Interests and rebalance by +/- 5-10% at the various milestones. So an 85% work allocation typically reduces to 75% by year (t + 10), while the good stuff creeps up by little increments. Mind you, we aren’t yet questioning the ‘How’ in making these changes happen, because then I’d just break the timeline into 1 year increments and ask how in heaven’s name will pursuing that promotion to V.P. align with bringing down that percentage?

And it’s NOT like the much-maligned  ‘work’ that we’re talking about is the fulcrum of evil or even mind-numbing tedium. In fact, let’s say it is fairly interesting and rewarding for the most part. But it’s still mainly about widening the difference between what you need and what you can afford. But then even outselling the competition 100:1 will only provide a short-lived feeling of fuzziness and maybe get you to preorder the next Apple product for no other reason other than the fact that you can.

On the other hand, how much more utility there is in exclusively pursuing those ephemeral personal interests? Meaning will the additional internal gratification from playing a sport of choice far exceed the absence of external feedback that will accompany being a thoroughly average sportsman? Will the 3 months spent travelling through a continent seem like the most exhilarating experience or will it seem like the kind of empty self-indulgence that you know very few can afford?

Or Is the problem the predictability of it all? Maybe what we need is periods of intense immersion into the various aspects that make up our lives, switching back and forth between 3 months of 16 hour workdays and a month or two of reading and travelling to new places, all of it interspersed with meaningful interactions with friends, asking demanding questions about untapped potential, about why they haven’t started that food blog they would be so brilliant at (you know who you are), followed by a month of reconnecting with all the members of the family (the ones you like), then working on that crappy backhand to be able to string together some respectable winners down the line or working on building endurance by training for a marathon.

Basically to do things like you mean to do them and not just go through the motions because you’ve slipped into this comfortable routine.

Maybe the problem is the very existence of a template of any kind. But only maybe…


Go on, be a Tiger. Seriously.

In blah, life, opinion on November 5, 2011 at 9:20 am

Tiger Woods. Kobe Bryant. Rajat Gupta. Steve Jobs.

No, they’re not members of a “fallen heroes” club. They’re just names that large swathes of population are aware of, and subsets revere or have revered at different points in time and then cast aside. In the case of the last name, there might be several rounds of both for a while.

What triggered the line of thought was the HBR article titled “Idolize Bill Gates, not Steve Jobs”. The author repeatedly asks the question “who to idolize”, almost as if desperate to have some kind of template of greatness to aspire to. I have serious doubts about that line of thinking.

The reasons that cause us to bestow “hero” status on certain individuals are easy enough to understand, typically boiling down to excellence in a chosen field. What causes us to rip the plaque off the wall with disgust, not so much.

Their Rocky-like ascents to greatness, in our minds, are usually accompanied by well-documented stories of coming from unfertile backgrounds and using sheer force of will to impressive achievements. As they emerge from oblivion to cause us to take notice, the sole point of discussion is their field of work or play. As Tiger Woods was in the process of making golf sexy, I doubt there were many admiring conversations about his charitable donations or his exemplary manners, or for that matter, his fidelity. With 14 seconds to go and a point down, Lakers fans didn’t want the ball to go to Kobe for his graciousness but for his ridiculous talent honed to near-perfection with hundreds of hours of hardwork.

But once their achievements are widely acknowledged, something funny seems to happen. The goalposts shift. The smallest inkling of a character flaw is examined, magnified and discussed. So much so that not-so famous peers huddle around tables analyzing so-called behaviours from ‘way back when’ that apparently got them wondering. The author of the above article points to Jobs concern for Apple as a reason to rank him below Gates who spends time with his foundation. Seems like flimsy reasoning to me. As if there is some kind of direct causality between any perceived errant behavior and all the achievements. It’s almost as if being made aware of a flaw in such a person gets us to heave a collective sigh of relief that goes “so that’s what was wrong with him so now I don’t have to aspire to that kind of greatness”.

The flaw, I think, lies in the concept of “idolizing” individuals. To really be able to do so, you have to be aware of, not only their achievements, but also their motivations. Something we can never be sure of. Would it not make a difference if you were aware that a given athlete’s superlative performances stemmed from a deep-rooted insecurity about their self-worth versus one whose motivation was just to be the best?

Instead, we would be better off recognizing greatness in deeds rather than associating them with the very human individuals that carry them out. That a bright young engineer from a lower-middle class Indian background went on to become not only the first non-American partner but went on to head the most recognized management consulting firm in the world for well over a decade is a deed worth acknowledging as great. Sketchy information about a few ill-advised phone calls do not detract from that deed. It would therefore be a pity if young professionals refused to take inspiration from such examples, at the same time recognizing that that they are distinct unit of muscle, bones and tissue.

Fools admire, men of sense approve

~Alexander Pope

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