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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?

What’s your margin for error?

In blah, life on June 4, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Picture a crowded street chock-a-block with vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Shouldn’t be too hard if you live in any major city in India. Vehicles honk and beep their way around the people, haphazardly parked vehicles, stalled tempos, customary branches embedded to signal larger than normal potholes. Progress is marginally faster than walking pace as the veins of traffic trickle in both directions. And every now and then a fresh obstacle brings the trickle to a halt, be it the inevitable fender bender or truck deciding to perform a multiple-point U-turn in the middle of it all. The already narrow space is now further restricted. Traffic slows as drivers need to factor in the reduced space through which to pass.

A combination of driving experience and spatial awareness helps you estimate where your car ends and therefore if it can make it through available space. Some drivers swoosh through the narrow space with coats of paint to spare, while others pause uncertainly. Urged on by the driver of the oncoming vehicle they inch their way through the space peering all around in trepidation until they finally clear the obstacle, their relief showing in the surge of acceleration that follows. Why the difference?

Most estimates of the space available would, I daresay, be similar. What probably differs is the perceived margin for error tacked on to that initial estimate. Meaning, if I’m confident of the space available to within a few inches, I glide through the space. If my margin of error is a foot, I’m terrified, as I inch through that same space.

And our internal “margin of error” calculator goes a long way in determining how we take our decisions. From estimating travel times to airports, to investments, to career choices. What time should I leave to catch the 8pm flight in peak hour and 15 kms to cover? What’s the minimum monthly income that can cover my needs for the foreseeable future? How many months can I go without a paycheck before I go under? What is the networth at which money ceases to be a factor in all my decisions?

I increasingly think most of us, when it comes to the big decisions, apply margins of error that are too wide, overestimating downsides, instilling hurdle rates that are too high, and in the process, closing off potential avenues of personal growth.  It will take a conscious effort of will to narrow that margin of error so that more varied options and choices stay longer on the table and in the consideration set.

And maybe a few scrapes on the car might not be the end of the world after all.

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

Life and times in #116: Working from commute

In blah, rant, travel on September 10, 2011 at 11:37 am

8.50am Regular weekday: The car lurches to one side to avoid the foot-deep depression, classified for some unknown reason as a pot-hole, to promptly descend into one only half a foot deep. Settling onto a luxurious stretch of unbroken asphalt, nearly three car-lengths long, the cab driver proudly grins and remarks by way of explanation; “New flyover, was commissioned yesterday” as he expansively upshifts to 3rd gear for 5 seconds before moving back down to 2nd to navigate the broken surface. Honeymoon over, he applies the brake to settle in behind a beat up van after craning his neck to confirm that there was an operator in the vehicle, not making the rookie mistake of assuming that just because a vehicle was in the middle of a major arterial road in peak-hour traffic, it wasn’t parked there while its occupants enjoyed their breakfast in the adjoining udupi joint.

I observed the occupants of the vehicle on either side of mine, the distance between our respective vehicles a good three coats of paint, so that if we rolled down our windows and faced each other, oral hygiene habits would become a consideration.  Both occupants had their laptops open, tapping away with verve, as they sat, wreathed in the black smoke emerging from the do-it-yourself four-wheelers that are part of this city’s landscape. That’s when an opportunity presented itself. Not the kind that Zuckerberg unearthed when coding facemash at harvard. More the kind that will get an HR professional an “Above Average” in his annual appraisal.

Introducing ‘The WFC’: While cutting-edge organizations have instituted the employee-friendly “Work From Home” policy that can typically be utilized once every year, on an even date that is not a monday or a friday and does not begin with a “T”. Here’s an opportunity to earn some points for the “best places to work” surveys:

Introducing the “Work from Commute” policy. It will allow employees to accrue as hours spent working, those spent in enclosed metal cans while being shaken vigorously along at least 3 axes, namely their mode of transport. To participate in the program, employees would need to call their HR manager while commencing their journey, the background orchestra of horns could serve as evidence.

(Signing into Google maps was considered as a way to let HR track the movement of employees automatically, but rejected when the Bangalore position indicators refused to budge for inordinate lengths of time thus eliminating the distinction between those lounging on their couch and those hurrying to the office).

Imagine the hordes of satisfied employees trooping into office knowing that they have already clocked in a third of their work-day, spending another third in office before departing on their return commute to round off a productive day. Needless to say, this policy will only be worth the administrative effort in the major metros and would be a joke in cities like Hyderabad, where the employee would call in to announce the start of his commute and be in office before ending the call. That wouldn’t do at all. So, HR Managers working in prized locations of Bombay, Bangalore, the United Regions of NCR. You are welcome.

p.s: #116 refers to the enviable position that Bombay holds on the “Livable cities” ranking (link: http://www.economist.com/blogs/gulliver/2010/02/liveability_rankings)

India’s Olympic Dream

In airlines, blah, travel on August 10, 2011 at 6:31 am

We’ve tried things the hard way. And it hasn’t worked. If there was a time for India to assert its growing influence on the world stage, it is now.

When the International Olympic Committee next convenes for the arduous task of planning for the next games, the Indian representative should table a proposal, not requiring major overhauls, but only the renaming of the 100 metre dash; To “Flight XYZ now boarding”.

This seemingly innocuous change would guarantee permanent ownership of the top podium position for the next few decades. To be completely transparent, some administrative changes would need to accompany the name change, like replacing the starter shot with a disembodied announcement on the PA system, of dubious sound quality with only the words “now boarding” being clear and distinct. The Indian Olympic Federation wouldn’t even need to go through the grind of actually investing in training for a sport, thus assuring huge returns on little investment, consisting of laying down ugly carpeting around the track and maybe recording an ambient soundtrack consisting of hollering babies. These changes done, all one has to do is sit back and jeer at the supremely trained athletes from the developed world struggling to stay in the frame as they get left behind.

Of course, like any potentially great undertaking, there are risks. If the PA announcement is mis-recorded to somewhere include the words “infant” and “preboarding”, the Indian challenge might well end prematurely with disqualification from jumping the gun as families with teenage progeny hurry to the gate, the said progeny, who are supposedly the cause of their disadvantage, sauntering a good 4-5 paces behind, chewing gum.

Then there is the risk that the Indian representatives might be afflicted by that deadly and unknown disease, “requiring wheelchair assistance”. Generations of scientists will puzzle over the outlying high percentage of 50-somethings in wheelchairs on flights originating or terminating in India. And they will stay puzzled as they will not have access to footage of the 50-somethings laughing and chatting away as they are wheeled to the gate, then springing with Carl-Lewis’esque agility to clamber into their seat once on board.

Not all is doom and gloom as the change might allow for the unleashing of that WCD (weapon of cabin destruction), the wailing baby. I’d challenge any fine-tuned athlete of bristling sinew and muscle to withstand the onslaught of the bawling of a baby that will just not subside. One might raise an eyebrow with the thought, might the opposition not retaliate with their homegrown toddling terrors? I say any such attempts will be akin to pissing in the face of a gale. I doubt that any parents of foreign nationality can show the equanimity that those of our great nation show as their descendant hollers to high hell at 2 am as the other passengers risk inner ear and cerebral damage in trying to stuff the airline pillow around their head.

And why stop at the 100 metre dash, there is scope to take over all the athletic events with some careful renaming of the events to indicate departing modes of transport. I think we have a winning idea here.

Is “good enough” good enough?

In blah, life, sports, work on June 23, 2011 at 5:05 pm

Muhammad Ali. Steffi Graf. Ayrton Senna. Michael Jordan. You get the idea.

Now think of something you reckon you’re pretty good at and also enjoy. While it doesn’t really matter what specifically, try and think of something that involves conscious effort, maybe even some preparation. So, near-perfect poker games and presentations you nailed count. Witty comebacks and  picking the fast lane at the supermarket don’t.

Think back to the last time and to how you felt as you completed “the task”. I like replaying in my mind, specific cricket strokes I played, for example, a bowler applauding after I stepped out to hit him over a position just after he’d moved the fielder. There is that feeling of well-being because of the way things came together just right and you know it was no fluke.

Imagine that as you completed the above mentioned task, you hear a strident voice announcing all the things you did wrong, berating you for the hand where you should’ve gone all in but didn’t, pointing out that you spent too much time on slides 4 & 11. Also imagine being told that you’ll need to run through that same task a dozen times to iron out the kinks and to do it not just well, but flawlessly. Sounds wrong doesn’t it. What if that strident voice is in your head? Still wrong?

How do you differentiate between an unhealthy obsession of a perfectionist and a genuinely fulfilling pursuit to get good at something?

The names at the top of this post invoke awe precisely because of their dedication to being better than everyone around. You’d have to be pretty ungracious to dismiss them as just lucky recipients of  a genetic lottery. No way that the talent wasn’t combined with years of hard unglamorous practice.  And after all that there exists the realistic possibility of being shown up in front of millions by an opponent in superior condition or brandishing a natural advantage. So are they all unhealthy perfectionists to be appreciated but never emulated?

Or maybe it can’t be that only the wrong kind of effort causes disappointment and hurt. Maybe wearing that cringe that says you cared is the just the other side of the warm glow from having done something really well. I mean, would we appreciate Federer as much if he didn’t break down after losing the Wimbledon final to Nadal?

 

Curling freekicks and soaring GPAs

In blah, consulting, life, work on June 8, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Stereotypes. We debunk the idea publicly but cling to them personally and maybe feel guilty about it. Logic suggests that they are at best, exaggerated and at worst, misrepresentations. Think about it, it’s just not possible that every South Indian school-going kid excels at academics and sucks at sport or that every Brazilian kid can curl stinging free kicks around corners (actually am not sure about this one). In some cases we overcompensate to demonstrate the lack of a bias, which by itself proves the existence of one.

But any viewers of American late night talk shows would be led to believe that everyone in America is either progressive and open-minded (Democrat) or ridiculously close-minded and backward-thinking (Republican). Now, I know nothing of politics in general and so I think the idea of such clear and non-overlapping ideologies is convenient. Which means it’s impossible.

One of my work assignments was for a large company with it’s headquarters in North America. Since part of the work involved meetings in India, a senior big-designation type person from above company flew down. Over the course of the next few days, 3 specific interactions stand out:

  1. Within a few minutes of introductions, he had made clear his affiliation to the Republicans, and then went on to criticize the Obama-led government. I wondered at the wisdom of starting a strongly opinionated political discussion within 30 mins of having met someone from a different country but then put it down to him (rightly) assuming that I wouldn’t care about American politics
  2. During the course of the day, he kept going back to what turned out to be his favourite topic, politics. He started innocuously enough, by criticizing policies and went on to slightly dodgy territory, Gun control. He stated his opinion about how guns were a reason rural crime was low. “Any ***** person breaking into a home in rural America knows that the owner probably has guns”. Note that the ‘bleeped’ part of the statement was a reference to a colour. Yup, you read right.
  3. Meetings done, the team (3 of us) and the client executive drove back to the hotel. As is the unfortunate case with our higher-priced temporary accommodations, there was a security check process to get through that included a beautiful German Shepherd. The exec made a remark about how that was a happy dog who probably would think of a stick of dynamite as a chew toy. Polite laughter ensued from the team billing his company by the hour. Enjoying the mirth he caused, he went on to say “That dog doesn’t care if there’s a ****** in the car”. fill in the ‘bleep’, terrorist/criminal? nope, he mentioned a religion. And guess what, one member of our team did belong to that religion. I don’t believe my dropped jaw picked itself up till I got to my room.

For the remainder of the trip, I kept waiting for him to say “Gotcha!”  to say that his portrayal of the caricature of the hick Republican was a joke he’d played on us but to no avail. In fact, he only added to it later by asking me if I was from a privileged Indian background going by how I spoke ‘his’ language.

Not quite an ‘aha’ moment but it was one of the few times that a stereotype seemed to affirm itself.

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