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Posts Tagged ‘life’

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?

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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)

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.

Disengage autopilot

In blah, life, work on August 22, 2010 at 8:48 am

Work. Monday to Friday. Mostly within the brackets set out in the employee manual  under “Office hours”. The odd overrun into the late evenings or even a weekend or two. Weekends. Sleeping later, restocking of home supplies, visiting of parents and assorted relatives, movies, brunches, vegetating on the couch, scurrying around malls swiping plastic cards. Not necessarily in that order. Vacation. Couple of times a year, ok once a year. planned well in advance with lots of travel website surfing. Every couple of months, a new acquisition from a retail distribution channel. Technological, decorative, often shrink-wrapped, seldom a need.

How much of our schedule is regimented by convention? In this day and age of laptops, mobile internet access cards and ‘flexi-times’ how many of us manage our own schedules according to what makes sense versus what’s ‘conventional wisdom’? If we exclude blue-collar jobs or those involving responding in real-time (Customer service reps, Emergency room doctors), most jobs have very little to do with number of hours spent and even less with a specific set of them.

Just like one of those internet memes asks “how is that everyday’s news fits neatly into the same-sized newspaper”. How does our workload fit neatly into 10-12 hour workdays, everyday?

No, this post is not about time management, atleast not in the sense of maintaining daily planners and ‘eliminating distractions’ to be more productive.

It is about how most of us willingly write off a chunk of our day as “work hours” and then set about filling that time and then some, performing a variety of tasks from meeting deadlines to responding to email. Basically, juggling a combination of value-add activities with purely administrative tasks to rush through our day. I’ve seen multiple sets of colleagues across organisations slow down in the middle of the day and plod through activities, taking an hour when 15 mins would do, taking languid coffee breaks, then getting back to a frenetic pace towards the end of the day.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big proponent of goofing off, I just have a problem with doing it on my employer’s terms; constrained to the office premises with the limited menu of aimless (and regulated) internet surfing and emailing.

This straitjacketed view seems to apply to what we call our “leisure” time as well. Friday nights, or maybe Thursday if you’re feeling particularly adventurous. We’re thankful for the privilege of spending between 2 and 3 hours with friends. Time barely enough to just to share life updates before its time to bundle into your respective cars to head home. Rinse. Repeat every 3-4 weeks. Now compare these interactions with the no-time-barred conversations that happened when in college over the solitary bottle of domestic booze and often short-in-supply accompaniments where everything from ‘the purpose of life’ to bodily functions were fair game for discussion. Not quite in the same league are they?

What if we actively monitor everything that calls for our time? Most of our jobs would afford us atleast week-long views of our workloads (note, not schedules) to be able to decide to cram in some extra hours when highly productive and to complete disengage when not so much. Maybe instead of taking a couple of extra-long nicotine/caffeine breaks, we just take off when the traffic isn’t ungodly and enjoy (not squeeze in) a game of squash or a few reps at the gym. Maybe even take off at 3pm without feeling the need for a dying relative to justify it, and meet the wife for a movie and dinner, or take parents out for one, or meet friends without traffic and time constraints, or even just go home, crack open a beer and chill to some Pink Floyd.

What if we disengage the autopilot?

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