Sunday, August 23, 2015

Setbacks and learning are two sides of the same coin

For as long as I can remember, I used to hate setbacks in life. It used to make me wonder as to why God can be so unkind to human beings who mean well and wish to improve their lives. I used to literally go through extreme feelings of 'why me?', or, 'what did I do to deserve this?' And I had the exact same emotions and thoughts when bad things happened to people near and dear to me. 

Never did I think that setbacks are actually life's best companion to improve life, if combined with learning. Read on.

Some of the biggest mistakes that we make, especially when we are younger, is to consider failure or setbacks as the end of life. There have been umpteen times when I have gone into extreme depression or done aimless soul-searching, without always finding an answer to the failure that I was facing. That was mistake number 1 i.e. thinking of the setback in isolation. 

The other big mistake that one tends to make, is this world of constant comparison. It is the single most self-destructing characteristic for anybody's human psyche. That was mistake number 2, which is one's greatest enemy. We just forget that the capabilities of human beings differ, so do resources, or more importantly, discipline.

There are other wrong ways in dealing with setbacks in life. One, to think that it is the end of the world. Two, to find it hard to see a way out. Three, to just completely fail to consider alternatives that may be feasible. Four, the sheer unwillingness to consult closest comrades who may play a key role in advising you. Five, the inability to learn from the situation. And all this eventually resulting in just getting stuck. It is not easy. I am the last person to suggest that getting out of a mess in life is easy. One is battling life's practicality, along with one's own psyche. It's hard, really hard.

Over time, I have come to realise that the fundamental thing in tackling any setback in anybody's life, is in approach. While I don't know everybody in this world, I can definitely speak for myself. The biggest change in my mindset came during the years 2004-2010 (and occasionally after that), when I had to emerge and evolve from a personal catastrophe in my life (those who know me closely enough, know what I am referring to). During that phase, I really did think that it was the end of the world and I failed to think of things to consider, evaluate and diagnose things my own good. Life did seem unfair at that time. Life most certainly did seem unforgiving too. The world looked like it was the worst place to be in.

The big thing that I eventually came out with is that setbacks, personal disasters and failures have to be treated with less emotion (you can't avoid it), and more objectivity. It is easier said than done. And it is extremely hard for anybody who tends to be hard on oneself, as I usually am with myself. But, the key is to learn and learn fast. Time and tide wait for noone, as the saying goes. That is even more relevant in the context of self-healing. And the one thing I have learnt over time is that setbacks without applying the learning element, is a sure way to continue being in distress and pain. 

If we learn quickly from our mistakes, find a way not to repeat them and stop feeling inadequate about ourselves, just because we did something wrong or something really 'not-so-great' happened to us, we can rebuild. The degree of the impact of a setback/failure certainly varies from person to person and it is something that we cannot control. But, what we do control, is our approach to a setback. The ability to apply learning to a setback is in our control. The ability to learn and evaluate why something went wrong and what one should do to not to repeat that mistake (especially, if its something that could have been avoided) are the key things. Its like batting in cricket - if you get out to wild shots outside the off stump, and practice to leave the ball from the next match, you will reduce your chances of getting out. I suppose, that may seem too simplistic an example, but, it really is applicable to most of our lives.

Look at the number of initiatives in the world that are available to us these days to tackle failures/setbacks in life. We have mentors in most multi-national companies these days. We have self-help portals. Business schools teach students about emotional quotient in the corporate world. Psychologists are in various interview panels while hiring senior level candidates, these days. The Australian army, for example, does not recruit people for key battles/positions, if the candidate has not faced a severe failure/setback in life. Their contention is, if the person has not faced failure, he will not know what to do when he sees missiles coming at him in the battlefield. In the modern age, there are NGOs that help people tackle depression. Self-help groups are on the increase, right around the world. The subject, moral science in school, sadly continues to be treated with contempt. Perhaps, that is the one class that should be made mandatory in school. 

All this, to me, just points to one thing. Failure/setbacks, considered in isolation without introspection/learning, are irrelevant and meaningless. And having so many avenues these days to tackle setbacks just means one thing. We need help. But, to help these various fora to help us, we can start within us by helping ourselves first. There is no point in self-pitying anymore. The world and nobody has time for that. 

All that I mention so far, is historical. If I have to extend the syndrome of tackling failures in life to future generations, here's my take.

The modern day teenagers dare to dream and dream big. They do not understand or know the meaning of failure. The fact that something is not possible, does not resonate with them. That is the mindset of the modern era i.e. these kids of the digital age who are ready to take the world on. Nothing wrong with that. It is credit to the generation that the world has managed to build over the last 25-30 years - of dreaming big and fufilling one's deepest desires. 

But, I am equally convinced, however, that it is this new generation that needs to be taught the ability to handle failure. I will never hope or want anybody from the generation-next to fail (or anybody for that matter). But, I really do think, that this generation-next is the most vulnerable. They need to be taught the mechanisms to handle failure. 

Be it now or the year 2050 or 2100, man will progress and create means to build a better world. Current and future generations will continue to 'innovate and invest' in their ideas to create a world far different (and hopefully better!) from what mankind has seen till date. But, the other 'i' is always not as directly visible as the first two 'i's I mentioned above. And that is, 'introspection'. 

I am not trying to paint a sad picture of the future world, but only trying to illustrate why introspection and learning from failures in the future will be even more critical than it has been in the past. The challenges of the future are likely to be the types that we may have not even thought possible. That makes it even more critical to do all three things at once - dream big and execute on those dreams, generate ideas for the betterment of the world rather than just compete, and introspect from failures.

Perhaps, Thomas Alva Edison said it best, years ago, "I have not failed 10,000 times. I have found 10,000 ways of not doing it and just need 1 way to make the electric bulb'. If that is not introspection/learning from failures, I don't know what else is. History is full of such great people with such great failures. But, it is what they did with those failures that made them great.

I am convinced, failures/setbacks and learning, are two sides of the same coin.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Why some things are unique to America - or so, they claim!

Over the years, much has been touted about the great American dream. The country has been positioned so aggressively as the only place on the planet where people can live their dreams. It has rightfully been coined the land of opportunities. And so on.

Having visited this country over the last decade on short trips, and having lived here for a little over 6 months, I have some observations. 

There is no doubt that the U.S. has enabled and created life-changing experiences for people and generated opportunities for people to realise their dreams. Technology-driven innovation, futuristic thinking, incredible success of a capitalist model, an economy grounded on people's willingness and ability to take risks have all contributed to this country becoming the world's number 1 economy. 

The university system here of applying thought to various disciplines, rather than learn by rote, has been a singular differential from the rest of the world (that is more prone to churn out degrees, than invoke learning - perhaps arguable, but let's take that to be the case for the moment).

What is even more interesting is the phrase, 'when Wall Street sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold'. As much of an exaggeration as that may be, the fact that global markets look at the US indices for direction, in addition to the global standard of the U.S. dollar and its direction, have been other major influences of this country on the world. The largest companies in the world want to come here, invest and grow. The most ambitious of entrepreneurs do not believe that they have made it, unless they crack the code on the U.S. market.

Think about other things too. A casual statement such as, 'I am in the States', is assumed to refer to the United States, when it never is specified to be that way. That is the kind of universal domination of this country on the planet. They have managed to brand, market themselves very well, and those factors, along with the American ability to import talent and use it to their advantage has been nothing short of revolutionary.

But in all my travels here, there is the other element of life in America that has caught my attention too. The fact that not knowing your neighbour well, even if you live here all your life, is common. Assuming that the American way is the way in the rest of the world is a given, for most locals (unless they have travelled the earth). The general knowledge of the average Joe is incredibly poor - most people do not tend to do well in math and science here. 

There are a few zillion opposites here that I have never ceased to make me wonder, why it is so unique here. Take these cases of how the way of life in the U.S. is assumed to be the case in the rest of the world:
  1. There is the stupid assumption that the minute people from another country walk through the turnstiles of the immigration counter and reach a car, they should know how to drive here. What the locals conveniently forget is there are other driving rules in other countries, and that every country in the world does not have a GPS to follow. Plus, people in other countries do tend to drive on the other side of the road.
  2. Electric switch - In most of Asia at least (that's what I am familiar with), the electric switch is pushed down to put on the light, and pushed up to switch off. Here in the U.S., it is the opposite - and that is assumed to be known!
  3. If you look at financial statements here, the assets are on the left of the page and the liabilities are on the right. The income is on the left, and the expenses are on the right. That is the exact opposite of how financial statements are done in most countries that follow the British system of accounting
  4. Drinking water - it is so common for people to bend and drink water from a tap here. How very inconvenient that is! In most other countries, one normally has a glass right next to drinking water - at least in the standardised places such as an office or an airport. Not in the U.S. though.
  5. Water fountain vs fountain - I will never forget this one! When I went to Central Park in New York City last month, I asked a local for directions to the place where the large fountain (that was shown in the YouTube videos) was. The person pointed me in one direction and I followed that path. I never found any fountain there, but only tap water. That's when I learnt, that I am supposed to say water fountain, so that I get to see the actual scenic fountain that I was looking for. Merely saying fountain is interpreted here as the fountain that emits drinking water!
  6. The expression 'schedule' is pronounced as "shed-dule", in at least 7 countries that I know (U.K., Ireland, Canada, Australia, India, Sri Lanka, Singapore etc). Why is this word pronounced as "sked-dule" in the U.S.?
  7. The electric socket here is 2-pin. In most of the other countries, it is 3-pin. I have always wondered why. The power is 110-watts. In Asia and Europe, its 220-watts. I wonder why, even more.
  8. The driving experience in America is certainly wonderful, with fantastic roads and freeways, all under the watchful eyes of the law enforcement agencies. But, one does tend to feel sleepy while driving here (have checked with many people), as there are no traffic jams or people honking. Now, the way to save yourself from feeling sleepy while driving here, is to drink coffee. How unique is that? Isn't feeling sleepy more dangerous that navigating insane traffic?
  9. Levels in a building - this has to rank as one of the most amusing differences here. When you enter a building, the ground floor is called first level, and the first floor is called the second level, and the second floor is the third level. How can anyone coming from any other part of the world ever know that? My first day in this office, about 6 months back, made me realise this the hard way, when I went to the wrong floor (er, level!).

There are other things in the U.S. that I have also found uniquely different. Why is it that anything that happens here is considered global? For instance, how can any ranking here be considered global? The Fortune 500 ranks U.S. companies that are headquartered in the U.S., and who operate in the U.S. and have their financial statements filed in the U.S. Yet, this ranking is considered as a global ranking. While I understand the global impact of these companies, it's quite illogical to assume that these are the only top 500 companies on the planet (to me, at least).

Or, for that matter, as an old friend in Asia told me, 'if you study in the U.S., do it in the best universities. Don't do in the 'most-famous' place in a neighbourhood, as it is not known elsewhere. The Americans have a way of thinking that their 'local' world, is equal to the world!'

For all the advancement and technology in the U.S. I continue to be staggered by the number of Americans who have not seen most parts of their own country. Ok, I just got here in my life and am subject to the immigration laws. So, it makes sense to see different places whilst I am here. But, many Americans that I have spoken to, have not seen the Niagara Falls, or the Grand Canyon etc. It is even more common for people in one coast of the country, not to have seen the other coast. Going to New York City, even for the locals here, is that great big dream in life and trying to make it big. The other option is the Silicon Valley. And between these two extremes, there is only Chicago, or the mid-west, which even the Americans refer to as 'fly-past' zone (fly from the east to the west coast and back).

Retiring in Florida is the most common trend in the U.S. Clearly, the tax breaks and lower cost of living are the star attractions. Which only lends itself to the theory that this country, for all its advancements, is a very, very, very expensive place to live in. Especially, in the big cities, where most of the jobs are and where most of the people congregate. Yet, for all the time that people work in these big cities, many of them are not able to travel around and see their own country. I suppose that could be true in other countries too, but, it is something of a surprise for locals here not to have seen many places in their life (in the context of the supreme purchasing power in this part of the world).

Perhaps, all this is best epitomised in what two people who are born and raised here, told me. One said, 'Americans don't care' and the second person told me,  'this is a very selfish bunch of people'.

I guess it's best to take the best out of everything in life, wherever we may be.

Friday, August 14, 2015

My first 15th August outside India

This is the first time in my life that I am not in India on our Independence Day. This is the first time that I am not driving around my favourite city, Bangalore, seeing the festivities of the national celebration reaching the last mile. This is the first time in my life that I am not buying the Indian national flag and keeping it proudly on the dashboard of my car, and then placing it on my desk at home, upon arrival. I miss home. Genuinely do.

Come to think of it, I have been out of the country for a mere 7 months. It does seem like a lifetime though. Perhaps, I was far too entrenched back home than I had realised, and the impact of uprooting the apple cart and moving abroad hit me much later. No regrets in doing that, whatsoever, professionally (only) speaking. 

But, these 7 months have been a revelation of a kind that I did not anticipate I would undergo to such a degree. I have come to recognise and understand myself far better than I ever did. I have come to respect my Indian identity so much more and understand how deeply-rooted I am with things back home.

Being a representative of my country in a foreign land is the one thing that I keep reminding myself about. Whatever I say or do, or don't say or don't do, can very well be a judgment by locals about what my country stands for. It may sound like a stretch, but I'd rather be cognizant of that possibility and hence be responsible about it. The pride of representing my nation in an alien land is an opportunity to show the world the right things that we stand for. I remember this, more than anything else, on this Independence Day.

In these 7 months, I suppose there have been multiple instances of being amazed by a whole new world, and equally so, times of wonderment of what I left back home. And at other times, about the possibilities ahead. To that extent, it clearly has been a mixed bag - speaking only one single language (English) everywhere I go, driving on the road with strict lane discipline, standing in a queue and waiting for my turn, getting used to the credit card culture, adapting to the immense levels of mechanisation and technology in everyday life (apps etc), not finding people on the street while driving, or  the unique driving culture of not honking, finding only cars and trucks on the road with the occasional biker around, going about setting up a new life in an alien land etc, have all ended up in contributing to my personality in ways that I may only fathom much later in life. Or, other things like being precise with things, punctual for every meeting (social or official), planning for and having a dress code for an occasion, using Google maps or GPS systems to find your way to a destination (irrespective of whether it is 10 minutes or 10 hours away from your origin), finding a way to be tremendously organized (lest face the wrath of the law of this land), are clear improvements from yesteryear. 

All these are experiences that would definitely stand me in good stead, as there is no social system of support in this new place. It is a case of finding out how to do something from scratch, and going about doing it in the most optimum way. Or, at least, the best way that I can figure out!

Not meaning to compare this experience with that of what I had in India. But, the world I come from, clearly had different things. Even if one didn't follow the rules, there was always a way out. Not having lane discipline and getting stuck in traffic for 3-4 hours at a stretch was so normal. Finding oodles of people on the road was a given. Saying, 'just 5 minutes' for anything and everything related to time was such a universal phenomenon. Honking to make your point on the road was actually, in hindsight, so much fun! Just asking people on the street the way to a particular place in the local language is something that is nothing short of divine! Finding multiple modes of transport (apart from just cars), especially that cursed vehicle the autorickshaw is a luxury that I did not expect to miss. And whatever else I may not find different, there is absolutely no cricket fever in the US - given the fanatical following of the game and my personal fanaticism for the game!

Much of these 7 months I guess are on the practical side of life. But, as is the human psyche, every place does have a deeper influence, and I am no exception. The thinking and approach to life of a capitalist economy and the people who have grown up in that world is single biggest factor that has influenced everything else here. The concept of living life, 'here and now', is just about the opposite of what we are taught back home i.e. plan and look for the future. College dropouts, start-ups, teenager-CEOs, speakers on leadership who are just about in their mid-20s, NFL, NBA and baseball (to the exclusion of every other sport, except tennis maybe) etc. For the studious folks, life is about Ivy League and million-dollar jobs with a sign-on bonus and international internship prior to their working life. I remember attending a guest lecture at the world-famous Wharton Business School and was stunned to see the universal congregation of competition and friendship in one place. Friends for life on one hand, and rivals on the other. It was a revelation, for sure. 

I suppose, many things from the US have already started creeping into the Indian psyche i.e. technology and start-ups, dreaming of securing education at top institutes only etc. But, that still is perhaps the preserve of a select few back home. For the vast majority of us in India, there isn't even money to get into a decent college, let alone thinking about dropping out of college. Acute poverty and illiteracy are the banes of our development. Those are the social and structural things that are fundamentally keeping us from realising our potential. It no longer is about the lack of money. India, in the modern age, can command money quite efficiently and effectively. It is about will and execution on the ground. It is about having forward-looking thinkers who need to run the show, rather than people who perhaps should consider calling time on their careers in policy making. 

Clearly, the great Indian dream coming good has been best personified in the last few days with the announcement of Sundar Pichai as the CEO of Google. Undoubtedly, a showcase moment for any Indian in any part of the world. The man has demonstrated the art of the possible to every Indian on the planet. Let's face it, Google is synonymous with the Internet. And to have an Indian at the helm of how the world runs online, is truly a proud thing for all of us. It is those kinds of dreams that we should all aspire to achieve, in whichever walk of life we may be. Those are the professional successes that our country should try to replicate. 

And, it is all rooted in its very root - education. We fix our education, we fix our future generations. I have only heard Presidents and Prime Ministers say this in various speeches, but, based on my own experience of living in this foreign country, I am now convinced about it. On this Independence Day, that should really be the core of what we do i.e. fix our education system.

On a different not, the best description of these 7 months in this foreign country is in what somebody very close to me said last month, 'the mention of Bangalore/India, makes your face light up with 40,000 watts, almost!" 

Happy Independence Day, India! Wherever I may be, home is where the heart is and you are the only place I will ever belong!!!