Friday, May 22, 2020

Lessons from Adversity

The Covid19-related lockdown hasn't been easy for anyone. Except perhaps Mother Earth, everyone else had it bad. Some had it worse. In that backdrop I consider myself blessed: I was lucky to have to work - physically present at the workplace - all through the lockdown.

One of the lines of the family business is distribution of Nestle products. As part of the supply-chain of essential commodities (packaged food), we were working from 28.Mar onwards and all through the lockdown.

At first, it was unsettling and anxiety was the dominant emotion. This was uncharted territory for everyone: the medical fraternity, the Government, us the people. It was unsettling for a variety of reasons: fear of the unknown, ever-evolving Government guidelines, deluge of fake news and hyperbole in the general narrative. All ably propagated through social media. From conspiracy theories to claims of Covid19 transmission through the ground to advise about gargling with potassium permanganate, the pandemic of human stupidity was as depressing as Covid-19. But above all, it was unsettling because we didn't know how much we were risking exposure by going to work and whether the preventive measures we were taking were sufficient.

As the days passed, the anxiety gave way to acceptance. Acceptance of the stark reality of the pandemic. Acceptance of the disruption it brought in its wake. Acceptance of the new - and hopefully, temporary - normal. As we enter Lockdown 4.0 it is evident that the new normal is going to be the "normal normal" for some time to come. At least, for sure, till a vaccine is found.

The transition to Lockdown 4.0 also gave me some thinking time to reflect upon the following lessons I have learnt - primarily from the current situation and also from a couple of previous instances that presented some sticky adversities and caused a fair deal of anxiety (though of course they all pale in comparison to the current crisis):

1. Adversity is a great - even if cruel - motivator: from little things like making work-from-home work for an otherwise tech-averse organisation and pushing educational institutions to launching open webinars, to unbelievable feats like migrant labourers walking hundreds of kilometers to get home and the stories of Minal Bhosale the virologist (who delivered a testing kit a day before she delivered her baby) and teenager Jyoti Kumar of Harayana (who cycled 1,500 kms with her Dad), it is mind-boggling how adversity can motivate the human mind to outdo itself.

2. Adversity unmasks us: Facades and gloves usually come off in the face of adversity. Adversities are great ways to get to know people and their behaviour. As someone correctly said, "hard work spotlights people; some turn their sleeves up, some turn their noses up and some just don't turn up!"

3. Shared adversity strengthens the focus on a shared objective: During the lockdown, our business operations - like everyone else's - were thrown out of gear. I was pleasantly surprised at how the team rallied around to do what it takes. Except to the extent of restrictions imposed by the authorities the team was committed and focused, with little supervision. No questions or complaints about extra workload, no cribbing about the unpredictable schedules, no slacking on account of the progressing summer.

4. When faced with uncertainty, take it one day at a time: in the face of uncertainty and the anxiety that results from it, it is important to condition one's mind to take it one day at a time. I have found that uncertainty rattles us in three steps: first, we start enumerating and playing out the different possibilities in our minds - i.e., what are the different things that can happen. Often, we start off considering the worst-scenario first. Two, we start speculating about outcomes & eventualities - i.e., we start imagining what - from among the different possibilities - will actually happen. Often, we never objectively assess the actual probability of each of these possibilities. And three, we start extrapolating the implications of the outcomes - i.e., we start playing out scenarios of impact & implications an imagined outcome will have. Often, these extrapolations are exaggerated. These 3 steps are of course one big blurry single thought or emotion. For instance, consider a scenario of someone in the family suffering a heart attack and imagine it is the first time the family is dealing with a situation like that. Its quite natural for the fear of the unknown or the impending uncertainty to generate anxiety. At first, taking it one hour or one day at a time is difficult because of the speed at which our minds work. But a little conditioning is all it takes to shut out a rabid imagination and reject speculations. This is key to remaining calm in the face of adversity; it is only a calm mind that can identify and execute on solutions.

5. When faced with uncertainty, focus on the fundamentals: focusing on the fundamentals helps in not getting overwhelmed by the pressures of what you hear & see around you. For example, in the current situation there were a finite set of precautions to be taken - distancing, sanitizing, wearing a mask. Those constituted the fundamentals. Focusing on those precautions helped defocus on other noise & meaningless suggestions and doomsday predictions. It also helps keep you safe - or at least, helps reduce the risk.

6. Even fear has a novelty value which wears off: beyond a point, fear doesn't intimidate you like it used to. Lockdown 1.0 was marked by doomsday predictions. Lockdown 4.0 is a different story. It's almost like we don't have the time & patience right now to be scared. It's almost like "Once bitten, Twice Bold". As Franklin Roosevelt said, "There's nothing to fear except fear itself". One has to guard against foolhardiness though, and ensure we don't slacken on the precautions we take just because fear doesn't frighten us any more.

7. Stimulus hunger & structure hunger: in his book "Games People Play", Eric Berne, the Canadian psychiatrist who explains human behaviour using his "Theory of Transaction Analysis", introduces the concept of "Social Intercourse". The 3 pillars of social intercourse are "stimulus hunger" (the need to interact with people), "recognition hunger" (the need to be recognised and accepted by one's near & dear ones - this has nothing do with Maslow's Need-Hierarchy theory) and "structure hunger" (the need to structure one's time during waking hours so as to have some activity to do). I had read this long back but never understood it as fully as I did now. The significance of stimulus hunger is quite evident and needs no explanation. Structure hunger has to do with time utilisation and is the reason why I am so grateful for having got to work through the lockdown. Eric Berne explains why structuring our time with activity goes beyond merely keeping the mind busy and how inability to structure our time can create problems for the mind. It would seem that the many philosophical, motherhood posts we kept seeing on social media were directly related to structure-hunger :)

8. Don't wallow in self-pity; there's always someone who is having it much worse than you: in the initial days of anxiety during the current lockdown, my thoughts were instantly with the countless folks at the frontline working in harsh conditions - garbage collectors, doctors, nurses, policemen, security guards, truck drivers and many more. And once I thought of their circumstances, my anxiety instantly turned to relief and gratitude that my situation was so much better-off. Add to them of course in the current context, the migrant labourers and train-engine drivers. A little perspective goes a long way in diluting your anxiety. In an earlier high-stress project I was working on, I used to travel to Mumbai every week. Dharavi - which I had to cross from the airport to Lower Parel (this was before the sea-link days) - turned out to be a source of inspiration for me! As my taxi passed through Dharavi, I got a brief glimpse into all the tiny houses along the footpaths. The vibrancy with which they went about their lives gave me pause and made me wonder what I was cribbing about.

9. Don't be lulled into a false sense of security: much too often, we think "that can't happen to me" or "that won't happen here". When the first rumblings began about Covid-19 I thought it would be like SARS - a small epidemic in some far-removed corner of the world that will fade away as quickly as it emerged. I have had a similar experience with a bunch of other problems that began as a little rumble somewhere and I assumed it will quietly go away without affecting me in any way. The lesson learnt is to be objective in assessing how a situation may develop and focus on the fundamentals. My most recent lesson - learnt the hard way - about assuming "that can't happen to me" was when despite being an otherwise prudent person, my hard disk crashed and I had no backup. All the while the hardware engineer was telling me I had a dead disk on my hand, one part of my mind was still in fantasy land screaming "This can't be happening!". But it had. It did. The Rs. 35,000/- I paid for recovery pinched really hard, but was worth every paisa for the tons of work-related stuff I retrieved as well for the 20+ GB of years of memories captured in my photo collection.

10. The world is a good place - help, kindness & support will often come from unexpected quarters: I often wonder if I live in a fool's paradise but concluded recently that I'd rather do that and have a cheery disposition & outlook than be sucked into the negativity that is so prevalent today. Just yesterday morning, I had the opportunity to help raise funds for food for migrant labourers put up at a local indoor stadium. I reached out to my network of classmates & friends as well as my general contacts. Rs. 60k was what was needed and about Rs. 40k is what I figured we would be able to raise. By late afternoon we had been able to raise just over Rs. 80k! The first two contributions amounting to Rs. 15k came from two former colleagues who have absolutely no connection with Goa. Another 35k came from two school friends who no longer live in Goa. On the second day - i.e., today, we were able raise another 48k thanks to another set of generous donors.

11. Learn from every adversity: to me, this is the most important of all the lessons adversity has taught me. Many years ago, a colleague and I were hunched over the conference room table at work, having just extricated ourselves from a minor mess and having also received half-a-earful from our boss and our boss's boss. As the dust settled, my colleague - several years my senior - suddenly turned to me and asked "So Suhas, what lesson did you learn from this?". "Is there one?", I asked. "There's always a lesson - you have to just look for it", he responded and proceeded to tell me two lessons from that episode that were so obvious, I should have thought of them myself. That interaction somehow left a deep impression on me. Every time I go through any untoward situation I always ask myself: what lesson did I learn from this? I don't always come up with answer but very often, I do. I've found this to be an extremely useful exercise - it helps build a catalog of mistakes & learnings alike, it helps you not get intimidated the next time you wade into trouble and it makes you wiser & stronger.

As the days unfold - one day at a time :D - I continue to be optimistic while I also continue to be fascinated by how much there is to learn.

Stay safe!

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

How to Vote

In the run-up to the Goa state elections, my Facebook feed was deluged - as was I am sure, everyone else's - with posts of different hues pertaining to elections and election campaigning. As I read through the posts and the views aired by people and their reasoning, I felt compelled to share my thoughts on what I felt should come into play when we make our choice.

Here are the parameters that will guide my final decision (blue are the ones that I will let influence my choice; red are ones I will make sure do not influence my choice).

Manifesto - sure, this is a quickly-forgotten document if/once elected, but it gives you an important window into the party's/candidate's thought-process and mindset. It  serves as a good measure of the pedigree & pragmatism of the claims. It gives you a fairly good view of the maturity of the party/candidates, how narrow or broad their horizons are, how genuine/deep or how artificial/hollow their claims are. It tells you whether there is a clear purpose of whether their goal is a mish-mash of suggestions stitched from different sources. This is much like the prospectus of educational institutions or hoardings for hotels on the highway or advertisements by real-estate developers. Educational institutions that "guarantee 100% placement" for instance are to be assessed closely. So would educational institutions that make claims of sprawling campuses in the heart of a large city - unless it is a really old and established institution, either the campus isn't sprwaling or it is nowhere in the city. Or a hotel that advertises "attached bathroom" or "24-hours hot water" or "cable TV" - if an attached bathroom, 24-hours hot water or cable TV is what the hotel thinks sets it apart from the competition, it says a lot of the statute of the hotel. Or real-estate projects that offer "guaranteed rent of Rs. x per month for y months" - how can any one fall for such claims, let alone make such claims? Of course, sometimes claims are bold or trailblazing and maybe a reflection of a bold vision - but if so, the party's/candidate's track record and/or a credible plan that they can show will come into play before I give them benefit of doubt.

If a manifesto starts by telling you why another party is bad, that would usually be a dead giveaway that the party/candidate has nothing concrete to offer.

Despite the apparently-low sanctity for this document within the party itself, I would still give it importance - in today's day & age, an elected Government will - even in the worst case - be compelled to do something to claim that they have delivered on their manifesto. If that is riddled with meaningless/misguided claims, then I will know whom not to vote for. 

Economics - I have two pet peeves on this one: freebies and inflationary pressures

Beware of Pandora's Box
(a) Freebies watch out for freebies, because there's truly no free lunch. Of course, one mustn't blame only the politicians - it is in our own psyche to celebrate and applaud the whole concept: grace marks, RTO agent, pulling rank to get our job done, unmetered electric connection through the local and so many more - we are wired to circumvent the system but hold others accountable to it. So freebies & populist measures have become a necessary evil in the arsenal of every political party and more so at election time - I get that and though I don't condone it, I am willing to live with it. What I will do however, is to look beyond the freebies and follow the money trail. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is bad enough. But if the whole arrangement is setup such that I get to be Paul today but have to be Peter tomorrow, the whole sham is going to unravel pretty soon. I find a lot of "welfare" schemes are just that - robbing Peter to pay Paul and everyone takes turns to be Peter and Paul. I also find a lot of claims about welfare schemes but no credible plan or even mention of where the money will come from.

(b) Inflationary pressures - it's amazing how many people want higher wages but lower prices. I just don't understand why people won't understand the fallacy in that argument. If my daily wage goes up 2x, so will the farm worker's, the lorry driver's, the garbage collector's and the postman's. Of course, I am over-simplifying it and dramatising but that's just the hard economic reality. 

Civics - let's not forget our high-school Civics - there are 3 branches of Government (Legislature, Executive and Judiciary) and a Seventh Schedule in the Constitution that defines a Union List (responsibilities of the Central Government), State List (responsibilities of the State Government) and a Concurrent List. Before we vent our ire or raise grievances, let's be clear about who plays what role. I have for example, seen Facebook posts expressing outrage on the Government for a decision of the Supreme Court. Or deriding a National Highway project (which is on the Union List) because some funds were not allocated for a project on the State List. This is both, sad and dangerous because it means we will not only make ill-informed decisions, but we will misdirect our ire with no consequence other than being an thorn in someone's flesh.

Administrative capability - focus objectively on the administrative capability or track-record of the candidate and not on whether s/he is nice to you, accepted your views, is known to your family. As with freebies, allowing sentiment, soft-qualities & political undercurrents to override objectivity & meritocracy is another malaise that plagues our psyche. And hence, the best-behaved boy becomes a group leader, you get to invited to judge a dance-competition (and you accept!) because you are a popular author, throwing garbage out of the window or parking badly is not okay unless it is done by your friend or family member and so on. This does not mean I expect every candidate to have some past experience in Government - we will never induct fresh faces with that criteria. Rather, it is important that they have had some sort of administrative experience or track-record somewhere - either in a corporate or some other institution.

Monkey Justice shared
from Curioso under the
Creative Commons License
Generalization & Hyperbole - we have of late become party to this very dangerous trend. The mining ban, the order on closure of liqour shops along the highway, the reactions to demonetisation, etc. are all results of this generalization without understanding the problem better and the propaganda around is a result of the hyperbole we have become experts at. It is not that there was no illegality and it is not that DUI deaths are trivial. It is not that demonetisation had no effect, nor is it that the demonetisation was implemented smoothly. But that does not mean every PIL is to be entertained and that does not mean you can put in jeopardy, millions of livelihoods based on half-baked shoddy Commission reports or PIL arguments. I find the media and we are happily indulging in the same kind of generalization - one misstep does not make a party or an individual incompetent or a criminal or a monster or a Hitler. Likewise, one brilliant idea or one well-executed project does not make a party or an individual a genius or a Nobel Prize winner or an angel or God.

If it is true that people get the Government they deserve, let's be deserving of a better Government! Vote wisely! 

Friday, June 24, 2016

Dealing With Reality - II: Intent vs. Outcome

If you know the circumstances surrounding the run-out in this picture, imagine for a moment, what would have happened if Dhoni had failed to outrun – and therefore failed to run out – the batsman. 

What if his idea of running with the ball instead of throwing the ball, had backfired? What if Pandya had been hit for 2 fours in that fateful last over? What if those flighted deliveries to which the Bangladeshis fell had instead gone over the rope?

How would we then have reacted to everything that happened in that last over? Along those lines, how would a Bangladeshi fan have reacted to what happened? Fretted at the result or appreciated the valiant efforts of the inexperienced batsmen?

As another example, consider a typical minor road accident. Almost always, the outcome influences our reaction. How often do we assess – or even care about – the intent of the other driver or possible extenuating circumstances that caused a certain action on his/her part? In that moment when there has been a collision or a near-collision, it is the outcome or the imagining of what would/could have happened that is uppermost in our minds. Not why the other driver did what s/he did or what caused that action. 

As yet another example, think about WikiLeaks or the wars the USA is fighting in Afghanistan or in Iraq.

Which brings me to the crux of this post: what influences our reaction to or our handling of a situation or an individual? The outcome or the intent?

In my earlier post, "Dealing with Reality - I: Behaviour Classification" I wrote about how I use my assessment of an individual’s mindset, disposition, attitude, etc. to help deal with a situation. This post is an extension of sorts of that one – viz., when dealing with a situation, how important is the intent of the individuals involved vis-à-vis the outcome?

Dealing with people is an intrinsic part of dealing with reality. If we are not adept at dealing with people, it is unlikely we will handle reality well – especially adverse reality. 

Over the years, I have invested a fair amount of time and effort (in a very layman-ish and amateur way), in assessing people’s behaviour, in reflecting on my own handling of adverse situations, in observing how people react to situations. In the process, I learnt two important lessons: one, how an understanding of other people’s mindsets helps deal with situations and two, the importance of making a conscious choice of whether we allow the outcome or the intent to influence our decision. 

Consider a child who is irritating you or who spoils something in the house or something belonging to you. Unless the outcome is critical – e.g., tore up some important documents or threw something heavy at the TV – we usually take it in our stride. More often than not, this is because we have – consciously or sub-consciously – decided to focus on the intent rather than the outcome. Much like the case of my then 2-year-old who practised gargling on my laptop ("I Love Evaporation").

Now go back to those two situations – the last-over thriller against Bangladesh and any minor traffic incident that provoked some strain of road rage inside you. Reconsider whether your reaction would have been different if you focused on the intent/extenuating circumstances rather than on the outcome.

At yet, it’s not quite that simple. 

For one, there is the risk of over-rationalising. Merely focusing on the intent or sympathising with the circumstances of another individual cannot and must not absolve anyone of his/her responsibility or accountability. Hence, I will for instance, give only so much leeway to an employee who is habitually late or slacking on the job because of some domestic issues. Similarly, a personal emergency does not give anyone the right to put someone else’s life in danger by driving rashly. 

Secondly, there’s always the inner voice that helps you distinguish the right from the wrong. And hence, no matter what the intent or circumstances may be, what’s wrong is wrong. As with the case of someone who breaks a traffic rule and causes harm or injury to an innocent fellow-motorist.  

Thirdly, there’s the more complex situation – and one where I personally still struggle to deal with – where someone does something good or someone produces a desirable outcome but with what you clearly know are ulterior motives.  You encounter these in public life, in business and in personal life. 

Consider the case of WikiLeaks or the Afghan and Iraq wars that the US is embroiled in. In my opinion all these fall squarely in the third category - even if you can establish a clear outcome or a clear intent it is very difficult to determine whether the outcome nullifies the intent or whether the intent justifies the outcome. 

As the German philosopher  Friedrich Nietzsche said, “there are no facts, only interpretations” – while there is a didactic and figurative element to this, I have learnt that our interpretation of reality plays a critical role in how we deal with it. By the same token, as Abraham Lincoln put it, if we call a tail a leg, a dog will still have only four legs.

In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy striking a balance – and more often than not, struggling to find that balance – between an objective and subjective treatment of the people I have to deal with and their behaviour...