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!