3 04 2019

Adam Grants’ Give and Take is truly a gem of a book. I was enamored by the content and insights, as well as the engaging writing style with anecdotes and stories galore. According to Adam Grant, people fall into three categories with respect to giving:

  • Givers
  • Matchers
  • Takers

Give and TakeGivers are those who give their time and other resources in order to help others without expecting anything in return. Takers focus more on taking things, favors from others without giving anything back. Matchers are those who are more transactional in nature. They always return their favors and expect the same from others. In case others do not reciprocate, matchers punish them – by avoiding them in future or by making sure that the takers’ reputation is spread.

I find the concept of “Giver” very appealing and inspiring. Giving is their first impulse and second nature. They make the pie bigger for everyone and pay forward. Adam Rifkin (fondly called Panda), through his five-minute-favor concept has become the most widely connected person, making a difference to a large number of people, both directly and indirectly. You can read about it here: Pay it forward.

Interestingly, givers are both at the top and bottom of the success ladder. It’s because there are two types of givers – selfless givers and otherish givers. Selfless givers succumb to giver burnout because they usually give without any discretion that saps away their energy and hinders their ability to prosper in their own endeavors. They engage in something called “sprinkling”, which means that the favors they do and help they provide are sprinkled throughout their day or week, as and when the requests come in. The otherish givers, on the other side, practice “chunking” where they set aside some time for giving and provide help only during those hours. This way, they are able to protect their energy and momentum on the activities that are important to them while also being able to provide meaningful support to others. Another way to address giver burnout is to see the impact of their giving. It greatly boosts their motivation to do more and reduce their burnout.  Seeking help when needed is also another simple but rather underutilized strategy to combat burnout. 🙂

Giving benefits the giver in many ways – not only from the altruistic sense but also from the ripple effects. One interesting thing I learned from the book is that there is a magic number of hours that a person can perform volunteer work which provides the maximum benefit of giving without any adverse effects. And that is 100 hours per year.

Successful givers engage in certain common behaviors and strategies like below. Takers usually exhibit the opposite behavior.

  •  Be collaborative and give credit where it is deserved
  •  Create psychological safety
  •  Focus on collective good rather than individual gains
  •  Be a genius maker (multiplier) rather than a genius
  •  Believe in the potential of a person more than the current level of talent ( In order to be gain expertise we need to first develop interest in it and early teachers who encourage us and make the learning fun are invaluable. I never thought about it this way.)
  •  Engage in powerless communication
  •  Open to and seek advice
  •  Beware of and overcome responsibility bias (where one underestimates the contribution of others compared to yours in a group effort)
  •  Give energy and time due to a sense of enjoyment and purpose, rather than duty and obligation

Balancing powerful and powerless communication is challenging and needs certain level of emotional intelligence I would guess. I face many situations at work where powerful communication is expected, needed and rewarded. That said, I see several forms of powerless communication being engaged in as well. Specifically, asking questions, inserting hestitations, disclaimers, hedges etc., and rarely – asking advice. I think “asking advice” technique is so undervalued. I can see how it can be leveraged well, when used strategically. We can all ask more questions and more advice to sell more, to negotiate better etc. Even if it doesn’t come naturally to one, maybe due to cultural conditioning that “powerful communication” is always better, I think consciously adopting the powerless communication techniques will help us become more successful and actually better people.

So, intelligent giving is key. This quote by Herbert Simon says it all – “The intelligent altruists, though less altruist than the unintelligent altruists, will be fitter than both unintelligent altruists and selfish individuals.

So, can people be truly altruistic or is all giving a form of selfishness? I believe that feeling good about doing good is not selfish and is actually altruism. Given that everything we do is driven by survival and positive experiences, it would be unnatural to define altruism as something we can do without even feeling satisfied or good about it.

I think I’m a matcher.  Maybe because I’m very reserved and don’t really have a big network, and I don’t always really go about offering help at the outset. Having said that, when I’m asked for help, I seldom refuse, irrespective of whether I can get something in return. I think I come from “scarcity” rather than “abundance”, which prevents me from offering more without being asked. I definitely do not like to exploit others generosity.

Being a matcher, I think I find it easier and justified to shun takers when I realize they are just sapping my energy and time. I don’t really mind if I don’t get much or anything in return but self-absorbed people with their fakeness and consistent manipulation exude toxic vibes in my opinion, and leave unpleasant feelings in their wake.

There are loads of takeaways, strategies, and insights in this book. I found it interesting that the information on how much they are giving/contributing compared to their immediate circle/community, will make people to give more. The action items at the end of the book for an organization looking to create a more giving culture are a huge help. Here is the article about the same: 10 ways to get ahead through giving.

I’m impressed by the author and his work. I really liked the book. The major takeaway for me had been realizing the power of strategic giving,  and understanding the difference between an otherish vs a selfless giver. Even in this competitive world, giving pays.

While having otherish strategies are important, it cannot be faked. Giving is a mindset and more a way of life, rather than a mere strategy or just behavioral. Let’s all be more giving, not because it benefits us, but because it benefits everyone. One byproduct of giving can be happiness and peace of mind. It’s less stressful to be open and helping than be calculative and mean.

In my experience, I’ve seen people who are more helpful receive more in terms of network. To a large extent, I believe that giving/taking is cultivated from the culture, surroundings, circumstances and a whole lot of external factors. By being in the presence of more positive and giving people, we can all can be better givers. Genes may be a factor, but the external factors can have at least 40 to 50% influence. We need more Adam Rifkins!

Sour grapes

1 04 2019

Sour grapes

A hungry fox wanders through the forest for food with no avail. At last it finds a grape vine with a bunch of grapes hanging from the top. The fox gets excited and thrilled. However, the grapes are just out of reach for the fox and its repeated attempts to jump high to grab the bunch fail. After several attempts the fox gives up and moves away muttering to itself that those grapes are sour and he does not want them.

Moral of the story – What you can’t have, you find it undesirable.

Like many others, I have been hearing and reading this story since my childhood. But I guess I never really understood it until recently. It makes me think that wisdom cannot be imparted, it has be gained and realized. Often it takes decades to truly understand certain things.

The above story seems like a simple and straight-forward story and the “moral of the story” statement doesn’t usually leave much for interpretation. Intellectually, it is easy to grasp. Nevertheless, as I grew up my reactions to this fable ranged mostly from perplexity to miscomprehension. Confusion because I really didn’t understand why the fox hates the grapes when he realizes he cannot have them. Usually, I experience the reverse in similar situations. When something is denied or out of reach, it just makes me desire it more vehemently. Later at some point, I thought the fox is stupid when he moved on.  Then, that the fox is a failure for giving up too easily. You notice the progression here? These interpretations reflect in part my maturity (or lack thereof) and in part the beliefs (or misconceptions) that I held based on my circumstances and surroundings. Giving up on one’s dreams or desires is largely seen as a failure and perseverance as virtue. Only now, after 3 decades, do I finally understand how wise the fox really is and thereby the  significance of the story.

There is no point in hanging around for impossible things. Impossible, maybe not by definition, but rather within the boundaries of one’s circumstances and capabilities. And when you quit and move on, it’s neither a failure nor a reflection of your worth or capabilities. It’s success instead. You are no longer longing for it or feel dejected. You just move on and focus on other/different things. Now I’m confident without a doubt that the grapes must indeed be sour!

Lethal White

30 03 2019

Lethal White

This is the fourth book in the Cormoron Strike series by J K Rowling (pseudonym – Robert Galbraith) and it’s just as addictive and enjoyable as all the three that came before. Actually, I think each book is better than the previous one.

Lethal White is a long winded blackmailing and murder mystery which runs over 600 pages. As a rule, I mistrust huge books. It is usually unfathomable to me that an author needs more than a reasonable 400 pages to say what he/she wants to say. I’m sure there are lot of great books that are longer, but I cannot vouch for them personally due to my tendency to generally avoid huge books. I know I’m missing out on great stuff there (I’m thinking Lord of the Rings!), but I need to get over my anxiety of big books. Is there an actual technical term that describes my phobia? I wonder! A little digression – I managed to read Goldfinch (over 750 pages) and I absolutely loved every page of it!

In the case of Lethal White, I was genuinely perplexed as to how a murder mystery book can span over 600 pages. It just seemed either impossible or preposterous to me. Nevertheless, as you know, I’ve ploughed into the book and enjoyed it very much. Rowling’s writing is just delightful. The way the characters were captivating and the plot engaging, I actually felt bad when the book ended. I feel that in many ways Cormoron and Robin, the chemistry between them, and their lives are actually more intriguing and appealing than the investigation itself. It adds to the appeal of the series a lot. Lethal White has lot of characters and parallel threads, and despite that it’s rewarding.

In the acknowledgements section, the author claimed that the Lethal White is by far the most complex to write in terms of the plot. I can totally understand. It’s been 3 years since her last book – Career Evil. I hope she doesn’t take that long for the next one.  Career of Evil (Book 3) is my favorite so far in the series.




17 03 2019

Stress, anxiety, and burnout seem to be common infliction in today’s demanding work culture.  Perennial to-do lists, never-ending ad-hoc requests, simultaneously working on multiple projects define the job reality. This is more true for some than others. Often, our unconscious mistakes and tendencies lead us to work-related stress and burnout. These are, of course, much bigger topics and a range of factors affect them. I would just like to touch upon a couple of things in this post.

To-do list is the simplest tool for anyone to get a hang of the number of tasks to be performed . However, in my experience, to-do list is a poor choice of tool to manage tasks and projects. From time to time, I typically list all the things that I want to do and have to do – my work tasks, errands, learning goals, social activities, everything. And when I do that, usually my first reaction would be of anxiety – Oh my God, there’s a lot to do! The to-do list by itself doesn’t provide any ability to categorize or prioritize or set time boundaries on any of the tasks. The only good thing that comes out of it is the surge of dopamine that results upon striking off an item on the list. Ha, that’s really very rewarding. But this can actually act against the utility of the tool, because we will usually end up doing the simplest and may be unimportant tasks first just to strike them off the list and feel rewarded.


The fix to this is to actually use a prioritization tool instead. Yes, I’m talking about the famous Urgent/Important matrix.


Our goal should be to spend the most time in the Quadrant 2 on the important and non-urgent tasks. That should be our sweet spot. However, on any given day, we need to first start with Quadrant 1 tasks, because they are time-sensitive besides being important. But it’s wise to spend majority of time on Quadrant 2 tasks, which are usually more strategic and highly valuable. The idea is that when we spend more time in Quadrant 2, the number of tasks that end up in Quadrants 1 and 3 will be minimized.

Of course, there will always be some urgent things that we need to do, which in the grand scheme of things aren’t important enough for one’s goals. Examples may vary from person to person (in personal life), but in work settings they could be activities like preparing a mundane report, sending that email notification, proof-reading the presentation etc. We cannot really dismiss them totally because they do serve a purpose. The best way to deal with them is to delegate or automate those tasks as much as possible. Sometimes, procrastination also helps. In the sense that we can perform several unimportant things quickly in the last minute rather than spending crucial time early. Think creatively. 😉

Another equally important goal is to eliminate all Quadrant 4 tasks. This is perhaps the toughest one for me because my Quadrant 4 typically has things that I like to do, but are neither urgent nor important to my well-being and/or progress. But I so do enjoy them. And I always start with Quadrant 4 because that is the most attractive to me. And that’s definitely not a wise decision. This is where the next tool may help, which is very similar to the above Important/Urgent matrix – The Want to do / Have to do matrix:


In this model, the sweet spot is Quadrant 2, which comprises of tasks both we want to do and are required to do to meet our goals. However, we need to eat our Frogs first – those in Quadrant 1, which we do not want to do but we have to do as part of our jobs. That way, we can tackle the unpalatable tasks when we have the highest reserves of energy and once done with them, can indulge in dealing with Jewels. It goes without saying that we need to avoid the Knats totally. For many tasks, we may not realize that we need not do them ourselves. Similar to the Unimportant/Urgent tasks, we can come up with creative solutions to get those things done, through others or through automation. In some cases, we may be able to totally ignore them. Butterflies pose a little problem though. These are the tasks that we really want to do, but are not required to do as part of the job. These are usually our indulgences. It’s important for our motivation to be able to spend time on the things we want to do. We may need to spend our time judiciously on butterflies though. 🙂

I agree that getting the priorities right is not an easy thing to do. Often, everything seems to be important and urgent. However, thinking in terms of the above frameworks will help one a lot in taking the first steps.

Saying No:

The other common obstacle in managing our time and tasks is our tendency to take on more ad-hoc requests and doing ‘favors’. Helping others is a very good trait and solving other’s problems give us a sense of satisfaction. However, we should be cautious about the impact of such favors and ad-hoc requests on the regular and important projects. Sometimes, the favors may be really simple, requiring only an hour or less of your time. Even though, if such a request comes while we are in the middle of something and we tend to it right away, we incur a heavy cognitive cost while switching between the contexts. This doesn’t mean that we must deny any such requests and not help anyone. It’s just that we need to help and handle ad-hoc requests in a strategic way.

If taking on the ad-hoc requests is indeed a part of our job, we need to frame it in the big picture. How important is this aspect of our job compared to others? What’s the priority? Depending on that, we may need to attend to it right away or set aside some regular time (Fridays or Monday mornings etc.) and let others know. This way, we will be able to work on your other priorities without interruptions the rest of the time.

Also, not all requests are important and/or urgent.  People may come to you, only because it’s easier for them to get that done by you rather than doing it themselves and of course, you always help them. A simple way to protect yourself against such requests is to simply let the requester know that you are tied up with something at that moment and can get to her request at so and so time/day. Or you can tell them that we are busy at the moment and will get back after checking your calendar about when you can get to the request at hand. Often this tactic is enough for the requester to reconsider. This is saying No, without actually saying it. If the task is really important for them and need your help, they will be open to approach you at the time convenient to you. After a few times, they understand the pattern and approach you only when it’s absolutely needed and rightly do not expect immediate attention from you. In many cases, it may not be urgent at all, but oftentimes we succumb to the tendency of jumping right in as soon as we get the request.  We need to define the boundaries for our time and set right expectations for others. Because ultimately, we want to spend our time and energy on things that are important and beneficial to us and also those which we enjoy most. This will go a long way in reducing or even eliminating burnout and stress.

Productivity porn

13 03 2019

I first heard of this term on a podcast with Dan Ariely a while ago and I was intrigued. A quick google search revealed that it’s not a hypothetical, spur of the moment invention but rather something that’s being much discussed and written about. And that it’s a real phenomenon. It basically represents the tendency to seek more and more productivity-enhancing information, often to obsessive levels.

There is a plethora of information out there in the form of tips, techniques, tools etc., both scientific and pseudo-scientific, that seems to bombard a productivity seeker from all corners. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by this avalanche of information and this may eventually lead to inaction. There is also the danger of receiving a lot of conflicting information as well. It’s very challenging to assimilate different pieces of information and come out with a plan that works for oneself.

While I’m not obsessive about productivity, I do keep seeking productivity tips from time to time. Here is my personal journey:

Several years ago, in an effort to be more efficient and to reach my goals, I started creating and using To do Lists after learning about their utility from some resource. They definitely helped me to understand the scope of the tasks I do and like to do. But I faced difficulties in trying to tick off items on my list. Then came along the advice on attaching time bounds – basically recording your tasks on a calendar. That sounded reasonable and so for a couple of years, I happily tagged along with me a bulky organizer (this was pre-smartphone days). It seemed to work for me, at least better than just plain old to-do lists. But of course, it’s not a magic pill and didn’t solve all my efficiency and productivity goals. Moreover, it seemed a lot of work. Then I happened to read a piece of advice from a top Yahoo executive on To-do lists. Her advice on the best way to deal with to-do lists is that one shouldn’t, as a rule, seek to accomplish all the tasks listed, but one should aim to accomplish only about half of them. Her premise is that we tend to put too many things on our to-do lists with varying degrees of priority and importance, and the intention to achieve each one of them puts undue stress on self. Assuming that you would typically tackle the higher priority tasks first, we shouldn’t really bother about those on the bottom of the list. This too seemed appropriate advice. I tried to follow it, but couldn’t because I had issues with prioritizing my tasks. Either everything seemed important to me or I routinely found myself tackling first the more appealing but utterly unimportant or useless tasks, thereby indulging in classic procrastination of things that matter and draining my energy with petty things leaving very little or none for the tasks that are more important. Here tools like the Urgent/Important matrix by Eisenhower are an obvious choice to implement. These quadrants are also dubbed as Frogs, Jewels, Knats, Butterflies to drive the point home and help the users to understand the nature of each quadrant by association. I can’t say I have mastered using this tool, but it had been a huge help. But the story doesn’t end here.

I found myself continuously seeking and absorbing more productivity tips and tools like – 3-5-8 rule to organize my work day, the famous Pomodoro technique to focus on complex tasks, email management etc. You get the idea. It’s as if the act of collecting the productivity tips is in itself useful.  But have I really become more productive and efficient? Maybe a little. Over time I realized that my joy in seeking to improve my productivity is illusionary because of the phenomenon of analysis paralysis that it leads to. It all seemed such a useless chore.

But now, my objective is not to become the most efficient but rather just find my sweet spot or secret sauce of one or two ingredients that will benefit me in a big way and in the long run. Everything is much simpler now. My brush with productivity porn made me wiser. I think the connotations of this term should serve as a warning bell, urge one to take a step back, reflect on related behaviors and catch oneself when about to cross the line.

Here a couple of great articles on the term and the phenomenon:

Productivity Porn and How to Stop Fiddling and Start Doing

The Trap of Productivity Porn



Inappropriate insult

11 03 2019

I happened to watch an Indian regional movie last week titled – ‘Vinaya Vidheya Rama’.  I was appalled by many things about the movie. Aside from the illogical story and physics-defying-heroic-stunts, one thing that truly triggered me was the form of insult that the villain imposes on men who defy him or his tyranny.  He makes the perpetrators don women’s ornaments – bangles and anklets – in front of everyone. Apparently, that’s the worst kind of offense that anyone can bear, and the whole town, including women, are horrified and distressed by the act.   By comparing them with women, the intention behind that “punishment” is to brand those men as incompetent and useless, and maybe something more demeaning that is beyond my imagination.  I’m shocked to see that kind of totally humiliating and insensitive insinuation of women in the current times and that too in a movie of a top hero and a top director. I always feel that movie makers have a social obligation to condemn or at least not reinforce regressive thoughts and beliefs  given the influence they have on people, especially young ones.

The Happiness Project

10 03 2019

HappinessProject10th-pb-c-1This book by Gretchen Ruben has been a delightful read. It’s the author’s experiment on boosting her happiness by following a set of principles and making changes to her lifestyle over a period of 12 months. It’s definitely inspiring to hear her story but my initial reaction was one of overwhelmingness. Happiness really seemed a lot of work. Of course, one can’t expect to feel differently without changing anything in oneself and/or in the surrounding environment. Of course, happiness is a journey and not a goal and the author’s experience helped her to realize and understand what makes her happy, the knowledge and experience of which she can continue to use in future if she has to sustain or improve her happiness levels.

She is a very meticulous and organized person and the way she planned and carried out every detail of this project is mind-numbing. I don’t mean to say that this level of effort is not required for anyone to be happier but one should definitely decide what they want to change and how much and set the right expectations on the resulting happiness levels.

Speaking of myself, when I target increasing my happiness and/or reducing anxiety/stress levels, I typically tend to focus on one or two “low-hanging-fruit” or “quick-wins” to get me going, instead of experimenting with everything. Happiness has been a major focus in psychology in recent years and I see many books, courses, articles, and conversations happening about it. It’s about the time when we move away from focusing on reducing the pain to increasing the well-being because we have made enough scientific and technologies advances so far to get a grip about the adversities. It doesn’t mean that we have eradicated all suffering, but just that we have tools to tackle most of them owing to decades of scientific research, while we practically know very little about happiness. But of course, that is changing. 🙂

Hooray for Happiness!

Sometimes it may seem an indulgence, but it’s important to understand that happiness is not synonymous with pleasure, but rather a grounded and sustainable state of mind that is full of meaning.

Ruben’s posts on her blog are quite insightful. Please check them out here:

Feminist Fight Club

5 09 2017

An Office survival Manual (For a Sexist Workplace) by Jessica Bennett

Feminist Fight ClubThis is one of those rare books that I couldn’t even wait until I finished it before I ordered not only my own personal copy but also copies for my friends.

It’s irreverent, hilarious, witty, sarcastic, and above all practical and helpful. It lays out the many self-sabotaging and self-defeating behaviors and thoughts of women that accentuate the age-old stereotypes and thereby result in the vicious circle of widening the chasm between the sexes in the workplace. It talks about all the implicit ways that both men and women indulge in that contribute to the problem. It provides sensible tips and advice on how to tackle these damaging tendencies.

It highlights the pervasiveness of gender discrimination at work and points out that today’s sexism is not overt but seemingly very subtle and imbibed in countless  “normal” behaviors. Nonetheless, it’s not less damaging. We still do have a wage gap, glass ceiling, and other ways of limiting the growth of women in their careers. Women are interrupted more than men when they are talking, more likely than men not to be given due credit for their ideas and work, judged harshly/negatively compared to men for same behaviors etc.

Even if we think of ourselves as very progressive, the deep rooted stereotypes and cultural notions are assimilated in many seemingly harmless and often times subconscious reactions and behaviors. Everyone needs to consciously work on their own implicit  (and otherwise) biases in order to be able to address this issue and bring out the change. Because gender parity benefits one and all. It frees everyone from the boundaries of the stereotypes, because that’s what stereotypes do – they confine us all – men and women. Men need not limit their actions in order to conform to the “macho-man” stereotype, which sometimes involves significant cost to one’s own conscience, morality, humanity, and others. They need not bear the burden of primary financial and career responsibility solely on their shoulders and instead share that with women. Rising above the stereotypes is a challenge but not insurmountable. They do have their purpose as shortcuts but it helps to evaluate them and make conscious choices instead of succumbing to them blindly. Knowledge and awareness is power.

Men can not only help by not engaging in detrimental actions but also by stopping other men from acting so and/or supporting women. Likewise, women can help themselves as well as each other through a network of support.

I found at times that the tone of the book is too brazen and bold, but that may just be my cultural conditioning restricting myself from accepting such a tone from a woman, as well as applied to women. 😛 Also, I felt that some tips sounded more like “how to be like a man”. And it seemed that the culture associates most successful tendencies to be “masculine” and the less successful or even detrimental behaviors as “feminine”, at least in the workplace. It’s a dismal realization. There is even a chapter in the book titled “What would Josh do?”, which encourages women to emulate the tendencies of a successful male in certain situations. This is not ill advice at all. But I hope for a day when distinctly feminine behaviors also connote success, strength and professionalism. Currently, in case of transgressions or slips from ideal work behaviors, women are judged more harshly and often those actions get ascribed to the entire gender (and how women are inferior/unsuitable/out of place) in contrast to men, in which case, they’re only mere transgressions or “he just being a man” (a good thing).

The book evoked in me lot of emotions. I found myself surprised by some insights and facts (from studies), nodding in agreement at many places with the arguments, cringing while recalling my own self-sabotaging behaviors, inspired by the support available and the ray of hope to change the status quo.

Anyone who cares about gender discrimination at workplace should definitely read this book. I think that any workplace that likes to combat sexism can start by

  • Recruiting more women
  • Offering women same pay as men (very important and I think very doable. No, please don’t blame it on negotiation skills)
  • Educating all employees on various contributing and exacerbating tendencies and how to avoid or work around them

Here’s to empowering one and all! 🙂

Impostor syndrome

14 06 2017

I’ve been hearing about impostor syndrome a lot in recent times. I don’t mean that the tendency itself is a novel phenomenon by any means.  It had been first described in the 1970s by psychologists Suzanne Imes, and Pauline Rose Clance. It’s just that the term or label has been gaining lot of popularity and attention. People are trying to understand the concept, discussing it, acknowledging its prevalence in their own and/or dear ones’ lives and forthcoming with personal stories and experiences about feeling like a fraud. It may seem at the outset a little like indulging in self-deprecation in order to get attention, when one reads all those “confessional” tweets and revelations, but most likely it isn’t the case and the issue runs much deeper.

So, what is it exactly?

As per Wikipedia, impostor syndrome is a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Clearly, it implies that a person feels like a fraud despite the concrete evidence of his/her skills and achievements and often attribute their success to serendipity or other external factors.

What causes or contributes to such feelings?

Societal and parental pressure to achieve seems to be the biggest culprit. New challenges also may cause impostor feelings in some people. Women and minorities tend to be more susceptible to impostor syndrome than others. Showering a lot of undeserved and untruthful praise during childhood can also lead to impostor feelings later in life. (APA article – Feel like a fraud?)

People often perceive impostor feelings as manifestations of other seemingly related concepts like self-doubt, lack-of confidence, low self-esteem, perfectionism, insecurity, seeking validation or approval etc. I’ve have had people use these different terms and concepts in some capacity while trying to explain the phenomenon of impostor syndrome. It’s important to differentiate impostor syndrome from all such things though, if one ever has to identify or diagnose it with any conviction and not get those other things mixed up with what actually is impostor syndrome.

Here is my token effort towards trying to untangle these different concepts from impostor syndrome. Beware that this is neither going to be a complete scientific evaluation of the relevant body of knowledge out there nor a philosophical rambling wondering about life’s bizarre nuances.

  • Self-doubt – Impostor syndrome is a special kind of self-doubt, with overpowering and all-encompassing fear about one’s inadequacy. (APA article – Feel like a fraud?)
  • Low self-esteem – Impostor syndrome is more than just low self-esteem. It’s the inability to give credit to yourself for your abilities.
  • Lack of confidence – This could be due to several reasons, including lack of skill. But impostor syndrome doesn’t happen when you lack an ability. However, it is observed that most people are impostor syndrome while try to learn new things.
  • Perfectionism – This is complementary to impostor syndrome. People with impostor feelings tend to do things perfectly and push themselves too hard to meet their own high expectations. (APA article – Feel like a fraud?)
  • Seeking external validation or approval – This is another complementary behavior to impostor syndrome. People with impostor feelings definitely crave for external validation making it difficult for them to recognize their own expertise.
  • Insecurity – Impostor syndrome also involves negative feelings about oneself, which are inherent to being insecure. But achieving actual success despite these insecure feelings, mostly due to the other optimistic beliefs they hold sets these people who feel like a fraud apart from those with just “insecurity”, most likely without any achievements to their credit. (Huffington Post – Do you suffer from Impostor Syndrome?)

So, impostor syndrome is a bit of all these things but the real differentiating characteristics are

  • High-achieving individuals and
  • Inability to internalize their accomplishments

Do you have impostor syndrome? Ask yourself these questions to find out: Quiz. Here is an interesting analysis on relationship between impostor syndrome and confidence: Impostor Syndrome Is Not Just a Confidence Problem. There is lot of helpful information out there online on how to deal with this syndrome and overcome or at least quiet down that voice inside you that tells you that you are a fraud. (HBR article- Overcoming Impostor Syndrome).

Catching yourself in the act, recognizing your abilities, and seeking support help a lot. But the idea is not to succumb to Dunning-Kruger effect, which is exactly the opposite of impostor syndrome: feeling of unwarranted superiority. A tendency to overestimate their abilities and correctly assess their inadequacies. 🙂

imposter syndrome

Buddhism and modern science

9 06 2017


The Buddhist doctrine of “not-self” is a tricky concept to comprehend. It proclaims that the idea of self, what one thinks as oneself, doesn’t exist. That means, the “I” or “ego” doesn’t exist. As per Buddhism, self is something that can be controlled. What we perceive as a person or a self can be thought of as a conglomeration of five aggregates – form, feeling, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Buddhism asserts that since each of these things can happen and exist outside of one’s control, none of these things can be the self and hence there is no self that exists. This follows that there is no single author of our actions and there is a sense of impermanence attached to everything we think as self.

This philosophy is in line with the scientific view of the mind in that there is no central CEO that is in charge of one’s thoughts, emotions, or actions, but rather there are several modules within the brain that act together or in isolation depending on the stimulus and situation. To be precise, there are seven modules of the mind representing: self-protection, mate attraction, mate retention, affiliation, kin care, status, and disease avoidance. There are submodules off each module. This modular theory of mind is developed by Robert Kurzban, and is thought to have been shaped by natural selection.

Whatever we think of conscious self is basically a public relations representative, presenting a coherent picture to the outside world as both beneficial and affective, a tendency described as “beneffactance”. It is a term coined by psychologist Anthony Greenwald in 1980. Even if we are not always aware of the motivations behind our actions and decisions, we present ourselves as otherwise to the others and also self.

If more than one module is at play in a given situation, for example in the case of whether to engage in an extramarital affair, the modules corresponding to short-term and long-term implications may “argue” with each other, weighs costs and benefits, until one clearly wins. The reason we are aware of this internal dialogue is because the conscious self – the PR representative – needs to justify the actions to the society. It may not even be the real reason. Many of our decisions and thoughts are not consciously made. For example, consider the experiment done by Margo Wilson and Martin Daly, in which men who were shown pictures of attractive women preferred to have smaller amount money of right now vs a larger amount in future. This shows that the time discount rate of a particular person is not constant and can be influenced by various environmental factors. It is obvious from such studies and findings that our minds are unreliable and transient, which aligns with the impermanence view of Buddhism.

Now, let’s consider how this “not-self” and “modular view of the mind” manifest themselves in the Buddhist practice of meditation. Meditation can be of two forms – concentrated and open monitoring. In the concentrated mode, you focus on a particular thing, say breath, or a mantra etc. deflecting all the other distracting thoughts. In open monitoring mode, which can also be referred to as mindfulness meditation, one just observes all the thoughts that come to mind, but without pursuing them and without judging them.

When you are in the mindfulness meditation, the default mode network of the mind is triggered, in which several modules vie for your attention through feelings in response to the many thoughts that come to your mind. The default mode network gets activated in the mind when you are not focused on anything in particular. As you practice your mediation, and learn not to feed the thoughts that arise in your default mode network, and be detached to the interplay of the various modules, the default mode network quiets down. While the focused mode meditation is effective in quieting down the default mode network in the first instance, given the fact that you are focusing on something in particular, it is the mindfulness meditation that provides the sustainable change.

We operate with various biases acting on us. For example, without any conscious thought or decision, we attribute the good things that our friends do to their good nature and their bad deeds to external influences. And it’s the complete opposite in the case of our enemies. These are the frames that we create in our minds. Studies have proven that we are even biased about our own biases. We genuinely believe that we are less biased than others. Mindfulness meditation enables us to be aware of such mental frames and by doing so to influence and change them.

Over time, you will be able to carry forward the objective, less attached, and mindful stance to both things inside and outside your mind from your meditation practice into the daily life. This essentially means that by re-framing your mind or choosing your reaction or “no reaction” to your thoughts, you can bring a significant change to your perceptions.

Disclaimer: This write-up is my submission for an assignment as part of Buddhism and Modern Psychology MOOC on Coursera. 

Image credit: Lion’s Roar