Giving

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!





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: https://gretchenrubin.com/blog/?category=2262





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

two-sciences-of-mind-10

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





The Buddhist diagnosis

17 05 2017

The world is full of suffering. Each one of us perpetually move from one or more problems to others. When one problem or form of suffering ends, the other springs up, seemingly from nowhere. The first noble truth of Buddha acknowledges this reality of existence. Despite the reality of pleasures, it is the suffering that precedes or follows pleasures and seems to occupy a major portion of one’s conscious life. The diagnosis of this pervasive suffering as proclaimed by the second noble truth of Buddha is our desire and attachment for worldly pleasures. Our craving and clinging towards myriad pleasures is at the root of all misery, asserts Buddha. I can relate to this fact and experience it all the time.  Often my desire to seek validation results in me putting too much effort into anything I do making me stressful and ultimately miserable despite my material success. My desire and attachment towards nice clothes, accessories or other material things, even though gives me a transient euphoria upon accumulation and perusal of them, puts me on a hedonic treadmill and often leaves me unsatisfied and craving for more. This aligns with the essence of Buddha’s teachings that the “pursuit of pleasure can only continue what is ultimately an unquenchable thirst”. (Basics of Buddhism. http://www.pbs.org/edens/thailand/buddhism.htm).

However, when I think deeper about different forms of suffering, the Buddha’s diagnosis of suffering seems to beg a deeper understanding. There are other kinds of unpleasantness in life besides acute suffering, like getting frustrated, annoyed, and irritated by someone or something that doesn’t fall in line with our expectations. As we judge others based on our opinions and perceptions, we experience negativity. This intolerance is also a cause of lot of rift in our day to day life.

But when we question these emotions, we may come to a conclusion that it’s our ego and attachment towards things and pleasures that drive our underlying expectations. But it’s not always clear to me, to fathom the root cause – desire, attachment, craving – behind all of my unpleasant experiences. For example, when I get irritated by an impatient driver cutting in front of me, it is a form of suffering if I dwell on it and allow it to affect my composure. When I really think about why it affects me, it’s not entirely evident as to what desire or craving resulted in this misery. In this regard, I’m not entirely sure about the comprehensiveness of Buddha’s diagnosis of suffering.

Poverty and other forms of lack of basic needs (including social and belonging-ness needs), also cause lot of suffering for mankind. It is difficult to understand how this form of suffering can be a result of one’s craving. Even more difficult is to comprehend how it is possible to be detached at this level and transcend these basic needs.

Despite these misgivings on my part, I believe in the second noble truth because when I imagine myself curbing my cravings and desires, I can sense the promise of feeling lightness and freedom from my many sufferings. In order to comprehend these not so obvious forms of suffering and their root causes, we need to understand the true nature of suffering or “dukkha”, which simply means absence of happiness. Since happiness and pleasure are associated with impermanence, the absence of them aka dukkha is the only reality of life. And ego-desires are the cause of most human suffering. However, suffering is only an approximate translation of dukkha, which in fact encapsulates the misery of mankind in a more comprehensive way. Dukkha can be interpreted as a form on pervasive unsatisfactoriness. In this regard, Buddhism promotes a state of mental well-being that can be achieved by accepting and rising above this suffering. Understanding and acknowledging the diagnosis of dukkha is a key step in this journey.  (The Buddhist Concept of Life, Suffering and Death, and Related Bioethical Issues. Pinit Ratanakul. Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 14 (2004), 141-146.)

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

Four noble truths





Type A, Type B, and resolutions

12 01 2017

There are mainly two different personality types, according to one theory, – Type A and Type B.

Type A: competitive, ambitious, impatient/ time-urgent, aggressive, fast talking.

Type B: relaxed, non-competitive, one thing at a time, express feelings.

Like many theories, this also is subjected to lot of criticism. Maybe rightly so, since it indeed feels like a rigid and broad classification of personalities. And of course, there are also questions on the validity of the original study and the results. Let’s not go deeper into that now. For our current discussion, I just  want to take it at its face value. Given the classification and the associated descriptions, I’m just curious to understand the quality of life of Type A and Type B people.

There are some studies on the health implications suggesting that twice as many Type A people, with their more aggressive attitude, are likely to suffer from coronary heart disease compared to Type B people. Of course, since the subject population was restricted to middle-aged males, the results might not be generalized across gender and other factors.

Also, it is evident that Type B people enjoy lower stress levels compared to Type A people. With their focus more on the game, rather than on winning or losing, in contrast to Type As, Type Bs tend to take it slow, enjoy the achievement when it happens and don’t fret much when things don’t work out as planned. This sure seems like a better way to live.

What about happiness? While I didn’t find any studies on this aspect in my cursory search efforts, I would like to take a stab at it drawing on some happiness science. There are five major toxic mental habits that lie at the root of much of our unhappiness –

  • Perfectionism
  • Materialism
  • Maximizing
  • Social comparison
  • Frazzle (overwhelming lifestyle)

While, it can’t be just concluded or reasonably argued that any or all of these can be characterized as either Type A or Type B traits, I would think Type As are a little more prone to these vices. Hmm!

There are also connotations that Type A people may also be miserable in their strive  towards achieving more. Are they? And I wonder whether they do really end up achieving, contributing, and being successful more than their counterparts? It definitely looks like. But of course,  the Type B traits of “relaxing” and “non-competitive” doesn’t mean lethargic or unproductive. Just to be clear. Type Bs tend to procrastinate though.

All in all, things look pretty dismal for Type A people. But let’s not come to hasty conclusions. I’m sure both types have things to learn from each other and they complement each other well. Type As, as long as they learn to manage their tasks and behavior well, have nothing to fear. Here is a wonderful resource on these types, which also talks about the other types – C and D.

In this context, I was just curious to understand how different new year resolutions of Type A and Type B people would be. My hypothesis is that while the broad themes may not be all that different between the two groups, the way they are expressed – in terms of goal determination and tracking, could differ significantly. The ideal way to test this is to conduct a survey of a representative sample with open ended questions and do some qualitative analysis for answers. But then, it’s a lot of work. 😛 Also, I don’t want to harass my friends and acquaintances much. 😉 So, I just did a fun and short poll on categories of new year resolutions.

I haven’t included the Type A/B test in the survey, so the responses are just self-perceptions. But here is the test, if you are interested. It gives out a score between 35 to 380, lower score representing Type B and higher Type A. So basically it’s a continuum.

One interesting observation is that Type A has “More family time” as the top choice along with Pursuing a career ambition, but Type B doesn’t. Seems like it is more challenging for Type As compared to Type Bs. It doesn’t mean that it’s not a priority for TypeBs. Challenge is different from priority. Something can be a priority, but not challenging.  For example, saving money may not be my resolution, because I don’t see it as a challenge but it still can be a higher priority than my resolutions such as picking up a new hobby.

newyearresoluti_896_5a2d6b9ae0d90688481d220f4cda59e855956558





Introverted leaders

11 12 2016

It’s been over a year since I read Quiet by Susan Cain, and it still lingers in my thoughts. It is a book about introversion and about being an introvert in an extrovert world. This is perhaps one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read. It opened up a whole new perspective for me, sharpened and focused my perception.

As mentioned in my earlier posts on the book and/or author, when I first encountered the TED talk and later the book, I couldn’t totally appreciate the motivation behind them. Having been raised in a culture which favors introversion over extroversion, I had always been comfortable being an introvert.

And talking about introversion, it should be noted that it’s not the same thing as shyness. Even though both seem to manifest in similar behaviors (limited or no social interaction), the motivations underlying these two tendencies are quite different. While an introverted person could be quiet because that person is just absorbing stuff or have nothing much to contribute, a shy person could be quiet because of inhibitions or lack of social skills.

But as my circumstances and external environment changed – workplace, social networks/groups etc., things started to look a little different. But I was largely blind to the impact the shift in the cultural expectation is having on my perception of myself, on my career, and on my lifestyle. In the days and months after I read Quiet, I began to look at the world around me through a new authentic lens. As I continued to observe and think about it all, I started to realize the profundity of Susan Cain’s work, her effort to bring forth the true essence of introverts and their many valuable traits, and the irrefutable need to talk about and plead the case for introversion amidst the highly extrovert culture.

It’s not about which trait is better – extroversion or introversion. Each trait has a different set of strengths and weaknesses with definitive roles in different circumstances. It’s more a continuum rather than an either/or situation.

Leadership is a skill that comprises of many traits. A truly effective leader needs to exhibit both extroverted and introverted behaviors as needed. We know that extroverts are talkative, engage well with people (especially large groups) and exuberant; introverts are quiet, prefer solitude or small social groups to large groups, and are better listeners. While extroverted leaders are better for staff that is less proactive as they can encourage and motivate the staff better, introverted leaders perform better with proactive staff, where they listen more and better support the staff in their endeavors. So, contrary to the popular belief that only extroverted people make better leaders, there are many successful introverted leaders both in history and present – Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates etc. Introverted leaders possess a quiet strength that proves to be invaluable.

Introverted leaders rock because they
• Listen better
• Prepare, practice, and are present
• Build fewer but meaningful relationships
• Possess calm demeanor
• Demonstrate humility
• Are prudent and manage uncertainty better

By nature people tend to lean more towards one or the other end of the spectrum. However, nurture enables us to shift the lever a little to one side or the other, mostly as a response to circumstantial demand. This implies that this “nurture” can and “should” happen both ways. But all we see around are different programs and avenues to empower introverts with some of the extroverted aspects, but not the other way around. Too bad!

Care should be taken though not to stretch oneself too much against one’s true nature, because it’s usually counter-productive. For example, an introvert can and sometimes need to come out of his/her comfort zone and deal with lots of people, give a speech, or organize a party. But as long as one understands why one is doing it and takes the time out for oneself in order to balance things out, there comes a snapping point eventually that forces one to make radical life changes/choices to find and get into their groove.





Are men and women equal?

27 11 2016

Are men’s and women’s brains different? In other words, are the differences in how men and women think rooted in biology?

It is an 18th century question, according to Gina Rippon, an eminent neuroscientist. When I posed the same question to my 9 year old, just for the fun of it, he basically mirrored the above sentiment. He thought that the question is absurd. When I pressed him further on whether could there be a scientific and objective evidence that there’s indeed some difference, he refused to take the bait. He stood his ground and refused to consider the question because he reasoned, the question “are men and women equal?” in itself suggests that they may not and hence lead to discrimination, which is by all means an undesirable and an incorrect behavior. In other words, he treats it as a leading question. Oh boy!  What Gina means by her comment is that several advancements have happened since 18th century that effectively and conclusively answered that question in negative.

Regardless of any insinuations and despite our need to be politically right, I think it’s still an interesting and relevant question to think about even in this century. Among the many differences we commonly observe, some are myths, some are culturally driven, while some are rooted in biology and/or evolution. Take for example, the notion that women are more emotional than men. It’s not exactly true because what’s different is more expression of an emotion rather than the emotion itself. The observed difference could well have been only a result of cultural and social stereotyping. I guess more or less similar reasoning can be given to most of the stuff you find in the gospel – Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. :). But some differences do exist.

With all the advancements in neuroscience and biology, we have greater insights into human brain now than ever. In fact, today’s neuroscience sees little difference in how women and men are fundamentally capable of thinking. Whatever stereotypes we have going around are just that – stereotypes largely based on deep cultural notions and the resulting psychological impact of acting on those stereotypes. For example, take a typical belief that women are  not (or cannot be) as good at math as men. In fact, time and again the test scores reveal the same. But capability is not at the root of this trend. When the cultural expectation is for boys to outperform girls in math, and the girls believe it as everyone else, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s the attitude towards competition and the anxiety induced resulted from cultural stereotypes that causes girls/women to under perform in certain areas (Study).

But some argue that nature and evolution cannot be overruled.  Historically, men had always been specialized in competing for mates, and women in caring for the offspring. According to Helena Cronin, a Darwinian philosopher, the different reproductive strategies of two sexes with completely different sets of associated costs and benefits, lie at the root of all gender differences between men and women. This survival tendency has clearly established different patterns of behavior and thereby nurtured disparate strengths in men and women.

And of course, one should not rule out the role of biology. The male hormone of testosterone is clearly associated with competitiveness, aggressiveness, dominance, assertiveness etc., while estrogen promotes stable mood, sense of well-being, improved cognition etc. (An interesting tidbit is that humans are naturally female and testosterone masculinizes boys in the womb.) As per Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, who has done extensive research on autism observes that “higher levels of fetal testosterone could explain increased prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in males”, following the theory that “the male brain is programmed to systemize and the female brain to empathize”.  Is this why women are considered more adept at social thinking and interactions compared to men. Testosterone is also strongly associated with violent and anti-social behavior. Hmm! Women also have testosterone, but men of course are characterized by much higher levels (10 times compared to that in women).

Another perception is that men tend to be more analytical than women or women tend to be more intuitive than men, hence the notion that men are largely left-brained and women are right-brained. Studies suggest that male brains may be optimized for motor skills while female brains may be optimized for combining analytical and intuitive thinking. Men also perceived to be laser focused while women are multi-taskers. Women tend to absorb more and store it all in their brains compared to men. Could these differences be explained by the hunter-gatherer theory, the sexual division of labor, where men normally pursued risk taking activities of hunting, while women were relegated low-risk task of gathering rich calorie for nurturing? Or do they have true biological causes? There are a lot of contradictory arguments and lot of conflicting “evidence”.

Neuroplasticity is perhaps the most important and fascinating discoveries in recent times. There is nothing static about ourselves – not our bodies, which regenerates itself with new cells every 6 months or so, to our brains, defined by the interconnections among neurons that can strengthen or weaken depending on the experiences and behavior thereby redefining them constantly. Isn’t it amazing? Change is indeed the only constant. 🙂 As our brains are getting continuously rewired, based on external stimulation, nature and nurture are so strongly intertwined that I think it’s difficult to disentangle them and say for sure where one ends and the other starts.

From the evolutionary perspective, we still have the same basic instincts as our primal ancestors. The gender differences (some if not all) too are rooted in them. But in today’s world, many of them maybe are irrelevant. We are not living in wild and are not facing the same kind of survival problems. Mankind’s development happened so rapidly that evolution and nature needs time to catch up. Am damn curious to know as to what the next evolutionary changes for us would be – what our basic instincts would be. Sometime in future when physical strength and all other evolutionary differences between men and women become less and less relevant for survival, can we achieve a gender neutral society? A society where no gender has an advantage over the other. Well, is it a good thing? It certainly sounds like it is. But who knows!





Minimalism

4 11 2016

This could well be another case for “connecting the dots“. Truth be told, almost anything could be interpreted as one.

Minimalism as a concept has been in vogue forever. In its purest form, beings who are on the path of or have achieved spiritual enlightenment forsake any attachment to material things and thereby live with barest of them in order to survive. But I’m not talking about that kind of minimalism, but instead the fad that’s been gaining more practice these days, wherein normal people like you and me, tend to realize the benefits of living with less, and make it their life style to live with as minimum as possible. Truth be told, it’s not at all a new idea. People like that existed at all times, but why is it as a practice gaining more popularity these days? In this world of rampant consumerism and materialism, it can be said with certainty that this perspective of life is an uncommon thing.

My foray into this concept or rather my introduction to this phenomenon started when I came across an article about “tiny houses”a few years ago. At that time, it fascinated me. It awakened my dormant childhood memory of playing for hours with imaginary tiny houses on wheels. I used to setup small house like structures that supposedly contain all I own (hypothetically) and making the best out of it. I remember being  so content and proud about my humble lifestyle. ;). Boy, I was so excited to read about them. But the idea didn’t stuck with me for long. I wonder why. Just being my usual conformist self I guess. 😛

I want to first start thinking about why we usually want big houses in the first place. What does the “excess” space that we can call ours signify? Is it just ostensibility or is there a deep psychological need? Of course, it’s not just space and you typically feel the need to fill it with as much as you can. It’s mostly for the comfort that various things bring to us. It could also be because we perceive the vastness of space to signify the extent of freedom and privacy.

For me, one practical downside of having a very small house is – how can you invite any of your friends and family? It’s a big deal to me. Even with minimum things around, I feel that tiny houses could feel real cramped. But maybe not. In all fairness, minimalism calls for a shift in perspective – how you look at things and your relationship with them. In the case of houses, it extends to how you view space around you and challenge all your preconceiving notions about them. Wow, it’s a huge thing.

The “tiny house movement” is gaining traction with its proposed benefits and as a way to break the circle of consumerism (?) and focusing on only what’s needed rather on what’s wanted. Well of course, a tiny house comes with its own challenges. It’s not a magic mantra to solve your materialism problem. Also, the tiny house  bandwagon may not be about minimalism at all but rather a rather an attempt to achieve affordable housing (Read here.)

All this I absorb as a bystander. I cannot say that I’ve been inspired to action . I haven’t actually considered going this route. Not yet!

Marie Kondo, with her art of tidying up, puts forth the idea that having less is the solution, not organizing more stuff better. When I read through her instructions on how to discard your things, clothes, books etc., and how you actually need much lesser than you would have ever imagined, it’s a sudden revelation. Despite the fact that I was fascinated by Marie’s book and philosophy , I didn’t think I can take the advice. Again!

And then one fine day not long ago I was just casually toying with the idea of taking a resolution of “no shopping” for the coming year. My sudden inspiration was more a result of getting weary about maintaining a huge wardrobe, not to mention accessories, and having to shop periodically to keep up, than a consequence of sudden spiritual awakening or disillusionment or simply wanting less.

Just the other day, I listened to a podcast by Joshua Fields Millburn of The Minimalists, and I must admit it’s damn inspiring. (At last!) It’s amazing when you actually realize how less you need to live your regular life and how much you are stockpiling just for the sake of it. How much time, money, and energy will be saved if I just follow Steve Jobs’ and Mark Zuckerberg’s footsteps and stick to one dressing style. (Extending it to just one color is a bit too extreme for me.) However, I agree that much money and peace of mind can be saved if I cut down buying most non-necessities – clothes, books, accessories etc. Of course if one doesn’t want to steer too much away from the current lifestyle there are certain limitations as to how far you can cut down buying stuff or discard things. But if one is up to drastic life style and perspective change, sky is the limit. 🙂

A part of me still thinks it’s impractical. At least for a hoarder like me. But change is in order. It would be a nice challenge to get over my life style and habits. It won’t be easy. But will it be worth the effort? Will I experience all those benefits, or at least a sense of calmness and clarity, the ability to focus more on what matters rather on dispersing my meager attention on to myriad insignificant things/aspects? I hope so. I start small. Some day! 🙂 As far as “tiny houses” go, I think I’ll pass. I believe we need to have reasonable space to accommodate important aspects of our lives – people, passions, and physical & psychological well-being. Sustainability is the key.

Moreover, I was long sold on the idea that accumulating experiences is much cooler than accumulating things, thanks to Thomas Gilovich. Minimalism also preaches the same thing. So, here I embark on a journey to accumulate experiences, not things. Cheers to “accumulating experiences”!





Judging

27 08 2016

We all judge people. To some extent or the other. Almost compulsively. We tend to compare behavior and/or traits of others with our own understanding or standards of excellence as a quick way to approve or disapprove a person with regards to that behavior or trait.  The urban dictionary defines judging as quickly forming a bias and/or personal opinion about someone or something.

I like to think that judging is related to stereotyping. Stereotypes typically guide our judgments, to the extent that we believe in those stereotypes, that is. “Stereotype”  as a phenomenon has its own place and serves distinct purpose in our lives. It provides mental shortcuts to form quick decisions in the absence of any discernible information. Of course, like many of our other instincts, stereotypes will not serve us well in all circumstances and have to be exercised with caution, and taken with more than a pinch of salt.

Stereotypes are like statistics. Just like a statistic such as “70% of population favor x”, will not tell you for sure  whether the one person you encounter in the middle of the road favors x or not, stereotype may not be applicable to each individual or instance. Of course, it is always possible that a stereotype could have become obsolete or in the process of becoming obsolete what with the ever changing cultural and social picture and hence shouldn’t have been relied upon. Of course judging goes beyond stereotypes. It’s based on our own perception of things.

So, stereotypes can be good or bad.  Following this, it can be argued that judging can also be good or bad. But I would typically associate judging  with a negative feeling, even in the case of a positive judgment.   As per negative judgments, even as you try to feel superior to others in the process, in the end it won’t result in any positive feeling/emotion.

This brings up the question as to why we judge in the first place.My theories:

  • When you seek validation for your own behavior, you judge others who deviate from your own behavior as inferior.
  • When you are insecure about your own behavior
  • When you are unable to appreciate and accept different perspectives. Not open to new or different standards or ways of life.
  • You want to quickly determine whether you like or dislike a person and so you judge them as good, bad, or not good enough as a proxy based on your likes, dislikes , and expectations.
  • People like to be custodians of their positive traits/behavior

It’s amazing how much prevalent judging is, despite our best efforts. Some of the common things that are judged widely:

  • Parenting: I feel that this one trumps all others. Almost everyone have at least a few things that they do absolutely right and look down on others who fail to do so or do them differently.
  • Significant other: You got to be perfect spouse, BF/GF. How can you not be this or not do that?
  • Weight: If your BMI is perfect, you may judge overweight, obese , or underweight people.
  • Fitness: if you have got it right, you may not able to empathize with those who lack the self-control or will power to eat right and/or hit the gym.
  • Homemaking: If you are an efficient and skillful homemaker, you may judge others’ homemaking skills which don’t measure up to yours
  • Efficiency: If you are super-efficient, you may judge others who are less efficient.

Whatever your strengths are (or what you think your strengths are), you may judge people based on them.

Will non-judging help? Will the world be a better place if no one judges others? I like to think so.  Even without delving into the root cause of this phenomenon and its ultimate purpose, the simplest reason why I work on curbing this is to avoid the negativity it breeds.

But how to go about it? The first step is always awareness. Once you are self-aware and catch yourself being judgmental, it’s just matter of letting go. It takes a little self-discipline and management. But once you let go, there is freedom. You got to experience it to understand the uplifting feeling that non-judging results in. Here are some helpful tips on becoming less judgmental: 10 Reasons to Stop Judging People.

When you do not judge, you accept. Acceptance is the key to peace and harmony.