Nothing is impossible

21 10 2016

“Nothing is impossible” is perhaps the most popular cultural dictum in recent times. It propounds how we can and should push ourselves ahead and beyond our imaginary boundaries. The belief in the potential of an individual to achieve anything and everything is so empowering.  “Growth mindset” propels one to break through all the obstacles and overcome all challenges, both real and imaginary,. “Be Positive” is the all-encompassing mantra eulogized by all motivation and self-help gurus.

It is important that you believe in yourself; believe that you can do something in order to be able to do it. You are what you think you are.  “The mind is everything. What you think you become.”, says Buddha. It all makes perfect sense, because it’s all in the mind.

But. Yes, there is a “but”.

Let me stretch this idea a little bit.

Believing that nothing is impossible is a great start. Once you believe that you can, all you need to do is work hard and smart enough to achieve whatever it is that you set out to achieve. The individualistic culture and the motivation space does not underplay the need for “hard and smart work” anywhere but it doesn’t explicitly call out and emphasize it “enough” either. There is certain misguided sense of entitlement that is being propagated here. And this sense of entitlement also implies that not realizing our dreams is a big failure.

Even if all these cards are played right, things may not fall into place always. We are operating in a space with too many variables at play, the interactions of which are way too many to make sense of, let alone measure and track. The bottom line is, we live in an uncertain world. To expect and believe that a certain intention and effort will definitely and always lead to a particular outcome in the midst of so much variability (both internal and external), seems to me, like naiveté at best. On the surface, such assumption doesn’t seem unreasonable at all. Because we succumb to “survivor bias”. When all we hear about is stellar success stories, and not hear so much about failures or all that in between, our perception becomes skewed.  But when you actually look at the entire picture and get the right statistic, you suddenly see the trees instead of just the forest.

A natural corollary to the slogans “nothing is impossible”, “you are the creator of your own destiny”, is the implication that you are responsible for everything that happens in your life.  These also espouse the idea of “free will”. In this complex world, how much can you be really in total control of what’s happening to you  and around? How much can you steer as per your will? It depends, I would say. A great deal, for certain things, to some extent for others. But I don’t think anyone can have total control of or can take total  responsibility for everything. While the sense of control is exhilarating, the feeling of responsibility is acutely burdensome. “With great power comes great responsibility”, says Uncle Ben. One cannot separate those two. 🙂

So, what happens when, due to the very nature of life and/or as a result of complex interactions of myriad components and variables, things don’t work out and you fail or you fall short. If the culture dictates that “nothing is impossible”, how do you explain the failure? Is it all your fault now? Are you resigned to conclude that your best is not good enough? These are some very unpleasant thoughts. You see where I’m going with this?

The happiness research has a technique to handle setbacks – “self-compassion”. Treat yourself with the same compassion that you would provide to a near and dear one in a similar situation. But in my opinion, it doesn’t address the issue completely. It’s just a dressing to alleviate the pain, not the medicine that will cure the wound. So, what else do I think will help?

Humility. Shedding the skin of self-importance and realizing that you are just one element in this giant complex interconnected system makes it easier for you. Am I implying that you be complacent and shirk the responsibility for your life, for what you become completely? Hell, no.

I would resort to The Gita: “Do your duty and be righteous. Don’t worry about the fruits (results).”. There is a lot of wisdom in this philosophy. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you can’t make things happen. There could be several reasons. Should you give up, or just prod along refusing to accept the reality? How do you know when to give up? With all these cultural notions, how  can you make yourself give up and still be at peace with yourself and with life? Alas,these questions are not always easy to answer, irrespective of your guiding philosophy!

Rewards and incentives

28 09 2015

The incentive theory of motivation suggests that we are motivated to engage in behaviors in order to gain rewards (Source: While rewards can be intrinsic and extrinsic, the most obvious way to motivate others is through offering extrinsic rewards. It doesn’t matter even if we are doing only the usual, ordinary things that we are anyways expected to do i.e. our duties,  the performance of which of course will have significant returns that we are interested in and care for – salary/wages for the work done, good job for the grades we get, facilities and protection for the taxes we pay,  better surroundings for the civic sense we display etc. These returns are usually long-term benefits, the value of which we can easily take for granted.  We need that quick gratification and encouragement – an occasional pat on the back, an appreciation for our work or good behavior, recognition for our achievements etc. to motivate us to keep doing all those things and in a better way. That’s how everything works. At workplace, managers and leaders routinely appreciate good work of the subordinates and recognize individual/group achievements through both monetary and non-monetary rewards. At school, teachers encourage good behavior, class participation and academic performance of students by giving badges, stars, and other forms appreciation and recognition. We crave and revel in them.

But what if we expect such extrinsic rewards for each and every deed of ours? What if we are addicted to them and are too needy? The result of such excessive reliance on extrinsic rewards is a condition called “codependency” (ill-effects: dampening of internal drive, always trying to meet others’ expectations), which obviously is very detrimental to one’s personal growth and happiness.

Now coming to the reason why I got onto this topic in the first place. My son. I expect him to spend some time – not much: could be as less as 15 minutes daily to start with (he is in 3rd grade) – regularly on his academics, but of course he resists and thinks that I’m overbearing. We have a difference of opinion there. I think that it’s the least he can do and one of his duties as a student. He obviously disagrees. One day, he advises me to offer him lots of rewards in order to motivate him to do his 10 minute study. Well, I was speechless.

I have a fundamental issue with this attitude. I believe that one doesn’t have a right to talk about or demand “their rights” unless they fulfill their duties. Duty precedes rights/rewards. Moreover, this goes against one of the basic tenets of The Gita – do not  focus or attach yourself to the results but rather to your deeds/efforts/duties. I strongly believe in this philosophy. While I understand that it’s not easy to completely ignore or detach oneself from the results, excessive focus on results will be ineffective and spoils the fun.

And then I heard Steven D. Levitt, one of the Freakonomics authors, pitching us to bribe our kids to try on tests in their new book – When to Rob a Bank, a collection of blogposts. His point is – kids can’t really be expected to be motivated by the long term benefits of education/academic performance. According to him, it would be more fruitful to offer them money before a test and take it back or not after the test based on their performance on the test. This way, the students would more likely to do well on their tests. And he genuinely puzzles over the criticism this brilliant idea of his generally garners. It works, doesn’t it??

We know extrinsic rewards work. We all need them – in one form or the other. But what is the tipping point, where its intended positive effects start to turn sour?? Well, do we even realize that there’s a flip-side to it, in the first place? Like everything in life, the reward system needs a balance. The society should understand this fact and promote a more balanced and healthy motivation system as part of its culture.

Prada reflections

24 12 2014

The_Devil_Wears_Prada_coverWhen I read “Devil Wears Prada” more than 7 years ago, I was enthralled by it. I read chick-lit very rarely and this bestseller by Lauren Weisberger was perhaps one of my first. I was enamored with the fashion industry background and the chilly but bewitching personality of Miranda Presley.  I remember even now the terror of Andy working under her. She endured the intense nerve-wrecking conditions for most part of her one-year tenure, only to tell Miranda to f*** off to her face 2 months before her tenure is up and quit on the most ungraceful terms. The job had not only adversely affected her nerves but also her relationships.

One thing that stuck to me about the climax is that – her long-term boyfriend decides that he had enough and breaks up with her. What I had hard time comprehending and accepting is that – he had been with her for most of the difficult time. He knew how important the job was for her and that she was under the most gruesome and stressful work environment. He also knew that she is not enjoying any of it and was just trying her best to finish her tenure so that she can have a better career after Runway. And just when she breaks down and quits, Alex decides he has had enough and breaks up with her – when she needed him the most.

True that the relationship had been difficult for him. But what’s the point of being in a relationship, if you don’t support your partner in hard times? I feel that the deeper issue is that many people chuck out at the sign of inconvenience. They are so self-centered, if something is troubling their relationship or their partner, they leave without bothering to make efforts to make it work, to repair the relationship. Or it could just be young age. Sigh! I know I shouldn’t be judgmental. I just wish people see it for what it is, feel less entitled and more responsible and grateful.

Recently, I grabbed “Revenge Wears Prada” from the library. It’s not a best seller but I needed something light to experiment with audio book and so I went for it. I felt some parts are really very silly. Maybe it’s because I am listening to it – weird when someone reads aloud or maybe it’s because I’ve grown older and don’t really relate to the characters or maybe it’s really is silly.

books2f-2-webIn this sequel, Andy has got a new boyfriend Max and she is marrying him. She is at least 33. I don’t understand why she feels weird and jittery on her wedding day – as if getting married is akin to losing something valuable. I think I know what it is – it’s “freedom”. Freedom to do whatever you want, freedom to walk out. I can comprehend the feeling of uncertainty or panic by someone who is really young – early twenties or younger, but a 33 year old woman not feeling completely ecstatic about marriage, I call this as “weird”.

One thing that frustrated me even more is “how Andy reacted to the fact that Max had met his ex during his bachelor party”. She is so disturbed by the sudden knowledge that she seriously thinks about cancelling the marriage and taking time out to “think things over”. I found it really stupid of her. She couldn’t trust the man she is marrying, the man with whom she had been living together for about 3 years. No “benefit of doubt” whatsoever. To mistrust the person whom you are going to marry in a few minutes is really pathetic. The whole situation seemed depressingly piteous to me.  She really struggles a lot to overcome her uneasiness. “Stupid woman”. Maybe I’m being very judgmental about this, but I am not able to help it. In fact, I’m surprised by the intensity of my own reaction.

Finally, Andy gets back to her first love -Alex. But where did her earlier realization that “he never really cared for and/or supported her as a career woman” go? It was not addressed at all, when they decided to come back together. Can we hope that the “same story” does not repeat again – “Alex getting upset by the ambitious Andy” ? Who knows!

Praveen Swami on rape and sexual violence

28 12 2012

Praveen Swami has put the whole thing very succinctly in his article titled “The danger to women lurks within us” in yesterday’s “The Hindu”. He opines that policing is a small part of the problem and hence can only be a small part of the solution. He mentions several statistics of US and Europe to drive home the point. Only 3 of every 1000 rapists ever see inside of a prison cell in US , while only 6 of every 100 women who report an offence will see the perpetrator convicted in UK.

He says, “The decline in rape in the US has mainly come not because policing has become god-like in its deterrent value, but because of hard political and cultural battles to teach men that when a woman says no, she means no.”

Startling facts were revealed by a study done by two scholars Diana Scully and Joseph Marolla, which indicate that rape is a learned behavior. The men made no effort to hide the fact that they saw hurting women as entertainment.

Praveen Swami rightly pointed out that misogyny is a part of our culture, which views large-scale violence against women as entirely legitimate.

Measures like more police officers (especially women) and harsher police action on street, and even simple ones like better lighting in public places may deter sexual harassment and decline rape rates. Also, legal reform backed by investigative and prosecutional capacity will help. But the real battle is one that women’s organizations have fought to address for decades – to change the ways in which men relate to women; to create a culture of masculinity that does not involve subjugation, he concludes.

Note: The entire content of this post is drawn from the above mentioned article. I found it so profound that I felt compelled to share its key points here.


Shopping – here and there

18 11 2010

I always disliked the discount/sale system which rules the buying habits of the people in US. I don’t know whether  or not there is a term for what I’m thinking, but I despised the way people  (need to) time their purchases based on sales and discounts. It’s one aspect of the modern culture there, which I found very inconvenient and odd.  Of course, there are sales and discounts even in India, but I don’t think they determine the buying patterns to such an extent.

Also, in US the buyer is usually forced to put a lot of effort in order to a make a wise purchase, hunting for deals and dealing with coupons of varied kinds. The more you work, the better the deal you might find. Even in the grocery stores, customers are to use the coupons from the local Sunday paper  in order to avail certain discounts or offers. In short, in US shopping is not for the lazy. You are required to spend some extent of time and energy to explore the deals, if you don’t want get bankrupt :-), or less dramatically – get your dollar’s worth. Of course, I’m speaking for the general middle class there.

Somehow, I feel that shopping in India is easier. True, there are coupons, discounts and sales. But never in the 24 years I’ve been in India had I felt the need to go out of my way to avail the discounts. Anyways, in most cases, all these sales are just a gimmick with no real benefit to the customer. Just increase the price and then offer a discount; or charge for accessories etc.  Though this is true even in US, it is only so to some extent.

There in US, one is most certainly to be perceived as impudent to purchase something without first looking for deals, or so I learnt. 🙂 I remember the kind of uncomprehending stares people used to give me when I tell them about my impulse purchases.  😀

It doesn’t mean that I don’t care about my money, but in India I don’t feel the need to hunt for coupons or browse for deals every time I plan to buy something. Some general idea about the prices in various outlets (to decide which one suits my taste and purse) will do for me.

But sadly, like everything, even this culture is slowly getting downloaded from the US to India. These days, I’m seeing a lot of the same type of marketing over here too. I feel like even the people are changing and imitating their counterparts in America in this aspect. Of course, change is inevitable. Westernization is inevitable. I guess I should resign myself to just witness this “development” mutely.