Sunday, January 04, 2009

Can I have my cake and eat it too?

I shared in my previous post about the struggle for defining my work that lives up to a personal higher purpose. I flirted with a research interest, dated it for some time and now feel like am falling in love with it- the idea of sustainability. The thought is so beautiful that every space I get to share it I find myself talking about it with a racing heart! Simply put, the quintessence of sustainability is for organizations to find that sweet spot between concern for people, planet and (of course) profit. As I get to know it more it makes my knees go weaker with increasing excitement. Sustainability is more than businesses donating to charity or planting a few trees- its viewing every social and environmental issue as a business opportunity (Peter Drucker).

It involves innovation- how would an organization reinvent its products, services or processes to solve a social (say poverty) or environmental problem (say expanding landfills) and make more money. It also involves motivation- out of thousands of companies embracing sustainability as a business strategy there are millions who still don’t- it requires special people within the organization to realize the importance of walking on this path. And best still it requires coming a full circle- living the way we lived before we decided to mess up with nature’s perfect plan. For example, a great movement in sustainable product design is called ‘biomimicry’ ( This involves viewing nature as ‘model, measure and mentor’. This suggests that when I look for energy harnessing solutions I look at photosynthesis in plants, when I look to design a hammer I look at woodpeckers and when I look to design swimsuits or boats I look at sharks. This revolution has the potential to redefine technology and rewrite the rules of business. Benefits include efficiency in inputs at the time of manufacturing (reuse/less use of raw materials through better design and processes) and better outputs (like energy efficiency) for users and the environment.

In addition to such inspiring examples, there are many more that we collect as a group , write their stories up and put it together in an ‘Innovation Bank’ ( in the hope of inspiring the readers to take their businesses along this path. Each story that I write makes me more excited about the possibilities of making a difference via the growth of a business.

It also resonates with me because in less abundant societies like ours, reducing our personal carbon footprint is almost a way of life. Mothers will make sure that you do not waste, fathers will repair and reuse things till they can and the proximity to nature is much more than in a more developed world. When I hear speakers on sustainability share that their parents who went through depression realize the importance of reuse and recycle I understand how people in the less developed world have always lived their lives like that. It also is strange how the roles are being reversed- abundant economies are realizing the importance of getting closer to nature while not so abundant economies are in a mad race to become abundant and take over the task of marauding the planet. The idea of sustainability has the potential to stop this turn-taking. It shows promise to move all of us toward a longer and prosperous future.

Talking about wisdom, philosopher Confucius suggested three choices: to learn through reflection which is the noblest, to learn through imitation which is the easiest and to learn through experience which is the bitterest. We can exhibit wisdom when we reflect and engage in ‘anticipated learning’ rather than experiencing worsening climate change or wider spread of HIV. Businesses are alluded to be a powerful force- a juggernaut that can bring about the desired change. By viewing their growths and profits through a lens of sustainability businesses can have their cake and eat it too! And most importantly by the virtue of living in such an exciting time and employing the skills we have gathered all these years we can be a part of the movement to write an enduring and improvised tomorrow.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Making a List to Not Make a List

Even before the new year ushers in it’s the time for omnipresent lists- best this, top ten that , worst evers and the like. The phenomenon continues with the list of personal resolutions- no more this, much more of that. Makes me wonder if we are becoming a prisoner of lists and ‘To Dos’? Has it become imperative for our sanity to check off items continually – in worst case checking them off mentally for every chore accomplished!

I was struck by an interesting idea shared in one of my classes- ‘Functional Autonomy’ (Gordon Allport). It suggests that motives behind our behavior are independent of their origins- why I eat 3 meals a day, became an engineer or sleep for eight hours every day has little relation to the reason of its origin. It becomes a part of me- I continue to operate in auto mode. Although somewhat extreme, the idea sounds relevant in the light of many tasks in our every day life that have extinguished their original purpose. We still do them ‘just because’. And we tick them off our list without reflecting on why they are on the list.

At the other end of the continuum, everything becomes a purpose. I read so that I can write, I eat so that I can work out, I sleep so that I am energized to function at my full potential the next day! All activities become mini goals that give you an ephemeral kick when you check them off your mental list. In addition to being very exhausting this has its own vicious cycle of reinforcement. As you become better with each task, appreciation from others makes you want to jam in more in those 24 hours- you talk on the phone when you walk, you eat when you study and you solve problems in your head when you are running. Life soon becomes one big ‘To Do’.

I was frantically writing about ‘leadership and learning’ to meet a self-imposed deadline for a paper when the news about Mumbai attacks jolted me out of my surreal world. As I witnessed days of madness and suffering I asked myself many times if what I do every day with a passion that makes it feel life and death to me, can in any way make any difference to the tragedy that was occurring- or sadly to any issue in the world? The answer still disappoints me.

Before we ‘should’ ourselves even more or operate like human automatons I offer you a new to do for the new year- checking against your individual higher purpose when it comes to your broad life goals while being ‘in the moment’ for every day activities. So next time I bite into a scrumptious apple I am doing that to enjoy its taste and not to give me energy to run an extra mile. And next time I mold a research question to explore I check if what I find will make a difference to any of the inexplicable craziness in the world. Put that into your ‘to do’ so that you can scratch everything else off!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Kudos to the Experimenter

Triggered by reminders of few who surprise me as expectant readers of my blogs I am writing this to share the reasons for my absence from the blogosphere: my summer romance!! I fell in love all over again for the field of research I committed into discovering facets that reminds me of the dizzy elation of first few dates. Having lived through rigors of first year of study, summer was a time for (surprisingly!) more work and lots of reflection. What follows is the tale of my rejuvenated affection for the choice of my life’s work.

It is said that your context defines who you are. What have you been educated in and what profession you choose can radically transform you as a person. On top of this if you choose to study human behavior the ripples in your own being can be plenty. Your life becomes your own laboratory, where all interpersonal interactions become the experiments for testing your implicit theories and everyone who you come across becomes the source of data. It may sound like an intellectual burden where you are unable to ever shut off the lights of your lab at the end of the day but it’s far from it. As you apply the ideas and theories you assimilate to your own life it unlocks doors that you never even knew existed. The ‘aha’ you experience every time your hypothesis is supported or rejected is worth all the cognitive churning. And the best part is that the answers to these conundrums have the potential for you to develop into what Neale Donald Walsch calls as ‘a grandest version of greatest vision you ever had about who you are’.

This thus has bolstered the respect I had for those who are veterans in the field. As easy as it may sound, succeeding in the academic world that revolves around human behavior is quite a daunting task. You are expected to be in your ‘research lab’ and excel all by yourself but the ideas that you work on can only be generated by interacting with others. Considering the limited time and energy one has, the balance can be quite hard to achieve.

Having crystallized your ideas, disseminating them through publication is equivalent to climbing Mt Kilimanjaro right after conquering Mt. Fuji. In consonance with people and their eccentricities, your theories are bound to be complex. But mind you to get published you need to churn and turn them till they live up to the ‘grandmother test’ which means that what you write must be understandable if your grandmother is the reader. Unlike the lucky few who get away with being esoteric, the rest have to toil hard to capture the complexities of individual behavior in a few pages.

To add more fun, the review that your manuscript goes through can crush the confidence of even the toughest cookie. Considering the volumes of articles written on how to constructively take all this scathing criticism on every word you write is evidence of the fact that you need to perform what all yogis have been attempting all their life- depersonalize your self from the outer world. So you get feedback from the editor that in many direct and indirect words imply that what you have done over the last two years has as many holes as a block of Swiss cheese, you may cry, you may become defensive or you may laugh, but you can only succeed if you scratch through the surface and use the comments to go back to the drawing board and re-work.

It is hence not surprising those who still persist and succeed can be categorized as a quirky lot in living-a-normal-life terms. I, on the other hand, prefer to call them explorers driven by a fuzzy ‘calling’ that can only be experienced.

This tacit eulogizing does not in any way imply that all researchers of human behavior are somehow evolved beings. Like all middle-range theories this idea has its own boundary conditions where you will find a deviant with zero sensitivity toward others or an exception with a head bloated the size of a beach ball. But fortunately my sample has majorly been perceptive people who are genuinely interested in discovering themselves and others by employing admirable persistence.

A saying I recently read partially answers the why of the rigmarole that this species has chosen as a way of life: ‘It’s an experience like no other experience I can describe, the best thing that can happen to a scientist, realizing that something that’s happened in his or her mind exactly corresponds to something that happens in nature. It’s startling every time it occurs. One is surprised that a construct of one’s own mind can actually be realized in the honest-to-goodness world out there. A great shock and a great joy.’
– Leo Kadanoff

More power to knowledge and curiosity!!!!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Magic Wands, Tiaras and Fairy Dust – Story from a Perfect World

Ayn Rand in her famous book ‘Atlas Shrugged’ described her hope of a world away from this world where only the like-minded fews who swear and live by ‘enlightened self-interest’ would live together creating a perfect manifestation of all her deepest philosophies. Spending a few days at Disney World, in a twisted way, reminded me of similar notion – magic created at every moment away from a world of bland reality.

The connotations of the visit hit me only after I reached and observed people ticking off their checklist of things to do to achieve the perfect ‘American Dream’. Surprisingly experiencing Disney World is there on the majority’s list. Most of the conversation that effortlessly fell on my ears revolved around whether and how many times they have been here and most importantly shown their kids around. The idea is certainly not hard to grasp considering the fact that the astronomical prices of everything around can very easily be correlated with some sort of status achievement.

The vision of the place is magnanimous. Moreover it flows through every strand and piece of the enterprise. Despite the breadth what surprises one is the total absence of reiteration in any of the offerings. Each ride, musical, movie, and even food is slightly or mightily different than the other. The creativity, as expressed by Disney engineers aptly called ‘imagineers’ is certainly par excellence.

Despite the innovation one can still cluster lucid themes. There is an underlying tone flowing through everything that continuously urges you to follow your dreams because ‘…dreams do come true.’ There is a resonating message articulating that there is a prince or a princess hiding in all of us. There is an echoing lesson that “it’s a small world” embellished through diversity. And there is perceptible crux that the only thing we need is imagination.

Creating this fairytale world has in no way compromised with the ‘corporate-like’ execution of the operations. Handling this huge amount of traffic each day is laudable in and of itself. The application of cutting-edge technology can challenge any high-tech organization. But the most striking facet is the ‘text-book’ like presence of a great leader that guides the future course despite the physical absence of the leader. The clarity of Walt Disney’s vision makes it possible to continually improvise and expand without diluting the spirit of the enterprise. Each subsequent visit offers something new to the customer, even when the man who thought it all is no more there.

Lest it sounds absolutely hunky-dory, the place was not devoid of its lacuna. Each day ended with display of elaborate fireworks which would give shivers down the spine of anyone with even an iota of environmental consciousness considering the amount of pollution generated every evening. The proximity and number of people surprisingly evaporated the omnipresent ‘American etiquettes’ of ‘you first’ encouraging all to literally step on each other’s toes and turn a blind eye. And the inaccessibility to the outside world that forced one to buy everything at quadrupled price almost made it feel unethical.

There are those who keep coming back while there are those who find the artificiality of it all almost nauseating. The phenomenon that is the Walt Disney World is so pervasive that one may hate it, one may love it but it certainly is difficult to ignore it. Like they say in the movie Matrix “Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.” And sometimes it is worth it to be in an all-perfect chimerical world offering a welcome break from everything that is so real. Reflecting on the whole experience, I am reminded of what Cypher says in Matrix “You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.”

Friday, May 23, 2008

How a marathon humbles you: the miracle of start, finish and everything in between

Change, its touted, is often not gradual. Epiphanies, topple-overs and ‘aha’ discoveries are an integral aspect of the process. Mine came as I crossed the finish-line of my first half-marathon! The learnings of the experience are too many to ignore the muse who is nudging me to share them.

There is a pattern here- if one observes people who succeed at efforts at making huge changes in their physical appearance eventually take it up notch by notch so that the sense of accomplishment of losing weight and gaining health is continually reinforced by other victories like running a marathon. But as I flirted with the thought of joining the cult of running-junkies it was more than just a sense of victory that provided the impetus. It was the hope based on anecdotes that the experience of actually running the race would be transforming- I am proudly not disappointed.

Hypothetically, running to me was putting on your shoes and hitting the road- but there is more technology involved in it than that. It is the right running shoes that match the arches on your feet, dry-fit clothing that keeps you dry, as you become more tech-savvy it is your i-pod in your Nike shoes encouraging you to run an extra mile everyday of the training, the hand-held GPS that prevents you from getting lost and your heart-rate monitor watch that provides the pace you should maintain. More than the fascinating technology it is the indispensable discipline that gets you on the road every day of the training plan – rain, wind, snow or sunshine.

But as everything else in life others as a source of support are pivotal for accomplishing the goal. Be it your trainer, your running-buddy, your running-club or even strangers on the road who smile and nod encouragingly as you huff and puff down your way- its difficult to go very far if you are alone. The only advantage of trotting your way in isolation is the birth of some of the best ideas and solutions you might be struggling with in other aspects of your life- the adrenalin from the run is conducive to finding those elusive answers.

Running also changes your relationship with time and food. You soon find out there is no ‘bad’ time for a run, and all those carbs that were your enemy in past life are your best friends to keep you on the go.

All this though is miniscule compared to what the d-day entails. The energy, the excitement and the camaraderie on the race-day is worth every ounce of discomfort during the training. You wonder why by-liners come with their children, dogs and friends, sometimes in pouring rain, just to cheer on the runners and incase of good Samaritans even hand out energy bars and jelly beans. The chain of low-fives along the course is good enough to keep even the most enervated one going on. The encouragement continues with fellow-runners. You get into some of the most interesting conversations, tips for successful completion, and wide-eyed appreciation for mentioning it’s your first race. Being passed sometimes by fifty-somethings in fighting shape is what pushes you on while other times its watching runners with their legs in braces who are oozing of determination to reach the end.

Stepping across the finish-line is undoubtedly the most overwhelming part of the entire story. There are sighs of ‘having arrived’, cheers and embraces and for us novices simply the choking feeling of ‘have I really done this?’ All the excitement, food, music and beer, momentarily zones out as you realize there is nothing one cannot do!

Living through the experience you also realize that not only is it addictive but its contagious. The runners-high almost ensures that you would want to do this again and then again, this being compounded by genuine inquiries and wishes by everyone who cares even an iota. Those who are a witness as you live through the change feel encouraged to emulate. As you enjoy the salt-stung eyes, quivering legs and ‘I think I will pass out’ on a steep-hill effort, it dawns on you that the best thing about long-distance running is that most of us are not in it for the fierce competition and hating other runners- its one of the few occasions in life when you perform beyond the challenges of the circumstances and you finish it ‘together’. The learning that you are running for the finish-line even when someone else has reached it first is worth all the effort!!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Myth of the one-man army

The tug-o-war between long-term vs. short term, reality vs. dreams, should vs. would, has been perennial. What I wish to add to the list is my latest ‘aha’ of performance vs. development. Before I embark on sharing my latest discovery the caveat that needs to be delineated is that, like everything else, this phenomenon is not ‘either-or’ but ‘more-or-less’.

Imagine an organization, parent or even yourself, who instead of emphasizing on the results, focuses on the development even when the times are not very rosy. Most of us, conditioned to evaluate in terms of the output, would dismiss them as not tuned into reality. But even a superficial reflection of our best experiences being ‘lead’ or observing a display of magnificent leadership would indicate that this assumption is shaky.

A single-minded focus on results gets us just that- results. Which I presume is not a very bad thing! What makes it ephemeral is the fact that it is debilitating and not sustainable. Forgetting the importance of development and relationships is a precursor to the dead-end of the road. It saps the energy out of the ones being lead and turns them into turtles that refrain from sharing their ideas, thoughts or creativity. Most of us continually crave for spaces that help us to learn, grow and as a by-product get results. But turning the tables so that the experience is about getting results and letting the development take care of itself is a bubble that is bound to burst.

Where it gets trickier is that sometimes to facilitate development in others the efforts toward the output have to be ostensibly slowed down so that the energy can be channelized into the other direction. Whether it is taking the time out, despite a deadline, to talk to a colleague; allowing mistakes for the sake of learning or spending more time than usual in handholding your child through an assignment; the investment of the time and energy is not only a ‘nice to do’ but a ‘must to do’. The proposition here is that success is achievable only if the concentration of efforts move from problem to the process to the person.

This is easy when all is going well- the organization has a cherubic bottomline, your child is behaving like an angel and you have all the time in the world to know and understand your peers. The awareness becomes essential when the real world strikes. That is when one needs to put the brakes to the instincts of treating others around as means to achieving the results and put their development and our relationships as the priority. This does not imply irresponsible ‘schmoozing’ with others ignoring the urgency of the situation. What this posits is that even when we go into the ‘crisis control’ mode how long do we stay there and how do we make others around us feel at that time.

Sometimes as the commitment to a goal increases, the flexibility to improvise takes a nose-dive. This is evident in entrepreneurs, and leaders who work for noble causes. Their capacity to exhibit compassion to customers and outsiders is in surprising contrast to the utilitarian view they possess of the people working for them. The single minded and narrow pursuit of the goal almost always excludes everyone from their journey toward achievement.

Balancing performance and learning of others is an intriguing dynamic. Years of conditioning justifies the treatment we shelve out to everyone else, characterizing our endeavors as a personal journey to higher achievements. But the anomaly lies in the truth that it is never a personal journey. Even if you are a solitary noble prize laureate research scientist, you need to connect and reciprocate with people to avoid stagnation. What makes it magical is that facilitating development is just another way of spelling your own development.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

What I think you think that they think

Thirty pounds and gazillion days of inactivity ago I could have never envisioned that one day I would be running my first half-marathon. In addition to the race-day being so exhilarating, experiencing the training has reinforced my belief that most of our limits are self-imposed.

My regurgitating of the inputs in psychology, social psychology and sociology has introduced me to this fascinating idea of behaviors and actions driven by a yin-yang like interplay between you as a person and others. Psychology vouches by the motto that it is ‘I’ who thinks, reflects and hence acts on the world. Sociology on the other end of the continuum lives by the maxim that social structures and society defines a person. Enters social psychology. Adopting the best from both, it redefines thoughts and behaviors as a reflexive understanding and private interpretation of what has been handed to you by the society. Going one level deeper, this further bifurcates into micro-sociological approach where the content of social relationships is not as important as structure and a pure social psychological approach where content is more important.

At the risk of irking purists, this reductionist explanation that I just shared, hits at the root of my proposition about defining limits. The ideas about how much, how long, how far, how deep, and how many are in all probability bestowed by ‘others’. In the spirit of sociology, the cogitating and assimilation of most of these demarcations of high and lows is ignored. They are accepted because they are what everyone does. So you cannot perform if you sleep less than eight hours, you should not work out more than six days a week, work and play should not be mixed together and the list is endless. The idea here is not to malign these ‘truisms’ because they provide huge predictability to the world, but when they are used to define constraints is when they loose their luster.

This is also not to glorify the Ayn Rand like one-person army ideas about pooh-poohing all that is defined by others. The thought here is to understand and redefine limits to ensure progression.

Whenever we are in a ‘knotty’ asana in a yoga class, amidst all the huffing-pufffing and sour-lemon faces of fellow ‘yogis’ there are a few who exude a calm that probably is the objective of the whole asana. Those are the torch-bearers of the hypothesis that real limits are understood when you solve the dilemma between what has been defined for you and what you can achieve. My yoga teacher often says that if you are unable to reach the ‘prescribed’ form of the pose, instead of forcing it, you must scan your body to understand if it is because of your bone structure aka ‘sociological/others defined’ boundary or it is because of a lack of flexibility of your muscles aka ‘psychological/self defined’ boundary. The beauty of this statement is its generalizability to all limits in life. The continual redefinition of ‘what I can do’ is imperative to experience that invaluable feeling of moving ahead.