Experiencing Zen

I have been fascinated by the concept of Zen for a while. Urban dictionary shows us one way to think about Zen – ‘a total state of focus that incorporates a total togetherness of body and mind. Zen is a way of being. It also is a state of mind. Zen involves dropping illusion and seeing things without distortion created by your own thoughts.’

I am, by nature, anything but Zen. I am generally fidgety, easily distracted, and have been prone to manic highs and accompanying lows. So, it’s been quite an effort over the past few years to tone that down and attempt to experience Zen. It started with an attempt at focusing my attention. In 2012, my laptop wall papers read –  ‘”Doing one thing at a time ” is how one Zen Master defined the essence of Zen.’  While that didn’t mean I actually did it, it certainly raised my level of awareness about my focus levels.

However, in the past 2 months, I feel like I have been frequently experiencing a Zen-like state. I could point to a few reasons for this, but, I think the truth lies in the fact that I’ve wanted to experience this for a while and I just wasn’t ready for it. My limited understanding of Zen is that it requires a relentless focus on process and an absolute disregard for the destination. It is impossible to focus totally on something if you are worried about the results. Focusing on the process (and the process alone) has been a difficult life lesson and I feel like I’m finally getting the hang of it after 5 years of failed attempts.

And, that’s been a feature of the last couple of months – a firm focus on the process. In my case, it has been the process of wrapping up professional life and then getting prepared for a cross-continent relocation and graduate student life. There’s been a lot to be excited about. I have been, sure. But, it’s been a state of excitement rather than a feeling – ‘be’ vs. ‘feel’. As a result, there’s been no manic high or low. There’s just been organization and effort. There have been many mistakes and challenges (they never stop – Zen or not) but I’ve found it easier to deal with them because, at some sub conscious level, I’ve expected them. A focus on the present seems to come with a healthy measure of realism as well.

It’s an exciting evolution. I am experiencing “being” a lot more than “feeling” and that brings with it a great amount of stability. Stability, in turn, helps with many good things, most of which lead to getting sh*t done and being happy.

There’s many things I still need to learn – for instance, I still don’t do “attention” well. I think that’s an important part of the Zen state too. One day at a time, hopefully. Every day we do get better…

Things always look better in the morning

Our willpower gets depleted over the course of the day. While food (specifically glucose) helps ensure we refuel on our willpower reserves, a good night’s sleep is the best way to recover from willpower depletion. So, if you’re either having a bad day or are just feeling exhausted after a day involving multiple decisions, go to bed.

Things seem to go from bad to worse by the evening as you get completely drained of your willpower resources and our natural instinct is to keep working at our to-do lists. Don’t. Sleep.

Things always look better in the morning. And, besides, those tasks that will take you 3 hours at night will probably be done within 30 minutes in the morning.

Pay attention to your willpower reserves. If there isn’t enough fuel in the tank, it isn’t possible to drive… let alone drive well and have some fun along the way.

A bit of organization.. (featuring a clothes storage hack)

can go a long way. I’ve experienced this twice over the past two weeks.

My secondary school was attempting to reach out to all its alumni for a silver jubilee presentation. Their efforts were not going anywhere and they had an email out to a few of the alumni whose email addresses were on their books. When I met with the Principal, my first thought was to create a Google Form for alumni to enter their data. This way, the school would find all the information it needed in one place. The next problem was to reach out to as many alumni as possible. My thought was to email a whole bunch of them and have these emails forwarded. But, a friend had a smarter idea – start a Facebook group. Within 3 weeks, the Facebook group has gathered 761 alumni – that’s about 70 per cent of the total number – and alumni sign ups on the Google form. The next problem was picture upload and that was solved by sharing a public Google Drive link.

All of a sudden, the fuzzy task of reaching out to as many alumni as possible and gathering alumni information was changed to 3 concrete steps –
1. Get alumni on the Facebook group
2. Ensure alumni of Facebook group fill up the form and upload their photo
3. Stay in touch with the alumni and ensure future participation for various programs (hey, that’s a bonus!)

In the second case, we’ve just moved continents and are in the process of getting settled. I had to stack clothes within a bunch of drawers. I began doing the conventional fold + stack when my wife suggested I do it differently. Her method involved folding them as usual, rolling them (this helps avoid creases as well), and then placing them one after another. This looks like this –

photo 1 photo 2 This has so many advantages – you know exactly what you have available and you can even create a system which ensures you wear all the options before repeating one (of course, Steve Jobs wouldn’t appreciate that as much). In both cases, all it took was a bit of thinking and organization. And, in both cases, it went a long way..

What do people like you do?

The main beach at the Thai island town of Krabi has 6 Indian restaurants within a 100 metres of each other. That’s quite a number for a town of that size. What astonished me was the enthusiastic salesmanship outside the restaurant and outstanding customer service in the two places I visited. In isolation, this is amazing as I am fairly sure the same restaurants in India would have had forgettable customer service.

Add context to it, though, and it makes sense. Between the 6 restaurants are many many Thai and western restaurants run by equally enthusiastic staff. The customer service bar is high and every one needs to step up their game to survive. The staff at these restaurants don’t think of what they’re doing as special. That’s just the norm to them. It is what they need to do to survive. And, perhaps most importantly, it is what “people like them do” in Krabi. Their tribe just gets customer service.

So, what do people like you do? What are the tribes you are a part of known for?

If you are striving for personal change, perhaps you should stop punishing yourself for your seeming inability to do so and focus on joining tribes that are known for what you are striving for. If you want to get fit, make friends with people who exercise.

The most powerful change is one of culture.

Big picture and close up – The 200 words project

Here’s this week’s 200 word idea from Decisive by Chip Heath and Dan Heath..

American President Franklin D Roosevelt always worried about the quality of information that reached him. So, he had a strong network of people outside the federal government who gave him feedback. He would even have his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, visit projects unannounced and send him reports. He also maintained relationships with lower members of staff to ensure he always had the right information.

But, his most important tool was the ‘big picture and close up.’ He used polling heavily to figure out what the people thought. During his time, the White House would receive 5000-8000 letters every day. If it dipped, he would complain. He would make sure they were analyzed in terms of the problems they found and made sure they were then categorized (e.g. 3,000 on tax, 2,000 on healthcare, etc.).

Then, he would review specific letters to understand the “temperature” of the issue (e.g. specific complaints on a change to the tax code). This way, he got a big picture view and dived in to understand the nuance.

How can we apply the “big picture and close up” approach to make decisions in our lives?

 Big picture close up

Source and thanks to: www.EBSketchin.com

“The country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something… We need enthusiasm, imagination and the ability to face facts, even unpleasant ones, bravely.” | Franklin D Roosevelt

Who owes you?

A lot of human unhappiness is caused by thoughts of what the world and the people in it owe us. These thoughts are caused by the world view – “I am a good person. I’ve done good for … and, so, … owes me for it.”

This world view causes expectation and this expectation results in inevitable disappointment. It is also foolhardy for many reasons; the first of which is that we vastly over estimate the effects of our actions.

Things get much better when we internalize 2 truths –
1. Nobody owes you anything (no, not even a thank you)
2. It is actually you who owes the world and its denizens. You take up space (physical and emotional). And you better have something good to show for it.

So, get over it. Get sh*t done. Be happy.

The frustration caused by inconsistency

I ordered a Lenovo ultra-book 11 days ago. I spoke to their sales department immediately after and was assured shipment within a week with delivery within 2-3 days of shipment.

A week later, I called them up and was told that the new shipment date was a week later. Oh, and the new delivery date would be delayed by another week as the new shipment would be from China.
Okay, in that case, could I change my shipping address? Apparently not – because I had used Amazon Payments to process my order. No address changes for me.
Alright, if that’s the case, can I cancel my order? Yes. Absolutely. No problem.

Of course, that wasn’t the end of the matter. I get an email a few hours later from Lenovo that the order can’t be cancelled in time at this stage. The shipping will likely proceed as initially planned. Once it does arrive, I’ll have to give Lenovo a call and they’ll explain the next few steps involving receiving shipping labels and then shipping it back to them.

And, after all this, I get a shipping notification the next day (3 days after the original date and 3 days before the new estimate). I have no clue if the cancellation will reach in time. At this point, I’ve stopped trying to guess.

In the meanwhile, I ordered a newer version of the same ultra book from the Microsoft store and had it shipped to me within a day.

You know the big issue with all this? It’s simple – consistency. How could this have been avoided?

1. Set a realistic ship date and over deliver – e.g. when I ordered my first iPhone, Apple assured me that it would take 3 weeks. I received it in 2.5 weeks and was absolutely delighted.
2. Train customer service folk to take ownership. The way to do this is to avoid phrases that put the blame to other departments and focus on phrases like – “I’ll follow this up for you and get back to you.”

A combination of realistic expectations and trained customer service would ensure some amount of consistency between interactions. And, as customers and people, we can take consistent delay (because we begin to expect it) but it is inconsistency that frustrates.

PS: Lenovo, it’s a bad sign if your partners are able to ship your stuff better than you. Thank you for the learnings though! :-)

A few notes on managing passwords and Lithium-ion batteries

We use passwords and Lithium-ion batteries (the batteries that power whichever device you are reading this on) a fair bit. I went on a best-practice gathering mission the other day on both. And here’s what I found –

Passwords – Lifehacker resource
– Use Lastpass or KeePass to create random passwords (available as extensions on chrome)
– Don’t use a password formula – e.g. Password123 – unless absolutely necessary

Suggested approach (based on reading suggestions across a few blogs)
Step 1: Use a password manager (i.e. lastpass) with a secure master password
Step 2: Create 2 tiers of applications – critical and non critical. For critical, set difficult passwords and ensure two-factor authentication is turned on.
Examples of critical applications
1. Email
2. Storage – Crash plan + Dropbox
3. Payments and credit card accounts – Amazon, iTunes, PayPal
4. Bank accounts
5. Social – Facebook + Twitter+ Tumblr + Linkedin
6. Any others For all others, just use a couple of generic passwords you will remember in case Lastpass isn’t at hand. They probably don’t matter that much anyway.

Lithium-ion batteries – Lifehacker resource
– Don’t worry about discharging the battery completely – just do it once a month (Old Nickel based batteries needed this. Li batteries don’t)
– Shallow discharges and charges or charging from 40%-80% are seen as ideal to prolong battery life and are much better than discharging to 0% and recharging to 100%
– One charge cycle is when you use the FULL 100% – so 40% + 40% + 20% discharge is just 1 cycle. Discharging to 50% results in optimum charge cycle usage
– If you plan on storing a battery away for a long time (e.g. your laptop’s), discharge to about 50% and keep in a cool place
– Always use the correct charger
– Don’t leave the battery plugged on overnight – causes overheating.

Hope this helps!

In praise of heroes

Mentorship is an all-encompassing relationship. It works for some and doesn’t work for others. And, even for those whom it works for, it brings all sorts of complications with it – for example, ‘letting go’ / the eventual break is problematic in many mentor-mentee relationships.

However, we can all have heroes. While Seth Godin defines heroes as folks who live their life in public and broadcast their model to anyone who likes to follow, I tend to think that that’s just a part of the equation. A hero, in my definition, is anybody who inspires you to be your best self. While heroes can be people who live their life in public, they can also be people you’ve met for a short while, they can be your friends – just about anyone who inspires you to be better, learn more, and take action.

For example, I met a friend on a recent project in Japan. Let’s call him Jan. Jan is my hero for banishing procrastination. I have a sneaking suspicion that he has no clue what procrastination is (I didn’t proceed to define it for him). You give Jan a task and it is done. There is just no delay. No hangups. He substitutes the usual groans at having to do an annoying task with enthusiasm and a fantastic attitude. I was blown away.

Since spending time with Jan, I’ve made many changes in my life to follow his example. I clear emails when I see them now – no dilly-dallying. I remember him every morning when I look at the list of things to do. I attempt a Jan-esque smile at the annoying tasks and then work to plough through them. His example has inspired me to be the best I can be… and, for that, I am really grateful.

That’s the best part about heroes. You can have hundreds of heroes and they can help inspire you to do the little things better. Almost everyday, when I hit publish on this blog post, I ask myself – “Would this be a blog post that Seth Godin would consider worthy?” It inspires me to take another look at the post and do my best every day.

RIP Robin Williams

There is a small collection of actors whose presence always makes me want to watch a movie – Robin Williams was definitely one of them. His performances in Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting were nothing short of spectacular.

The Ellen show has shared a lovely post with memorable moments with Robin. I am saddened at the news of his death. We will miss you, Robin.