The merchant in Baghdad

“There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions. In a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me.

She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went.

Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning?

That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

There are two lessons I thought of when I heard this.

The first is that there’s no point outrunning death. It catches up with us all. Best to make peace with our mortality and make the most of the time we have.

The second is an idea Master Oogway shared in the (likely) most quoted movie on this blog – Kung Fu Panda – “One often meets their destiny when trying to outrun it.”

I’m not a fatalistic person. But we also live in a world where we control little.

And it is good to recognize that from time to time.

Surprise and learning

People learn when they’re surprised.

This simple insight has shaped how I design learning sessions of late. Instead of focusing just on the content, structure, and delivery, I’ve found myself spending time thinking about how to introduce surprise.

Surprises introduce humor, make insights more memorable, and inspire a shift in perspective.

That shift in perspective, in turn, leads to learning.

Controlling the fire

I had the opportunity to listen to humanitarian chef Jose Andres recently. Chef Andres started his talk with a beautiful story about learning to cook from his dad.

Every Sunday, his dad used to invite a whole host of people from the village for lunch. His dad loved cooking and his son was his de-facto assistant. Despite his eagerness to learn how to cook the paella, his father used to always put him on fire duty. This meant going to the forest, finding logs, and then making sure the fire was burning with the right intensity.

One day, his father explained why his obsession with the fire. He shared that everyone who was eager to learn how to cook paella jumped to trying to stir the paella or put ingredients into the pot. However, he believed that the most important part of cooking well was learning how to control the fire. Control the fire right and you’ll figure out the rest.

This was a wonderful lesson in cooking for an eager young cook. But, in retrospect, it turned out to be an important life lesson that stayed with him since.

Learn how to control your fire. The rest will follow.


The comfort zone decision

Getting out of our comfort zone isn’t a result of a big decision we make one day. It isn’t a trait some are born with.

Instead, it is simply a habit we develop. We start by doing small things to get out of our comfort zone – have an uncomfortable conversation or be more vulnerable than we’d have thought – and work our way up to bigger things.

We are what we repeatedly do.

The rules of friendship

A good friend shared a few excerpts from an article in The Atlantic titled “It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart.” His notes inspired a wonderful conversation on our friendship and reminded me that I should reflect on and write about this topic more as it is one that matters a lot to me. For now, here are the excerpts –

Back in the 1980s, the Oxford psychologists Michael Argyle and Monika Henderson wrote a seminal paper titled “The Rules of Friendship.” Its six takeaways are obvious, but what the hell, they’re worth restating: In the most stable friendships, people tend to stand up for each other in each other’s absence; trust and confide in each other; support each other emotionally; offer help if it’s required; try to make each other happy; and keep each other up-to-date on positive life developments.

The problem is that when it comes to friendship, we are ritual-deficient, nearly devoid of rites that force us together. Emily Langan, a Wheaton College professor of communication, argues that we need them. Friendship anniversaries. Regular road trips. Sunday-night phone calls, annual gatherings at the same rental house, whatever it takes. “We’re not in the habit of elevating the practices of friendship,” she says. “But they should be similar to what we do for other relationships.”

When I consider the people I know with the greatest talent for friendship, I realize that they do just this. They make contact a priority. They jump in their cars. They appear at regular intervals in my inbox. One told me she clicks open her address book every now and then just to check which friends she hasn’t seen in a while—and then immediately makes a date to get together.

“Philip made me feel that my best self was my real self,” he finally said. “I think that’s what happens when friendships succeed. The person is giving back to you the feelings you wish you could give to yourself. And seeing the person you wish to be in the world.” I’m not the sampler-making sort. But if I were, I’d sew these words onto one.

Each of these is beautiful. But this idea – “The person is giving back to you the feelings you wish you could give to yourself. And seeing the person you wish to be in the world.” – is exquisitely put.

Here’s to more conversations about friendship.

Facetime on Jetsons

We watched an episode of the cartoon “The Jetsons” with our kids the other day. It was one of the cartoons that used to show up on “Cartoon Network” growing up. And while I wasn’t a fan then, I’ve definitely watched a few episodes.

Even growing up in the 90s in India, the idea that we might travel in flying cars, have robots to clean our home, machines to cook, have flat-screen televisions, walk on conveyer belts, and talk to people over video (or “Facetime”) felt pretty far into the future. I can only imagine what it felt like when the cartoon first aired in 1962.

Our kids, on the other hand, have grown up with most of this technology. It didn’t blow their minds when they saw Jane Jetson just call her mom over video. They do it nearly every day.

Those 20 minutes were such a great reminder of the gifts we have in our lives. Even a hundred years ago, the technology we have today would have been beyond the realm of science fiction. Touch screen phones with cameras, the ability to talk to humans all around the world via the internet, machines that can play complex games and solve problems, vaccines that can be created by uploading a sequence into a computer – it’s all incredible.

And yet so easy to take for granted.