How they got to school

We were on day 5 of a trek in the Himalayas staying in a picturesque valley. The place had a few small rooms with beds and no running water or electricity. As we got to know the family that owned the place, we learnt that the kids needed to walk 14 kilometers through difficult mountain terrain every day to go to school and back.

To put that in perspective, 14 kilometers is what most trekking groups manage in a day of trekking. Such commutes are the norm in Himalayas and many remote places around the world where kids risk their lives every day to go to school.

I think of this from time to time as I remind myself of the difference between challenging, difficult, and hard. We are challenged by small problems often – these keep life interesting. Occasionally, we face difficulties borne out of the effect day-to-day living has on us. Life is difficult and it only ceases to be so once we accept that.

But, if you are reading this, it is likely that life is never hard. Hard is struggling for the basics, toiling in difficult conditions, and hoping to get some food to fill your stomach that day.

Our lives are regularly challenging, occasionally difficult, and never hard. And, understanding that helps keep perspective as we journey from one day to the next.

28

3 words come to mind as I think of entering my 28th year – engagement, perspective, and faith.

Engagement. Engagement is my theme for the year. For the longest time, I was fascinated by a quote from a zen master that said – “The essence of zen is to be able to focus on one thing at a time.” So simple and, yet, so profound. That is my goal this year – to be engaged through my days and to focus on one thing at a time. As I live these days, so I live my life.

Perspective. Thanks to immigration related issues, there’s a fair bit of uncertainty as to where we’ll be a few months from now. While we’re doing everything we can to sort this out, there’s little we actually control. However, as much as we’d love for the uncertainty to go away, I recognize that the “worst case” isn’t a “worst case” after all. A combination of some hard work and a few lucky breaks have ensured we don’t have to worry about the basics. That privilege is a reminder of how much I owe and is a wonderful source of perspective. The beauty of this perspective, in turn, is that it enables me to keep good humor as I go through the inevitable ups and downs. And, I hope to keep that combination of good humor and perspective with me as I engage through my days this year.

Faith. Yuval Harari’s Sapiens drove home a beautiful point. As humans, we all worship some faith. It might be traditional religions like Christianity, Islam or Hinduism or it could be non-traditional ideologies like liberalism, communism or even celebrity culture. David Foster Wallace, in his legendary commence speech – “This is Water” – wisely asked us to “be careful what you worship.”

I had an epiphany yesterday that my faith of choice is learning. And, I’ve come to be thankful for such a wonderfully benevolent faith that ignores the nature of what happens and just reminds me to ask – “What am I learning from this experience?”

Here’s to engagement, perspective and learning this year. Hope you all have a lovely day. :)

(Past birthday notes: 2726, 25, 2423)

Paradigm shifts

All was peaceful one Sunday morning on a subway in New York until a man and his children entered. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. The, however, man simply sat down and closed his eyes. Irritated and after unusual patience and restraint, Stephen Covey finally turned to the man and said – “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”

The man lifted his gaze, suddenly conscious, and said softly, ‘Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.’

We can all imagine how Stephen felt that moment – his paradigm shifted. He felt the man’s pain and saw everything differently.

It felt like an appropriate story for the new year – we might be able to make small changes in our life by shifting our attitudes and behaviors. But, if we want to make significant leaps, we need to shift our paradigms or how we see the world.

In the words of Thoreau, ‘For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root.’ We can only achieve quantum improvements in our lives as we quit hacking at the leaves of attitude and behavior and get to work on the root, the paradigms from which our attitudes and behaviors flow. – Stephen Covey


Source and thanks to: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

(This story and quote is part of “The 200 words project.” I aim to synthesize a story from a book/blog/article I’ve read within 200 words consecutive Sundays for around 45 weeks of the year.)

Wish you perspective

This is the season where we wish people “happy holidays” and “happy new year.” Typically, in addition to these wishes, we also add a wish for good things. These good things could be health, happiness, love, prosperity, etc., etc.

But, here’s the thing (and there’s always “the thing” :)), all these good things are useless without perspective.

If we’re unable to appreciate what we have, what we have is useless.

So, my wish for these holidays and the new year for you, and me, is perspective. Here’s to more of that.

So much crazy

It is probably justified to look at the news and think – “So much crazy going on.” For example, here’s a quick sample from the last 2 days.

The Filipino Prime Minister admitted to killing criminal suspects himself to show the police how it should be done.
Donald Trump brought together the world’s top technology leaders. But, 4 seats on that table are reserved for, of course, his kids.
The Russian premier kept Japan’s premier waiting for 3 hours – not a surprise as delays are part of his power game.

It feels like the end times. Of course, it isn’t. After all, there’s always been plenty of crazy on the planet. And, if it isn’t directly affecting you or if you don’t control it (and that is more of us than we like to admit :)), there’s really little point sweating it.

And, I’d say the “don’t sweat it” idea extends even to things you think matter. We are prone to waste too much time on nonsense. It is part of being human. So, there’s more politics in the office than there needs to be. And, there’s way more jealousy and envy than we should bother with.

Joseph Addison had a great quote that speaks to this –

 “When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out; when I meet with the grief of parents upon a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tombs of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow; when I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions, and debates of mankind. When I read the several dates of the tombs, of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago, I consider that great Day when we shall all of us be contemporaries, and make our appearance together”

Whenever you find reflecting on “so much crazy,” just remember Joseph Addison. Sure, most people might forget this in their lifetimes as they chase small and insignificant triumphs. But, you don’t need to be one of them. In the final analysis, we all end up in the same place. And, in Addison’s words, “we all make our appearance together.”

Don’t sweat the crazy. Love, laugh and live instead.

Is everything alright

On the day before he passed away, Albert Einstein’s assistant, seeing him in pain, asked – “Is everything alright?”

“Yes, everything is alright” – he said – “but I am not.”

In 1916, Albert Einstein predicted that gravitational waves transport energy as gravitational energy. In February 2016, scientists in California confirmed this prediction a fully hundred years later. I remember saying “Wow” as I read this piece of news. How do you develop such a deep understanding of first principles and make a prediction that turns out to be spot on a century later? So, I ordered Walter Isaacson’s biography on Einstein.

While I only started reading a few months later, I made slow progress and even considered stopping at some point in the middle. I’m glad I didn’t, however. As I made more progress, the book just kept getting better. And, by the end, it was clear that Walter Isaacson had done a great job with character development.

So, it follows that one of my biggest takeaways from the book didn’t have much to do with Einstein’s smarts. Instead, it was his attitude toward life that resonated deeply.

Walter Isaacson characterized Einstein’s approach as one of a “wry detachment” (I think of it similar to non-attachment). Einstein himself called out the fact that he didn’t take his life or work too seriously. That, in turn, helped him deal with challenges with a good measure of equanimity and a sense of humor. This becomes apparent as Isaacson shares many interesting stories from an eventful life. His charm and wit made him very quotable. And, I was fascinated by the regularity with which Einstein and his work appeared in the front page of “The New York Times.”

Can you imagine that happening with a modern day scientist? Einstein’s fame meant he was like a modern day rockstar.

And, yet, he maintained perspective. “Wry detachment” describes his attitude toward life well. He seemed to have mastered that human ability to be able to look at oneself as an outsider. And, he managed to do so by not taking his life or contributions seriously.

That’s why I thought his response to the “Is everything alright” question was among the more powerful lines in the book (and there is no lack of competition). Most of us might interpret the question as being about us. But, not Einstein. Despite his out-sized contributions to life on this planet, he understood his place in it better than most of us ever will.

I’d love to be able to emulate a bit of that wisdom in my life.

First world situations

In a conversation with a good friend recently, I stumbled when attempting to describe how things are. I usually use “first world problems” to describe some of the minor niggles. But, it just didn’t feel right. He said – “I think you mean first world situations.”

He finally got to what I had been attempting to describe for months.

There’s lesser strife and war on the planet than ever before. Of course, these stats mean absolutely nothing if you are in Syria right about now. But, in aggregate, things are better, safer and more peaceful. There are more of us who don’t have to worry about basic security and sustenance. And, yet, it is easy to walk around stressed.

I’ve tried various attempts at keeping perspective. One method that has worked well is to gloss over the relatively minor issues and focus on what I’m learning and how I’m processing my experience. Sure, there are problems and sure, there is uncertainty. But, worrying about things outside of my control is a fool’s errand anyway. And, while I might be facing the occasional challenge, it is just a challenge. It isn’t difficult – I don’t have to engage in a daily fight for food, hunger or safety or deal with abuse of any sort. Calling these challenges “problems” give them too much weight. Language matters…

So, I’ve found it better to just describe them as first world situations. Naming the beast often helps with dealing with it. And, dealing with first world situations generally means keeping them in perspective and learning to focus on the many good things going on.

And, there’s more of the good stuff to be thankful for than we regularly realize.

Cause or alchemy

We can regularly default to believing things happen because of some cause or because of a result of some alchemy. There’s merit to both approaches.

When we explain every little thing as the result of a cause, we’re able to understand how to influence the world around us. “Why are you feeling good today? Because I took good care of myself over the past month and slept well last night.” “Why is the business doing well? Because we hired a great team and trained them to do their jobs well.” And so on. The flip side of these explanations is that they’re regularly too simplistic and often boring.

On the other hand, explaining everything as an alchemy makes it all feel like magic. “I don’t quite know how it all works that way. Of course, we brought together a great team and trained them well. But, the way they work together and make our business run is magic.” While a fascinating way to approach life (since it calls out every day miracles), it has its issues when overdone. We can easily bring ourselves to focus on everything we don’t control.

As with most such choices, there’s tremendous wisdom in the middle ground. Make sure we understand the causes while also appreciating the alchemy. There’s definitely plenty we influence. But, once we do our bit, there’s also plenty of magic in our daily lives.

We just have to learn to look for both.

It’s all in our head

In conversations with people who’ve recovered from an episode of depression or an addiction of some sort, I’ve noticed a persistent theme. They vividly remember the day they realized they emerged into normalcy and this vivid memory generally involved them looking up at the sky for the first time in days and noticing that the sun is shining and that all is well.

I think the reason this moment is so powerful is because they realize that all was well all along; and, with that comes a visceral reaction, that it was all in their head and that they can, if they choose to, focus their minds on better things.

What an incredible realization. Philosopher Eckhart Tolle wisely says – “Don’t take your thoughts too seriously.”

It is one of those perspective changing realizations that I have learnt to remember from time to time. Just yesterday, I had a similar moment as I was thinking of a couple of issues I had been wrestling with over the past couple of days. All was well in the grand scheme of things, the sun was out, the breeze was beautiful, and nearly all of what I thought were issues were all in my head. The moment I found that perspective, I realized that I had the power to shift my perspective and focus my attention on other things.

And, so I did.

We have much more control over our mindset and happiness than we think. As a result, we are much more powerful than we realize.

head

Surviving Pune

I love swimming when I have the opportunity. But, every time I walk to the pool to swim and first touch the water, the resistance shows up and exaggerates the feeling of discomfort. Even though I’ve learnt that I’ll get comfortable within 10 seconds of actually swimming, I’m amazed as to how my mind does such a poor job of predicting my eventual happiness. This is especially hard if the pool isn’t deep – it works much easier if I can just jump in.

But, a tactic that works incredibly well is to remember my experience jumping into much colder water in much cooler weather when I was on a 3 month project in Pune, India. Having survived Pune (and learnt a few lessons in the process), it becomes much easier to sign up for the ride. After all, if I’ve survived worse, how bad can this be?

The lesson I’ve learnt from this is the sheer value of hard knocks, failures and bad experiences. When you put yourself out there and attempt to do/change things, you inevitably go through difficult experiences. And, these experiences, especially the really difficult ones, greatly improve your ability to persist and persevere through other experiences. They also make it easier to keep perspective when things go wrong – you survived “Pune” after all.

We aren’t born with grit and happiness written on our birth certificate. The good stuff is always hard earned.