No Guarantees

26 May

It is a cliché that we have all heard. Life comes with no guarantees. Yet many of us remember times when we conveniently forget this phrase and begin to expect results that we want, simply because we want them. Remembering the phrase is a good way to keep working, doing things we love, regardless of what happens as a result of our work. We have all seen people who are driven by what they do, not because of rewards their actions might bring. They try to do their best in every situation. They get up every day, go to do the work they love, and produce their best, regardless of whether someone pays them a compliment or promises a reward. Four years ago, I saw one such man. He was the surgeon who performed a few operations on my elbow that I had severely injured. I slipped on ice in one of the worst Iowa winters. As I fell, I must have landed on my right elbow, which bent out of shape and became limp. I stood up, refusing help from the passers-by, and tried to jolt my arm straight, but it remained boomerang-shaped. I knew then that I had just delayed my course-work, my dissertation, my graduation, and everything else.

At 40, I thought the delay was a cruel card handed by my fate, appearing at just the wrong time (as if there is any right time to fall a victim to a serious injury). However, no amount of whining was going to do me any good. I understood that as surely as I did potential consequences of my injury. In the weeks that followed, I underwent four surgeries on my elbow. At the time of the last one, when it was time to see if my bent arm would straighten, I asked my surgeon what he thought about my chances. He replied, “We will see. There are no guarantees.” I did not like his answer but understood it. When the wheeled stretcher came to take me into the operating room, I went in without a thought. I knew I was in good hands, and I knew that I had done the best that anyone in my situation could do. That there were “no guarantees” did not matter. What mattered was what had to happen, what needed to be done, and I was willing to do it. Frankly, what other choice did I have?

In the next few months, I recovered completely. Today, I have to tell people about my injury before they notice a slight line on the back of my arm indicating the cut from my surgery. I have heard this phrase (this cliché) a few other times, and some of those have been significant moments too. I remember leaving India after resigning from a safe, government job and boarding a flight to Las Vegas to study what I had never studied before: Creative Writing in Fiction.  I remember being told by more than a few concerned colleagues that I should reconsider my decision and that I was about to commit professional hara-kiri. I remember a gentleman my wife (who joined me after a year) and I ran across at the Memphis airport. When he learned that I was a graduate student and that my wife had just joined me, he called me mad to my face. That he had himself decided to spend his retirement years in a new country and baby-sitting his daughter’s kids was somehow a more logical thing to do.  Surprisingly, I remained quiet and tried to politely reason with him. That there are no guarantees  is a good reminder. I know I need it.

Benefits of Hindsight

21 May

In hindsight, we are all wiser. Which of us has not had a crazy thought of somehow getting hold of our younger self, sitting him or her down, and telling him or her a few things that would benefit the young man or the young woman? To use a cliché, experience is an excellent teacher, but experience comes at a cost, in time and other life resources. Like many of us, then, I thought back to my college days today. They were in the 1980s. I will not bore you with mundane details of my life back then. What is important is this thought that I had while I was thinking about a time when I was less than half my present age. I wished that I had spent more time thinking through my decisions. I suddenly realized that I was in too much hurry. Things were a matter of achieving this or that or being successful here or there. There was little thought that I gave to what I wanted to do, what I was really interested in, what made me happy, or what set me apart. What mattered those days was what kind of job you got if you entered a certain field. I was in a hurry to grow up, get out, and be on my own. There is nothing wrong with this thinking; only it can rob us of an opportunity to cultivate and develop our personalities and interests. It is all very romantic to hear about a sixty-year-old college student who graduated with students who could be his or her sons or daughters. But life isn’t only about college degrees or diplomas hung on a wall. Some of us have lists of things that we want to do in our lives. How many of us look at this list in our Monday to Friday schedules? How many of us have secretly given up on the list or at least thought it to be an aspirational goal rather than something we want to give our lives to? How many of us sometimes look at this list and not recognize it to be our own? I said a thing to myself today: from now on, I will try to think more and harder before I act. I will be more purposeful and less expedient. I will look at my list more often, and I will at least try to do things that are in conformity with the items on the list. The best use of hindsight is to use its lessons, some of which are obvious but some are less direct and perhaps more important.

The Process of Elimination

19 May

I once wanted to start a dairy business. I had been in a government company for very long and yearned for more freedom. I also wanted to be rich. Those days, the Internet was a new phenomenon in India; it was certainly so for me. I had a dial-up connection that I had to purchase every other week or so. The dial-up operator provided me with a CD. I had to insert it in the CD-ROM drive of my computer, then listen to the dial tone of my telephone. When I was finally on the Internet, the experience was almost as pleasant as strolling on a beach. The experience of getting on the Internet was sweeter because I had recently purchased my first PC. I also bought a special table for it, with a sliding drawer for the keyboard. I also bought cloth covers with which to dress the computer parts. When I was done with a few minutes of surfing the Internet (I had to save the dial-up connection because it cost money; each CD renewal required  around 50 Rupees or about a dollar) and was in my living room, I glanced at my covered computer system, partly hidden by my brand new high-backed swivel chair, across the small hallway that separated the living room from the bed room. The idea of starting a dairy came one day, perhaps inspired by our sizable consumption of milk; between my wife and I, we needed close to a half-a-gallon daily. The milk came in plastic pouches, and there was a famous dairy in the city where we lived. My idea was simple enough: my wife comes from  a rural area, which happens to be somewhat backward industrially. I calculated that if we started a dairy somewhere in the area, it might just turn out to be an excellent business.

With this germ of an idea, I began to look for information about the dairy business on the Internet. The more I looked, the more information I got. I printed nearly 50 pages, put them in a folder, and was ready to do some primary research. I had a smart and resourceful subordinate who knew someone at the local dairy. Soon, we visited the dairy, and I inspected the heavy machines that processed milk. It quickly became clear to me that the project would require a huge monetary investment. I had very little money in the bank but was high on that blind confidence some call naiveté. So far so good. Next, I decided to do some actual market survey. I went to my in-law’s and, through one of my wife’s uncles, an affable and brave middle-aged man who worked in a sugar factory, visited a small dairy nearby. I remember that we went on his motorcycle, which I drove, through the beautiful, dry plain of the Gir forest, where the only lions in Asia are found. The dairy itself was a rather quiet place. The owner was nowhere to be seen. I moved around some heavy machinery in a large shed and indicated to the sugar factory uncle that we could leave if we wanted to. The return drive  was spent in bits of conversation and an occasional thought running through my mind that I might just chance upon a lion. I asked the kind and affable man sitting behind me if he had ever come across lions. He said sure, only a few days ago. There were two lions resting in a roadside ditch, he said, and he came upon them when he was returning from work. Soon, the dim, evening lights of his little town were visible.

The next day, a funny thing happened. My wife’s uncle mentioned my idea to his neighbor, who immediately began to mock me for my foolishness. He advised me to not commit a blunder. I would be eaten alive by local dairies, he predicted. Were there any? I asked. Now he seemed even more derisive of me. He cast a quick, cutting glance at me before excusing himself to go attend to some business in his garden. I was dejected. The man did not even want to believe in me. After much soul-searching, I came to a decision that I could not start a dairy, that it was not a feasible idea. The first idea of a business to strike me was thus eliminated. I did not regret my trip to my in-law’s place to do the market survey, or my printing out around 50 pages about the dairy business. To me, what I had done was to look at an idea carefully and decide that it was not for me. But I did so after considering the idea as systematically as I could.

Soon after this, I decided to leave India. I decided to acquire more education, as a way to open newer and better opportunities for me. This thought changed my life. But sometimes I wonder whether the road that I eventually took started from that dairy business detour. The process of elimination teaches us what we are not supposed to do, what is not supposed to work. The process paves the way for options that are better suited, that might work. I will never regret not starting a dairy. I gave it a good, hard look and decided it was not for me.

Violence of Words

17 May

I first heard this metaphor from an elderly lady involved in social work. She had a variety of life experiences and talked with genuine conviction and compassion. I had gone to interview her for a research project. When she connected the word “violence” to words, her point seemed to me as largely theoretical, even a cliché. When I transcribed her interview, I again noticed the phrase–I believe it was “violence through words” or something similar–but all I was concerned with was how do I use the phrase and her point in my research paper. However, the phrase stuck with me. Since then, I have often viewed words, my own and others’, through this metaphorical lens. Words do hurt! And written words hurt more because they are more permanent; you can go back to them or at least remember that you can go back to them. We’re all more or less guilty of wielding words as weapons. Often, the instinctive response to hurtful words is a response in kind. Many times, we hear in the media that such a rejoinder is indeed necessary, even effective. But I’m not so sure. Sometimes, I’m reminded of Lincoln’s letter to Major General  Meade criticizing him for not pursuing Lee’s army (http://www.civilwarhome.com/lincolnmeadeletter.htm). It is believed that Lincoln did not post the letter and that it was later found in his wastepaper basket. Who knows what would have happened had Lincoln decided to send the letter? I’m not certain that Lincoln did not post the letter fearing the consequences related to the war; as you can read in the letter, Meade had already learned of the president’s disapproval and wanted to relinquish his command.

It is easy to blame new communication technologies for aiding in and encouraging violence through words. We are constantly told that e-mails or other forms of online communication lack contextual framing that is accessible in face-to-face communication, telephone communication, or even a handwritten note, which takes longer to send. Many of us have begun to use emoticons to frame our communications. The speed of online communication still poses a problem with regard to a potential of violence through words. For many, e-mails are quick to write and send. On the other hand, some of us take our time in replying to e-mails and, sometimes, choose to not reply at all (not replying may also be seen as a form of “violence,” but that is another issue).

I’m not willing to blame technology for violence through words. I think it is possible to hurt others through words whether we work with a computer or a simple pen and paper, whether we type a comment on Facebook or talk to someone face-to-face. For many of us, violence through words is a bad choice and outcome, no matter what. My point is not that we will never get angry or speak our minds.  But a well-honed pause button can greatly help. Some of us have it naturally. A pause allows us to take in a larger picture and not react on the basis of a single experience or a limited set of data. A pause allows us to reflect, consider, then respond (or not respond).

Presumption

16 May

When you first hear this word, the immediate thought is that it has something to do with law. Who hasn’t heard of the presumption of innocence? However, the word is more broadly related to our lives. Many of us sometimes suffer more from presumption than actual facts. Let me give you an example. A week or so ago, I submitted the final grades for the spring semester. The grade submission deadline coincided with the proposal submission deadline of a certain prestigious composition conference. I had been working on a project for the proposal, analyzing the data that I had gathered and reading a few articles about the topic. After submitting my grades, I proceeded to the library, so I could work in peace on the proposal. I chose the library over my excellent office because I expected some activity in the department and did not want any disturbance. However, after sitting in a computer lab in the library for close to an hour, I was bored and tired and decided to return home to keep working on the proposal. I hadn’t slept very much the previous night because of the grading that I still had to do to meet the deadline for submitting the grades.

Perhaps because I was tired, upon reaching home, I did not find my flash drive, which I had used in the library. I drove back to the campus in my flip-flops. I entered the computer lab I was sitting in and saw that a girl was working on the same computer that I had used. I asked her if she had seen a flash drive attached to the CPU. She shook her head. I  politely asked her permission to examine the CPU myself, bent down and did so. No flash drive. Surprised, I again asked the girl if she was sure she had not seen a flash drive. I also asked if there was someone else besides her who had used the computer after I left. She said no to both of my questions. I left the library, returned home, and looked everywhere I thought I might have put the flash drive. I did not find it. I returned to the library and, this time, spoke with a staff member. I explained the situation and then added my suspicion that the girl may have taken the flash disk and may be lying to me about it. In that instant, I felt certain there was no other possibility. I almost always put a flash disk in my shirt’s or pants’ pocket, or I slipped it inside one of the pockets in my bag. So I was convinced that I did not drop it somewhere unknowingly after coming out of the library. Since I did not find it in the lab, or at home, the only logical conclusion was that somebody–that girl–stole it.

The staff member at the library seemed both moved by my plight and peeved at my presumption. We returned to the lab. No flash disk. He told me that he knew the girl and did not think she would do such a thing. I replied that even I did not think so and had at first returned home to check, but that having not found the disk either in the lab or at home I was forced to conclude what I had: the girl had taken it. He asked me if I wanted to speak to his supervisor. I declined and left the library. I mentioned this incident to no one and had almost forgotten about the disk when, yesterday, my wife found the disk in our bedroom. It had slipped out of my pants’ pocket and lay in a corner, near the nightstand. I felt deeply ashamed at having doubted and accused an innocent girl, who was absolutely right when she said that the disk may have slipped out unbeknownst to me. When she said this, I actually thought it to be a further confirmation of her guilt, so convinced was I that she had stolen it. I went to the library today and apologized to the staff member with whom I had spoken. I also asked him to convey my apologies to the girl if she came by.

Presumption is not a mere legal term. It has a greater hold on us. We presume things about other people and we presume things about things. An example of the second kind of presumption is when we think that a certain article definitely needs a certain section or part or discussion. In reality, we may be mistaken. In fact, we may be better off without the section in question. Presumptions should be observed and questioned and analyzed. By doing so, we can avoid unnecessary heartaches or headaches.

Balance

15 May

We all habitually prefer balance. The lack of it in physical sense is scary and discomforting. The lack of it mentally is every person’s secret nightmare. No one wants to go bonkers. But even if we take a more “balanced” view of the term “balance,” most of us would rather have it or something approximating it than not have it at all or be far from it. Let me elaborate on where I’m going with this. Right now, I’m revising a manuscript that I must have read one hundred times. As I rearrange, cut, add, expand, and rephrase, I’m constantly seeking the elusive quality of balance: How much of literature review is enough here? Do I need to clarify this term right away? How detailed should this sentence be? Do I focus on the overall message, or do I include more information? The struggle to find balance continues along with the struggle to be convincing and to find meaning. In the recently-concluded semester, I succeeded in making a student angry. I have no illusions that this has not happened before. As a matter of fact, it has, and I have faced a dissatisfied or angry student before. Usually, when this happens, I gently try to get the other side to see that a more productive approach is to solve the problem. I usually succeed, although I don’t take or deserve all the credit for it. This time, I went a bit overboard in my commenting on a student’s draft and the student was justifiably angry. The student wanted an apology, I gave it, the student accepted it, and the problem was solved. However, the whole episode, which lasted just a few hours, left me asking some questions regarding balance. In my zealousness to improve a draft, I had almost forgotten that it belonged to the writer. I told myself that I would never again lose this balance; I might lose the draft. That is okay. We have the most need of balance when it appears as if everything–or most everything–is out of it, when we feel as though we are going nowhere, are fighting in vain, and with no army to back us up.

It is true that sometimes our best course is to allow our passions to have their say. There are situations in which this may be the best course. However, often, we tilt a thing too much to a side and depend on what we see. At such times, we conveniently overlook things nearer the opposite end, things that can soothe our feelings and give us hope. In the ultimate analysis, we all make mistakes and no one is perfect. Hence, expecting others to be perfect while ignoring one’s own weaknesses can be misleading and ineffective. What are some ways to find balance in life? Here is a common list of suggestions that most everyone can already think of: walking, sleeping, listening to music, playing, vacationing, talking, partying, praying; the list can go on. What works for me the best when I feel as if I’m sliding out of balance is taking a walk or being by myself, whether simply sitting on my rocking chair, strolling along the road in front of my house, listening to classical music, reading, or writing. I have also tried talking to people, but that does not help much. To me, the reason it does not help seems to be that I’m asking another person to view the world as I see it, imbalanced. The other person, probably not feeling a lack of balance himself or herself, is unable to perform the role of a psychiatrist to my satisfaction. What do you think about balance?

Decisions

14 May

On a daily basis, we are all confronted with many decisions: what project to work on, what strategy or lesson plan to adopt in teaching a particular topic, whom to ask for help, whom to help, what to do with an hour and a half  that we have after returning from work and before dinner, and so on.  Each of us has some set ways in which we decide–consulting with a spouse or a friend, in the shower, before going to bed, trusting Google Calendar, taking a walk, pacing a room, sitting quietly in one’s office, among others–and each of us has faced some decisions that always seem troublesome, for reasons that are often a mystery.  Decisions play a major role in our lives, whether they are big, such as choosing a career, a life partner, a graduate degree to pursue, immigrating, taking on a challenging assignment; or whether they are decisions that we need to make every day. The decisions that we need to make daily, perhaps more than decisions that are big, determine how we spend our time, what gets done, what gets delayed, what we focus on, what we rush through, and so on. We have all known some people who are deft at making right choices and deciding precisely what needs their time and what is not so important. There are  different versions of this person: someone who does not commit without looking at a calendar, a person who is focused on the big picture or outcome, a tireless workaholic, a master delegator. You wonder at times where these people find the knack to decide correctly, more often than others who surround them. You wonder about the magic formula, the right attitude, the right set of questions or criteria that they seem to use or ask.

One of the most celebrated decisions came during the Second World War. The person who made the decision led the Allied Forces: Dwight D. Eisenhower. If you read Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day, you will come across a memorable scene that has Eisenhower sitting in a room full of generals and other advisers, including weathermen. The men are discussing whether to launch an attack on the French soil, under German occupation. Some of the men tell him that the conditions in the English Channel are rough, and that any invasion will be met with a failure. Some others believe, however, that the time is right and that the invasion can no longer be postponed. As one goes through the lines leading up to Eisenhower’s command to “go,” one can almost feel a rush of adrenaline. I felt it, even though I was about four decades and a few thousand miles removed from the action in Eisenhower’s room.  In Ryan’s description of Eisenhower, a reader can  sense the presence of a well-cultivated attitude of decision-making. Great leaders seem to have this knack more than others. A recent example of hard decision-making would be that of President Obama ordering the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s  three-story home. Another good example of Obama’s decision-making abilities has to be his decision to run for president. I hear some readers say: But these decisions were not his alone; he had help. It is true that powerful leaders have able and experienced people helping them make important decisions, but despite all help, often these leaders have to make that one hard, life-changing decision themselves. How does an average person make better decisions?

A few years ago, Randy Pausch, a dying, cancer-stricken professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, gave a lecture about time management to an auditorium full of people at the University of Virginia. In his lecture, he mentioned Stephen Covey’s four-quadrant guide to decision-making (see below; the numbers indicate priority):

Due soon Not due soon
Important 1 2
Not important 3 4

One may fill these quadrants every month, every quarter, every semester, or every year. Alternatively, one may take a task-based approach and fill the quadrants with different tasks, perhaps by modifying the framework. What strategies or habits do you follow to make decisions?

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