Monday, June 03, 2013

Miserable & Magical: A Graduation Speech for Paradoxical Times

When the student body of an elite private school in Silicon Valley was given the chance to vote on who would give their graduation address this year, they chose a man named Nipun Mehta. An unexpected choice for these teenagers, who belong to what Time magazine called the "Me Me Me Generation". Nipun's journey is the antithesis of self-serving. More than a decade ago, he walked away from a lucrative career in high-tech, to explore the connection between inner change and external impact. ServiceSpace, the nonprofit he founded, has now drawn over 450,000 members across the globe. In this electrifying address that garnered a standing ovation, he calls out the paradoxical crisis of disconnection in our hyper-connected world -- and offers up three powerful keys that hold the antidote.
Thank you Jennifer Gargano, Chris Nikoloff and the entire faculty at Harker.  To you, the class of 2013, congratulations!  I’m delighted to be with you on your special day, and it is a particular honor since I know you chose your speaker.

So, graduation day is here and this once-in-a-lifetime milestone moment has arrived.  In the words of Taylor Swift, I can tell how you’re feeling: “happy, free, confused, and lonely, miserable and magical at the same time.”  Who would’ve thought we’d be quoting words of wisdom from Taylor Swift at your commencement. :)

Today, I’m here with some good news and bad news.  I’ll give you the good first.

You might be surprised to hear this, but you are about to step out into a world that’s in good shape -- in fact the best shape that that it’s ever been in. The average person has never been better fed than today.  Infant mortality has never been lower; on average we’re leading longer, healthier lives. Child labor, illiteracy and unsafe water have ceased to be global norms. Democracy is in, as slavery is disappearing.  People don’t have to work as hard to just survive. A bicycle in 1895 used to cost 260 working hours, today we’ve gotten that number down to 7.2.

So, things are progressing.  But I’m afraid that’s not the full story.   You’ll want to brace yourselves, because this is the bad news part.
This week, Time Magazine’s cover story labeled you guys as the “Me, Me, Me” generation; the week before, NY Times reported that the suicide rate for Gen X went up by 30% in the last decade, and 50% for the boomer generation.  We’ve just learned that atmospheric carbon levels surpassed 400 PPM for the first time in human history.  Our honeybee colonies are collapsing, thereby threatening the future of our food supply.  And all this is just the tip of the iceberg.

What we’re handing over to you is a world full of inspiring realities coupled with incredibly daunting ones. In other words: miserable and magical isn't just a pop-song lyric -- it's the paradox that you are inheriting from us.

So, what do you do with that? I’m going to be honest -- I don’t really know. :) I do know this, though:  At the core of all of today's most pressing challenges is one fundamental issue: we have become profoundly disconnected.

Rather ironic, considering that we live in an era where Facebook has spawned 150 billion “connections”, as we collectively shell out 4.5 billion likes on status updates, every single day. Yet, a growing body of science is showing what we already feel deep in our gut: we’re more isolated than ever before.  The average American adult reports having just one real friend that they can count on.  Just one.  And for the first time in 30 years, mental health disabilities such as ADHD outrank physical ones among American children.  
Somehow we’ve allowed our relationship to gadgets and things to overtake our real-world ties.

We’ve forgotten how to rescue each other.  

Yet, deep inside we all still have that capacity.   We know we have it because we saw it at Sandy Hook, in the brave teachers who gave up their lives to save their students. We saw it during the Boston Marathon when runners completed the race and kept running to the nearest blood bank.  We saw it just this week in Oklahoma when a waiter at a fast food chain decided to donate all his tips to the tornado relief efforts and triggered a chain of generosity.

So we know that we can tap into our inner goodness when crisis strikes. But can we do it on a run-of-the-mill Monday?

That’s the question in front of you.  Will  you, class of 2013 step up to rebuild a culture of trust, empathy and compassion?  Our crisis of disconnection needs a renaissance of authentic friendship.  We need you to upgrade us from Me-Me-Me to We-We-We.
Reflecting on my own journey, there have been three keys that helped me return to a place of connection.  I’d like to share those with you today, in the hope that perhaps it might support your journey.

The First Key Is To Give 

In the movie Wall Street -- which originally came out well before you guys were born -- there’s a character named Gordon Gekko whose credo in life reads: Greed is good.  When I was about your age, Silicon Valley was in the seductive grip of the dot-com boom. It was a time when it was easy to believe that Greed was Good. But a small group of us had a different hypothesis: *Maybe* greed is good, but Generosity is better.

We tested that hypothesis. When I started ServiceSpace, our first project was to build websites for nonprofits at no charge. We ended up building and gifting away thousands of sites, but that wasn’t our main goal. Our real purpose was to practice generosity.

In the early days, the media was pretty sure we had a hidden agenda. "We're doing this just to practice giving with no strings attached," we said. The few who actually believed us didn’t think we could sustain it. The thing is -- we did. A decade later, when our work started attracting millions of viewers, entrepreneurs told us that we'd be crazy to not slap on ads or try to monetize our services.  The thing is -- we didn't.  We probably *were* a bit crazy. And when we started Karma Kitchen, people really thought "No way!"  It was a restaurant where your check always read zero, with this note: "Your meal is paid for by someone before you, and now it’s your chance to pay it forward."  The thing is -- 25 thousand meals later, the chain continues in several cities around the globe.  

People consistently underestimate generosity, but human beings are simply wired to give.

In one study at Harvard, scientists surprised a couple hundred volunteers with an unexpected monetary reward and gave them the choice of keeping it or giving it away. The only catch was that they had to  make the decision spontaneously.  Lo and behold, the majority chose --- to give away the money! Greed, it turns out, is a calculated after thought.  Our natural instinct is, and always has been -- to give.

When you take Econ 101 in college, you will learn that all of economics is rooted in the assumption that people aim to maximize self-interest.  I hope you don’t just take that for granted.  I hope you challenge it.  Consider the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa who have rocked the history of our planet with the exact opposite assumption, with the belief in the goodness of our human nature.

Or consider Ruby Bridges. Six-year-old Ruby was the first African American girl to go to an all-white school on Nov 14, 1960.  All the teachers refused to teach her, except for one Mrs. Henry.  Ruby received constant death threats and on the way to class every day, people would line up to shout and throw things.  Mrs. Henry instructed Ruby to not speak to anyone, as she crossed the jeering crowds every day.  But one day, she saw Ruby saying something, so she said, “Ruby, I told you not to speak to anyone.”  “No, Mrs. Henry, I didn’t say anything to them.”  “Ruby, I saw you talking.  I saw your lips moving.”  “Oh, I was just praying.  I was praying for them,” Ruby responded.  Then she recited her  prayer, and I quote “Please, God, try to forgive these people.  Because even if they say those bad things, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

A six year old!  Wishing well for those who were wishing her harm. How generous is that? And what does it say about the power of the human heart?

Our capacity to love is a currency that never runs out.  

May each of you tap into that generous ocean and discover every day, what it means to give.

The Second Key Is To Receive

When we give, we think we are helping others.  That's true, but we are also helping ourselves.  With any act of unconditional service, no matter how small, our bio-chemistry changes, our mind quiets, and we feel a sense of gratefulness.  This inner transformation fundamentally shifts the direction of our lives.

A couple summers ago, we had two 14-year-olds, Neil and Dillan, interning at ServiceSpace.  One of their projects was a 30 day kindness challenge -- they had to come up with and do a different act of kindness every day for a month. In the beginning they had to plan "kindness activities", but slowly they learned how to spontaneously turn their daily life into a canvas for giving.  Doing the dishes for mom without her asking, stopping to help a stranger with a flat tire, standing up for a bullied kid, gifting all their winnings at the arcade to a child.

Very quickly, kindness shifted from being an activity -- to a way of life.  

It wasn't just about who they were helping, it was about who they themselves were becoming through the process. Last weekend, I happened to see Neil after a while, the day after Senior Prom and he had a story to share, "Last night I noticed that the dance floor was too small and a few of the special needs students just couldn't get on.  So I grabbed a bunch of my friends, and we started dancing in a little circle around them.  Everyone had a great time."  Then, he paused for a reflective moment, and asked me, "But I felt so good about doing that.  Do you think I was being selfish?"

What a profound question.  What Neil experienced was the fact that when we give, we receive many times over. Or as the Dalai Lama once put it, "Be Selfish, Be Generous.”  It is in giving that we receive.

When we think of generosity, we typically think of it as a zero sum game.  If I give you a dollar, that’s one less dollar for me. The inner world, though, operates with an entirely different set of rules.  The boundaries aren’t so easy to decipher.  Your state of being inherently affects my state of being. This isn’t feel-good talk. It’s actual science. Research shows that, in close proximity, when people feel connected, their individual heart-beats actually start to synchronize -- even with zero physical contact.  In neuroscience, the discovery of mirror neurons has shown us that we literally do feel each other’s pain -- and joy.  

And joy is *definitely* not a zero-sum game.  The law of abundance says that if I give you a smile, that's not one less smile for me.  

The more I smile, the more I *do* smile.  The more I love, the more love I have to give. So, when you give externally, you receive internally.  How do the two compare?  That's a question only you can answer for yourself, and that answer will keep changing as your awareness deepens.

Yet this much is clear: if you only focus on the externals, you’ll live your life in the deadening pursuit of power and products. But if you stay in touch with your inner truth, you will come alive with joy, purpose, and gratitude. You will tap into the law of abundance.

May you discover that to be truly selfish, you must be generous.  In giving, may you fully experience what it means to receive.

The Third Key Is To Dance

Our biggest problem with giving and receiving is that we try and track it.  And when we do that, we lose the beat. The best dancers are never singularly focused on the mechanics of their movements.  They know how to let go, tune into the rhythm and synchronize with their partners.

It’s like that with giving too.  It's a futile exercise to track who is getting what.  We just have to dance.

Take one of my friends for example, a very successful entrepreneur. Along his journey, he realized that it’s not just enough, as the cliché goes, to find your gifts.  Gifts are actually meant to be *given*. In his daily life, he started cultivating some beautiful practices of generosity.  For instance, every time he walked into a fancy restaurant, he told the waiter to find a couple that is most madly in love.  "Put their tab on my bill, and tell them a stranger paid for their meal, with the hope that they pay it forward somewhere somehow," he would say.  Being a fan of Batman, he took his anonymity seriously: "If anyone finds out it was me, the deal is off."

Many restaurants, and waiters, knew him for this.  And as a food connoisseur, some of his favorite places were also quite pricey -- upwards of a couple hundred bucks per person.
On one such day, he walks into a nice restaurant and does his usual drill.  The person serving him obliges.  However, this time, the waiter comes back with a counter request.  "Sir, I know you like to be anonymous, but when I told that couple about the tab being covered, the woman just started sobbing.  In fact, it’s been ten minutes and she's still tearing up.  I think it would make her feel better if you were to just introduce yourself, just this once."

Seeing this, he agree to break his own cardinal rule and walks over to introduce himself. "M'aam, I was only trying to make your day. If it has brought up something, I'm so sorry."  The woman excitedly says, "Oh no, not at all.  You’ve just made my year, maybe my life.  My husband and I, well, we work at a small nonprofit with physically challenged kids, and we have been saving up all year to have this meal here.  It is our one year marriage anniversary today.”  After a pause, she continues, “We always serve others in small ways, but to receive a kind act like this on our special day, well, it’s just an overwhelming testimonial that what goes around comes around.  It renews our faith in humanity.  Thank you.  Thank you *SO* much." 

All of them were in tears.  They kept in touch, he joined their board and they are friends to this day.

Now, in that scenario, who was the giver?  Who was the receiver?  And more importantly, does it even matter? Dancing, tells us to stop keeping track.  

Sometimes you're giving and sometimes you're receiving, but it doesn't really matter because the real reward of that give and take doesn’t lie in the value of what’s being exchanged.  The real reward lies in what flows between us – our connection.


So, my dear friends, there you have it.  The bad news is that we're in the middle of a crisis of disconnection, and the good news is that each and every one of you has the capacity to repair the web -- to give, to receive and to dance.

Sometime last year, I spontaneously treated a homeless woman to something she really wanted -- ice-cream.  We walked into a nearby 7-11, she got her ice-cream and I paid for it.  Along the way, though, we had a great 3-minute chat about generosity and as we’re leaving the store, she said something remarkable: "I'd like to buy you something.  Can I buy you something?" She empties her pockets and holds up a nickel. The cashier looks on, as we all  share a beautiful,  awkward, empathy-filled moment of silence.  Then, I heard my voice responding, “That’s so kind of you. I would be delighted to receive your offering.  What if we pay-it-forward by tipping this kind cashier who has just helped us?”  Her face breaks into a huge smile. “Good idea,” she says while dropping the nickel into the tip-jar.

No matter what you have, or don’t have, we can all give.  The good news is that generosity is not a luxury sport.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best, when he said, "Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve."  He didn't say, "You have to be smart to serve." Or "You have to be famous to serve." Or "You have to be rich to serve." No, he said, "*Everybody* can be great, because *everybody* can serve.  You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don't need to know the second law of thermodynamics to serve.  You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love."

Harker Class of 2013, may you ALL find greatness in service to life.  May you all give, receive -- and never, *ever* stop dancing. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Lets STOP this shame!

A young 23 year old paramedical student boards a bus with a male friend. In the next 30 minutes, she is brutally raped by a gang of 4 men, stripped naked and thrown out of the running bus. All this in the heart of the national capital. If this does not make us hang our heads in collective shame – what will ?

The horrific nature of the crime has brought people out on the streets spontaneously. News channels are awash with analysis, post mortems and outrage. While all this happens, the innocent victim battles between life and death in a city hospital.

  What drives such bestiality in a few men?

Some say, it is the education system that is now bereft of values? Some say it is the lack of education. There is an argument about a sex-saturated environment. Some say it’s the weak judiciary…. And many fingers are being pointed towards the policing system. The truth – as is always the case – is perhaps inter-twined amongst all these different reasons.

But for a second, stop to think of the mental make-up of these men who committed the crime. In the heart of the city, they raped a girl, threw her naked out of the bus…. and expected to just walk away and continue their pathetic lives ??!! Expecting to teach such grown up men the meaning of respect towards women and society, through any means is being utterly simplistic and naïve in our expectation. The only means that curbs this kind of thinking is the fear of the law.

But how do we instill the fear of the law? By increasing the policing and numbers in the police force for sure. But along with this, there is a need for leveraging other communication channels like the media and all public spaces. The messaging should be one: “We are watching you ALWAYS & EVERYWHERE”. Considering that the income tax department of the government already does this kind of messaging (albeit in a different context) – this is not something new for the government. There is also a learning we have from the experience of retail stores. Just putting up a sign that says, “This store is under constant CCTV surveillance” is seen to bring down the rate of pilferage.

Another learning for us comes from the experience of New York City. Crime in New York City was high in the 1980s and peaked in the early 1990s. However, during the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (1994–2002), there was a precipitous drop in the crime rates. Since 1991, the city has seen a continuous trend of decreasing crime year on year. Neighborhoods that were once considered dangerous are now much safer. Violent crime in the city has dropped dramatically with the murder rate at its lowest then level since 1963. What was the magic pill?

Again, there is never one single silver bullet, but in the words of Rudolph Guiliani – when he was asked why it was important to clean up the streets and get rid of graffiti as a way to curb crime, this is what he said: “Well, I very much subscribe to the "Broken Windows" theory. The idea of it is that you had to pay attention to small things, otherwise they would get out of control and become much worse. And that, in fact, in a lot of our approach to crime, quality of life, social programs, we were allowing small things to get worse rather than dealing with them at the earliest possible stage. So we started paying attention to the things that were being ignored. Aggressive panhandling, the squeegee operators that would come up to your car and wash the window of your car whether you wanted it or not -- and sometimes smashed people's cars or tires or windows -- the street-level drug-dealing; the prostitution; the graffiti, all these things that were deteriorating the city. So we said, "We're going to pay attention to that," and it worked. It worked because we not only got a big reduction in that, and an improvement in the quality of life, but massive reductions in homicide, and New York City turned from the crime capital of America to the safest large city in the country for five, six years in a row.”

The broken windows theory was first introduced by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, in an article titled "Broken Windows". The title comes from the following example:

Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars. When people start perceiving that “no one cares” – the small crimes slowly start snow-balling into bigger ones.

Lets come back to the Indian context. We have a surfeit of “broken windows” all around us:

     • Traffic rules are broken with impunity

     • Eve teasers get away scot free

     • Spitting on buildings in public spaces – goes unchecked

     • Our public areas are by and large an embarrassment when it comes to cleanliness

Clearly the message that we are giving out loud and clear is that as a society – we “do not care”. The same criminals who dared commit this horrific rape, in all probability had got away with many many smaller “broken windows” before they arrived at this tragic point.

It is time we looked around and learnt our lessons from other industries & other countries! This national shame should never happen again.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Surely my honour, you are joking?

The medicine should never be stronger than the disease.

Let me tell you where the thought originated. The Supreme Court has passed a ruling that no vehicle in this country can carry tinted glasses – no matter what the percentage level of darkness. And the reason: because a few perverts in our country have resorted to raping women in moving vehicles. A further piece of wisdom is: It is ok if your car comes tinted from the manufacturer – but not ok if you get it tinted, even within permissible limits.

Well, what the hell?..... What kind of logic is that??

Let me first clarify. I am a strong supporter of women’s rights. And particularly on the heinous crime of rape, I do feel the punishment meted out by our courts need to be much stronger. So, whatever I say below is not to trivialize this issue of rape, but to moderate the way we handle this issue.

Coming back – removing all tinted glasses irrespective of how dark the shade? Isn’t that a bit extreme? Isn’t that like painting all Indians driving a vehicle with one big brush that says, “potential rapist inside!”. Also, by saying it is ok if it comes tinted by the manufacturer – but not ok if you get it tinted yourself, within permissible limits – what is the honorable judge trying to say? “We don’t trust any of you citizens to act responsibly, but the manufacturers – oh yes, we do”.

If the logic of passing this judgment be right, then by the same logic:

• No Indian should be allowed to marry, since there are wife beaters amongst us.

• No Indian should be allowed to drive a car, since some do drive rashly and cause accidents

• No Indian should be allowed to have children since some parents do ill-treat their children

• All politicians should be sent to jail, since some of them are known to be corrupt

• Nobody flying in planes should be allowed to wear shoes and er.. undies – afterall someone tried bombing planes that way!

I can go on and on…… But, the point is – I think, as Dilbert would say - the honorable court is addressing the wrong problem. The core problem is not in the tinted glasses (though I do think there is a case for the very dark ones to be removed or replaced) – but in controlling the perverted behavior.

What could be the solution? Well – there are enough theories and wise men who can answer that question better than me. However, there is one interesting theory that holds some plausible answers. It is called the “Broken Window Theory”.

It says that in a neighborhood where buildings have broken windows, people are more likely to engage in bad behavior. Maybe because they figure no one will care. Or there’s little chance they’ll get caught. The idea has been embraced by people in law enforcement—crack down on petty crime and you’ll also put a halt to more serious offenses. New York City, for example, used the logic to justify a “zero tolerance” approach to things like the squeegeeing of car windows & on ticketless travel in the underground metro. Crime did go down in New York city. Similarly, Dutch scientists found that cyclists who parked their bikes near a wall covered in graffiti were twice as likely to litter than people who parked near the same wall after it was painted clean.

So the point is – if we are really serious about plugging crime, start with the small offenders. Mete out exemplary punishment to the eve teasers, to the drunks who cause a public nuisance, to the traffic offenders (especially to the ones who drive in the opposite direction in one-way streets), to the people who scribble obscenities within housing complex lifts. Send out the message that you are really serious about setting things right. And maybe, just maybe – we will see the serious offenses coming down too. If it has worked in a once-upon-a-time high crime city like New York, good chances it will work here too.

And in the meanwhile your honour, please do spare us innocent souls from the harshness of the Delhi heat and sun!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Baby, enjoy the babydom!

“Be careful of what you talk to your child – it shapes her future personality”. This ominous piece of advice from a well-meaning relative got me all tied up in knots.

Much as I love my little daughter, I find it really difficult to speak anything remotely intelligent to her at this stage. I mean, seriously – what can I speak “intelligently” to a squealing kid who is rejoicing in the recent discovery of her vocal chords by making the most weird of noises by herself?

The following day, I decided to start a close observation – I stationed myself strategically on the sofa, as others in the family – apparently more experienced – made conversation with the little one. “Thayya Thayya Thayya!” “Thayya Thayya Thayya!” ……. That’s my Mom, speaking to her

As if in response, Mehr – held by her arm pits, bounces up and down her lap with an utterly gleeful look on her face. The duet goes on and on and on…… till my Mom tires!

Baby is now laid out horizontally – a position she does not particularly appreciate. And she makes it known quite quickly. “Aaaaaaeeeennnn….” Her siren goes off.

This time it’s the turn of my wife – trying to make her smile once again. “Prrrrrrrrrrrrrrr” she goes, her lips blubbering

Baby smiles again. Mission accomplished. But the blubbering cannot stop. Else the baby siren will go off again. And so for the next 15 minutes, baby continues to hear the funny sound “Prrrrrrrr” – and the oh-so-adorable smiles keep coming

Soon though, my wifes lips turn dry. Afterall one can “Prrrrrrrr” only to an extent

Before baby can realize what is happening, her mother makes a quick exit after placing baby on the baby gym that was presented to her

For a little while, peace reigns as Mehr seems lost with the hanging dragon. Pulling at it – watching it closely. But finally, as is her wont now-a-days with every object near her, she targets to eat it. She tries to nibble at it with her toothless mouth – lets out a long sigh of despair – and then learns a priceless lesson: “Plastic – not edible”!.... and soon the siren goes off again….. "Aaaaaaaaeeeennnnnn!”…. this time though its accompanied by thrashing feet… poor dragon

It’s the turn of my Dad now.

“Ululululululululu”, “Ululululululululu”……. He carries her high above his head. The new point of view stops Mehr in her siren wail mid stream….. she considers her surroundings… and slowly, very slowly – a smile creeps up her lips. The whole family lets out a sign of relief…… “ooooooo” baby is smiling agan!

“Ululululululululu”, “Ululululululululu”………..

“Ululululululululu”, “Ululululululululu”…….

But like “Prrrrrrrrrr” one can “Ululululululululu”, “Ululululululululu” also only upto an extent. Dad soon tires. From the corner of his eye he perhaps spotted me watching …. being a bit too relaxed.

“Going to papa, baby?” he asks.

Baby – who actually did not really have a choice – soon lands in my hands. The evidence of the last 30 odd minutes was seriously worrisome to me. Forget about speaking intelligently, the only noises my daughter was hearing consisitently were the “Thaiyya Thaiyya Thaiyya!”, “Prrrrrrrrrrrrr” and the “Ululululululululu”. What effect would these have on her development, I wondered? Add to this, the fact that unike most religious minded mothers who read sacred books and hear Bhajans during the pregnancy period, my wife completed the full Asterix & Obelix series during the same period – I had some serious cause for worry. “What are we doing to this little kid?”, I wondered!

We considered each other closely. She seems to have a look that seems to say, “Well, whats the funny noise this guy is going to make now?” ….. I hold my nerve. I am just thinking, “Don’t cry baby”, “Don’t cry baby”, “Don’t cry baby”!

Surprisingly it works!.... Maybe the baby understands telepathy????

Whatever it is – she suddenly gets all occupied with a button on my T-shirt….. “goo….. goooo… guuh” she is speaking to herself. By now – there is nobody around. Its just me and baby on the sofa with her in my arms. I look around stealthily to make sure there is nobody in earshot. Then I whisper slowly to baby ears.

“Baby…. World economic situation – not too good. Gets me a bit worried on impact to our business.” Then a quick aside – “don’t worry that will not impact your milk and cerelac supply”.

“Anna Hazare – fasting again soon”… I cannot resist a chuckle.

“Pakistan in bad shape too…. Don’t know for sure where that will end up”!

“By the way, India doing good in cricket”, “But sachin still not getting his 100th ton”!

Baby turns her head suddenly and looks at me directly in the eye. “My goodness, does she really understand all that?” I wonder. But the bottom line is – she has not cried for a while, since she has come to me.

Suddenly, my wife comes back again – this time with a bottle of cerelac in hand. I stop my conversation – baby also turns her head and watches the new development.

“How come she is so peaceful?”, my wife asks?

“Just happy with her Papa, I guess”, I say. As if to reconfirm that, baby suddenly unleashes one of her biggest smiles. My wife picks her up from my hands.

“You will be fine baby – you will be just fine!” I think….. “if you can enjoy all the “Thaiyya Thaiyya Thaiyya!”, “Prrrrrrrrrrrrr” and the “Ululululululululu”….. and then also hear out all the 9’o’clock news items I whispered, calmly – you will be just fine!”

Play & serious thought can be two sides of the same coin. I hope you realize this as you grow up.

Until then baby - just enjoy the babydom!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Baby, you no Superman!

The baby at home is now our favourite channel of entertainment. The last two weeks, the sole objective of Mehr's life has been to turn over - which after quite some persistent effort, she has pretty much mastered. The latest challenge in her life though - I wonder how she sets up these challenges for herself - is to propel herself forward. Its quite hilarious watching her strenuous efforts at locomotion.

She quickly turns over from her back to her tummy and then she gets into what is called in Yoga as "Dhanurasan" position - the shape of a bow. With both hands in the air and both legs also in the air - there is a desperate attempt at moving forward, which culminates in a lot of baby grunting, crying and finally slumping in exhaustion & pooping off. Poor girl, she still does not know Newtons third law of physics - that to move forward, she needs to push at something. In the process though, she looks like a baby superman, trying to take flight.

Heres an ode inspired by her efforts:

Sorry to break the news kid,
But you no superman.
No matter much you kick and scream,
You not flying nowhere!

Ok heres the inside dope kid,
You got to crawl, before you walk.
That’s the best we chimps managed,
Till the Wright bros came along.

Today you struggle, tomorrow you crawl,
And soon you will totter along.
Along the way, you will scrape your knees,
But eventually you will walk.

A step a time – that’s about enough,
To make it in this world,
Just as day turns night, as seasons change,
Easy does it now,
Easy will do it forever.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Romancing the Gumbarr

We spent the last two days doing a recce (for the Team building programs that we conduct) of an enchanting property called Camp Roxx. Check out: The property is set deep in the Pine forests of Dhadoo jungle near Nahan in Himachal Pradesh. A 7 hour drive from Delhi, it is quite appropriately located for conducting Team offsites.

Glad we checked it out – and we are quite sure we will be returning to this place quite often. The natural beauty of the place along with its salubrious climate and extremely helpful & polite hill people, make it a place that most people would cherish. The Gumbarr that flows hugging the property, make it just the place one would want to spend a starlit night chatting with friends and colleagues.

Here is a poem inspired by Camp Roxx……..

Have you ever sat, besides a gurgling stream?
And felt its spray upon your cheeks?
Or laughed as it ran along, playfully tickling your toes?

Have you taken a deep breath, and ever smelt a forest?
Lay down there, and counted the stars above?
Or heard its trees, as they swayed and whispered at night?

Have you ever walked along, the meandering paths of a mountain stream?
Watched it thoughtfully trickle at times – and at times rush in abandon?
Or collected the pebbles along its way, and set them free again?

Have you ever talked to the local folk, at deep jungle places?
Heard their stories, their myths, beliefs and wisdom?
And so been touched, in ways that change you forever?

Slow down, Slow down…. Don’t run so fast!
Don’t so worry and hurry – that the scenery whizzes past.
Life is not a race, Take it slower,
Hear the music, before the song is over.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Branding Our Baby

In the not so distant past, during my stint with Hewlett Packard, every month we used to come out with dealer and distributor promotion schemes. In line with our intelligence & imagination of those days, these schemes always had some (in retrospect) corny names. So, there was a “June Jalwa”, “March Mania”, “November Rain”, the more modest “September Special”, and even one that (thankfully) got shot down by our Finance team, “October Orgy”.

However, optimist that I am, all this rich experience left me with a swagger and confidence, that when it comes to brand names, I carry a few feathers in my cap. That was until our baby was born and we had to brand her, rather name her. The first shock we the parents got, was right in the operation theatre. History has recorded for posterity that the first words we uttered when the doctor pulled out the baby and said, “It’s a girl”, was “Are you sure?”. The doctor was first bemused and then she gave us both a wary look – the one usually reserved for “baby girl haters”. We quickly recovered – and truth be told – both of us were always praying for a girl. The apparent confusion was created because our radiologist during every ultrasound kept referring to the baby as a boy. Much later we would be educated that referring to an unborn baby as a boy was a norm in Indian medical circles.

This ofcourse had serious repercussions for our baby branding exercise. During 9 months of pregnancy – after a very detailed 8 months exercise, we had arrived at a boys name – Vivaan. But as the saying goes, the best laid plans of men and mice……

And so the great search began again in all earnest – an exercise in patience and creativity.

Early in the negotiation, my wife drew out her guidelines. “The name needs to be unique and not boring”, she said. “Unique” translated to “no other girl with the same name in near vicinity or earshot”. “Boring” translated not so subtly to “not a name like Arun… and then for softening the blow, or Shweta – just too common”. Perhaps the way “Sony” was arrived at I thought – no apparent meaning but unique and catchy. That would be a hard act to follow!

Now it was my turn – “Well, no names starting with the letter “A” I said.

“Why is that?”

“Because I don’t want my daughter to go through the same troubles that I did”. I smiled – that line had a heroic touch to it.

“And what are those troubles?”, my wife wore a quizzical look.

“Well, I used to miss my attendance in school even if I was slightly late. And then I had to request for attendance again.”

My wife rolled her eyes – but I sensed I was on a good wicket here, so as an afterthought, “No names starting with Z either”. There went Zara, Zoya & the gang.

“Because a few smart teachers also take attendance at times, starting from the back”.

“What a thing to factor for”, my wife said – but this was an equal negotiation. So, all points had to be accommodated.

And so, the turf was decided – it had to be the safe mid-field alphabets like J, M or S.

What followed next, got home the point of why Google is so successful. Search “baby girl names” and the number of sites offering suggestions for free – with word origins, meanings, numerology, Tarot power and a few other such variables, will make any man sick in the stomach. It will also make any woman clap her hands in glee.
To cut a long story short, after quite a laborious data mining exercise on the net, we arrived at a few options.

“Ipsita?”, I volunteered.

“Nooooo”….. my wife almost shrieked. “Do you know that Ipsita (Roy Chowdhury) is the first witch in India?”. I did not need to hear more. Name dropped.

“Sarah” my wife said.

“Nice, but non-Hindu origins may not make everyone in the family happy”. Sarah RIP.

“Mehr” my wife proferred. Reminded me of a college time heart throb, Mehr Jessia. “Now, that sounds nice”, I said. “Mehr Rao” almost had a finality to it. The name ruled the charts for a while. That was until my wife came up with the gem: “But just imagine what happens if she were to marry someone with the surname Mehra”. “She would be called Mehr Mehra”. Like the joke about Lara Dutta marrying Brian Lara to become “Lara Lara”. Could be just a joke, but “Mehr” quickly dropped out of consideration.

It has been close to 2 months since our baby has arrived. But she continues to be, “Baby”, “Sweetie” and sometimes, “Fatso”.

There is a moment while we go shopping together and my wife in her usual process of selection has tried out many many many dresses – when suddenly, every next dress she asks me about, genuinely looks good to me.

I think I have arrived at that tipping point again in this baby branding exercise. Suddenly, every new name suggested sounds good to me.

So, “A” has made a comeback with “Arshia”. A few other names are in the reckoning. “Jia” (my favourite), “Manya” (nice again), “Anya” (“A” again – but sounds good now), “Sana” (good again)… and a few more.

The good news is that my wife is now down to the final 10 shortlist – the Top 10. And to put some sort of cap on the process, the naming ceremony has luckily got finalized for the 20th October. So our baby will soon have a name afterall.

From now until then though, like pop-charts that keep changing, the quest for that special, unique brand name will continue.

And yet, something tells me, regardless of what name gets finalized, regardless of whatever letter, whatever origins, that name will be a very special sound for us, forever.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Remarkable things happen when you Dare To Dream

A colleague sent me this post by mail. For all those who have ventured to take a road less travelled, here is some food for thought. And for all those of you who are currently sitting on the fence, I hope this article repost gives you more confidence. As the saying goes, you do need to look before you leap, but the danger with looking too long, is that you often dont leap at all.

The author of the piece Whitney Johnson is a founding partner of Rose Park Advisors, Clayton M. Christensen's investment firm and is the author of the forthcoming Dare-Dream-Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream

"Are you sure you aren't making a mistake?"

I had just announced to one of my dearest friends that I planned to walk away from Wall Street and my seven-figure salary.

"Yes, I'm sure." But was I?

Years earlier, I had moved to New York City with a degree in music and a husband who was beginning a Ph.D. program. My first job, and the best job I could get, had been as a secretary at a brokerage house. By working 70-80 hours a week, taking business courses at night, and doggedly pursuing a jump to the professional track, I finally got a break, and moved into investment banking. When I decided to leave Wall Street, I was the Senior Media and Telecom analyst for Latin America at Merrill Lynch, and the top-ranked analyst in my field.

In leaving Wall Street, I was not only walking away from the money that came with my position, but from a certain level of prestige and power as well. I had worked for over a decade to develop relationships with Latin American business leaders, several of whom were on Forbes' billionaire list. These influencers were now reading my research, meeting with me, quoting me, and even occasionally quaking when I'd downgrade their stock.

Notwithstanding the considerable career and financial (I am the primary breadwinner) risks involved, it was time to leave my comfortable perch and become an entrepreneur. Time to disrupt myself. We typically define disruption as a low-end product or service that eventually upends an industry. But I've found that the rules of disruption apply to the individual too. Or as thought leader Jennifer Sertl writes, "innovation ultimately begins on the inside."

Six years into my mid-career move, here are some lessons learned from my personal disruptive trajectory:

If it feels scary and lonely, you're probably on the right track
The term "disruptive innovation" has become an industry buzzword. We all want to start a disruptive company or invest in disruptive ventures, but in reality an innovation that takes place at the low-end of the market or where there is no market (yet) is just not that sexy. It's a similar story when you contemplate disrupting yourself mid-career. There is the possible loss of stature and influence and the very practical loss of financial stability. Hence, the Innovator's Dilemma: whether you innovate or not, you risk downward mobility.

My start on Wall Street as a sales assistant was, without a doubt, a low-end, if not potentially a dead end, job; playing in the secretarial pool was not the stuff of bragging rights. In fact, I remember a conversation with two Ivy League graduates after I'd become an analyst. When they asked about my background, I quailed at telling them of my plebeian beginnings. Moving into investment banking wasn't a fait accompli by pursuing a disruptive strategy, but my odds had improved. Note too that the fear of disrupting myself early on was nothing in comparison to the mid-career thrill ride when there was so much more at risk.

Be assured that you have no idea what will come next
Because disruptive innovations are in search of a yet-to-be-defined market, we can't know the opportunity at the outset. "What you can know is that the markets for disruptive innovations are unpredictable, and therefore your initial strategy for entering a market will be wrong," writes Christensen. As famed angel investor Dave McClure tweeted, "DEAR VCs/ANGELS: if you ask for pro forma revenue projections for immature startups, you are wasting their time. STOP IT."

The checklist of conventional planning doesn't work on the personal level either; disruption requires discovery-driven planning. For example: when I left Wall Street in 2005, I was writing a children's book and pitching a reality TV show about soccer in Latin America: neither transpired. I then started my Dare to Dream blog, wrote no less than a dozen draft business plans, and my husband and I launched a magazine which initially was quite successful, but ultimately failed. During this time, as I volunteered in public affairs for my church, I became acquainted with Professor Christensen. This introduction eventually led to my role as a founding partner of Rose Park Advisors and the launch of the Disruptive Innovation Fund.

It's an unnerving and unpredictable path, but you'll be in good company. Columbia University professor Amar V. Bhide has noted, for 90 percent of all successful new businesses, the strategy the founders initially pursued didn't lead to the business' success. With a nod to McClure: "Dear You. If you ask for pro forma projections about what disrupting yourself will look like, you are wasting your time. Stop it."

Throw out the performance metrics you've always relied on
"A disruptive innovation must measure different attributes of performance than those in your current value networks," writes Christensen. Nearly everyone hits a point in their life where they examine their trajectory and consider a pivot. We typically label this mid-life crisis, but isn't it more often a re-thinking as to which performance attributes matter? Perhaps earlier in your career the metric was money or fame, but now you want more autonomy, flexibility, authority, or to make a positive dent in the world. These require different metrics of success. If, for example, after leaving Wall Street in 2005, I had continued to gauge my success based on money earned, I was nothing short of a failure. But if I measured success by the progress I made during the ensuing years — learning, developing, building something, doing good — I could judge my performance as successful. It's still not easy to measure, but as social media expert Liz Strauss said, "It's not possible for the world to hold a meeting to decide your value. That decision is all yours."

Your odds of success will improve when you pursue a disruptive course
What Christensen found in his analysis of the disk drive industry (which is discussed in The Innovator's Dilemma, and is foundational to our investing), is that firms seeking growth via new markets are 6x more likely to succeed than firms seeking growth by entering established markets, and the revenue opportunity is 20x greater. It's counterintuitive, isn't it? When we start in a place where no one else wants to play, where the scope of the opportunity appears limited, the odds of success actually improve.

To say that my disruptive trajectory has been one straight shot up the y-axis of success, as noted, would be wildly inaccurate. But it was a good decision; in fact, I see no other way. Perhaps you too are ready to disrupt yourself. Maybe your hand is forced by downsizing or new technologies are automating you right out of relevance. For most of you, however, I suspect the decision to make a dramatic disruption runs deeper than that. Like me, you may be looking to do more with your life. As you walk away from a future you easily foresee toward a more obscure trajectory, there will be times when you will feel lonely, scared, and even impoverished. But as you face your personal innovator's dilemma, both the probability and magnitudes of success will improve greatly.

We give a lot of airtime to building disruptive products and services, to buying and/or investing in disruptive companies, and we should. Both are vital engines of economic growth. But, the most overlooked engine of growth is the individual. If you are really looking to move the world forward, begin by innovating on the inside, and disrupt yourself.

Monday, July 18, 2011

An Angel Descends

There is a new sport that we have just discovered - and it is called, "Baby Gazing". The dining table that was usually a witness to long dinners, now finds itself deserted in super quick time. The television - which was sometimes the object of turf wars, finds itself there for the taking - the remote control lying tamely on the sofa. Even the cell phone - that prime king of gadgets that effortlessly hogs time, is strangely relegated to a strictly functional existence. Everyone is hooked to the new game at home, Baby Gazing.

It has been less than a week since a little person dropped in to stay with us. In just this small passage of time, our lives seem to have gone topsy turvy in more ways than one. Many well meaning and battle scarred friends asked us to be prepared for "the ride of our lives". But all the advice, all the baby manuals and all the doctors never told us one thing : Life as we have known it, will never ever be the same again! It truly feels like a completely new world that we are entering again.... and are we glad :-)

Penning a few thoughts, as our baby enters our lives.The dress you wear,
Looks two sizes too large.
Your teeth and eye brows,
Still an idea.

The flash of my camera,
Makes you frown,
A puff of air,
Sees you wriggle.

Oh you sleep so much,
Your fists all clenched.
You smile and sputter,
In your dreams.

And yet, from the one instant,
You gazed into my eyes,
You have me so bewitched,
Bedazzled and besotted,
I now feel touched by an Angel.

Welcome Princess, Welcome kid,
With bated breath, a world awaits.
Grace us with your magic touch,
And make it a whole new world again!

Thursday, June 09, 2011

When Bapu Smiled

34 injured, 4 serious, 1 nearly paralyzed they say,
Pained expressions, agony awash,
“What is happening to our country?” they wailed.

And then the roadshow moved along,
Dropping in where dear old Bapu lay.
It began all well – all serious, all concerned,
In the spirit of things, I would say.

Until I guess they could bear it no more,
To choke the triumphant smiles,
Of seeing an opposition, goof up in style,
To hell with the agony, the pain, the disdain.

Poor Bapu, he would have had a fit,
A lady even did a jig at his grave.
But perhaps Bapu just smiled instead,
Because Satyameva Jayate.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

In A Chinese Garden

The following write-up was written by Dr.Frederic Loomis - an obstetrician and gynecologist. In 1938, after 21 years of practice, he put aside his forceps and took up his pen. "In a Chinese Garden" is the story of a letter that completely changed his way of life, and which has since changed the lives of many others in all parts of the world.

At a time and age when most of us keep postponing all the things that we would love to do - to some time later, the message in this letter is timeless. I do hope this letter inspires you to live your best life. Read on...

I have told many times the story of a certain letter, which I received years ago, because the impression it made on me was very deep. And I have never told it, on ships in distant seas or by quiet firesides nearer home, without a reflective, thoughtful response from those around me. The letter:

Peking, China

Dear Doctor,
Please dont be too surprised in getting a letter from me. I am signing only my first name. My surname is the same as yours.

You wont even remember me. Two years ago I was in your hospital under the care of another doctor. I lost my baby the day it was born.

That same day my doctor came in to see me, and as he left he said, "Oh, by the way, there is a doctor here with the same name as yours who noticed your name on the board, and asked me about you. He said he would like to come in to see you, because you might be a relative. I told him you had lost your baby and I didn't think you would want to see anybody, but it was alright with me."

And then in a little while, you came in. You put your hand on my arm and sat down for a moment beside my bed. You didn't say much of anything but your eyes and your voice were kind and pretty soon I felt better. As you sat there I noticed that you looked tired and that the lines in your face were very deep. I never saw you again but the nurses told me you were in the hospital practically night and day.

This afternoon I was a guest in a beautiful Chinese home here in Peking. The garden was enclosed by a high wall, and on one side, surrounded by twining red and white flowers, was a brass plate about two feet long. I asked someone to translate the Chinese characters for me. They said:



I began to think about it for myself. I had not wanted another baby because I was still grieving for the one I lost. But I decided that moment, that I should not wait any longer. Perhaps it may be later than I think, too.

And then, because I was thinking of my baby, I thought of you and the tired lines in your face, and the moment of sympathy you gave me when I so needed it. I dont know how old you are but I am quite sure you are old enough to be my father; and I know that those few minutes you spent with me meant little or nothing to you of course - but they meant a great deal to a woman who was desperately unhappy.

So I am so presumptuous as to think that in turn I can do something for you too. Perhaps for you, it is later than you think. Please forgive me, but when your work is over, on the day you get my letter, please sit down very quietly, all by yourself, and think about it.


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Competing with Google

Over the last couple of months, I had the opportunity to conduct a series of sales training workshops. These workshops were across different geographies and across different product categories. One of the persistent themes that I noticed in all these workshops was about how much the frontline sales folk overwhelmingly feel that the product / service they sell is pretty much commoditized.

What then is the role of a salesman in facilitating such a sale? In other words, how does a salesman actually show “value” to a customer, so as to squeeze out a premium for his offering?

For anyone curious enough to delve deeper, yes – there are answers. But that is a discussion for another day. In this post, I only want to touch the surface of this intriguing inquiry into the role of a salesman in todays world. What exactly does a salesman currently do in a sales call, to communicate “value” to the customer?

In Economics 101, Value is defined as below:
Value = Benefit – Cost

Lets not look at the value of a product or service here. Lets look at the value created in a sales call. The “cost” that a customer expends in meeting a sales person is his Time & Energy. In an increasingly fast paced corporate world, our customer has limited resources of both, which he spends with due care. Hence, in his eyes it is a very valuable commodity.

Now, what is the “benefit” that a sales person can possibly give this same customer of ours in a sales call? The answers I generally hear are in terms of, “A good value proposition”, “A cost effective solution” and other such terms. Invariably though, I feel there is too much stress paid on the “cost” angle. This is despite the fact that we know that as consumers ourselves, we do not always buy “the cheapest” item on the block. Anyways, without debating that further, to stay with the sales call, I ask, “ok, so what does that translate to in terms of what you actually speak in the call?”, “Tell me the actual words”. Far too often, what I then hear is about a whole list of features and their related benefits.

Lets take a pause here and think for a minute. Rewind to a few years back, when you had to buy a car. How did you go about that purchase? You perhaps had a few cars in mind from the advertisements you saw on TV. You then went to a few showrooms, heard out a few sales guys and chances are that, one particular sales guy got you hooked with a few interesting features in his car. You negotiated ofcourse, but since the few features really caught your fancy you did not mind paying a little more than you had budgeted for.

Circa 2011. Same scenario again. How will you go about buying your car? Chances are, you will first log in to the internet. You will check out all the options of all the brands, available at the click of a mouse. You also browse through all the feature and product comparisons. You also have a good idea of the price ranges. Now, fully armed, you still visit the showroom. But this time, the difference is that you perhaps know more about the cars and how they compare against competitors than most of the sales people there. What is the only benefit, you think, a sales person can now give you? – a better price! From being one of the factors at the point of purchase, “Price” has truly been crowned the undisputed king in your purchase criteria.

Let us now return to our sales person who has to take his sales call. If all he can talk about in his sales call is about product features, their benefits and at best, comparisons with his competitors, is there someone else who can do a better job of that? Ofcourse there is – and the answer is GOOGLE!

In less than 0.5 seconds, Google can throw up all that data for me and more. Can ANY sales person in the world compete with that? I think not.

So, does that mean that Google has effectively killed the sales profession? The answer is an emphatic NO. What Google has done though is to elevate the requirement of an effective sales person from being someone who “communicates” value, to someone who “creates” value. People still pay a premium while buying certain products and services. But this happens only when the sales person, due to his knowledge of the industry and his offerings, brings in his “expertise” into play, to deliver “insights” to the customer that he cannot find from a Google search. An example of this is perhaps in the selling of Client Virtualization solutions in the IT Hardware space. The same customer who often cannot be sold a PC at any kind of premium, readily shells out a hefty premium to buy these solutions. Why? Because Google may tell him the specifications of the components involved, but it cannot give him or help him with the insight of how to go about it and how it can help improve his business metrics. That is the benefit that the salesperson can bring in.

The first step towards redemption of the sales profession, I think, is for sales people to understand and acknowledge that their job is not to compete with Google. The benefit that a sales person can deliver in a sales call, has to be the “insights” that come from their unique knowledge of the industry & the customer situation. That is something that Google cannot compete against.

I challenge you to think about your next sales call – will you be communicating something that Google cannot?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Horse Sense?

On the way back from the airport today, Rakesh & I came across an interesting sight. At one particularly stubborn traffic jam that refused to get dissolved, we suddenly saw a man riding a horse weaving his way around the traffic that was stuck and actually making good progress!

And just like that, while all of us remained boxed in the confines of our cars, the happy man-on-the-horse, found a way and breezed away from the scene.

Got us thinking & talking – is there a case for all of us to go back to horses again in place of our automobiles? We think YES – and here are 10 reasons why! 1) This is what got it all started. Caught in a traffic jam? – Just turn around and weave your way outta there! Just remember to watch the faces of those poor souls stuck in their little cars.

2) You just can’t get any GREENER than this – no nasty fumes, no air pollution! Horses are good for the environment.

3) One of the strongest reasons from my personal perspective – no more stupid honking. A quieter, more peaceful world! The neighing?... I think we can live with that.

4) Am putting my money on this one…. that road accident rates are going to plummet big time south. Horses do have more road sense – afterall, I have never heard of any two of them having a head-on accident EVER.

5) This one is for the romantics. Oh yes, a man riding a horse does look so much more kewl. Take your pick: The man-in-the-white-horse versus The man-in-the-white-car. Which would you prefer?

6) Last heard, a heap of grass came way way cheaper than a tank full of petrol or even diesel. And yes, there could be sales schemes for trading in horse-pooh for the horse grub, just coming up round the corner!

7) Horses occupy lesser space – ideal for narrow Indian road conditions. Bumpy roads, dug up roads, no roads… no problems whatsoever for our horses – that’s after all their native terrain!

8) Lesser parking space even! Four can fit in the space occupied by my one Optra now. If you are living in a metro like Gurgaon you would know what that translates to in terms of money saved.

9) Horses have character & individuality. If you get lucky to get a good one – maybe, just maybe it can also earn you some money on the side participating in the local horse show or maybe even a derby. A car is a car is a car. An expense. Full stop.

10) And finally – keep the right kinds of horses together and you can have another new baby horse soon. Never happens with these all too straight cars.

Can you think of any more reasons why we should go back to horses? Do share it here!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Gift of Choice

I have often been bothered by a question - that would spring up to mind at the oddest of times: "What is the meaning of life?". Sometimes in alcohol induced wisdom with friends - we would go on and on, till one of us had a headache and we had to stop. Sometimes, while driving alone in a long stretch of road, the question would pop again. And then there were times when I happened to park my car in the same slot at office for 5 days in a row - when again the alarm bills went off and the question presented itself : "Is there a meaning to all this? This relentless running on the treadmill - this blur of action that never stops - this living from weekend to weekend - this chasing of some sales numbers that will never be remembered in a few months from now......."

A few days back, I was reading a particularly moving book by Victor Frankl : Mans Search for Meaning. It is an account of his experiences in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. In all of human history, perhaps no other generation had to go through such a brutally inhuman existence. But as Victor Frankl narrates: Even in those darkest of circumstances and times, there were people who lived by the highest tenets of humanity - while the large majority descended into an existence of animals. He goes on to elucidate what became starkly clear in that crucible of existence: It was that the meaning of life is not something that opens itself and presents itself like a book to be read. Rather, the meaning of life - is a choice - that presents itself in every moment of existence to an individual. Its an answer that every person needs to give for himself or herself. At this very moment of your life - what do you choose to be? Happy or Sad? Cribbing or Inspiring? Safe or Adventurous? Generous or Miserly? Cruel or Compassionate?

As Nichrens teachings of Buddhism tell us - there are many states of existence in every second of our lives, ranging from Buddhahood & heaven on one end to the state of Animality and Hell at the other end. The gift given to humans is that of choice. Do we wish to manifest our best sides or do we live by the whim of the moment?

The greatest souls who have walked this Earth - have time and again manifested this truth - that we need to own up every second of our lives & make our choices in line with the best that is in us. Thats perhaps what they really meant when they said: "I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul."

The below poem - that I came across in the movie Invictus was apparently a constant source of inspiration and encouragement to Nelson Mandela in all his 27 years in prison. Written by William Ernest Henley, I do hope it inspires you too!

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how straight the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Cooking up a Team

Someone once told me: "The way you Play is the way you Work". In my work with the several teams I have had the good fortune to watch closely, I have often been witness to this truth rising to the fore unfailingly.

And so it was, during the Friday of last week, when we were conducting a team building workshop for the senior leadership team of a corporate behemoth.

The challenge laid out to them was starkly simple: to cook a meal. The nine individuals were split into 3 groups, which were handed Rs.200 each. The only other things offered were a cooking vessel, a ladle, a cutting board and a knife. No ingredients, no cooking stove, nothing else. And ofcourse, before they started, their pockets were emptied out of any other resources that could possibly come in handy. The instructions were specific: to cook a full course meal – with a starter, a main course and a dessert.

A senior leadership team – dabbling every day in millions, being asked to cook a simple meal. Whats in it you wonder?

This is where the story unfolds layer by layer. If there is one thing that is a constant in todays’ corporate world, it is the certainty of change & the spectre of ambiguity always casting a long shadow. So, back to the cooking, when the teams are thrown the challenge, how they confront the situation is a telling commentary on their approach to ambiguity.

“How can we do all that in just Rs.200?”, “Where do we get all the stuff we need to cook?”, “Where do we cook?”, “All this in just 3 hours?”, “But none of us is good at cooking!” – the objections, the resistance often flies thick and fast, at first. All of which is met with a friendly smile, a shrug of the shoulders – and a helpful line in encouragement from us as Facilitators: “All the very best!”

This is where reality begins to sink in…… “What we cook is what we have as lunch”, “We need to find a way to do this!”. There is a legendary story of Hernando Cortez the Spanish Conquistador who ordered his men to burn their ships soon upon landing in Mexico. The message was clear: there was no option of turning back. Needless to say, they won. Adversity sometimes can be the greatest motivator. And so it was with our corporate cooks – that after the initial rumblings were settled – and no way through was seen, the actual work of how to go about began to be discussed.

What generally happens next is perhaps the clearest reflection of team dynamics playing out. The natural tendencies of individuals quickly emerge. There are some who go into a “quiet-think” mode, silently figuring out what next to do, putting their thoughts together and then emerging back again to share with their groups. There are some who immediately get into “take-charge” mode – talking as they think, gathering everyone around and trying to bounce different ideas. There are some who would watch from the sidelines, waiting for a plan to emerge before jumping in to do their bit. And yes, there would also be some who wear an all-knowing smirk, twiddling their thumbs metaphorically & wait with an attitude that says, “Lets see where all this finally leads”. There would be some who would say, “Lets make a list of everything we need”, someone else who would say, “Lets go to the market and figure”. One task, different approaches – to an MBTI practitioner, it would be just the different preferences playing out so clearly as it would in any group.

Very soon however, a consensus and consequent plans, do emerge. These after all are people who make things happen in large organizations. The stage is now set for the next phase – moving from planning to actual execution. And even here, the same story – of one task, different approaches - plays out in delightful ways.

One group went by the straight rule book. Someone went searching for the nearest market, hitching rides along the way. Another group member went around in the search of a spot to cook. Yet another group member got busy in figuring out how to get a fire started.

In another group – one member approached the nearest house outside the hotel, offering to buy the vegetables in the refrigerator of the bewildered resident. “You can buy it at the market, no?” he was asked. But he pulled it off yet. A third group took a similar approach, but with the hotel pantry. Call it innovation or call it the Indian spirit of jugaad, the challenge of resourcing was well and truly taken up!

The clock ticked on and soon the 3 groups had 3 fires going on in close vicinity to each other. Ever wondered why industries tend to congregate into a certain region? Well, that’s a discussion for another day. But as the fires crackled under the makeshift stone stoves, the ticking timelines got the tempers outside occasionally flaring too.

“You were supposed to get the fire ready by the time we came back”, “Now that we have the fire ready, maybe you can also help in kindling it”, “But its not my job”, “Could you not cut the vegetables closer to the fire?”, “Don’t just stand there – lend a hand”.

Water always finds its level – and so it is said about teams. Eventually everyone found a role to do – some assigned, some assumed. And so as the vegetables simmered in the pots, the smiles, laughter and friendly banter, slowly returned again.

Soon it was time to lay out the food and present it to the entire team. The sense of achievement and pride in the team was palpable. There is nothing that bonds a team as well as shared success. We are often witness to teams going up in team cheers spontaneously at this stage! We then had the Chef-de-Presentatione of each team come up and conjure a wildly creative outpouring of what they had cooked up, that left everyone in splits!

In our work with teams, our constant search is for the elusive “team elixir”. What makes a group of people come together as a cohesive team we constantly wonder and explore. We don’t have the definitive answers as yet, but there are certain common themes that time and again appear:
• A shared sense of purpose
(Its OUR meal !)

• A shared sense of destiny
(If we don’t cook – ALL of us go hungry !)

• A shared sense of responsibility
(I do THIS best – you do THAT best – but only together we can cook a meal !)

• A shared sense of fun, play & camaraderie
(Lets try it! … So what if we go wrong!.... hahahaha!)

For sure there would be many more ingredients that go into building a good team – similarly as there would be many more ingredients that could go to make the cooking tastier. But if there is one over-arching lesson that the Cooking Challenge teaches, it is this: One cook can perhaps lay out a good dish, but if it’s a banquet you are after, you need a team.