Are you trying to be smart ?

Surely you have heard this phrase before. Most probably when you are trying to pull a fast one, aiming for those perfect last words to show how witty you are really are, trying to be arrogant, or ‘cool’ … or often when you have just a staggeringly stupid act. Usually when one hears these words, the irony is lost on most people. No you were not trying to be smart – you were just being yourself or you really had to prove a point. The reasons usually don’t matter.

But what if you were actually, really smart? And someone came and told you nonchalantly – ‘It’s ok to be smart!’ What would your reaction be – ‘Are you trying to be smart or are you just a plain old chauvinist?’ And is this comment driven by your jealousy because your grey cells aren’t really as grey as the one who you are trying to put down? (At least this is one situation where a shade of grey is better than being black and white) . Again … the reasons usually don’t matter.

But what matters is that there are millions kids out there who are being told this exact thing – ‘It’s ok to be smart!’ This phrase stopped me in my tracks. It was emblazoned in large friendly letters on an educational toy(called brain quest) that we had picked up for our kids during our summer vacation in USA.

Admittedly, it is a reasonably good educational aid with interesting questions, put together in an easily referenced and digestible format to build up the kids’ general knowledge. We have had fun with it and it has been handy on a few long road trips….. but what a way to advertise it! It’s like telling kids – don’t fret, it’s alright if you are more intelligent than the others. If you know more than your friends, no need to feel the odd one out. Your knowledge will not be considered unnatural. You are not a mutant or a nerd and you will not be persecuted. And to top it all, a picture of a small boy wearing large geeky glasses rounds up the message. The message is really complete.

Isn’t it the whole point of school – to learn, to experiment, to grow your knowledge? Talking to a an american friend, a ratification emerged. It seems like the general level of interest in real knowledge is indeed diminishing among a majority of school students. Kids who know more than others are usually made fun of and considered ‘nerds’. All kinds of euphemisms are drawn up and hurled at them. Regardless of this situation, it does seem a fairly convoluted way to promote intelligence and knowledge.

This holds universal truth that extraordinary ability usually stands out and is most often lauded, or in a minority of cases is scoffed at. (Just thinking of this brings Howard Roark from ‘The Fountainhead’ to mind). Imagine telling Einstein this – ‘It’s ok Albert, we don’t really mind you being so brainy. We know why your hair are always standing up. Just trying being quite when you are around people, and don’t think up answers to the scientific mysteries on a daily basis’ .

But the point is – ‘It is really ok to be Smart!’ … you don’t need to justify it or hide it. While we will continue to use ‘brian quest’, but every time I will pick it up in the future, this question will jump up at me again. And my answer will be .. ‘Oh really. thanks for the tip!’

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Change your perspective or get S.T.U.N.N.E.D

All of us are on a journey through life. If you belong to the ‘fatalistic’ school, you believe that it will get you to that place that you deserve or destined to be. If you subscribe to the opposite school, then you believe you are in a constant state of tussle with the nature to shape your journey the way you want it – speed, direction, path, and destination. Who succeeds in the end – the jury is still out on this one.

One of the smaller sub-journeys that many of us take in our lifetime is a ‘Plane journey’. That journey is completely a fatalistic experience. You are bound to land up where the pilot wants to go, or rather as dictated by the airline schedule. You can’t do a thing to change it. Some of us take too many of them – as depicted by the numb, robotic and number obsessed character played by George Clooney in ‘Up in the Air’. I am not one of them, neither do I wish for anyone to be in that situation. To have your name on a plane is nice, but there are easier ways of achieving that rather than sit in a plane 300 days a year…… there I go meandering again. Getting back on track…..

I do dabble in aviation once in a while.  Wow – that sounded exotic! Like I pilot my own private plane or helicopter or something like that. Personally I would opt for either the Gravitube or the ‘Beam me up Scotty’ means of transport, if they existed. But since we are only in 2011 and at least a trillion years away from either of them, I choose the more mundane option. I pick an airline, pay the ticket price, sit back, enjoy a book and collect loyalty points (which are never redeemed).

Travelling back from US to Europe a couple of weeks back, zipping through time zones, the S.T.U.N bug hit me. This bug called S.T.U.N (Sleepless Traveller nUmbed by moNotony), is rumoured to live in a secret chamber designed into every airline seat in the world. There are many tell tale signs that the seat you are sitting on is teeming with S.T.U.N.s. These can range from the fact that the a/c vent above your seat can either be set to blast you continuously with frigid air that can drive even a polar bear away or completely off – no mid way setting possible. Another could be that the ‘lamp’ button on your seat controls the lights of a fellow passenger sitting 30 rows away on the seat 42D. Your unending quest to try to switch on your light by continually pressing the button in every conceivable position, pressure, frequency etc has put the passenger on 42D in either a state of frantic rage or a blissful hypnotic stupor. The sure shot sign is the presence of strange pieces of small white calciferous bits in the seat pocket in front of you. You probably mistook them for small crumbs of nuts that the airline attendant failed to clean, but in reality are the remaining pieces of bone of the last passenger that was devoured by the S.T.U.N bug. Rumor has it that the bug has been deliberately planted by the airline companies. Apparently, the passengers bitten by this bug, in their state of paranoia and desperation, contribute vastly to the airline’s coffers by buying vast amounts of useless items from the duty free catalogue. If you have ever bought something from an airline duty free catalogue – blame it on the S.T.U.N bug.

Anyway, the bug bit me. While I skillfully managed to avoid the last described fate, but there I was – wide awake and trying out all the exercises recommended by the airline booklet to keep the blood circulation in my legs going. I got up to take a small stroll and reached the back of the aisle. Standing there, the following image presented itself in front my eyes. A pretty normal sight, people glued to the TV screens, struggling to make out the details of the movie on the washed out, tiny screen while straining to hear the dialogue on the ineffective airline headphones.  While some of them may have been genuinely enjoying the movies, probably many of them were unknowingly sinking deeper into the traps set for them by the S.T.U.N bugs.

Just that brief respite of being away from the S.T.U.Nning seat brought a sense of normalcy, not experienced in the last 4 hrs. Suddenly a realization hit me. Isn’t this small, unimportant incident so similar to situations that affront us often? Many a times, when people are stuck with a problem or an issue – they will often keep trying the limited number of ways that they can immediately ‘see’ from their point of view. And there will often come a point when each of these ways will be exhausted and the problem will be declared ‘too difficult to solve’ or ‘each of the ways of solving the issue as useless’. I remember talking to one of my team members about this, who was in the same situation about a project, and was unable to solve the issue at hand. Talking to the person, it became clear that by repeating the same old tried and trusted methods, the issue was becoming like quicksand and pulling that person deeper into it. So very typical …

What people don’t do enough of is the following –

  • Stop repeating the same old, time tested methods
  • Take a breather and step back for a minute
  • Ask for an opinion of a colleague, a friend or someone else
  • Change the environment in which you have been trying to solve the problem. Small stuff like move away from your office or desk, call for a meeting in an unusual place like the office lawn etc. It’s surprising how often these small things make a world of difference
  • Basically, try to look at the issue from a different perspective

It is human nature to think that one probably has all the answers and the solutions. Einstein famously said – “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. I fully agree with him (even though he meant it differently and was trying to prove a different point). There is far too little time on our hands to waste on doing the same thing over and over again.

That little moment of realization was another reaffirmation of the fact that your point of reference, changes how you perceive a given situation and how you act on it. Before I took that small walk till the end of the aisle, my vantage point was my seat; a couple of feet away from the flickering screen. All I could think about was which movie to watch to fill the time till I land. Suddenly being away from the seat and be able to see the ‘bigger picture’ (so to speak), got my mind working on an altogether different plane.

So next time your umpteenth crack at a problem has failed – stop. Stand up, clear your head and try a different vantage point. If all else fails, take the BA flight that I was on, go stand at the end of the aisle and you might see the issue or the world around you differently. And while you are at it, please apologize to the passenger on seat 42D, for he still might be there in a state of stupor.

The death of a giant

 

I saw a giant die today.

Giants have a unique way of their own. They come into the world with a bang. Everyone notices their arrival. People look upto them in awe. When they flex their muscle, others run for cover. They forge their own path. More often than not, they trample over others who stand in their way. Occasionally it is on purpose, as the giant sees the others as a minor obstacle which needs to be brushed aside like a fly. Most often they don’t even notice the ones trampled, for they are not in their line of sight. The hapless ones were merrily going their own way, till they realized too late that the giant had also chosen to take the path they were on. As the giant marches on, it collect accolades and occasionally brickbats. Many a times they can get drunk in their own success, and not even notice that another bigger, stronger giant is on their path.

And then, after a while …. they die.

They get crushed by a bigger, newer giant on the block. Their death is often more spectacular and feted than their birth. It is always like a supernova. A brilliant flash of light, thundering explosions that can be heard and felt light years away. And as they die, they take many others with them.

As they fall to the ground, they don’t pass away quickly. They lie there and whimper, struggle and prolong their agony. They attract vultures and on lookers by the truckload. The vultures peck away and the parts that they find the juiciest and the tastiest. As the vultures come and go, they leave behind a giant, which is little smaller, uglier, disfigured, more hapless. The vultures go and pass on the message about the waiting feast to others of their clan. Till the time only a skeleton remains, with some rotting body parts that no one, not even the vultures wish to partake of. Then it’s over. People talk sympathetically about the giant for a while, then it is forgotten, relegated to myths and memories.

I saw a giant die today.

It wasn’t a person. It was a name that many people would have heard of – ‘Borders’. They are, or rather were, 6one of the biggest names in the book selling business, at least in the english speaking part of the world.

And the way I discovered it was as much a shock as the news of them going away. Walking down Broadway in NY, from battery park upto Manhattan downtown, we spotted the familiar black and white sign of Borders from a distance. The pace of the kids quickened, fuelled by the possibility of laying their hands on some more of their favorite books. As we inched closer, it seemed strange that their was no activity around the huge doors. On reaching the front  doors, we were greeted by a dusty porch, peeled carpets and paint and huge signs proclaiming ‘Prime retail space for lease’. We, being tourists in NY with a million things to see and do, raised our eyebrows and carried on.

Later, after spending an afternoon at the iconic Central park, we headed into the Lincoln center. Everyone was cheered by another sight of the Borders sign. As we climbed the escalator and reached the first floor, I was shocked to see huge, ugly black and yellow signs – ‘Going out of business. Everything 20 – 40% off’.

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To see these signs pasted all over the glass walls, which otherwise would be adorned with the posters of books, was like being hit by a heatwave, when you are expecting a gentle, soothing spring breeze. I looked at my wife,  we both stared back at each other puzzled. We gingerly stepped inside to witness signs of chaos. Books piled up in unruly stacks, hundreds of people jostling to get their hands on a bargain. Huge red signs proclaiming the death of a giant. Instead of the nice soothing piped music, the sound system was continually blaring announcements about warning people to not to sit on the ground and read, as it was a fire and safety hazard.

Where one would normally find friendly helpful staff who would go out of their way to suggest books and help you discover new books, there was no one in sight. Every info counter was a deserted mess with strewn papers, packaging and computer screens displaying a blank white screen or a message about no network available. Much like small ghost towns. With great difficulty I was able to track down a staff member to inquire about the whereabouts of a specific kids book. I was greeted by a steely eyed, grim faced girl, who pointed to a far corner and asked me to go search myself. The far corner, the erstwhile kids section was a deserted place. The bright and colourful covers of kids books seemed glaringly out of place among the carnage that surrounded them.

Catching another rare staff member later for her help in searching in the catalog, the explanation emerged. She explained that Borders was now owned by a liquidator. They had no access to the catalog and it was just a matter of time before all this would be gone. There was genuine remorse and tiredness in that face. Whether that feeling came from having repeated that answer to a hundred customers, pain of losing her job or a sense of loss due to passing away of a place where books were respected, I’ll never know. What was clear to see were the remains of the giant. It’s skeleton in the form of empty shelves, the discarded bits in the form of unwanted books, crushed mints and sweets packages near the checkout counter and bargain shoppers rummaging in the piles for a succulent morsel.

While this does reflect on me being not completely in touch with going-ons in the world, but I could sense a wormhole open up in the fabric of space-time. As we walked around the bookshop trying to look for books, I couldn’t help but wonder – Am I nothing more than a vulture, scavanging on juicy bits of a dying giant. Are the discounted books piling up in my basket, small bits of the giant. Did I at some point in time, inadvertentently play a part in it’s demise? Or the giant that I could see dying in front of me, was not Borders, but the printed book.  Will all physical bookshops soon meet the same fate, and did Borders fail to reinvent itself in a world of publishing and book retailing that is or has chaged radically?
Lots of questions, and very little answers. What’s even more ironic is that this piece is being typed on a tablet. One of the reasons for buying it was to being able to occasionally read magazines and books on it. So maybe that was my part in it’s downfall. But does  that mean that one should stop evolving and not foster progress and new approaches?

As one would expect, there are no right or wrong answers here. And an issue like these can be argued equally passionately both ways. All i know is that I watched a giant die, and it certainly wasn’t pretty.

The great cultural sponge

This is a definite entry for the next Guinness book of world records. The biggest sponge in the world – India.

No, the reason is not the ubiquitous pot belly or layers of fat a typical Indian middle-aged man or woman proudly sports, the ‘softness’ that Indian government displays in dealing with it’s ‘friendly’ neighbors or the way most Indian sportsmen wilt away when faced with slightest amount of aggression shown by the opposing team. It  is the way we Indians have the ability to absorb any cultural influence thrown our way, and make it our own.

A perfect example of the above was a dinner that we attended yesterday. Here we were, 3 Indian couples sitting around a table in a pretty little town in Switzerland,  and some of us were talking in varying levels of American and British accented English, without a word of Hindi in sight for miles around. While the lack of Hindi is not a commendable characteristic, but it certainly epitomizes the urban India so precisely and spectacularly. But why the hell were we talking in accented English anyway. Since we are in Switzerland, shouldn’t all of us have developed the peculiar guttural throaty way of speaking most Swiss have. Well my kids are getting there, especially when conversing with their local friends, where their vocal chords suddenly turn into massive grinding gears and which utter all kinds of guttural sounds whenever encountered with a word containing ‘k’ , ‘ch’ or ‘kh’. Thankfully they have the ability to switch back to a more ear friendly normal Hindi or English while conversing with us.

So coming back to the American accent – the culprit (if one may make such a strong reference) was the couple we met for the first time, who have spent the best part of their life in good old united states of America. But what led them to develop this accent, they were not raised there, it was only the last 20-25 odd years they spent there. Was it a need to blend in, prove that they belong? No – It was just the natural thing to do, they inadvertently and unconsciously started to adapt their accent to the local scene. What was even more interesting was the other couple who we know very well, have no discernible trace of a foreign accent, would start to roll their R’s a hundred times over while talking to them, and would revert to their ‘normal’ accent when they would turn to us. Now they are very dear friends, but this small change was very interesting to observe. But hang on a minute, I know many Germans, Swiss, French who lived in America and England for many years (as kids as well as adults) and have come back without a trace of an accent.

The question that immediately popped into my mind then was – if they were now to move back to India and live there, will they lose all of that accent? Or will the great Indian cultural sponge play it’s tricks, and some of the people around them will start to adapt themselves and pick up the drawl? And why is it that it is only Indians, who seem to display this characteristic the most? Does it have something to do the ‘Linguistic neutrality’ of the Indian tongue, which lends itself to this behavior? Or are we just super eager to abandon our cultural influences and adopt anything around us that appears or sounds umore posh & upscale?

From Hank to Hendrix

A bunch of 7 to 9 yr old kids learning to play cricket equated to a team of senior project managers working in a bank?  Musically speaking its like comparing Hank Williams, the great honky-tonk artist to the inimitable Jimmi Hendrix, arguably the greatest rocker of all – What can the two groups possibly have in common? Nothing much to the untrained eye, but perhaps a lot if you look from where i am standing. The reason i can say that with authority is that in a typical week i get through both these groups, the latter at work and the former in my role as the coach of the Under 9 cricket team at the Zurich Crickets.

So where do we start with the similarities, huh … ?

1. Getting them together in a place is next to impossible : Put 12 kids in an indoor gym at the beginning of coaching session on a Saturday morning, and you can’t even hear yourself think. You need to coax, beg, order, trick, sometimes all of these things at once – and you just might grab their attention. The team of project managers at the other hand have a slightly different set of issues – global conference calls, budget issues, tracking a 500 line item project plan etc. continue to have a have a higher priority. Discovering Atlantis is easier than having them sit down together whether for a coach-talk or a team meeting.

2. ‘Question everything’ is their shared motto : Either all project managers were under 9 cricketers once, or all the under 9s have a secret ambition to be a project manager. For every thing that you throw at them comes back to you at double speed disguised as an unanswerable question. Try answering this from a 7 yr old when explaining the best way to hit a straight drive “Why can I not use 3 bats together when I am batting?” or this a from a project manager when explaining the competition’s product offering “Why don’t we just buy them off, then we have nothing to worry about?“. Even Obama would not have an intelligent reply.

3. They are as multicultural as it gets : Both the teams consist of members from practically round the globe – South Africans, Germans, Italians, English, Australians, Swiss, Indians, Serbians, Israelis… you name it. I think only the Vatican is not represented.

4. Both continue to surprise & exasperate you : Surprises come in all shapes and sizes. Like the boy who just for the life of me cannot get the ball to pitch in line with the stumps, will suddenly come up and bowl a perfect in-swinging yorker leaving everyone flabbergasted. Or the perhaps the project manager who will have a ‘Eureka’ moment and manage to convince the stakeholder who has been resisting for ages, with a perfect argument that no one saw coming. In both cases you are left scratching your head in a mixture of admiration(wow! i didn’t know he/she could do that)  and exasperation (Why couldn’t he/she have done this earlier).

5. You continue to learn so much from them : Just the very fact that each of them is a personality in their own right complete with all the aspects that make us human, keeps you on your toes. The challenges they throw at you, the new perspectives they bring to age-old issues, their diligence to continue practicing their bowling at any spare time at home or working relentlessly to meet a deadline that is approaching like a steamroller – is enlightening. Every day/week offer you a little nugget of knowledge or experience that leaves you so much the richer.

Would one want to change a few things here and there, probably yes. But will the two groups remain the ‘originals’ if you did, probably not. So here’s to both the groups keeping their spirit and personalities.

Were they ever enemies?

This was the first phrase that popped into my head when I saw this now ubiquitous message proclaiming to the world on facebook that ‘X’ and ‘Y’ are now friends. Chances are most of you reading this have a facebook account (who doesn’t these days … huh?) and seen this super-friendly message a trillion times. So why is there a need to write about it? Since the question is purely rhetorical, we will let it pass for now.

I cannot help but wonder that thanks to facebook, before they became ‘friends’, were they ever enemies? And why is this important for me to know that someone whose existence I am only reminded of when I read of his/her latest exploits like ‘just had 3 tequila shots straight up…yohooo!‘ and I see a grainy, barely recognizable picture taken in a dimly lit bar and uploaded from his/her uber-cool mobile gadget, has now become friends with another person, whose existence i was blissfully unaware of before now and of whom I will probably never hear again? … and to top it all what is there to ‘like’ about it? (I wish some of these sites have an ‘unlike’ button)

Now don’t get me wrong and report me to Mark Zuckerberg. I do love this modern day invention from the bottom of my heart (okay this was a little over the top). I have been able to find some folks with whom I had been out of touch for a long time, and I have even been guilty of sharing some photos occasionally. As with all of these modern day social media inventions, this one also comes with it’s own set of ironies. The best one I have heard of recently is about someone who ‘tricked’ her friends into wishing her a happy birthday on FB second time in 3 months, by just changing her birthday in her profile. The same people who had wished her 3 months back, got a reminder and robotically went to her wall (what a cool name for something that does not even exist in real life) and promptly posted a heartfelt birthday greetings message.

I wonder sometimes if we are pushing the envelope a bit too far at times? Why is it so important for us to be perennially socially-connected with a tool whose name, even my dumb Microsoft word processor does not recognize and shows as spelling mistake? Is there anyone readying this who does not have a facebook account and still has real friends?…. and why am I bothered about this, its late and I should be in bed!

All’s well that ends well

So the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth games finished a few days ago. But chances are that many of you did not care or even know about it. No … you are not living on Mars, many of you could be either European/American, for whom the word ‘Commonwealth’ does not ring a bell or many of you couldn’t be bothered about spending your precious time following a sporting activity that is considered to be among the 10 largest sporting events in the world, but probably has little practical significance in the ‘bigger picture’ (at least that’s what some people think)

But me, the perennial skeptic, does not belong to the above camp. For the following 7 galactically important reasons, the games held a lot value:

1. They created common WEALTH – Yes they did, and loads of it … so what if it was only for the organizers! How can we overlook the fact that anyone at a reasonably important post in the organizing committee/s would have seen their personal networth increase handsomely. Some estimate that spending for the Commonwealth Games overran the original estimate of $500 million nine-fold. Do the math yourself and wonder where a lot of that $4.5 Billion went

2. They increased GDP/standard of living for many Indians – Thanks to all the kickbacks that thousands of people received, many families will have spanking new cars, apartments, LED televisions etc. In the time of the current recession it matters! All that money spent of spiffing up public places that nobody was going to visit, paper projects that never saw the light of day and will eventually get reported as handsome profits for many companies (some non-existent). How can one argue against improving the living conditions of people in a country where many live on $2 a day?

3. They reduced unemployment – Thousands of workers were hired to make and then dig-up the same roads, lay and re-lay pavement stones, paint broken walls. I happened to be in Delhi during July. On visiting Rajiv Chowk (one of the most important locations of Delhi) I witnessed dozens of workers snoozing in the shade of trees waiting for inspiration to repair the roads they dug up last week. Then hundreds must have been hired as a last ditch effort in the last few weeks to help the poor overworked souls. Obama – take note, here’s a tip on how to reduce America’s unemployment

4. New heights of luxury were created – Who in the world can boast of  $80 rolls of toilet paper (Kimberley-Clark: did you miss a massive opportunity here?), $61 soap dispensers and $125 first-aid kits. You cannot even partake of such luxuries at the Ritz Carlton

5. New architectural grounds were broken:

China gave the world this  …. 

India gave us this ……

Now put your hand on your heart and tell me, which one of these will end up heralding the new era in architecture and design?

6: India emerged as a sporting giant – India stood second in the medal tally, beating the mighty sporting nations of Tonga, Bangladesh and Cayman Islands. Come the next summer Olympics – China and America will be trembling in their ranks.

7. It brought mankind closer to nature – .. or was it the other way round? For hundreds of urbanite sportsmen who were not conversant with the glorious Indian fauna, this was their chance to get close and personal with it. Don’t trust me? … read it here

But …. as the saying goes – ‘All’s well that ends well’. These were minor hiccups, compared to what in the end turned out to be hugely successful games . They did have some truly momentous sporting occasions, the spotlight shone on India & performances of Indian athletes in areas like Shooting, Hockey, Women’s 4 x 400m relay will go a long way in reviving interest in sports other than the omnipresent Cricket. It wasn’t really all that bad … was it?

So world … look at the brighter side and bring on the Indian hosted Olympics!