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Month: March 2021

Bear necessities

We were recently watching the new BBC Earth series called A Perfect Planet, narrated by the incomparable Sir David Attenborough.

One shot focused on a group of bears that had just come out of hibernation. They were quite skinny and weak, having gone many months without any food.

Hundreds of them had come together at a lake, the largest such congregation of bears in the world. Their objective? To hunt all the salmon that come to the lake shores, and there were plenty of them. However, in this initial period, the salmon are very strong, and the bears are not quick enough to catch them. Most bears fail, and go hungry.

One old, experienced and wise bear though, had a trick up its sleeve. Instead of fishing from the shore, he swims coolly to the middle of lake, and makes a few dives to the bottom. Each time, he comes back up with mouthfuls. These apparently are fish that have just died and been deposited into the lake bed. The wise bear’s excitement is palpable, as much is the anxiety of all the other bears combined.

It always helps to pay heed to the wise.

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GUDUSUNGU

Financial market participants often try to define risk. Due to the large sums of money involved, it is extremely important to capture risk accurately – the reason being that one would always know how much they could stand to lose at any point in time. The challenge with assessing risk though, is that it always comes unannounced. If you can define it, comprehend it, and prepare for it, then it probably is not really “risk” in the first place.

It’s not just the financial markets alone where we may have experienced this. On the eve of an important presentation or speech or or exam or deliverable or review, we might conjure up the worst possible outcomes in our minds. No doubt stress, anxiety and tension will follow. But what is interesting is that most of the time such events pass by fairly smoothly, and the “risk” never materializes. As someone said and I’m only paraphrasing, “Risk is what hits you completely out of the blue, at 3 pm on a sleepy afternoon.”

What can we do then in such situations? Instead of worrying about what might happen, once we’ve put in the requisite efforts (i.e. preparing in advance for the presentation, studying well for the exam etc.), we can follow the gudusungu (you could pronounce it as goodoo-sangoo!) principle, i.e. Get Up, Dress Up, Show Up, Never Give Up. Just consistently being there, doing the small things, progressing step by step, always matters much more than a one-shot one-trick pony. Let’s try it out!

PS: ‘Sangu’ in gudusungu is also the name of my awesome elder cousin sister who’s also a doctor and blogger. Makes it easier for us to recall every day!

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Keep company

In Sadhana Panchakam verse 13, Adi Shankara gives the instruction that one must keep the company of knowledgeable people, specifically the Guru. Most people focus on the latter half, i.e. finding the ‘knowledgable One’, i.e. the Guru, and making sure the Guru is the right one for us. Even when we are in dire need of help, materially or spiritually, we only think of estimating / forecasting whether this Guru can really help our cause. Will the Guru make us stop eating the foods we like or watch the TV we crave or visit the pubs we like? If so, then I’d rather change my Guru, because that is infinitely easier than changing my lifestyle.

All the focus though, has to be on the first part of the sentence, i.e. ‘keeping company of’. This looks disarmingly easy, but is extremely difficult. A true Guru might administer some much needed bitter medicine, and in such times, sticking on to the chosen spiritual path might seem not just troublesome, but also unnecessary. While the solution for this problem is introspection, grit and perseverance, the oft-resorted-to measure is Guru-hopping.

From a more materialistic point of view, keeping company with knowledgeable people helps akin to the “You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with” adage. Hence it is important to choose the people we are around. If we surround ourselves with billionaires, the chances of us thinking lofty, goal-oriented and futuristic increases manifold, as does the chance of success. The question of course is, why would even one billionaire want to spend time with me, let alone five?

‘Billionaire’ is the end goal, as is moksha. It is neither the start, nor the journey. What if we could have lunch with one person smarter than us, every day, or at least twice a week, instead of eating alone, or with the same team members? What if we could cold-write to people for their guidance / mentorship on LinkedIn? What if we could reach out to people seeking to partake in their wisdom? Without doubt the results will come. But taking the first step, and maintaining it (keeping the company going) is in our hands. The rest will follow.

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Luckuidity

Here’s a short story that I came across (surprisingly!) in two different books within just the past week. The first book is called The Great Mental Models by Shane Parrish, while the other is the recently released How to Prevent a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates.

The story goes thus. There are two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

There could be different takeaways for different people from this. To me, it is a simple yet profound reminder of all the good stuff that I’ve got in my life that I’m constantly and almost unknowningly taking for granted. If I would only stop to smell the roses along the way…

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Temple motivation

There’s a temple in South India with a Unique Selling Proposition aka USP.

There are 2 columns / pillars, set very narrowly apart.

It is said, that if you have any desires to be fulfilled, you just need to squeeze through them pillars, and your wish will be taken care of.

Needless to say, there is a long line every day of people of varying sizes trying to squeeze themselves into the said gap. It could be because they need a visa to settle abroad, or to pass with flying colours (or at least in black and white!) in an exam they just gave, or if they want more money or a promotion etc.

If however, the outcome of walking through this pillar gap was to get instant moksha or liberation (literally no effort, just walk through and be free) instead of materialistic pleasures, I can’t help but wonder if anyone would even visit the temple at all.

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Overthinking

Overthinking. This is a big problem many of us have. But it is not a disease – only a habit. And one that we can consciously change. A lot of students often wish to know how to tackle this.

Thinking mostly happens when there is an absence of doing. As they say, an idle mind is a devil’s workshop.

It would also perhaps help to acknowledge first, that no matter what we do in life, there will always be way too many things outside our control. Right from whether the cleaners come on time, or whether there’ll be a traffic jam on your way to work, or even how your own family members might react to an important development in your life – we just can never be sure of the outcome.

Hence overthinking won’t help, because the additional thinking has limited control on the situations around us.

However, thinking per se, is not bad, and is probably necessary. Planning, strategy, evaluating the options etc. all come from thinking. The challenge is preventing thinking from going overboard. One way to achieve this, is to replace extra thought with action. As Lord Krishna said in the Gita, the panacea for Kali Yuga is Karma Yoga.

Just like we schedule activities for ourselves, it helps to schedule maybe 30 or 45 minutes on a day for thinking / overthinking. During this interval, one can feel free to let their mind run riot.

But outside this time, no overthinking, only doing.

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Luckiest

There’s a Sanskrit word for liberation called moksha. There’s also a Sanskrit word for wanting liberation called mumukshatwam.

Mumukshatwam signifies an intense burning desire for moksha. But even this has classifications – some have a really intense desire while others are more curious than desperate.

It is said that the Guru and the disciple meet when the disciple has a burning desire for moksha.

Many of us are indeed blessed to have a Guru in our lives. But how much mumukshatwam do we have? From my own experience I can say very very little, if any at all. Sad, but true – as I continuously struggle to keep materialism at bay, what with the vagaries of daily life.

But life happens, to each one of us. Despite that, despite not having an intense yearning for liberation, if we still have got a Guru in our lives, what did we do to deserve it? It will remain one of the biggest mysteries to me. It would also be foolish to look such a gift horse in the mouth. And such luck, like any luck, should not be wasted.

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Disastittude

  1. She had worked really hard on her presentation. All of last week. Little sleep and plenty of sweat, and tears.
  2. Now it was ready. All external dependencies, and myriad coordinations, checked and resolved, approvals sought.
  3. Mail drafted, and ready to send. This would put her in the upper leagues. People would take notice.
  4. And then came the phone call. Some of her data points in chapter 3 were incorrect. Taken innocuously from a defunct source.
  5. The correction would take time. Maybe a couple of weeks if not more.
  6. Oh what a bummer. She felt like the world came crashing down.
  7. Irritated. Frustrated. She hated delays. She also hated going back to the drawing board.
  8. Then she realized. This was not a disaster, rather, she was saved from one.
  9. Imagine if her email with the wrong presentation and data had gone out. What a mess that would have been!
  10. It was just a week from annual appraisal day too. Her bonus could have been slashed, and promotion rescinded.
  11. Her frustration abated momentarily, and her gratitude for Divinity’s mysterious ways gushed to the fore.
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The call

On a recent call with my Guru, as always, words of wisdom poured out.

Here are a few things he said, worth pondering over for me.

  1. If child cries, yes the parent can hold it. The eventual problem with that is each time the child will cry if it is not held.
  2. There were no glories for Krishna or Rama during their lives, apart from maybe Hanuman who looked upon them as Gods. Most of the rest of society couldn’t care less. They attained God status well after they were gone. This repeats every generation.
  3. Jalebis (an Indian sweet) cannot be analysed, otherwise it will lose its taste. It needs to be put into the mouth and relished. Don’t over analyse scriptures, rather start putting into practise/action.
  4. Many people promise to give to charity when something good happens in their lives, but very few follow through. Shows they are still attached to money and deluded by it.
  5. All great ideas come from the one same Divine source. Tap into it.
  6. Only when you truly forget yourself and your own selfish needs and truly love the other with no expectations, will the blessings of the Divine come.

So simple, yet so profound!

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Ego wars

Ego is our enemy right?

It prevents us from seeing things as they really are. It blinds us from believing that we’ve made a mistake. It helps us beautifully and creatively come up with ways to put the blame on someone else. Ego is a sureshot way of making suboptimal decisions and repeating mistakes. Eventually it leads to stress and anxiety.

But is ego always bad?

Maybe not, because it is the force which makes us act, often with great confidence. Without ego, we wouldn’t even want to get out of bed, let alone send a man to the Moon or even strive for that promotion or bonus at work. Nobody would ‘start-up’ as the fear of failure would be too large a force to prevent any action.

Why does spirituality condemn the ego then, and is there a way to reconcile this?

Yes, but it would take some effort. Instead of the using the ego to focus only on ourselves, if we can use it to work for others, to ensure society at large is benefited, that would be a win-win. This is why one with ego is under one’s own will, but a realized soul without ego (i.e. ego surrendered) is under God’s/Guru’s will.

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Robbing invaluables

Here’s an interesting story I came across on the importance of living life by certain rules. This is apparently true even for those vocations where the work foundationally is built upon breaking rules!

A disciple of the great Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu recited thus “A youth joined a group of dacoits and asked their leader, “By robbing do we get Tao (will you get the way and its virtue)?”
The leader replied “Tell me is there any place where there is no Tao. Even while robbing one should have:
1. the knowledge to know where the treasure is hidden;
2. the courage to lead;
3. enough courage to come out last;
4. insight as to how to be successful even in robbery;
5. justice to equally distribute that which is stolen.
Such a successful robber who possessed these five qualities never existed. For every action in life including robbery we should know the rules and regulations.”

This post is obviously not about glorifying robbery – but that there are two sides to every coin. Even in our own work, whatever it may be, we can either look for the Tao and work in happiness and virtue. Or we can even the do the most pious of jobs, like being a temple priest – with greed and anger. What rules and values do we want to live by, and be known by? We decide…

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5/25

Ace investor Warren Buffet’s personal pilot was Mike Flint. The latter once came to Mr. Buffet for some career prioritization advice.

What did he say? “Write down your top 25 goals. Now circle the top 5, and drop all the others.”

This is super advice, especially for someone like me, because I often have lengthy to-do lists, and keep worrying about not being able to achieve those things. More often than not, the pace of new items coming on to the list is much higher than the pace of things coming off it!

Why does the 25/5 rule help? Because it fairly estimates that each individual has certain limitations. Over the long run, it is difficult to achieve more than 3-5 large goals, and hence what goals 6 to 25 are, are not really goals, but more of distractions.

I try to use this even for day to day living, as it helps with minimalism. It could be for the things I need to get done in the next hour. Or in the next day. Or even while grocery shopping. If there’s a list of 25 items I think I need, do I really need all of them? Or can I make do with lesser, and order the rest in the next round? A good test of self-control.

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I think you think I think

When do I think I’m happy? When society has watched me ‘arrive’ in life. When society thinks that I’m successful.

How does society define this success of mine? Once I get a promotion at work, buy a house, have paid off my loans, take a vacation in Hawaii, maybe sell a million dollar start-up to some VC etc.

Jay Shetty in his book Think Like a Monk, drives home a very important point. He quotes a sociologist named Charles Horton Cooley from 1902 thus. “I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.” I had to read this a couple of times to let it sink in.

What he’s saying is what we all know. But it’s still so powerful. Society is not defining my success. It is me who is giving society a moving goalpost to evaluate me. Society couldn’t care less if I got one promotion or three. But my folly lies in thinking that society cares.

As my Guru asks often, “Do you even remember what shirt your friend wore a few days ago? What they ate 5 days ago? What they said 15 days ago?” No one remembers anything, except when it is relevant to themselves. No one is thinking about us, let alone about the metrics for our success. Let us live by our own scorecards. This will elevate our happiness and bring down stress and anxiety.

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Kaizen

We discussed here before the benefits of doing things small, rather than larger-than-life. Instead of having insane unachievable new year resolutions, just taking it step by step, but being consistent with it, is likely to yield far better results.

There’s a Japanese term called Kaizen, and maybe you’ve come across it before. The term refers to ‘taking small steps for continual improvement’. It is such a revolutionary yet simple idea, because the small steps make it sustainable, and the consistency compounds over time.

As James Clear beautifully puts it in his book Atomic Habits, 1% worse every day over a year, is (0.99)^365 = 0.03, whereas 1% better everyday is (1.01)^365 = 37.78. What a difference consistency makes!

Robert Maurer in The Kaizen Way talks of 6 simple strategies that can bring about big changes in a our lives over time.
1. Asking small questions.
2. Thinking small thoughts.
3. Taking small actions.
4. Solving small problems.
5. Giving small rewards.
6. Recognizing small moments.

Not how the common word is ‘small’. Big changes often only trigger subconscious fears in our brains, and these end up hampering our progress. Instead of asking “How can I be successful in my career?”, we could ask “What can I do today at my work, that is an improvement over yesterday?” Same for relationships. Asked and acted upon consistently, you can see how career-success and relationship-success will come naturally, eventually!

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Kindness cycle

Here’s a real life story that was featured in one of the local newspapers . An old but very kind and selfless doctor, kept his medical consulting practise going despite the threat of Covid. His aim? To ensure that no one who deserved medical help is denied it.

While he did this for many months, unfortunately he also contracted Covid towards the end. This led him to be hospitalized, and even moved to the ICU, where he spent over a month. Needless to say, the hospitalization costs shot through the roof.

As the doctor slowly recovered, the full realization of the exorbitant amount that would hit him on billing day became more and more apparent. How would he arrange to pay for such a large amount? What would his family say? Would he have to borrow, and at this age? The thoughts came fast and plenty.

A couple of days later, as he was getting ready to get discharged, the nurse walked up to him with the bill. Instead of a big 7-digit number, it was only a 3-digit number, just a token of having been there, as though he went to get a simple tummy ache checked. On seeing his confused look, the nurse told him that the head doctor at the hospital had recognized that this now-recovered doctor was his own professor from medical school from whom he had learned many things and also knew well about his selfless service. He and his staff immediately arranged to take care of all expenses and ensured only the best doctors attended to him.

Kindness begets kindness. We only need to learn to see it. Cheers and prayers to all the frontline healthcare workers!

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Seeing is solving

There is a saying, ‘Jaisi drishti waisi srishti’. This is nice and rhyming in Hindi/Sanskrit, but in English not so much. But the meaning is powerful – it says that the way we look at the world, is the way the world is.

An example in the Mahabharata illustrates this well. Both Duryodhana (Kaurava head, bad guy) and Yudhishtira (Pandava head, nice guy) were asked to go and find a good person in the kingdom. The story goes that at the end of the day, Duryodhana could find not even one person, whereas Yudhishtira found good qualities in everyone.

The application of this thought is more important than we give credit for. As human beings controlled by a monkey mind, we give in to mood swings all too often. When the going is good, the world seems nice and rosy, and when the tide turns, everything seems futile.

To be clear, just remembering the above saying doesn’t mean we will never encounter troubling situations in life. But having a happy mind will enable us to find solutions where none seem to exist. And that alone is the difference between those who are successful and those who are not. Because problems come to everyone. How they are tackled makes all the difference.

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No means no

Here are some examples of where/why saying ‘no’ or the equivalent, is difficult yet incredibly important.

  1. To turn down a job offer is never easy. Someone has sought you ought, evaluated you, liked you, and requested you to join them. It might even feel liberating – to get out of your current role, where you’ve been battling bosses and co-workers for years. But good and bad bosses and co-workers will be everywhere. Many offers (opportunities) will come your way, but you cannot tell yes to all of them. No will do, even if the person on the other side is very senior / successful.
  2. Leaving on time, if you have another engagement, but you are the only one in your group. Very hard! To get up and leave in the middle. Or even to request to end a Zoom call at the end of the scheduled 1 hour, even though the person on the other side is very senior. Pro tip? If you can wiggle out well, it will demonstrate to the other person how you value everyone’s time and schedule, even though having such a conversation could be difficult.
  3. Parents nowadays rarely say no to their kids. And kids know how to take advantage. Making a big scene, crying in public/crowded/closed places etc. are easy ways to force the parents to give in. But saying no, is a show of strength, as the kid learns that life does not grant every wish.
  4. Maintaining confidentiality / secrets when required is another thing I’ve seen people struggle with – all the more when the person asking is a good friend or a very senior veteran in the industry or even one of your largest clients. “How could I possibly say no?” In fact, its the other way around. If you don’t say no, the other person can safely conclude that you may be loose-lipped about their confidential information as well.
  5. Saying ‘yes’ to family members sometimes seems like a no-brainer. But relationships are complex, and saying yes can be the equivalent of falling down the rabbit hole.

In all the above examples, the ‘no’, conveyed with sensitivity rather than spite – will make all the difference. Yes is good, but in certain situations, ‘no’ is the right answer.

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Diamond wrap

Wouldn’t all the women of this world love to get a beautiful shiny diamond in a tiny box wrapped up in gift paper and love? Maybe some men too? Totally understandable. Diamonds are classy, and are a medium of expressing one’s love – especially popularized by the movies. YouTube too is full of newer and newer videos showcasing a variety of marriage proposals, sometimes in the most unlikeliest / exciting of places (like on a two-seater plane) with nice diamonds.

Okay, enough about diamonds already, you say?

But we’re only getting started! News is out about a rapper who purchased a diamond. Not any diamond, but a 11 carat one. Not any 11 carat one, but a 11 carat pink diamond.

Okay is this a big deal? I don’t know a thing about diamonds honestly, but said rapper has not just bought said diamond, but actually gone ahead and embedded (yes embedded!) it into his forehead. The stone cost him a whopping 24 million dollars, and it took him four years (!) to pay for it.

Of course everyone is free to do whatever they want with their money. However one wonders if there could not have been any other more productive / selfless / charitable way to spend this kind of moolah. But what do I know.

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E.g.b.u

Life is unpredictable. We know this, but often don’t feel it. As long as nothing happens to us, we seem oblivious to all the goings-on around us. Despite the inevitability of death, we still behave and act as though we have been bestowed with the gift of immortality. Perhaps that’s a good thing too, because just having a fatalistic view of life might mean we might never even get out of bed.

Generally speaking, most outcomes in life can be bucketed into four: expected, good, bad and unexpected. Here’s a simple example. Someone (no, not the chicken!) wants to cross the road.

  1. They can cross the road, as expected.
  2. Or they can cross the road and meet a friend – a good outcome.
  3. They can cross the road and meet someone who they owe money to – a bad outcome.
  4. Or they can cross the road and get hit by a truck – an unexpected outcome.

When we think about this, we will realize that each of the 4 outcomes are probable, and not in our hands. Still, from the time we were born, more often than not, we have either experienced only the expected or the good outcomes. We all have developed an intrinsic implicit faith, that things will happen mostly for the good. As Saint Augustine said, “Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”

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Too much to read 4

So here’s the last of a series of thoughts on reading. This one involves a little bit of math, but is very simple – just so it drives home the point.

How much should we read? 1000 pages like Warren Buffet? That would be nice, but it would also mean that we would need to pursue reading as a full time job. Nice as it may sound, I’ve never come across such a job description!

A simpler way, is to target just 25 pages a day. This should take about half an hour. Not much at all. If we assume we sleep 8 hours and work 8 hours, we still have 8 hours left in the day. Half an hour in these eight hours is less than 10% of the time spent reading.

The magic happens as the reading practice compounds along. 25 pages a day, is 175 a week – which means roughly one book every 2 weeks, and ~26 books or ~10,000 pages a year – an incredible achievement for anyone who wasn’t reading much to begin with!

One important and final tip – do not count searching for the right book as part of your reading time – otherwise you can lose hours just searching for the right material. All the perfect books may not present themselves to you on day 1 itself – but I keep searching Amazon Books for new and upcoming releases periodically, and keep adding those to a wishlist/readlist. Works well. Put the posts ‘Too much to read 1-2-3-4’ together, and this should help us kickstart our reading journeys. Hope you liked it!

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