The best way..

Identifying a path and calling it the “best way” leads to a potential opportunity to brand ourselves a winner. Lest we fail, however, we’ve just branded ourselves as a loser.

Better to just mark a potential path as “a” way, put in our best effort, and see what happens. Our best state-of-mind does not have the winners high or the losers low; it is one of calm and equanimity.

It’s all invented anyway. We might as well invent a way of thinking that makes us happy. There’s no best way. There is just a great way.. and then another.

Lady luck’s wish list

Lucky people generate their own good fortune via four basic principles. They –

1. Are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities

2. Make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition

3. Create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations,

4. Adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.

You may occasionally get lucky but to be consistently blessed with fortune, lady luck demands resourcefulness, courage to listen to your gut, and a positive attitude wrapped up in persistence, grit and resilience.

Do you make it easy for Lady luck to favour you?

What is money good for?

We spend large parts of our life working to earn money. What is money good for?

My central thesis is that life is all about “being happy.” Being happy is very very hard and most of us fail miserably at it. One principle reason for failure is not understanding and using our happiness levers well. And money is at the forefront of that – misunderstood, under utilized, and misused.

So, what is money good for? Think Maslow

1. Buying essentials and shelter. Food, water, clothes, and a place to live. These are the bare minimum fixed costs. We need to earn enough to cover these expenses. Ideally, you’re happy with simple investments in fixed costs because we get used to the basics very quickly i.e. your cool new BMW soon just becomes a vehicle you use to get to work every day.

2. Security. Save and invest. Being happy requires a feeling of safety and security else you are stuck with the occasional feeling of happiness.

3. Spend on experiences with framily. Now we get to using what remains after we buy basics, save, and invest – our guilt free spending money. The first best use of money, as a result, is using it to spend on great experiences with our loved ones. While we get used to our BMW real quick, we don’t forget that iconic trek to the Andes or that incredible road trip in Australia. The rule is simple – spend on experiences, not things. So, if you’re ever wondering if you should spend money to treat your loved ones to dinner or buy a watch, you know what to do..

4. Give. Giving builds self esteem. Give to those who are lesser fortunate, give your time to those who need it, and invest in yourself and others. Then repeat.

5. Finally, spend on yourself. Also a self esteem builder – good clothes, good gadgets, etc. Do so with the money that’s left over..

Money can never help with self actualization. We can’t spend our way to happiness. At best, money is a metric that is reflective of the success we have achieved. If we have built rare and valuable skills, the likelihood that we receive money in exchange for it is high. That said, it’s only a metric and the biggest trouble with metrics that are easy to measure is that they can make us forget why we began doing something in the first place.

Money exists to help us be happy. Let it not be the other way around..

PS: Dan Ariely recommends “Happy Money” – a book by behavioral economists who attempt to explain the science of smarter spending. I haven’t gotten to the book yet and am looking forward to it.

On religious devotion and longer lives

This week’s book learning is from Willpower by Roy Baumeister.

A study in the year 2000 found that a religious person was 26% more likely to be alive. This finding that non-religious people die sooner has been confirmed in multiple studies since.

The answer does not lie in divine intervention. Consider the following –

– Religious people were found to be less likely to be alcoholics or smokers, less likely to engage in risky sex, most likely to wear seatbelts, and more likely to go for regular health check ups
– They were found to have better social support. Their faith helped them deal better with misfortune
– Religion helps give provide believers with clear priorities – a key requisite for self control
– Religion fosters habits that build self control. Going to Sunday school is similar to “sit straight” – religious exercises are typical willpower building exercises (think: chanting hymns, mantras or fasting)
– Religious people feel answerable to a god who can’t be easily fooled. They are also conscious of being monitored by human eyes i.e. by other members of their community

In short, it takes great discipline to follow a religion!

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Sketch by EB

A lot of simple “ancient” wisdom – sit straight, eat regularly, sleep on time, etc., is rooted in willpower. More willpower results in better habits and better lives. Religion is no different – it helps develop a communal habit whose pros often outweigh the cons.

Taboos and Privilege

Maya used to work at home as Mom’s help. She was in her early 20s and was a real workhorse. She had a long commute from her village outside her city but loved the whole idea of working in the city with a friendly boss. All was well.

A couple of years in, her family forced her into marriage. Her husband turned out to be an abusive alcoholic. There’s a fine line between sanity and insanity and a year into her marriage, Maya became depressed and began losing her sanity. Her condition only worsened over time as her family didn’t know how to deal with an occasionally insane person. So, they beat her and tied her up as the usually docile girl could now be violent. She used to still come home once a year to meet Mom and seemed to be on the mend but the stories we heard through people who knew her only got worse. Mom was hoping to put her in a mental home in the city the next time she came..

We came to know Maya passed away a few days ago. She is thought to have committed suicide. Foul play might have been involved but since it involves a mentally handicapped person, the matter has not gone to the police. There’s too much taboo involved. In a way, Mom and I are glad it happened – life as a mentally challenged woman in an Indian village is hellish thanks to taboos and ignorance. Mom is upset as we both knew her as a healthy, happy 20 year old.

I have 2 reactions when I hear a story like this. First, woman and mentally challenged folk have it very hard in rural areas of most developing cultures and we have a duty to make life better for them.

The second reaction is a reminder of the sort of privilege I was born into. You and I may not be the richest people around but we were born into families that gave us everything we needed. Most importantly, we were given opportunities to make something of this life. There’s barely any difference between Maya and us.. we just got lucky and were born into households where a good life was a possibility.

Let’s live, laugh, learn, and give back. Most importantly, let us not forget the likes of Maya who would have loved to have the sort of circumstances we have been blessed with. Let us not forget the responsibility we have to make this world a better place..

Let us not forget..

A few reflections from vocal lessons

A few friends and I did a small 4 song performance at our pre-wedding get together. Each song was a dedication and as the first one was a dedication to my to-be wife, I was to sing it. Having never taken any vocal lessons, I was all sorts of afraid and went on to sign up for a 4 hour vocals crash course. It turned out to be a great learning experience and I thought I’d share the lessons I learnt.

1. If you can’t imagine it, you can’t do it. Vocals is an exercise in imagination. If you don’t believe you can make the pitch, you just can’t. And I had great difficulties with the mental aspect in my first lesson as I tended to panic as soon as I hit what I thought was a high note.
My teacher then asked me to close my eyes while he had me follow the piano’s key. He pointed out that while my vocal range was fairly high for a male (a “G”), I used to panic by the time I hit an E flat i.e. 4 notes lower. I had to learn to open my mind..

2. Don’t take casual feedback too seriously. Tony Buzan famously asserted that every kid is a born artist who stops drawing because some harsh teacher or parent criticizes an early work. I’ve found Buzan’s assertion true – with a bit of practice, all of us can become pretty good at many a hobby but we let casual feedback get to us.
I clearly took casual feedback on my singing too seriously and it got in the way of what I could actually do.

3. Difficult -> Natural -> Easy -> Beautiful. Focus your practice on moving across these stages. Move it from difficult to natural. Once it sounds or feels natural, try to make it easy and only then should you try the flourishes and add ons that make it beautiful. It’s a lovely 4 step framework.

4. We all have 2 voices. This was a big learning for me – we all have a “chest” voice (deeper) and a “throat” voice (higher pitched). Switching between these voices is a mental thing. We have to understand which voice would work better for a song and then imagine it before we do it!

5. Physical comfort results in mental and emotional comfort. The first step to a great vocal performance is physical comfort – we need to understand what makes our voices and bodies comfortable. Some singers drink cold water before a performance while others prefer hot water to keep their vocal cords in shape. Know your body.

6. Find your style. Vocals are all about finding your style. As a singer, you mix natural talent with style. There are many singers with tremendous natural talent (Frank Sinatra) who don’t need to worry about style since “showing up” is all they need to do. And yet, there are others with less talent (Rod Stewart) who really understand their limitations and work within them to create great music.

Needless to say, I’ve added vocals on my always expanding “skills to learn” list.

The person at the other end of the phone

We are all pressed for time..always. Our requests and needs are generally urgent. Large corporations’ customer service departments don’t help us. They are all broken thanks to flawed policy and bad procedure manuals.

We have every right to be angry – why the hell can’t these big behemoths get it right? (“big behemoths” – the answer lies in the question of course)

It’s easy to forget that the customer service rep at the receiving end of this anger and frustration is just another human being, like you and me. He has his own problems, worries, and concerns. She comes to work seeking fulfilment and happiness and it must be hard to be at the receiving end of one outburst after another for no fault of hers. Sure, many of them don’t help themselves with poor knowledge of their own products or an unhelpful attitude.

But, this post isn’t about them. It’s about us. It’s easy to unload all the frustration on the person at the other end. The other day, I found myself annoyed at service I received from a rep at American Express. It was tempting to just put the phone down mid sentence. It was only then I realized that it wasn’t his fault – he was just trying to do his job and follow the rules. It’s not personal. I was allowing myself to throw a hissy fit.. just because I could.

It’s one thing to be human. It’s quite another to be consistently humane.