How we let ourselves off the hook

We let ourselves off the hook by blaming people and organizations for not having prepared ourselves well enough. For example, here are two examples you’ve probably seen play out.

Employees blame companies for not doing enough to enable growth into future roles.

Students blame universities for not preparing them well for the needs for the market.

It is important employees push their companies to get better. And, it is critical students continue to work with their schools to do a better job preparing them.

But, blaming them is a really poor use of time.

Instead, we’re better off deconstructing the skills we need for whatever we want to do next and then working toward them. Now more than ever, we have a previously unimaginable range of learning options available to all of us. We all have access to an incredible set of tools to work on real projects that can make an impact. Finally, we can choose to easily connect with people with similar aspirations all over the world to learn and ship.

We have everything in place for us to own our own path.

Waiting for someone to prepare us is a poor excuse. It is just us letting ourselves off the hook a touch too easily.

We can do better.

Learn as we go

Of course we’ll learn as we go. We don’t really have a choice if we want to live our lives with a semblance of consciousness.

But, foregoing an opportunity to prepare when we have the chance is irresponsible and, generally, foolish. In nearly every kind of work, a little bit of extra thought and preparation go a long way. We’ve all been there – that supplier who came well prepared, the interview candidate who demonstrated her thoughtfulness and the spouse who showed she cared.

There are more humans on the planet than we’d like who don’t have the luxury to take the time to prepare. So, preparation is both an opportunity and a great privilege.

And, with great privilege comes great responsibility.

Preparation is how we do small things with extraordinary love. And, that extraordinary love and care is what makes the world a better place for all of us.

Choosing information

Not too long ago, your family would have received just one Sunday newspaper. In our home, we typically called dibs on the pieces of the paper we wanted to read. Someone wanted the “supplement” while someone else wanted the sports section. There wasn’t a whole lot of choice in the matter. Some households afforded two newspapers. But, most just worked with one. But, now, we don’t need to worry about information scarcity of any kind.

The fantastic Quartz newsletter had multiple powerful pieces yesterday. There was one about free trade – what populist leaders have gotten right and wrong about it. Then, there was an important piece on the evidence gathered so far about the effects of direct cash transfers (the basic income idea). They also had an informative piece about the problems caused by the boom in the sushi business – fish stocks are depleting quickly. And, did you realize that Giraffes have been placed in the extinction watch list?

The Economist shared that Latin America leads the world in renewable energy. This is driven by hydro power. However, they’re investing heavily in solar power. Costa Rica and Uruguay met their power needs from renewable sources for more than half the year this year. This stems from the fact that Latin Americans care deeply about clean energy. Wow. Wonder what we could do to improve the state of things where we are..

Of course, both of these can come straight to your email inbox. The Economist actually works out cheaper than an old school newspaper subscription – the kind we used to have 20 years ago. And, they deliver not just a weekly stream of articles but all sorts of specialized services. They earn that fee. The Quartz newsletter is free. At that quality, it is one of the deals of the decade.

But, just as easily as these can make their way to our inbox, others things can, too. We could be hearing about the likes to our latest photo of our coffee shop. Or, we could be clicking on some piece of fake news that showed up on a news feed. Or, we could spend our time looking at the latest collection of viral cat videos.

As kids growing up, we earned our freedom with evidence of responsibility. The more responsibility we showed, the more our parents trusted us. But, information in today’s age doesn’t work that way. We have unlimited freedom to choose what we consume despite no evidence of responsibility.

Here’s the impact of that – what we consume informs how and what we think about. Then, how and what we think about influences what we do. And, what we do influences our world and, in many cases, the world.

It is all up to us, then.

Let’s choose well.

Cosco ball

A long-time close friend and I were playing tennis this morning when we opened up a new pack of 3 tennis balls. Now, a new tennis ball with its shine and smoothness is a thing of beauty. As we grinned at each other, I asked him if he remembered a time when we used to be so excited about a 25 rupee Cosco ball. He did.

We used to play cricket in the streets of Chennai city growing up. And, new tennis balls were a treasure. Every few weeks, one of us would get permission from our parents to buy a new Cosco ball. Each ball cost 25 rupees. And, we would play till these balls broke. By that stage, the ball would have lost its entire exterior “fur” and all that would remain would be a dark green core. So, every new ball was a treat.

We are still stingy with opening up new tennis balls when we play tennis today. However, we are at a stage in our life when affording a new tennis ball is a non issue. Somewhere along the way, thanks to a combination of a tremendous amount of luck, some hard work and intention, things have changed. It sounds like a small thing. But, I recognize it is a really big deal.

We’re at an interesting point in our history as human beings. I am of the belief that we have two big challenges that lie ahead. First, we need to figure out how we can live on this planet in a more sustainable manner. Second, we need to figure out what we will all do as machines take away more and more of our jobs. The second issue is staring all of us in our faces as discontent around this has fueled the rise of populism in many places around the world. These are important questions and the answers to them are unclear.

One the one hand, I hope it’ll become clearer to me as to how I can play a role in helping solve these big problems. It isn’t, as yet. On the other, I take these thoughts about the big problems we face in combination with my realization about those Cosco tennis balls as a good reminder to banish any kind of complaining in my life. I may face challenges on a day to day basis. But, these aren’t really problems.

So, this thanksgiving, I am very thankful for being able to afford those tennis balls. It is a real privilege to be able to take a day off without too many worries and to play. I recognize there is a lot of good work to be done to make things better for all of humanity. But, the first step is to recognize and appreciate this privilege. And, the second step is to accept that with great privilege comes great responsibility.

Onward.

Happy thanksgiving.

When is it your responsibility

The best proxy to our real age – not the number we get when we subtract our birth year from this year – is to observe when we consider something to be our responsibility.

If we can never find it in us to own up to a problem that affects us, we’re still where we were when we were children. It is anybody’s fault but ours.

If we understand we should take responsibility but don’t want to, we’ve hit our teens but haven’t quite made it past them.

Adulthood begins the moment we accept that anything that affects us is our responsibility. It doesn’t mean that we need to respond to everything that happens and make it our problem. It simply means that we are aware that it is a situation where we have the ability to respond and where we must choose whether or not to do so.

As an added bonus, taking responsibility for what happens to us is a big part of being mindful/conscious because consciousness is simply being aware of our choices at any given point of time. And, of course, the choices arrive the moment we decide to take responsibility for what happens to us…

responsibility, consciousnessImage Source

The moment we grow up

The moment we look at ourselves in the mirror and say – “I am responsible for my life experience” – is the moment we grow up.

It doesn’t matter whether we’re 20 years old or 80 years old. In some cases, some go through a lifetime without ever growing up – growth is completely independent of age.

The funny thing about this moment is that it isn’t that life gets any easier after you accept this. The difficulty level stays the same. But, we stop focusing on it. Instead, we focus on all the aspects of our life experience we want to fix. And, when we re-direct our focus to something, it fundamentally shapes our experience. The more we focus on things we control, the more we feel our ability to control things expands.

But, it begins with taking responsibility.

(It is futile to wait to be “given” responsibility for our own life experience)

grow, responsibility

The weight of those who are gone

I thought I’d interrupt normal programming today (i.e. the 200 words project) to write about something that is top of mind and personal. I try very hard to abstract from events and focus on the essence of what I’ve learnt. This will not be easy to do in this case but I’ll try.

When I introduce myself to people I work with, one of the ideas I share to help communicate who I am is – I have been shaped a lot by death. Our family lost my uncle to an accident and my father to himself in a space of 3 years. Now, the typical reaction to this for the opposite person to say – I’m sorry. And, if we’re having a really upfront conversation, I generally explain more. You see, the hard part wasn’t that we lost 2 members of our family. The hard part is that my grandmother has, over the 17 years that have gone by, held those who’ve gone dearer to her than those who’re still here. I’m going to leave the details out here and instead just say that very few conversations with my grandmom in 17 years have gone by without us feeling the weight of our absent family members.

I wish this was a unique problem. Given my general comfort with topics that are generally perceived taboo or morbid, I’ve been fortunate to be trusted with information about so many families who have similar dynamics internally. The data I’ve collected over the years has led me to one important conclusion –  we need death education more than we do sex education.

In an average lifetime, we see at least ten births and ten deaths of people who are close to us. And, yet, very few hardly ever get comfortable with the idea of death. That’s a funny situation to be in as death is one among the few certainties of our life on this planet. So, that results in whole families torn apart, relationships broken, and many many unhappy years following a single event. There’s a wonderful Buddhist parable in which a woman goes weeping to the Buddha and asks him to bring her young son back from the dead. He asks her to bring a mustard seed from a house that has never seen death. So, she goes on a long search and comes back empty handed – every house she went to had seen death…

I wanted to write about this today as today was another day when I felt the weight of those who are gone. Today is actually my grandparents 50th anniversary. I’d have loved to interrupt normal programming to wish them a happy anniversary. But, as has been a trend in the past 17 years, there’s always an excuse to mar happy occasions. I’ve made peace with this fact after an “aha” moment 5 years ago. But, my mother hasn’t, for instance. And, that’s tough.

So, I thought I’ll do what I always do and share a few of my biggest learnings from these experiences.

1. Every person is responsible for their own happiness. This has two powerful implications. First, it is that you ought to worry most about your own happiness and not sacrifice that at the expense of others. That’s because, over time, you cannot help anyone else if you can’t help yourself. So, to be useful in the long run, take care of yourself first. Second, you can attempt to help others for a short while. But, after a certain point, it is their life and their responsibility. Don’t try to play god.

2. Really appreciate the people around you. If your mind is always stuck on the past, you’re never going to be able to enjoy the present or the future. All we have in this life is a collection of memories. Yes, there were great memories in the past with great people. But, there are equally great moments waiting in the future. For that, you have to really appreciate and be thankful for those who are with you now. Be great to the people you are with. Collect memories.

3. Express your love and gratitude. Once you learnt to appreciate the people around you, express you love and gratitude. Be generous with hugs, kisses, compliments, affection and love. We sometimes treat our heart as one that has space only for a few. It couldn’t be less true. My experience is that it only expands with time.

4. The world is your family. I’ve come to realize that there is so much family out there in the world. I count myself as a person rich in relationships as I’ve found an abundance of parents and siblings out in the world who’ve taken incredible care of me. I guess you just have to open your eyes to the possibility.

5. Take death education seriously. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about design firm IDEO’s efforts to “design death” and have those difficult conversations. I think we all have a duty to understand this certainty. If you’ve experienced in some form with a relative or family member, then I hope you’ll take the time to reflect, think, and have conversations about it. Death and the fear of it shapes more lives than you and I can even imagine. And, a lack of an understanding of this concept probably destroys more people’s happiness than diseases like cancer.

For my part, I’ll do my best to add more to conversation here. Death, depression and all such taboo topics are only taboo because we don’t spend enough time thinking about them and really understanding them. And, understanding them is strangely liberating.

One thing that does happen when you do think about these things is you realize how fleeting these moments are. The days feel long, but the years are really short. And, while life may be the longest thing we do, it is still really short in the big scheme of things. It is up to us to do something worthwhile with the time we have and spread as much love and joy as we possibly can instead of being caught in vicious cycles of unhappiness.

As I type these words, there are people who’re dying in various places. Many of these folk likely wish they could live a bit longer and tell the people they loved how much they cared about them – that’s the biggest regret of them all. Some others likely wish they’d lived a life with more meaning.

Happiness is not one of those things that comes assured on our birth certificate. Happiness is hard because it requires us to live a life close to our purpose and have real impact on the people on this planet. But, hard doesn’t make it impossible, of course. To make this life meaningful, to make it count – that’s entirely our responsibility.

And, what a great responsibility it is.