25 Jan 2016

Remember This When Life Throws You A Curveball

I requested the instructor to let me do a few light exercises and stretches. I had two bowls of banana chips before hitting the gym that day (yes I know, I got carried away).

He had other ideas.

Forty five minutes, 25 burpees, 40 pushups, 200 mountain runs, infinite squats, jumping jacks and skipping jumps later, I crawled out of the gym on my butt. Sweat dripped from my eyebrows and my t-shirt was soaking wet. The air beautifully cool and refreshing. I generally love this feeling after a workout. Only, today I was ready to puke.

Somehow, I got to my feet and sat on the stairs. The banana chips were at war with my throat, and would win the battle any minute. Survival of the toughest. Or is it fittest? I can’t remember.

The instructor joined me. “What happened?” he asked. I revolved my palm in front of my chest indicating that I wanted to throw up.

“Don’t worry, hang in there for a few minutes,” he said. “It will be okay.”

"I will feel better if I puke", I used my hands to tell him.

"Nope, just hang in there. Breathe."

Five minutes later, I was back on my feet, and back in the gym for an awesome session of stretching. I didn’t throw up.

Often (rather almost every time), life throws a curveball at us. Where we err is in giving up or giving in too early. Things are not dismal as they appear. Trust me. Yes, they go bad, but they’re just detours. And a detour does not mean that we stop our journey or turn back. It simply means that the journey might take us longer. Might as well enjoy our time on the way because we could experience something beautiful.

My neighbor sums it up brilliantly when she says, “Our mind wants to feel important. If something good occurs, it perches on Cloud 9. On the other hand, if something bad occurs, it makes us feel like the world will collapse on us.”

Hang in there. Too many people don’t know how close they were to their goals when they gave up. In the end, it will be okay.

Nothing is as good, or as bad, as our mind makes it. The biggest problem with life is the image in our mind of how it is ‘supposed to be’. It’s okay to want life to be a certain way, but it’s also okay to be okay with how life turns out. Because in the end, everything will be okay.

Yes, sometimes, life takes really really ugly turns. At such times, remember what Steve Jobs said: “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

Jeff Haden writes, “Perspective always clears away the fog. When we look forward, the path seems uncertain and the future unpredictable. When we look back, all the dots seem to connect.”

The darkest hours of your life right will teach you valuable lessons. They will make you stronger, unless you are the ‘must-hold-on-firmly-to-my-past’ type. I speak from experience. Every painful event in my life - which I felt I could never recover from - has made me better. In fact, the biggest blunder I committed (more on that a few years later) put me on the path to entrepreneurship, something I had been putting off for years.

The wound is the place where the light enters you. - Rumi

Remember, dear friend, that whatever happens today will be okay. Just have faith and hang in there. Don’t give up on hope or on your life.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Do share them with me on Twitter or Facebook

19 Jan 2016

Why India Lost to Australia Again

Australia beat India 3-0 yet again. Many of us knew that this would happen. But India fought harder than expected, which made me happy. The question is: Why, despite our best efforts, did Australia beat us in each match? Some incidents offered insights.

In the first ODI, Australia had to chase more than 300 runs on a ground where the record was about 280. India were favorites at the innings break. But by the 20th over of the Aussie innings, I had a strong feeling that India would lose if a wicket didn’t fall in the next 10 overs. When they didn’t send the ball to the boundary ropes, Smith and Bailey kept running singles and twos like they were playing box cricket.

“Stop the singles, Dhoni… stop the singles!” one side of my mind pleaded to the Indian skipper.

“How?”, asked the other. (This was a ‘Captain Jack Sparrow’ moment where I was sandwiched between two opinions and agreed with both of them.)

In the third one-day, Smith hit the ball to midwicket. It fell short of Rahane, bounced off his palms and spun away to his right. Smith ran a single. It’s normal, right? Players from every team ‘misfield’ when half a chance is missed.

But does this ‘tough misfield’ occur with the Aussies? Nope. Even if a ball falls short, it lands firmly in their palms, and the fielders are instantly ready to have a shy at the stumps.

Let’s look deeper. The Aussies have won 18 games in a row at home now (including their unbeaten streak in Australia during the World Cup. Remember how comprehensively they beat they Black Caps in the World Cup final?). Their level of cricket in domestic tournaments is far higher than that in most international matches. How do they develop this mental resilience and excellence? Automation.

Image Source: ESPNCricInfo

Tony Dungy, the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers - the most hopeless football team in 1996 - didn’t believe that they needed the thickest playbook to win. They didn’t need to memorize hundreds of formations. They just needed to memorize a few key moves and get them right every time. Using these moves, the Bucs went on to win the Super Bowl. 

In the army, basic training teaches soldiers how to shoot, think, and communicate under fire. The entire organization relies on routines for building bases, setting strategic priorities, and deciding how to respond to attacks… all of which are rehearsed to the point of automation.

This automation can be understood better by a word we are familiar with: habit.

A habit is formed when an action is repeated till it becomes automated. Take brushing your teeth for example. Do we think while brushing? Or take driving. When we learn driving, we think so much before changing lanes that even bicyclists overtake us. We keep thinking about the distance from the car in front and the one behind, keep checking whether we are too close to the curb; a honking vehicle makes us nervous and so on. But once our hands are set at the wheel, we smoothly maneuver through traffic, instinctively know when to overtake and when to pull our foot off the gas pedal… all this while processing mounds of information in split seconds.

We become good drivers when driving becomes a habit. The same concept is applicable for everything - writing, exercising, cooking, coding, sports and what have you.

The Bucs ingrained the key formations in their minds till those became habits. Soldiers develop habits to shoot, think and communicate. Victory on the field (in sports and in battle) depends upon which side takes rational decisions more swiftly.

The Aussies have made running hard a habit (while batting and fielding). It’s not unusual to see three fielders converging on a ball and none of them colliding; in fact, they back each other up brilliantly. Their bowlers fixate on their strengths and stick to them, clinically chipping away at batsmen’s patience. Their batsmen… well… they are so strong mentally that they dominate any bowling attack. The quick running further adds to the pressure on bowlers.

However, you would notice that even the Aussies start making silly mistakes - playing reckless strokes, misfielding, bowling loose balls - when they are under pressure. Why? Because they are thinking, they are second guessing.

When we start thinking, we lose our advantage. Try this in anything you do. As long what you comes naturally, it's easy. But when you start thinking, doubts appear and they hinder your performance.

Dhoni, for instance, developed a reputation as the world’s best finisher when he knew that batsmen who followed could hold the innings together. But when Jadeja, Raina and Yuvraj lost their form, Dhoni started playing cautiously. He started thinking, and that, slowly but surely, impacted his ability. When he knows his bowlers will perform well, he simply rotates them like a wizard. But when they are all over the place, he starts thinking. That leads to him missing a trick or two, like he did in the third ODI against Maxwell.

We have more advocates for words than for action. While the former (including yours truly) keep thinking and ‘pondering’, the latter keep doing. Guess who gets better at what they do.

We are obsessed with having ten things to do, and keep discussing how we can add to that list. The list grows longer, and at the end of hour-long discussions we ask, “Okay, so what is the final agenda?” Then we are so overwhelmed that we complain about not having time. The doers, on the other hand, do just 3-5 things, but achieve remarkable results. And yes, the Chinese bamboo takes 5 years to grow an inch more than a tiny sapling. Patience is an integral part of habit formation, but so is persistence.

Every time you have a doubt which shouldn’t exist, it is because of lack of action. So trying to do more. Throw the spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. Once you are done trying various things, stick to the ones which have provided best results and ignore the rest. Get as awesome at the task as the Aussies at fielding. Then, you can move on to the next one.

When the Indian cricket team imbibes this fundamental in itself, it will win the World Cup again.

4 Jan 2016

Stop Saying "I Don't Have Time". You're Lying to Yourself

“We must do it,” he said as I popped open a beer.

The meeting with a potential client (who, incidentally, was a friend) had been stressful. He held high expectations from us on a project, but was unwilling to cooperate. “Why should I pay you if I have to work on it,” he argued. I tried explaining his significance in the larger scheme of things, but he turned more indignant.

“We’ll get back to you tomorrow,” I said purely to end the meeting.

When my friend and I sat for lunch (and beer), he suggested that we should accept the project. I opposed. It wasn’t our area of expertise, nor was it something that we wanted to foray into. It would waste our time. “Nahi yaar, wo dost hai. Karte hein (he's a friend. Let's do it for him).” he said. So we discussed what to do. I was to email some people and he would get in touch with one of his contacts.

Three days passed and I heard nothing. So I called him and asked if he spoke to his contact. “Nahi yaar, I didn’t find the time. Plus, it is not something that I want to get into.” I went into the kitchen, stopped the maid from washing the frying pan, took it, and whacked myself on the head.

My friend’s U-turns are nothing new. He would joke that nobody does U-turns like him. Then Arvind Kejriwal took away the only thing he could brag about. The man just can’t let anyone be happy.

But this post is not about U-turns. It is about our eternal shortage of time. A shortage which is self-induced.

In the Four-Hour Workweek (a bloody awesome book), Tim Ferriss wrote:

A lack of time is a lack of priorities.

It is undoubtedly the most insightful productivity or life-hacking advice we can receive. But I believe that a deeper layer exists.

Our ability to prioritize (or lack thereof) stems from the fear of missing out (FOMO).

A JWT survey reported that FOMO affects 70% adults. I am one of them. I have said no to party invites and felt deep urges to call my friends at the party and ask what they are doing. I see Instagram and Facebook photos and feel pangs of jealousy. While my friends are busy biking, eating and boozing, getting married and probably enjoying sex, I sit in front of a computer, or read a book.

Despite that, I have little to complain about. I don’t feel bogged down by Monday Blues (quite the contrary), I am not hounded on phone by someone if I’m out late at night, I don’t feel stressed by pending work… Life is good despite experiencing FOMO.

Why? Because I say “No”. And if you want to make time to do what you truly love, you also must use this dreaded word.

So, to the important question: for whom and what should you utter the word, sending those around you into a frenzy?

1.  People

“We often do what others expect us to do and end up feeling resentful”, wrote Purba Ray in response to a comment in this post. Succinct and poignant. You nodded, right? But………

We would rather be strapped to a chair while someone claws their nails on a blackboard than say “no” to others. According to Vanessa Bohns, this is because “it feels threatening to our relationships and feeling of connectedness. As a result, we bend over backwards to accommodate last-minute demands of people, and feel pained if they do not reciprocate.”

So, I request you to do something drastic - say “no” to everyone. A “No” does not hurt feelings. Most people don’t take it as badly as we think they will. “Chances are, the consequences of saying ‘no’ are much worse in our heads than in reality," Bohns says.

The effect is two-fold. One, you free up time for yourself and can focus on what your heart truly desires. Two, you will identify people who deserve to be in your life. People who want to be with you won’t mind you denying their requests. And those who are offended don’t deserve your time or effort. (Discretion in the professional space is recommended though.)

2.  Your mobile phone

Rand Fishkin tweeted that the “mobile isn't killing desktop (sic), it's killing all our free time.” We can’t stop checking our mobile phones because something awesome may happen. Whatever occurs will barely impact our lives. But FOMO is ingrained in us, remember? The only thing clutter-free thing today is the Notifications tab in our phones.

Turn the internet on your phone off. Put your phone on silent at a restaurant, café, or theatre. Play this game at such places. Use your hands to applaud the performance of a band or exquisite presentation of a dish instead of clicking a photo. Reach out for a glass of water instead of your mobile phone in the morning. And give yourself some time before you check for network as soon as an airplane lands.

It will be weird, not only for you but for others also. Not checking your phone will mean that you will notice things around you. If someone looks up from his phone and spots you doing so, he may think that you are a terrorist. Maybe he will make you feel like one too. But that’s okay. Just say “no” to your phone and within a few days, you will feel human again. Plus you will have a lot of free time to do what you want to.

3.  Busyness

I came across this remarkable insight by Alex Vermeer. Instead of rephrasing, I’ll just let him say it again:

‘Problems with busyness arise when we feel like victims. “Gawd, if only I wasn’t so busy I would do xyz instead.” But, if it’s actually more important, why not do that instead. And if it’s not as important, stop stressing over not doing it!’

It’s a surprisingly simple idea. It’s also incredibly difficult to practice.

We wear busyness like a badge. We fear being labeled as lazy if we are not busy. Scrambling to tick boxes off our checklist so that we can complain (in a humblebragging sort of way) about how busy we are… it gives us a rush. But guess what - it’s not being busy that counts. It’s what you do while being busy that does.

So the next time you say that you are overloaded with work, know that it is an excuse. If you truly prioritize something - work, play, hobbies, family, relationships - you will always make time for it. You just have to want it bad enough.

4.  Urgency

The pathetic corporate culture has seeped into every aspect of our lives. Everything feels urgent today, creating anxiety and making it further difficult to focus on a task (as if smartphones weren’t enough). Regard for self goes out the window and is replaced by ‘getting more done’ and ‘fire-fighting’.

There is the urgent, and there is the important. Unfortunately, we have switched the meanings. To realize the difference, leave lots of white space in your calendar. Warren Buffet recommends that you list out the five most important goals of your life. Then, don’t put the others on the back burner, ignore them completely. Gradually, your time will be filled doing things and meeting people that matter. Slowly but steadily, you will focus on aspects which are important and trash those which are not.

This sounds frightening in the beginning. But if you truly feel stressed because of lack of time, all I ask of you is to try these steps for 21 days. And then enjoy the relief of being able to disconnect from inconsequential tasks, and the joy of indulging in those you truly love. After all, you deserve happiness in your life as much as everyone, don’t you?

How do you make time for what you like to do?

Images: Google
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