Sweetness and Light

Just want to bring a smile to the reader's lips - and an occasional thought. Will try to stay away from controversial topics - rather create my own! And would definitely welcome comments. :-)

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Ramblings of an uncluttered mind

Something unthinkable happened today - twice. While stepping out of my home for a span of more than 2 minutes, I forgot to carry my mobile. The first time it happened, I was on my morning walk, and the second time in the evening, when I stepped out for dinner. Now don't get me wrong - I am not a mobile fanatic. Nor do I hate it the way some people seem to do. I find it an extremely useful tool (especially when you are locked out of your house and your flatmate is at his office and you don't have his mobile number in YOUR memory but only in the phone memory), though it might become an irritant at times. But there again the fault lies with the users, not the instrument or the service, isn't it?
Anyway, the crux of the matter is that I was without my phone for about 45 minutes in the morning, and about an hour in the evening - and no one missed me! No missed calls, no smses waiting for a reply. I am still to fathom out its impact on my ego. It does seem that the world can go about its business for substantial length of time without missing me. Taking a detached view of it, it does seem that one of the sources of self-esteem can be the number of people who call you on your mobile. Coming from my measurement oriented world, I wonder whether I can design a dashboard on self-esteem through mobile usage. We can divide the calls in three categories - personal, professional, and third-party (credit cards etc.). The calls you make or the calls that are being returned won't count. The number of points for each type of call will vary by the time of the day - during office hours, personal calls will get a higher weightage than professional calls, and vice versa. Professional calls during dinner, weekends and holidays will be absolute chartbusters. Calls from bankers and stockbrokers will rate higher than calls from the grocery store (asking for payment). Calls from a dentist will bring in more points than from, say, a gastroenterologist. And calls from spouses will be more precious than those from lovers (unless of course, its a call from a lover AFTER your marriage). And number of years of marriage should definitely be a factor - a call from a year-old wife is not quite the same as that from a 5-year old one, isn't it?
So at the end of it all, we can have a score published for every mobile user - some index similar to, say, wealth or popularity. What say! Of course, from my twin experiences today, I doubt I will be anywhere in the table at all.....need to start thinking of how to rig the system. :)
BTW, I normally don't comment on comments (refer my first post outlining my policy on the issue). Now my friend Tabula Rasa tells me that this is against blogettiquette. I have no clue. What can I comment anyway? The usual comments are about liking what I wrote, and while I can question that (or give friendly advice like go get your head examined), I would rather bask in my moment of sunshine. When comments are specific to some point in the post, I don't want to react unless there is a factual error, or a misunderstanding of my point of view. Rest, it's all reader's point of view, isn't it, and who am I do dispute it?

That doesn't mean that two warriors can't choose my blog as their turf for blogging it out. So go ahead, thbpthh, do give Tabula a good one in the solar plexus for daring to comment on your comment. Since I know both of you, I can anticipate a good debate on whether there is anything like fair and unfair. Look forward to it... :)
Had a pretty good saturday today - all to myself. Cleaned the house, washed two loads of clothes in washing machine, cut fingernails as well as toenails, shaved (on a saturday, thats an extraordinary gesture from me), read bits of Maximum City (deserves a post on its own, but in short - amazing insight into a city that I have deep feelings for), had a proper lunch....and washed the bathroom with acid (thats what I have in common with Narayana Murthy - though I don't know whether he uses acid or not). Anyway, the thought of acid takes me back to my least favorite subject - Chemistry, where I leant my acids from the more basic stuff.

I have never been able to understand my relationship with this subject - I did not hate it because it never seemed particularly malevolent, I definitely did not love it because it did not excite me the way History or Maths did, I wasn't even indifferent to it because, well, I had to pass in it at least. The teacher was not bad...in fact she was, and still is, one of the sweetest, prettiest ladies that graced our classrooms. She was more likely to herself cry after scolding a student for typical pranks (which would leave the student thoroughly confused). Since I was reasonably good at other subjects, she almost took it personally that I wasn't faring well at her's. My entreaties to her to take it professionally as all in a day's work failed - after all, it wasn't her fault if she did not know about the existence of some of the compunds I "discovered" on my way to balancing equations. That was one thing about my chemistry answers - my equations were always balanced, so what if by mixing two organic compounds, I ended up producing an inorganic one (I guess a mathematical inclination always helps). Anyway, I routinely scored my lowest marks in Chemistry all the way from class seven till 12th, and then dumped it for good. But it has been only of late that I have stopped getting my most frighetening nightmare - that I have my 12th standard chemistry paper and I haven't studied (which is pretty close to the truth, incidentally).

I am no longer in touch with the world of Chemistry. I wonder whether some of my discoveries have been validated by the scientific community by now. In that case, would like to go and submit my papers for revaluation. :)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Stockdale Paradox

It has been quite some time since I posted something. Last weekend (very long one, btw) I was too busy relaxing. And now I am too busy pretending to work. So I thought I would just post something that I had read somewhere (don't remember where), which itself had quoted it from Jim Collin's "Good to Great" (I am told it is a genuinely good management book - a rarity). I guess the overall theme of The Stockdale Paradox gels well with my previous post, but I like it a lot mainly because of its paradoxical nature. Think about it, and it does makes sense.
The name refers to Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest-ranking United States military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. Tortured over twenty times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973, Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would even survive to see his family again. He shouldered the burden of command; doing everything he could to create conditions that would increase the number of prisoners who would survive unbroken, while fighting an internal war against his captors and their attempts to use the prisoners for propaganda. At one point, he beat himself with a stool and cut himself with a razor, deliberately disfiguring himself, so that he could not be put on videotape as an example of a “well-treated prisoner”. He exchanged secret intelligence information with his wife through their letters, knowing that discovery would mean more torture and perhaps death. He instituted rules that would help people to deal with torture (no one can resist torture indefinitely, so he created a step-wise system – after x minutes, you can say certain things – that gave the men milestones to survive toward). He instituted an elaborate internal communications system to reduce the sense of isolation that their captors tried to create, which used a five-by-five matrix of tap codes for alpha characters. (Tap-tap equals the letter a, tap-pause-tap-tap equals the letter b, tap-tap-pause-tap equals the letter f, and so forth for twenty-five letters, c doubling in for k.) At one point, during an imposed silence, the prisoners mopped and swept the central yard using the code, swish-swashing out “We love you” to Stockdale, on the third anniversary of his being shot down. After his release, Stockdale became the first three-star officer in the history of the navy to wear both aviator wings and the Congressional Medal of Honor.

You can understand, then, my anticipation at the prospect of spending part of an afternoon with Stockdale. One of my students had written his paper on Stockdale, who happened to be a senior research fellow studying the Stoic philosophers at the Hoover Institution right across the street from my office, and Stockdale invited the two of us for lunch., In preparation, I read “In Love and War,” the book Stockdale and his wife had written in alternating chapters, chronicling their experiences during those eight years.

As I moved through the book I found myself getting depressed. It just seemed so bleak – the uncertainty of his fate, the brutality of his captors, and so forth. And then, it dawned on me: “Here I am sitting in my warm and comfortable office, looking out over the beautiful Saturday afternoon. I’m getting depressed reading this, and I know the end of the story! I know that he gets out, reunites with his family, becomes a national hero, and gets to spend the later years of his life studying philosophy on this same beautiful campus. If it feels depressing for me, how on earth did he deal with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?”

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he said, when I asked him. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

I didn’t say anything for many minutes, and we continued the slow walk toward the faculty club, Stockdale limping and arc-swinging his stiff leg that had never fully recovered from repeated torture. Finally, after about a hundred meters of silence, I asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.

“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come and Ester would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Another long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

To this day, I carry a mental image of Stockdale admonishing the optimists: “We’re not getting out by Christmas; deal with it!”

That conversation with Admiral Stockdale stayed with me, and in fact had a profound influence on my own development. Life is unfair – sometimes to our advantage, sometimes to our disadvantage. We will all experience disappointments and crushing events somewhere along the way, setbacks for which there is no “reason,” no one to blame. It might be disease; it might be getting swept away in a political shake-up; it might be getting shot down over Vietnam and thrown into a POW camp for eight years. What separates people, Stockdale taught me, is not the presence or absence of difficulty, but how they deal with the inevitable difficulties of life. In wrestling with life’s challenges, the Stockdale Paradox (you must retain faith that you will prevail in the end and you must also confront the most brutal facts of your current reality) has proved powerful for coming back from difficulties not weakened, but stronger – not just for me, but for all those who’ve learned the lesson and tried to apply it.
Simple, and true.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Reflections on My Tenth Birthday

On March 30th this year, I celebrated the 10th birthday of my second life. 10 years ago, in 1996, I underwent a kidney transplant surgery on this day that gave me a fresh lease of life. The word "lease" here is, of course, both literal and figurative. :-)

I was diagnosed as suffering from chronic renal failure of the CGN variety in June 1994. Sometime in March that year I had volunteered to donate blood for a friend's relative who was undergoing some surgery. While checking my blood pressure, it was found to be higher than what you would expect in a 20 year old normal guy performing all normal activities. To cut a long story short, further tests finally confirmed my kidneys were failing, though when I would need to undergo transplant was still not clear. My kidneys could last me six months, or a year, or two. Ultimately, they did last me about 9 months, just about enough to allow me to complete my first year of MBA program, and take a logical break in studies. I still remember my thought process in March 1995 - I should be able to get the transplant done during the summer break(April-May),recover and be back at the school by June, may be a couple of weeks into the semester, but no great loss. Little did I know what lay ahead!

We had originally identified my mother as a donor for me. My father had a different blood group, and my two sisters were then both unmarried, and hence ruled out. However on discussions with the doctor, we found that my mother could not be a donor since she was a high BP person and the surgery would endanger her life. So began the process of searching for a "donor" -someone who would be willing to donate a kidney in consideration for a sum of money, ethics and morality be damned. The experiences during the next 12 months till the surgery - happy, sad, comical, frustrating, inspirng - can fill up entire blogs, if I some day decide to write about them. But this post is about celebrating the first decade of my new life - and the lessons learnt during those defining 12 months. Bear with me if I sound a bit preachy at times - I understand that the experiences, and hence the lessons drawn, are entirely personal, and just because I have survived to tell the tale doesn't mean they are universally applicable. But just want to share my thought and reflections.

Lesson 1: Things cannot always be explained. Life could not have been much better for me when the disease struck me. I had just completed graduation, and got admission to the prestigious MBA program at IIM Bangalore. Inferring from the past, a bright future lay ahead of me, at least in conventional terms - do well at IIM, get a good job, earn well, and so on. No one told me the script had been changed. Even after the diagnosis, I was hopeful I would emerge with minimum damage - get the surgery done during the summer break and be back, losing only the summer internship in the process. But ultimately I lost an entire year, and then suffered during my placements as companies were reluctant to hire someone with a recent serious medical problem. During this whole phase, I guess there were times when I wondered - Why Me? But somehow deep within I realized this question was meaningless - both from a practical as well as spiritual point of view. From a practical aspect, I was digging into a past about which I could do nothing, and ruining whatever my present had to offer. From a spiritual aspect, who was I to question the larger scheme of things? Could I say with certainty I did not deserve this? In any case, I guess I learnt that things happen to us for seemingly no reason. You can choose to spend your energy trying to figure out the whys, or you can accept your present situation and then concentrate on figuring out the whats - what can I do about it? Which brings me to the second lesson.

Lesson 2: Sometimes you cannot do anything about your situation. At least nothing that seems like "doing". Our former prime minister, Narasimha Rao, of course epitomised it. Do not do anything about the problem, and it will go away in its own sweet time. May be he did it by choice, I was left with no choice really. The search for a donor took its time. Unlike what movies like "Saheb" would have you believe, matching a donor to a reciepient is not a simple process -blood group match is the basic minimum. There are a whole series of tests that check the degree to which the donor kidney would be accepted by the "host" body. Only in case of identical twins is no test required. In all other cases, related or unrelated donors have to undergo these tests. They take their time, and money. You also need to check how physically capable the donor is of donating, i.e. what would be the effects of the donation on him / her. Obviously you do not want to take the kidney by endangering the donor's life. Anyway, essentially all this is a long process, and while my father and other relatives were busy with these, I had nothing to do except go for my twice (and later thrice) a week dialysis. It was frustrating to be so helpless, but by succumbing to my frustration I would have only made things more difficult for everyone, including myself. So I just reposed my faith in the greater scheme of things, and busied myself reading. I read voraciously in those 12 months - everything under the sun that I could lay my hands on (even sci-fi :-)), and I feel I am still reaping the intangible benefits of that today. The important realization was that sometimes we are indeed powerless. There is no point to rave and rant against the circumstances in such cases. Sometimes, just waiting the bad times out is the best strategy.

Lesson 3: Be Positive. Have faith - in yourself, in your well wishers, in God / Supreme Power / whatever you call It. I guess this is the most difficult part to articulate. The first two lessons probably have something that would appeal to the left side of the brain - over here, its purely a matter of belief. I do not know how or why, but I always had faith in God, even when I was confused about His existence, gender etc. :-) I had also always believed myself to be very lucky, in a sense, God's Chosen One (to do what, I didn't know or care). Somehow these beliefs survived the tumultous 12 months (and more) - and in turn helped me survive. :-) In addition, I started appreciating the goodwill of others - my relatives, my numerous friends, the nurses in the dialysis ward, the relatives of other patients undergoing dialysis - I have lost count of the number of people who wished me luck and recovery from the bottom of their hearts. And I somehow believed in them all. And that gave me strength when things looked bleak (they frequently did). I cannot explain it logically because there is no logic to it, but I just "knew" that things could not go wrong when there was so much positive energy around me. I have always been an optimist, but if that needed any fortification, this was the period that gave it. The head nurse of the dialysis ward cancelled her vacation because she wanted to be there to take care of me after the transplant. There were at least 50 relatives in the hospital when I was being operated on. A nurse performed a special service at her church and brought me a charm to be kept under my pillow while I was in the hospital. My batchmates and juniors (who had not even seen me) at IIMB collected and contributed a sum of Rs. 1 lakh towards the costs of dialysis, surgery, recovery etc. Apart from the material value of all these gestures, it was the spirit that really helped me. I could not have let all these people down by giving up, by becoming negative. Things could not possibly go wrong when so many people out there were rooting for me. Illogical - possibly, but what the hell - it worked for me! :-)

I guess I could go on and on. Experiences of one year, especially one as eventful as that, cannot be all captured in these many lines. But I have conveyed what I wanted to. Things go bad, sometimes for no apparent reason at all, and completely out of our control. All we can do is to stay positive, have faith in ourselves and the goodwill of our wellwishers, and battle it out. In this case, the end was favorable. I am not naive enough to believe that it always will be. But I believe it is the approach that counts. The results are not in our hands, to repeat the ultimate cliche, and the ultimate truth, from Bhagvad Gita. :-)