Sunday, February 25, 2018

No Strings Attached: Thoughts on Loyalty and Gratitude

In my early years, gratitude was a value that I could see on display in pretty much every close member of my family.  To be grateful to God for every positive event in our lives was an unshakable belief for some of them.  But the kind of thankfulness that I respected in them even more was that shown towards fellow human beings.  I routinely saw them be conscious of those extended family and friends who had helped them during trying times and be respectful of senior colleagues in the workplace that had mentored them in the incipient stages of their career.  In my own life, I have been the lucky recipient of each of these kinds of largesse.  And in my formative years, as much as I was a pampered single child, I was always expected to – no excuses or pampering there whatsoever! – acknowledge the people who were making an impact in my life, irrespective of the magnitude of the gesture or sentiment. 

This blog is too public a place (even for a relatively ‘open’ person like me!) for me to dwell too much on my immediate family, close friends and all the beautiful ways in which they have touched my life.  But across family, friends, peers, mentors in academia, work colleagues, and even people that I don’t know personally (authors and filmmakers, for instance), I am especially grateful for three things – moral support, well-meaning advice and inspiration for a different way of thinking. 

I am blessed with family and friends that are a diverse set of people.  But in their own way, they have, during times of distress, always given me the impression that I have people to whom my happiness means much.  As a recipient of this generosity, I have observed that I must not only respect people for support that is extended to me but also be mindful of the fact that forms of expression differ from person to person.  Some are eloquent, others may be awkward verbally but let their actions speak not ‘loudly’ but calmly and comfortingly.  But somehow the ineffable magic of empathy seems to differ only in language, not in intent, and certainly not in the secure feeling that I derive out of them.  I keep telling myself that I must be thankful for thoughtfulness of all types. 

The second thing that I am grateful for is meaningful advice.  As a person and as a professional, I have received advice, solicited and otherwise, of all kinds.  I may have an ego but I feel like I do have the humility to keep it in check when someone offers me constructive criticism.  At work, a senior colleague of mine gave me some sharp words of advice.  She asked if I wanted it sugar coated.  When I smilingly refused the offer of the coating, she threw the pill right at me, so to say!  She wanted me to give across more confident vibes at meetings, appearing prepared and looking ready to be in the driver’s seat, ready to move the conversation in the way I wanted, while factoring in inputs.  She gave me some concrete suggestions such as arriving to a presentation 10-15 minutes early to set up the projector, have an agenda slide up and be dialed in early enough to welcome remote participants.  None of this is rocket science but then again, we must only ask ourselves how often we find commonsensical things to be hidden in plain view! 

My colleague also did something that I find thoughtful givers of advice do – she gave me high level advice, some concrete suggestions but stopped there, asking me to ruminate and customize it.  She had the perspicacity to realize that any advice will stick and become a habit only when the receiver owns it, makes it authentic and gives shape to it in his or her way.  At certain meetings, for instance, I started creating a “Questions for Discussion” slide to foster discussion and seek input.  This was not something that she had specifically mentioned.  But it was only because of her planting the seed of preparation in my mind that I was now making new ideas germinate. 

Whenever I finish reading a book or watching a movie that has had a positive impact on me, I am filled with a tremendous sense of gratitude for its creator for the spark of inspiration that they light in me.  I especially have a lot of affection for creations that are grounded and true to life and, in the case of books, relatable.  Sheena Iyengar’s The Art of Choosing, Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, Anu Hasan’s Sunny Side Up and Adam Grant’s Give and Take and Option B (co-written by Sheryl Sandberg) are all works that have meant a lot to me.  They inspire me to think differently, to act differently.  Grant’s Give and Take is a case in point – this is the book that taught me to distinguish a ‘matcher’ (who indulges in a reciprocal but transactional relationship with people) from one whom he calls an ‘other-ish giver.’  These are people that are giving by nature but are aware of the fact that giving cannot come at their own expense.  They realize that giving can happen even when it is not at the expense of their own interests.  These people exercise self-control, demonstrate will power and are much wiser than those givers who ignore their self-interest altogether and end up feeling resentful and burnt out.  This is something that I can actually apply to not only my workplace but also my personal life.  I feel like I am able to make truly selfless givers be a little more focused on their own welfare despite having an inherent focus on others’ interests. 

Above all, Give and Take makes me see gratitude from a fresh perspective.  As I reflect on the book and try to personalize it, I see givers and receivers of support in a new light.  I have been fortunate enough to be on both sides of the fence.  In the few instances that I am in that blessed position to be a giver, I feel like I must have the self-control to emulate my colleague – offer support but neither spoon feed much nor expect the recipient to act upon everything to the letter.  As long as the core of the advice or the essence of the support is received in the spirit the giver intended, there is not much more that the giver should obsess about.  And as a receiver, it is imperative to do three things – to be grateful for the gift (of all kinds) received, be perceptive enough to customize it and be generous enough to pay it forward.  That way there are no strings attached by anyone.  But, quite magically, a never-ending chain of positivity, empathy and nurturing would envelop this world in a secure, sustaining manner.  It may be a utopian thought but I would rather try hard and even fail occasionally rather than regret missed opportunities owing to the lack of effort.  That would be my way of repaying the debt to the inspirations that have graced my life.


PS: Sincere thanks to one of the readers of this blog for suggesting this title when I shared the topic.  The person wanted to remain anonymous.  While I want to respect that, I couldn’t not thank this person, especially given the chosen topic!


ravishanker sunderam said...

Ram : Believe it or not - I read this article AFTER a heavy lunch :). (Once again) your flair for writing in this niche is astounding.

I particularly loved that sans sugar coated advice your supervisor gave you. And the conclusion you draw is worth the entire article. I read that para more than once because something similar happened at my workplace a year ago- but with the difference that the poor hapless colleague of mine got a shellacking.

Worth a third (and a fourth) read !

Anu Warrier said...

I posted a comment yesterday which vanished into ether. You may find it in your spam folder, possibly.

Or perhaps I groaned at your dilgent self-improvement, you or your blog decided to make my comment vanish, pouf! :)

Ram Murali said...

Ravishanker -- thank you for reading and commenting promptly (as always). I am glad that this piece resonated with you.

Anu -- :) I checked my spam folder twice but still couldn't find your earlier message. Would you mind reposting the comment?

"Or perhaps I groaned at your dilgent self-improvement, you or your blog decided to make my comment vanish, pouf! :)"
--> DEFINITELY not the latter. As for the former...well, I will have to read your detailed comment to see how much I made you groan :) So, kindly post your thoughts again if time permits. Sorry for the inconvenience. My umpteen customer issue requests to blogger seem to fall on deaf ears.

Anu Warrier said...

Well, I guess I'm feeling a tad better today and not as 'groany'. :)

I think I mentioned how I seem to be content to wallow in my flaws - sort of a 'this is who I am' and while I appreciated your diligent endeavour to better yourself, I couldn't help but groan at the same. :)

I do appreciate your wanting to be a better person, Ram, really I do. I am thoroughly hopeless, but that doesn't mean the world won't be a better place if we all became better people. What can I say? The multitude of posts on the same subjects is making me think of all the self-help books I assiduously avoid in book stores. :)

(Shame on me! :) )

Ram Murali said...

Anu - "...not as 'groany'" -- I laughed out loud at that usage!

I can certainly see your point of view on this subject even if it's different from mine. The truth is, I am a total, shameless sucker for sincerity. When I see it - in the form of advice or support of any kind - I just instantly place the 'givers' on a pedestal. I sincerely believe that there are people that I know that are MUCH better people than I am overall. I do not knock myself over it; in that way, I share your 'this is who I am' philosophy at a high level. But that doesn't prevent me from making tweaks to my character, esp. if I can do my job better (in the professional setting) or be a 'better' version of myself (in my personal life).

I feel that as long as I
(1) don't obsess over something abstract and elusive called 'perfection' (which can be totally counter productive)
(2) don't impose these things on anyone, that I can keep chipping away at what I perceive as chinks that I possess. At worst, I might make a friend 'groan' :) :)

But anyways, thanks as always, for sharing your honest points of view.

Anu Warrier said...

No, no, you're right, and you're a nice man. A really nice man. 'You're a far nicer man than me, Gunga Din!' And it's definitely the right thing to want to make yourself a better person. I know this is borne of a sincere attempt to make life easier for you and your loved ones.

What can I say? You just make my head ache. (And groany. :) ) And I think, henceforth, I shall refer to you as 'Sant Ram'.  Don't let my curmudgeonliness turn you away from the path of all that's right and holy. :)

Ram Murali said...

Anu - You are on a roll today, each comment witter and funnier than the previous one! Hopefully the groan quotient is coming down inversely! :) :)

ravishanker sunderam said...

What's been happening while I was away !

Anu's on a Rock and Roll.

A good friend of mine used to say in school "How to write HOW TO books and make loads of money":)

Ram Murali said...

Ravishanker -- ha ha! Anu has bestowed me a new nickname. What led to that is what you missed yesterday :) :)

ravishanker sunderam said...

Ha Ha "Groanies". Nice name for a Spielberg scifi movie :)