Sunday, May 15, 2011

Inspirations (1 of 25) - Dr. Sheena Iyengar

In the early 1980s, Sunil Gavaskar came out with a book titled, "Idols" in which he wrote about his favorite cricketers. In addition to doing a fantastic job of writing about the cricketing skills of his idols, Gavaskar brought a personal touch to his writing wherein he dedicated significant amount of space to the difference that they made to him either through personal interaction or just pure inspiration. This led me to thinking about the people that have "inspired" me. I use this term loosely because the way a cricketer would inspire is wholly different from how a writer would. So, in this series that I've titled "Inspirations," I have chosen to write about 25 people - in no particular order - that have inspired me in different ways. I have also chosen to not write about family and friends because the source of inspiration might not be known or accessible to the reader. It is my hope that the list will go beyond 25 people but for starters, 25 is my goal. Without further ado, here's the first in the series - Dr. Sheena Iyengar.

Introduction - "What, a 20-min presentation on choice?!"

A Professor at the prestigious Columbia Business School in New York, Dr. Iyengar is a preeminent expert on choice. Last year, I happened to check out her presentation on the importance of choices. Before I clicked on the link, my instinctive reaction was, "Does choice really merit a 20-min presentation?" but I was curious nevertheless. Am I glad that I made the choice to view the presentation! As she talked about choices from varied perspectives such as culture and commerce, I got so much into it that I wanted more. A google search and 30 seconds later, I realized that not only did choice merit a presentation but also it did a book called "The Art of Choosing" written by Dr. Iyengar!

Introspection - "Sugar=good. Root canal=bad. Too much of sugar?"

The book is a terrific read with a plethora of research analyses, amusing anecdotes and a multitude of ways to view ourselves in terms of the choices that we make and how we perceive the choices as well as the process of choice making.

If we consider the two interconnected systems that are involved in our decision making, we get some surprising insights. Dr. Iyengar calls these “automatic system,” the one that works on a sensorial and subconscious level, and the “reflective system” that works on a rational and conscious level. She writes about how the former makes associations such as “Sugar=good” and “Root canal=bad” but it’s the latter that makes the reasoning, “Too much of Sugar can lead to a Root Canal!” It is startling to read that 95% of our behavior happens to be subconscious and “automatic.” She describes a study involving 30 NYU students who were divided into two groups and were asked to make sentences out of five words that they were given. One set of students were given words that were descriptors or stereotypes of the elderly and the other group were given words sans any references to the elderly. All of the participants were then directed to the hallway to get to the elevator. The experimenters set this up and monitored them. It is revealing to note that the first group took 15% longer to get to the elevator, showing how “automatic” associations regarding elderly people and speed of walking influenced their walking style without them truly realizing it.

In contrast to the automatic system, the reflective one is something that we need to consciously tune into and to do so, she notes, “…requires motivation and significant effort.” One kind of effort that could prove “significant” is introspection. We often act and choose in ways that are driven by our needs to feel consistent with our identity since we see “choices as realizations of the attributes of the chooser.” But it makes sense for us to identify – through introspection – the core values that we hold close to our heart and achieve consistency between identity and choices at a high level. This sharper focus would free up a lot of energy that we can channel into our reflective system which is something that we have to, true to its name, reflect on! When introspecting, we must also realize that others’ perceptions of us are filtered through the “lens of their own experience” and that accounts for how people react to the choices we make. After all, rarely do we make our choices in a vacuum.

Inspiration - "Be choosy about choosing and you will choose well."

After I finished reading the book, I wanted to get an opportunity to meet Dr. Iyengar in person to tell her how much this book has meant to me. And, I had the fortune to do so in a recent business trip to New York. I got a 30-minute appointment with her where I got the chance to share my thoughts on the book and ask her about her speaking engagements on the topic, Leading by Choice ( At the end of our conversation, she gave me the updated soft cover version of the book. On the first page, she wrote, “Be choosy about choosing and you will choose well” – an incredibly succinct and eloquent choice of words!

One of the biggest ways in which Dr. Iyengar has inspired me is to make an effort to reflect on my core values and put things into perspective. Her section on the reflective system has made me think of the several petty things over which I have lost sleep, argued with people and angered myself and others. I see how the beauty of my life and the joy of living can be derived from everyday minutiae – be it a moment to drink in the tranquil of the sky or an instant to surprise my wife with a spontaneous hug. But I have tried to repeatedly tell myself that it is the satisfaction of sticking to certain core values and the resultant choices that lend a certain sense of purpose, which in turn, lets me fully relish the rapture of the little moments. Anything outside of this core should only bring me unexpected gains in terms of happiness and not an ounce of grief, dissatisfaction or rancor. It is an area of personal and professional development where I know that I have a fair distance to go to reach the immense inner peace that this line of thinking can bring but at least I get happiness from my pursuit. After all, the journey, more than the destination, is what matters!


Harish Srinivasan said...

love that line...... "I see how the beauty of my life and the joy of living can be derived from everyday minutiae" :)

Anonymous said...

I liked your choice to be happy with trivia and enjoy every moment of your life-be less angry when things do not go your way-they wont-it is better to accept things that you cannot alter and use it to your advantage.
It has always been my philosophy to be happy with samll things-big things do not happen every day and it is the small things that make us happy on a daily basis.
I remember reading somewhere that God sends us flowers everyday and so we should not grieve that we do do not get flowers from our loved ones-everytime I see flowers on my way to work, this thought crosses my mind and I feel happy.
Thinking of choice, the other thought that crosses my mind is choose to find good in everyone rather than finding fault.
I like your idea of writing about people who inspired you. Waiting to read more inspiring articles

Ram Murali said...

thanks, harish! I am glad u liked it.

thanks, amma! love your line about the flowers...