Thursday, July 29, 2021

No missed calls, please

I believe that film directors are invariably terrific conversationalists.  The ones that I have had the fortune of meeting in person have given me food for thought on topics that extend beyond cinema.  C Prem Kumar, the director of 96, is one such deep thinker.  In an interview with Abhishek, he casually tossed off a line that was pregnant with meaning.  Prem said, “UngaLoda pazhamai…ungaLode kadantha kaalam ungaLuku solradhuku konjam vishyam vechrukum…” (It roughly translates into, "Your past will have a set of learnings for you...")  It set me off on a trail of thought around the kind of evolution that I am comfortable with vis-à-vis what I cannot subscribe to. 

I am fully aware of the fact that nostalgia brings it with a pair of flimsy, rose-tinted glasses.  We sometimes revisit past events, norms and mores with more fondness than they deserve.  And that sometimes is okay if it serves the purpose of giving us lightness of heart to keep us going in the present.  Since both the past and the present have their positives and negatives, it is imperative that nostalgia be balanced with evolution.  It is a dangerous thing to live so much in the past that it paralyzes the present.  At the same time, it is important to resist the temptation to be callously dismissive of the past.  A sense of balance is as necessary as it can be elusive. 

Interpersonal connection is one area where I constantly wage this internal tug of war.  Really, it is not a ‘war’ as much as it is a sense of discomfiture.  Let me explain.  Through my childhood, youth and adulthood, I have seen quite a stunning evolution in technological advancements that aid communication.  I have used rotary phones as a kid.  Cordless phones were a huge source of amusement since for the first time I had privacy while talking on the phone. (How could my parents possibly hear my ‘spirited’ exchanges with my friends around whether Sachin Tendulkar or Brian Lara was the greatest cricketer of all time?!)

When I moved to the US in the late 90s, I wrote letters and sent handwritten greeting cards to my near and dear back in India.  Since calls from the US to India were charged by the minute, I would pick one person every weekend and would rotate amongst them for a lengthy call every weekend.  My paternal grandma would offer well-meaning advice and a stern warning in the same breath – “Bill-u romba aagardhu, phone porum Ram!” ("Be mindful of the phone bill!")  Cell phone plans had ‘free’ minutes with a finite limit.  Video calling was the stuff of science fiction.  Internet connection was dial-up.  The strident sounds that emanated from the bulky computer as one connected to the internet were tolerable only because of the dulcet sounds of new mail notifications that followed.  The feeling of connectedness that e-mails provided was sheer magic. 

Over the years, cell phones have evolved into a world unto themselves.  With seemingly unlimited minutes and data available at our fingertips, with the utilitarian and entertainment value of the apps expanding continually, phones have become an enormously indispensable part of our lives.  Thanks to a plethora of technological innovations, connectivity has become significantly more convenient.  But as I always maintain, connectivity and connection are not the same.  Just because we can connect does not mean that we do. 

Let me revisit Prem’s quote.  What it truly means to me is that we must continually charge ourselves with separating the core from the externals, the substance from the style, the enduring from the ephemeral.  It is fine for us, for instance, to enjoy the benefits and pleasure that our smart phones give us.  But we must ask ourselves the question, what from our past have we chosen to leave behind and if we are comfortable with our choices?  For instance, in the past, I needed to meet up, talk on the phone and/or exchange e-mails to share things about me and ensure that I learned about the things that mattered.  Now I can send a Whatsapp message or share a picture, video or leave a voice note.  But am I really ensuring that the spirit of the relationships stay intact over time, with all these changes? 

The charm of an in-person exchange over a caffeinated beverage might be impossible to recreate with a brief asynchronous Whatsapp exchange.  And in this increasingly fast-paced world and sheer distances, it might not even be feasible to do much beyond the periodic chat messages.  That is a reality that we would do well to accept.  Yet, amidst all the obstacles, it is possible to ensure that we do not lose the depth that is so vital to the key relationships in our life. 

I sometimes would feel wonderful seeing a “Hope all is well” message from someone I trust.  The perceptive ones know that to genuinely connect with the other person in a relationship does not take hours on the phone.  A thoughtful four-word message might be what it takes.  But so often, I see more and more people engage in frivolity and meaningless forwarded messages as a way of convincing themselves that they are keeping in touch with the people to whom they matter.  I am not opposed to sharing a laugh over a witty meme or the like.  What irks me is when people adopt a dismissive attitude to obscure a complete lack of depth and try to convince others that one must change with changing times.  We are all different in terms of the degree to which we stick to what has worked in the past as well as our attitudes towards change.  But I stick to my conviction that the core of a relationship, the vibes of assurance and the feelings of security that we jointly etch must not be erased by the winds of change. 

I subscribe to Prem’s thinking that the positive artefacts of our past need to be given due respect.  We need to, of course, be cognizant of the ways in which our society has evolved, sometimes using, at other times abusing the tools and services we have at our disposal.  It is essential to lose certain regressive attitudes and norms from the past because not everything from the past is positive or rosy.  At the same time, it is imperative to not lose certain core elements of ourselves in search of what is considered ‘cool’ or ‘modern.’  Scientific advances, technological innovations, novel services are all means, not an end.  At the end of the day, whether we choose to channel these advances in service of enhanced human connection – that is a call we need to take.  If we fail to demarcate between the means and the end, well, that is a missed call that no service provider can prevent. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

A matter of chance?

I have always maintained that pretty much everything that one needs to learn about life can be found in Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture.”  Such is the case with the topic of ‘luck.’  Pausch observes, “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.”  The statement drips with pithiness and profundity in equal measure.  As I reflect on the numerous instances where I have been blessed with “opportunities”, be it in a personal or a professional setting, I find one common ballast to all the buoyant moments – people, and their kindness.  Several people have opened doors for me.  Doors that have led me into castles of joy or havens of peace. 

As I chalk out a list of moments from my professional life where I have considered myself fortunate, the one common theme is how people took a chance on me.  I have gotten job opportunities where my prior background did not exactly align to the requirements.  But a hiring manager might have sensed a mix of potential and passion in how I might have made a case for myself.  While I can take a portion of the credit, I would be incredibly remiss if I were to be oblivious of the risk that the person would have taken, when ‘safer’ choices may have been on offer.  The “preparation” part might not be sufficient but is absolutely necessary.  We need to, as Harsha Bhogle eloquently says, exhibit a combination of “ability, attitude and passion.”  It is hard to find a trifecta of success factors more potent than this.  If the “opportunity” part of luck is the uncontrollable, “preparation” certainly is not.

In my personal life too, I have been incredibly lucky to have a small set of people who share their vulnerabilities with me.  Of all the things that I can feel lucky about, why did I choose vulnerabilities?  The answer is simple.  They didn’t have to, but they chose to.  To share their deepest fears, insecurities, and above everything, giving us the license to be a shoulder for them to lean on.  I have felt immensely lucky whenever I have been given these privileges.  It is an honor to be entrusted with one’s vulnerabilities.  They say that eyes are the windows to a soul.  Eyes filled with tears, be it of anguish or of happiness, are akin to the center of a courtyard house.  A bird’s eye view might suggest an open layout.  But only a trusted visitor would gain actual access to it.  There are the same people with whom I can share my highs and lows without fear of resentment or judgement.  As I introspect about my meaningful relationships, it is hard to pinpoint who among us was the first person to share something significant.  But nevertheless, when the sharing is both ways, the bond is immeasurably, inextricably strengthened.

While I consider ‘luck’ in the personal and professional settings to be of different flavors, some of the fundamental ingredients are identical.  The generosity of spirit that characterizes people who take a chance on me and give me an “opportunity” to be part of their trusted circle, be it a team at work or the inner circle of a friend.  The presence of psychological safety and the absence of judgement that give us the confidence to let the truest version of ourselves shine.  And the “preparation” part is what we bring to the table.  In the workplace, it is our commitment to put our best foot forward, to adapt with agility and act with empathy for our coworkers.  In our personal lives, we must be prepared to do something very similar.  That is, to bring the authentic, unfiltered version of ourselves to the people that matter.  If the elements of this concoction are in the right portions, then the end product of luck is rarely a matter of chance.