Monday, 18 March 2013

Ice cream carts and little boys...

What children can teach us about trying, failing and moving on....

I saw him seated alone and sullen on a park bench, a little way from where I was doing my stretches. He had a mop of jet black hair, a bright yellow t-shirt and was playing with a small ball in his hands. Eventually I walked up to him and sat down beside him and he gave a hesitant smile.

His story then slowly unfolded. He was alone because he had failed at a test that would have qualified him to be a part of some special activity course. Wanting to know more, I asked him about the consequences. His innocent wide-eyed reply was that he would no longer get to sit beside his best friend, as they would now be in different class-rooms!


Even as I tried to not laugh at the innocent remark, it made me think about trying and failing and failure. There has been many a time when I have not tried something for fear that I would fail. How exactly can this fear of failure be deconstructed?

Real vs Percieved consequences: - Is the fear of failure in its consequences? The boy was clear about the consequences. What really bothered about failing to qualify was that, he would not be able to sit beside a friend. It wasnt about being on the course, gaining skills or some such. Of course, that can be considered as childish.

But if we honestly think about all the times that we did not try, fearing failure,  how many times were the consequences drastic: life or death, make or break or totally irreversible? My own answer is; very few. Not getting that admission or job is really not the end of the world. The percieved consequences are in the mind, and they are as big or as small as you want them to be. The actual consequences are at most times smaller than the percieved, and most are reversed, rendered insignificant or healed with time.

So if the fear of failure is not only in its actual consequences then how can it be explained?

Failed at something or a failure? : A friend of mine is a wonderful cook. She loves hosting people and can cook up a meal for the gods when she is at it. One day she called a few friends over and forgot something in the oven till they could smell something burning. The whole evening she apologized to her guests and she could never quite get past it, though she still had a good meal cooked up for them minus the dish. When they left, she promptly sank into the couch totally defeated. Her evening was ruined as she kept focussing on the one thing that got messed up. What was worse was the fearing of losing face. She feared that her friends must have concluded that she was a terrible host. But is a burnt dish a conclusive evidence of a bad host?

Focussing solely on imperfections in the output of an endeavor and losing face is often what makes up the fear of failure. Many a suicide, is a result of a loss of face and can be avoided by making an attempt at failing at something as opposed to being a failure. In fact no human should be tagged as failure. You always fail AT something. Failure then becomes a lack of capability, practice or just a result of adverse circumstances.

Fear of being alone: This fear, not just when applied to failure, is one of the biggest. We are social beings and do not want to be alone and failure is one of the most powerful repellents.

The little boy was alone in his failure. He had no one to play with in the park and he did not have the company of his best friend. However, while only the lucky few will have motivators, the rest have to find it within themselves to get past a particular failure. Being alone can be an undesirable state, but it is also a state for reflection. It is a time when lessons are learnt from mistakes, where the strength of the human spirit can go from being a tiny flame to a blazing fire.

But the boy was yet to give me the strongest message.


As I ruffled his hair with a smile, his eyes lit up when he heard the sound of an ice cream cart. He was off in a jiffy and turned back to wave at me. He happily got himself an ice cream and asked another boy who was also drawn to the cart if he wanted to play with him and soon they were happily playing with each other.

As I left the park, I thought to myself that probably the next time I was afraid to put myself out there fearing failure, ice cream carts and other little boys are often probably just a matter of some waiting and some looking...



Saturday, 9 March 2013

And the "Look at Naseema" award goes to....

Somewhere between adversity and pity was hiding the will to survive...  

It began somewhere between the day her husband dropped dead and the day when she got sick of people calling her a poor thing. That is where the story began. Naseema was thirty four and her husband was a good man. She looked wistfully at other women with a child on their hip, but otherwise she was a contented woman. Then one day, with no warning, her husband clutched his chest and dropped dead and that was the end of him and also of life as she knew it.

Six months later, her home seemed to reflect the depressing and hopeless state of mind that she was in. In the flurry of events following her husband's demise she had been the center of attention of their family, nieghbours and friends. But the attention reduced exponentially, till a month later she was alone for more hours than she was in company. Whenever she stepped out of her home people looked her with pity and even expressed it in words to her often. Soon she was tired of the pity and sympathy and avoided people who tried to engage her in conversations.

But the funds that her husband had saved up for her would not last for ever and having never worked before she had no job skills. It was then that she ruefully wished that she had paid more attention to her education and taken up some job even if only to have the capacity to be self-reliant. But that was a notion that was unheard of in the nieghbourhood that she lived in.


As a child Naseema had always been full of whacky ideas. She imagined clothes that would wash themselves, animal language interpreters, automated wall painters and the list was endless. While those were the ones that were unfulfilled, she was amazed at the ones that were indeed a reality today; like a telephone that you could carry with you anywhere and on-demand money machines. She always looked at these inventions and often told her husband that she had imagined them, which was a dubious claim to him, but he had indulged her talk sportingly. But intelligence and imagination are never bound by birth, community, education or gender; a fact that often fights to make itself acknowledged in a world of stereotypes.

When Naseema had exhausted all conventional means of finding a job to support herself, she read an article about an innovative company that had come up with an array of smart products for homes and occupational use. She still had ideas and she thought she might have been a valuable contributor. But that idea itself was outrageously audacious, because the company had nothing but distribution offices in her country!

So one day she stood outside the distribution office in her city and when she saw someone who seemed to be a senior member of the organization walking out, she got his attention and offered to work for them. He tried to explain to her that they did not develop any products there, but she was not easily dissuaded. Something about her determination and her bold move appealed to the executive and he asked her if she would consider a job of selling the products to offices and companies in the area.


What followed was not a heart-warming happily after. The days and months that followed challenged Naseema beyond her imagination. At the outset she was the victim of several biases, as she tried to find her way around. Gender, religion, her "un-salesman like" traditional and ethnic clothes; the very attributes that defined her identity were the ones that worked against her.

But she was not the one to give up easily. People in her office soon began to take notice when she met her targets, by the sheer dint of her effort. The traditional clothes eventually gave way to more comfortable travel clothes, but only because they came in the way of her riding a two-wheeled moped, while attending to her sales leads. She is not designing "Post-it" stickys, but she surely is doing a phenomenal job of selling them. Salesmanship to her is an art and skill that does not require a business degree, but rather needs sincere and whole-hearted attempts.


Her unusual appearance was what had made me initiate a conversation with her when she came to make a sales pitch to me. The interaction left me re-examining my own mental models and since then I suspend judgement on typecasting someone until I know them better.

After my conversation with her, I figured that I would not be able to give her any business as I did not need what she was selling. As I almost apologetically conveyed this to her she spiritedly told me it was all-right and it almost seemed like she was consoling me and pepping me up.

As an after thought, she told me that she had got her award a few days earlier. When a woman in a community was depressed and despodent on being abandoned by her husband she heard the other women consoling her and telling her "Look at Naseema... see what she has done.... get up and do something....." . The fact that she was an inspiration and her motivated efforts had given hope to other hapless women in her nieghbourhood was award enough for her.

As she waved to me and said "Inshallah we will meet again" ,  I thought to myself that the "Look at Naseema" award goes to who else but Naseema herself.



Sunday, 3 March 2013

Blueberry muffins and coffee - A story of breaking negative patterns

A few days ago, when I was travelling I ran into an old acquaintance. His story is worth telling.  

Neel, was a teenaged boy who stood at the juice and snacks counter in my office canteen. A cheerful boy with a sunny disposition he was at ease making small conversations with his customers and did a good job of the food he served and of salesmanship. Observing him  behind the counter for a few days it was apparent that he deserved to be some place better and was greatly underplaying himself. As we chatted over the next few days he told us that his aspiration was to be a chef and he was very passionate about food. A few days later he disappeared and that was the last we saw of him in the canteen.

Eight years later, in another city, I saw a familiar face that I could not place, in a cafe. He came up to my table and stood there beaming and asked me if I recognized him. Just when I was beginning to panic at the embarassment to follow, my memory came back to me and told me it was Neel. He owned the cafe and my coffee was on the house. The conversation that followed left me with a lot to think and reflect about

What he told me is applicable to anyone and I have often found myself in the same traps.

The "Past Experience Trap":  Past experiences can serve as deterrents to honest attempts or they can serve as avenues to learn from what worked and what did not. The difference between the two is just how we choose to view them.

Among his siblings, Neel was the "different" one, while they thrived in the conventional schooling model, he struggled with it. He was always full of new ideas, but whenever he undertook something new as a child his confidence would sag mid-way, for lack of encouragement. Often he would stop working on something just when he was about to take it to completion. This continued as a negative pattern till his early adulthood. He would take a cooking course, work hard at it and then stop just short of cooking for the judges for being certified for it.

This continued till he recognized it as a negative pattern, the "past experience trap". Identifying it was the first step towards finding the remedy for it. He actively put in place measures to ensure that he did not give up till he finished what he had started. That was how he got his pastry making and baking certifications.

The "Caught in Current Trap" : "I identified the areas of my life that I was deeply unhappy and dissatisfied with and I was determined to change them. I gave myself a time frame for progress rather than a deadline for results. Outcomes are often beyond your control."

This was Neel's second message that struck home. It is so easy to get "caught in the current trap" that identifying this negative pattern takes a concerted effort. There are so many people who are caught up in dysfunctional relationships, bad and stressful jobs or no jobs, shelving dreams and ambitions for later; all stuck in the current trap. The current circumstances take so much energy and time that there is little left for thoughts of change. Hence the thoughts of change are avoided. This avoidance however creates a lot of unrelenting stress, besides leading to a lot of lost time.

Here it is all about determining to change and taking a first step. So after he had stood at the juice counter day after day, he was determined to change and left the city with a few leads in mind. When he ran out of all of them, he created more. That was his idea of progress. He finally got a favorable outcome after multiple attempts and found himself in a bakers kitchen and got the first sweet taste of success.

The "Image Trap": The voice in his head kept telling him that he could do better. But the self-assurance that he had when he was taking his first set of risks eluded him when he was trying to go further. It was then that he identified the third negative pattern; the "image trap". The people who knew him had a certain image of him. He was always making incremental changes in his condition, but he was fearful of making a quantum leap. He had always been the average performer and never the star of a show.

Conformance to others image of you and thoughts about their reactions to your attempts can be bigger deterrents than even past experiences. Often the easiest way to overcome this is a change of scene. Leaving behind the familiar and exploring new worlds where the image is only being created can help avoid this trap completely. But if that is not possible then minimizing contact, creating written plans and using negative talk by others to make yourself more determined is way to get out of this trap.

Neel figured out what he needed to do to set up his own enterprise and three and a half years of hard work later he reached his goal. The fact that he had a goal fuelled him on and kept him from falling into the current trap or the past experiences trap again.


Biting into the delicious blueberry mufffins and sipping my cappucchino, I reflected on what he had narrated as a story and brought out these three traps as something to learn and remember. It sounded like a fluke rags to riches story. But there was a method to how it was brought about. There was of course an element of luck, but the hard work and persistence that went into were what made it possible to get those muffins and coffee to the table.