Sunday, July 31, 2011

My Response To A Life Lesson

A single incidence, a solitary interaction can at times make us question our core beliefs and the very concepts which influence our thinking. They make us wonder if we are in touch with reality or have we been living in a make believe world of our own? I recently encountered such an interaction. Perhaps years ago I would have been shocked, angry or even humiliated, but at this stage of my life I only consider it as a lesson to be learnt. Life’s lesson’s are not neatly compartmentalized by subjects and chapters, they need to be reflected upon and conclusions can only be arrived at by examining multiple aspects of our lives.
We learnt from Covey years ago that between every stimulus and response is a gap. The more we exercise that gap, the more freedom we exercise. It is a concept that I hold dearly and one which I teach my participants with great zeal. In choosing to learn my lessons and coming to my own conclusion about my actions, I exercise my freedom. It is easy to form opinions about others but usually unproductive, what is more difficult and far more productive is to re-examine one’s own paradigms.

On the surface choosing our response would mean that life’s decisions should be based on logic alone. But my heart provides the main motivation of all my actions. Does that mean that I’m a na├»ve fool that runs after anything and everything I fancy? Or that there is incongruence between my preaching and my actions? Not at all. To think from the heart does not mean that one is irrational or romantic or even impulsive, it simply means that one lets their inner wisdom guide them. The sub-conscious mind is always one step ahead of the conscious mind, and if we take each new bend, each new experience as a signal for exploration, life becomes glorious and joyful. Sure we all trip and fall along the way but at least we progress on the journey of life long learning. Sad are those people who spend their life looking for an authentic map which they can rely upon – but there is no such map, one has to be willing to get lost in order to explore. And so such people become very good in knowing every marker, every bend, every inch of the road on which they choose to travel, but leave the forest around them unexplored. My advice – step away from the road, new lessons lie there.

We project on to others what we want to see. It is an innate desire in all of us to make people ‘fit’ into our world view. People are good or bad, they are decent or immoral, they are deceitful or honest etc. Every label has been created by us so that we can comfortably categorize our interactions, every label has been created by us based on our past experiences or our conditioning. The problem is that human nature does not correspond to a specific side of the spectrum – we are a composition in shades. It is this labeling on our part which causes us to limit ourselves to know only those who we file on the right side of our cabinet, the ones filed on the left-hand side are unread and unknown. Anyone who validates our paradigms is welcome, anyone who challenges it is discarded.

An important lesson I learnt from this interaction was that it is easier for people to be cynical and disbelieving rather than accept what people tell them. There is nothing wrong with that at all, only a fool or the terribly gullible believe everything. Discernment is an important aspect of a healthy human mind. The problem lies when we become adamant in refusing to accept the other person’s truth. Hence it is not a problem to not take anything on face value, the problem is not to let any information change that view.
The conclusions which I have drawn from this perhaps negative interaction are all positive and they are:
I choose to let my heart rule my life, because in the balance of things it gives me more joy than pain. And besides even pain is an indication of being alive, I refuse to merely exist.

The labels which other people may define me by are not indicative of who I am. However, I refuse to put negative labels on those people, because I know it is hard and painful for people to change their paradigms constantly.

Our truth does not change, but whether the other person accepts it or not is their choice. Their belief cannot define my reality. I am who I am, and darn happy about it!

Oh and yes one more thing exuberance is considered a sign of mental instability by the rational minded but my reply to them - “blessed are the cracks for they let in the light”.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Surviving The Age Of Paradox

We live in an age of paradoxes. At a time where communication is the biggest industry on the planet, most people find little time to talk and listen to those around them. Where everyone is sharing their life as it happens on the web, few find people who understand them. We now have thousands of friends on social networking sites but have lost the true meaning of friendship. We crave for interaction with others over the net, but are fast losing our social skills. We insist on privacy laws and yet we have become so voyeuristic that we tweet every thought, every experience.

Through the www we have access to more knowledge that we ever thought was possible, yet all we do is regurgitate quotes and other people’s ideas. Original thinking seems to be at an all time low, especially in our country. In an age where we can explore the entire world on our computers, the spirit of exploration is taking a nose dive. When our excuse to be addicted to our computers is that it expands our knowledge, most people find little time to read a book. Our excuse for not reading is usually that there is no time, and so when time seems to be a rare commodity, we Google and satisfy ourselves with snippets of information. Too many Jacks and very few Masters.

Our children are smarter than we ever were at their age, but according to Gardner there are 7 types of intelligences – 7 types of smart. Visual/Spatial, Linguistic, Mathematical/Logical, Inter-personal, Intra-personal, Musical and Bodily/Physical are all unique intelligences. The current trend of our children to be glued to their monitors is slowly eroding their Intra-personal and Physical intelligences, both crucial to our social skills.

As a management trainer my forte is Leadership and Team Building training. Both require human beings to interact on a one-on-one level, listen, understand, share, explain, develop consensus etc. Most of my participants are of the age where their childhood was not spent in front of a screen, they used to ‘hang-out’ with their friends physically, not in cyber space. Yet teambuilding and leadership does not come naturally to most and that is why people like me are in business. But what about the future? When all the participants have spent their formative years either texting or socializing online? Some would say that would mean our business would boom, but on the other hand what a challenge it would be to make them look into each others eyes and share their feelings and ideas!

Socrates said “virtue is a median point between 2 vices”, if our civilization is to retain its basic character (remember the phrase ‘man is a social animal’?) then we will have to find some way in which we balance our mastery over technology with our fundamental need for social contact. Humans seem to be great at driving without brakes and realizing only after we crash that we should have had them checked. We did this when we drove species after species to extinction, we did this to our climate, we did this to our crops and now we are doing the same to ourselves.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Giving An "A"

Sometimes it takes a unique voice to tell us something which is so obvious and so simple that we stop paying attention to it. One such unique voice is Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, teacher at the New England Conservatory, author of ‘Possibility Thinking’ and a speaker who inspires corporate as well as world leaders.
At the beginning of the term of his graduate class he hands out their final grades. And everyone gets the same grade “A”. The only condition is that students need to write a letter to him at the beginning of the year dated to the end of the term describing who they have become in order to retain their “A”. To some the idea seems trivial even frivolous, but Benjamin notes that the society at large tends to treat the “A” students very differently compared to the “C minus” students. By giving an “A” to all students he levels the playing field for all, the students don’t have to do anything to earn their “A”, all their efforts now have to be made in order to retain their grade. Simple but powerful.
In the movie ‘My Fair Lady’ Eliza Doolittle is asked “ what is the difference between a flower girl and a lady?” she answers “the only difference between a flower girl and a lady is in the way people treat them”. Simple words, but which deliver one of the biggest truths of human interaction. No matter how powerful or helpless we may be, how rich or poor, how strong or weak we expect people to prove their worth in our eyes before they can be awarded our respect and admiration. In other words people have to ‘earn their A’. We tend to treat people who have proven themselves worthy of our respect and admiration very differently from those who we are evaluating. The former group is treated like stars while we are judgmental with the latter, watching with bated breath lest they slip and we can cross them out.

When students write their letters to Benjamin on who they have to become in order to retain their “A” they delve into the realm of possibilities of who they can be. They embark on a fascinating journey of self-exploration and co-creation. They are free from the pressure of evaluation and judgment.

We are perhaps one of the most judgmental societies on earth. We tend to evaluate people and hand out our verdicts based on minimal data. How a person talks, how educated (or not) they are, which ethnic community they belong to, their socio-economic class etc are all enough for us to put a label on them, without even the most superficial exploration of what the person really is. We forget that God himself has kept one final Day on which He will judge us even though He has all the data he needs on every human ever born, then who are you and I to pass judgments on a minute-by-minute basis?

Whether it is our insecurity or our conditioning, but we tend to be very miserly with our appreciation of others. We want to be appreciated, we want to be respected, we want to be acknowledged, but we do not want to reciprocate these actions. Someone once told me that in life is there is something you are not getting enough of then chances are it is the very thing you are not giving enough of – if you want respect give it, if you want love then give love first. How true. In my training sessions one of the biggest complains of people is that they are not appreciated and their boss does not acknowledge their effort. But when asked how often they appreciate their peers, or juniors or even their boss dead silence accompanied by uncomfortable expressions is usually the first response I get. This is quickly followed by a protest listing all the reasons why they “can’t” do this (not why they don’t but why they can’t). We have somehow learnt to expect only the worse from people, and since according to Zander people rise to the level of expectation we have of them – our thinking gets validated over and over again. Not because all people are bad, but because we expect all people to be so – a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What is amazing about us is that for a nation in which every second person is a self-proclaimed religious scholar out to let everyone know how their interpretation of Islamic rituals is wrong, the more fundamental concepts of our religion have been conveniently pushed to one side. We have forgotten that Allah gave us an “A” the day he created Adam and asked Satan and all angels to bow to him declaring him to be His “Supreme Creation” (Ashraf-ul-Makhluqaat). Our job as humans beings is to retain our “A” but instead all we do is find new ways of ensuring how to lose it.

In order to retain our “A” we have to live up to the expectation that God has from us of being the Supreme Creation which means we must step out of our comfort zones and step into the world of possibility thinking. We need to embark on a glorious journey of self-exploration and re-defining our limits. But this requires effort, and in a society where finding quick fixes and short cuts has become the primary motivation such a journey of growth is perhaps just a dream shared by a handful of people. Complacency is the most rampant of all our vices and blaming everyone for our problems is the other. Avoidance of responsibility has become our hallmark. Nothing we do is wrong, it is done to us!

If our society must transform, then we need to take responsibility of our own circumstances and step out of our comfort zones. We need to expect only excellence from those around us and treat them in a manner befitting stars. See the world through a filter of negative thinking and that's what you will see, change the filter and your experience will change.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

What's True About The Truth?

On a spirituality and mind power forum regularly visited by me, I recently came across a question which though simple and short, shook my basic beliefs to the core. Someone had asked “How many truths are there? 7 billion or 0?”

For once I was totally stumped for an answer. What really is ‘the truth’? Is there anything in this world that we can irrefutably claim as the absolute truth? Let’s take our most fundamental and basic belief – our belief in God. The followers of the monotheistic traditions i.e. Islam, Christianity and Judaism hold the belief in one God central to their belief system, indeed central to their lives. It is an absolute truth. But the followers of polytheistic traditions who believe in a pantheon of gods and goddesses will quickly claim that their view is the absolute truth. Then there are the atheists who subscribe to the view that there is no God at all. Each one holds on to their belief as the truth. Each one tries to reform the other, each one tries to educate the other groups on the folly of their thinking. Being a Muslim my truth is that there is one and only one God, but then that is what it is – my truth and the one subscribed to by millions who share my belief.

What about history and other factual accounts? Again it depends upon whose recounting them. At the end of the day each event, each fact is recorded from the perspective of the person observing them and no matter how hard we try to be neutral our own perceptions and paradigms do come into play. Even in a criminal trial the same event is argued from the perspective of the defendant's as well as the prosecutor. The side that wins is usually the one who shares the majority’s view of the truth. Take the example of honour killings in our country. At one point in time the majority of people shared the view that it was the right thing to do and hence it was sanctioned by society. As the society’s view shifted it became a criminal offence. Hence it seems not only are there various truths, but truth itself changes from time to time.

What about some of the most fundamental concepts of human society? For the majority of people the truth is that the parent child relationship is unconditional, pure and beautiful. Parents nurture, protect and provide us with the emotional support that no other can offer us. But ask the child who was sexually abused by a parent or whose parents sold them to human traffickers. Their truth is completely different.

Science perhaps is the closest we will ever get to absolute truth. Gravity is the truth because we have not found a single person who has held a belief contrary to it since the day it was discovered nor have we found any scientific model which can refute it. The laws of nature are all irrefutable and hence true. So in a way we can say that anything which is observed by all and denied by none is an absolute truth – until the day it can be refuted.

As a Muslim I have grown up to believe that Islam is the religion of nature (Din-e-Fitrat) so all laws governing nature in the universe are true. Since science is nothing more than the observation of natural phenomenon and laws governing them, science is an extension of religion.

Some reading this may wonder if I’m dangerously close to sacrilege in saying that our belief in God is not the truth and only science is true. No, what I am saying is that at the moment laws of nature are the only things we can all say are true whereas our belief in God is our personal truth. Till the day 7 billion people can all identify themselves with the same belief it remains our personal absolute truth.

Personal truths are pivotal to our existence however they cannot become the cause of other people’s extinction. We can hold to our version of the truth with all our fervor and zeal but that does not give us the right to say that the other person’s truth is not valid for them.

Its not just about religion, its about everything that defines us as an individual. Our experiences, our circumstances have all led us to hold as true certain ideas, beliefs, and paradigms – but they are ours and ours alone. Perhaps there are others who shares some of these truths with us and many who don’t. We may choose to interact only with those who share our truths, but that does not mean that we should start negating the existence of those who don’t or start to forcefully change them.

Monday, July 18, 2011

My Object Of Desire

I am and have been in love since the age of 3 with an object which in my view is the most beautiful thing ever created by man. When I was young it fascinated me by its power to enchant, in my growing years it had the power to lift my soul and symbolized my view on how to live my life. At some point in our adults lives when we are handed out our share of trials and tribulations we all start to wonder what it all really means? We start to shape our own unique philosophy regarding life. And here too this object became by mentor.

You must be wondering if this is some miracle object or perhaps it’s a marvel of technology or that it must be really expensive to be able to do so much. The answer is no, no and no. It’s a humble Kaleidoscope.

Whenever someone asks me what present I would like my immediate response is “a kaleidoscope”, not many have been successful so far in fulfilling this very simple wish, except one who gave me a high tech version of it, nice - but didn’t have the same magic as the old fashioned one. It’s not anybody’s fault that they couldn’t get one, sadly they are not easily available anymore.

As a child it transported me into a fairyland of possibilities and amazement. One never knows what they will see when they pick up a kaleidoscope, a change of light, a turn of the wrist and viola! Today when everything is functional, or fast or obvious, innocence and wonderment is fast disappearing from the experience of childhood, perhaps we need to reintroduce them at our toy stores.

My dream retirement project would be to make kaleidoscopes and hand them out to children for free. I would like them to learn to appreciate beauty just for beauty’s sake alone not because there is a utility attached to it. Perhaps then on my death bed I can look back and say ‘life well lived’.

The capacity of the ordinary to produce extraordinary results is perhaps central to the kaleidoscope ‘philosophy’. The bits and pieces inside the tube are unremarkable in themselves, you can throw in anything you want – broken glass bangles, some tinsel, buttons, beads etc. absolutely anything but the result is always truly magnificent. Alchemy indeed! It is an optical illusion of course, but then aren’t our points of views and paradigms just that, our own illusions? We can shake the tube and conclude that there are only some broken objects inside it or we can look through the peep-hole and witness magic. Life is what we make of it, only our point of view needs to change.

The slightest turn of the scope changes the image completely. How reassuring to know that even when life is at its lowest most depressing point, a slight turn of destiny, a single event can change the entire scene. Everything is transient and in flux. For me a kaleidoscope is hope in a tube.

Another lesson I learnt from this humble object was the importance of boundaries. It is the reflection from triangular walls of mirrors inside the kaleidoscope which creates the symmetry of patterns. Take away the boundaries and there is no reflection, no design – just bits and pieces. In the same manner we need to keep within our boundaries if we are to maintain our symmetry, our personality. These boundaries are not just those of ethics and morality but perhaps even more importantly our ego boundaries. These are the boundaries which define who we are and what we are not. They define our likes, our dislikes our emotional and psychological limits. In short our ego boundaries are really our non-physical selves. Whenever we deliberately breach our ego boundaries in order to accommodate others and make compromises in life we lose our symmetry. Hence good or bad, noble or shallow, strong or weak we need to first accept our selves as we are. We can expand our boundaries but we cannot fragment them and expect joy and beauty to be the outcome.

So you see a little cardboard cylinder contains vital life lessons, if only we take the trouble to actually look at it.

Friday, July 8, 2011

In Pursuit Of Happiness

There is a darkness that everyone must face
It wants to take what’s good and fair and lay it all to waste
And that darkness covers everything in sight
Until it meets a single point of light

These words from the song “Points of Light” by Randy Travis seem to resonate at a much deeper level today than ever before as Karachites bear witness to another episode of senseless violence. We seem to be all asking the same questions and coming up with the same answers – answers which do not contribute to solving the problem, just deepening our darkness. We are all searching for that ‘point of light’.

There is a famous Sufi story in which the Sufi comes across a man on his hands and knees feverishly searching for something on the road. The Sufi asked him “what are you searching for” the man replied “I dropped my keys”. The Sufi decided to help him and joined in the search but no matter how meticulously they looked every inch of the ground the keys were nowhere to be found. Tired the Sufi asked the man “do you remember where exactly did you drop them?” “Of course” the man replied with indignation “I dropped them in my house”. Taken aback with this reply the Sufi asked “then why on earth are we searching in the middle of the road?” The man replied “Because there is more light outside”.

Some people laugh when they hear this story as if it’s a great joke, but it is in fact a story with a very sobering morale. Like that man most of us spend our time looking for answers outside but in actuality most answers lie within us.

Evil is ‘live’ spelt backwards, hence whatever is anti-life is evil. Being anti-life does not only mean the taking away of actual lives, it also means taking away of the joy, the dreams, the spark to fight and the determination to win against all odds, because these are things which make a difference between an existence and a life. So, whenever we propagate a sense of hopelessness, whenever we succumb to the darkness of our own thoughts and even worse when we spread negativity to others we drain the life force of others as well as ourselves and we too become guilty of being ‘evil’.

There are some who would argue that only the truly callous and shallow can remain unaffected by what is happening around us so how is it possible to remain happy and positive in the midst of so much despair? But for evil to win it is enough that good people do nothing. Our politics are too convoluted for most of us to understand and we certainly have no power to change our external circumstances, however we can fight evil, simply by refusing to succumb to it. We have to look within ourselves and keep our happiness intact. I’m not saying that we lose our compassion or our humanity, far from it, but being hopeless and despairing will not change our circumstances, rather we will be perpetuating the cycle.

Matter and energy are interchangeable and all matter in the universe is constant are 2 principles we learnt in basic physics but little did we know that in these short statements lies the secret of life itself. Our brain emits electrical impulses therefore every thought we have is a particle which has its own unique frequency or vibration. Hence every thought has the capacity to convert into matter i.e. manifest itself into our tangible reality or simply put ‘thoughts become things’. This is the core philosophy of the Law of Attraction i.e. whatever we think about constantly manifests itself into our lives. But it is not just our thoughts which create our physical reality it is actually our feelings which attract circumstances in our lives. One can constantly think of that perfect house they want to buy but when they think those thoughts if their predominant feeling is that of noticing its lack or feeling hopeless that it is not in their capacity to get it, then they will just get more events which will make this dream seem impossible. So the more despairing we are guess what do we attract? Yes circumstances which bring more despair.

Being happy and positive is the best weapon we have against evil and actually changing our current circumstances. We need to stop looking outwards for our answers, let the political analysts do their job, we are neither trained to do that nor will it make a scrap of difference by sitting around the TV feeling depressed. We are not helpless, we do have the power to bring change by making our own and others’ happiness our prime goal. We will need to actively seek ways to make ourselves full of joy and hope - its not easy but its not impossible .

Ever since I was a child I have heard people say that there is no future for this country, that everything here is doomed or that we have hit rock bottom. But each day something happens which makes us reassess the depth of the abyss we seem to be in, each day we say this is the worst that can happen, and each day we change that view as well. The more we focus on how ‘bad’ everything is, the worse the situation becomes. We have tried to be miserable and unhappy for so many years and it has made no difference, so perhaps its time to change our attitude. We will have to look inside for the keys, no matter how dark it might be.

Monday, July 4, 2011

What's Love Got To Do With Performance?

Many people struggle to improve their performance but few realize that just hard work and good intentions are not enough. Performance in any area of our life is dependant upon our self-concept in that particular area. Self-concept is our image of ourselves, how we perceive our abilities in a certain area of our lives. For example you may be a very articulate person, with great communication skills on a one-on-basis and your boss insists that you should use this skill at the next conference and make a presentation in front of the management. However, if you feel that talking to people is one thing but presenting to a whole crowd is another matter altogether and you are not really up to it, no matter how much people motivate and encourage, at best you will be able to manage an average performance. You will only excel at something when your self-concept regarding your presentation skills is high.

But self-concept is not the end of the story, rather it is just the beginning because self-concept is also dependant upon something – self-esteem i.e. how much your value yourself as a person. Self-esteem is one of those words which have lately been abused to the hilt by people who have no understanding of what it really means. In Pakistan whenever you go to any public place be a restaurant or the airport I’m sure you’ve all heard someone at some point say “do you know who I am?” Next time whenever you hear those words feel sorry for them rather than getting annoyed, because this is the #1 sign of someone suffering from low self-esteem. You see in life whenever someone runs away from their problems or takes illegitimate short-cuts they erode their self-esteem, till the point when they are completely hollow inside and they need validation from the outside world.

The only way to improve self-esteem is by meeting life’s problems head-on, taking on challenges and giving them your best shot. It is an account that needs daily deposits but the compound interest is high. Years ago I was one of the organizers at a large conference in which we had called international speakers. As is the usual practice at such venues, the first row had sofas and the rest of the rows were chairs. The centre sofas were reserved for the speakers and the rest was on first-come-first seating basis. A gentleman came along with his entourage and plopped himself on the reserved sofas. One of the other organizers (who himself was the GM marketing for a very large newspaper) came to me and asked me if I could get them to move. That should have caused alarm bells to go off in my mind, but me being the thick person I am immediately jumped to action and went to this person and politely asked him to move since this place was reserved for the speakers. The gentle man looked around, then looked at me disdainfully and uttered those famous words “do you know who I am?” As usual I put my foot in my mouth and replied “sir I have no idea who you are”. Ouch that hurt! He got up and sat somewhere at the back making a big show of his ‘insult’. I later found out that he was the chairman of a very large State owned corporation. No wonder his self-esteem was so low!

In the same conference I also learnt what high-self esteem is all about. One hour into the session I saw the back door of the conference room opening and a small unassuming man came and sat on the first chair available in the last row. That man was Shaukat Mirza, chairman of Engro and at that time MD of PSO. Having consulted for his organizations on a number of occasions I knew him well so I went to him and asked him to come up to the front row as there was a seat available on the sofa. He politely declined and said it would just disturb everyone if he moved right now. Wow! I was floored by his reply because I realized I was in the presence of a person with high self-esteem. He knew that Shaukat Mirza would be Shaukat Mirza regardless of the row in which he sat.

Self-esteem itself is linked to one more thing and that is self-love. But in order to understand self love we first have to understand love itself. I’m not talking about the kind of love one falls in and out of – that’s a bio-chemical reaction. I’m talking about real love the kind we feel for our parents, our children, our friends, our country etc. I came across a great definition of love in Dr. Scott Peck’s book ‘A Road Less Travelled’, and it said:

“Love is the willingness to extend ourselves for our own or somebody else’s mental, emotional or spiritual growth”.

I think each word in this definition needs to be pondered upon. Firstly, love is the willingness, not ability because everyone has the ability but not many have the desire to put that ability into action. To extend ourselves means getting out of our comfort zone, all growth occurs when we are ‘stretched’ or are forced out of our comfort zones. If we are too comfortable in life then it is simply a sign of stagnation, and whatever is stagnant is decaying. For the sake of mental emotion or spiritual growth means that the outcome of love has to be growth, if not then its not love just manipulation.

In light of this definition we can simply say that self-love is our willingness to extend ourselves for our own growth.

Hence performance depends upon self-concept, which in turn depends upon self-esteem which is directly linked to self-love and all this boils down to the ‘D’ word we hate so much. Discipline! Discipline does not mean regimentation, it means loving yourself enough to force yourself to take the action required for your growth.

So you see love has got everything to do with performance improvement and remember if you can’t even love yourself how can you expect love from others? Don't blame others for yourself lack of success or low performance levels, instead ask yourself  "do I really love myself enough?"