Monday, September 28, 2020

Of Ambition and Purpose

 "You know, people never really understand the difference between ambition and purpose."

Why me, Lord? Why do people think I am not only interested in this sort of thing but will also show an intelligent interest in what they say? Me, who has never really understood the need for either ambition or purpose to lead a life. As far as I can see, saying that you have a need for an ambition or a purpose is about the same as saying you have a need to feel stressed.

As usual, that agonized look on my face is taken for incomprehension and not for pained disinterest.

"Ambitions are generally related to what you aim to GET. Purpose is all about what you want to BE."

"Be rich," I said.

I was seriously scared at how red his face went. He looked like he would swell up and burst.

"When I say 'Be' I mean what sort of person do you want to become. Not this...this frivolous nonsense. Just because you say 'Be Rich' instead of 'Get a lot of money' doesn't mean that it becomes a purpose."

One of the things about people who start on their pet topics is to allow them to run their course. You can oppose them or ridicule them if your idea of a pleasant day is to pick fights with people. Me, I am all for a quiet life.

"So, you were saying..." I said placatingly.

"Look, when you say you have an ambition, what you mean is a goal to shoot for, where you can measure your progress along the way. Which, invariably, means that it has to be in terms of acquiring things...either money or position or power or even fame."


"Purpose, though, goes to WHY you do what you do. Your motives for doing things."

I HAD motives? I mean, yeah, if I eat it is because I am hungry so I suppose THAT is a motive. And because I want to continue eating...

He snorted. "How do I explain thing to a dumb...Look, You want to be a writer, right?"

I nodded, vigorously.

"Why? Is it because you like writing so much? Or because you think it will make you famous? Or because you can do it sitting at home at your leisure and not have to handle conflicts with people which can happen when you work in organisations? Or..."

Ye Gods! This guy can keep going on and on. And, really, I mean is it not a bit of this and that and the other? Does anyone really have only ONE reason for his choices. Like, say, I only want the money but not the fame? Or I like writing so much that I do not care if I earn enough to eat or even become so poor that I lose the respect of my friends?

I said as much.

"True. But what is the deal-breaker for you? THAT is the sticking point. If the fame is what matters the most, then you should understand that for every one writer who gets fame, millions will go around saying "My book has been published" only to have even close friends saying, "Ho Hum" and switch the topic to Bollywood rumors. Will you STILL want to write?"


"Look, if your PURPOSE is fame, your ambition is to become the next Chetan Bhagat, then you need to see if an ambition to become the next Shashi Tharoor or the next Visweswarayya or some such is better. Because, WRITING itself is not your purpose only the means to an end. If your purpose is MONEY, then you may as well go to a job, as a means to THAT end writing is as good as trying to win a lottery. If..."

"I get it," I said, hastily, just to get him to stop. He seemed prepared to go on till the cows came home. "But, now YOU are saying getting money can be a purpose..."

"I really have to spell things out for you, right? If you are looking for fame or money as your primary goal, you want to be the sort of person who is looked up to in Society. If you are inclined to writing well, you want to be the sort of person who is looked up to by your peers or the sort of person who takes pride in doing a good job. So, it is got to do more with what you want to be be, than what you want to get."

Sounded like nit-picking to me but then...

"But...I mean, really, you do need some money etc etc right? As in, fine, even if I have money to live off, you cannot keep the respect of your social circles and your friends if...well, can there be anyone who will be willing to risk sacrificing all that because he wants to WRITE? Is it not..."

"A friend is supposed to be one who makes you comfortable in your own skin. Not someone who makes you feel that you ought to dress up in borrowed finery to impress him."

Hmmm...I must seriously consider whether I need THIS guy for a friend! I cannot remember the last time he made me feel comfortable in my skin.

Monday, September 21, 2020


 "You know, you missed the point when you were talking about expectations."

The world has two types of people. The ones who just paste a smile on their faces and close their ears to what you are saying; and the ones who keep silent unless they can point out something wrong with what you are saying. (What are you babbling? That there are also people who only appreciate and people who can both appreciate AND criticize as necessary? Wake up and smell the damn coffee. Fantasies are only for dreams.) AND I have been endowed with a whole circle of friends who not only gleefully pounce on anything wrong but also go out of their way to FIND something wrong.

"The important thing is comparisons, not expectations."

Huh! Was that not exactly what I had said then? That the problem lay in comparing reality to expectations. Really! The depths of nitpicking people will delve into merely to find something to criticize!

I said as much and he snorted derisively.

"So, you think that comparisons are a problem only when you do it between expectations and reality? You cannot conceive of comparisons being a problem in the expectations themselves?"

What? I looked blankly at him and he continued with a snide smile.

"Of course you cannot see. Look, in your own example of math test results. Are the expectations set at a certain percentage of the total marks? Or is it set as better than most in the class or ALL in the class."

"Well, my dad..."

"Yeah, fine! He could expect anything. Say, in English your dad expected you to get 75% and you got 80%. Will he be happy with that? Even if, say, most of your class got in excess of 80%?"

Uhoh! Yeah, the chap did have a point, after all. Yes, my dad would have got after me if I had got less than 75% unless I proved everyone else got less than me. But even if I had exceeded the cut-off, it would still not have helped if everyone else had scored more than me.

As usual, he assumed that the pained look on my face was lack of comprehension and not because I was having to swallow the bitter idea of his being right.

"See, you may WANT a 50% raise in pay to meet your EMIs. You may EXPECT only a 15% raise because that is the best your company could give. You may be happy to get 18%, with the assumption that it is the best raise anyone got. Till you see someone else has got 25%. THEN you start getting unhappy."

Of course! Expectations are very seldom restricted to facts and figures, are they? You set your expectations both on the quantum as well as the relative performance and, unless BOTH are met or exceeded, you end up feeling unhappy. Not to mention the fact that the less tangible expectation is the one where you see the most problems in the future...promotions and what have you, since the chap who got the 25% raise has been rated better than you.

"What then when the expectation itself is ONLY based on comparisons?"

Uh! This guy is too much really.

"Like what?"

"Like, say, being the best designer. Or being the company with the highest market share. Or..."

Ooops! And, obviously, that would be the most stressful thing. I mean, yeah, being a better designer than you were yesterday is...controllable. It is a question on improving YOURSELF, depending on your own skill improvement and application. But better than all the others? How do you also control ALL the others and what they do? 

THAT is why I never ever tried to set those sort of expectations for myself. How it ended up was that I would assume that they were far better than they really were and screwed up all my life trying to better THAT. I mean, yeah, it sounds rather cool to be pushing yourself to up your skills but, come on, there ARE other things in life than designing and ending up chasing one thing exclusively is a sure shot recipe for a nervous breakdown. And there are those who find that becoming the best designer is merely a question of sabotaging the other guys than improving yourself, which is one of those unhealthy side effects of expectations set on a comparative basis.

"AND then there are those expectations, even about what you want to possess, based ONLY on comparisons."

Uh! Would this guy never stop?

"Like wanting to have things, be able to do things that not everyone can do. With not even a clue of exactly WHAT it is you want...merely that it should be something that others do not have."

Mmm? What was this guy blathering about?

"Which is why companies thrive on 'exclusive brands'. The value of those products is not in what YOU may not even WANT it when you get it. The value is in the thought that you can have it but OTHERS cannot afford it."

Ah! Somewhat like the kings of yore having a totally unnecessary piece of cloth trailing behind them making it impossible for them to walk unless they had a crowd of people lifting it off the ground and carrying it. Train, they called it I think. They could well dispense with it and walk comfortably but THEY could afford people to carry it behind them and others could not, so...

I said as much and won a smile of approval.

"Exactly! So, you see, the biggest enemy of happiness is comparisons. More especially when you set your expectations on a comparative basis."

"Yeah! I knew I was right. THAT's why I said expectations are a problem," I said triumphantly. He snorted in disgust and left.

Now THAT was undiluted pleasure. For once, I had the last word in an argument with a friend. Quite exceeded my expectations, I tell you!

Monday, September 14, 2020

Great Expectations

 I never realized how what actually happened matters comparatively little to how happy we can be. Till the day I walked out, sore in mind and body, after I had shown my dad the test results on my math paper. And found sounds of celebration and revelry coming from a classmate's house, sweets being distributed and the said classmate being practically treated like an all-conquering hero. My astonishment knew no bounds when chocolate was thrust into my grasping hands and the reason for the celebration was trumpeted into my unbelieving ears.

Huh! For the results of the SAME math test? A test which he had managed to pass by a whisker while I had failed to hit maximum by the same whisker? Ye Gods! How could a pass mark cause so much happiness here while 95% convulsed my house in sorrow?

Oh, I don't mean only the happiness to my classmate and the sorrow to me - though, at THAT time, I was thinking only of that. There is no real doubt that my dad WAS gloomy that day himself and my friend's family was ecstatic. Though, merely going by the marks on the test paper, you would interchange the destinations of the happiness and the gloom.

And THAT is why I say that what actually happened matters little to your happiness. What matters is what was EXPECTED and what really happened. Happiness is a consequence of reality exceeding your expectations and disappointment is a given if reality falls short of your expectations.

So, there you go, my dad's expectations were not met, my friend's dad's expectations were exceeded. Comes the time when YOU set the expectations, it's good to remember this. If you promise your boss, say, that a job will be done in 3 days and you do it in 4 days; your colleague promises to do it in 5 days and does it in 5 days, guess who is the under-performer? YOU, of course, and no amount of wailing that you did it one day before your colleague will help. Your boss may agree, at that time, but the impression of you being an under-performer will STAY, especially if you continue working the same way.

As with spouses, too. The spouse who ALWAYS forgets her spouse's birthday gets away with an indulgent 'memory like a sieve' comment. The one who forgets ONCE will be faced with a 'You don't love me any more'. All because of expectations.

Your expectations are what determine your relationships in life. Expect too much of the people around you and you will find that all relationships disappoint you. And then you may well wail about 'false friends' about the same people that others praise for being very helpful.

Happiness IS a consequence of reality exceeding your expectations. Specifically, it is what you GET out of life which you have expectations about. Money, power, fame, recognition...THOSE are the subject matter of expectations, generally. So, a life is happy if your expectations on ALL fronts are exceeded. (Provided, of course, you do not keep changing the goal-posts, as happens too often. As you keep climbing the social ladder, you keep finding that there are more rungs above the one which you had originally aimed you keep climbing...and climbing...and climbing...and when you have no choice but to stop, you look yearningly up at people on the rungs above you and feel disappointed with your life.)

The easier way is to SET the expectations lower. Which is not really a lack of ambition, only a reorientation of it. Set your ambitions to what you can learn and do and be(character, NOT position)...not what you can GET.

Me? Ah! Well, my dad did always say that I had NO ambition!

Monday, September 7, 2020

Judging by the cover

When they said, "Don't judge a book by the cover," I nodded enthusiastically. I mean, yeah, it was a wonderful feeling that, for once, there was a piece of advice which I was already following.

I mean, come on, what does the cover tell you anyway? It demonstrates how good the cover artist is, not how good the author is. Even if the author did have a say in it, it only tells you how capable he is as a judge of art...not how capable he is as a writer. (Ah, well, THAT's a losing argument I know. I mean, if people take so seriously what an actor has to say on politics or sociology, no matter how reluctantly he is coerced to say it, what's the point someone telling them that being a good actor does not necessarily mean that he is an expert on sociology or politics?)

But it is not all that nitpicking logic which decided me on not judging a book by the cover. It was just that I cut my reading teeth on books borrowed from the library in Neyveli. And most of them were what we called 'bound books' with a binding that looks just about the same on all of them. If I had to judge books ONLY by the cover, Shakespeare and Mills & Boon would all be assessed the same; PG Wodehouse would seem just as funny as Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Which comparison, if you know PGW - and Solzhenitsyn of course, would have PGW spinning in his grave.)

So, from a tender young age, I judged books by the blurb and a bit of a sample read, rather than by the cover. The idea that people could judge books by the cover never ever crossed my mind...and came as a shock when I was told that it was indeed true.

It should not have been so much of a shock, though. I mean, if ever there was any other species which both prided itself on its ability to think as well as displayed extreme reluctance to apply that ability, I do not know of it. So, judging by the cover WOULD be the norm because it probably placed the least stress on what Poirot calls the 'little grey cells'.

I should have known, because books are not the only things that get judged 'by the cover'. I mean, how often do the opinions of people get discounted because he 'looks like a fool'? (AND given undue importance because he looks wise? That, too.) Or because HOW he says it - his accent, his inability to speak fluently - overpowers any assessment of WHAT he says. How often does a degree or a position automatically hand over the victory in an argument, regardless of the logic of the stances of the opponents? People get judged 'by the cover' all the time.

What, indeed, is racism or caste-ism or sexism? Taking the physical or social attributes of a person as definitive indications of their ability and/or character is but another form of judging by the cover.

So, while we keep prating of not 'judging by the cover', the corporate world, knowing full well that THAT is exactly what people will do, merrily keeps pushing products on the strength of the cover. The biggest margin earners are the ones which sell MAINLY or ONLY because of the cover! What we call big name brands.

And so, I still continue not to judge by the cover. The problem is I do not know whether to be proud or ashamed of it!